Start Up No.911: Frasier!, the open tightness of Brexit-Trump, CSS to crash WebKit, videogame gambling gets squeezed, and more


Can a satellite photo detect obesity? Photo by Brock Boland on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Like clockwork. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

25 essential episodes of Frasier for its 25th anniversary • Sitcom Studies

Marlessa Stivala:

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Today, September 16, 2018 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Frasier: one of the most successful spin-offs of all time, recipient of the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series (five times), and (in my experience) somehow still drastically underrated. I’ve found that I always encounter people who haven’t even seen a single episode. It’s happened so often that I can no longer say I’m surprised but, as Frasier himself would say, “I am wounded.”

Amongst the show’s core five characters, there’s not a single weak link: Frasier (Cheers’ snobbish yet lovable psychiatrist), Niles (his fussy younger brother), Martin (his brash yet humble retied-cop father, with whom he lives), Daphne (Martin’s “just a bit psychic” physical therapist), and Roz (quite simply one of the best, wittiest female characters on any series).

I’ll never discourage anyone from a rewatch of Seinfeld, The Office, or Friends, but if you’ve yet to watch any or much of Frasier’s eleven-year run, the series’ 25th anniversary is the perfect excuse. And if eleven years sounds a bit too daunting, consider the 25 classics below the perfect way to start.

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Niles: “I thought you liked my [wife] Maris.”

Frasier: “I do. I like her from a distance. You know, the way you like the sun.”

A work of genius. Well, many geniuses in the writers’ room, and then the actors too. Kudos to Stivala, whose site looks like a great way to lose many, many hours.
link to this extract


Here’s the science behind the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise • The Guardian

Michele Gelfand:

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Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.

This tight-loose logic also applies to regional differences within countries. We’ve shown that US states with histories punctuated by high threat, including more natural disasters, higher pathogen prevalence and food instability, are much tighter than those that enjoyed relative safety. Similarly, communities that face financial danger – hunger, poverty, bankruptcy – and higher occupational hazards, are substantially tighter. This helps explain why those on low incomes have consistently told us they desire strong rules and leaders. In fact, when we ask respondents to free-associate from the word “rules”, low-income subjects consistently write positive words such as “good”, “safe” and “structure”, while wealthier ones write down words such as “bad”, “frustrating”, and “constricting”. These preferences arise early: in our lab, three-year-olds from low-income families were more visibly upset than peers from wealthier homes when they saw puppets violate clear rules.

Is tight better, then, or loose? The answer is, neither are. Both confer different advantages and liabilities, depending on your vantage point. Tight groups have cornered the market in social order: they have lower crime and tend to be cleaner and more coordinated. They also exhibit higher self-control: they tend to have fewer problems with obesity and debt, and lower rates of alcoholism and drug abuse. Loose groups are comparatively more disorganised and experience a host of self-regulation failures; yet they excel at openness. They’re much more tolerant, creative and flexible. Tight groups, by contrast, are far less innovative, more ethnocentric, and more resistant to new ideas. This is what I call the tight-loose trade-off; advantages in one realm coexist with drawbacks in another.

Tight-loose differences can explain global patterns of conflict, revolution, terrorism and populism. They operate as a universal faultline, causing cultural cohesion to buckle and rifts to open up. As threats arrive, groups tighten. As they subside, groups loosen. Threats don’t even need to be real. Our experiments show that, as long as people perceive a threat, the perception can be as powerful as objective reality.

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link to this extract


US wants prison sentence for Facebook user who pirated ‘Deadpool’ • TorrentFreak

“Ernesto”:

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To be clear, [Trevon] Franklin [aged 22, from Fresno, California] wasn’t the person who originally made the copy available. [In early 2016] He simply downloaded it from the file-sharing site Putlocker.is and then proceeded to upload it to his Facebook account, using the screen name ‘Tre-Von M. King.’

This post went viral with more than six million viewers ‘tuning in.’ While many people dream of this kind of attention, in this case, it meant that copyright holder Twentieth Century Fox and the feds were alerted.

The FBI launched a full-fledged investigation which eventually led to an indictment and the arrest of Franklin last summer.

Earlier this year, Franklin signed a plea agreement with the Government where he admitted to sharing the pirated film on Facebook. In return, the authorities recommended a sentence reduction.

This week the Government submitted its sentencing recommendation. Franklin pleaded guilty to a Class A misdemeanor which carries a maximum prison term of a year. While the Government doesn’t go that far, it believes a significant sentence is required.

“[T]he government recommends the high-end sentence of six months’ imprisonment, to be followed by a one-year term of supervised release, and a mandatory special assessment of $100,” the sentencing position reads.

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Franklin was aged, what, 19 or 20 when he uploaded the film? I think the time when you might claim you didn’t know making pirated films available was illegal has long since passed. Six months comes across as pretty light compared to what hackers have suffered.
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In killing Inbox, Google takes another swipe at its most passionate users • Computerworld

Mike Elgan:

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For all its skill and dominance in artificial intelligence, Google can be surprisingly lacking in the natural kind.

In move after move, Google snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. And all because the company’s culture is blind to the value of passionate users.

I’m quite certain that Google watches user numbers and applies analytics to everything it can measure. A radically analytical approach is powerful, but it can blind you to the factors that cannot be measured. Factors such as user passion.

My favorite example is Google+. After an initial surge of usage in the first couple of years, the social network gradually fizzled — smothered by a reputation for low engagement.

That reputation was largely false. But over time it became a self-fulfilling prophecy as Google took repeated action to hide and suppress engagement.

It killed Circle sharing, the best way to discover high-quality active users. It added Communities, which reduced attention aimed at users. Its dumb algorithms flagged (and thereby hid from public view) high-quality comments, while simultaneously failing to flag obvious spam. (Eventually, Google’s algorithms got much better, but only after most users had already abandoned the platform.)

This is a great plan — if your objective is to minimize user engagement.

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“To comment on this story, go to our Facebook page”, it says.
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This AI predicts obesity prevalence—all the way from space • Singularity Hub

Marc Prosser:

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A research team at the University of Washington has trained an artificial intelligence system to spot obesity—all the way from space. The system used a convolutional neural network (CNN) to analyze 150,000 satellite images and look for correlations between the physical makeup of a neighborhood and the prevalence of obesity.

The team’s results, presented in JAMA Network Open, showed that features of a given neighborhood could explain close to two-thirds (64.8 percent) of the variance in obesity. Researchers found that analyzing satellite data could help increase understanding of the link between peoples’ environment and obesity prevalence. The next step would be to make corresponding structural changes in the way neighborhoods are built to encourage physical activity and better health.

Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) are particularly adept at image analysis, object recognition, and identifying special hierarchies in large datasets.

Prior to analyzing 150,000 high-resolution satellite images of Bellevue, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Memphis, and San Antonio, the researchers trained the CNN on 1.2 million images from the ImageNet database. The categorizations were correlated with obesity prevalence estimates for the six urban areas from census tracts gathered by the 500 Cities project.

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Seriously? “Yo momma so big she can be seen from SPACE.”
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Apple, Firefox tools aim to thwart Facebook, Google tracking

Anick Jesdanun:

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Facebook and other companies routinely track your online surfing habits to better target ads at you. Two web browsers now want to help you fight back in what’s becoming an escalating privacy arms race.

New protections in Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers aim to prevent companies from turning “cookie” data files used to store sign-in details and preferences into broader trackers that take note of what you read, watch and research on other sites.

Lance Cottrell, creator of the privacy service Anonymizer, said Apple’s effort was particularly significant, as it takes aim at a technique developed by tracking companies to override users’ attempts to delete their cookies.

Safari makes these protections automatic in updates coming Tuesday to iPhones and iPads and a week later to Mac computers. Firefox has similar protections on Apple mobile devices and is rolling out them out to personal computers in the coming months.

To get the protections, you’ll have to break your habit of using Google’s Chrome browser, which by some estimates has more than half of the worldwide browser usage. Safari and Firefox have less than 20% combined.

Even then, Safari and Firefox can’t entirely stop tracking. For starters, they won’t block tracking when you’re using Facebook or Google itself. Nor can they help much when you use phone or tablet apps, unless the app happens to embed Safari, as Twitter’s iPhone app does.

But Will Strafach, a mobile security expert who is designing data security tools for phones, said imperfect protection is better than no protection. He notes that burglars can still break down a door, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother locking it.

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By the way, iOS 12 was released on Monday evening.
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Nasty piece of CSS code crashes and restarts iPhones • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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A security researcher has discovered a vulnerability in the WebKit rendering engine used by Safari that crashes and restarts the iOS operating system used by iPhones and iPads.

The vulnerability can be exploited by loading an HTML page that uses specially crafted CSS code. The CSS code isn’t very complex and tries to apply a CSS effect known as backdrop-filter to a series of nested page segments (DIVs).

Backdrop-filter is a relative new CSS property and works by blurring or color shifting to the area behind an element. This is a heavy processing task, and some software engineers and web developers have speculated that the rendering of this effect takes a toll on iOS’ graphics processing library, eventually leading to a crash of the mobile OS altogether.

Sabri Haddouche, a software engineer and security researcher at encrypted instant messaging app Wire, is the one who discovered the vulnerability, and published proof-of-concept code on Twitter earlier today.

This link will crash your iOS device, while this link will show the source code behind the vulnerability. Haddouche also tweeted a video of the vulnerability crashing his phone

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Feels like this stuff comes around every few months or so. Plenty of people hammering on the iOS code to see what happens. This is about the nice graphic effect sucking up all your CPU.
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Amazon investigates employees leaking data for bribes • WSJ

Jon Emont, Laura Stevens and Robert McMillan:

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Employees of Amazon, primarily with the aid of intermediaries, are offering internal data and other confidential information that can give an edge to independent merchants selling their products on the site, according to sellers who have been offered and purchased the data, brokers who provide it and people familiar with internal investigations.

The practice, which violates company policy, is particularly pronounced in China, according to some of these people, because the number of sellers there is skyrocketing. As well, Amazon employees in China have relatively small salaries, which may embolden them to take risks.

In exchange for payments ranging from roughly $80 to more than $2,000, brokers for Amazon employees in Shenzhen are offering internal sales metrics and reviewers’ email addresses, as well as a service to delete negative reviews and restore banned Amazon accounts, the people said.

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link to this extract


15 countries and one US state team up to fight gambling in video games • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:

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an international group of regulators from 15 European regulation bodies and Washington state in the US signed a declaration stating their increasing concern “with the risks being posed by the blurring of lines between gambling and other forms of digital entertainment such as video gaming.”

The declaration identifies four specific areas of concern:

• Skin betting—Third-party sites that allow users to wager money or in-game items for a chance at earning better items. Valve has already faced pushback from Washington State regulators for Steam’s role in “facilitating” such skin-gambling schemes.
• Loot boxes—In-game purchases that offer randomized rewards. Some loot boxes have already been ruled as illegal in the Netherlands and Belgium, and there have been some attempts to do the same from some US lawmakers.
• Social casino gambling—Apps like Big Fish Casino in which users can optionally spend money on virtual gambling chips if they don’t feel like waiting for the in-game currency to replenish. A US District court ruled Big Fish Casino constituted illegal gambling earlier this year, and there are multiple active lawsuits surrounding other such games.
• “The use of gambling themed content within video games available to children.”—In addition to the above, this would seemingly apply to games with poker or slot-machine-style minigames (or, uh, Casino Kid for the NES).

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Overdue. Loot boxes in particular.
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Altaba to settle lawsuits relating to Yahoo data breach for $47m • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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Altaba, the holding company of what Verizon left behind after its acquisition of Yahoo, said it has settled three ongoing legal cases relating to Yahoo’s previously disclosed data breaches.

In a Monday filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the former web giant turned investment company said it has agreed to end litigation for $47m, which the company said will “mark a significant milestone” in cleaning up its remaining liabilities.

The deal is subject to court approval, which attorneys for both sides asked the court to approve the deal within 45 days, according to a filing submitted Friday.

In case you missed it, Yahoo had two data breaches — one in mid-2013, where data on all of the company’s three billion users was stolen, and another breach a year later of 500 million accounts, including email addresses and passwords. The company blamed the attack on state-sponsored hackers, without citing any evidence or pointing any fingers.

Muddying the waters, the breach was discovered during Verizon’s bid to acquire the web giant and its assets for $4.83bn. Verizon dropped its offer price by some $350m after the scope of the breach was fully realized, and created Oath. (Disclosure: TechCrunch is also owned by Oath.)

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This is a desultory amount of money per user. Even on the smaller hack of 500 million, it’s just 9 cents per person. On the 3 billion, it’s 1.5 cents.
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Amazon maintains smart speaker market share lead, Apple rises slightly to 4.5% • Voicebot

Bret Kinsella:

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A national survey of 1,040 U.S. adults earlier this month commissioned by Voicebot, RAIN and PullString shows that Amazon is maintaining its lead in smart speaker installed base despite Apple and other device makers gaining some traction with users. Amazon Echo device share stands at 64.6% with Google Home products is used by 19.6% of smart speaker owners. Apple HomePod has been adopted by 4.5% of smart speaker owners, while 11.3% say they have access to a smart speaker that is not made by Amazon, Google or Apple. However, all of those “other” devices have either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant as the resident voice assistant so Amazon and Google’s influence extends well beyond their own smart speakers…

…The latest smart speaker market share data are beginning to depict a familiar pattern. Amazon maintains a leadership position in the U.S. based on its first-to-market advantage and the strength of its marketing channel and Prime membership base. Everyone else is growing at Amazon’s expense…

The real battle is about to shape up. New hardware is expected from Amazon, Google, Samsung and others. Those new products will be the real catalyst that determines smart speaker market share after the holiday shopping season.

Keep in mind when you read these reports what they are calculating. The data here represents the installed base. CIRP data from earlier this summer also measures installed base, but it does not account for devices that are not manufactured by Amazon, Apple or Google. So, each of their market share figures are likely to be higher because the are comparing market share relative to each other as opposed to the entire market. By contrast, Canalys data attempts to be comprehensive but reflects unit sales in a given time period and not installed base. There are a number of different ways to look at the market. Regardless of which lens you consider, they all point to growth.

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What really happened to Apple’s AirPower (exclusive details) • Sonny Dickson

The aforementioned Dickson:

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Here are some of the key issues causing the most significant hurdles, as verified by multiple internal sources:

• Heat management: currently the device produces far too much heat, which causes performance setbacks, and can affect the ability of the devices to charge if they become too warm in the process. It also affects the ability of Apple’s custom charging chip, which runs a stripped down version of iOS, to function as intended.

• Buggy inter-device communication, as well as charging activation and issues with charging speed, and overall accuracy of charge levels:Apple’s engineers have been experiencing both hardware and software issues with the communication between AirPower and devices placed on the mat, -especially- the communication of Apple Watch and AirPod charging data to the iPhone, which monitors the charge level of all devices placed on the mat.

• Mechanical and interference issues: the mechanism being used for multi-device charging, which we can confirm is comprised of between 21 and 24 power coils of various sizes to accommodate the three main products to be charged (AirPods equipped with a so-far-nonexistent wireless charging accessory case, iPhone, and Apple Watch), which are broken into three identical charging groups, is proving extremely difficult to build or refine, and has been resulting in a significant amount of interference up to this point, which reduces the efficiency of the charging mat, and contributes to the heat issues that engineers are facing.

What is thought to be a significant factor in the ongoing engineering struggle is that three different sizes of coils must overlap within each coil set, which, combined with the very compact size of the device, makes managing interference and heat an extremely daunting technical challenge.

Aside from heat and interference shielding, the complexity of the circuitry in the device is also posing a significant challenge, which likely cannot be overcome unless the device is redesigned to be slightly thicker and larger – decisions which Apple is specifically unwilling to make compromises on for their overall design.

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This wouldn’t be the first time that Apple has wanted to design its way past the laws of physics; a similar impasse happened (briefly) in the design of the original iPhone, which didn’t have any antenna gaps in its lovely aluminium design.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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