Start Up No.879: porn filters don’t work, America: failed state?, whoa there Mr Musk, why Surface Go?, and more


Apple’s new keyboard covers up its vulnerable mechanism. Photo by tua ulamac on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Like that! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Researchers find that filters don’t prevent porn • TechCrunch

John Biggs:

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In a paper entitled Internet Filtering and Adolescent Exposure to Online Sexual Material, Oxford Internet Institute researchers Victoria Nash and Andrew Przybylski found that Internet filters rarely work to keep adolescents away from online porn.

“It’s important to consider the efficacy of Internet filtering,” said Dr, Nash. “Internet filtering tools are expensive to develop and maintain, and can easily ‘underblock’ due to the constant development of new ways of sharing content. Additionally, there are concerns about human rights violations – filtering can lead to ‘overblocking’, where young people are not able to access legitimate health and relationship information.”

This research follows the controversial news that the UK government was exploring a country-wide porn filter, a product that will most likely fail. The UK would join countries around the world who filter the public Internet for religious or political reasons.

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In a response on Dave Farber’s Interesting-People list, L Jean Camp points out that

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Culturally we have problems distinguishing “Sexual” from “women’s bodies”, which is, of course, related to why I have to walk past screaming haters to get cancer screening at Planned Parenthood.

Please read the Comstock Laws in the US, or the Saudi constraints on information about women’s bodies.

Computers cannot define the difference between consensual activities, health information, and assault because culturally people cannot either. If porn consisted of healthy consensual activities no one would care.

A computer cannot implement inconsistent irrational arbitrary filters, surprise.

Imagine that, boys, going back to get your second cancer screening and passing spittle-flecked women howling about the inherent sexual and sacred nature of your colon. That would be insane, and it is reality for many women.

Our culture is crazy, deadly, hateful about women and sex. Computers cannot do that particular kind of crazy.

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link to this extract


Why didn’t America become part of the modern world? • Eudaimonia

Umair Haque argues that while Europe realised, after the Second World War, that poverty is a bad thing and so set about social equity schemes, the US didn’t – “America was building drinking fountains for ‘colored people'” – and insisted that poverty is a teacher:

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So what was the inevitable result of a nation which didn’t learn history’s greatest lesson, which thought poverty was good for people? Unsurprisingly, it was….poverty. The old kind: 40 million Americans live in poverty, while 50 million Mexicans do. Surprised. And a new kind, too. The middle class imploded, and Americans began living lives right perched right at the edge of destruction. Less then $500 in emergency savings, having to choose between healthcare and educating their kids, a without retirement, stability, security, or safety of any kind. America never joined the modern world in understanding that poverty leads societies to ruin — and so it quickly became the rich world’s first poor country.

What happened next? Well, exactly what history suggested would. That imploding middle class, living lives of immense precarity, sought safety in the arms of religion, superstition, and myths, at first. And then in the arms of extremism. And finally, in the arms of a demagogue, leading a nationalist, proto-fascist movement. It was exactly what happened in the 1930s — and it still is.
So. What has anyone learned? Funnily, sadly, as far as I can see, not much. America never joined the modern world — that is why its people live such uniquely wretched lives, paying thousands for ambulance rides, which even people in Lahore or Lagos don’t. But the consequences weren’t just poverty. They were what poverty produces — nationalism, authoritarianism, fascism, social collapse and implosion, as people, enraged, lost trust in society to be able to protect and shelter them. But no one has learned that lesson. Not America’s intellectuals, certainly. Not its politicians, leaders, thinkers. Not its people, either, unfortunately.

So here America is. Modernity’s first failed state. The rich nation which never cared to join the modern world, too busy believing that poverty would lead to virtue, not ruin. Now life is a perpetual, crushing, bruising battle, in which the stakes are life or death — and so people take out their bitter despair and rage by putting infants on trial.

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link to this extract


I used an Android Go phone for a month, and it was terrible • Android Police

Ryne Hager tried the low-end Android option, at $100:

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Who are these phones for?

This question consumed me in the lead-up to my time with the Alcatel 1X, and long before the review process started, I knew there wouldn’t be time to fully answer it. So, against my own better judgment and the repeated pleas of my coworkers here at Android Police, I decided before I started that I would exclusively use the Alcatel 1X as my only personal phone for an entire month. Of course, covering software updates and apps might require that I occasionally grab a work phone to pull screens or fact check, but when I was off duty, on vacation, or out on the town, it would be the Alcatel 1X in my pocket—with no backup.

Android Go and a mere 1 GB of RAM would be responsible for my entire mobile-centric life for a whole month. I expected the worst from the experience, and I wasn’t entirely disappointed.

I didn’t suffer any major catastrophes in the period I spent using it exclusively, but it was my only phone on two personal trips, and its shortcomings repeatedly drove me to apoplexy. It was explicitly incompatible with Android Auto, which meant more extensive planning and care had to go into my beer run to Burlington (a ~4-hour drive from Boston). The full version of Maps required for step-by-step directions eats quite a lot of the little free RAM left on a 1 GB device, and I was also concerned Spotify might be pushed out of memory mid-drive—as it once did while I had the app open on the subway. Thankfully, both were able to stay running the entire time.

It was a functional phone, but it wasn’t good, and in a lot of ways it felt like stepping back in time to 2008-2010: That era when smartphones were only just starting to proliferate.

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Spotify? The full version of Google Maps? Isn’t this expecting a lot? I’d expect if you go from a flagship (of any of the past two years) to a $100 phone you’d find it hard. That doesn’t make it worthless.
link to this extract


Digital ads are starting to feel psychic • The Outline

Oscar Schwartz:

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Earlier this year, my friend Max gave me a knife from Japan as a gift. That evening, as I was lying in bed looking at Instagram, I scrolled passed an ad of what looked like exactly the same knife. I did a double take, got out of bed, retrieved the knife from the kitchen and compared it to the one my screen—it was a perfect match, a Masomoto KS. I hadn’t Googled the knife, taken a picture of it, or event sent a text about it. The only interaction I had about the knife was face to face with Max when he gave it to me. This felt like more than a coincidence — it felt like I was being listened to.

Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne, two Brooklyn-based artists whose work explores the intersections of technology and society, have been hearing a lot of stories like mine. In June, they launched a website called New Organs, which collects first-hand accounts of these seemingly paranoiac moments. The website is comprised of a submission form that asks you to choose from a selection of experiences, like “my phone is eavesdropping on me” to “I see ads for things I dream about.” You’re then invited to write a few sentences outlining your experience and why you think it happened to you.

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Spooky, but even (sceptical) I can offer an explanation. Max is a friend of Oscar. They almost surely are connected with other on Facebook, or Instagram, or both. Max found the knife by searching, and chose to buy it. Instagram’s system knows only that Max bought the knife, not that it was a gift. If Max likes the knife, perhaps Oscar likes the knife? Cue: advert. (Schwartz reaches this conclusion later on.)

Even though it’s explicable, though, it’s still creepy.
link to this extract


73-year-old Frank Sinatra was originally offered the leading role in Die Hard • Today I Found Out

Emily Upton:

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how did Frank come to be considered for the role? It all started with an author named Roderick Thorp. You might not know it, but the Die Hard movie was based on a book called Nothing Lasts Forever by Thorp, which was published in 1979. The LA Times reviewed the book, saying it was “A ferocious, bloody, raging book so single-mindedly brilliant in concept and execution that it should be read at a single sitting.” This book is really what made Thorp a big name, but he was on the publishing scene much earlier.

It turns out that Nothing Lasts Forever is actually a sequel to a book called The Detective, published in 1966 which was made into a movie of the same name in 1968. The movie starred—you guessed it—Frank Sinatra as the main character, Detective Joe Leland. The book was extremely popular, remaining on bestseller lists for a while and making a name for Thorp; the movie also did well in the box office. It was described as “gritty” for its time, dealing with issues like homosexuality, but it was decidedly less action-packed than the Die Hard movies we know today.

Die Hard itself wasn’t picked up by producers until 1988, nearly 10 years after the book it was based on was published. Because the movie was technically a sequel, they were contractually obligated to offer Frank Sinatra the leading role. He was 73 years old at the time and gracefully turned the offer down.

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PHEW. (Following on from last week. Thanks Richard Gaywood for the link. Bonus Die Hard fun: the video in this tweet.)
link to this extract


What Elon Musk should learn from the Thailand cave rescue • The New York Times

Zeynep Tufekci:

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Mr. Musk’s desire to help was commendable. But when the head of the rescue operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, declared that Mr. Musk’s contraption was impractical for the task at hand — a task that had been completed, at that point, by some of the world’s top cave divers — Mr. Musk responded with irritation. He insisted on Twitter that leaders of the operation had in fact welcomed his assistance and that Mr. Narongsak was not the “subject matter expert.” He also expressed frustration that he was being criticized while trying to help.

Instead of venting, Mr. Musk — indeed, Silicon Valley as a whole — can perhaps see the Thai operation as a lesson. This was a most improbable rescue against the longest odds. Safely navigating 12 kids and one adult, many of whom were not swimmers, through a dangerous cave relied on a model of innovation that Silicon Valley can and should learn from.

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

This approach is what allowed the airline captain Chesley Sullenberger to safely land a commercial airplane on the Hudson River in 2009 after its engines were disabled. Captain Sullenberger’s skill and composure were, of course, a credit to him personally. But they also rested on decades of training and learning in an industry that had been government-regulated and self-regulated to such a degree that hurling through the atmosphere in giant metal cans at 35,000 feet is now one of the safest ways to travel.

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Musk has since vented even more. When I remarked on Twitter that Musk’s submarine seemed to me “the perfect Silicon Valley metaphor/example” (the wrong solution for the problem), I got lots of people insisting it was just right IF it had kept raining. Which was also wrong.
link to this extract


Elon Musk pledges to fix Flint water in homes with contamination • ABC News

Roey Hadar:

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Musk previously offered to provide solar electricity options to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and volunteered to send his own equipment and staff to assist in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a cave in Thailand.

But the efforts to persuade Musk to help Flint stem from a source that’s more directly connected to the Flint community.

Mari Copeny, a 10-year-old local activist known as “Little Miss Flint,” tweeted she has been working with Musk’s team for over a week on coming up with a solution for Flint that he could fund.

Musk worked with Copeny earlier this month, donating at least 500 bikes meant for children in the Flint area as a way of helping a community event she had organized.

Musk’s tweets come as Flint residents still grapple with the continued after-effects of the crisis. Local residents have sued local government authorities, contractors and companies tasked with maintaining the city’s water supply seeking damages. The residents’ class-action lawsuit had a hearing in federal court earlier this week.

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This is good – no two ways about it – but the key problem is with the infrastructure, with lead deposits from supply pipes embedded in rust in household pipes and then gradually deposited into peoples’ water (due to a change in the supply, and thus its chemistry). You’d need to replace all the pipes. Simply: you cannot avoid public spending forever.
link to this extract


Surface Go is Microsoft’s big bet on a tiny-computer future • WIRED

Lauren Goode:

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A lot about the new Surface has been “tuned”—not just the guts of the Go, but its software, too. “We tuned Office, we then tuned the Intel part, we tuned Windows, we made sure that, in portrait, it came to life,” Panay says. “We brought the Cortana [team] in to better design the Cortana box—we went after the details on what we think our customers need at 10 inches.”

There’s usually a tradeoff when you’re buying a computer this small. You get portability at the expense of space for apps and browser windows. The Surface Go has a built-in scaler that optimizes apps for a 10-inch screen, and Microsoft says that it’s working with third-parties to make sure certain apps run great. There’s only so much control, though, you have over software that’s not your own. I was reminded of this when I had a few minutes to use the Surface Go, went to download the Amazon Kindle app in the Windows Store, and couldn’t find it there…

…So who is this tiny Surface Go actually made for? It depends on who you ask at Microsoft, but the short answer seems to be: anybody and everybody.

[Natalia] Urbanowicz, the product marketing manager, says Go is about “reaching more audiences, and embracing the word ‘and’: I can be a mother, and an entrepreneurial badass; I can be a student, and a social justice warrior.” Kyriacou, when describing the Go’s cameras, says to “think about the front line worker in the field—a construction worker, architect, they can capture what they need to or even scan a document.” You can also dock the Go, Kyriacou points out, using the Surface Connect port, which makes it ideal for business travelers. Groene talks about reading, about drawing, about running software applications like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Almost everyone talks about watching Hulu and Netflix on it.

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I don’t think they know who it’s for. Note too how Microsoft is struggling, like any OEM, to get third-party apps onto its store.
link to this extract


Russia Indictment 2.0: what to make of Mueller’s hacking indictment • Lawfare

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The timing of the indictment given the upcoming Helsinki summit is a powerful show of strength by federal law enforcement. Let’s presume that Mueller did not time this indictment to precede the summit by way of embarrassing Trump on the international stage. It is enough to note that he also did not hold off on the indictment for a few days by way of sparing Trump embarrassment—and that Rosenstein did not force him to. Indeed, Rosenstein said at his press conference that it is “important for the president to know what information was uncovered because he has to make very important decisions for the country” and therefore “he needs to know what evidence there is of foreign election interference.” But of course Rosenstein and Mueller did not just let Trump know. They also let the world know, which has the effect—intended or not—of boxing in the president as he meets with an adversary national leader.

Put less delicately: Rosenstein has informed the president, and the world, before Trump talks to Putin one-on-one that his own Justice Department is prepared to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, in public, using admissible evidence, that the president of the Russian Federation has been lying to Trump about Russian non-involvement in the 2016 election hacking.

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The byline has eight names, which is nearly as many as were indicted – 12 GRU hackers who used the alias “Guccifer 2.0” to contact Trump-linked people such as Roger Stone. (Stone admits he is “probably” the person who responded to the hackers. Make that “definitely”.)
link to this extract


Plastic straws aren’t the problem • Bloomberg

Adam Minter:

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The anti-straw movement took off in 2015, after a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral. Campaigns soon followed, with activists often citing studies of the growing ocean plastics problem. Intense media interest in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a floating, France-sized gyre of oceanic plastic – only heightened the concern.

But this well-intentioned campaign assumes that single-use plastics, such as straws and coffee stirrers, have much to do with ocean pollution. And that assumption is based on some highly dubious data. Activists and news media often claim that Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day, for example, which sounds awful. But the source of this figure turns out to be a survey conducted by a nine-year-old. Similarly, two Australian scientists estimate that there are up to 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered on global coastlines. Yet even if all those straws were suddenly washed into the sea, they’d account for about .03% of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.

In other words, skipping a plastic straw in your next Bahama Mama may feel conscientious, but it won’t make a dent in the garbage patch. So what will?

A recent survey by scientists affiliated with Ocean Cleanup, a group developing technologies to reduce ocean plastic, offers one answer. Using surface samples and aerial surveys, the group determined that at least 46% of the plastic in the garbage patch by weight comes from a single product: fishing nets. Other fishing gear makes up a good chunk of the rest.

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OK, but .03% of 8m is 2,400 tonnes, which is a lot of plastic. As the article also makes clear, there are market mechanisms to identify abandoned nets, but they’re poorly implemented. That can be fixed too. Everyone wins, including the sea creatures.
link to this extract


The great Apple keyboard cover-up • iFixit

Sam Lionheart:

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Here’s an inflammatory take for you: Apple’s new quieter keyboard is actually a silent scheme to fix their keyboard reliability issues. We’re in the middle of tearing down the newest MacBook Pro, but we’re too excited to hold this particular bit of news back: Apple has cocooned their butterfly switches in a thin, silicone barrier.


The 2018 MacBook Pro features a thin rubberized layer under its keycaps, covering the second-generation butterfly mechanism.

This flexible enclosure is quite obviously an ingress-proofing measure to cover up the mechanism from the daily onslaught of microscopic dust. Not—to our eyes—a silencing measure. In fact, Apple has a patent for this exact tech designed to “prevent and/or alleviate contaminant ingress.”

Here’s the really good part: I can tell you it’s there, but I can’t definitively prove it’s a reliability fix. After all, Apple told The Verge that “this new third-generation keyboard wasn’t designed to solve those [dust] issues.”

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Two points on this:
• if it fixes the dust problem AND makes the keyboard quieter, then it’s absolutely what everyone wants. I look forward to someone doing noise-level tests. (Honestly – that’s the only way to know on the noise. And I’m sure someone will.) The dust reliability, we’ll find out.
• “wasn’t designed to solve those dust issues” can be read as “wasn’t designed to solve THOSE” (points at older models already affected) “dust issues.” In other words, this new fix won’t fix the old already-broken ones. It’s a lawyer’s get-out, but might be the slippery way around having to do a recall on all the past, affected, models.

Only question now is whether the new keyboard can be retrofitted into old models. But a lot of people – myself included – will be looking on this as a very positive sign.
link to this extract


Worldwide PC shipments grew for first time in six years during 2Q 2018 • Gartner

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“PC shipment growth in the second quarter of 2018 was driven by demand in the business market, which was offset by declining shipments in the consumer segment,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. “In the consumer space, the fundamental market structure, due to changes on PC user behavior, still remains, and continues to impact market growth. Consumers are using their smartphones for even more daily tasks, such as checking social media, calendaring, banking and shopping, which is reducing the need for a consumer PC.

“In the business segment, PC momentum will weaken in two years when the replacement peak for Windows 10 passes. PC vendors should look for ways to maintain growth in the business market as the Windows 10 upgrade cycle tails off.”

With the completion of Lenovo’s joint venture with Fujitsu, three out of four PCs were shipped by the top five PC vendors in the second quarter of 2018. With the inclusion of Fujitsu’s PC shipments due to the joint venture (a formation of Joint Venture with Fujitsu), Lenovo was in a virtual tie with HP Inc. for the top spot in the second quarter of 2018 based on global PC shipments. All of the top five PC vendors experienced an increase in worldwide PC shipments in the quarter.

…In the US PC market, the industry returned to growth after six consecutive quarters of shipment declines. In the second quarter of 2018, US PC shipments totaled 14.5 million units, a 1.7% increase from the same period last year. HP Inc. continued to be the market leader in the US, but Dell closed the gap, as Dell’s US PC shipments increased 7.2%.

“In the US, business PC demand was particularly strong among the public sector as the second quarter is typically PC buying season among government and education buyers,” Ms. Kitagawa said. “Desk-based PC growth was attributed to continued high usage of desk-based PCs in the US public sectors. Mobile PCs grew in the US, but strong Chromebook demand in the education market adversely affected PC growth. Overall, Chromebooks grew 8% in the US, but Chromebooks are not included in the PC market statistics.”

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OK, it’s time to ask: if Chromebook shipments can be high enough to “affect” PC growth, why the hell aren’t they included in the stats, and perhaps broken out?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

One thought on “Start Up No.879: porn filters don’t work, America: failed state?, whoa there Mr Musk, why Surface Go?, and more

  1. re. The Android Go phone, this one is kind of weird: for the same price, you can get an honest, full-Android phone (a Xiaomi Redmi of course, the 4A or 5A) that has the specs to run regular Android satisactorily: 2GB RAM, 16/32GB storage+SD slot, 720p screen…
    Sure you’ve got to buy it in China, which means it takes 6 weeks to get to you,warranty is slow (but does work, and works better than what I got for local-bought premium brands, ie the phones does actually get fixed).
    I can understand Android Go at the $40 price point since OK regular Androids start at $80 (Redmi As are $100 all the time, on sale for $80 about once a month). Above $60, A.Go doesn’t make sense for anyone.

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