Start Up No.931: Facebook and Myanmar, inside Google+, the voice resistance, Palm reborn!, Reddit’s product manager regrets, and more

Anki, which brought you self-driving Scalextric cars, has a new product. Photo by Ian Hughes on Flickr.

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

Myanmar’s military said to be behind Facebook campaign that fuelled genocide • The New York Times

Paul Mozur:


They posed as fans of pop stars and national heroes as they flooded Facebook with their hatred. One said Islam was a global threat to Buddhism. Another shared a false story about the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man.

The Facebook posts were not from everyday internet users. Instead, they were from Myanmar military personnel who turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing, according to former military officials, researchers and civilian officials in the country.

The Myanmar military were the prime operatives behind a systematic campaign on Facebook that stretched back half a decade and that targeted the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group, the people said. The military exploited Facebook’s wide reach in Myanmar, where it is so broadly used that many of the country’s 18 million internet users confuse the Silicon Valley social media platform with the internet. Human rights groups blame the anti-Rohingya propaganda for inciting murders, rapes and the largest forced human migration in recent history.

While Facebook took down the official accounts of senior Myanmar military leaders in August, the breadth and details of the propaganda campaign — which was hidden behind fake names and sham accounts — went undetected. The campaign, described by five people who asked for anonymity because they feared for their safety, included hundreds of military personnel who created troll accounts and news and celebrity pages on Facebook and then flooded them with incendiary comments and posts timed for peak viewership.


Off the back of this, I got into a discussion on Twitter with Antonio Garcia Martinez, ex-Facebook, who is in many ways the person who speaks for Facebook (he understands its id). It seems there’s no simple way to challenge this; we live in a world where it’s too late to prevent this happening.
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Trend watch: where are we using voice assistants? • CivicScience


With the voice assistant landscape continuously changing, what is the sentiment towards using them and on what types of devices are people using them most frequently?

CivicScience surveyed over 5,300 Americans on their experience with voice assistants and looked into how demographics come into play, as well as on what devices they use voice assistants with.


51% haven’t used and aren’t interested? That’s quite a crimping on the total addressable market.

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The future’s so bright, I gotta wear blinders • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:


A few years ago, the technology critic Michael Sacasas introduced the term “Borg Complex” to describe the attitude and rhetoric of modern-day utopians who believe that computer technology is an unstoppable force for good and that anyone who resists or even looks critically at the expanding hegemony of the digital is a benighted fool. (The Borg is an alien race in Star Trek that sucks up the minds of other races, telling its victims that “resistance is futile.”) Those afflicted with the complex, Sacasas observed, rely on a a set of largely specious assertions to dismiss concerns about the ill effects of technological progress. The Borgers are quick, for example, to make grandiose claims about the coming benefits of new technologies (remember MOOCs?) while dismissing past cultural achievements with contempt (“I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away”).

To Sacasas’s list of such obfuscating rhetorical devices, I would add the assertion that we are at “the beginning.” By perpetually refreshing the illusion that progress is just getting under way, gadget worshippers like Kelly are able to wave away the problems that progress is causing. Any ill effect can be explained, and dismissed, as just a temporary bug in the system, which will soon be fixed by our benevolent engineers. (If you look at Mark Zuckerberg’s responses to Facebook’s problems over the years, you’ll find that they are all variations on this theme.) Any attempt to put constraints on technologists and technology companies becomes, in this view, a short-sighted and possibly disastrous obstruction of technology’s march toward a brighter future for everyone — what Kelly is still calling the “long boom.” You ain’t seen nothing yet, so stay out of our way and let us work our magic.


Is there such a thing as a pragmatic pessimist? If so then Nick Carr fits the bill.
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Tiny new Palm at Verizon positioned as ‘accessory’ smartphone and we guess that’s a thing now? • Android Police

Corbin Davenport:


Last year, TCL announced that new devices with Palm branding would launch in 2018, and the first phone leaked a few months ago. The tiny 3.3-inch Palm phone is now official, and it’s coming to Verizon next month for a whopping $349.99.

Rather than being an independent phone, it functions as a ‘Connected device,’ similar to a smartwatch. You have to pay an extra $10/month, and it will receive the same phone calls and SMS messages as your main phone. TCL is positioning it as a secondary device for when you need a break from your regular phone.


A… what? So a smartwatch, basically. Except phone-shaped and won’t fit on your wrist. The basketball player Stephen Curry launched it… with a tweet from an iPhone.

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Vector, Anki’s cute robot companion, is available today • Engadget

Imad Khan:


Anki’s Vector, the $2m Kickstarter darling, is out today, and he’s ready to be your best friend. Vector is the follow-up to Anki’s first Robot, Cozmo. While Cozmo was more focused on being a toy for kids, Vector aims to be a robot assistant. It will even have Alexa integration by the end of the year, giving it access to a larger trove of information to be able to answer more questions.

Vector’s defining characteristic are its large, expressive eyes. The Wall-E-esque nature of the robot gives it an adorable personality. And even while you’re typing away at your desk, Vector will be doing its own thing, exploring and messing around. It can even do tricks, like pop a wheelie.

Vector has a front-facing camera that can recognize your face, as well as a four-microphone array on top for voice commands. And whenever Vector runs low on battery, he’ll truck on over to a charging port and juice up.

Anki will be updating Vector throughout its lifespan.


Anki was the company which wowed Apple’s WWDC back in 2013 when they showed their self-driving cars – the very neat Anki Drive, a sort of Scalextric where the cars figured out the track themselves – but since then it doesn’t seem to have had that many hits. Interesting company; maybe the crowdfunding model is the right way to find what people really want.
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Zimbabwe’s attempt to tackle ‘bad’ currency deepens economic woes • Financial Times

David Pilling and Joseph Cotterill:


Zimbabwe is in the grip of a new economic crisis as the value of the country’s local currency collapses and shop shelves are stripped bare after a panic-buying spree last week.

Attempts to resolve the country’s complex currency system — in which non-dollar-backed electronic money and local “bond notes” are rapidly losing value — have been undermined by mixed messages from the government. The latest crisis is reviving memories of hyperinflation and undermining the new administration’s message that the country is “open for business”.

Amid a desperate shortage of dollars, even local KFC outlets were forced to shut up shop, unable to access the funds to buy chicken.

The problems began this month when Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe’s finance minister, said he was dividing bank accounts into two types — ones containing “good” and “bad” dollars. The “good” accounts are those backed by real inflows of dollars, remitted by millions of Zimbabweans in the diaspora. The “bad” accounts are those holding electronic money, known as RTGS, or real-time gross settlement.

Zimbabwe has been a dollarised economy for almost a decade since the government scrapped the local currency after a hyperinflationary meltdown.


Maybe if they tried some cryptocu.. no, forget it.
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From memes to Infowars: how 75 fascist activists were “red-pilled” • bellingcat

Robert Evans:


An online community develops its own lingo over time. Among fascist activists “red-pilling” means converting someone to fascist, racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. The term originates with “The Matrix,” a popular 1999 film. The protagonist is offered the choice between a red pill, which will open his eyes to the reality of a machine-dominated world, and a blue pill, which will return him to ignorance and safety. The definition of “red pill,” as used by fascists, is rather elastic. Films and songs are described as “red pilled” if they reinforce a far-right worldview. At least one poster referred to amphetamines as red-pilled.

There appears to be no agreed-upon standard for when a human being is red-pilled. Most fascist activists agree that acknowledgement of the Jewish Question, or JQ, is critical. This means believing that Jewish people are at the center of a vast global conspiracy. The end goal of this conspiracy is usually described as “white genocide”, but there are numerous variations.

Red pilling is described as a gradual process. Individual people can be red-pilled on certain issues and not others. Stefan Molyneux, a popular author and far-right YouTube personality, is seen as being red-pilled on race and “the future of the west” even though he is not considered as a fascist. Prominent YouTuber PewPewDie is also often considered red-pilled. It is accepted that media personalities need to hide their outright fascist beliefs, or “power level”, in order to have a chance at red-pilling the general population (usually called “normies”).


This really is a quite depressing dive into a weird subculture. Being able to bring small groups with common thinking together is the internet’s strength, but also its failing. And there’s plentiful evidence that any online group tends to get dragged to the extreme views held within it. Also: YouTube is a big part of this process.
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Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL review: the best camera gets a better phone • The Verge

Dieter Bohn likes the camera and thinks it scratches easily and yada yada but this I found worthwhile:


By far, the coolest software feature on the Pixel 3 (which is also coming to the Pixel 2) is Call Screening. When a phone call comes in, you can tap a button to screen it. When you do, a semi-robotic voice will speak to your caller and ask them why they’re calling. You watch this happen via text in real time on your screen, and the caller’s response is similarly transcribed for you as they speak.

When the call is active, you can tap a few pre-canned buttons to ask follow-up questions, hit a button to answer, or hit a button to hang up. It’s seriously useful and seriously impressive. Like everybody else, I get a ton of spam calls, and I sometimes feel like those unknown numbers might actually be real. It’s richly, darkly satisfying to know that I’m forcing a robocall to talk to a Google robot.


Dan Seifert, a senior editor at The Verge, raved about this feature on Twitter. Though “there’s a lot of spam calling, let’s make it easier to screen them” slightly reminds me of the American solution to the fact that it’s years behind getting electronic payments between people sorted out, and so relies on cheques a lot.

Solution: produce software that OCRs the cheques. Not “sort out the electronic payment system”?
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Now that Google+ has been shuttered… • Morgan Knutson

Knutson was a designer on Google – which he was assigned to when he joined Google in 2012. He didn’t enjoy the experience of dealing with the office politics:


Now that Google has been shuttered, I should air my dirty laundry on how awful the project and exec team was.

I’m still pissed about the bait and switch they pulled by telling me I’d be working on Chrome, then putting me on this god forsaken piece of shit on day one.
This will be a super slow burn that goes back many years. I’ll continue to add to over the next couple of days. I’ll preface it with a bunch of backstory and explain what I had left behind, which made me more unhappy about the culture I had come into.


It’s a long thread (on Twitter; here unrolled into one page by @threadreaderapp) which left me thinking that his experience in small non-profits where he was the only person doing a ton of work really did not prepare him for being a small cog in a vast machine, where some of the other cogs are interested in seeing you leave.

Also worth noting: his comment on how the gigantic bonuses offered all over the company to shoehorn Google+ into products meant “No one really liked this [addition of G+]. People drank the kool-aid though, but mostly because it was green and made of paper”.
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Crypto markets roiled as traders question Tether’s dollar peg • Bloomberg

Andrea Tan, Eric Lam and Benjamin Robertson:


The company that issues Tether has yet to provide conclusive evidence of its dollar holdings, even though it has repeatedly said that all Tethers are redeemable at $1. That claim helped make Tether the world’s second-most actively traded cryptocurrency: It was used in more than 20% of transactions tracked by over the past 24 hours.

Tether’s latest dip follows renewed speculation over the financial health and banking relationships of Bitfinex, a crypto exchange that shares a chief executive officer with Tether’s issuer. In a Medium post on Oct. 8, Bitfinex dismissed allegations that it was insolvent and said that withdrawals were functioning as normal. At the same time, it said that “complications continue to exist for us in the domain of fiat transactions.”

Many crypto-related firms have struggled to retain banking relationships as regulators in the US and elsewhere scrutinize the industry’s exposure to risks including money laundering, market manipulation and security breaches. The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission sent subpoenas to Bitfinex and Tether at the end of last year, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg in January.

Bitfinex couldn’t immediately be reached through an external spokeswoman.

“If traders start to flee Tether, it’s a potentially precarious situation, since it accounts for 20% of total volumes globally,” said Vijay Ayyar, head of business development at Luno, a cryptocurrency exchange. “It basically implies a lot of volatility ahead.”


Something is brewing at Bitfinex, and it doesn’t look good. Trading premiums at the exchange (ie what you need to pay to make a transaction) shot up on Monday morning; there’s a growing belief that it doesn’t have the assets. Basically, we’re seeing a run on the bank of Tether, and this isn’t going to be a version of It’s A Wonderful Life where James Stewart saves the day. People are going to lose money.
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‘I fundamentally believe that my time at reddit made the world a worse place’ • NY Mag

Noah Kulwin speaks to former Reddit product manager Dan McComas:


(McComas:) I think, ultimately, the problem that Reddit has is the same as Twitter and Discord. By focusing on growth and growth only and ignoring the problems, they amassed a large set of cultural norms on their platforms. Their cultural norms are different for every community, but they tend to stem from harassment or abuse or bad behavior, and they have worked themselves into a position where they’re completely defensive and they can just never catch up on the problem. I really don’t believe it’s possible for either of them to catch up on the problem. I think the best that they can do is figure out how to hide this behavior from an average user. I don’t see any way that it’s going to improve. I have no hope for either of those platforms.

Q: Why?
McComas: I just think that the problems are too ingrained, in not only the site and the site’s communities and users but in the general understanding and expectations of the public. I think that if you ask pretty much anybody about Reddit, they’re either not going to know what Reddit is, which is the large majority of people, or they’re going to be like, “Oh, it’s that place where there’s jailbait or something like that.” I don’t think that they’re going to be able to turn these things around.

Q: Were there moments in which Reddit chose to double down on something and made it that much harder to work toward a solution?
McComas: I don’t know. I’m trying to think about your question. The typical pattern that we always went through was, there would be a bunch of bad behavior on the site, and the community team would have to deal with it and would be really annoyed. Sometimes they would take the free-speech side and decide that we don’t want to make a call on this. Other times they would say, “Hey, we need to take care of this,” and somebody above them would raise either the free-speech side or the “I don’t want to deal with this because it would cause too many problems on the site” side. That was more often the response.


McComas has thought a lot about this, and describes a systemic problem that runs through everything, from management to funding.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

14 thoughts on “Start Up No.931: Facebook and Myanmar, inside Google+, the voice resistance, Palm reborn!, Reddit’s product manager regrets, and more

  1. re Voice Assistants, that’s typically the type of poll in which the framing and wording of the question determines the ourcome. Using an abstract generic term and not linking it to any situation/task/benefit ensures low acceptance. “Using a voice assistant” vs “setting a timer hands-free” or even “what if your remote worked by talking to it”. You’ll get dramatically different answers.

    I majored in Marketing with a focus on market surveys. Polls are the worst, with both the theoretical difficulties of statistics and the mushiness of soft science. And crazy operational issues (students filling theirassigned surveys by the dozen, self-selecting responders…) The one redeeming quality: if you use the same poll over time, you should get the movement right, even if the levels are skewed.

    Admittedly, I’m having a hard time converting people, even with that “small door” approach. Voice recog is too sensitive to external noises, and mumbling/hesitations. People don’t naturally build the sentence in their head before launching into it so more than verb+object (“set an alarm at 10:00” counts as verb + object ^^), don’t enunciate perfectly, and life noises around them abound, also interruptions/interjections.

    • So you’re saying… the poll’s findings fit your experience of people who have tried them? “I’ve used them, but I don’t like them”/”use them and like them” is about 2:3.

      • Yes for that sub part.

        But the main part, “no I’m not interested”, is based on the most unsalesman-like approach possible, thus preordained.

    • I wonder how the question was framed too. A couple of years ago I did a focus group in which I asked students if they used RSS, none of them did. I then asked if they use personalized google news. They all did. Which uses rss, they just didn’t see or realize it was rss. So with these smart speakers, if they asked, have you used Alexa, Hey Google, or Siri, they might have said yes, because they don’t see that technology as a smart speaker.

      • Isn’t the question framed as it’s given in the diagram? And the question is about “voice assistants”, and explicitly mentions Alexa – which one has to invoke to use the Amazon Dot/Echo/etc.

      • “Isn’t the question framed as it’s given in the diagram? And the question is about “voice assistants”, and explicitly mentions Alexa – which one has to invoke to use the Amazon Dot/Echo/etc.”

        It sort of does but for example, I’m in my car, I say, “send a text to x” and the car does it. Its using Siri to do so but if I wasn’t a tech person I might think its the car doing that, not Siri, and I wouldn’t think of it as a voice assistant, but as a car.

        In fact, here’s a better example, nearly every utility I call on my phone is using voice assistant to direct my call. That’s me using a voice assistant but I’m thinking of it as using pepco etc..

        Its not that I think the question was phrased completely wrong. Its that I think we’re not trained yet to recognize voice assistants in our environment very well and hence the data above is meaningless because its assuming people have a choice over using this tech when the most common choices are made by companies who connect to the public, not individuals.

  2. re. Palm phone: it’s not really watch-like, it runs full Android apps. And it does deserve the smartphone moniker, with 3GB of RAM and a screen about as big as the original iPhone’s (remember how much you loved it ?) at a much better definition.

    But I think you”re right in that probably 50% of that phone’s use cases (calls, messages, basic GPS+maps) are well covered by something in watch format. Better, in the case of sports. There’s a long history of companion phones: , Huawei had one too IIRC. The “for that oversize 5″ behemoth” is funny, retroactively.

    The big fat issue is the price, the Xiaomi Redmi 5A/6A have similar specs with a “big” 5″ screen (which is or isn’t a Good Thing) an SD slot and a serviceable camera (except in low light) for $100, vs $350 for the Palm.

      • I’d give it free with 2yrs of the $10/mo service, the thing cannot cost more than $60-ish to make, so $120 wholesale.
        Except I’m not sure anyone actually wants that service. Their setup lets them make $230 (phone) + $240 (service) = $470 over 2 yrs per user, mine $240 (service) – $120 (phone) = $120 and I’m not sure at all they’d get 4x more users.

  3. Aaaaaand Huawei’s Mate 20 is out. Of note:
    – they keep their battery joke-troll alive, their phones used to be able to charge other phones via cable, this year they can do so wirelessly. No one ever used that, but it gets the “large battery” message across.
    – in-screen fingerprint scanner on the higher-end model
    – 3 cameras on the back, but they got rid of their exclusive black and white lens for wide-angle + 2x telephoto. That’s treading on LG’s turf, they have been up to now the wide-angle specialists, and have a small but devoted following for it.
    – SoC is not even big.LITTLE but big.MeDiUm.LITTLE. Huawei has struggled with their thread scheduler in the past, this puts even more responsibility on it, AnandTech’s deep dive in a few weeks should be fascinating. Huawei’s last-gen AI processing power beat Apple’s last-gen, will see how it turns out this time.
    – Huawei is launching a new “nano” SD card format that exactly fits in a nano-SIM tray. Not sure if it’s open, or if it’ll catch on, right now phones have a tray that does double-duty: SIM one way or micro-SD by rotating 90°. Meh.

    • Side note on Huawei and sizes: there’s something going on, Huawei is giving me some love.

      I’ve been precluded from buying flagships for a few years, because the really gigantic phones diverged from flagships after the seminal HD2 and Galaxy Note 1; the original Hawei Mate, Mediapad X1 were midrangers, then Huawei dropped out of the humongous phone segment leaving Xiaomi’s very midrange Mi Max alone. This year Huawei is releasing a humongous variant of several phones (Note 10, 8X Max, Mate 20 X). I’d hazard a guess it’s not just for me, and the “ridiculously-large” segment is being validated. Phew ! That took a while !

      Now if only we could go back to 16:10…

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