Start Up No.870: who’s reading your Gmail?, Uganda tries to stop VPNs, Dell’s coming back, scooter madness!, and more


Nadal and Federer at Wimbledon. They’re like smartphones, honest. Photo by Georgio on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A bug in Samsung’s default texting app is sending random pics to other people • Gizmodo

Sam Rutherford:

»

Sending pictures to others is one of the most basic functions of a smartphone, but when your phone’s texting app starts randomly pushing out photos without your knowledge, you got a problem.

And unfortunately, according to a smattering of complaints on Reddit and the official Samsung forums, it seems that’s exactly what happened to a handful of Samsung phone users, including owners of late model devices such as the Galaxy Note 8 and Galaxy S9.

According to user reports, the problem stems from Samsung Messages, the default texting app on Galaxy devices, which (for reasons that haven’t been determined), is erroneously sending pictures stored on the devices to random contacts via SMS. One user on Reddit even claims that instead of sending one pic, Samsung Messages sent out their entire photo gallery to a contact in the middle of the night.

Luckily for that person (or maybe not), those pictures were sent to their partner. But for others who may have had pics sent to more sensitive recipients like a business partner or boss, the bug could give other people an unwanted peek into their private life.

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“Unwanted peek” indeed.
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HTC lays off 1,500 people in latest cost-cutting effort • UploadVR

Ian Hamilton:

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HTC’s leadership is laying off around one fifth of its workforce in an attempt to put the company on a path to sustainability.

According to a tweet from Bloomberg journalist Samson Ellis, HTC is cutting 1,500 people from its Taiwan workforce. That’s roughly 22% of employees.

The move is the latest attempt by HTC’s leaders to find a sustainable business in the shadow of giants like Google and Samsung.  Late last year the company received a $1.1bn injection from Google in exchange for key teams involved in the creation of the Pixel smartphone. Meanwhile, HTC’s engineering and marketing teams soldier on with launches like the Vive Focus standalone VR headset and  Vive Pro.

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Apparently it’s not on the VR side of the business. Though I can’t imagine that’s thriving either. Nearly a quarter of the workforce going? Its revenues are already smaller than in 2005; it’s only that cash pile that’s keeping it afloat, one feels.
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Bird’s $400m in 4 months is the poster child for Silicon Valley • Business Insider

Julie Bort:

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so many people have bombarded Bird investors with questions on their thinking that some have taken to publicly defending their investment.

For instance, Mark Suster, a partner in LA firm Upfront Ventures, who invested in Bird’s $15 million A round as well as its last two enormous big rounds wrote just such a blog post.

“While this reaction to such a valuation is understandable, to anybody who has seen the meteoric rise in consumer demand and actual revenue the valuation is much less surprising and may turn out to be quite conservative,” he said.

Maybe.

More likely is that Bird, based in Santa Monica, is an example of the kind of more-is-always better, follow-the-herd venture investments that power the tech industry.

VCs see a young startup with a novel idea doing well, and pound down its door to be among the first investors. The premise is that it’s better to spend wildly to grow fast and be first than it is to be fiscally responsible. If you move too slowly, the thinking goes, you might end up watching an upstart steal your idea and your market.

With gobs of money and a bunch of VCs on the board, a young company may continue to flourish. But it’s also risky.

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But where’s the penalty for being an investor? If it all goes south, sure, that’s money gone. But if things flourish, you’re in the money (after some time). There’s no opportunity cost in funding even something that looks hopeless, because there are so many companies to fund. Sometimes the herd is right; sometimes, the fact of having the herd there makes it the correct decision.
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Ceres Imaging gets $25M to intelligently scan crops from above • TechCrunch

Lucas Matney:

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Agtech startup Ceres Imaging, which uses computer vision and spectral imaging tech to deliver insights about crops to farmers, has closed a new round of funding.

The Oakland-based company has pulled in a $25m round led by Insight Venture Partners, with participation from Romulus Capital. They have raised around $35m to date.

Since the company closed their Series A, they’ve continued expanding their efforts beyond vineyards and orchards into “row crops” like corn, soybeans and wheat. While those crops may be lower margin by nature, they offer a big opportunity when it comes to scaling up their operations and tackling problems on a bigger scale.

«

Europe has had pretty much this, via satellite monitoring, for absolutely ages – it even uses it to monitor when farmers are falsely claiming “set-aside” payments (for fields left fallow). What’s new about this? It even uses piloted aircraft. That’s bonkers. Is it just that there’s more crazy venture capital money washing around the US? Or that the EU funds better science which quietly gets done?
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Dell to return to public markets with tracking stock • The New York Times

Michael J de la Merced:

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Mr. Dell and Silver Lake are expected to announce as early as Monday that they have struck a $21.7bn deal to buy out investors in a special class of shares created in 2016 to help Dell buy the networking company EMC. That stock effectively tracks the performance of Dell’s 82% stake in VMware, the fast-growing network software company that Dell inherited when it bought EMC. (The other 18% of VMware is publicly traded as a different stock.)

The deal, which was approved by the boards of Dell and VMware on Sunday evening, would simplify the stock structure of Dell and its publicly traded subsidiary. But it would also mark the return of Dell to the public markets, with a twist: The special shares held by Mr. Dell and Silver Lake would give them more votes than other investors.

The transaction represents in some ways the culmination of a nearly $100bn bet by Mr. Dell and Silver Lake that, away from the harsh glare of public markets, they could retool a company best-known for making personal computers and traditional servers for an age of smartphones and cloud computing. Dell still supplies the machines that sit on the desks inside many office buildings, and has also found a ready market selling equipment and software to the kinds of networked computing services that were once thought to spell its end.

“In 2012, people were saying the PC was dead. It wasn’t,” Mr. Dell said in a telephone interview. “Three years ago, people were saying that everything’s going to the public cloud. Turns out that was completely wrong, too.”

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Dell’s buyout in 2013 was $24bn; the way it has mushroomed in size, with EMC and VMWare, is amazing. Wonder if we will get any visibility into the profitability of its PC business again.
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Why Wimbledon is an iPhone launch, and Nadal is Samsung, and tennis is the smartphone business • Medium

I wrote a thing:

»

It’s Wimbledon time again! That time of year when people the world over remember that tennis professionals actually exist, having forgotten for the past 50 weeks. (If you want to interest kids, say they’re playing for a fortnight and hope they mishear it as Fortnite.)

So for the next two weeks, we’ll hear lots about Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Serena Williams, and the rest. I used to cover tennis; for years the pro circuit was my journalistic meat and drink. Now I cover technology. And just as the tennis circuit rises and falls, and just as tennis has risen and fallen in popularity and interest, so, it seems to me, with smartphones.

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Basically, it’s Shira Ovide’s fault.
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Uganda to block VPNs after people begin avoiding new social media tax • TorrentFreak

“Andy”:

»

Passed in May by the Ugandan parliament, the legislation requires local Internet service providers to block a wide range of social media and telecoms platforms until subscribers pay a flat fee of 200 shillings (US$0.051) per day. While just shy of US$19 per year might not initially sound like much, per capita income stands at US$600 and millions of Ugandans survive on less than a dollar per day

In a joint statement, ISPs MTN, Airtel, and Africell informed their customers that the services listed above would be blocked until payment is made. Payment must be made in advance via mobile phones, with a small discount available if customers pay a month up front.

“Access will be granted for a calendar day until 12:00 AM for the day, i.e until midnight if the customer has paid for one day,” the notice reads.

While this kind of taxation appears unique, people’s desire to avoid taxes is universal. In this case, that is easily achieved by using a VPN, since they’re able to circumvent ISP restrictions placed on the sites listed above. As a result, VPNs are now suddenly at the height of fashion in Uganda, with searches reaching an all-time high on Google.

But with Ugandans restoring their online freedom in droves, the government isn’t happy at the prospect of losing its revenue. Within hours of the news that VPNs were gaining in popularity, the government stepped in to do something about it.

In a statement, Uganda Communications Commission Executive Director Godfrey Mutabazi said that Internet service providers would be ordered to block VPNs to prevent citizens from avoiding the social media tax.

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I don’t see this ending well for the government, but it’s going to be fun to watch. Next stop Tor, I’d imagine.
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Tech’s ‘dirty secret’: the app developers sifting through your Gmail • WSJ

Douglas MacMillan:

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One of those companies is Return Path Inc., which collects data for marketers by scanning the inboxes of more than two million people who have signed up for one of the free apps in Return Path’s partner network using a Gmail, Microsoft Corp. or Yahoo email address. Computers normally do the scanning, analyzing about 100 million emails a day. At one point about two years ago, Return Path employees read about 8,000 unredacted emails to help train the company’s software, people familiar with the episode say.

In another case, employees of Edison Software, another Gmail developer that makes a mobile app for reading and organizing email, personally reviewed the emails of hundreds of users to build a new feature, says Mikael Berner, the company’s CEO.

Letting employees read user emails has become “common practice” for companies that collect this type of data, says Thede Loder, the former chief technology officer at eDataSource Inc., a rival to Return Path. He says engineers at eDataSource occasionally reviewed emails when building and improving software algorithms.

“Some people might consider that to be a dirty secret,” says Mr. Loder. “It’s kind of reality.”

Neither Return Path nor Edison asked users specifically whether it could read their emails. Both companies say the practice is covered by their user agreements, and that they used strict protocols for the employees who read emails. eDataSource says it previously allowed employees to read some email data but recently ended that practice to better protect user privacy.

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People do see value in having these companies scan their email (though Return Path is not really directly useful to you or I). But the lack of control is as bad as some Twitter API accesses.
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The age of flux • The American Interest

Peter Pomerantsev:

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Pollsters used to predict elections based on ideas of economic class and ideology, nowhere more so than where I live in the UK. Then, as the old economy changed and the Cold War ended, this became a poorer predictor of how one votes. In a world where government was a consumer service provider, marketing labels predominated. Sales firms such as Experian served up concepts like “the Ford Mondeo Man”—the swing voter whose desire for a certain type of car politicians had to fulfill. Now Mondeo Man seems far too fuzzy. Political targeting is more granular, looking for the little trigger which will get you out to vote.

Social media both helped crack open the vessels in which the old ideologies and identities were pickled in, and to ferment a new approach. Tom Borwick, digital director of the official Brexit campaign in the UK, thinks that for a population of 20 million, one usually needs 70 to 80 types of targeted social media messages: Animal Rights and Pot Holes, Death Penalty and Health Services. And, as Pavlovsky already knew in 1990s Russia, in a situation where groups you target are so varied, where identity itself is so fractured, one unites them round a vague feeling, as any concrete ideology would get in the way: Drain The Swamp or Take Back Control. And instead of a coherent vision of the future, conspiracy becomes the way you lassoo your vote together. The Deep State (for Trump). The CIA (for Putin). The Establishment (for everyone).

“Conspiracy,” says the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, “is what you have after ideology has died.”

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This is like a companion piece to the Thomas Friedman piece from yesterday: the old certainties and identities, especially in politics, are dissolving.
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A simple way for computers to improve our economic forecasts • Tim Harford

Tim Harford:

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If the computers do produce some insight [into forecasts], it may be because they can tap into data that we could hardly have imagined using before. Satellite imaging can now track the growth of crops or the stockpiling of commodities such as oil. Computers can guess at human sentiment by analysing web searches for terms such as “job seekers allowance”, mentions of “recession” in news stories, and positive emotions in tweets.

And there are stranger correlations, too. A study by economists Kasey Buckles, Daniel Hungerman and Steven Lugauer showed that a few quarters before an economic downturn in the US, the rate of conceptions also falls. Conceptions themselves may be deducible by computers tracking sales of pregnancy tests and folic acid.

Back in 1991, a psychologist named Harold Zullow published research suggesting that the emotional content of songs in the Billboard Hot 100 chart could predict recessions. Hits containing “pessimistic rumination” (“I heard it through the grapevine / Not much longer would you be mine”) tended to predict an economic downturn. His successor is a young economist named Hisam Sabouni, who reckons that a computer-aided analysis of Spotify streaming gives him an edge in forecasting stock market movements and consumer sentiment.

Will any of this prove useful for forecasting significant economic and political events? Perhaps. But for now, here is an easy way to use a computer to help you forecast: open up a spreadsheet, note down what you believe today, and regularly revisit and reflect. The simplest forecasting tip of all is to keep score.

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Rather as experts can make good diagnoses by tapping into data they’re not even consciously aware of, computers with access to more data and a well-trained machine learning system might “feel” an answer even when there’s no obvious way to tell.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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