Start Up No.959: US v Huawei, ranking Gmail’s answers, Wikitribune in view, the art of The Incredibles 2, Square Enix dumps loot boxes in Belgium, and more

Guess which top-selling band has the most repetitive lyrics of the past 50 years. CC-licensed photo by Andreas H on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Turkey sandwiches OK? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Washington asks allies to drop Huawei • WSJ

Stu Woo and Kate O’Keeffe:


The US government has initiated an extraordinary outreach campaign to foreign allies, trying to persuade wireless and internet providers in these countries to avoid telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies Co., according to people familiar with the situation.

American officials have briefed their government counterparts and telecom executives in friendly countries where Huawei equipment is already in wide use, including Germany, Italy and Japan, about what they see as cybersecurity risks, these people said. The US is also considering increasing financial aid for telecommunications development in countries that shun Chinese-made equipment, some of these people say.

One US concern centers on the use of Chinese telecom equipment in countries that host American military bases, according to people familiar with the matter, such as Germany, Italy and Japan. The Defense Department has its own satellite-and-telecom network for especially sensitive communications, but most traffic at many military installations travels through commercial networks.

The international effort pushes out the battle lines of a US campaign to keep Huawei electronics out of the US. Some officials see the initiative as part of a broader technological Cold War between US-led allies and China for control of a world that is increasingly digitally connected—and thus increasingly vulnerable to surveillance and malfeasance.


Wow. Huawei is deeply embedded in the UK’s communications network, and an analyst meeting this week heard that it’s the only company really doing 5G – everyone else is trying to catch up.

This story makes me think that Bloomberg’s story a little while back – about Apple and Amazon having subversive chips inserted in Chinese factories – was part of a US attempt to destabilise trust in Chinese factories and manufacturers.
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Ranking Gmail’s AI-fuelled Smart Replies • NY Mag

Christopher Bonanos:


The most recognizable feature of Gmail’s newly rolled-out redesign is the so-called smart reply, wherein bots offer three one-click responses to each mail message. Say your email contains the words “you free for lunch?” The autoreplies Gmail presents will be something like “Sure!” and “Yes!” and “Looking forward to it!” The idea, especially on a small, one-hand phone screen, is that you can tap and send using one thumb, without typing. It’s not clear just how many of these prewritten options there are, or how sophisticated the machine learning behind them is. The AI is not yet sharp enough to offer genuinely useful responses like “Please, for the love of Christ, stop sending me these offers to buy those sandals whose ad I clicked on last month” or emotionally honest ones like “Hey, it would be wonderful if someone in our group cancels our drinks tonight because I would rather stay home and order dan dan noodles while watching Succession.” Until then, we’re stuck with the few dozen simple responses that appear regularly. Some are better than others. Shall we rank? 


≥ Ok, sounds good! ≤
≥ We should rethink this ≤
≥ I can see everything you type you know ≤

But the idea that the answers might change over time is rather interesting.
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Wikipedia’s co-founder wanted to let readers edit the news. What went wrong? • Columbia Journalism Review

Mathew Ingram on the site which burnt through about $0.6m in a year:


Is it possible that news just isn’t a great fit for the wiki model where anyone can contribute? “That’s a legitimate question—is it suitable?” [Jimmy] Wales says. “Clearly there are certain types of news that are very difficult to do in a community setting, if you have to go somewhere to report and so on, but there are other things that are quite straightforward. People can do desk research, but they can’t drop everything and pursue the story for four days or be on the scene the way a reporter can. So we’re still exploring what are the things that work.”

So are more people using the site and contributing to the news since the most recent design changes? Wales says yes, although he wouldn’t provide specific numbers. “The main metrics are participation, that’s fundamental,” he says. “And the number of people editing things is up this month and up considerably from our redesign.”

Wales says he is still going through the site looking for language that might be intimidating. For example, he says he has made multiple changes to the introductory post on “How to write a piece of journalism for WikiTribune.” (The changes can be seen on the piece’s history page, which keeps track of every edit). Among other things, Wales removed references to things like “getting your copy out faster,” which is something traditional journalists think about, but not relevant to a wiki approach to the news, he says.


The real question is, what *is* a wiki approach to the news? How does that really work? Wikipedia does it effectively, but that’s almost an accident; Wikitribune doesn’t have a critical mass of users to make it happen.

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Are Pop Lyrics Getting More Repetitive?


In 1977, the great computer scientist Donald Knuth published a paper called The Complexity of Songs, which is basically one long joke about the repetitive lyrics of newfangled music (example quote: “the advent of modern drugs has led to demands for still less memory, and the ultimate improvement of Theorem 1 has consequently just been announced”).

I’m going to try to test this hypothesis with data. I’ll be analyzing the repetitiveness of a dataset of 15,000 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017…


But how?


You may not have heard of the Lempel-Ziv algorithm, but you probably use it every day. It’s a lossless compression algorithm that powers gifs, pngs, and most archive formats (zip, gzip, rar…).

What does this have to do with pop music? The Lempel-Ziv algorithm works by exploiting repeated sequences. How efficiently LZ can compress a text is directly related to the number and length of the repeated sections in that text.


This is wonderful: the graphics are brilliantly done, and the discoveries (top 10 songs are always more repetitive than most) unexpected.
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The graphic art of Incredibles 2 • Josh Holtsclaw


I remember seeing the first Incredibles film in college with a few friends. We went on opening night and the theater was packed. I remember thinking that the way the movie opened with the old film footage of a younger Mr Incredible, Elastigirl and Frozone being interviewed was such a different way to open an animated film, and it just got better from there. The whole thing was so stylized and just…cool. I loved the mid century aesthetic. When I got to Pixar and heard that they were working on a sequel, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

I joined the Incredibles 2 art department in the Fall of 2016 and one of the first things we did as a group was take a research trip to Palm Springs. At the time, the story was still in its early stages and a few of the sets were under way. There was still a lot left to do and Palm Springs was the perfect one-stop-spot for us to find design inspiration.


The photos of locations used to inspire the pictures, and the description of how The Incredibles aesthetic was created, is just… incredible.
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After 20,000 workers walked out, Google said it got the message. The workers disagree • Recode

Shirin Ghaffary and Eric Johnson:


[Stephanie] Parker, a policy specialist at YouTube, initially read a prepared statement to her San Bruno, Calif., colleagues during the walkout, but then asked them a question she hadn’t written down. Where, she asked, did Google get the tens of millions of dollars it paid to Rubin and other senior executives accused of sexual misconduct?

“They got it from every time you worked late,” Parker said. “Every promotion you didn’t get because they said there’s not enough budget, you have to wait. It’s from every contractor who came to work sick because they have no paid time off. These are conscious decisions that the company is making, and abusers are getting rich off of our hard work.”

And the walkouts, the organizers agreed, have in some cases turned strangers into allies. People who had been raising red flags for years and felt they weren’t being heard suddenly realized that they were not the only ones who thought Google wasn’t hearing what it needed to hear.

“We’re giving our feedback about what’s wrong through all of the official channels,” Parker said. “We’re filling out the surveys every year. We are talking back in TGIF [all hands meetings] and asking these questions, and nothing is happening. But once we begin to find each other, and see each other all speaking out and all saying, fundamentally, the same thing, then the fear starts to go away. Once we start taking collective action, then we can’t be stopped.”


There’s a subtle dislocation happening at Google and Facebook – and others? – where the rank-and-file are disconcerted by things that the senior managers and/or founders aren’t aware of. How big can the disconnect get?
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Square Enix pulls three games from Belgium after loot box ban • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


The games publisher Square Enix is pulling three mobile games from Belgium following the introduction of a law in the European nation that bans “loot boxes” as a form of gambling.

The games – Mobius Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts Union X and Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia – are some of largest titles in the publisher’s mobile roster, although it is better known for its console games such as Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy and Hitman.

In statements posted in the games, Square Enix confirmed that the new law was to blame for their removal, citing “the present uncertain legal status of ‘loot boxes’ under Belgian law” in a statement posted on the games.

Belgium first took action against “loot boxes”, digital reward packs which can be be bought with real or virtual money and contain a semi-random array of in-game items, back in April. The country’s gaming commission ruled that the mechanics, as implemented in three popular games – Overwatch, Fifa 18 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – were in violation of gambling legislation.

“Mixing games and gambling, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health,” the country’s justice minister, Koen Geens, said at the time. “That is why we must also ensure that children and adults are not confronted with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game.”

Other games have been similarly hit by the law, with the developers of popular online RPG Guild Wars 2 removing real-money purchases from the game back in September. But the economics of free-to-play mobile games, such as those pulled by Square Enix, means that they often feature no monetisation elements beyond loot boxes, leaving little reason for publishers to support them in the absence of the pseudo-gambling feature.


Good. Loot boxes are really insidious.
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How Facebook’s PR firm brought political trickery to tech • The New York Times

Jack Nicas:


Definers quickly found plenty of business, from start-ups like Lyft, Lime and Juul to giants like Facebook and Qualcomm, the influential chip company that was in a nasty legal fight with Apple over royalties, according to five people with direct knowledge of Mr. Miller’s work who declined to be named because of confidentiality agreements.
While working for Qualcomm, Definers pushed the idea that Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, was a viable presidential candidate in 2020, according to a former Definers employee and digital records. Presumably, it was an attempt to chill the cordial relations that Mr. Cook had cultivated with the Trump administration.

The campaign by Definers signaled an escalation of Silicon Valley’s already brass-knuckled approach to public relations.

“This type of dirty P.R.? It’s always been there, but it’s definitely on the upswing,” said Jonathan Hirshon, who was a public relations representative for technology companies for three decades, including Apple and Sony. “The idealism is still there, but the truth is, the big companies have become a lot more authoritarian in their approach to the media.”

Facebook fired Definers last week after The New York Times detailed the work Mr. Miller’s firm had done on behalf of the social media company. Definers encouraged reporters to write about the financial connections between anti-Facebook activists and the liberal financier George Soros, drawing accusations that it was relying on anti-Semitic tropes.

Definers’s strategy played to a target’s pressure points. Most of what Definers produced for Qualcomm had nothing to do with its beef with Apple, which was a complex legal fight over the royalties Apple should pay for the Qualcomm chips it was using in iPhones.

Definers employees distributed anti-Apple research to reporters and would not say who was paying for it. Definers distributed a 13-page memo titled “Apple Bowing to Chinese Cyber Regulators” that detailed how Apple’s activity in China contradicted its public stance on privacy elsewhere. It also planted dozens of negative articles about Apple on conservative news sites, according to a person familiar with the work and emails reviewed by The New York Times.


Facebook coughed to all this in a news dump at 5pm before the US headed off for Thanksgiving. Talk about taking out the trash.
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Google rivals claim product search remains unfair • BBC News


Google is not complying with European demands that it make the search for products fairer, rivals say.

In an open letter to the EU’s competition commissioner, 14 European shopping comparison services said the measures put in place by the search giant to improve things, actually make matters worse.

They urged the commission to demand a new remedy.

Google said it had complied with the European Commission demands.

The search giant has faced a seven-year long battle with the European Commission over its dominance in the search market.

In June 2017, European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager ruled that Google had abused its power by promoting its own shopping service at the top of search results, and demanded that it provide equal treatment to rival comparison sites in future.

She issued a record fine of €2.42bn ($2.7bn; £2.1bn) – the largest penalty the European Commission has ever imposed. She also demanded that Google end its anti-competitive practices within 90 days or face further costs.

Google is still appealing against the fine, but has come up with a system that it says makes shopping fairer.

It changed the shopping box, which is displayed at the top of search results, so that it is no longer populated with just Google Shopping ad results, but gives space to other shopping comparison services, who can bid for advertising slots.


The Google “solution” is unsatisfactory in so many ways, as the letter sets out. Its market dominance in Europe shuts out others; this “solution” just lets it charge them a door fee to reach people, instead of competing equally.
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Leaning tower of Pisa is leaning less than before, say experts • The Guardian

Angela Giuffrida:


Stabilisation work means the Leaning Tower of Pisa is leaning slightly less than it used to, experts have said.

The tower, which has leaned to one side ever since it began to take shape in 1173, has lost 4cm of its tilt over the past two decades, according to a report from the surveillance group that meets every three months to give updates on the monument’s condition.

“Since restorative work began, the tower is leaning about half a degree less,” said Nunziante Squeglia, a geotechnics professor at the University of Pisa who works with the group. “But what counts is the stability of the tower, which is better than initially predicted.”

The structure, which was badly damaged during the second world war, was closed to the public in 1990 over safety fears and did not reopen for 11 years.

The surveillance group was set up in 2001 ago after Michele Jamiolkowski, an engineer of Polish origin, coordinated an international committee to save the landmark.

The bell tower, a symbol of the power of the maritime republic of Pisa in the Middle Ages, was defective from the beginning due to the porous clay soil beneath its foundations. After three floors were completed, construction stopped and did not resume until 90 years later when workers started building additional floors on a diagonal to offset the lean. But work was again disrupted before finally being completed in 1372.


I went up that thing in the 1980s. It’s fine when you’re on the “front”, with the tilt behind you. But when you’re on the down-tilt side, with only a thin metal rail between you and eternity, those few degrees feel like an invitation to gravity to eat you up.
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Real time economics: what are markets telling us about the economy? • Wall Street Journal

Greg Ip:


The US economy is firing on all cylinders—job growth is strong, wages are climbing, factories are humming and inflation is on target. Yet stocks are sinking, yields on corporate bonds are rising and commodity prices are tumbling, all typical precursors of a slowdown or recession. The causes: Growth outside the US is deteriorating and the Federal Reserve is steadily withdrawing the unprecedented monetary stimulus that buoyed the economy and almost every asset class over the last decade.

The question is whether markets, in adjusting to these new realities, will overreact to the point that they endanger the expansion, on track to become the longest ever next summer. The answer for now appears to be no, but the trends are troubling.

Stan Druckenmiller is a legend among hedge fund managers, as lieutenant to George Soros and head of his own firm. The market has him worried. “The defensive stocks have been going straight up since May. All the economically sensitive stocks have been going down since May. They’re predicting we’re in a very, very late cycle,” he said Tuesday. The signs are the “same stuff I screamed about in 2007.” He’s not saying the Fed shouldn’t tighten, ever; but it should wait, and “see what happens.” The time to tighten was a few years ago; now, it’s more dangerous: “The leveraged loan market is two times what it was in 2007.” He pins the blame on the Fed’s quantitative easing which “encouraged more malinvestment…than at any time I can ever remember. We’re in the most economically disruptive period since the 1880s and there’s been no bankruptcies. As quantitative easing turns to quantitative tightening, all these zombies are going to be exposed.”


Such delightful news. Off to the shops now.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: reader feedback notes that, regarding mobile payments, some (but not all) payments systems have a “tip” option so that you can add a tip (though I’d observe this adds more friction than the simple method of overpaying and letting the recipient keep the change). Some places incorporate tips into the charge.

Also: CNBC’s article on Diane Greene said there was a struggle between Google and Microsoft for the lead in cloud; that should have been Amazon and Microsoft. Their mistake, since rectified.

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.959: US v Huawei, ranking Gmail’s answers, Wikitribune in view, the art of The Incredibles 2, Square Enix dumps loot boxes in Belgium, and more

  1. Yeah I immediately thought of that unverifiable Bloomberg piece when seeing that American state officials were trying to persuade ‘allies’ to drop a major Chinese IT supplier. It’s not like the current incumbent at the WH has a stake in spreading Fake News or anything.

    Re file compression proving repetitive music – interesting and probably true if maybe a bit over simplistic. My experience re image compression there are other factors such as ‘image noise’ (not aural noise) that can limit how efficiently a file can be compressed. Maybe modern recording techniques are better at limiting background / extraneous noise and so result in more compressible results (although an aggressive file compression would likely result in more compression from noisier files if designed to better at ‘cleaning’ files)

    Definitely interesting but I wouldn’t say it’s surprising to ‘discover’ that top 10 songs are more repetitive than most; Status Quo, Stars on 45, The Birdy Song and the Muppets’ ‘Mah Na Mah Na’ are pretty much exhibits A to Z…
    As well as the notion of the ‘Hook’ in pop music

  2. Are Pop Lyrics Getting More Repetitive?

    This story reminded me of the Nikon Coolpix 950 from 1999, which featured BSS: Best Shot Selector. You would take a couple of shots and the camera would select the sharpest photo!

    DPReview: ‘So, how does it work? I can’t confirm this but I have a theory on how this system works (note, my theory, and I could be completely wrong) the camera simply chooses the image with the largest file size. Why? Because JPEG files are bigger if they have more detail, they have more detail if they’re less blurred… Of the two images above the BSS image is bigger (because it has more detail).’



    • Yeah thats true and all the more so for complex subject matter. I got good over years as a pro photographer at estimating the size that a jpeg would be given the subject matter – to the extent that I’d drop the jpeg level from 9 to 8 or 7 to save transmission time (in the early days of 9,600bps mobile transfers) if the subject had a lot of trees or grass and therefore not easily ‘simplified’.

      • Google has a camera that’s supposed to be able to spot not the best picture, but the most interesting video clip.

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