Start Up No.892: China’s smart speaker fight, Huawei ad caught out, Julia or Python?, the Bitcoin post-boomers, and more

Apple’s most iconic laptop is expected to get an overhaul – with a better screen. Photo by Faheem Patel on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links just for you. Boom, bust, whatever. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The rise of Chinese voice assistants and the race to commoditize smart speakers • CB Insights


Neither Amazon Echo nor Google Home have penetrated China.

Apart from the tight regulations US tech companies face there, Chinese natural language processing is complex (with 130 spoken dialects and 30 written languages), making speech recognition a huge challenge.

Among US big tech, only Apple’s Siri supports Mandarin on the iPhone. The company’s Homepod smart speaker only supports English, and is not available in China.

This leaves a huge market underserved by US companies, and local players are capitalizing on it.

Smart voice is one of the Chinese government’s four main focus areas in its first wave of AI applications throughout the country. (Read about its focus on healthcare, smart cities, and autonomous vehicles here.)

China’s big tech has stepped up here in a big way. Alibaba sold its Tmall Genie smart speakers for $15 in China on Single’s Day, the country’s annual shopping extravaganza on November 11. Baidu recently slashed the price of one its smart speakers in China from $39 to $14.

These low prices are making it nearly impossible for smaller companies to compete.


Apple might have a chance there: open market. At the top end, at least.
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Huawei caught passing off DSLR pictures as phone camera samples • Engadget

Rachel England:


Huawei doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to advertising. Campaigns for both its P8 and P9 phones were revealed to be at least a little dishonest, and it seems the advertising around its newest launch, the Nova 3, falls into the same category.

A 30-second advert for the phone features a couple. The man wants to take a quick selfie, but because she’s hanging out at home she doesn’t have any makeup on, so she’s not on board. Enter the Nova 3 and its beauty AI feature, making it look like her face is fully done up. A lovely selfie ensues. Look!

So far, so innocuous (well, apart from the entire narrative around women needing a makeup filter in the first place, but that’s another story). But it’s all gone south for Huawei because the advert’s actress, Sarah Elshamy, posted a few behind-the-scenes snaps of the filming on her Instagram account. And it turns out that lovely selfie was actually captured by a great big DSLR, and not in fact the Nova 3. As the since-deleted picture below shows, the guy taking the supposed selfie in the typical arms-outstretched position is actually holding… nothing.



You think: only the tech press notices. But the tech press will make noise about this, and that leaks to the nationals, and it turns up when people do searches on Huawei. Also: it’s a bad look.
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Is Julia a good alternative to R and Python for programmers? • Quartz

Dan Kopf:


why shouldn’t every data scientist learn Julia [now at 1.0 release, guaranteeing forward compatibility]? There are a couple of reasons.

One, if processing speed isn’t important to you, Julia is probably inferior to whatever product you are using—at least for now. I am an R user, and most of the statistics work I do is on relatively small datasets, and involves simple calculations. The community of R developers, particularly the rockstar data scientist Hadley Wickham, have developed terrific tools, with thorough documentation, for doing simple data analysis tasks. I tried using Julia to complete some of the basic tasks I now do in R. Julia’s tools did not seem as developed for these purposes.

Second, Julia is behind Python and R in terms of tools for debugging and identifying performance issues. Shah says that now that the basics of the language are completed, he hopes more of the community will turn to developing these tools, which make the language easier for new users.


This Nasa document from February suggests that Julia is often an order of magnitude faster than Python – except when it comes to complex work used in speech recognition, image processing and so on, when it’s (presently) slower. A quick glance suggests it’s very similar to Python in syntax.
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Apple Is planning a new low-cost MacBook, pro-focused Mac mini • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Debby Wu:


Apple will release a new low-cost laptop and a professional-focused upgrade to the Mac mini desktop later this year, ending a drought of Mac computers that has limited sales of the company’s longest-running line of devices, according to people familiar with the plans.

The new laptop will look similar to the current MacBook Air, but will include thinner bezels around the screen. The display, which will remain about 13in, will be a higher-resolution “Retina” version that Apple uses on other products, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing products still in development. Apple spokesman Bill Evans declined to comment.

The current MacBook Air, which costs $1,000, remains Apple’s only laptop without a high-resolution screen. The MacBook Air was last updated with a faster processor option last year, but hasn’t seen a major overhaul in several years. The 12in MacBook launched in 2015 was seen as a replacement to the MacBook Air, but its $1,300 starting price put it out of reach for some consumers. The new MacBook Air will be geared toward consumers looking for a cheaper Apple computer, but also schools that often buy laptops in bulk…

…”HP and Lenovo have released products priced similarly to the MacBook Air, gaining share, and in order to remain competitive in that price point, we think a form-factor change is necessary,” Shannon Cross, an analyst at Cross Research, said. “It should help them rebound some of their Mac sales as things have been getting a bit long on the tooth in terms of their Mac line as they’ve clearly been very focused on the iPhone and services businesses.”


Well, it would be about time for “Retina” to reach the Air, which is an iconic name and design. (Is it Apple’s longest-surviving laptop design?) As John Gruber points out, it can’t have smaller bezels (an obvious move) and be the same size; that implies a larger screen. More likely the computer is smaller… like the current USB-C MacBook. And what does “pro-focused” mean for the Mac mini? More powerful? More expensive? More ports? “New storage and processor options”, according to Gurman + Wu. Hmm. And will they both have USB-C? That’s the big question for me.

Likely release: October.
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After the Bitcoin boom: hard lessons for cryptocurrency investors • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper and Su-Hyun Lee:


Pete Roberts of Nottingham, England, was one of the many risk-takers who threw their savings into cryptocurrencies when prices were going through the roof last winter.

Now, eight months later, the $23,000 he invested in several digital tokens is worth about $4,000, and he is clearheaded about what happened.

“I got too caught up in the fear of missing out and trying to make a quick buck,” he said last week. “The losses have pretty much left me financially ruined.”

Mr. Roberts, 28, has a lot of company. After the latest round of big price drops, many cryptocurrencies have given back all of the enormous gains they experienced last winter. The value of all outstanding digital tokens has fallen by about $600bn, or 75%, since the peak in January, according to data from the website…

…In South Korea, the biggest exchanges opened storefronts to make investment easier for people who didn’t feel comfortable doing it online. The offices of one big exchange, Coinone, had just one customer walk in during a two-hour period in the middle of the day last week. An employee, Yu Ji-Hoon, said, “The prices of the digital tokens have fallen so much that people seem to feel upset.”

Kim Hyon-jeong, a 45-year-old teacher and mother of one who lives on the outskirts of Seoul, said she put about 100 million won, or $90,000, into cryptocurrencies last fall. She drew on savings, an insurance policy and a $25,000 loan. Her investments are now down about 90%.

“I thought that cryptocurrencies would be the one and only breakthrough for ordinary hardworking people like us,” she said. “I thought my family and I could escape hardship and live more comfortably, but it turned out to be the other way around.”


Recall these: Bitcoin’s price was artificially inflated by half in 2017, researchers say; ‘Bitcoin is my potential pension’: what’s driving people in Kentucky to join the craze (February 2018). I wish the NYT had sought out the Kentucky investors, who were seeing the values fall, day after day. Most will surely have been wiped out in one of the US’s poorest states.
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TRON: our BitTorrent plan might take two decades • TorrentFreak



Back in May, TorrentFreak broke the news that Justin Sun, the entrepreneur behind the popular cryptocurrency TRON, was in the process of acquiring BitTorrent Inc.

Two months later, BitTorrent Inc. and the TRON Foundation confirmed the acquisition.

“With this acquisition, BitTorrent will continue to provide high quality services for over 100M users around the world. We believe that joining the TRON network will further enhance BitTorrent and accelerate our mission of creating an Internet of options, not rules,” BitTorrent Inc. said.

TRON’s Justin Sun added that the acquisition of BitTorrent supports his foundation’s goal to decentralize the web but more concrete details beyond this vision have proven elusive. The entrepreneur has mentioned the possibility of rewarding BitTorrent seeders but that raises even more questions.

This week, in celebration of TRON’s US and China teams meeting up for the first time, Sun dangled some additional information on why the acquisition took place and what TRON’s plans are for the future.

“Contrary to speculation, the main reason for the acquisition isn’t BitTorrent’s more than 100M active users, and it isn’t for an amazing commercial opportunity,” Sun said.

“Yes, these things are great perks, but the more important reason is that BitTorrent has always been committed to one value, which is ‘Democratize the Internet.’ This is very much in line with TRON’s ‘Decentralize the Web.’ The fact that our values are in sync is the driving force behind this acquisition.”


Had you forgotten BitTorrent, which tried to make a business out of that fabulous download protocol (and failed)? Now it’s owned by a crypto company; can’t decide if this is “two bald men fighting over a comb” or “two skydivers, one parachute”. But at least the two-decade timetable sets a low bar.

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A website promised free anti-antifa shirts, and alt-righters signed up. It was a trap • Daily Beast

Kelly Weil:


A website that offered free anti-anti-fascist t-shirts for a real far-right march appears to have been a trap by anti-fascists.

On August 18, Trump supporters will host the “National March Against Far-Left Violence” in several cities, organized by a pair of frequent attendees at far-right rallies. Expected participants include members of anti-Muslim group the Proud Boys and people involved in the pro-Trump troll group Patriot Prayer, which has attracted white supremacists. In early July, when march leaders were planning their event, an apparent ally set up a website where marchers could pre-order anti-anti-fascist t-shirts. But the website appears to have been a trap by antifa, who turned around and published the names and addresses they’d collected from the website.

Now the far-right is trying to get their apparent anti-fascist trolls arrested.


Stupid is as stupid does.
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Live map of London Underground trains •

Matthew Sommerville:


This map shows all trains (yellow dots) on the London Underground network in approximately real time. Geographic version, or Skyfall version.

I have similar things for the London buses and National Rail, and an awesome bookmarkable train times journey planner.


The Skyfall version is.. it’s much more weird. Sommerville did a version of this back in 2010. Now it’s live again. Gotta love live, open data.
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Amazon has YouTube envy • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw:


For now, it’s a David vs. Goliath battle. YouTube, the largest advertising-supported video site in the world, has about 1.9 billion monthly viewers; Twitch gets about 15 million a day. But the Amazon unit gives creators multiple ways of making money, including paid subscriptions (a feature YouTube added in response), and offers advertisers the appeal of a live, engaged audience. Amazon, which saw its ad sales in the first quarter exceed $2 billion for the first time mostly by selling “sponsored products” slots during product searches, analysts estimate, has already become a credible contender in online advertising to Google and Facebook Inc.

At a recent staff meeting, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear set a target of $1bn in ad sales for Twitch, according to three people present. That’s more than double its current sales. Twitch’s key advantage, besides being live, is its popularity among young men who tend to be resistant to ads. The average Twitch user has stopped paying for cable TV and employs technology to block advertising across the internet. But hundreds of thousands of these hard-to-reach viewers tune in daily to watch top video game streamers, such as Ninja, Twitch’s biggest star.

YouTube has tried to blunt Twitch’s efforts by offering big payments to some of its top creators if they agree not to make exclusive deals with other sites. “YouTube is pretty nervous,” says Chad Stoller, chief innovation officer at media agency UM Global.


You can bet that there’s a lot of synergy between Fortnite and Twitch.
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Achieving ultralow wear with stable nanocrystalline metals • Wiley Online Library

John F. Curry:


Recent work suggests that thermally stable nanocrystallinity in metals is achievable in several binary alloys by modifying grain boundary energies via solute segregation. The remarkable thermal stability of these alloys has been demonstrated in recent reports, with many alloys exhibiting negligible grain growth during prolonged exposure to near‐melting temperatures. Pt–Au, a proposed stable alloy consisting of two noble metals, is shown to exhibit extraordinary resistance to wear. Ultralow wear rates, less than a monolayer of material removed per sliding pass, are measured for Pt–Au thin films at a maximum Hertz contact stress of up to 1.1 GPa. This is the first instance of an all‐metallic material exhibiting a specific wear rate on the order of 10−9 mm3 N−1 m−1, comparable to diamond‐like carbon (DLC) and sapphire. Remarkably, the wear rate of sapphire and silicon nitride probes used in wear experiments are either higher or comparable to that of the Pt–Au alloy, despite the substantially higher hardness of the ceramic probe materials.


Translated: they made a platinum-gold alloy that is as hard, or harder, than diamond or sapphire, and you know how hard those mfs are. (The whole thing is available to read free.)
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Platforms, speech and truth: policy, policing and impossible choices • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:


I still go back to the solution I’ve been discussing for years: we need to move to a world of protocols instead of platforms, in which transparency rules and (importantly) control is passed down away from the centralized service to the end users. Facebook should open itself up so that end users can decide what content they can see for themselves, rather than making all the decisions in Menlo Park. Ideally, Facebook (and others) should open up so that third party tools can provide their own experiences — and then each person could choose the service or filtering setup that they want. People who want to suck in the firehose, including all the garbage, could do so. Others could choose other filters or other experiences. Move the power down to the ends of the network, which is what the internet was supposed to be good at in the first place. If the giant platforms won’t do that, then people should build more open competitors that will (hell, those should be built anyway)…

…what I’m suggesting is that platforms have to get serious about moving real power out to the ends of their network so that anyone can set up systems for themselves — or look to other third parties (or, even the original platforms themselves for a “default” or for a set of filter choices) for help. In the old days on Usenet there were killfiles. Email got swamped with spam, but there were a variety of anti-spam filters that you could plug-in to filter most of it out. There are ways to manage these complex situations that don’t involve Jack Dorsey choosing who stays on the island and who gets removed this week.
Of course, this would require a fundamental shift in how these platforms operate — and especially in how much control they have. But, given how they keep getting slammed on all sides for the decisions they both do and don’t make, perhaps we’re finally at a point where they’ll consider this alternative.


I sometimes find myself reluctantly agreeing with Masnick, but here I just disagree. Here’s why: Usenet (a decentralised system that anyone could post to) died because of spam, and newsgroups (a bit like Facebook Groups) which got overrun. Killfiles (like blocklists on Twitter) were only useful to a point; once everyone’s given up on a group, the killfile doesn’t improve it.

This is a platform problem, and each has inherent difficulties. The fact that we haven’t hit on the perfect solution doesn’t mean it’s not there.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.892: China’s smart speaker fight, Huawei ad caught out, Julia or Python?, the Bitcoin post-boomers, and more

  1. Usenet also died because of Eternal September. But more importantly in terms of lessons for the decentralization theory, it became highly centralized in terms of the underlying transport mechanics. I understand the nostalgia. But one can look back and see the seeds of the today’s fights even then, in terms of the arguments over “carrying a newsgroup” and pressures on big sites. The scale was much smaller, but that doesn’t help us when we need to deal with today’s scale.

    Note for the power of these corporations, some slamming from the chattering class is a very minor cost of doing business.

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