Start Up No.898: estimating Apple’s wearables biz, Japan’s drone farmhands, the oldest blockchain, Facebook’s rating you, and more

What happens to water before it becomes ice? Scientists tried to figure it out with code. Photo by welshmackem on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. That’s how it goes. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Yahoo, bucking industry, scans emails for data to sell advertisers • WSJ

Douglas MacMillan, Sarah Krouse and Keach Hagey:


Yahoo’s owner, the Oath unit of Verizon Communications Inc., VZ -0.36% has been pitching a service to advertisers that analyzes more than 200 million Yahoo Mail inboxes and the rich user data they contain, searching for clues about what products those users might buy, said people who have attended Oath’s presentations as well as current and former employees of the company.

Oath said the practice extends to AOL Mail, which it also owns. Together, they constitute the only major U.S. email provider that scans user inboxes for marketing purposes.

The strategy bucks a recent Silicon Valley trend toward more data privacy and shows an industry divided on where to draw the line between user protections and technologies that many advertisers crave.


ComScore data in the article shows that by this year only 17% of Yahoo users have an active email account, compared to 21% for Microsoft and 63% for Google. All changed since 2012 (on the desktop) when it was roughly 33-33-33 for all.

Yahoo is like an object circling a black hole’s event horizon: it’s taking forever to actually fall in, yet its fate is certain. There’s simply no way for it to climb back out to be relevant.
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The world’s oldest blockchain has been hiding in the New York Times since 1995 • Motherboard

Daniel Oberhaus:


14 years before Bitcoin was invented, Haber and Stornetta created their own timestamping service called Surety to put their scheme into action.

Surety’s main product is called “AbsoluteProof” that acts as a cryptographically secure seal on digital documents. Its basic mechanism is the same described in Haber and Stornetta’s original paper. Clients use Surety’s AbsoluteProof software to create a hash of a digital document, which is then sent to Surety’s servers where it is timestamped to create a seal. This seal is a cryptographically secure unique identifier that is then returned to the software program to be stored for the customer.

At the same time, a copy of that seal and every other seal created by Surety’s customers is sent to the AbsoluteProof “universal registry database,” which is a “hash-chain” composed entirely of Surety customer seals. This creates an immutable record of all the Surety seals ever produced, so that it is impossible for the company or any malicious actor to modify a seal. But it leaves out an important part of the blockchain equation: Trustlessness. How can anyone trust that Surety’s internal records are legit?

Instead of posting customer hashes to a public digital ledger, Surety creates a unique hash value of all the new seals added to the database each week and publishes this hash value in the New York Times. The hash is placed in a small ad in the Times classified section under the heading “Notices & Lost and Found” and has appeared once a week since 1995.

An example of Surety’s hashes
in the New York Times from 2009.
Image: Surety


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What Dropbox dropping Linux support says • TechRepublic

Puzzled 20-year Linux-on-the-desktop user Jack Wallen, on Dropbox’s decision to drop Linux support except unencrypted ext4 (or ext4 with LUKS encryption):


For a company to support Linux, they have to consider supporting:

• Multiple file systems
• Multiple distributions
• Multiple desktops
• Multiple init systems
• Multiple kernels
If you’re an open source developer, focusing on a single distribution, that’s not a problem. If you’re a company that produces a product (and you stake your living on that product), those multiple points of entry do become a problem. Let’s consider Adobe (and Photoshop). If Adobe wanted to port their industry-leading product to Linux, how do they do that? Do they spend the time developing support for ext4, btrfs, Ubuntu, Fedora, GNOME, Mate, KDE, systemd? You see how that might look from the eyes of any given company?

It becomes even more complicated when companies consider how accustomed to the idea of “free” (as in beer) Linux users are. Although I am very willing to pay for software on Linux, it’s a rare occasion that I do (mostly because I haven’t found a piece of must-have software that has an associated cost). Few companies will support the Linux desktop when the act of supporting means putting that much time and effort into a product that a large cross-section of users might wind up unwilling to pay the price of admission.


Gee, it’s as if he’s catching on. Not mentioned: that Linux has less than 5% of the desktop market. About 0.8% of the desktop, according to Wikipedia’s statistics, which we can probably take as a proxy for the web.
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How Facebook failed the Rohingya in Myanmar • Buzzfeed News

Megha Rajagopalan, Lam Thuy Vo and Aung Naing Soe:


Facebook once regarded itself as a largely neutral platform for content. But the company has reevaluated this notion amid calls from the UN and other groups to take greater responsibility for what users post — especially calls for violence.

BuzzFeed News’ analysis shows how widespread the problem of hate speech is on Facebook’s platform. A review of more than 4,000 posts by politicians from the Arakan National Party found that 1 in 10 of the posts — made between March 2017 and February 2018 — contained hate speech as defined by Facebook’s own public community standards. The ANP is the most popular party in Rakhine state, which was home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya before they were expelled last year. It says it represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhines, the dominant group in the state, which is also the home of the Rohingya and other groups.

Posts by members of Rakhine state’s parliament compared Rohingya to dogs, said Muslim women were too ugly to rape, falsely stated Rohingya torched their own houses for a payout from NGOs, and accused Muslims of seeking to become the dominant group in the state by having too many children. Some even told Muslims to get ready to be killed. Some of the most popular posts identified by BuzzFeed News as hate speech garnered 3,400 reactions or were shared up to 9,500 times. Asked about the posts, Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary and spokesperson for the ANP, said he had never seen members of the party MPs post about other religions on Facebook, despite the evidence. “As general secretary of the party, I have never seen my party members post hate speech online,” he said.


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Chromebook • AVC

Fred Wilson:


I have not used desktop software for probably a decade now. The browser is how I do all of my desktop computing. Paying up for a full blown computer when all I need is a browser seems like a waste.

And there are some security things that appeal to me about a Chromebook. I like the ability to do two factor authentication on signing into the device, for example.

I am curious what advice those of you who use Chromebooks have for me.

I like to use a desktop style setup vs a laptop unless I am traveling. So the Acer Chromebase and Chromebox look interesting to me.

But I am hearing great things about the Pixelbook and am wondering if I should start there.

I am also curious how one uses a Password Manager on a Chromebook. That’s the one desktop app that I regularly use.


Is he saying that he doesn’t run spreadsheets, or doesn’t run serious spreadsheets? One would expect a venture capitalist to be a heavy user of Excel, but that won’t run (in depth) on a Chromebook.
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Facebook is rating the trustworthiness of its users on a scale from zero to 1 • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin:


Facebook has begun to assign its users a reputation score, predicting their trustworthiness on a scale from zero to 1.

The previously unreported ratings system, which Facebook has developed over the past year, shows that the fight against the gaming of tech systems has evolved to include measuring the credibility of users to help identify malicious actors.

Facebook developed its reputation assessments as part of its effort against fake news, Tessa Lyons, the product manager who is in charge of fighting misinformation, said in an interview. The company, like others in tech, has long relied on its users to report problematic content — but as Facebook has given people more options, some users began falsely reporting items as untrue, a new twist on information warfare for which it had to account.

It’s “not uncommon for people to tell us something is false simply because they disagree with the premise of a story or they’re intentionally trying to target a particular publisher,” Lyons said.

A user’s trustworthiness score isn’t meant to be an absolute indicator of a person’s credibility, Lyons said, nor is there is a single unified reputation score that users are assigned. Rather, the score is one measurement among thousands of new behavioral clues that Facebook now takes into account as it seeks to understand risk.


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The farmhand drone • CCS Insight

Raghu Gopal:


In Japan, several companies are competing to develop high-tech drones for crop spraying and other advanced uses. They’re working to fill a void that small-scale farmers in rural parts of the country are facing: a serious shortage of manpower. As the population ages and younger people move to urban areas, the agricultural sector is being left to tackle acute labour shortages. The drones perform arduous tasks and offer a solution to address the demographic shifts.

Nileworks, founded in 2015, is a company based in Tokyo that designs and manufactures drone technology for the agricultural industry. It builds an automated drone equipped with multiple rotors for spraying crops, and uses image processing and information technology to guide the machine to perform optimally.

The company claims its drone has the ability to recognise the shape of a field and spray at a height of just 30 cm above the ground, thereby reducing drift and wastage. The device can apply pesticides and fertilizer to a rice field in about 15 minutes, a job that takes more than an hour by hand and normally requires farmers to lug around heavy tanks. Nileworks will promote its flying machine to rice farmers in Japan when it launches the product commercially in 2019. It is also hoping to release the device in neighbouring Asian countries as other drone makers enter the market for agricultural drones.


Agriculture is really an obvious, and high-utility, application. (Heat-sensing cameras can also look at crops as they grow and spot the areas in distress, for example.)
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From eight Apple management clues, a surprisingly clear(-ish) two-year window Into Apple’s wearables business • AAPL Tree

The quietly anonymous author of this blog has pulled a number of subtle clues from Apple management financial calls to put together these quite surprising summaries:


I know, just a simple revenue chart’s kinda boring, and seems like an anticlimactic way to end a connect-the-dots Apple financial “research” post. So, sure, I can throw out some things that jumped out at me and add extra (entertainment) value.

(1) The last eight quarters of Apple Wearables added around $17bn of revenue, and the trailing four quarters represent a combined ~60% growth rate over the prior four-quarter period. Not only is that considerably better than the 37% or so combined growth from all of Other Products in that same period of time, it also implies that Other Product Non-Wearables is a relatively unexciting business for Apple in comparison. Yes, it’s an extrapolation of an extrapolation with all that implies, but non-Wearables revenue growth over the same period looks to be mid-single digits, making it abundantly clear what set of products is breathing life into this revenue category.

(2) Apple Wearables, over the trailing four quarters, is approaching two-thirds of Other Products Revenues. “Clue 8” alone was all that was needed to arrive at this conclusion, but it’s a fun observation nonetheless given the semi-symmetry with iPhone, which tends to represent more than 60% of total Apple revenues in any given quarter.

(3) Bet you didn’t know this one – Apple Wearables, on a trailing-four-quarters basis, has quietly surpassed iPod’s all-time annual revenue record: $9.15bn, set in FY 2008, if memory serves.


He even reckons you could break out the Watch/non-Watch wearables data, given some of the clues to be found. Of course one thing Apple has now that it didn’t when it began the iPod is scale. In 2001 it was a tiny company, relatively. When it launched the Watch, it was already gigantic. That doesn’t make the Watch or iPod less of a success; just shows that this stuff is all relative.

Also: this is an Apple News link (it’s the only sort he offers), so if you’re reading on an iOS device it’ll try to open it in Apple News. I couldn’t find an original site URL for it.
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The war over supercooled water • Physics Today

Ashley Smart:


[Renowned chemist David Chandler] and a graduate student, David Limmer [from UCal Berkeley], had used simulations to explore what happens when liquid water is cooled far below its freezing point. It was well known that pristine water—free of dust and other impurities on which ice crystals can nucleate—can be supercooled tens of degrees below 0 °C without freezing. But below what’s called the homogeneous nucleation temperature, around –40 °C, the liquid crystallizes almost instantly, no matter the purity. Chandler and Limmer wanted to know what that deeply supercooled water looks like in the instant before it freezes. What they found was seemingly unremarkable: at every temperature and pressure, the liquid basically resembled ordinary water.

To Princeton University’s Pablo Debenedetti, however, that result was mind-boggling. Two years earlier, Debenedetti and his coworkers had done their own simulations of supercooled water, at temperatures and pressures similar to those Chandler described. The Princeton simulations had revealed something far more intriguing. Yes, the liquid could take a high-density form that resembled water. But it could also take a low-density form, with the molecules arranged into airy hexagons reminiscent of those in ice. The water could morph back and forth between those two forms in much the same way it morphs between ice and liquid, or liquid and vapor.

In his 20-minute presentation, attended by many of the biggest names in condensed-matter theory, Chandler was essentially declaring that the Princeton team had gotten it wrong. “It was a matter of people saying, ‘Who are you going to believe, Chandler or Debenedetti?’” recalls Angell. “And Chandler carried the bigger stick.”

Over the next seven years, the perplexing discrepancy would ignite a bitter conflict, with junior scientists caught in the crossfire. At stake were not only the reputations of the two groups but also a peculiar theory that sought to explain some of water’s deepest and most enduring mysteries. Earlier this year, the dispute was finally settled. And as it turns out, the entire ordeal was the result of botched code.


Now go back to the first paragraph, and the second: ah yes, that word “simulations”. With so much science now relying on code, journals surely should insist on the publication of the source code used to reach conclusions. (Though read the comments on the story too, which point out that often it’s impossible, because many use commercial code – and Matlab isn’t going to publish its source.)

And yes, the whole story is a bit like a novella in the leadup to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
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Globalfoundries gives up on advanced chip production technology • Bloomberg

Ian King:


Globalfoundries, one of the world’s largest semiconductor makers, has dropped out of the race to develop the most advanced production technology, a move that will increase the electronic industry’s reliance on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC).

The Milpitas, California-based company, which has plants in New York state, Dresden, Germany, and Singapore, said it’s shifting resources to improving and extending existing techniques and giving up on developing 7 nanometer technology. That’s the latest way to cram as many transistors as possible onto a silicon wafer – how the industry has improved electronic components for decades. The new strategy will require an unspecified number of job cuts.

The move further reduces the number of companies trying to build cutting-edge semiconductors and adds to concern that the industry is struggling to deliver advances that underpin all modern electronics. Globalfoundries, owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, is the second-largest manufacturer of chips designed by other companies, a market dominated by TSMC.

The logic of the move is simple for company chief executive officer Tom Caulfield: stop pouring the majority of its research and equipment budget into work that may never pay off and instead invest in current technology that many customers will continue to use for years. Most companies that want advanced production also want it in enormous volume, something Globalfoundries can’t handle. That narrows its list of potential customers, the CEO said.


And then there were… fewer. AMD used to be Globalfoundries’ biggest customer but is also going to TSMC now – and only Samsung and Intel are bigger by revenue, but TSMC has 52% of the third-party market; Globalfoundries was second-biggest with 10%. (IC Insights has a good breakdown for 2017: TSMC completely dominates.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.898: estimating Apple’s wearables biz, Japan’s drone farmhands, the oldest blockchain, Facebook’s rating you, and more

  1. Re. AVC: he could be remoting into a workstation for heavy-duty number crunching (ChromeOS supports all the usual suspects), or more probably having someone/someapp do it for him and just handle final reports.

    Tim Cook said he did 80% of his work on an iPaf, and that was 4 yrs ago. There were (of course !) no disbelievers then; and I’m sure things have progressed speedily in those 4 years; and ChromeOS is superior for that if only because mouse.

    • Yeah but it’s the 20% which is the tricksy bit. And Cook no doubt was able to VPN into servers where the bigger stuff was done. (He was behind the original ripping and replacing of the middleware system Apple used back in the 1990s when he joined.)

  2. I’m curious if China will buy GloFo. China has been investing in basic IT (processors…), they might want to get insta-IP and a factory, and GloFo’s current owner seems ready to cash out.

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