Start Up No.945: how Google (accidentally) unravelled a CIA network, the impossible laptop, smartphones’ dwindling battery life, USB-C iPhones?, and more

“The AI says it’s time to pass.” Photo by thearcticblues on Flickr.

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A selection of 15 links for you. Literally. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The CIA’s communications suffered a catastrophic compromise • Yahoo News

Zach Dorfman and Jenna McLaughlin:


Though the Iranians didn’t say precisely how they infiltrated the network, two former U.S. intelligence officials said that the Iranians cultivated a double agent who led them to the secret CIA communications system. This online system allowed CIA officers and their sources to communicate remotely in difficult operational environments like China and Iran, where in-person meetings are often dangerous.

A lack of proper vetting of sources may have led to the CIA inadvertently running a double agent, said one former senior official — a consequence of the CIA’s pressing need at the time to develop highly placed agents inside the Islamic Republic. After this betrayal, Israeli intelligence tipped off the CIA that Iran had likely identified some of its assets, said the same former official.

The losses could have stopped there. But U.S. officials believe Iranian intelligence was then able to compromise the covert communications system. At the CIA, there was “shock and awe” about the simplicity of the technique the Iranians used to successfully compromise the system, said one former official.

In fact, the Iranians used Google to identify the website the CIA was using to communicate with agents. Because Google is continuously scraping the internet for information about all the world’s websites, it can function as a tremendous investigative tool — even for counter-espionage purposes. And Google’s search functions allow users to employ advanced operators — like “AND,” “OR,” and other, much more sophisticated ones — that weed out and isolate websites and online data with extreme specificity.

According to the former intelligence official, once the Iranian double agent showed Iranian intelligence the website used to communicate with his or her CIA handlers, they began to scour the internet for websites with similar digital signifiers or components — eventually hitting on the right string of advanced search terms to locate other secret CIA websites. From there, Iranian intelligence tracked who was visiting these sites, and from where, and began to unravel the wider CIA network.


Iran then cooperated with China to identify US agents there, and then more widely identified US agents worldwide. Stunning piece of reporting. A long read, but worth it. Because of this, a number of US agents in China were caught and executed – the latter fact was reported separately of this a while back.
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Why limiting free users to 1,000 photos on Flickr is a smart move • Thomas Hawk Digital Connection

The pro photographer writes:


Oath is basically an advertising company and when you are advertising at people you need to be able to advertise to your most profitable customers to make the service work. When you give your most profitable customers (i.e. the ones with money) the option to pay to opt out of ads they do and will. What you are left with is a bunch of accounts by heavy users who are either poor Americans or more likely poor overseas accounts or very light users who can put up with ads but won’t see very many because they are only on your site 2 minutes a week. Whatever the case, you are basically providing a terabyte of enterprise storage, bandwidth, support, etc., to customers who cannot economically be supported by advertising.

In order for Flickr to survive it has to be a long-term profitable business. SmugMug knows a thing or two about how to do this as their primary model for over a decade has been entirely subscription based. As someone who wants to be able to host my photos on Flickr for the 50 remaining years I likely have left on this planet (and even after my death) in order to publish 1,000,000 photos, it’s important to me that Flickr has a long-term viable business model. This means that strongly encouraging free users (who are not currently paying their way) to migrate to paid Pro is important.

I do think it is important for Flickr to offer a free account in order to give people an opportunity to try out the service to see if it is for them. 1,000 photos gives you plenty of opportunity to do just that. It gives you hundreds, even thousands, of hours to explore and enjoy the service without paying — but if you are a heavy user of the site and are using over 1,000 photos of space, at some point you ought to pay.


There is a LOT of discussion about this, though I’m told it only affects 3% of users. (Then again, that’s a lot of people even so.) Don McAskill, the SmugMug (and now also Flickr) CEO points out that the pro offering is less than half the price of Apple, Google or Amazon. (Google charges only apply for photos over 16 megapixels though.)
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Your smartphone’s location data is worth big money to Wall Street • WSJ

Ryan Dezember:


Thasos gets data from about 1,000 apps, many of which need to know a phone’s location to be effective, like those providing weather forecasts, driving directions or the whereabouts of the nearest ATM. Smartphone users, wittingly or not, share their location when they use such apps.

Before Thasos gets the data, suppliers scrub it of personally identifiable information, Mr. Skibiski said. It is just time-stamped strings of longitude and latitude. But with more than 100 million phones providing such coordinates, Thasos says it can paint detailed pictures of the ebb and flow of people, and thus their money.

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist who helped launch Thasos, likens it to a circulatory system: “You can look at this blood flow of people moving around.”

…Thasos won’t name its clients, but Mr. Skibiski says it sells data to dozens of hedge funds, some of which pay more than $1m a year. Thasos’s largest investor is Ken Nickerson, who helped build PDT Partners into a quantitative-investing mint inside Morgan Stanley .

This month, Thasos is set to start offering data through Bloomberg terminals. A measure of mall foot traffic will be widely available; detailed daily feeds about malls owned or operated by 30 large real-estate investments trusts cost extra.


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The quest to build the impossible laptop • Gizmodo

Alex Cranz:


In a recent barrage of new products, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Lenovo, and HP have all shown off computers that are trying to tackle one of the industry’s most vexing problems: How do you make a keyboarded computer that’s also a great tablet? How do you attach a keyboard to a tablet without ruining the whole thing? Every manufacturer is trying to create a device that can do it all.

Over the last few months, we’ve talked to top computer designers to get to the bottom of just why it’s so hard to design the tablet-laptop hybrid device we’ve taken to calling “the impossible laptop.” In the video above, we explore the history of these 2-1 devices and take a close look at some of the new products we’re really excited about going into the future.

Creating the perfect “2-in-1″ device seems to defy engineering. The processor has to be fast enough to handle demanding multitasking while low-power enough to fit in a thin chassis. The device has to work perfectly both with your fingers on the display and your fingers on a touchpad and keyboard. And the hinge, the critical mechanism that allows the device to transition from laptop to tablet and back, needs to be just right.


I felt Cranz sets up the right questions but doesn’t quite get to the bottom of the problem. To me, it’s all about the hinge.
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Study: false news spreads faster than the truth • MIT Sloan school of management


A new study published in Science finds that false news online travels “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.” And the effect is more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.

Falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, researchers found. And false news reached 1,500 people about six times faster than the truth.

The study, by Soroush Vosoughi and associate professor Deb Roy, both of the MIT Media Lab, and MIT Sloan professor Sinan Aral, is the largest-ever longitudinal study of the spread of false news online. It uses the term “false news” instead of “fake news” because the former “has lost all connection to the actual veracity of the information presented, rendering it meaningless for use in academic classification,” the authors write.

To track the spread of news, the researchers investigated all the true and false news stories verified by six independent fact-checking organizations that were distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. They studied approximately 126,000 cascades — defined as “instances of a rumor spreading pattern that exhibits an unbroken retweet chain with a common, singular origin” — on Twitter about contested news stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. Twitter provided access to data and provided funding for the study.

The researchers removed Twitter bots before running their analysis. They then included the bots and ran the analysis again and found “none of our main conclusions changed.”


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Those colorful Sonos One speakers go on sale November 5th • Engadget


Sonos is finally breaking away from the bland black and white color schemes that typically accompany speakers and is spicing things new with new, vibrant options. In collaboration with Danish design brand HAY, Sonos is releasing a run of the Sonos One speaker that will be available in yellow, green, red, pink and gray. Despite originally being slated for a September release, the limited edition speakers will be available starting on November 5th.

If you’d like to get your hands on one of the Sonos One speakers with a fresh coat of paint, you’ll have to pay extra for it. The limited run of color speakers will sell for $229 – a $30 premium on top of the $199 retail price for the Sonos One in black or white. The color-dipped speakers will only be available through,, the Sonos store in Manhattan and the Museum of Modern Art design store. You won’t be able to grab the limited edition speaker through other electronics sellers like Amazon or Best Buy.


In case you need a coloured something to match some indoor furnishings. Best sound for the price on the market, I’d say. But don’t seem to be available in the UK, sadly.
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Smartphone battery life: iPhone XS battery isn’t as good as the X. Which phone outlasts them all? • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:


CNET, which like me found conspicuous dips in battery life between the iPhone 8 and iPhone X (and Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S9), tests screens at 50% brightness playing a looping video with Airplane Mode turned on.

What we both discovered: phones with fancy screens that are especially high-resolution or use tech such as OLED perform worse. (That tech can require more power to push out light.) So if you want your phone to last longer, turn down the screen’s brightness. Or stop looking at your phone so many times each day, if you can break our nationwide spell of phone addiction.

Tom’s Guide throws another factor into the mix: the cellular connection. It makes phones run through a series of websites streamed over LTE. Unlike me, it also saw a big battery life hit to the Pixel 3 XL versus the Pixel 2 XL.

Another lesson: If you want the battery to last longer, use WiFi when possible — or even Airplane Mode when you don’t need to be reachable. Both Apple and Android phones also offer low-power modes (not reflected in our testing) that reduce some draining data functions without taking you offline.

The counterexample is Consumer Reports, which found the new iPhone XS lasted 25% longer than last year’s iPhone X. Its test uses a finger robot — yes, you read that right — to make phones cycle through lots of different functions and apps, including pauses in use where the screen turns off.

Consumer Reports is likely better testing the phone’s processor, an area where a number of companies — but particularly Apple — have made efficiency gains.

So overall, are battery lives decreasing or increasing? “You can’t make a straight trend,” says Consumer Reports director of electronics testing Maria Rerecich.

I wish companies had more standardized ways to talk about battery life.


Struggling for a mobile connection will kill your battery. If you need Wi-Fi but not a mobile connection, switch to Airplane mode, and then turn the Wi-Fi back on. Boom! Longer battery life.
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Samsung’s quarterly earnings show increased overall profit, but continued decline in mobile • Android Police

Ryne Hager:


Samsung published its third-quarter financials yesterday, and results are mixed. Although profits and revenue are up (both year over year and quarter over quarter), the mobile division continues the decline set last quarter. Interestingly, that’s not as a result of sales, but rather increased marketing costs and unfavorable currency developments. Nonetheless, it expects those mobile earnings to decrease further next quarter, even as smartphone shipments rise…

…Samsung’s third-quarter IT & Mobile Communications (read: phone) profits are always on the lower side in Q3, and at 2.22 trillion KRW (~$1.98bn) that’s a decline both quarter over quarter, year over year, and the lowest numbers Samsung has seen since Q1 2017. Interestingly, this isn’t a result of a decline in flagship sales, but rather mid and low-end devices.

The company expects phone sales to rise for Q4/the end of the year, but since those late-year sales require correspondingly higher marketing costs, profitability won’t be as high.


Analysts reckon Samsung’s phone sales declined quite sharply in Q3 on a year-over-year basis. Things are getting compressed in the phone market.
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Guess who’s the leading headphone brand? • Music Industry Blog


Smart speakers and interactive dashboards are both competing for consumer ear time, but will never claim back the same share of listening from headphones that speaker-based listening enjoyed in the 80s and 90s. We live much more itinerant and connected lives now, with the smartphone our eternal companion. Headphones represent a marketplace with an unprecedented scale and ubiquity.

MIDiA has just published a new report exploring this marketplace and one of the key findings may surprise you: Apple is the market leader in headphone ownership.

Just as Apple stole Sony’s leading position in portable audio players, it is now doing the same with headphones. When its three headphone brand categories are combined (EarPods, AirPods, Beats – an Apple company) Apple has the leading market share in headphone ownership with 24%. Sony is second with 22%, followed by fellow traditional CE stalwarts Panasonic and Bose. The top four corporate-level headphone brands represent 61% of the total, illustrating just how fragmented the rest of the market is, with countless brands competing for share. Interestingly, Apple is the only top 20 headphone brand whose owners are not majority male.


Did not expect that. (MIDiA’s report looks at headphone people have specifically chosen to buy, I think, rather than those which come in a box, because otherwise you’d think it would be Samsung, right?)
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Chelsea is using our AI research for smarter football coaching • The Conversation

Varuna de Silva is a lecturer at the Institute for Digital Technologies at Loughborough University:


The best footballers aren’t necessarily the ones with the best physical skills. The difference between success and failure in football often lies in the ability to make the right split-second decisions on the field about where to run and when to tackle, pass or shoot. So how can clubs help players train their brains as well as their bodies?

My colleagues and I are working with Chelsea FC academy to develop a system to measure these decision-making skills using artificial intelligence (AI) – a kind of robot coach or scout, if you will. We’re doing this by analysing several seasons of data that tracks players and the ball throughout each game, and developing a computer model of different playing positions. The computer model provides a benchmark to compare the performance of different players. This way we can measure the performance of individual players independent of the actions of other players.

We can then visualise what might have happened if the players had made a different decision in any case. TV commentators are always criticising player actions, saying they should have done something else without any real way of testing the theory. But our computer model can show just how realistic these suggestions might be.


Tricky to do, because every situation is unique – and when something similar arises, how do you know if it’s sufficiently similar or different to do something else? Possibly pointing this out is something good managers have done instinctively for years. Now it’s the AIs’ turn.
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Gartner, IDC were both wildly wrong in guessing Apple’s Q4 Mac shipments • Apple Insider

Daniel Eran Dilger:


The fact that Gartner and IDC were both so wrong about Apple’s Mac sales is particularly shocking because Apple reports its Mac shipments every quarter, making it easier to refine the model that analysts use to make their sales projections. No other PC maker issues verified sales data every quarter, meaning there’s no way for outside estimates to check their own math against reality.

If Gartner and IDC are that wrong about Mac shipments, their PC numbers are even more untrustworthy.

And of course, moving forward into fiscal 2019, Apple will no longer report its Mac and iPad unit sales each quarter. That means the final verifiable data we now have to challenge analyst estimates will be gone. The only way we will know that Apple isn’t doomed is if it is still in business.

The direction of the market on a quarterly basis (in terms of unit market share and growth) will also be a huge question mark. The only way we will know that Gartner and IDC have unreliable data is that they’ve had unreliable data and insight in the past. After all, IDC once predicted that both Windows Phone and Windows Tablets would be hits that crushed the growth Apple’s iPhone and iPad, without offering any actual facts supporting the idea either time.

It is pretty clear that the PC market has not been growing, even if the guesswork numbers from Gartner and IDC can’t really be relied upon to be factual. But we also know that Gartner and IDC have spent the last decade issuing gerrymandered data to make it look like tablets—specifically iPads sold by Apple—weren’t having any material, discernible effect on PC sales, undeniably to make Microsoft’s Windows business look better than it was.


DED’s point (on the gerrymandering) is that the iPad did have an effect on general PC sales back in 2013, and arguably contributed to the fall in the consumer PC market that we’ve seen since 2011. It’s pretty hard to argue against that: for many home users, an iPad really can do everything their older PC could. (So can their smartphone.) But of course, those who frame the debate win the debate – and as he says in the “gerrymandering” article, linked, by framing the iPad as “not a PC” both Gartner and IDC could suggest the iPad wasn’t important.

Plus the fact that they always get Apple’s “PC” numbers wrong isn’t encouraging, given that Apple is going to stop releasing them.

Speaking of tablets…
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Tablet market sees modest decline of 8.6% as slate and detachable categories continue to struggle • IDC


Slate tablets accounted for the majority of the market with 31.6m units, down 7.9% from the previous year. Detachable tablets also declined, down 13.1% from the previous year, to account for 4.8m unit shipments.

“The detachable market has failed to see growth in 2018, a worrying trend that has plagued the category off and on since the end of 2016,” said Lauren Guenveur, senior research analyst for IDC’s Tablet team. “In October we finally saw the highly anticipated refreshes of Apple’s iPad Pro and Microsoft’s Surface Pro, as well as new products by Samsung and Google, which lead us to believe that the last quarter of the year will turn the detachable category around, at least for the time being. Increasingly sparse are new products by the top-tier PC OEMs as they remain more focused on their convertible portfolio, a move that will ultimately affect the overall trajectory of the detachable market going forward.”

“The tablet market is more like the traditional PC market than ever before,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. “Not only do these markets move in sync with each other, but the decreasing margins and overall decline, particularly in slate tablets, has led to the top 5 companies capturing a larger share as many small vendors have exited the space or simply treat the tablet market with a much lower priority. Even among the top 5, it is essentially Apple and to a lesser extent Samsung that continue to invest heavily in product innovation and marketing. This has helped the two companies to set themselves apart from the rest.”


Have a look at the numbers: Apple has over 25% share, and “others” – one suspects mostly cheap Chinese media consumption tablets, or perhaps a few for commercial applications – nearly a third. There’s just no room for profit as the market contracts, squeezing harder even than the PC market.

Only Apple, Samsung and Amazon have a real reason to be there: Apple makes profit, Samsung sells its screens and reinforces its brand, and Amazon uses it as a trojan horse for its content offerings.
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Signing into Google now requires JavaScript • PCMag UK

Matthew Humphries:


Attempting to sign in with JavaScript disabled in your browser will result in a “Couldn’t sign you in” message appearing, suggesting JavaScript either isn’t supported by your browser or turned off. The only solution is to turn it back on or use a more modern browser. The good news is, there’s plenty of choice with Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari, Opera, Vivaldi, and even Internet Explorer offering support and JavaScript turned on by default.

Google doesn’t see this demand for JavaScript as being a big problem because according to the search giant only 0.1% of Google Account users turn it off. The internet is becoming increasingly JavaScript-reliant anyway, so it’s unlikely that tiny percentage will grow in the future.

There’s no details on what Google’s risk assessment actually entails, and I don’t expect any to be forthcoming. Why would Google publicly share how it’s checking the security of a sign-in process? That would only make it a weaker process as the more information an attacker has about how it works, the better the chances of them finding a way to circumvent it.


Not really. It’s pretty hard to run Javascript from a command line, which is how lots of faked or automated signins (especially using stolen credentials) would be done. This – plus, I suspect, unrevealed monitoring of keystroke patterns to figure out if there’s a human behind the login – would ensure you have to have a person behind the keyboard.

Flip it over. Why would Google enforce the use of something if it doesn’t improve security?
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Apple’s iPad Pro A12X nearly matches top-end x86 CPUs in GeekBench • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:


There are persistent rumors that Apple will start swapping Intel CPUs for its own silicon in 2020. From there, it’s easy to connect the dots and think that this is evidence of Intel’s own performance collapse, the end of x86, etc. Digging deeper into results often gives a more nuanced picture of what’s going on and where the limits and problems are. For example: One potential reason these results favor Apple is that Apple is still building its laptops with DDR3-2133, while its iPads use LPDDR4 at higher clocks. In theory, a laptop with DDR4-2400 instead of DDR3-2133 would perform a bit better in these tests.

If Apple wants to truly take the general-purpose CPU performance crown away from Intel by 2020 and replace x86 silicon with its own ARM chips, it’s going to have to either improve those areas of performance where it still lags far behind its competitor or say goodbye to the community of Mac users that rely on superior performance in those types of mathematical operations. That’s going to cost the company power and die area at some level. This is by no means an insurmountable problem — it’s more-or-less exactly what Intel did when it transformed its Pentium M Dothan core (2003) into Nehalem (2008). Dothan was a great CPU with some multimedia processing weak spots compared with its predecessors. Over time, Intel fixed those weaknesses and added new capabilities, setting the stage for a brand-new architecture to debut a decade ago.

The other major issue Apple will have to continue to work on is the suitability of iOS as a serious work platform. iPad Pro reviews have always praised the tablet for its build quality and performance. The question of whether you can use it as a replacement for a traditional laptop (including a Mac laptop) has always come down to software support and ease-of-use.


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The iPad Pro’s USB-C port is great. It should be on my iPhone, too • CNET

Stephen Shankland:


You’re not as likely to connect cameras or thumb drives to your iPhone, but there are good reasons for USB-C there, too.

First, you’d be able to charge in more places, including from your MacBook or iPad Pro charger. That means less junk on your desk or in your suitcase and less of a problem if you forget something. Maybe it’ll even mean some price pressure on Apple’s expensive chargers, too. (We can dream, right?)

Second, USB-C is the best way out of the industry’s abandonment of 3.5mm audio jacks. Because face it, they’re not coming back. With USB-C iPhones, you’d be able to use one set of earbuds or headphones with your laptops, phones and whatever devices you buy in the future.

Third, Apple’s choices send an important message to any other tech company. A USB-C iPhone would help car manufacturers, speaker makers and others embrace USB-C and deliver on its all-purpose promise. That may never happen — Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment — but today’s iPad Pro already sends a message to electronics makers that Lightning’s future is uncertain and that Apple appreciates what USB-C has to offer.

The USB-C advantages may not be worth it for you today. Especially if you don’t have a newer Mac, don’t want to spend $9 for an Apple USB-C adapter for your favorite old headphones with a 3.5mm jack, or have accessories like speaker dock reliant on a Lightning port.

But it’s worth it to me, for charging and earbuds today and for digital photography on my next laptop-free vacation.


I may have to do a matrix of the objects Apple has which use Lightning, and which use USB-C. (Former: iPad, iPad mini, 10.5in iPad Pro, iPhones, AirPods; latter: new iPad Pros, MacBook, MacBook Pro. Neither: old MacBook Air – still on sale – desktops and Mac mini.)

As for the iPhone: I’d expect USB-C there in 2020.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.945: how Google (accidentally) unravelled a CIA network, the impossible laptop, smartphones’ dwindling battery life, USB-C iPhones?, and more

  1. On an iPhone you can switch the wireless radio off without the “airplane mode / Wi-fi on” kludge (which also breaks the connection to an Apple Watch).
    Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and trackpad all use lightning connectors to charge, as does the Apple TV remote.

  2. re AI for football coaching. I came across an article about a tech-positive boat skipper. Part of his training is about maintaining his ability to think while doing stuff on the boat, and reciprocally. When they initially gauged is ability to make mental maths while exercising it was much much lower; and the physical power he developed was also 25-ish% lower.
    Since the whole business on a boat is about thinking while doing and doing while thinking,, he’s got a specific training regimen for that.

  3. That Apple insider report is weird.

    “note that Samsung’s premium phone numbers include its “phablets,” which are the vast majority of the company’s tablet sales; Apple separately sold over 71 million iPads in the last fiscal year”. Say what ? Are they saying the Note and S+ should be counted as a tablet ? Are they trying to leverage the “phablet” moniker into meaning large phones aren’t phones ? What have they said about the XSMAX and the PLUS models ?

    Then there’s the usual junk about the nature of a device changing according to what users do with it, and then assigning all iPads to the higher category and all Androids to the lower. Is my car still a car if I only use it to go to the store and never set tire on a highway ?

    And then character assassination with a funny lack of self-awareness, because if analysts do all those tricks it must be about wantonly pleasing their base. The one thing life has told me is that when someone accuses of something a bit out of left field, it’s because they thought of it, and if they thought of it there’s a good chance they’re doing it themselves. Pot, meet kettle.

    I’m all for differing point of views and energetic discussions, but I think a minimal regards for facts, logic, and people is required. This fails at that.

  4. re battery life. Get a Mi Max: 2-day battery !

    Also, you don’t have to go full “Airplane mode”, just cutting off data, GPS and BT makes a difference, and you still get calls and texts. You can make an IFTT script to do it automatically when you’re within reach of a known wifi, though I’d be careful at work there seems to be some spying going on. GPS trying to get a lock indoors is as hungry as the data connection struggling to reach a tower.

    Also, wireless charging docks make it much easier to recharge w/o thinking about it, and wired headphones suck up a less power then BT.

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