Start Up No.896: is Google hiding Maps reviews?, TripAdvisor’s power struggle, what’s a pro Mac mini?, the press release hackers, and more


Norway has plastic bottle recycling sorted. A little nudge is the answer. Photo by Jennifer Cowley on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Even today, yes. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Norway’s radical approach to plastic pollution leads to 97% recycling • Huffington Post

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While other industrialized nations grapple with dangerously problematic plastic consumption, Norway stands out, recycling up to 97% of its plastic bottles thanks to a nationwide bottle deposit scheme.

Ingrained in the Norwegian model is the idea that the container is on loan; it’s not yours. And why would you want it when you can exchange it over the counter ― at stores, gas stations or one of the several thousand reverse vending machines in public places like schools and supermarkets ― in return for cash or store credit?

Plastic producers in Norway are subject to an environmental tax. The more of their plastic they recycle, the lower the tax. Almost all of them are signed up to the bottle deposit scheme and, if they reach a collective recycling target of above 95%, they don’t have to pay at all. Producers have collectively met that target for the last seven years.

They ensure they reach that target by attaching a deposit value ― the equivalent of around 15 to 30 cents, depending on size ― to each plastic bottle, to be redeemed when it’s returned. The high-quality plastic waste that’s collected can then be recycled into everything from textiles to packaging, including new plastic bottles.

This simple but effective system would seem like a no-brainer for the United States, where recycling rates for plastic bottles have plunged from 37.3% in 1995 to 28% today.

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Economic “nudge” systems like this can be surprisingly effective. In the UK a “sugar tax” on drinks with high sugar content has lowered their consumption. A 5p charge on plastic bags in store chains has reduced their use enormously. This tax system worked for glass bottles in the US; it could now for plastic.
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Google might be hiding the fact that its own reviews are shoddy • Yahoo Finance

Ethan Wolff-Mann:

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If you Google “Chiropractor Bethesda Maryland,” you’ll see Google’s famous 10 blue links. But you’ll also see a box with a map — a snippet — at the top with local results, star ratings, and buttons for phone number and directions. Clicking further will show you reviews people left on Google Maps.

Google is ostensibly providing a service to make it easy to get what you want: a chiropractor in Bethesda.

But what if these reviews aren’t particularly good or reliable? This is a question that has come up based on the fact that Google’s library of local reviews is no longer available apart from the Maps platform or the box above search links.

If you Google the exact, unique text of a user review found through the box above in quotes, an interesting thing happens: No results are found, despite the fact that you just saw the text, provided by Google itself in the box above the reviews.

Google appears to have quietly purged its own user-generated review content from its search results.

This is significant, critics of Google say, because it obscures the fact that Google’s search engine judges the company’s own reviews poorly. Google’s search engine ranks content by relevance and quality, and Google’s review content previously showed up deep into the search results, far from the first page of links that takes most of the clicks.

A Google spokesperson disagreed that the review content was “de-indexed,” simply noting that because Google reviews don’t currently live on a web page, they are not displayed as web results.

Given that reviews once showed up in regular Google search results and now do not, it follows that the reviews were moved from a web page to the Maps platform, whose code prevents search engines from crawling it. What was once searchable is now not searchable, something Google did not explain.

As a result, Google reviews do not have to rank highly in search engines. Instead, the Google snippet — the map and reviews box above the standard search result — allows the company to capture clicks that would otherwise flow off the platform to whatever website had the best result in the algorithm made by the search team down the hall at Mountain View deemed as the best.

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Capturing clicks that would otherwise flow off the platform is an increasingly big thing for Google, which once couldn’t wait to let people get off its site.
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How Tripadvisor changed travel • The Guardian

Linda Kinstler:

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As the so-called “reputation economy” has grown, so too has a shadow industry of fake reviews, which can be bought, sold and traded online. For TripAdvisor, this trend amounts to an existential threat. Its business depends on having real consumers post real reviews. Without that, says Dina Mayzlin, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, “the whole thing falls apart”. And there have been moments, over the past several years, when it looked like things were falling apart. One of the most dangerous things about the rise of fake reviews is that they have also endangered genuine ones – as companies like TripAdvisor raced to eliminate fraudulent posts from their sites, they ended up taking down some truthful ones, too. And given that user reviews can go beyond complaints about bad service and peeling wallpaper, to much more serious claims about fraud, theft and sexual assault, their removal becomes a grave problem.

Thus, in promising a faithful portrait of the world, TripAdvisor has, like other tech giants, found itself in the unhappy position of becoming an arbiter of truth, of having to determine which reviews are real and which are fake, which are accurate and which are not, and how free speech on their platform should be. It is hard to imagine that when CEO Stephen Kaufer and his co-founders were sitting in a pizza restaurant in a suburb of Boston 18 years ago dreaming up tripadvisor.com, they foresaw their business growing so powerful and so large that they would find themselves tangled up in the kinds of problems that vex the minds of the world’s most brilliant philosophers and legal theorists. From the vantage point of 2018, one of the company’s early mottos now seems comically naive: “Get the truth and go.”

Many of the difficult questions the company faces are also questions about the nature of travel itself, about what it means to enter unknown territory, to interact with strangers, and to put one’s trust in them. These are all things that one also does online – it is no coincidence that the some of the earliest analogies that we once used to talk about the digital world (“information superhighway”, “electronic frontier”) tended to belong to the vocabulary of travel. In this sense, the story of TripAdvisor, one of the least-examined and most relied-upon tech companies in the world, is something like a parable of the internet writ large.

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5/5 Would read again
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Bitcoin’s use in commerce keeps falling even as volatility eases • Bloomberg

Olga Kharif:

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The way Bitcoin is being utilized is changing as well. Because the fees to process a transaction in Bitcoin can be steep and varied – they peaked at $54 in December, but are down to less than $1 today — not many people are using the coins for small transactions, like buying a cup of coffee. They are spending the virtual currency more to pay vendors like freelancers located overseas: For those cases, using Bitcoin can be cheaper and faster than using traditional financial services.

“In the last six months we’ve seen a large uptick in crypto companies paying their vendors in Bitcoin, including law firms, hosting companies, accounting firms, landlords and software vendors,” according to Sonny Singh, chief commercial officer of processor BitPay. His company has seen a five-fold increase in crypto companies paying their bills from last year, he said.

Bitcoin faithful continue to buy bigger-ticket items such as furniture, and still the occasional sports car. At Overstock.com Inc., crypto-based sales are up two-fold in the first half of this year versus a year ago, the company said. Top items bought with cryptocurrency include living-room furniture, bedroom furniture and laptops, according to the site.

Many people, however, are only speculating with Bitcoin or selling off small amounts to convert it into a fiat currency, and use that to pay for goods and services. Long-time advocate Graham Tonkin said he converts his Bitcoin and Ether from time to time to cover credit-card bills.

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Phone numbers were never meant as ID. Now we’re all at risk • Wired

Lily Hay Newman:

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Thomas Hardjono, a secure identities researcher at MIT’s Trust and Data Consortium, points to credit card numbers – identifiers authenticated with a chip plus a PIN or a signature. The financial industry realized decades ago that the system wouldn’t work if it wasn’t relatively easy to change credit card info after it was exposed. You can get a new credit card as needed; changing your phone number can be incredibly inconvenient. As a result, they become more and more at-risk over time.

So if you’re looking for an alternative to the phone number, start with something more easily replaceable. Hardjono suggests, for example, that smartphones could generate unique identifiers by combing a user’s phone number and the IMEI device ID number assigned to every smartphone. That number would be valid for the life of the device, and would naturally change whenever you got a new phone. If you needed to change it for whatever reason, you could do so with relative ease. Under that system, you could continue to give out their phone number without worrying about what else it might affect.

“The people in the card payment space understood a long time ago that separating people’s accounts from static attributes is important, but this definitely hasn’t happened with mobile phone numbers,” Hardjono says. “Plus SMS is a weak way to authenticate anyway, because the protocols are vulnerable. So if your phone could generate this short-term identifier that’s a combination of your physical device identifier and your phone number, it would be replaceable as a safety precaution.”

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But… you can use apps like Google Authenticator or (better) Authy to generate a TOTP (timed one time password) on the phone or any other device you’ve authenticated, without needing an SMS. Any system is vulnerable one way or another – ask the credit card companies.
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The terrifying, hidden reality of ridiculously complicated algorithms • Times Literary Supplement

Carl Miller:

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With a triumphant flick of his wrist, the researcher tapped a key and the algorithm began. Twenty seconds later, the algorithm was finished. There in black and white, was an output. One, of course, that I cannot specifically describe, but an output that many of us use every day. The algorithm had produced a kind of reality, really – one that we make decisions from, that can even change our lives.

The researcher scrolled through the bundle of instructions, and changed a single one to a two. A single value. The algorithm reran, and reality popped out again, but this time, a quarter of the results had ceased to exist.

“OK,” I said, “what happened there? Why did you change it? You know the two is wrong. But how do you know the one is right?”

“That”, he said, gesticulating at the sabotaged result, “is the point. It’s a heuristic. I tried it, and it seemed to work. Then I tested it, and the result looked right. I can’t say the one is true. I can only say that it passed minimum evaluation criteria. The whole algorithm is full of parameters that could have been something else. Truth is dead,” he sighed. “There is only output.”
“Who checks these?” I asked.
“Me.”
“What about your boss?”

“You’ve seen how difficult it is to really understand. Sometimes I struggle with it, and I created it. The reality is that if the algorithm looks like it’s doing the job that it’s supposed to do, and people aren’t complaining, then there isn’t much incentive to really comb through all those instructions and those layers of abstracted code to work out what is happening.” The preferences you see online – the news you read, the products you view, the adverts that appear – are all dependent on values that don’t necessarily have to be what they are. They are not true, they’ve just passed minimum evaluation criteria.

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When the Mac mini goes pro, will the pros get Mac minis? • Macworld

Dan Moren on the rumoured “pro” revamped Mac mini:

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this is the real question for the Mac mini. What “pro” situations does Apple expect this machine to be used in? Media servers aren’t really a pro-level scenario; most Macs these days have gotten pretty adroit at handling even large video files.

No, when Apple says “pro” it usually means “creative professional.” Tasks like Photoshop, 3D modeling, visual effects, film editing, music production, and so on. But a Mac mini, with its relatively limited graphics power, doesn’t seem well-suited to almost any of those tasks—certainly not as much as an iMac Pro or the company’s forthcoming Mac Pro. So how exactly does the company position what used to be its small low-cost machine against those high-performance options?

There are a few niches—literal and figurative—for which the Mac mini is uniquely suited. Headless servers, especially rack-mounted options. Other places where space is at a premium, such as connected to a TV to for a wall-mounted display. Or all those adventurous hackers who want to figure out how to fit a Mac mini into their car, for example. It’s hard to see a MacBook Pro or an iMac being used in any of those cases. Perhaps a displayless Mac is just what the server admin called for.

But all of this raises a larger question: How does the “pro” Mac mini fit into a line-up that already includes a powerful desktop (the iMac), an even more powerful version of that desktop (the iMac Pro), and a forthcoming update to the standalone desktop powerhouse (the Mac Pro)? That’s a lot of pro machines for a company that only does a relatively small percentage of its sales to professionals.

One place the Mac mini has traditionally competed is on cost; it’s traditionally been offered at a $499 entry point, albeit for a machine without a lot of power. That’s still a viable option, as Apple doesn’t have any other computers that are that cheap. But you’re certainly not about to get a “pro” machine for $499, despite the ardent hopes of a few.

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So we’re expecting a lot to be solved in October-ish (the likely release date for the new Macs): the naming system for the laptop line, and what the hell a pro Mac mini is.
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How an international hacker network turned stolen press releases into $100m • The Verge

Isobel Koshiw:

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Newswires like Business Wire are clearinghouses for corporate information, holding press releases, regulatory announcements, and other market-moving information under strict embargo before sending it out to the world. Over a period of at least five years, three US newswires were hacked using a variety of methods from SQL injections and phishing emails to data-stealing malware and illicitly acquired login credentials. Traders who were active on US stock exchanges drew up shopping lists of company press releases and told the hackers when to expect them to hit the newswires. The hackers would then upload the stolen press releases to foreign servers for the traders to access in exchange for 40% of their profits, paid to various offshore bank accounts. Through interviews with sources involved with both the scheme and the investigation, chat logs, and court documents, The Verge has traced the evolution of what law enforcement would later call one of the largest securities fraud cases in US history.

The case exemplifies the way insider trading has been quietly revolutionized by the internet. Traders no longer need someone inside a company to obtain inside information. Instead, they can turn to hackers, who can take their pick of security weaknesses: a large corporation or bank may have good in-house security, but the entities it works with — such as financial institutions, law firms, brokerages, smaller investment advisories, or, in this case, newswires — might not.

As one person involved in the press release scheme pointed out, it doesn’t matter what level of security a company has, “you’ve always got the human factor: that one employee who will click on the phishing email or is happy to exchange their password for money.”

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Hell of a story.
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The US EA is now allowing asbestos back into manufacturing • Archpaper

Sydney Franklin:

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According to Fast Company, the EPA’s recently released report detailing its new framework for evaluating the risk of its top prioritized substances states that the agency will “no longer consider the effect or presence of substances in the air, ground, or water in its risk assessments.” 

This news comes after the EPA reviewed its first batch of 10 chemicals under the 2016 amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which requires the agency to continually reevaluate hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals in lieu of removing them from the market or placing new restrictions on their use. The SNUR greenlights companies to use toxic chemicals like asbestos without consideration about how they will endanger people who are indirectly in contact with them. 

Asbestos was widely used in building insulation up until it was completely banned in most countries in the 1970s. The U.S. severely restricted its use without completely outlawing it. As Fast Company covered, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) revealed in April that asbestos-related deaths now total nearly 40,000 annually, with lung cancer and mesothelioma being the most common illnesses in association with the toxin.

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So “no longer consider the effect or presence of substances in the air, ground, or water in its risk assessments”: doesn’t that mean completely ignoring any effects? This is bizarre.
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On wider access to culture • Stumbling and Mumbling

Chris Dillow on the effect of having access to more books and music than our forebears did:

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There might be another consequence – a diminution of shared understandings. Until quite late into the 20th century, there was general agreement about what it meant for people to be educated. Today, this is less the case: yes, there is a “canon” in many disciplines, but there’s disagreement about what this should be. It is possible for people knowledgeable about books and music to be unable to converse with each other because they’ve few readings and listenings in common.

One reason why there are such heated debates about the state of economics (or about Marxism) is that people have very different understandings of what these are, based upon different readings. Equally, I suspect that some misunderstandings of this blog are founded not just upon my own incoherence but upon readers not having my intellectual referents, such as Roemer, Elster and MacIntyre. The misunderstanding cuts both ways: I got an email in the day job last week which I couldn’t make head or tail of despite coming from an intelligent man, because his frame of reference was so different from mine.

But here’s the thing. Although we lack shared understandings, people want them. This leads to the emergence of Adler (pdf) superstars – individuals with no more talent than others but who become famous by luck or good marketing, and this fame then prove self-sustaining as everybody talks about them. Reality TV stars, as well as some authors and singers, fit this pattern. This is one way (of several) in which we see a retreat from meritocracy.

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What data scientists really do, according to 35 data scientists • HBR

Hugo Bowne-Anderson spoke to 25 of them:

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Great strides are being made in industries other than tech. I spoke with Ben Skrainka, a data scientist at Convoy, about how that company is leveraging data science to revolutionize the North American trucking industry. Sandy Griffith of Flatiron Health told us about the impact data science has begun to have on cancer research. Drew Conway and I discussed his company Alluvium, which “uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to turn massive data streams produced by industrial operations into insights.” Mike Tamir, now head of self-driving at Uber, discussed working with Takt to facilitate Fortune 500 companies’ leveraging data science, including his work on Starbucks’ recommendation systems. This non-exhaustive list illustrates data-science revolutions across a multitude of verticals.

It isn’t all just the promise of self-driving cars and artificial general intelligence. Many of my guests are skeptical not only of the fetishization of artificial general intelligence by the mainstream media (including headlines such as VentureBeat’s “An AI god will emerge by 2042 and write its own bible. Will you worship it?”), but also of the buzz around machine learning and deep learning. Sure, machine learning and deep learning are powerful techniques with important applications, but, as with all buzz terms, a healthy skepticism is in order.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

One thought on “Start Up No.896: is Google hiding Maps reviews?, TripAdvisor’s power struggle, what’s a pro Mac mini?, the press release hackers, and more

  1. re. 2FA, I just spent a day stuck at home and cleaned up my authentifications. That’s incredibly cumbersome. I did manage to go down to one 2FA app (MS nicely lets you use Google’s), but mine now lists 10 logins, and I’ve got 10 printed pages with emergency codes in case I lose my phone. I don’t feel I can have regular users jump through those hoops: you’ve got to
    1- look up how to activate 2FA and do it. Once per server*service
    2- configure that in your authentificator
    3- configure one-time password for each app x each device, so if you’ve got 3 mail accounts on 6 devices, that’s 18 passwords to create and change.
    4- refer back to the authentificator each time you use the server/service, or close to each time.

    2 things of note:
    1- Google has a much better way to do it, with a simple Yes/No confirmation prompt popping up on your phone, instead of a code to type in. It’d be great if other services used that infrastructure.
    2- *AT THE TIME OF SETTING UP 2FA, YOU CAN SET IT UP ON 2 DEVICES*. When you scan that bar code that configures the service in your 2FA app, you can scan it a second time on a second phone, and set up your backup phone as a backup authentificator. Wish I had realized that at the beginning, not towards the end ;-p

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