Start Up No.962: Google staff get restive, how will each MP vote?, bitcoin’s mining exodus, Android tablet pro, and more


Iran’s currency has crashed – and the Telegram app isn’t helping. CC-licensed photo by David Stanley on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Not regulated by the SEC. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Read Google employees’ open letter protesting Project Dragonfly

Sara Salinas and Jillian D’Onfro:

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Google employees are calling on the company to cancel Project Dragonfly, an effort to create a censored search engine in China.

“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” an open letter signed by Google employees published Tuesday on Medium says. “After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case.”

Eleven Google employees had signed the letter as of its posting, and the number of signatures quickly grew, amounting to more than 100 several hours after it published.

Project Dragonfly has drawn criticism from human rights groups and US politicians since The Intercept first reported details about the internal effort this summer, and in August, thousands of Google employees signed a letter saying that it raised “urgent moral and ethical issues.”

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Is Google losing its soul or finding it? Drifting away from its roots or rediscovering them? I get the feeling that the restive employees are actually trying to align the company with to its original utopian vision, of constantly improving the world through its products.
link to this extract


How will your MP vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal? • The Guardian

Jessica Elgot and Dan Sabbagh:

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MPs may support or oppose the bill for a number of reasons: those on the government payroll, including cabinet ministers, must support the bill or resign. Those who have already resigned from government on this issue can be expected to vote against, as can those who have already submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister. Those of all parties who are campaigning for a “people’s vote” are also expected to vote against.

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This is great – you can search for your MP by name or constituency. Of course, what people say or indicate today could all change in the next couple of weeks.
link to this extract


The app destroying Iran’s currency • Foreign Policy

Rohollah Faghihi:

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As soon as it became clear that the United States would reimpose sanctions, many middle-class and wealthy Iranians felt a temptation to engage in currency trading, having concluded that the value of the rial would soon decline. For all these Iranians, the goal was to buy dollars. Some Iranians even sold their homes and invested the proceeds in dollars to preserve the value of their assets—or, simply, to secure a profit.

The fire sale of Iranian rials weakened the rial even further, and the Iranian government tried to arrest it in various ways, including by banning the official sale of foreign currency. But this only served to make the currency-trading market less transparent—and, correspondingly, more exploitative.

There has always been a gap between the more sophisticated currency traders and those driven by ignorance and fear, but the informal marketplace widened it. That has become especially evident on Tehran’s Ferdowsi Boulevard, the center of Iran’s informal money-changing economy, where anyone can bring rials in cash and walk away with U.S. bills.

In one instance on Ferdowsi, I recall seeing one elderly women bring the equivalent of her entirely yearly income and exchange it at a rate of 170,000 rials to the dollar—an offer significantly below what the rial was then worth, even as the consensus was that the currency was probably undervalued at that moment. The rial has yet to weaken to the point that the woman’s bet would have paid off.

Iran’s professional money traders increasingly use Telegram to exploit the black market’s lack of transparency to maximize their own profits, at the expense of their Iranian clients—and to the distress of the Iranian government. As one of the few social media or messaging apps that the Iranian government doesn’t censor, Telegram—specifically, the news feeds on its “channel” function, which allow posts to be distributed to anyone who chooses to sign up for them—has become one of the most trusted sources of news for Iranians, displacing state media and even ostensibly independent newspapers.

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link to this extract


600K bitcoin miners shut down in last 2 weeks, F2Pool founder estimates • CoinDesk

Wolfie Zhao:

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Between 600,000 and 800,000 bitcoin miners have shut down since mid-November, amid declines in price and hashrate across the network, according to the third-largest mining pool.

In an interview with CoinDesk, Mao Shixing, founder of F2pool, said his firm’s estimate takes into account the total network hashrate drop and the average hash power of older mining machines that are having a hard time generating profits.

According to data from blockchain.info, the bitcoin network’s entire hashrate, which captures the aggregated computing power on the world’s first blockchain, has dropped from around 47m tera-hashes per second (TH/s) on Nov. 10 to 41m on Nov. 24 – an almost 13% decline.

Mao explained most miners that may have halted operations are likely those using older models, such as the Antminer T9+ made by Bitmain and AvalonMiner 741 by Canaan Creative. These miners have an average hash power of around 10 TH/s and are estimated to be losing money right now, according to F2pool’s miner revenue index

…Stepping back, Mao said there are multiple factors that contributed to the shakeout among miners, including the recent market decline that followed the bitcoin cash hard fork on Nov. 15; an increase in electricity costs in China; and the fact that Chinese manufacturers are still racing to upgrade their products, making older machines increasingly uncompetitive.

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The bitcoin cash hard fork increasingly looks like a key reason for the price crash of the past couple of weeks, by forcing some miners to liquidate large amounts of bitcoin in order to buy new kit. The question is whether once they have new kit they will find anyone interested in the processing they have to offer.
link to this extract


Check your repos… Crypto-coin-stealing code sneaks into fairly popular NPM lib (2m downloads per week) • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

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A widely used Node.js code library listed in NPM’s warehouse of repositories was altered to include crypto-coin-stealing malware. The lib in question, event-stream, is downloaded roughly two million times a week by application programmers.

This vandalism is a stark reminder of the dangers of relying on deep and complex webs of dependencies in software: unless precautions are taken throughout the whole chain, any one component can be modified to break an app’s security. If your project uses event-stream in some way, and you should check to make sure you didn’t fetch and install the dodgy version during testing or deployment.

Here’s how it all started: a developer identified on GitHub as “right9control” volunteered to take over event-stream, which had been built by another dev. The JavaScript was then briefly updated to include another module, flatmap-stream, which was later modified to include Bitcoin-siphoning malware – prompting alarm yet again that those pulling third-party packages into their apps have no idea what that code may be doing.

A timeline can be found here, but in short: on September 9, right9control added flatmap-stream as a dependency to event-stream, and then on September 16, removed the dependency by implementing the code themselves. However, this latter change was not automatically pushed out to the library’s users. On October 5, flatmap-stream was altered by a user called “hugeglass” to include obfuscated code that attempted to drain Bitcoins from wallets using the software.

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As he says, the interdependencies and reliance on third-party code is becoming a serious problem. Recall that the British Airways hack earlier this summer occurred in a broadly similar way: BA’s site was hacked so that a small bit of code loaded from BA’s site for baggage checkin would send credit card details to a hacking group.
link to this extract


Special report: little known to many investors, cryptocurrency reviews are for sale • Reuters

Anna Irrera:

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Earlier this year, Ukrainian startup Hacken was looking to promote its new coin after raising $3m online in late 2017. Chief executive Dmytro Budorin and his team identified a list of almost 200 cryptocurrency social media personalities they thought could help them, he said.

Hacken paid $7,500 for Christopher Greene, host of Alternative Media Television – a YouTube channel with more than 500,000 subscribers – to review its coin in a video, Budorin told Reuters. In the 25-minute video, published on June 22, Greene raved about Hacken’s coin and business, describing it as a “huge market opportunity” with “potential 1,000x returns.”

Nowhere in the video – which has more than 92,000 views – is Hacken’s payment to Greene mentioned. Greene, who used to work for wealth management firm Merrill Lynch, directs viewers in the first minute of the video to a disclaimer on his website that states he “may receive compensation for products and services” that he recommends. There is no specific mention of Hacken, or any specific cryptocurrency issuers, paying him.

Greene did not respond to emails and phone messages from Reuters asking about his work for Hacken.

Four days after the YouTube review was published, Greene turned to Twitter to brag that Hacken’s coin was up 14% on the day to $1.54 per coin.

Some people paid attention. Carter Zurawel, a yoga instructor in Calgary, Canada, replied to Greene’s tweet: “That Hacken video was great man! Made me buy a couple hundred.”

The token’s price has since fallen by more than 75% to 36 cents. Zurawel told Reuters in Twitter messages that he lost much of his initial investment, worth several hundred dollars. He said he was not aware that Greene was paid for his Hacken video, but he shrugged off the poor performance of the currency. “I will probably hold onto it because I strongly believe that the cryptocurrency market will rally in the future,” he told Reuters.

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🙄
link to this extract


Fortnite hits 200 million registered users • Fortune

Chris Morris:

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If you’re a parent who’s tired of Fortnite, we’ve got some bad news for you. It’s not going anywhere.

Epic Games reports the number of registered users for the game has hit 200 million—up from 125 million in June and a mere 40 million in January.

That’s a phenomenal growth rate for the free-to-play game, which has turned into a cash machine for Epic and its part owner Tencent Games as players spend freely on in-game items.

The title, which crossed the $1 billion dollar sales threshold in July, has become a touchstone in the gaming world. New releases from competitors now need to include a battle royale multiplayer mode, offering their own take on the gameplay style. This is where players are dropped into an ever-shrinking area and the last one alive wins the game.

Both Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Take-Two Interactive Software’s Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, have competing modes.

While 200 million is an impressive number of registered users, it’s unclear how many of those users are actively playing the game. Earlier this month, Fortnite hit a record of 8.3 million concurrent players.

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Lots registered, but few active? Then again, wait for the school holidays.
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Facebook is failing its black employees and its black users • Mark Luckie on Facebook

Luckie sent this memo (excerpted here) Facebook-wide on his last day at the company earlier this month:

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Black people are one of the most engaged demographics on Facebook…

Black people are far outpacing other groups on the platform in a slew of engagement metrics. African Americans are more likely to use Facebook to communicate with family and friends daily, according to research commissioned by Facebook. 63% use Facebook to communicate with family, and 60% use Facebook to communicate with friends at least once a day, compared to 53% and 54% of the total population, respectively. 70% of black U.S. adults use Facebook and 43% use Instagram, according to the Pew Research Center. 55% of black millennials report spending at least one hour a day on social networking sites, 6% higher than all millennials, while 29% say they spend at least three hours a day, 9% higher than all millennials, Nielsen surveys found. Black people are driving the kind of meaningful social interactions Facebook is striving to facilitate.

…but their experiences are sometimes far from positive.

Black people are finding that their attempts to create “safe spaces” on Facebook for conversation among themselves are being derailed by the platform itself. Non-black people are reporting what are meant to be positive efforts as hate speech, despite them often not violating Facebook’s terms of service. Their content is removed without notice. Accounts are suspended indefinitely.

When these rulings are upheld with little recourse, it upends the communities of color Facebook claims to be supporting. It decreases the likelihood that people will continue to engage at the same level on our platform. Even high-profile figures who are plagued with these issues sometimes have to wait until it’s a major press story for it to be addressed.

There is a prevailing theory among many black users that their content is more likely to be taken down on the platform than any other group. Even though the theories are mostly anecdotal, Facebook does little to dissuade people from this idea. Black people continue to use the platform because for many it is still their best way to connect directly with the causes they care about. Our communities should be able to trust that we have their best interests at heart.

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link to this extract


Working on an Android tablet, 2017 edition • Henri Bergius

Bergius is a startup worker and programmer, and uses a Google Pixel C tablet with its keyboard for all his daily work:

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So, why work on Android instead of getting an iPad Pro? I’ve actually worked on both, and here are my reasons:

• Communications between apps: while iOS has extensions now, the ability to send data from an app to another is still a hit-or-miss. Android had intents from day one, meaning pretty much any app can talk to any other app
• Standard charging: all of my other devices charge with the same USB-C chargers and cables. iPads still use the proprietary Lightnight plug, requiring custom dongles for everything
• Standard accessories: this boils down to USB-C just like charging. With Android I can plug in a network adapter or even a mouse, and it’ll just work
• Ecosystem lock-in: we’re moving to a world where everything — from household electronics to cars — is either locked to the Apple ecosystem or following standards. I don’t want to be locked to a single vendor for everything digital
• Browser choice: with iOS you only get one web renderer, the rather dated Safari. On Android I can choose between Chrome, Firefox, or any other browser that has been ported to the platform

Of course, iOS has its own benefits. Apple has a stronger stance on privacy than Google. And there is more well-made tablet software available for iPads than Android. But when almost everything I use is available on the web, this doesn’t matter that much.

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link to this extract


Why do computers use so much energy? • Scientific American

David Wolpert:

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Precise estimates vary, but currently about 5% of all energy consumption in the U.S. goes just to running computers—a huge cost to the economy as whole. Moreover, all that energy used by those computers ultimately gets converted into heat. This results in a second cost: that of keeping the computers from melting.
These issues don’t only arise in artificial, digital computers. There are many naturally occurring computers, and they, too, require huge amounts of energy. To give a rather pointed example, the human brain is a computer. This particular computer uses some 10–20% of all the calories that a human consumes. Think about it: our ancestors on the African savanna had to find 20% more food every single day, just to keep that ungrateful blob of pink jelly imperiously perched on their shoulders from having a hissy fit. That need for 20% more food is a massive penalty to the reproductive fitness of our ancestors. Is that penalty why intelligence is so rare in the evolutionary record? Nobody knows—and nobody has even had the mathematical tools to ask the question before.

There are other biological computers besides brains, and they too consume large amounts of energy. To give one example, many cellular systems can be viewed as computers. Indeed, the comparison of thermodynamic costs in artificial and cellular computers can be extremely humbling for modern computer engineers. For example, a large fraction of the energy budget of a cell goes to translating RNA into sequences of amino acids (i.e., proteins), in the cell’s ribosome.

But the thermodynamic efficiency of this computation—the amount of energy required by a ribosome per elementary operation—is many orders of magnitude superior to the thermodynamic efficiency of our current artificial computers. Are there “tricks” that cells use that we could exploit in our artificial computers? Going back to the previous biological example, are there tricks that human brains use to do their computations that we can exploit in our artificial computers?

More generally, why do computers use so much energy in the first place?

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It’s not a “hissy fit” if your brain stops working, but I sort of see his point. Also it’s not 20% more food – it’s 20% more calories. Hence why fat is prized as a food by our poor, unevolved bodies, surprised by our ousting from the savannah to exile in the supermarket.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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6 thoughts on “Start Up No.962: Google staff get restive, how will each MP vote?, bitcoin’s mining exodus, Android tablet pro, and more

  1. Fun stuff you can do with USB-C: a $200 (early) $400 (regular) 15″ touchscreen that works with Windows, Android, and probably the new iPad pro. No battery, bad sound and small colour gamut, but does allow charge-through, Samsung’s and Huawei’s desktop modes… Might be better than a second device if you cut and paste a lot, or otherwise prefer one two-screen device over two one-screen devices – I don’t in the end, because battery life.

  2. RE: Fortnite
    While 8.3 million concurrents sounds small, especially relative to the scale of some tech giants, it’s an absolutely massive number in gaming. The largest number of concurrent players for any game ever on Steam is 3.2 million (PUBG). The 8.3 million concurrent players in Fortnite likely translates to close to 100 million MAUs (According to Epic Games, they were at 80 million a few months ago https://www.epicgames.com/fortnite/en-US/news/fall-skirmish-details). There’s really nothing else in the realm of gaming that can really compare to the numbers Fortnite is currently generating.

    • It’s interesting to see a game with such low lock-in get so much stickiness.

      Compared to old glories Clash of Clans and Pokemon Go, very little is gained by playing a lot or for a long time: no village to build up, no pokemon to collect. I think it should be a reminder that lock-in is also lock-out. The kids tweens and teens around me got turned off Clash of Clans because of the extreme number of hours – or dollars- required to get to the top. With Fortnite, one gets a chance at fame every 15 minutes.

      It’s also remarkably unpushy about monetization. I’m curious what kind of ARPU they’re getting.

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