Start Up No.915: Labour’s Twitter nexus, Amazon’s driver catch, goodbye Chrome!, bowdlerising Apple?, watchOS 5 reviewed, and more


Fibre installation: we could have had this in the 1980s but for Thatcher, an ex-BT exec says. Photo by BT’s BDUK partnerships fibre rollout photography on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Fight another day. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Meet the woman leading Jeremy Corbyn’s Twitter army • Buzzfeed News

Mark di Stefano gets the scoop: the interview with the woman behind a ranty pro-Corbyn Twitter account:

»

All of @Rachael_Swindon’s tweets come from a small, white iPhone in a pink, plastic wallet case, which sits connected to a charger in the Cousins’ lounge.

At 6am each morning, Cousins wakes up, looks through the news (“The Independent is good, the Canary, Skwawkbox, those blogs, some Facebook pages”) and she’ll compose a series of tweets that she intends to send throughout the day. She’s currently posting about 40 a day — a grab bag of news, memes, and insults directed at Tories or Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs that she will have saved to her drafts.

“I tweet about 7am, then I walk the dog,” she said. “I’ll have a coffee, look at Twitter again, tweet a bit more, do something else.

“I do go shopping. I take my children out. I do take Jon to doctor’s appointments.”

Cousins said her husband [Jon] is living with fibromyalgia, a painful long-term condition causing extreme pain and fatigue. She has osteoarthritis in her legs. Neither are working at the moment, and while they now live on unemployment benefits, documents back up their claim that they’re currently locked in a battle with the Department for Work and Pensions over his disability payments.

She said her personal life experience — being in and out of council housing, ongoing disputes with the DWP — is what drew her to tweeting angrily about the Tories.

“I thought, I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to shout about it,” she said.

Her political awakening coincided with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn: “He supports people like me, because I am just a pauper.”

It’s not entirely a pro-Corbyn household. Jon repeatedly wanted to explain why the Labour leader was “not my cup of tea”, calling himself at different times “more centre-right” than his wife, “a Blairite”, and “not crazy about all the nationalisations”.

«

Does knowing the precise identity of the person behind the tweets affect how you think of them? I think it does.
link to this extract


Amazon lays creative traps to catch drivers that steal packages • BGR

Andy Meek:

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To clamp down on drivers running off with packages, the company will frequently insert dummy packages (which might be empty and which might also have a random object inside to provide some weight) into the slew of orders a driver needs to load up with. Since the packages are fake (because they’re a trap to deter stealing), the real-looking label on them will present an error message when it’s scanned.

“If you bring the package back, you are innocent. If you don’t, you’re a thug,” Sid Shah, a former manager for DeliverOL, a courier company that delivers packages for Amazon, told Business Insider.

Another source told BI that directives for this practice came straight from Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle. “It’s meant to be a trap,” this unnamed person said, “to check the integrity of the driver.”

Per BI, here’s how the practice works, according to the sources:

“During deliveries, drivers scan the labels of every package they deliver. When they scan a fake label on a dummy package, an error message will pop up. When this happens, drivers might call their supervisors to address the problem, or keep the package in their truck and return it to an Amazon warehouse at the end of their shift.”

Since the package shows an error message when it’s scanned, the thinking is that a potential thief might decide to take it, because the error message means the package technically doesn’t exist in Amazon’s sprawling network.

«

Wonder if the Post Office does anything like this?
link to this extract


Why I’m done with Chrome • A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering

Matthew Green:

»

A few weeks ago Google shipped an update to Chrome that fundamentally changes the sign-in experience. From now on, every time you log into a Google property (for example, Gmail), Chrome will automatically sign the browser into your Google account for you. It’ll do this without asking, or even explicitly notifying you. (However, and this is important: Google developers claim this will not actually start synchronizing your data to Google — yet. See further below.)…

…The change hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed: it received some vigorous discussion on sites like Hacker News. But the mainstream tech press seems to have ignored it completely. This is unfortunate — and I hope it changes — because this update has huge implications for Google and the future of Chrome.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about why this matters. From my perspective, this comes down to basically four points:

1. Nobody on the Chrome development team can provide a clear rationale for why this change was necessary, and the explanations they’ve given don’t make any sense.
2. This change has enormous implications for user privacy and trust, and Google seems unable to grapple with this.
3. The change makes a hash out of Google’s own privacy policies for Chrome.
4. Google needs to stop treating customer trust like it’s a renewable resource, because they’re screwing up badly.

«

I don’t use Chrome because it’s a gigantic CPU suck, but whatever.
link to this extract


Will phones soon finish off the camera market? • ExtremeTech

David Cardinal likes his Nikon DSLR. But…:

»

Given the massive investment being poured into phones, it is only a matter of time before they replace every segment of the camera market of which they are physically capable. They’re not the right solution for drones, robots, or even cars, for example, and in many cases, action cameras don’t benefit from a display enough to justify a phone form factor. Of course, there will still be a need and a market for larger cameras, just like there is today for film, but increasingly it will only be out of preference and not necessity.

For several years, I’ve participated in a panel at the Electronic Imaging technical conference on what it will take for the phone to be the only camera needed. My presentation was simply a set of photos I couldn’t have taken without my standalone, high-end camera. Each year there are fewer slides in the talk.

In my case, I find the ergonomics of my Nikon DSLRs to make me much more productive than shooting with a phone. Even if my phone produced the same images, it’s more work to control for an extended shooting session. Given the form factor, there is only so much phone makers can do to address that issue. Of course, my phone is always in my pocket, so I’m finding myself using it more and more as it improves each year. And for people for whom the phone was their first camera, it will be more intuitive to use than learning the controls on a traditional camera.

«

The latter is a good point – there’s a whole generation that has never thought that a camera is a separate object.
link to this extract


watchOS 5: The BirchTree Review • BirchTree

Matt Birchler:

»

The Apple Watch journey has been all about figuring out what people like to do on their smart watches and optimizing watchOS to match. Those categories seem to have settled on activity tracking, listening to audio, handling notifications, communicating with others, and getting general information quickly. watchOS 5 addresses all of those categories and almost all changes are for the better. The worst thing I can say is that a good number of these updates require third party app developers to update their apps to use them. Given how much better this makes the watch experience, I’d expect to see updates very soon that include these changes.

There are a lot of changes to activity tracking and workouts, including things that FitBit users used to be able to lord over the Apple Watch. Automatic workout detection is only the tip of the iceberg here, there’s much more. The Siri watch face, my favorite new feature from last year, got the best update it possibly could: third party app integrations. This means that all your favorite apps, not just Apple’s, will be shown on your watch face. Podcast and audiobook apps can now make honest-to-goodness amazing apps on the watch, and they can even download content and play in the background. And if you don’t want to use a third party app, Apple’s brand new Podcasts app for the Apple Watch is quite nice.

«

He picks up on a lot of subtle little points; this captures them all neatly. The easier access to “Now Playing” (so you can change the volume or change the track with a tap from the home screen) is huge; so is being able to edit the Control Centre – which, as he says, you’ll do once and never again, but of course it’ll be perfect (for you) after that once.
link to this extract


iPhone XS has an upgrade Apple didn’t mention • iFixit

Kay Kay Clapp:

»

While the XS Max inherits the dual-cell battery design of the X, the XS has evolved a single-celled L-shaped battery. For a phone about the size of the X, you’d expect a gapless battery to pack more punch, not less, but the XS drops to 10.13 Wh from 10.35 Wh (the XS Max, meanwhile, packs 12.08 Wh in its two cells). We dug into it, and there’s an interesting story of innovation behind the capacity drop.

This isn’t Apple’s first foray into weirdly-shaped batteries. In 2015, they debuted a terraced battery design in the MacBook that utilizes every bit of space in the chassis. But that wouldn’t work for the iPhone form factor—Apple needed a more creative battery geometry.

The new design approach for non-rectangular batteries removes material from one or more of the layers before they can be stacked. Apple has been filing patents in this direction since 2011. The challenge with any lithium-polymer battery cell is that each corner needs to be sealed to prevent undue stress from thermal expansion—and since the battery of the XS has six sides vs. the traditional four, those extra corners can be tricky. To reduce the stress on the corners, Apple notched the internal corner of the battery (as described in this 2016 patent). This dramatic shift opens up a lot of design possibilities, but the large notch is responsible for the decrease in capacity relative to the X. Only time will tell how this new cell performs with age—both of these batteries are still limited to 500 charge cycles.

«

I’d love to know the logic behind this strange shaping, rather than the Lego-block-style approach used on the iPhone X.
link to this extract


Google is testing manual bokeh and Color Pop effects in Google Photos • Android Police

Ryan Whitwam:

»

Some Photos users have gotten new editing tools—they appear in the Photos app when modifying a picture. We’ve seen this in teardowns, as well. There’s Color Pop (a filter), which keeps the focus of the photo in color and desaturates the rest of the shot. The manual bokeh (under edits) lets you do something similar, except the background is blurred instead of desaturated. You can tap to change the focus and adjust the strength of the blur effect.

Google is probably testing these features together because the underlying processing is similar; Photos needs to know the difference between the subject and background. Importantly, this works with regular photos, not those taken with depth effects enabled. However, from the screenshots we’ve seen, the feature still looks buggy. That Color Pop seems particularly rough. There may be a lot more work to do before these features roll out widely, but it’ll happen… one day.

«

Software eats everything. So you can’t differentiate based only on software effects.
link to this extract


No sex please, we’re Apple: iPhone giant seeks TV success on its own terms • WSJ

Tripp Mickle and Joe Flint:

»

Apple’s entertainment team must walk a line few in Hollywood would consider. Since Mr. Cook spiked “Vital Signs,” [about Dr Dre’s early life] Apple has made clear, say producers and agents, that it wants high-quality shows with stars and broad appeal, but it doesn’t want gratuitous sex, profanity or violence.

The result is an approach out of step with the triumphs of the video-streaming era. Other platforms, such as HBO and Amazon.com Inc., have made their mark in original content with edgier programming that often wins critical acclaim. Netflix Inc., which helped birth the streaming revolution, built its original-content business on “House of Cards,” a drama about an ethically bankrupt politician, and “Orange Is the New Black,” a comedic drama about a women’s prison. Both feature rough language and plenty of sex.

As a consumer-product company, Apple is especially exposed if content strikes a sour note, said Preston Beckman, a former NBC and Fox programming executive. For Netflix, the only risk is that people don’t subscribe, he said. “With Apple, you can say, ‘I’m going to punish them by not buying their phone or computer.’ “

Apple has twice postponed the launch of its first slate of shows, moving it to March from late this year, agents and producers said. One leading producer with projects at Apple expects the date to be pushed back yet further…

…Entertainment is “irrational and unpredictable,” said Peter Sealey, a consultant who led marketing for Coke’s Hollywood business. Apple excels at devices and Coke at soft drinks, he said, but “movies and TV are none of that. They’re emotional.”

«

On this basis, the distance between Silicon Valley and Hollywood isn’t just a plane flight; they’re on different planets. Hollywood knows that sex and violence sells, and other companies getting into this space recognise that: Amazon’s remake of Jack Ryan is brutal at times, but pretty gentle for the rest of it. Would Apple have made it? Apple’s TV schedule is going to be more saccharin than pre-Pixar Disney at this rate; and pre-Pixar Disney was coasting downhill on its past successes.
link to this extract


PayPal bans Alex Jones, saying Infowars ‘promoted hate or discriminatory intolerance’ • The Washington Post

Brian Fung:

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PayPal is terminating its relationship with Alex Jones and his website, Infowars, the online payment service said Friday.

After an extensive review of Infowars and its related sites, PayPal said in a statement, the company “found instances that promoted hate or discriminatory intolerance against certain communities and religions, which run counter to our core value of inclusion.”

PayPal notified Infowars of the decision Thursday, prompting the site to accuse PayPal in a blog post of a “political ploy designed to financially sabotage an influential media outlet.” Infowars said PayPal had given it 10 days to find a new payment platform, after which PayPal’s services would no longer function.

PayPal declined to cite specific examples of Infowars’s problematic behavior. But Infowars has gained increasing attention — and criticism — for its role in spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation online. PayPal’s decision Friday makes it the latest tech company to ban Jones and his content from its platform, following in the footsteps of Apple, Facebook and Google, among others.

«

Well done, PayPal. Also: what took you so long?
link to this extract


Eric Schmidt, ex-Google CEO, predicts internet bifurcation with China • CNBC

Lora Kolodny:

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At the [private Village Global VC] event, economist Tyler Cowen asked about the possibility of the internet fragmenting into different sub-internets with different regulations and limited access between them in coming years. “What’s the chance, say, 10 to 15 years, we have just three to four separate internets?”

Schmidt said:

»

“I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.

If you look at China, and I was just there, the scale of the companies that are being built, the services being built, the wealth that is being created is phenomenal. Chinese Internet is a greater percentage of the GDP of China, which is a big number, than the same percentage of the US, which is also a big number.

If you think of China as like ‘Oh yeah, they’re good with the Internet,’ you’re missing the point. Globalization means that they get to play too. I think you’re going to see fantastic leadership in products and services from China. There’s a real danger that along with those products and services comes a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc.

Look at the way BRI works – their Belt and Road Initiative, which involves 60-ish countries – it’s perfectly possible those countries will begin to take on the infrastructure that China has with some loss of freedom.”

«

«

Seems possible. It’s hard to say whether Schmidt tends towards Pollyanna-ish optimism (my first thoughts about his track record) or dystopic downside (my second thoughts, such as his “over the creepy line” and “get a new name at 18” comments). So while I find this scenario very possible, I don’t know if it’s plausible beyond Asian countries.
link to this extract


How Thatcher killed the UK’s superfast broadband before it even existed • Tech Radar

Jay McGregor:

»

Dr [Peter] Cochrane [BT’s chief technology officer] knew that Britain’s tired copper network was insufficient: “In 1974 it was patently obvious that copper wire was unsuitable for digital communication in any form, and it could not afford the capacity we needed for the future.”

He was asked to do a report on the UK’s future of digital communication and what was needed to move forward.

“In 1979 I presented my results,” he tells us, “and the conclusion was to forget about copper and get into fibre. So BT started a massive effort – that spanned six years – involving thousands of people to both digitise the network and to put fibre everywhere. The country had more fibre per capita than any other nation.

“In 1986, I managed to get fibre to the home cheaper than copper and we started a programme where we built factories for manufacturing the system. By 1990, we had two factories, one in Ipswich and one in Birmingham, where were manufacturing components for systems to roll out to the local loop”.

At that time, the UK, Japan and the United States were leading the way in fibre optic technology and roll-out. Indeed, the first wide area fibre optic network was set up in Hastings, UK. But, in 1990, then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, decided that BT’s rapid and extensive rollout of fibre optic broadband was anti-competitive and held a monopoly on a technology and service that no other telecom company could do.

“Unfortunately, the Thatcher government decided that it wanted the American cable companies providing the same service to increase competition. So the decision was made to close down the local loop roll out and in 1991 that roll out was stopped. The two factories that BT had built to build fibre related components were sold to Fujitsu and HP, the assets were stripped and the expertise was shipped out to South East Asia.

“Our colleagues in Korea and Japan, who were working with quite closely at the time, stood back and looked at what happened to us in amazement. What was pivotal was that they carried on with their respective fibre rollouts. And, well, the rest is history as they say.”

«

The American cable companies all went bust because they were digging the roads up and each laying their own fibre. What Thatcher should have brought in was obligatory cable-sharing: make BT open up to rivals. (I don’t think Cochrane would have liked it, or BT’s management.)
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.915: Labour’s Twitter nexus, Amazon’s driver catch, goodbye Chrome!, bowdlerising Apple?, watchOS 5 reviewed, and more

  1. Chrome has been very suspect for a long time;
    there’s no overriding reason to use it (plenty of other browsers use the same engines);
    and there is an overriding reason to use FireFox instead: addons on Mobile.
    I’m using Firefox as my main browser, Opera as my second because I’m a sentimental guy and 15.8 was the best browser ever, 6 yrs ago; and Vivaldi as my 3rd browser because it’s supposed to be Opera’s spiritual successor but I tried it too early and it wasn’t usable then.
    Edge and Chrome are only my mess-around browser, where I’m logged in to my parents’ and others’ accounts. As they should be.

    Google has a worrisome way to lose the plot. I’ve been abandonnng Google apps and services slowly but surely over the past couple of years, not because of privacy concerns, but because others have come up with better apps and services. Only Photo really shines.

  2. Eric Schmidt loves -tion words. When he was my big boss at Novell, he kept going on about inflection points. 20 years on, it’s bifurcation now.

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