Start Up No.923: the robot autonomous farm, Tim Cook on data, the information terrorists, XS camera in depth, and more

What if you could completely automate your job? Some people have. Photo by Brian J. Matis on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How to program your job • The Atlantic

Brian Merchant:


It can seem that some of the only workers who have realized any scrap of that rusty old promise of automation are the ones who’ve carved out the code to claim it for themselves.

Programmers, of course, have been writing code that automates their work for decades. Programming generally involves utilizing tools that add automation at different levels, from code formatting to merging to different codebases—most just don’t take it to the extreme of fully or nearly fully automating their job. I chatted, via direct message on Reddit and email, with around a dozen programmers who said they had. These self-automators had tackled inventory management, report writing, graphics rendering, database administration, and data entry of every kind. One automated his wife’s entire workload, too. Most asked to remain anonymous, to protect their jobs and reputations.

“When I started, my job literally took me eight hours a day,” an early self-automator, who I’ll call Gary, told me. He worked for a large corporate hotel chain that was beginning to computerize its workflow in the ‘90s. Gary quickly recognized that he was spending a lot of his time repeating the same tasks, so he started learning to code after-hours. “Over the course of about three months, I built a piece of code in Lotus [1-2-3, then a popular PC spreadsheet program] that not only automated individual repetitive tasks, it effectively automated the entire job.” He didn’t tell his bosses exactly what he had done, and the quality of his working life improved considerably.

“It felt weird to have free time during the day,” he told me. “I spent that time learning about the other systems in the hotel.” He then made himself useful, helping management with bottlenecks in those systems.


What’s fascinating – even a little surprising – is how those who did this began to feel. They worried that they ought to be doing something, even though they were “doing” their job.
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New autonomous farm wants to produce food without human workers • MIT Technology Review

Erin Winick:


As the firm’s cofounder Brandon Alexander puts it: “We are a farm and will always be a farm.”

But it’s no ordinary farm. For starters, the company’s 15 human employees share their work space with robots who quietly go about the business of tending rows and rows of leafy greens.

Today Iron Ox is opening its first production facility in San Carlos, near San Francisco. The 8,000-square-foot indoor hydroponic facility—which is attached to the startup’s offices—will be producing leafy greens at a rate of roughly 26,000 heads a year. That’s the production level of a typical outdoor farm that might be five times bigger. The opening is the next big step toward fulfilling the company’s grand vision: a fully autonomous farm where software and robotics fill the place of human agricultural workers, which are currently in short supply.

Iron Ox isn’t selling any of the food it produces just yet (it is still in talks with a number of local restaurants and grocers). So for now, those tens of thousands of heads of lettuce are going to a local food bank and to the company salad bar. Its employees had better love  eating lettuce.

The farm’s non-lettuce-consuming staff consists of a series of robotic arms and movers. The arms individually pluck the plants from their hydroponic trays and transfer them to new trays as they increase in size, maximizing their health and output—a luxury most outdoor farms don’t have. Big white mechanical movers carry the 800-pound water-filled trays around the facility.


Food is where technology got its big start. Thigh bones of antelopes, axes, knives, ploughs…
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Apple CEO Tim Cook says giving up your data for better services is ‘a bunch of bunk’ • The Washington Post

Hamza Shaban:


Apple chief executive Tim Cook urged consumers not to believe the dominant tech industry narrative that the data collected about them will lead to better services.

In an interview with “Vice News Tonight” that aired Tuesday, Cook highlighted his company’s commitment to user privacy, positioning Apple’s business as one that stands apart from tech giants that compile massive amounts of personal data and sell the ability to target users through advertising.

“The narrative that some companies will try to get you to believe is: I’ve got to take all of our data to make my service better,” he said. “Well, don’t believe them. Whoever’s telling you that, it’s a bunch of bunk.”

Cook’s remarks come at a pivotal time for Silicon Valley. In the past year, technology companies and their executives have come under unprecedented scrutiny from elected officials and regulators stemming from a variety of issues, including a barrage of data privacy scandals, accusations of toxic corporate culture, the negative impact of tech platforms on political debate, and concerns over tech overuse and addiction. In recent months, growing calls from Capitol Hill have boosted the prospects of new legislation aimed at big tech companies…

…Cook said in the interview that he is “exceedingly optimistic” that the topic of data privacy has reached an elevated level of public debate. “When the free market doesn’t produce a result that’s great for society you have to ask yourself what do we need to do. And I think some level of government regulation is important to come out on that.”


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Are smartphones the next generation consoles? • Strategy Analytics


By streaming games over networks, and invalidating the need for expensive hardware, game streaming services could potentially eliminate the concept of gaming generations by making any portable device a viable gaming machine. A new report from the User Experience Strategies (UXS) group at Strategy Analytics, Game Streaming: The Last Console Generation?, has assessed existing game streaming and download services to study the user experience issues that can arise from them. Streaming games over the internet could affect gaming in the same way that Netflix has affected video; but there are unique challenges that must be addressed for it to reach mainstream appeal.

Key report findings:

• Though game streaming could invalidate the need for bulky home consoles, proprietary controllers are still required. Since cross-platform games all feature different control schemes, the need for a universal standard is clear.
• It is nearly impossible to guarantee an ideal game streaming service for everyone, which is problematic when the service comes with a monthly charge. Factors like bandwidth and latency are key issues, but other interruptions to a service can affect the overall user experience.
• Games processed in the cloud are free from the limitations of hardware and could allow game developers to create experiences that would be otherwise impossible to achieve on aging hardware.


That need for proprietary controllers to get the best results is going to be a problem for their thesis.
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FireEye unmasks a new North Korean threat group • Cyberscoop

Sean Lyngaas:


There is a distinct and aggressive group of hackers bent on financing the North Korean regime and responsible for millions of dollars in bank heists in recent years, according to research from cybersecurity company FireEye.

The group, dubbed APT38, is distinct from other Pyongyang-linked hackers because of its overriding financial motivation — as opposed to pure espionage — and persistent targeting of banks worldwide, FireEye researchers said.

“This is an active … threat against financial institutions all around the world,” Sandra Joyce, FireEye’s vice president of global intelligence, said at a press briefing.

The group was responsible for some of the more high-profile attacks on financial institutions in the last few years, the researchers said, including the $81m heist of the Bangladesh’s central bank in February 2016, and an attack on a Taiwanese bank in October 2017.


The Bangladesh bank one was widely known, but not the Taiwanese one. North Korea’s GDP is so tiny, and its foreign exchange reserves so tiny that this was a smart move.
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Judge Kavanaugh and the information terrorists trying to reshape America • WIRED

Molly McKew:


In 2014, Chuck Johnson explained in a Mother Jones interview how he offered “bounties” to independent online researchers to solve “puzzles” that he gave them. What he said is actually a good description of why QAnon works: “You get all these hobbyists and amateurs and people out there who have a lot of time on their hands, many of whom are retired or they’re a mother, their kids are sleeping while they’re researching, they’re stay-at-home moms, or they’re college students or they’re unemployed or this is their moonlighting thing. All those people are starting to find one another.” It’s that sense of being a part of a bigger mission…

…even before Q was visible at Trump rallies and the media was writing about it, there was a disturbance in the Q-force. In May 2018, Infowars and the others in the Stone cadre started urgently denouncing QAnon, saying it had been “hijacked” by a deep-state information campaign or maybe just by people out to make a buck. For most of the summer, Posobiec teased that he would explain the whole deal.

In September, his opus supposedly debunking QAnon debuted, outing MicroChip, the aforementioned bot-king, and someone named Dreamcatcher as the creators of QAnon. According to Micro (if any of this is to be believed), they basically just created a word salad out of the stuff Trump supporters believed—the sex trafficking mania, Clinton is about to be arrested, the Generals, Russia’s not a thing, Trump is the savior—and made a list of questions that would tantalize that audience and engage them online.

“It was meant to be funny, to get people’s imaginations going,” Micro said in his interview with Posobiec. “It’s not supposed to go this far.” He said they only wrote a few of the original posts, essentially to bring disparate factions of the Trump movement together, and then someone else took it over.


Fascinating tour around the insane alt-right conspiracy theories. And their idiot helpers.
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iPhone XS: why it’s a whole new camera • Halide

Sebastiaan de With:


After testing the iPhone XS side by side with the X, we found the XS prefers a faster shutter speed and higher ISO level. In other words, it takes photos a lot faster, but comes at the cost of noise.

iPhone X RAW on the left, iPhone XS RAW on the right. Note the increase in visible noise!

Two shots taken with the iPhone X (left) and iPhone XS (right). Taken in RAW so the extra noise can be seen—RAW on iPhone omits any noise-reduction steps. Why does the iPhone XS’ frame have to be noisier?

Remember that line-up of frames showing how the iPhone camera works?

Unless you have bionic arms, it’s impossible to hold your phone perfectly still for this long. To get a sharp, perfectly aligned burst of images, the iPhone needs to take photos really fast. That requires a shorter shutter speed — and that, in turn, means that there will be more noise in the image.
That noise has to be removed, somehow, and that comes at a cost: noise reduction removes a bit of detail and local contrast.

The iPhone XS RAW exposure on the left shows less ‘smoothed’ detail in the reflections, compared to its regular Smart HDR counterpart on the right.


There’s tons more: as you’d expect from people who developed a camera app. (Thanks @stormyparis for the link.)
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Here come Wi-Fi 4, 5 and 6 in plan to simplify 802.11 networking names • CNet

Jessica Dolcourt:


Quick quiz: which is better, 802.11n or 802.11ac?

The answer, if you’re familiar with Wi-Fi standards coming from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is 802.11ac – and by the way, the upcoming 802.11ax is better than both.

But in an effort to make the wireless networking terms more useful and less like alphanumeric gibberish, the Wi-Fi Alliance trade group has some new names it wants for those technologies: Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5, and Wi-Fi 6.

The idea is to be clearer about what’s better and what your phone or home router can handle without sounding as much like an electronic engineer. Not that there’s anything wrong with electronic engineers, but even techies can have a hard time remembering that IEEE 802.11 means wireless networks, IEEE 1394 governs FireWire data connections, and IEEE 802.3 is about Ethernet network connections.


THANK. GOD. Also, will the numbers indicate maximum speeds somehow? Hmm, except Wi-Fi 1 (802.11b) would be Wi-Fi 11. Hmm.
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Why you shouldn’t use Facebook to log in to other sites • NY Times

Farhad Manjoo:


neither Facebook nor third-party sites seem to know the precise extent of the damage. In a statement on Tuesday, Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of product management, said the company had “no evidence” that attackers breached other sites through the hack, but that the company was building more sophisticated ways for sites to do their own deeper investigation.

But the mere possibility is highly troubling — and if the hack allowed access to any other sites, Facebook should be disqualified from acting as your sign-on service.

This is a classic you-had-one-job situation. Like a trusty superintendent in a Brooklyn walk-up, Facebook offered to carry keys for every lock online. The arrangement was convenient — the super was always right there, at the push of a button. It was also more secure than creating and remembering dozens of passwords for different sites. Facebook had a financial and reputational incentive to hire the best security people to protect your keys; tons of small sites online don’t — and if they got hacked and if you reused your passwords elsewhere, you were hosed.
But the extensive hack vaporizes those arguments. If the entity with which you trusted your keys loses your keys, you take your keys elsewhere. And there are many more-secure and just-as-convenient ways to sign on to things online.

The best way is to use a dedicated password manager — a service, like LastPass or 1Password, that creates and remembers strong passwords for different sites. Operating systems and browsers are also getting better at managing passwords; newer iPhones, for instance, let you unlock sites with facial recognition, which is just as convenient as pressing Facebook’s button.

If for some reason you don’t want to use a password manager, you can use another tech giant’s sign-on service. When presented with different ways to sign on to sites, you can choose Google or Microsoft instead of Facebook.


Though what happens when those single sign-ons (SSOs) at Google or Microsoft get hacked? I did commission a piece at The Guardian back in 2010 or so from a US startup which found that teens didn’t like using Facebook to sign into a new app, because they didn’t feel it was anonymous – that Facebook would know what they were doing.
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More than nine million broken links on Wikipedia are now rescued • Internet Archive

Mark Graham:


As part of the Internet Archive’s aim to build a better Web, we have been working to make the Web more reliable — and are pleased to announce that nine million formerly broken links on Wikipedia now work because they go to archived versions in the Wayback Machine.

For more than five years, the Internet Archive has been archiving nearly every URL referenced in close to 300 wikipedia sites as soon as those links are added or changed at the rate of about 20 million URLs/week.

And for the past three years, we have been running a software robot called IABot on 22 Wikipedia language editions looking for broken links (URLs that return a ‘404’, or ‘Page Not Found’). When broken links are discovered, IABot searches for archives in the Wayback Machine and other web archives to replace them with. Restoring links ensures Wikipedia remains accurate and verifiable and thus meets one of Wikipedia’s three core content policies: ‘Verifiability’.

To date we have successfully used IABot to edit and “fix” the URLs of nearly six million external references that would have otherwise returned a 404. In addition, members of the Wikipedia community have fixed more than six million links individually. Now more than nine million URLs, on 22 Wikipedia sites, point to archived resources from the Wayback Machine and other web archive providers.


This is impressive (and also means that at a stroke the Internet Archive has become the top destination for outgoing clicks from Wikipedia). Any time you want to give money for the IA’s work, feel free – don’t wait for my Christmas charity request.
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Redesigning Siri and adding multitasking features to iOS • UX Design

Kévin Eugène:


I wanted to imagine an update that I would personally be excited about if it showed up at the WWDC, and this is what I came up with.

Let me introduce you to iOS Mogi.

This is Mogi, a beautiful fishing village near Nagasaki in Japan. I took this picture last year.

« Hey Siri, help me »
The first part of this concept is focused on Siri. The idea here is not to create new commands, rather to display existing vocal requests that work well (like « Find me a good restaurant nearby » or « Get me pictures of Japan I took last year ») in a different way so they could be more useful to the user.
In iOS Mogi, Siri has been designed around a concept I call parallel help. The idea is to have a vocal assistant that is non-intrusive (it won’t take the whole screen like it does today), context aware, and can do things in the background for the user while they are doing something else.
As images are more explicit than words, here’s a very simple example:

Using Siri in Messages.
When using apps, Siri takes the shape of a notification so as to be less intrusive as possible (if summoned from the lock screen or the home screen, it will still be fullscreen).

In the example above, I ask Siri to show me pictures of Japan as I want to send one to my friend Yannick. Once the request is fulfilled, the result is displayed in the Siri notification so I can continue to do what I was doing without being interrupted. I can swipe down the notification to reveal more and select the photos I want to send.


Like that? He’s only just getting started. The idea of Siri as a really helpful full-time assistant which you call on (rather than which prods you annoyingly, Clippy-style) is truly attractive.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: sorry about the spelling error yesterday.

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6 thoughts on “Start Up No.923: the robot autonomous farm, Tim Cook on data, the information terrorists, XS camera in depth, and more

  1. I think TIm Cook is grossly oversimplifying for PR purposes. The issue has at least 3 layers:
    1- data security. Obviously nobody wants data stolen that allows hacking of computer and IRL accounts, ID theft… The current proliferation of copies of such data worsens risks.
    2- data sharing. One can be OK with one particular firm having their data, but not OK with that data moving on to who knows whom. I’m kind of OK with Google having a lot of data about me, confident they won’t “lose” it nor grossly misuse it. I’m not OK with Google giving my data to others (employers, health insurer, political campaigns, cops…)
    3- first-hand data. I understand there are a lot of good reasons companies need data to produce useful results. I’m all for proactive info on my commute, relevant ads, well-curated newsfeeds. The big disappointment here is that in spite of all the data they have, firms are failing to deliver results.

    Not making these distinctions is oversimplifying. Then again, Apple does need an excuse for Siri being subpar, and need to stick with their privacy schtick.

  2. re Mobile cloud gaming. Apart from my long comment yesterday, the controllers by themselves are only marginally different, and games already can support all of them. Pretty much all controllers use Bluetooth (though it has a lag issue, and that’s before even venturing on the internets…), or USB. Phones have both. Buttons and sticks are mostly the same. There still are IR and RF versions around, those won’t work with phones and are very platform-specific, AFAIK nobody even bothered to use the Xiaomi’s IR blaster to communicate with an IR gamepad nor with a IR console.

    In the end, you can, today, run xbox and PS emulators on an Android device, and use either’s controller, or a PC controller (BT or USB then, not RF nor IR) . I recently bought for my teen nephew a couple of Mobile-first controllers (BT+USB) with a grip for a smartphone. The doc said (not sure he’s tested it) they’d also work on his PC or xbox. They also sold a PS version that looked the same, but used different scancodes I guess. His PS/Nintendo/PC emulators on Android do recognize his xbox gamepad.

    So I’d think the issue is mild: make sure the customer gets a compatible controller, check which it type it is (xbox, PS, PC, and generation), use relevant scancodes and control schemes.

  3. Re Wifi 4/5/6: this is funny. 4=n, 5=ac, 6=ax. I feel soooo simplified !
    And no, the number doesn’t give much of a clue about the speed: first routers can support for 1×1 to 4×4 modes (so, 4x bandwidth), then each channel can also vary in width (IIRC, from 20 MHz to 160) so 8x. In the end, a “Wifi 6” router can mean from 200Mbps to 2.5 Gbps. I came across a detailed article about that, can’t locate it now.

  4. re. Whom to trust for sign-ons: I don’t know how FB does it, but Google does pop up an alert on my “old” devices when I sign on from a new device (“XXX just signed on from YYYY device in ZZZ town, is that you ?”). I assume if I answer “no” on any device, it overrides “Yesses” on other devices and “locks down” my account, whatever that means.

    Plus I got 2FA on it, but that’s impractical for most.

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