Start Up No.960: Facebook at bay, algorithms screw up, legally what is a bitcoin?, Pixel 3 camera trouble, and more

The US Supreme Court: Apple’s got a date there for Monday to talk about apps. CC-licensed photo by Justin on Flickr.

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A selection of 15 links for you. That’s just how it is. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Parliament seizes cache of Facebook internal papers • The Guardian

Carole Cadwalldr:


[Damian Collins, chair of the Select Committee, said:] “We have followed this court case in America and we believed these documents contained answers to some of the questions we have been seeking about the use of data, especially by external developers.”

The documents seized were obtained during a legal discovery process by Six4Three. It took action against the social media giant after investing $250,000 in an app. Six4Three alleges the cache shows Facebook was not only aware of the implications of its privacy policy, but actively exploited them, intentionally creating andeffectively flagging up the loophole that Cambridge Analytica used to collect data. That raised the interest of Collins and his committee.

A Facebook spokesperson said that Six4Three’s “claims have no merit, and we will continue to defend ourselves vigorously”.

The files are subject to an order of a Californian superior court, so cannot be shared or made public, at risk of being found in contempt of court. Because the MPs’ summons was issued in London where parliament has jurisdiction, it is understood the company founder, although a US citizen, had no choice but to comply. It is understood that Six4Three have informed both the court in California and Facebook’s lawyers.

Facebook said: “The materials obtained by the DCMS committee are subject to a protective order of the San Mateo Superior Court restricting their disclosure. We have asked the DCMS committee to refrain from reviewing them and to return them to counsel or to Facebook. We have no further comment.”

It is unclear what, if any, legal moves Facebook can make to prevent publication. UK, Canada, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Singapore and Latvia will all have representatives joining what looks set to be a high-stakes encounter between Facebook and politicians.


An amazing story, using a Parliamentary power that hasn’t been used in hundreds of years. Facebook responded; Damian Collins answered back, robustly.
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How much for that app? U.S. top court hears Apple antitrust dispute • Reuters

Andrew Chung:


When iPhone users want to edit blemishes out of their selfies, identify stars and constellations or simply join the latest video game craze, they turn to Apple Inc’s App Store, where any software application they buy also includes a 30% cut for Apple.

That commission is a key issue in a closely watched antitrust case that will reach the US Supreme Court on Monday. The nine justices will hear arguments in Apple’s bid to escape damages in a lawsuit accusing it of breaking federal antitrust laws by monopolizing the market for iPhone apps and causing consumers to pay more than they should.

The justices will ultimately decide a broader question: Can consumers even sue for damages in an antitrust case like this one?

Apple, which is appealing a lower court decision that revived the proposed consumer class-action lawsuit, says no, citing a decades-old Supreme Court precedent. The Cupertino, California-based technology company said that siding with the iPhone users who filed the lawsuit would threaten the burgeoning field of e-commerce, which generates hundreds of billions of dollars annually in US retail sales.


Here’s a brief summary of the case at hand, which is called Apple Inc v Pepper, and is the first case on Monday.

“The question presented is: Whether consumers may sue for antitrust damages anyone who delivers goods to them, even where they seek damages based on prices set by third parties who would be the immediate victims of the alleged offense.”
link to this extract


Airlines face crackdown on use of ‘exploitative’ algorithm that splits up families on flights • The Independent

Helen Coffey:


“They’ve had the temerity to split the passengers up, and when the family want to travel together they are charged more.”

It’s an issue that will be looked at by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, launched by the government this week to identify and address areas where clearer guidelines and regulation are needed in how data is used.

Passengers first started noticing they were being split up from their party if they didn’t pay more for allocated seating in June 2017, with Ryanair most commonly associated with the practice.

However, Europe’s biggest airline never admitted to changing the way seating was allocated, insisting there was no change and saying that those who don’t pay to choose a seat are “randomly” assigned one.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been investigating the issue of paid-for seat allocation for more than a year.

Its latest research, released in October 2018, stated that the likelihood of passengers being split up if they didn’t pay to sit together varied wildly between airlines.

In a survey of 4,296 people who had flown as part of a group, the CAA found that travellers were most likely to be split from their party when flying with Ryanair – 35% of those surveyed were separated having opted not to pay more for allocated seating.


Flybe and TUI Airways were the least likely to break up groups, with just 12% of people separated.
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AI mistakes bus-side ad for famous CEO, charges her with jaywalking • Caixin Global


Cities across China have debuted crime-fighting facial recognition technology to much fanfare over the past year. But some of these jaywalker-busting devices aren’t as impressive as they seem.

A facial recognition system in the city of Ningbo caught Dong Mingzhu, the chair of appliance-making giant Gree Electric, running a red light. Only it turned out not to be Dong, but rather an advertisement featuring her face on the side of a bus, local police said on Weibo Wednesday.

The police said they have upgraded their tech to avoid issues like this in the future. The real Dong, meanwhile, is embroiled in drama with an electric vehicle company.


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How credulous cranks made me the subject of their baseless conspiracy theory • CapX

Oliver Kamm:


The Scottish newspaper The Herald published a diary column by a freelance contributor called Ron McKay. He is a longstanding ally of, and aide to, George Galloway. McKay devoted a diary item to Mr Cross’s Wikipedia edits of far-left figures: “You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that there are common threads here. All of those [subjects edited by Cross] are… prominent campaigners on social media and in the mainstream media vigorously questioning our foreign policy. All have also clashed with Oliver Kamm… All have been edited on Wikipedia by Andrew Philip Cross whom the complainants believe, without conclusive evidence, to be Kamm after dark. He denies it.”

This is a straight fabrication. There was not only no conclusive evidence but literally no evidence at all for this preposterous thesis. Nor had McKay spoken to me, nor (as the tortuous syntax seems to suggest, though it may refer to Cross) had I denied the claim. As I’ve explained, I had deliberately made no comment at all on the subject.

Russia Today meanwhile weighed in with an article that began: “Wikipedia editor Philip Cross is still waging war against the left [i.e. posting factually sourced information that any other editor could themselves amend]. Some of those targeted by his vexatious edits have reported patterns between him and Times columnist Oliver Kamm.”

To my surprise, a BBC presenter and producer called Lee Kumutat emailed me to ask if I would be interviewed for an edition of a World Service radio programme called BBC Trending. She wrote: “We’re covering the story of Phillip [sic] Cross and routine targeted editing of some Wikipedia pages. Some people have suggested there may be an overlap of politics between yourself and Phillip [sic] Cross. Would you be prepared to be interviewed on this topic on the programme?”


Then it gets worse. (Wikipedia is completely innocent in all this.)
link to this extract


Pixel 3 bug disables the phone’s camera • Engadget

Jon Fingas:


Pixel 3 owners are dealing with another software glitch, and this one could prove to be a showstopper for some. Owners on Google’s forums, Reddit and elsewhere (including an Engadget staff family member) report a flaw that prevents them from using the Pixel 3’s official camera app. Some get a “fatal error” message when they use the camera app, while others will get a “can’t connect to camera” message in a third-party app and lose access from then onward. Rebooting only temporarily fixes the issue, and it can occur even if you’ve factory-reset the phone or are using Safe Mode.

It’s not certain what’s causing the problem. Charged inspected the camera code and believes it might stem from Android not properly releasing a lock on the camera, leading other apps to think it’s still in use and prompting a crash. [Charged says using the official camera app is OK, but if any third-party app uses it then it cannot release the camera, requiring a reboot.]

We’ve asked Google if it can comment on the reports. Support representatives haven’t made it clear as to whether or not there will be a fix, though, and some owners said they were denied replacement units. Whatever the solution, it’s a serious issue – for all intents and purposes, this effectively renders the Pixel 3’s signature feature useless.


Given that it’s the camera which is meant to make the phone so desirable, that’s a hell of a bug.
link to this extract


Wanted: the ‘perfect babysitter.’ Must pass AI scan for respect and attitude • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell:


When Jessie Battaglia started looking for a new babysitter for her 1-year-old son, she wanted more information than she could get from a criminal-background check, parent comments and a face-to-face interview.

So she turned to Predictim, an online service that uses “advanced artificial intelligence” to assess a babysitter’s personality, and aimed its scanners at one candidate’s thousands of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts.

The system offered an automated “risk rating” of the 24-year-old woman, saying she was at a “very low risk” of being a drug abuser. But it gave a slightly higher risk assessment — a 2 out of 5 — for bullying, harassment, being “disrespectful” and having a “bad attitude.”

The system didn’t explain why it had made that decision. But Battaglia, who had believed the sitter was trustworthy, suddenly felt pangs of doubt.

“Social media shows a person’s character,” said Battaglia, 29, who lives outside Los Angeles. “So why did she come in at a 2 and not a 1?”

Predictim is offering parents the same playbook that dozens of other tech firms are selling to employers around the world: artificial-intelligence systems that analyze a person’s speech, facial expressions and online history with promises of revealing the hidden aspects of their private lives…

…The systems depend on black-box algorithms that give little detail about how they reduced the complexities of a person’s inner life into a calculation of virtue or harm. And even as Predictim’s technology influences parents’ thinking, it remains entirely unproven, largely unexplained and vulnerable to quiet biases over how an appropriate babysitter should share, look and speak.


Evaluating these systems is becoming more important than ever; and more difficult than ever. And you just know this is going to turn out to be subtly racist.

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The foldable smartphone era is finally here and it will change everything • USA Today

Bob O’Donnell:


the introduction of Samsung’s Infinity Flex display-based devices and the Royole FlexPai make it clear that the long dreamed of idea for a pocket-sized smartphone that can unfold into a larger, tablet-like device is finally upon us.

The appeal of such a device is obvious, and I believe its impact – at least, eventually – will be enormous. Just as it’s hard to remember a world where mobile phones only made phone calls, so too will there come a time when it will be hard to imagine a world that didn’t have foldable, connected computing devices that fit into our pockets.

At the same time, while it’s easy to look back at the first iPhone and see its obvious shortcomings, so too will the limitations of first-generation foldable devices become apparent over time. That is the nature of technological developments. To be clear, however, I am convinced that 2019 will be remembered as the beginning of the foldable era.

One key reason is that foldable display technology enables the continuation of arguably the most important development in the evolution of smartphones: larger screens. From the early days of 3.5” displays to today’s common 6”+ sizes, the insatiable desire for screen real estate has driven the progressive design of smartphones.


If the fold isn’t particularly visible, then this could make a difference; notice how people love catching just a little bit more content on the move.

Going to be fun for app designers with a new set of screen sizes and configurations to design for.
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What do you legally “own” with Bitcoin? A short introduction to krypto-property • Preston Byrne


What hasn’t happened yet, and what invariably will happen as more and more cases  hit the courts, is that someone will ask the question, “what property classification do we apply to Bitcoin – WTF is it that Bob actually owns?” This is because, at its core, a bitcoin is really, in its purest essence, only a solution to a randomly-generated math problem. Because the problem is very hard, the combination of a UTXO plus the ability for a recipient to spend it, armed with the knowledge of the relevant private key, is treated by most of us today as property. That “property” creates a write permission on a massively distributed cryptographic ledger which nobody controls, although control of that write permission can be transferred to other users of that database by spending the associated coins to those other users.

Because the secret embodied by a private key one does not know is very difficult to obtain – and impossible to obtain on a commercial timescale with existing technology – people call Bitcoin a “digital bearer asset.” Bitcoin is most assuredly not a bearer asset or chattel, though. Nor is it a documentary intangible, as it is not a contract and is silent, apart perhaps from the provisions of the MIT Licence, as to what a court should do when presented with one (more on that below). Unlike physical goods which can only exist in one place at one time, it is conceivable that with a powerful enough computer, the solution could be found entirely honestly by a third party simply doing some math and stumbling upon the answer at random, or by asking the right questions and exploiting some as-yet-undiscovered weakness in the implementation.


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Killed by Google • The Google Graveyard

One programmer’s effort (though it’s open source; anyone can contribute to this). There’s a lot of things here. (I had a go back in 2013. Average lifespan then was about four years.)
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More Google abuse • The Hacker Factor Blog

Neal Krawetz:


While there are bots and hackers who will try to compromise your system, Google is the single most abusive entity on the Internet.

If Google just crawled web pages and links that it finds, then this really wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t even mind when Google discovers a bad link on my site and starts crawling it; it tells me that I have a bad link. However, Google does much more than just crawling.

For example: I used to have a search engine on my blog. Users could enter in text and find related blog entries. Unfortunately, I had to remove that feature because Google began submitting random dictionary words. Hundreds of thousands of them. I think Google was trying to index every possible search result that my blog’s search engine could produce. This was just too abusive. When it reached 50% of accesses to my blog (and 50% of my CPU resources), I removed the feature. (I can still search my blog, but the rest of the world can’t.) I’m not the only person to see this; lots of webmasters have reported Google submitting crap into text entry boxes.

When I first started FotoForensics, Google began submitting every URL from Imgur to my service. I’m not Google; I don’t have infinite resources and infinite bandwidth. And I’m pretty certain that this is a direct violation of Imgur’s terms of service. Yet, this is what Google did. Even when I modified my code to return 404 errors to Google, they continued trying to submit Imgur pictures for a month. (They didn’t stop until some Google admin noticed my complaints, tracked down the Google employee who was responsible for the abuse, and stopped it.)

I found that Google’s Feedfetcher often tries to access non-RSS feeds. I don’t think this is a case of users submitting bad URLs to Feedfetcher. Rather, I think this is Google automatically trying to add RSS feeds and failing miserably.

The latest abuse began right before Thanksgiving.


Which of course is an interesting time for them to do it. But: this perhaps wasn’t Google.
link to this extract


Why Theresa May’s Brexit deal is terrible for the UK • Forbes

Frances Coppola:


According to the Political Declaration, the UK still wants to end free movement of people, strike its own trade deals and control its own laws. And it also wants to preserve its own Single Market – the Union of the four countries, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This rules out keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union indefinitely. The Political Declaration effectively ends any possibility of the backstop becoming permanent.

Unfortunately, that is all it does. And that is why this deal is terrible for the UK.

Some time in the next few years, the backstop must end. Indeed, the EU is already trying to put a time limit on it. But the conundrum laid out in the Political Declaration is no more solvable than it ever was. The hard choice for Brexit remains the same. Either the UK gives up its goals of immigration restriction and independent trade policy for the sake of maintaining frictionless trade with the EU, or – since the Political Declaration rules out a permanent hard border between parts of the UK – there must eventually be a hard border on the island of Ireland.

By kicking the can across the Article 50 deadline of March 29th, 2019, the Withdrawal Agreement removes the UK’s third option, which is to change its mind about Brexit. Currently, if the deal fails to get through Parliament – which is looking extremely likely – the Government could call a second referendum with Remain as an option. But once the Article 50 deadline is past, the Withdrawal Agreement would lock the UK into “frozen Brexit,” with the EU holding the keys to the freezer.


OK, so it’s all crap.
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Blow to Norway’s bitcoin industry as miners’ subsidies suddenly scrapped • Forbes

»From January of 2019 bitcoin miners in Norway will have to pay normal electricity tax in the country, after their discount was removed in the state budget agreement, local media has today reported.

The removal of electricity subsidies for bitcoin miners in Norway will add further pressure on to the burgeoning industry, which has seen its profits heavily hit by the recent bitcoin and cryptocurrency rout and resulted in reports of many smaller bitcoin miners around the world switching off their machines.

The average cost of bitcoin mining in Norway is $7,700 per coin, according to research from Germany-based bitcoin miner Northern Bitcoin, which has operations in Norway. It claims to be able to mine bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) at a discount through use of cheap renewable energy and fjord-based cooling systems.

“Norway can not continue to provide huge tax incentives for the most dirty form of cryptographic output as bitcoin. It requires a lot of energy and generates large greenhouse gas emissions globally,” Norwegian parliamentary representative Lars Haltbrekken said recently, it was reported by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Bitcoin miners and data centers in Norway currently enjoy the same discount as other power-intensive industries, meaning those with a capacity of more than 0.5 megawatts pay 0.48 øre ($0.056) per kilowatt. This will rise to 16.58 øre ($1.93) per kilowatt from January.

Northern Bitcoin, which uses the Lefdal mine in Norway’s Sandane to house its bitcoin mining rigs, found China has the lowest average bitcoin mining cost at $3,100, along with Saudi Arabia. In Canada, the average cost of bitcoin mining is almost $4,000. At the other end of the scale, bitcoin mining can cost almost $10,000 per bitcoin in Australia.«

That’s a 345x increase in the price. Not going to last long at that cost, and with the price still (at the time of writing) going down. Northern Bitcoin claims to be a “climate-neutral” bitcoin mining pool. Might be a closed one pretty soon.
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Google has taken down more foreign disinformation pages • Axios

David McCabe:


Google on Tuesday quietly said it had taken down additional accounts implicated in online foreign influence operations aimed at least in part at the United States.

The big picture: The search giant has largely kept its head down even as Facebook and Twitter talked more publicly about online disinformation. The updated numbers posted Tuesday came in an update at the bottom of an August blog post, added two days before the Thanksgiving holiday.


Ah yeah, “taking out the trash” again. One thing I do like about the internet is that nothing escapes its beady eye when it comes to actions like this.
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Chess, AI and Asia’s future • Nikkei Asian Review

James Crabtree:


“When I tell someone in finance that I’m a chess expert their eyes light up,” I was told by grandmaster Daniel King, a well-known commentator on YouTube. “They are just so fascinated by AI. All they see is dollar signs.”

AI engines play in adventurous new styles: neither like normal computers nor humans, but instead in what DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis calls “a third, almost alien, way.” By this he means the machines often play improbable moves that look peculiar to human eyes but turn out to be brilliant.

Oddly, this kind of machine skill has only increased interest in human competition. Chess computers help humans improve. They make the game more entertaining for analysts and spectators too. Former champion Garry Kasparov has even pioneered “cyborg chess,” a variant where a human and a computer work in tandem, playing against other man-and-machine teams. Typically, the result is better than either might manage on their own.

It is just this marriage of computers and people that holds wider economic lessons, given future productivity will grow most quickly where humans and machines collaborate. This could be physical “co-bots” supporting workers in factories or retail outlets. But it could also involve advanced algorithms providing unbiased data to improve human decision-making, or machines which takeover routine tasks to let humans focus on those involving advanced judgment.

Skills of this kind should bring advantages to Asia, with its youthful population and tech-savvy employees.


(A reminder of the AlphaZero v Stockfish match: 28-72-0 win/draw/loss.) I’d wonder about that “unbiased data to improve human decision-making” bit though.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.960: Facebook at bay, algorithms screw up, legally what is a bitcoin?, Pixel 3 camera trouble, and more

  1. I have a hard time believing Google spams the search boxes of the entire web’s sites. This guy must be doing something wrong. I’ve tried to find answers but this is probably where being a non-native speaker and not a programmer hurts. I still did find a few pointers:
    1- you can tell robots incl. Google’s to ignore a whole page, so put your search on its own dedicated page. Obviously most sites aren’t doing that and manage to keep a search box on any page, but this solution does work and is less atomic than entirely removing search. I didn’t even have to look that one up, it’s really a “Duh !” move.
    2- there’s a search console Google lets you customize your site’s indexing in, maybe you can protect your search box there.
    3- Google’s bot (all legit bots actually) identifies itself, just add a bit of code to not search when it’s a robot asking.

    Frankly, this one sounds very much like bunk, I’d be interested in the confirmation of someone who does develop web sites.

  2. re. Google Graveyard: this is exaggerated: it includes all devices (who’d have thunk Pixels got updated each year ? :-p), and services/features that got renamed or rolled into something else (Google Listen was a podcast app, Google has several of those).
    That list could benefit *a lot* from differentiating between hardware’s normal obsolescence, Labs stuff that’s officially an experiment, beta stuff, and the actual official, important stuff that people were using and Google was committed to supporting.

  3. As a counterpart to the PIxel’s camera bug, Google’s Night Sight also improves daytime pictures dramatically. It not only manages to get more light in in dark settings, but also improves color balance and details (the article’s pics are *zoomed in* non-NightSight pics ain’t that bad ^^).

    InB4 some iFan posts a pic a of teared-up flying balloon like last time around: Works only on fully static subjects.

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