Start Up No.868: Equifax manager charged, keyboard downfall, the cryptocoin graveyard, Google’s new mobile OS investment, and more


Could a chatbot really do this job better than a human? Photo by Daniel Bachhuber on Flickr.

(No, you didn’t miss 13 editions. I found some lurking, miscategorised. Promise, it’s 868 now.)

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A selection of 10 links for you. Artisan-made. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Former Equifax manager charged with insider trading • SEC.gov

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The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged a former Equifax manager with insider trading in advance of the company’s September 2017 announcement of a massive data breach that exposed Social Security numbers and other personal information of approximately 148 million U.S. customers. This is the second case the SEC has filed arising from the Equifax data breach.  In March, the former chief information officer of Equifax’s U.S. business unit was charged with insider trading. 

In a complaint filed in federal court in Atlanta today, the SEC charged that Equifax software engineering manager Sudhakar Reddy Bonthu traded on confidential information he received while creating a website for consumers impacted by a data breach.

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You have to be a special kind of stupid to sell your shares when you’re building the website that’s going to tell people how screwed they are. (Bonthu was told it was being done for “an unnamed potential client” but didn’t take long to figure out it was his employer.). He bought put options (the chance to sell at a specific price) and netted $75,000 after the stock price fell 14%. The SEC says that’s a 35-fold return on his investment. (Exercise: how much stock did he buy?)
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Apple engineers its own downfall with the Macbook Pro keyboard • iFixit

Kyle Wiens runs iFixit, which offers guides to fixing devices of all kinds:

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Ask any Touch Bar owner if they would trade a tenth of a millimeter for a more reliable keyboard. No one who has followed this Apple support document instructing them to shake their laptop at a 75 degree angle and spray their keyboard with air in a precise zig-zag pattern will quibble over a slightly thicker design.

This is design anorexia: making a product slimmer and slimmer at the cost of usefulness, functionality, serviceability, and the environment.

A repairable pro laptop is not an unreasonable ask. Apple has a history of great keyboards—they know how to make them. There are very successful laptop manufacturers who consistently earn 10/10 on our repairability scale. Apple fans are already making noise about the dearth of new Macs, especially upgradable options for professionals. Fortunately, Apple seems to be listening with their new warranty program.

Which brings us back to the point. Why did it take so long, and so many complaints, for the repair program to be put in place? Why do you need to send your MacBook Pro away for upwards of a week for a repair? That’s easy: because Apple made their product hard for them to repair, too. Apple’s new warranty program is going to cost them a lot of money.

Apple’s profit on every machine that they warranty under this new program has been decimated. There is a real business impact caused by unrepairable product design. Samsung recently had a similar experience with the Note7. Yes, the battery problem was a manufacturing defect. But if the battery had been easy to replace, they could have recalled just the batteries instead of the entire phone. It was a $5bn design mistake.

But this isn’t just about warranty cost—there is a loud outcry for reliable, long-lasting, upgradeable machines. Just look at the market demand for the six-year-old 2012 MacBook Pro—the last fully upgradeable notebook Apple made. I use one myself, and I love it.

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The point about the cost is a good one. This is going to wipe out a lot of profit (the keyboards are glued to the battery, or vice-versa). Perhaps one day the full story of this engineering screwup will be told.
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Cryptocoin graveyard fills up fast as ICOs meet their demise • Bloomberg

Olga Kharif:

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That mournful sound you hear? It’s the funeral procession of yet another cryptocurrency.

As the digital money frenzy of the past few years cools, the crypto coin graveyard is filling up. Dead Coins lists around 800 tokens that are bereft of life, while Coinopsy estimates that more than 1,000 have bought the farm.

The carnage is mostly the consequence of failed projects from the thousands of startups that used initial coin offerings to raise billions in funding, and a global regulatory crackdown on questionable practices and scams. Names like CryptoMeth, Droplex and Roulettecoin may have been a clue to the coins’ dim prospects.

“There has obviously been a lot of fraud and hype in the ICO market,” Aaron Brown, a business author and investor who writes for Bloomberg Prophets, said in an email. “I accept figures I have seen that 80% of ICOs were frauds, and 10% lacked substance and failed shortly after raising money. Most of the remaining 10% will probably fail as well.”

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Just the fact that there can be a difference of 200 in the number of “dead” coins indicates how many of them there are. I thought this tweet summed up the potential uses far better:

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“Blockchains are security software: a cryptographic data structure to *prevent* things. For BTC [bitcoin], it’s double spending. Normal software let’s you do things. Security software restricts things. Unless you can define what a blockchain is helping you prevent, you don’t need one.”

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Exactis said to have exposed 340 million records, more than Equifax breach • CNET

Abrar Al-Heeti:

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If you’re a US citizen, your personal information — your phone number, home address, email address, even how many children you have — may have just become easily available to hackers in an alleged massive data leak.

Florida-based marketing and data aggregation firm Exactis exposed a database containing nearly 340 million individual records on a publicly accessible server, Wired reported. Earlier this month, security researcher Vinny Troia found that nearly 2 terabytes of data was exposed, which seems to include personal information on hundreds of millions of US adults and millions of businesses, the report said.

“It seems like this is a database with pretty much every US citizen in it,” Troia told Wired.

Exactis didn’t respond to a request for comment or confirmation.

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How many multiple copies of American citizens’ details are there out there? Equifax, this… the list must be long. And there are all these unheard-of companies which do all this “data aggregation”. Though not unheard-of to the hackers.
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Babylon claims its chatbot beats GPs at medical exam • BBC News

Jen Copestake:

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The chatbot AI has been tested on what Babylon said was a representative set of questions from the Membership of the Royal College of General Practitioners exam.

The MRCGP is the final test set for trainee GPs to be accredited by the organisation. Babylon said that the first time its AI sat the exam, it achieved a score of 81%. It added that the average mark for human doctors was 72%, based on results logged between 2012 and 2017.

But the RCGP said it had not provided Babylon with the test’s questions and had no way to verify the claim. “The college examination questions that we actually use aren’t available in the public domain,” added Prof Martin Marshall, one of the RCGP’s vice-chairs.

Babylon said it had used example questions published directly by the college and that some had indeed been made publicly available. “We would be delighted if they could formally share with us their examination papers so I could replicate the exam exactly. That would be great,” Babylon chief executive Ali Parsa told the BBC.

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Anyone remember expert systems? Back in the 1980s, they were going to take doctors’ jobs too. Didn’t. This could be useful as a backup, or assistant.
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The public, the political system and American democracy • Pew Research Center

This dates from April, but it’s still relevant:

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Americans don’t spare themselves from criticism. In addressing the shortcomings of the political system, Americans do not spare themselves from criticism: Just 39% say “voters are knowledgeable about candidates and issues” describes the country very or somewhat well. In addition, a 56% majority say they have little or no confidence in the political wisdom of the American people. However, that is less negative than in early 2016, when 64% had little or no confidence. Since the presidential election, Republicans have become more confident in people’s political wisdom.

Cynicism about money and politics: most Americans think that those who donate a lot of money to elected officials have more political influence than others. An overwhelming majority (77%) supports limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns and issues. And nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say new laws could be effective in reducing the role of money in politics.

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Google invests $22m in the OS powering Nokia feature phones • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Google is investing $22m into KaiOS, the feature phone operating system that has risen from the ashes of Mozilla’s Firefox OS. While Google rules the smartphone world with Android, KaiOS is slowly emerging as a popular choice for feature phones, particularly in emerging markets. KaiOS started last year as a forked version of Firefox OS, and the operating system ships on some Nokia-branded feature phones like the Nokia 8110. Devices from TCL and Micromax are also powered by KaiOS.

Google’s investment might seem odd given its Android dominance, and its efforts with Android Go, but it’s clearly strategic. “Google and KaiOS have also agreed to work together to make the Google Assistant, Google Maps, YouTube, and Google Search available to KaiOS users,” says KaiOS CEO Sebastien Codeville. KaiOS itself is web-based, designed for developers to use HTML5, Javascript, and CSS for apps. That makes it easy for Google to get these apps running on KaiOS, and strategically ensure feature phones are using Google’s services and not competitors.

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It’s aimed at making sure Google services are available on low-end devices. Strategic, just as Android was strategic – making sure that Google not Microsoft could dominate search on the emerging space of smartphones in 2005.
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Oct 2017: Appeals court keeps alive the never-ending Linux case, SCO v. IBM • Ars Technica

Cyrus Farivar:

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A federal appeals court has now partially ruled in favor of the SCO Group, breathing new life into a lawsuit and a company (now bankrupt and nearly dead) that has been suing IBM for nearly 15 years.

Last year, US District Judge David Nuffer had ruled against SCO (whose original name was Santa Cruz Operation) in two summary judgment orders, and the court refused to allow SCO to amend its initial complaint against IBM.

SCO soon appealed. On Monday, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that SCO’s claims of misappropriation could go forward while also upholding Judge Nuffer’s other two orders.

As Ars reported, SCO (then named Caldera Systems) filed suit (PDF) against IBM in March 2003 for allegedly contributing sections of commercial UNIX code from UNIX System V—which the SCO Group claimed it owned—to the Linux kernel’s codebase. SCO Group claimed that the alleged presence of its proprietary code in the open source kernel devalued its proprietary code. By making the source code available, IBM had violated its license agreement with SCO Group, according to SCO. Along the way, SCO filed for bankruptcy, and the group claimed that anyone who used Linux owed them money. All the while, Novell successfully claimed ownership of the allegedly infringing code and agreed to indemnify Linux users.

If SCO is ultimately successful, it could stand to take in billions of dollars from IBM.

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I had thought that Apple-Samsung was the longest-running patent case around, but my thanks to Stormyparis who pointed out in yesterday’s comments that this one is, oh my lord, still going. This article dates from October 2017, but since they haven’t wrapped it up, it’s still on.
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Scientists develop thermal camouflage that can fool infrared cameras • The Guardian

Nicola Davis:

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The design was inspired by the colour-shifting capabilities of cuttlefish, says Coskun Kocabas, a co-author of the research from the University of Manchester.

The approach involves using electricity to alter the properties of the film, so that it changes from acting more like a “black body” – which absorbs and emits electromagnetic radiation but does not reflect it – to becoming more like a metal, which reflects radiation but is not good at absorbing or emitting it.

Kocabas said the film could have a number of uses. “One obvious application is of course camouflage, but the novelty in this is it is adaptive camouflage,” he said, adding it could also be useful for covering radiators on satellites, allowing them to be tweaked to reflect heat when facing the sun and emit excess heat when facing deep space.

Writing in the journal Nano Letters, Kocabas and colleagues in the US and Turkey reveal how they created the material using a stack made of nylon, gold, polyethylene soaked in a liquid composed of charged molecules, and multiple layers of graphene.

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Everyone likes inventing invisibility cloaks, which is probably the fastest thing to go from “wild idea in a book/TV series/film” to “actual thing”. (Don’t @ me about Minority Report.)
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There’s no Brexit dividend. Nobody [who can change that] cares • Bloomberg

Therese Raphael:

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There is no sign of new free-trade deals to follow or any regulatory overhaul that would turn the UK into a Singapore-on-the-Thames. There is no chance that the EU will grant May the full control she wants as well as the access to EU markets she’s asking for, especially for financial services. Brexit is only the fourth most important item to be discussed at the European summit Thursday and Friday.

Logic might seem to dictate that, at this point, more people should want to call the whole thing off. But far from accepting the Remain case on the economy, the latest troubles have caused Brexiters to dig in, point the finger at business for stoking fears and accuse Remainers of being pessimistic and impatient. Chief Leaver Jacob-Rees-Mogg has dismissed businesses that warn of the costs of Brexiting with “wanting to suck up to the Treasury,” the ministry that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson derided as the “heart of Remain.”

As psychologists of decision-making have found, emotional signals trump objective information for voters. This is evident in attitudes toward immigration, which remain instinctively hostile despite a dramatic drop-off in European migration and skills shortages in parts of the economy, including the health service and technology sectors.

Remainers (some 100,000 demonstrated in London last weekend) point to shifts in public opinion and hope their arguments are holding more sway. It’s true that if you ask people whether they thought the vote was right or wrong, more people now say it was wrong. But it’s far from clear how a second vote would go, or even what the question would be. And it seems that the shift that’s being observed has more to do with those who didn’t vote for Brexit now taking a skeptical view, than Leavers actually changing sides.

Britain is thus caught in a vicious circle. The factors that created Brexit are only being worsened by Brexit, but as the pain grows, it brings more criticism of the establishment, business and other perceived enemies.

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I changed the headline: it said “nobody cares”, but actually, a lot of people care. If there actually *were* a demonstrable Brexit dividend, a lot of “Remainers” would be very happy. But there isn’t. And people do care.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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