Start Up No.891: when to expect an iPhone launch, monitoring sleep monitors, collapsing bridges, California’s data privacy, and more

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 is powerful – maybe too much so for most. Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. But what if truth isn’t truth? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 is crazy powerful. Can you handle it? • WSJ

David Pierce:


I’ve found the S Pen a handy tool in conjunction with another of the Note 9’s best features, called DeX. By connecting the phone to a display using an adapter or cable, you can turn the Note into something resembling a desktop. Last year’s dock is no longer required.

All your apps still run, but they open on the external display in an environment more like Windows, with a tool bar and plenty of space for multitasking. Some apps resize to fit the larger screen, including Microsoft Office Adobe Photoshop Express, or even Google’s Chrome browser. Connect a keyboard and mouse via Bluetooth, or use the phone itself as a trackpad. You can even unlock the phone—and use it as a phone—while it powers the desktop environment.


The amazingly versatile Note 9 comes closer than anything I’ve tested to fulfilling my one-true-computer dream. But Samsung doesn’t always implement these features well.

When I pull out the S Pen, the Note 9 offers six things to do, with dozens more available in settings. I get multiple notifications and warnings every time I open DeX. Apps often have to close and reopen to work on the larger screen.

I’ve long complained about Samsung’s unnecessary duplication of Google’s apps, but the Note 9’s bigger issue is that over the past week, it just wouldn’t leave me alone. It bombarded me with pop-ups, new-feature alerts and options I apparently needed to turn on.

Samsung says the barrage is an attempt to help Note users figure out their powerful new device, and the pop-ups mellow out eventually. Yet even when I clicked through the initial wave, I still felt pestered: The Note’s notification tray fills with status reports on things I don’t care about.


The Note is niche in a way that the iPhone X isn’t; it’s almost surely overserving most of its users. Apart from those who really, really need a pen on their phone.
link to this extract

Q: Why do keynote speakers keep suggesting that improving security is possible? A: because keynote speakers make bad life decisions and are poor role models • USENIX

James Mickens is a hilarious speaker:


Some people enter the technology industry to build newer, more exciting kinds of technology as quickly as possible. My keynote will savage these people and will burn important professional bridges, likely forcing me to join a monastery or another penance-focused organization. In my keynote, I will explain why the proliferation of ubiquitous technology is good in the same sense that ubiquitous Venus weather would be good, i.e., not good at all. Using case studies involving machine learning and other hastily-executed figments of Silicon Valley’s imagination, I will explain why computer security (and larger notions of ethical computing) are difficult to achieve if developers insist on literally not questioning anything that they do since even brief introspection would reduce the frequency of git commits. At some point, my microphone will be cut off, possibly by hotel management, but possibly by myself, because microphones are technology and we need to reclaim the stark purity that emerges from amplifying our voices using rams’ horns and sheets of papyrus rolled into cone shapes.


link to this extract

Hacker finds hidden ‘God mode’ on old x86 CPUs • Tom’s Hardware

Paul Wagenseil:


The backdoor completely breaks the protection-ring model of operating-system security, in which the OS kernel runs in ring 0, device drivers run in rings 1 and 2, and user applications and interfaces (“userland”) run in ring 3, furthest from the kernel and with the least privileges. To put it simply, Domas’ God Mode takes you from the outermost to the innermost ring in four bytes.

“We have direct ring 3 to ring 0 hardware privilege escalation,” Domas said. “This has never been done.”

That’s because of the hidden RISC chip, which lives so far down on the bare metal that Domas half-joked that it ought to be thought of as a new, deeper ring of privilege, following the theory that hypervisors and chip-management systems can be considered ring -1 or ring -2.

“This is really ring -4,” he said. “It’s a secret, co-located core buried alongside the x86 chip. It has unrestricted access to the x86.”

The good news is that, as far as Domas knows, this backdoor exists only on VIA C3 Nehemiah chips made in 2003 and used in embedded systems and thin clients. The bad news is that it’s entirely possible that such hidden backdoors exist on many other chipsets.

“These black boxes that we’re trusting are things that we have no way to look into,” he said. “These backdoors probably exist elsewhere.”


It’s almost certain, isn’t it? If it’s not the software or the firmware or the hardware, it’s the software/firmware/hardware that controls the hardware.
link to this extract

Do smart sleep monitors and trackers actually work? • NY Mag

Lauren L’Amie:


It’s easy to self-diagnose and self-medicate bad sleep because, well, you know it when you feel it. When you’re up late at night Googling “What to do when you can’t sleep,” you’ll likely come across lists of magical apps and devices that promise to help. But Dr. Lev Grinman, a New Jersey–based neurologist who studies sleep disorders, says that most smart sleep technology “isn’t necessarily what a sleep physician would use to gauge how well somebody is sleeping.”

“Everybody wants the do-it-yourself kind of thing,” he says. “A lot of these things are geared toward just the general consumer. Even though they say they’re backed by sleep science, they’re not robustly accurate.” Grinman, like many who study sleep, says we track sleep through movement, sound, heart rate, breathing patterns (snoring), and measuring your actual brainwaves using an electroencephalogram (EEG). But measuring each of these factors alone isn’t accurate enough to determine whether or not your sleep is “bad” or “good.” “Good” sleep, says Grinman, correlates with good habits.

“The trackers can help to some degree, but the most effective treatment for insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy. We’re talking about sleep hygiene,” Grinman says. The same way you brush your teeth so they don’t fall out, Grinman suggests you do the same things to keep your sleep healthy — don’t drink alcohol too close to bedtime, don’t use bright lights, and reserve your bed only for sleep. If you can’t sleep, the combination of these behaviors (or lack of them) affects you much more than the things sleep trackers can measure.

There are a ton of tracking apps that monitor your sleep, but most only track sound and movement: two small components of sleep. Sleep Cycle, one of the most popular sleep-tracking apps in the Apple App Store, promises to wake you during your “lightest” sleep phase. The app uses your phone’s microphone to identify sleep phases by listening to your movements in bed from up to ten inches away, filtering out any “non-sleep movement sounds,” like sirens outside or a baby crying.

“That, to me, is not very accurate,” Dr. Grinman says. “There’s just too many confounding variables. You’re really not going to be able to tell how deep your sleep is based on sound alone.”


I recall a doctor once saying that if you can’t get to sleep, just lie there peacefully; don’t focus on trying to go to sleep. It’s as good as sleep. (And often you then drift off to sleep.)
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Apple September 2018 iPhone event preview • iMore

Rene Ritchie:


unless Apple decides to mic drop, peace out, and retire to spend more time with its money, this year will be no different. Rumors, as always, abound:

• iPhone 9: A 6.1-inch LCD with iPhone X-style design, in iPhone 5c-type colors
• iPhone X2: The next generation OLED iPhone and iPhone Plus, perhaps with Pencil support
• Apple Watch Series 4: With minimized bezels
• iPad Pro 3: With minimized bezels
• New MacBook Air. Finally.
• Coffee Lake MacBook
• Coffee Lake iMac

So, when will Apple hold the iPhone 2018 Event?

This is basically the best worst kept secret in technology. Best, because Apple never tells anyone. Worst, because, since iPhone 5, Apple has announced every new iPhone during a special event held the first or second Tuesday or Wednesday of September.

• iPhone 5 event: September 12, 2012
• iPhone 5s event: September 10, 2013
• iPhone 6 event: September 9, 2014
• iPhone 6s event: September 9, 2015
• iPhone 7 event: September 7, 2016
• iPhone 8/X event: September 12, 2017

Now, past isn’t always predicate, but past events are the best indicator for future events. Apple can and will throw curveballs whenever the company’s logistics or strategy demands.

Still, based on the above pattern, it’s likely we’ll see this year’s event on or around Wednesday, September 12.


(Won’t be September 11, of course.) What is Apple to do with its MacBook Air and MacBook confusion? The Air is a terrific workhorse that suits lots of people at its price, because it has legacy ports. But its screen is ancient. Shouldn’t there be a 13in MacBook, with two USB-C ports (which can then be turned into plenty of legacy ports via add-ons), at the MacBook Air price? That might get USB-C to start moving. It’s in a chicken-refusing-to-lay-the-egg situation at present.
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Don’t do this in production · Stephen Mann

Mann was called in to help find the bugs in an about-to-launch product, where the developers turned out to be eager, but inexperienced:


“Move fast and break things,” they said. It turns out that’s a pretty bad idea when your business relies on a small number of large customers. Broken products tend to scare them off, which in turn tanks your business. There’s a lot to be said for building things that work, but “move slowly and steadily towards a goal” just doesn’t have the same ring.

In reality, there’s a balance between moving fast and and moving slow. It’s difficult to communicate that balance because every type of product demands a different balance. I suppose that intuition comes from experience, which is a terrible answer for someone trying to learn.

What’s a new developer to do?

The natural tendency seems to be asking the internet. It turns out that this is incredibly effective.

It’s also incredibly dangerous.

This company continued to work with me after that product launch. I reviewed a significant amount of code, helped mentor their developers, and built new projects for them. Everything went swimmingly.

One day, I ran into a section of code that triggered my spidey sense. I could have sworn that I had seen it before. Sure enough, after pasting a line into a search engine, I found the exact section of code in a blog post. Naturally I read the whole thing, right up to the line that said, “Don’t do this in production.“

Yet here it was, tipping its hat at me from the front lines of a production codebase.

It didn’t take long to find many sections of code from similar blog posts. Almost all of the blog posts either wrote a disclaimer or should have written one. They all solved one small piece of a problem, but took many liberties in their solution to make it simpler to read. It’s understandable. Most readers appreciate brevity when learning a concept.


Ah, the joys of StackOverflow. Great when you’re learning, but as he says – dangerous if used unwarily.
link to this extract

The Italy bridge collapse and the end of infrastructure • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:


There’s an old chestnut about infrastructure that goes, Infrastructure is everything you don’t notice—until it fails. It’s a definition that works for any kind of infrastructure, too: big or small, visible or invisible, bridges and garage doors, electric grids and Wi-Fi routers. Infrastructure is everything you take for granted. And you only notice that you take it for granted when it breaks…

…age and decay aren’t the only causes of infrastructural collapse. A portion of Interstate 85 in Atlanta collapsed in 2017 after a fire lit underneath it by a homeless man raged into an inferno. And earlier this year, a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami collapsed, killing six people. The bridge was brand new, making its collapse a failure of engineering, not of maintenance.

It’s not just bridges and roads breaking. Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that Facebook is a kind of social infrastructure, but it feels broken now, too. This week, at the Defcon computer-security conference, hackers demonstrated how to gain back-door access to voting machines used in 18 states. There’s evidence that Russia has hacked the U.S. power grid, along with nuclear and commercial infrastructure, too. The prevalence of badly secured internet-connected data, from emails to DNA samples to credit reports, has made all information vulnerable. Last year, 143 million Americans’ personal information, including Social Security numbers, were lifted from the credit agency Equifax’s servers.  

When these incidents become so frequent and so pervasive—or even just when they feel like they do—the meaning of infrastructure changes. As I wrote in the wake of the Equifax breach, “With over half of the entire U.S. adult population potentially exposed, what’s left to do but shrug and sigh?” Once they become perceived as generally untrustworthy, bridges and voting systems and utilities and the rest don’t recede into the background so easily anymore. If infrastructure always fails, you always notice it. Will this bridge I’m driving over hold? Will this vote I’m casting be counted? Will this personal data remain private?

No longer is infrastructure something invisible, something you can take for granted. Instead, it’s something that might work, or might not. Not plainly calamitous—most bridges don’t fall—but something precarious. Something that might not be trustworthy, that might wind up biting you for having put faith in it.


As he says: when you stop trusting it, do you stop using it?
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The unlikely activists who took on Silicon Valley — and won • The New York Times

Nicholas Confessore:


The way Alastair Mactaggart usually tells the story of his awakening — the way he told it even before he became the most improbable, and perhaps the most important, privacy activist in America — begins with wine and pizza in the hills above Oakland, Calif. It was a few years ago, on a night Mactaggart and his wife had invited some friends over for dinner. One was a software engineer at Google, whose search and video sites are visited by over a billion people a month. As evening settled in, Mactaggart asked his friend, half-seriously, if he should be worried about everything Google knew about him. “I expected one of those answers you get from airline pilots about plane crashes,” Mactaggart recalled recently. “You know — ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.’ ” Instead, his friend told him there was plenty to worry about. If people really knew what we had on them, the Google engineer said, they would flip out…

…He learned that there was no real limit on the information companies could collect or buy about him — and that just about everything they could collect or buy, they did. They knew things like his shoe size, of course, and where he lived, but also roughly how much money he made, and whether he was in the market for a new car. With the spread of smartphones and health apps, they could also track his movements or whether he had gotten a good night’s sleep. Once facial-recognition technology was widely adopted, they would be able to track him even if he never turned on a smartphone.


Thus begins a terrific long read on the man who got California legislators to pass some worthwhile privacy legislation back in June – because they were terrified that Mactaggart would win a poll to introduce more rigorous privacy legislation. (Thank Jim C for the link.)
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Nvidia shrugs off crypto-mining crash, touts live ray-tracing GPUs, etc • The Register

Katyanna Quach:


The demand for GPUs grew 40% from last year to account for $2.66bn in sales, we’re told. Popular online titles such as Fortnite and PUBG have helped Nvidia in the gaming department, which grew 52% in terms of revenue to $1.8bn. The boom in deep learning is also accelerating its data center business by 83%, to $760m, where its graphics cards are used as math accelerators. Nvidia’s automotive area is smaller with $161m in revenues, up 13% year-over-year. Its professional visualization arm grew 20% to $281m.

It was weakest in cryptocurrency mining. People just aren’t buying Nvidia cards for crafting digital fun bucks any more, relatively speaking, and won’t for a while, it seems. So that’s good news for folks unable to get hold of an Nvidia card due to hoarding by crypto-coin nerds.

“Our revenue outlook had anticipated cryptocurrency-specific products declining to approximately $100 million, while actual crypto-specific product revenue was $18 million, and we now expect a negligible contribution going forward,” the biz reported during its the earnings call with analysts on Thursday.

A few months back CEO Jensen Huang said a shortage of its chips – particularly the GeForce series – was down to mining Ethereum. The prices skyrocketed for a brief period of time, have been declining, and are going back to normal levels. Huang previously said Nvidia were not targeting the crypto industry, and wanted to reserve GeForce parts for gamers.


Basically, Nvidia expects zero revenue from people buying for mining in future. The candle burned bright, but it burnt out.
link to this extract

How global smartphone sales growth ground to a halt • Bloomberg

Robert Fenner goes over some familiar ground, and finishes with a question:


IDC expects the [smartphone shipments] market to go backward again in 2018, although by just 0.2%, which would mark two straight years of declines. This will be driven by China, where demand is falling on signs of saturation and people sticking with their devices for longer. From 2019, growth is likely to resume but at the subdued annual pace of about 3%, which will continue through 2022, according to IDC.

Q6. What will it take to turn things around?

The rollout of 5G should help provide a boost as consumers seek to get hold of devices that can download a feature length movie within seconds. IDC expects commercial 5G devices to appear in the second half of 2019 with a more substantial ramp-up in 2020. While China has certainly matured, there are still low smartphone penetration rates in India, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, home to more than half the Earth’s population. New innovations could also provide a catalyst. While Samsung has been working toward making foldable screens a reality, turning a handset into a tablet, such a radical design hasn’t been released yet. A leap forward in battery technology is another change that could attract users tired of the never-ending search for a power outlet. Augmented and virtual reality have made only limited appearances on smartphones so far, but as processors get more powerful the opportunities for new content and features could spark demand.


I’m not sure 5G will drive more sales; 4G is plenty fast (where you can get it) and you can bet carriers will charge a premium for it. Why pay, when you can stream a feature film, and you can’t see the difference between HD and 4K on a phone screen? Though it might at least be a reason to upgrade rather than just hang on to a phone.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

9 thoughts on “Start Up No.891: when to expect an iPhone launch, monitoring sleep monitors, collapsing bridges, California’s data privacy, and more

  1. The Note also is about the best phone one can buy right now regardless of the pen and DeX, which have separate, special use cases.
    The note boasts the best (or very near) screen, camera, I/O, storage, battery… all of those better than the iPhone’s, and for cheaper (before Samsung’s usual perma-sales, too). Not sure about the sound, and single-thread performance lags behind the iPhone X though multi-core and graphics mostly don’t (10-15%). And then there’s that little joke about 4G speeds, though I’m not sure it’s very relevant.
    When I bought a Note v1 back in the day, I didn’t plan to use the pen at all and duly didn’t except for bragging rights; one can consider it a freebie: the Note is very much a worthwhile phone without it.
    PS LesNumeriques has been going down the drain recently, their photo comparison tool is still fun though: no French necessary, play around with the white slider in the side-by-side pics. Pity those are lab only, not real life.

    • This is the thing about overserving the market, though, which is something Apple is careful not to do. (You can critique that as you like, but..) Apple has always avoided putting in bells and whistles that people won’t ring or blow; recall how it was criticised for not including FM radio in the iPod. Why? I asked Schiller in 2005. Here’s what he said (from my book Digital Wars):
      “We are very careful about the technologies we put into products. We should put new features in because it makes sense for customers, and because a significant percentage will want it. A lot of rivals suffer from feature-itis: it’s easier to sell a checklist than to sell a better product. But it we think some features aren’t great then we shouldn’t do it.”

      You see this applied in Apple’s careful addition of features. (Too slow with large screens, but anyway.) It doesn’t add stuff and then dump it. It only adds it to keep it.

      Now it may well be that every Note buyer uses the pencil, but if not, then they’ve overspent on the device, and the device overserves them. By contrast everyone who buys an Apple Pencil is a user – they’ve chosen it. I suspect that the number of people who buy the Note is falling, not rising, as time goes on, because fewer people need *all* the things it can do; it is being substituted (one could even say low-end disrupted) by cheaper, newer devices which don’t have to try so hard – which can process fast enough, and have I/O that’s fast enough. Even the Dex thing is likely overserving most people, though it’s an idea whose time is very, very, slowly coming, I think.

      And I think the number who would consider a substitution between an iPhone and a Note, or vice-versa, is very small indeed – probably in the thousands worldwide. At this stage in the game, switching can’t be significant.

      • Pretty much all iPads now include the pencil sensors, even though they don’t include the actual pencil. Isn’t that even worse overserving: not only is the feature a cost on all devices, but it can’t actually be used even as a lark ? I know they sell the pencil for a lot, but the sensors aren’t free, probably $10-ish (*).
        It’s OK to criticize the Note for including a mostly unused sensors+pen. Why didn’t you (or anybody) say the same about the iPad though ?

        Taking an executive’s PR at face value is pretty naive. Don’t you think FM being free and a distraction from buying iTunes content counted for something ? I mean, the iPhone was “designed for our hand” for a whole 6 months, until the Plus got out and then… our hands enlarged ? How hypocritical can they go ? They’ll just wrap anything they do in PR and nobody questions the spin. So yep, free content distracts a lot from paid content. Very bad… for users ?

        What feature did Note (or S) add then dump ? It even still has FM radio AFAIK, almost all Androids with a jack do. The S, not the Note briefly dumped the SD slot, but then brought it back in a hurry. I can’t think of anything else. Oh, removable battery. That’s a biggie, but not quite add-then-drop, just “drop” :-/

        Mostly, I think at the very high end of the market the game is about bragging rights. The Note sells well alongside the S, there must be a reason for that, between novelty, specs and pen. Samsung can do Note with a better camera, screen, battery, storage, tack pen and DeX on top of that, and still come in with a lower cost & price than iPhone. Maybe Pen and Dex have value just as conversation pieces, my S-Pen demos never failed to get a “Wow !”. I’m sure DeX does too, clunky as it is – at least using that no longer costs a dock, just a cable.

        And for those who don’t want the pen, there’s the S line, discounted 30+% because it’s 6 months old.

        (*) Breakdowns seem to value the Note’s screen at $10 more then the corresponding S’s, I’d assume that’s the cost of the pen circuitry (probably not quite true, the screens are usually better on the Note, but I coudln’t find the coast for Apple’s nor Samsung’s pen). That’s 2-3% of costs: not a very significant.

      • Oh, and besides cost, the “but it makes it harder on the user” argument about the pen doesn’t have a leg to stand on. If you don’t want to use it, just don’t, the device works just like a regular pen-less device. That’s true for the Note… *and* the iPad…

      • Dang, I really with there was an edit button, both for typos and additional remarks. Sorry for the orphan words and broken sentences on my 2nd wall of text. As for additional comments on the pen:

        I find it strange the overserving “issue” was never mentioned for the iPad. Really strange. The nice way to put it is “inconsistent”. There are several not nice ways to put it.

        Also, same remark about DeX: it doesn’t impact the non-DeX UX at all, and probably costs a negligible amount of money in hardware (it’s basically MHL, maybe just 2013’s v3 not even 2014’s V4 nor 2015’s SuperMHL: ). There must be significant SW costs though, but since they sell tens of millions of the stuff, certainly less than $0.1/device. Why are we even talking about that ?

        In the end, the “overserving” argument doesn’t work for its “UX complexity” side at all, and barely works for the “cost” side, and would work the same about iPad pens if anybody dared to raise the issue on that side of the fence.

      • Assume cost of including pen control in iPad at $10. Assume cost of Pencil at $40. (Assume Apple makes a good profit on it.) If you included the Pencil in every device and people *didn’t* use it, they’d be overpaying substantially. As it is, having the capability but not using it means a small extra cost. (A bit like including FM in Android phones.) But including Pencil capability isn’t overserving the market – you’re not giving people things they don’t want and don’t use, which could be the case with the Note’s pencil. Only those who *want* the Pencil buy it.
        As for UI overload, that’s definitely a thing (it’s what David Pierce complains about in the article). And the cost of DeX: I think you’re hopeful if you put its cost at $7m. I’d guess it’s way higher.

      • The pencil is in 2 parts: the in-tablet sensors, and the pencil. Apple *are* giving people sensors they don’t want/need, even if you can’t see them. And you might be overestimating the cost of Apple’s pencil a whole lot: Samsung’s S-pen sells for $25, which makes its BoM $10-ish or less, and the two don’t look terribly different (I eyeballed about the same number of components, I know, I’m naive) apart from the actual pointy part. I’m having a hard time believing Apple’s pencil cost 4x as much, 2x maybe. Yes, they’re printing money with those, the joys of a closed garden. But we can’t dismiss the sensors cost as “not overserving because the pen is extra” if the sensor is half the cost.

        You really think DeX’s software dev cost more than $7m ? Motorola, Cyanogen, PhoenixOS – these last very small/open-source outfits – did something similar (floating resizable windows + Windows-like Desktop) years ago, I’m sure on a shoestring.The rest (support for keyboard, mouse, touchpad, ethernet…) is already in Android/Linux, so only needs tweaks and QC. And Samsung apps have supported resizable windows since my 2012 Galaxy Tab 10.1.

  2. I’ve been wondering about 5G too: my issues are not about speed: I’m old-school, so my media is stored locally on an SD card, and the rest (mostly HTML, and gaming) doesn’t require that much bandwidth or ping. My issues are about coverage, and I’m not sure 5G makes that better, it seems to require a LOT more towers.
    Well, maybe we’re supposed to cut the 2nd cord and go for wireless fixed Internet at home, or spend our days doing AR/VR in the cloud… neh.

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