Start Up No.920: Berners-Lee’s new web plan, how America failed women, Facebook’s breach, US hits tech stasis, Office un-touched, and more

Do these guys think they’re going to succeed with lighting like that? Photo by Arend Kuester on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Why not? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: Tim Berners-Lee tells us his radical new plan to upend the world wide web

Katrina Brooker:


Ever since revelations emerged that Facebook had allowed people’s data to be misused by political operatives, Berners-Lee has felt an imperative to get this digital idyll into the real world. In a post published this weekend, Berners-Lee explains that he is taking a sabbatical from MIT to work full time on Inrupt. The company will be the first major commercial venture built off of Solid, a decentralized web platform he and others at MIT have spent years building.

If all goes as planned, Inrupt will be to Solid what Netscape once was for many first-time users of the web: an easy way in. And like with Netscape, Berners-Lee hopes Inrupt will be just the first of many companies to emerge from Solid.

“I have been imagining this for a very long time,” says Berners-Lee. He opens up his laptop and starts tapping at his keyboard. Watching the inventor of the web work at his computer feels like what it might have been like to watch Beethoven compose a symphony: It’s riveting but hard to fully grasp. “We are in the Solid world now,” he says, his eyes lit up with excitement. He pushes the laptop toward me so I too can see.

On his screen, there is a simple-looking web page with tabs across the top: Tim’s to-do list, his calendar, chats, address book. He built this app–one of the first on Solid–for his personal use. It is simple, spare. In fact, it’s so plain that, at first glance, it’s hard to see its significance. But to Berners-Lee, this is where the revolution begins. The app, using Solid’s decentralized technology, allows Berners-Lee to access all of his data seamlessly–his calendar, his music library, videos, chat, research. It’s like a mashup of Google Drive, Microsoft Outlook, Slack, Spotify, and WhatsApp.

The difference here is that, on Solid, all the information is under his control. Every bit of data he creates or adds on Solid exists within a Solid pod–which is an acronym for personal online data store. These pods are what give Solid users control over their applications and information on the web. Anyone using the platform will get a Solid identity and Solid pod. This is how people, Berners-Lee says, will take back the power of the web from corporations.


Hmm. Big intentions. Lot of inertia.
link to this extract

Facebook logs 90 million people out of their accounts after security breach • The Washington Post

Brian Fung:


The hackers were able to gain access to profile information, such as users’ names, home towns and genders, Facebook said. They may have had access to more information, but Facebook said its investigation is in the early stages. No credit card information was exposed, Facebook executives said, and so far there is no evidence that the attackers sought to access private messages or post fraudulent messages from the accounts.

“This is a serious issue, and we’re committed to addressing it,” said Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. “This underscores that there are constant attacks from people who are trying to take over accounts or steal information from people in our community.”

Facebook said it discovered the breach Tuesday after noticing a spike in user activity on Sept. 16., which prompted engineers to investigate. They found three interlocking bugs on Facebook’s website that attackers had been using to gain access to accounts.

The attackers exploited Facebook’s systems through a flaw in the company’s “View As” feature, the company said, which allows a user to view his or her own profile as somebody else might see it.

Embedded in the “View As” feature was a video uploader that was incorrectly generating security tokens — pieces of code that, under normal circumstances, are designed to let a user remain logged in even after navigating away from Facebook’s website.


The uploader being designed to let people send Happy Birthday messages. And those tokens, stolen, could let the hackers log into any service that used Facebook logins. The dangers of monoculture.
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Use of internet, social media, digital devices plateaus in US • Pew Research Center


The shares of US adults who say they use the internet, use social media, own a smartphone or own a tablet computer are all nearly identical to the shares who said so in 2016. The share who say they have broadband internet service at home currently stands at 65% – nearly identical to the 67% who said this in a survey conducted in summer 2015. And when it comes to desktop or laptop ownership, there has actually been a small dip in the overall numbers over the last two years – from 78% in 2016 to 73% today.

A contributing factor behind this slowing growth is that parts of the population have reached near-saturation levels of adoption of some technologies. Put simply, in some instances there just aren’t many non-users left. For example, nine-in-ten or more adults younger than 50 say they go online or own a smartphone. And a similar share of those in higher-income households have laptops or desktops.


Notice that dip in desktop/laptop use, while tablet use inched up. Although I suspect that tablets plus smartphones have consumed that gap in PC use.

If that’s continued in two years’ time, it’ll be a clear trend. Check back in 2020!
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Elon Musk steps down as Tesla’s chairman in settlement with S.E.C. over go-private tweet • The New York Times

Matthew Goldstein:


The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced the deal two days after it sued Mr. Musk in federal court for misleading investors over his post on Twitter last month that he had “funding secured” for a buyout of the electric-car company at $420 a share.

The deal with the SEC will allow him to remain as chief executive, something he could have jeopardized if he had gone to battle with the agency.

It is not clear why Mr. Musk changed his mind so quickly.

People familiar with the situation, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said lawyers for Mr. Musk and the company moved to reopen the talks with the SEC on Friday. During that time, one of Tesla’s lawyers became instrumental in securing a deal with the SEC, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

The whipsaw events of the past few days followed a series of self-inflicted wounds by Mr. Musk.


Basically, someone managed to calm Musk down for long enough to tell him that he was going to lose everything if he couldn’t make a concession.

Wonder if they’ve managed to wrestle his Twitter account away from him.
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Microsoft puts its touch-friendly Office apps for Windows 10 on hold • The Verge

Tom Warren:


Microsoft first started work on its touch-friendly Office apps for Windows 8.1 more than five years ago. Designed for tablets or laptops with touchscreens, the apps are lightweight and speedy versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Microsoft has updated them regularly for Windows 10, but now that the company has halted work on Windows 10 Mobile, it’s also halting work on these Office apps.

The apps aren’t fully dead yet, but Microsoft is no longer developing new features for them. “We are currently prioritizing development for the iOS and Android versions of our apps; and on Windows, we are prioritizing Win32 and web versions of our apps,” explains a Microsoft spokesperson in a statement to The Verge.

The reprioritization isn’t all that surprising given the state of dedicated universal Windows apps on Windows 10 and the Microsoft Store. These touch-friendly versions of Office were once a great example of what developers could achieve if they made universal Windows apps, but Microsoft now lets developers simply package existing desktop apps and list them in the store.


Meanwhile, people are saying “Apple MUST release a touchscreen Mac or it is dead!” Nope. Wasn’t true then, still isn’t true. (Touch-free version of iOS apps, as in Marzipan ones, are a different matter.)
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How America failed women • EAnd

Imair Haque:


American women are severely underrepresented in positions of power — so much that it’s almost comical. America’s one of the very, very few countries, by this point in history, which has never had a female head of state. Congress is 20% women, but society is 51% women. The Senate is also 20% women, but society is 51% women. Maybe you don’t see my point. Let me make it crystal clear. In Sweden, parliament is 45% women. In Denmark, 40%. In France, 39%. In Germany, 37%. Do you see how stunning this difference is? In the rest of the rich world, women have twice as much political representation — they are almost to the point of true representational parity. But in America, women are not even half people yet, in terms of representational parity.

In fact, even in much poorer countries, women hold far more political power than American women do. In Mozambique and South Africa, women are 40% of legislators. In Vietnam, Mauritania, Kazakhstan, and Laos, 20%-30%. Do you know which country has the same number of women in political office as America? Pakistan. That’s a grim place to be, my friends — let me make it sharper precisely why.

American patriarchy has been spectacularly, singularly successful in keeping power from women. In global terms, it is one of the most successful patriarchies of all — as successful, in the most crucial ways, as a place like Pakistan. Yes, really (no, Pakistani women don’t have to wear niqabs, that’s an American fairy tale.) That lack of rights has had very real consequences, the most significant of which is that American women simply don’t hold much — or nearly enough — power in society. That was the point of refusing to ratify international conventions or constitutional amendments — not to give women rights, and therefore, to keep them relatively socially powerless.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the female Supreme Court Justice, was once asked how many women she thought should be on the court: “nine would be a good number,” she replied. (Nine is the full complement.) For how long? “Oh, only as long as men have had a majority.” (200-odd years.)
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Hackers expose frailty of robots • Financial Times

Aliya Ram:


In 2017, Lucas Apa and Cesar Cerrudo, security researchers with the consultancy IOActive, showed that the version 2.5.5 of Pepper could be hacked through its software because of vulnerabilities that were discovered when it was connected to a network. They demonstrated that the robot could be controlled remotely, its limbs manipulated and its cameras used to spy on users.

Yet more than a year later, SoftBank has not patched the software, according to an analysis of its change logs by Mr Apa. He told the FT that the Japanese conglomerate had told him it could not fix the problem.

He says: “We were very disappointed by this answer, but we understand that with any new technology it is very hard for manufacturers to get the attention or investment [they need].”

SoftBank says that users were asked to maintain Wi-Fi network security and set robot passwords correctly. “We will continue to improve our security measures on Pepper, so we can counter any risks we may face,” the company says.

Pepper is just one of several robots that Mr Apa and Mr Cerrudo tested last year. They found that others, including those manufactured by UBTech Robotics, Robotis, Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics and Asratec Corp, could be hacked too.

The matter has also been raised by Bundesnetzagentur, the telecoms watchdog in Germany, which last year told parents to destroy talking dolls called Cayla because hackers could use an unsecured Bluetooth device to make the toy reveal personal data.


Isn’t this more like “hackers expose frailty of systems”? It’s not particularly the robots.
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Apple looks down on ads but takes billions from Google • Bloomberg

Shira Ovide:


In new research, [Goldman Sachs] estimated that about $9bn of Apple’s expected 2018 services segment revenue — about one-quarter of the estimated total — has almost nothing to do with Apple itself.

Goldman estimated the $9bn is coming from Google, which pays Apple for the privilege of being the built-in search engine on Apple’s Safari web browsers, on Siri and some other spots on Apple devices. Google constantly talks about the pile of money it’s paying to Apple and others, 1 and Google investors track it fanatically. Apple, by contrast, never talks about its revenue stream from Google, and investors never seem to care about it. If Goldman’s figure is correct, however, it should dent investors’ beliefs about Apple’s business transformation, and it calls into question Apple’s moral proclamations about digital advertising.

Most estimates of Apple’s revenue from Google are more like $3bn to $4bn a year rather than double or triple that figure. But it is true that in its recent financial reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Apple has listed “licensing” as the first in a short list of contributors to sales growth in its services segment. “Licensing” includes the money that Apple is collecting from its search contract with Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other sources, including a legal settlement with Samsung…

…give Apple credit for not itself employing an aggressive system to harvest personal information for advertising purposes. What if instead Apple is generating one-quarter of its services revenue from enabling Google’s aggressive system of harvesting personal information for advertising purposes? Make no mistake — that is what Apple is doing by cashing those 10-figure checks from Google.

That feels worse, because Apple gets to collect a high-profit pile of money from the spoils of digital advertising without having to be accountable for the downsides of that digital advertising system. It’s perfect, and perfectly hypocritical.


Neil Cybart, a former Wall St analyst, poured cold water on the $9bn figure (he puts all of Licensing as less than $4bn for all of 2017). As to the “harvesting personal information” – Google doesn’t get location data from phones unless people directly consent. It can’t grab peoples’ information unless they consent. This contrasts starkly with Google tracking people on Android even when they ask it to stop.
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What if everything we know about dark matter is totally wrong? • Wired

Katia Moskvitch:


Despite huge pots of money being poured since the 1970s into dark matter experiments on, under or above Earth, despite endless late nights spent doing calculations, and despite plenty of media coverage, researchers keep getting nowhere. Apart from SNOLAB, there is the LUX experiment in Lead, South Dakota, one mile underground in an abandoned gold mine. It has obtained zero results. In France, the EDELWEISS experiment in a lab under the French Alps, under 1.7 km of rock, has found nothing. The PandaX experiment in the Jin-Ping sub-terrain laboratory in China hasn’t spotted any particles either. In India, Jaduguda Underground Science Laboratory opened last year, 550 meters below the surface at an operating uranium mine. So far, they have found nothing (well, they’ve only been looking for a year). And on, and on, and on.

The leading theory is that dark matter is made out of particles that interact with normal, atomic, matter or light only through gravity – by exerting a gravitational pull. SuperCDMS will be looking for a very specific type of such exotic particles, so-called WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles. That’s the main (some say most obvious) dark matter candidate several detectors are searching for. Scientists are even trying to create these particles in the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva (which cost nearly $7bn to build). But all in vain.

So just how much longer can researchers justify that they are looking for something unknown and finding nothing, but still get away with asking for more money to look for nothing… just a little bit longer? Well, turns out that for the researchers who have devoted their whole life to dark matter, null results are ultra-important – nearly as important as finding something.


If we stopped looking for dark matter, what would happen to all the dark matter articles? I mean, we’d know that the desire to write them was out there, but how would we prove it existed?
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Instagram is deciding the future of concerts, says LeRoy Bennett • Rolling Stone

Amy X Wang:


Artists these days have a new concern at the forefront of their minds when designing tours and concerts: how they look not just to live audiences — but also to millions, and potentially billions, of people at home. A chief driver of that worry is Instagram.

In the last year, the social media app has added 300 million monthly active users — doubling in size and bringing its total global user count to twice the size of the population of the United States. Of that immense user base, nearly half follow 10 or more verified musicians. And even more are making regularly posts and Instagram stories about music, with concerts a particularly popular photo and video subject. “A show no longer starts when the curtain rises,” entertainment architect Ray Winkler, who designed Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II tour, told Rolling Stone earlier this summer. “The show starts the moment the first person takes a picture of it.

As Instagram continues on its explosive growth trajectory, artists are employing all sorts of tactics ranging from practical to outlandish to ramp up the visuals of their tours and the create the perfect “Instagram moment,” says longtime concert designer LeRoy Bennett, who’s produced iconic shows for Madonna, Prince, Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney and a litany of other household names. Rolling Stone caught up with Bennett on how the trend is changing the concert industry — and where it will go from here.


Telling quote:


It can be a pain in the ass when it comes to the lighting side of things, because artists will look at these Instagrams and they get upset thinking that’s how they looked during the show when someone just took a bad photograph.


link to this extract

Google’s new ‘Potential Trips’ will plan a vacation for you • Condé Nast Traveler

Meredith Carey:


For two years, Google has been trawling through your emails for hotel bookings, flight reservations, train tickets, and more, packaging them up with a nice pretty bow in its Trips app. Now, it’s taking that personal-assistant thing one step further: by helping you plan “potential trips” in the future, piecing together the on-and-off research you’ve been doing online, Richard Holden, Google’s VP of product management, said at the Skift Global Forum in New York City this morning.

Since there are few details—it will launch on mobile in the U.S. in the “next few weeks”—Holden’s own words can explain it best. “You may have done research on Google a trip to Milan, but you haven’t actually booked it. We have all the research you’ve done—you may have starred things in Maps that you want to visit—so when you go back to Google, you’ll see ‘Upcoming trips’ but you’ll also see ‘Potential trip to Milan,’ which will show all of that recent research you’ve done, so you can pick up where you left off,” he says…

…as Traveler’s Brad Rickman wrote last year when new Trips features rolled out, it was nice to have a travel agent and partner that “actually knows something about [you]—has been there with [you], not just strolling alongside but paying attention.”


That is what we want out of these assistants, isn’t it? That they’ll pay attention to what we do.
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Forget viewability: your ads aren’t serving • Ad Exchanger

Daniel Rosenblatt is in charge of Uber’s “rider display marketing”:


In late Q4, we launched a series of small rich-media-based mobile brand campaigns to dip our toes in the water and establish performance benchmarks. We ran the tests for a few days then reviewed the data. This health check uncovered some odd trends.

First, our click-through rates were almost zero. For in-app static 300x250s with impression and click trackers, we could sometimes see as high as 2% click-through rates (CTRs). But exciting, motion-enabled, dynamic ads were generating sub-0.10% CTRs. It just didn’t make sense. On top of that, incrementality was completely flat across various short-term metrics.

Something was wrong. We were buying significant inventory across well-known, major exchanges, but it was as if our ads weren’t being served at all.


When he looked into it, it turned out that publishers were saying their pages could accept any ad, even if they couldn’t; and ad networks weren’t bothering to check.

Upshot: Uber pulled all its ads from the networks that didn’t bother to check. But clearly, there are tons of ads which aren’t being shown. That saying about “50% of my money spent on advertising is wasted”? Still true online, it seems.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.920: Berners-Lee’s new web plan, how America failed women, Facebook’s breach, US hits tech stasis, Office un-touched, and more

  1. “The dangers of monoculture.”. So, we’ve moved on from denouncing the horrors of fragmentation ? Though I agree in theory (biodiversity ftw !), in this type of cases it’s more the utter lack on consequences for companies doing a crappy job at securing data (ours ? theirs ?) that’s an issue. Regulate or nationalize !

    re: Office touch: I think you’re jumping to conclusions about a touch Mac being a Bad Thing because Windows-touch-Office has few customers. MS has other touch versions of Office, for Android and iOS. I think reading anything but the utter failure of Windows phones and (pure, not convertibles, not 2-in-1) tablets into MS’s decision to de-emphasize touch Office is overreach. Also for the record, I strongly feel we need pointer-iOS first, not touch-MacOS. Though I’ve found myself trying to touch my Windows laptop’s screen, so maybe touch would be nice there too. But I mostly want to stop having to support legacy OSes for incompetent and in-over-their-heads users who’re happy with iOS/Android but want a comfy, big-screen, mouse/trackpad work computer.

  2. Continuing on the “cynical” discussion. Couldn’t “privacy first !” (???) Apple use duckduckgo or somesuch instead of Google ?

  3. re Google planning trips for me: I’m still amazed at how bad Google’s selection of ads, and Amazon’s product recos, are for me (as in: I don’t remember ever getting one I wanted to click on, and there’ sno way to tell them want I’m looking for right now to help them be less dumb). So forgive me for chuckling at the idea of Google suggesting trips.

    Plus lately, Google Maps has been flaky and I’ve switched to Nokia’s Here We Go, which is not only not flaky, but better overall (UI especially, anecdotally also data).

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