Start Up No.903: Amazon hits a trillion, ‘busybody’ journalism?, Twitter v Dorsey, seeing around corners, and more

Huawei is caught up in another benchmarking row. Photo by Rob Pegoraro on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Smaller than a trillion. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A retail revolution turns 10 • The New York Times

Gary Rivlin:


Ten years ago this week, made its Internet premiere when Mr. Bezos opened a Web site he audaciously called “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore.” Amazon sold only a half-million dollars’ worth of books in the first six months, but was soon posting the kind of gaudy growth rates that impress Wall Street: sales hit $15.7m in 1996 and $147.8m in 1997.

Yet the more familiar story of Amazon in the second half of the 1990’s was the rate at which it burned through cash. In 1999, for example, its revenue hit $1.6m, but it still lost $719m.

To stay aloft, Amazon, based in Seattle, borrowed more than $2bn from banks, but according to regulatory filings, at one point in 2000 it had barely $350m of cash on hand. “After raising billions of dollars,” Mr. Anderson said, “that’s pretty close to hitting the ground.”

Then Mr. Bezos, like the movie hero who saves the day with only moments to spare, turned things around. He shut some distribution centers and laid off one-seventh of his work force. In 2003 – its ninth year of operations, and seven years after going public – Amazon finally turned a profit.

“You have to give Jeff credit,” [Mark] Anderson [published of The Strategic News Service] said. “His goal was to turn Amazon into the Wal-Mart of the online world and, eureka, he’s done it.”

But, he added, it’s time for Mr. Bezos to do as the founders of so many other technology companies have done before him: find a professionally trained chief executive with a deep background in operations to take the reins.


Yes, it’s old. From July 2005. And where’s the Strategic News Service, now that Amazon has passed $1 trillion in market cap? Still going. Not worth a trillion, though.
link to this extract

Institutions challenged by vloggers and busybody journalism • NY Mag

Max Read:


what vloggers like [Tim] Pool and [Laura] Southern offer over Cops is something that resembles a social relationship. YouTube’s star system has been built on a particularly intimate parasociality: Viewers maintain often intense, but almost entirely one-sided, relationships with the vloggers who record and publish their lives. Tim Pool may not be your actual friend, but he can feel like a friend, and watching his videos can feel like spending time with a friend. “The media,” meanwhile — didn’t they fail to predict Trump? Who are you going to trust, when it comes to shaping your worldview?

Given this, it’s not surprising to find Ngo’s column among the op-eds, always the most parasocial of the newspaper sections. (What is a regular beloved newspaper columnist if not a YouTube star without a channel?) The first person of [Andy] Ngo’s piece [in which he wanders around London as a tourist claiming it shows “failed multiculturalism”] attempts — like a YouTuber’s “Hey guys!” — to establish the kind of trustworthiness that his readers might have difficulty finding in the more institutional writing of the Journal’s reported news. The flip side of this sociability is that outside of the descriptions of his day-to-day activity in London, there are not many facts — certainly very few of the kind that might provide a broader perspective on the question of multiculturalism’s success or failure. What is more important is what Ngo saw, and what is most important is how he felt.

It’s in this focus on the individual reporter’s feelings, I think, that the new busybody journalism distinguishes itself. The experiential journalism that precedes it may be formally similar, but it was almost always rendered in the context of larger institutions — magazines like McClure’s, or later Rolling Stone or Mother Jones or even Vice — that could provide editorial support. Busybody journalism of the kind performed by Pool and Southern positions itself entirely against journalistic institutions, which it regards as hopelessly corrupt, and in giving up on those institutions gives up on their backstops and strictures — processes, like, for example, fact-checking.


Ah, that last clause. Zinggg!
link to this extract

Inside Twitter’s long, slow struggle to police bad actors • WSJ

Georgia Wells and Kirsten Grind:


in policing content on the site and punishing bad actors, Twitter relies primarily on its users to report abuses and has a consistent set of policies so that decisions aren’t made by just one person, its executives say.

Yet, in some cases, Mr. Dorsey has weighed in on content decisions at the last minute or after they were made, sometimes resulting in changes and frustrating other executives and employees, according to people familiar with the matter.

Understanding Mr. Dorsey’s role in making content decisions is crucial, as Twitter tries to become more transparent to its 335 million users, as well as lawmakers about how it polices toxic content on its site…

… in November 2016, when the firm’s trust and safety team kicked alt-right provocateur Richard Spencer off the platform, saying he was operating too many accounts. Mr. Dorsey, who wasn’t involved in the initial discussions, told his team that Mr. Spencer should be allowed to keep one account and stay on the site, according to a person directly involved in the discussions.

Twitter says Mr. Dorsey doesn’t overrule staffers on content issues. The company declined to make Mr. Dorsey available.

“Any suggestion that Jack made or overruled any of these decisions is completely and totally false,” Twitter’s chief legal officer, Vijaya Gadde, said in a statement. “Our service can only operate fairly if it’s run through consistent application of our rules, rather than the personal views of any executive, including our CEO.”

In the coming weeks, the company plans to start showing users a picture of a tombstone in the place of a tweet that has been taken down as a way to signal that a user has violated a company policy, rather than a notice saying the tweet is unavailable.


This doesn’t get that far inside Twitter’s long, slow struggle, to be honest, but I think folk inside Twitter are circling the wagons very tightly right now, so it’s an achievement to get anything out. There isn’t quite a smoking gun on Dorsey in this story, and it’s unclear even which way the gun might be pointing.
link to this extract

Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency • The Washington Post

Philip Rucker and Robert Costa:


A central theme of the book is the stealthy machinations used by those in Trump’s inner sanctum to try to control his impulses and prevent disasters, both for the president personally and for the nation he was elected to lead.

Woodward describes “an administrative coup d’etat” and a “nervous breakdown” of the executive branch, with senior aides conspiring to pluck official papers from the president’s desk so he couldn’t see or sign them.

Again and again, Woodward recounts at length how Trump’s national security team was shaken by his lack of curiosity and knowledge about world affairs and his contempt for the mainstream perspectives of military and intelligence leaders.

At a National Security Council meeting on Jan. 19, Trump disregarded the significance of the massive U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, including a special intelligence operation that allows the United States to detect a North Korean missile launch in seven seconds vs. 15 minutes from Alaska, according to Woodward. Trump questioned why the government was spending resources in the region at all.

“We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told him.

After Trump left the meeting, Woodward recounts, “Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’ ”


Just on the Korea thing, I highly recommend a book called “The 2020 Commission“, which is a future history about a world where a series of errors, helped by the fifth-grader, leads to North Korea firing off nuclear weapons. Very readable, quite scary, by Jeffrey Lewis, a former US Department of Defense staffer. He knows his stuff.
link to this extract

Cressida Dick calls for fast legal access to social media accounts • The Guardian

Ben Quinn:


The head of Scotland Yard has called for police to be able to quickly access material from social media companies after the suspect in the murder of 13-year-old Lucy McHugh was jailed for withholding his Facebook password.

The Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, was speaking after Stephen Nicholson pleaded guilty last week to a charge under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and was sentenced to 14 months’ imprisonment.

Asked if Hampshire police should have been denied the data they had requested, Dick said it was not the first time a police service had approached a social media firm looking for evidence “and had to go through either a very protracted procedure, or has found that it’s impossible to do so”.

She said, during an interview on LBC Radio: “I absolutely think that in certain instances – and it sounds like this is one – law enforcement in the UK ought to have vital evidence which might bring someone to justice. There are complex and practical things for them, and legal things, which I do respect. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds, but I think that’s where we should be.”

Nicholson twice refused to give detectives his Facebook password while being questioned on suspicion of murder and sexual activity with a child. Police were facing difficulties in trying to obtain the messages from Facebook, Southampton crown court was told by prosecutors.


The UK law will change and make it easier for the police to get this sort of detail next year. It’s not quite part of the end-to-end encryption row, but you can see the waters getting higher, ever so subtly.
link to this extract

Huawei & Honor’s recent benchmarking behaviour: a cheating headache • Anandtech

Andrei Frumusanu and Ian Cutress:


As part of our phone comparison analysis, we often employ additional power and performance testing on our benchmarks. While testing out the new phones, the Honor Play had some odd results. Compared to the Huawei P20 devices tested earlier in the year, which have the same SoC, the results were also quite a bit worse and equally weird.

Within our P20 review, we had noted that the P20’s performance had regressed compared to the Mate 10. Since we had encountered similar issues on the Mate 10 which were resolved with a firmware update pushed to me, we didn’t dwell too much on the topic and concentrated on other parts of the review.

Looking back at it now after some re-testing, it seems quite blatant as to what Huawei and seemingly Honor had been doing: the newer devices come with a benchmark detection mechanism that enables a much higher power limit for the SoC with far more generous thermal headroom. Ultimately, on certain whitelisted applications, the device performs super high compared to what a user might expect from other similar non-whitelisted titles. This consumes power, pushes the efficiency of the unit down, and reduces battery life.

This has knock-on effects, such as trust, in how the device works. The end result is a single performance number is higher, which is good for marketing, but is unrealistic to any user with the device. The efficiency of the SoC also decreases (depending on the chip), as the chip is pushed well outside its standard operating window. It makes the SoC, one of the differentiating points of the device, look worse, all for the sake of a high benchmark score…

…Huawei stated that they have been working with industry partners for over a year to find the best tests closest to the user experience. They like the fact that for items like call quality, there are standardized real-world tests that measure these features that are recognized throughout the industry, and every company works towards a better objective result. But in the same breath, Dr. Wang also expresses that in relation to gaming benchmarking that ‘others do the same testing, get high scores, and Huawei cannot stay silent’.

He states that it is much better than it used to be, and that Huawei ‘wants to come together with others in China to find the best verification benchmark for user experience’. He also states that ‘in the Android ecosystem, other manufacturers also mislead with their numbers’, citing one specific popular smartphone manufacturer in China as the biggest culprit, and that it is becoming ‘common practice in China’.


Ah yes, the Yossarian argument. “What if everyone did that?” “Then I’d be a fool not to!”
link to this extract

iPhone won’t embed Touch ID in the display anytime soon, says Kuo • 9to5Mac

Zac Hall:


Fingerprint recognition still has benefits over Face ID in certain situations, however, so should we expect Touch ID to be part of future iPhone screens? Reliable supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo doesn’t think so.

In a new research note shared today, Kuo argues that Fingerprint On Display, or FOD, technology will grow 500% in 2019 as Android phones continue to adopt the technology, but Kuo says Apple won’t be embedding Touch ID in new iPhones next fall.

In-screen Touch ID hasn’t been rumored for the iPhone XS this year, and rumors that Apple was working on the technology last summer have been denied.

Kuo argues that Apple’s facial recognition technology as a biometric security solution is serving the iPhone line well. Android phones instead will serve as the testbed for steadily improving Fingerprint On Display technology.

Kuo says that limiting factors so far have included support for high-end OLED screens and not mid-range LCD screens, but that is changing and fueling adoption.


Samsung might put FOD into the Galaxy S10 next year, Kuo reckons. Interested to see to what extent the next version of Face ID improves over last year’s.
link to this extract

The new science of seeing around corners • Quanta Magazine

Natalie Wolchover:


While vacationing on the coast of Spain in 2012, the computer vision scientist Antonio Torralba noticed stray shadows on the wall of his hotel room that didn’t seem to have been cast by anything. Torralba eventually realized that the discolored patches of wall weren’t shadows at all, but rather a faint, upside-down image of the patio outside his window. The window was acting as a pinhole camera — the simplest kind of camera, in which light rays pass through a small opening and form an inverted image on the other side. The resulting image was barely perceptible on the light-drenched wall. But it struck Torralba that the world is suffused with visual information that our eyes fail to see.

“These images are hidden to us,” he said, “but they are all around us, all the time.”

The experience alerted him and his colleague, Bill Freeman, both professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to the ubiquity of “accidental cameras,” as they call them: windows, corners, houseplants and other common objects that create subtle images of their surroundings. These images, as much as 1,000 times dimmer than everything else, are typically invisible to the naked eye. “We figured out ways to pull out those images and make them visible,” Freeman explained.

The pair discovered just how much visual information is hiding in plain sight. In their first paper, Freeman and Torralba showed that the changing light on the wall of a room, filmed with nothing fancier than an iPhone, can be processed to reveal the scene outside the window. Last fall, they and their collaborators reported that they can spot someone moving on the other side of a corner by filming the ground near the corner. This summer, they demonstrated that they can film a houseplant and then reconstruct a three-dimensional image of the rest of the room from the disparate shadows cast by the plant’s leaves. Or they can turn the leaves into a “visual microphone,” magnifying their vibrations to listen to what’s being said.


Quanta is an impressive site if you’re into science at all.
link to this extract

Samsung unveiling a foldable smartphone this year • CNBC

Arjun Kharpal:


Samsung will unveil details of a foldable smartphone later this year, the CEO of its mobile division told CNBC, amid rumors that such a device was in the works.

DJ Koh said that “it’s time to deliver” on a foldable device after consumer surveys carried out by Samsung showed that there is a market for that kind of handset.

Speaking to CNBC, Koh was tight-lipped on how the folding screen could work but ran through the design thinking of the upcoming smartphone, particularly how Samsung is trying to differentiate the experience from a tablet once it is unfolded.

“You can use most of the uses … on foldable status. But when you need to browse or see something, then you may need to unfold it. But even unfolded, what kind of benefit does that give compared to the tablet? If the unfolded experience is the same as the tablet, why would they (consumers) buy it?,” Koh said at the IFA electronics show in Berlin last week.

“So every device, every feature, every innovation should have a meaningful message to our end customer. So when the end customer uses it, (they think) ‘wow, this is the reason Samsung made it’.”

The device may sound similar to a traditional flip phone which relied on a hinge to connect the two parts of the handset. But Samsung is likely to focus on creating an actual screen that bends. The Wall Street Journal reported in July that an upcoming foldable smartphone would use a single screen.


He’s going to reveal details of the phone later this year? Not the phone? Wow, it’s almost as if Samsung is trying to distract from the launch of another phone. The Galaxy Note?
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.903: Amazon hits a trillion, ‘busybody’ journalism?, Twitter v Dorsey, seeing around corners, and more

  1. I’m doubtful about foldable phones and tablets:
    1- if they’re articulated (ie, like a flip phone), we’ll end up with something even narrower and longer than today’s 18-20:9, which is already impractical for most things (reading, gaming, maps, Office, videos…). That format is OK for … messaging an quasi-messaging à la Stories, and that’s it ?
    1b- ZTE’s Axon M went with a vertical hinge, so the unfolded pone ended up nice and square. . Impossible to handle one-handed though.
    2- if the screen si rolled like a scroll, how does it stay unrolled: fragile mechanism (like a music stand), 2 hands, magic ? I can’t quite picture myself muttering “Unrollosa !” everytime I want to use my phone.

    I think this is a design impossibility. I’d love to be proven wrong.

    • I agree; there was a good article recently which said the real use of “foldable” screens has been to create edge-to-edge screens, first in the Galaxy Edge and then iPhone X, by folding it under the electronics. But a screen like a flip phone? Makes no sense.

  2. “Last fall, they and their collaborators reported that they can spot someone moving on the other side of a corner by filming the ground near the corner.”

    I spot this phenomenon a lot – I think it’s called a shadow 😉

    • But you missed out on a multi-million pound funding bananarama! Though they do go a *little* bit further than “ooh, a shadow”.

  3. The issues of social media accounts are in fact intertwined with the end-to-end encryption dispute at the policy level. Just off the top of my head, I know there was a paper a while back which made a policy argument, heavily paraphrased, that law enforcement can get so much data from social media accounts so that backdooring encrypted communication is not worthwhile (i.e. against the idea that everything can help solve crimes, the claim is that there is so much which can be gotten now that backdoors are, my phrasing, practically very far along diminishing returns curve in terms of cost/benefit). On the other hand, if social media platforms are now _de facto_ law enforcement partners, well, it’s not difficult to see a path there where such partnership can be, let us say, be greatly extended.

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