Start Up No.974: the trouble with baby ads, Apple kills artist music pages, Russia’s too-human robot, France checks les facts, et plus

From next year, your smart speaker might be able to distinguish the sound of this can being opened. CC-licensed photo by TheFoodJunk on Flickr.

It’s charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Centrepoint, which aims to give homeless young people a future.
Readers in the US: this page shows similar charities in the US. Choose one. Please give as generously as you feel you can.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. Duodecimally. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Dear tech companies: I don’t want to see pregnancy ads after my child was stillborn – The Washington Post

Gillian Brockell:


Dear Tech Companies:

I know you knew I was pregnant. It’s my fault, I just couldn’t resist those Instagram hashtags — #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And, silly me! I even clicked once or twice on the maternity-wear ads Facebook served up. What can I say, I am your ideal “engaged” user.

You surely saw my heartfelt thank-you post to all the girlfriends who came to my baby shower, and the sister-in-law who flew in from Arizona for said shower tagging me in her photos. You probably saw me googling “holiday dress maternity plaid” and “babysafe crib paint.” And I bet even told you my due date, Jan. 24, when I created that Prime registry.

But didn’t you also see me googling “braxton hicks vs. preterm labor” and “baby not moving”? Did you not see my three days of social media silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement post with keywords like “heartbroken” and “problem” and “stillborn” and the 200 teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?


Facebook’s VP of advertising responded, with a heartfelt response, to explain that the ads she was then shown, which thought she was now a mother, could have been blocked (on Facebook, at least) in Settings – Ad Preferences – Hide ad topics – Parenting.

A long way down though; what we truly want is systems that do watch and are attentive to us – including the bad part.
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Smarter voice assistants recognize your favorite brands—and health • Communications of the ACM


At January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a boost to the artificial intelligence (AI) that allows smart speakers like the Echo, Google Home, and Apple Homepod to reliably recognize everyday sounds—and to act on them—is set to lend the devices powerful new capabilities, including the ability to recognize your favorite brands from the noises they make.

Based on sound recognition technology from a British AI startup called Audio Analytic, these capabilities include allowing voice assistants to recognize the sounds of the brands you use day to day, to boost your home’s security by listening out for out-of-the-ordinary “anomalous” sounds around the house, and, for the first time, to collect health data by recognizing coughs, sneezes, sniffles, yawns, and snores, in order to recommend medicines, or pharmacies.

…[But] University of Michigan engineers Florian Schaub and Josephine Lau told the 21st ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSAW 2018) in November that smart speaker makers need to design effective, usable privacy controls—because the risk to our privacy is increasing as voice assistants are fast migrating beyond tabletop speakers to our cars, smartwatches, fitness trackers, wearables, wireless headsets, TV streaming boxes, security cameras, and smart heating/lighting controllers.

All these platforms are able to exploit the patent pending “brand sonification” technology that Audio Analytic will be plugging at CES 2019, the Consumer Technology Association’s annual event in Las Vegas in January.

The basic idea behind brand sonification, according to Audio Analytic CEO Chris Mitchell, “is to have voice assistant devices respond to the sounds that brands make when they are used.”


“The sounds that brands make when they are used”? The advertising-oriented mind is so weird.
link to this extract

Apple Music removes ability for artists to post to Connect, posts removed from Artist Pages and For You • 9to5Mac

Zac Hall:


Apple Music Connect appears to slowly be going the way of iTunes Ping. Apple has started notifying Apple Music artists that it is removing the ability for artists to post content to Apple Music Connect, and previously posted Apple Music Connect content is being removed from the For You section and Artist Pages in Apple Music. Connect content will still be viewable through search results on Apple Music, but Apple is removing artist-submitted Connect posts from search in May


Nobody will be able to update it from the end of this month. So it’s dead. That’s the second time Apple has tried this, and the second time it’s failed. As an artist – or an artist’s social media manager – why would you want to update that when you could do it on your own site? Or on Twitter? Or Facebook? Apple has never got social networks right.
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Apple plans new $1bn campus for Austin, Texas • Reuters

Aishwarya Venugopal:


The iPhone maker also said it plans to expand in Seattle, San Diego and Culver City, California, and add hundreds of jobs in Pittsburgh, New York and Boulder, Colorado, over the next three years.

Apple said at the start of the year it would invest $30bn in the United States, taking advantage of a windfall from U.S. President Donald Trump’s sweeping tax code overhaul.

The 133-acre campus in Austin will be less than a mile from Apple’s existing facilities and initially have 5,000 employees. The jobs created would be in engineering, research and development, operations and finance. in November said it will create more than 25,000 jobs in both New York and the Washington, D.C. area by opening massive new offices. The two technology companies chose cities with a wealth of white-collar workers and high employment, bypassing other regions that may have required more investment.

Austin is one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities with a population of nearly 1 million, and is home to the University of Texas and other tech companies including Dell Technologies Inc in nearby Round Rock, Texas, and IBM.

Apple’s existing facility in north Austin has more than 6,000 workers, the most outside its headquarters in Cupertino, California. With the new campus, the company will become the largest private employer in the city.


link to this extract

YouTube Rewind hides its community’s biggest moments to appease advertisers • The Verge

Julia Alexander:


The message from YouTube to marketers was clear: these are the people you want to invest time to watch and whose videos you should run ads on.

Jake and Logan Paul don’t appear in this year’s Rewind. Neither does KSI. PewDiePie, David Dobrik, Shane Dawson, and Erika Costell — some of the most talked-about YouTube creators this year — are also absent. It’s unclear who was asked and who wasn’t, but their absences are some of the biggest questions fans have after watching the video.

The reaction from the YouTube community is openly hostile; there are more than 250,000 downvotes on the video at the time of this writing — nearly 100,000 more than those who upvoted it. It’s not that YouTube’s video completely misses the mark. There are references to trends like mukbang videos (a popular food challenge), conversations about creator burnout, spotlights on popular collaboration teams like Sister Squad (Emma Chamberlain, James Charles, and the Dolan Twins) and, of course, Fortnite.

Ignoring the moments that YouTube’s community cares about and pays attention to, like a boxing match that brought in nearly 1 million live viewers, hides an enormous part of the platform’s cultural shift. It feels disingenuous, like YouTube is hiding its uglier side under a carpet while showing guests around.


This year’s YouTube Rewind is now the most disliked video in the history of YouTube – 9m dislikes v 2m likes.
link to this extract

‘Russia’s most modern robot’ revealed to be just a person in a suit • The Independent

Andrew Griffin:


Video of the event went around the world, showing him taking part in banter with people on stage and being led through a series of dances. Its success was used to encourage children to explore robotics, and as proof of a technological breakthrough.

It was clear that if the robot was real it would be one of the most advanced examples of robotics in the world. Soon after that celebration, however, it became clear that it was so lifelike because it was literally alive, with a man standing inside its body controlling its functions.

Local reports straight away noted a variety of things wrong with the robot.

It wasn’t clear where the sensors that would allow it to take in the world were placed, for one. It only seemed to have LED lights in its head, rather than any visible camera or other sensors to allow it to understand its environment.

It also appeared to have come entirely out of nowhere. The robots made by Boston Dynamics – often touted as the leading company in creating robots that move like humans – have taken years to develop even simple abilities, and iheir movements are far behind some of those shown during the demonstration.

Its dancing seemed a little too human, too: its movements were clumsy – like a person trying to dance while struggling with the weight of a robot suit, not a robot that had been taught to dance, as claimed.


Just explain how “a person trying to dance while struggling with the weight” looks different from a clumsy robot that has been taught to dance?
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In France, school lessons ask: which Twitter post should you trust? • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Elian Peltier:


A group of teenagers recently swarmed into a room at Collège Henri Barbusse near Lyon, France, for a class typically dedicated to learning Spanish. But on that Wednesday, an unusual lesson awaited them.

Five posts from Twitter were up on the board. The assignment: Decipher whether they were trustworthy or suspect.

The ninth graders quickly focused on a post by the far-right politician Marine Le Pen, related to a headline-grabbing incident in France when a teenager had threatened a teacher. One student said Ms. Le Pen’s post could be trusted because her account had been verified by Twitter. But Samia Houbiri, 15, piped up that Ms. Le Pen simply wanted attention.

“She picks a topic, she exaggerates things, and then people will say, ‘She’s right, I should vote for her,’” Ms. Houbiri said.
At the front of the class, Sandra Laffont, a journalist teaching the workshop, nodded and said, “Politicians may sometimes exaggerate reality because their goal is to convince people that their ideas are the right ones.”

The class was part of a novel experiment by a government to work with journalists and educators to combat the spread of online misinformation. France is coordinating one of the world’s largest national media and internet literacy efforts to teach students, starting as early as in middle school, how to spot junk information online.


Bonne idée.
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‘They don’t care’: Facebook factchecking in disarray as journalists push to cut ties • The Guardian

Sam Levin:


[Brooke] Binkowski, who left [fact-checking site] Snopes earlier this year and now runs her own factchecking site, which does not partner with Facebook, said the Facebook-Snopes partnership quickly became counterproductive. During early conversations with Facebook, Binkowski said she tried to raise concerns about misuse of the platform abroad, such as the explosion of hate speech and misinformation during the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and other violent propaganda.

“I was bringing up Myanmar over and over and over,” she said. “They were absolutely resistant.”

Binkowski, who previously reported on immigration and refugees, said Facebook largely ignored her: “I strongly believe that they are spreading fake news on behalf of hostile foreign powers and authoritarian governments as part of their business model.”

Kim LaCapria recently left Snopes as a content manager and factchecker partly due to her frustrations with the Facebook arrangement. She said it quickly seemed clear that Facebook wanted the “appearance of trying to prevent damage without actually doing anything” and that she was particularly upset to learn that Facebook was paying Snopes: “That felt really gross … Facebook has one mission and factchecking websites should have a completely different mission.”

Binkowski said that on at least one occasion, it appeared that Facebook was pushing reporters to prioritize debunking misinformation that affected Facebook advertisers, which she thought crossed a line: “You’re not doing journalism any more. You’re doing propaganda.”


Facebook didn’t like this, and put out a grumpy response, principally about the advertiser/misinformation point in that latter paragraph.
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Word processor inventor Evelyn Berezin has died • Quartz

Corinne Purtill:


After graduating from New York University in 1945 with a degree in physics, Berezin became interested in the nascent computer industry. Her particular expertise was building computing networks for a specific task. In 1962, as an employee of the company Teleregister, she built a computerized booking system for United Airlines, the first system of its kind.

Yet opportunities for women in tech’s early days were extremely limited. Berezin told NPR that a 1960 job offer from the New York Stock Exchange was rescinded because, the hiring manager told her apologetically, “They said that you were a woman, you’d have to be on the stock market floor from time to time. And the language on the floor was not for a woman’s ears.”

If she wanted to move up at a company, she realized, she would have to create it herself. She founded Redactron in 1969 with the goal of creating a tool that would revolutionize the workplace—the word processor. Two years later, Redactron brought to market the Data Secretary, a device that transformed the laborious work of producing documents. Redactron sold 10,000 of its $8,000 machines to law firms and corporate offices before being sold in 1976, as its larger competitor IBM flooded the market with alternatives, according to the New York Times.

Berezin went on to serve on the boards of several companies and as a fellow of the Computer History Museum. She was inducted in 2011 into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame.


Not into the Technology Hall of Fame? Those two inventions are basically what keeps the modern world going.
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Make the iPad more like the Mac – Medium

Radu Dutzan got Luna Display, which turns the iPad into a touchscreen for the Mac:


On the macPad, things are radically different. You need to keep in mind that touches are immediately interpreted as clicks by Luna, so scrolling works only with two fingers, and tapping and dragging with one finger (aka swiping) is usually interpreted as a click-drag gesture that triggers selection on the Mac. That puts you on your toes, because swiping is a very natural gesture on touch devices—you don’t even think about it. But once you wrap your head around this, you see that tapping and dragging to select is actually a much more efficient interaction that whatever we’re doing today on iOS text fields, or in apps like Keynote for iOS. Seriously, what are we doing with text and object selection on the iPad? Whatever it is, it’s kinda awful, especially after trying out tap-and-drag selection on the macPad.

There are so many places where the iPad could benefit from some adaptation of tap-and-drag selection. It’s such a better model that imagining the interaction is worth the effort: there already is a heuristic somewhere on iOS that starts measuring for how long you’ve kept your finger still after starting a touch in order to decide whether to transition from a scrolling gesture to a drag. That same heuristic could be applied to iPad text fields and layout apps such as Keynote: after holding a touch still on a text field or on the canvas for a set amount of time, the gesture could become a selection drag, and moving your finger could begin selecting the text or objects encompassed by the net dragged distance.

What about the desktop? Well, what about it? The Mac has it because its fundamental organizational unit—its main metaphorical currency—is files, and since we keep files scattered around IRL, we have a digital equivalent on the Mac’s desktop. The iPad’s currency is apps, so if we have an iPad OS with windows, spaces, and Mission Control, and a classic icon-based app launcher on a separate modal layer, then what should be on the ‘base’ layer? Well, what about widgets and a set of user-defined or suggested shortcuts?


Inch by inch, this stuff is getting figured out, it seems.
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Totally non-evil ICE arrests 170 immigrants trying to save babies from baby jails • Wonkette

Stephen Robinson:


It’s the holiday season, and in between debating the merits of Love Actually and “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” you’ve probably wondered what’s going on with all those migrant children the Trump administration separated from their families. Turns out they’ve been used as collateral for even greater acts of evil.

The friendly folks at US Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) announced Tuesday that federal authorities have arrested 170 immigrants who came forward to sponsor migrant children in government custody. This is the result of a new, fun rule the Department of Homeland Security put into effect this summer. It allows immigration authorities to examine the criminal background and legal status of anyone who attempts to sponsor the unaccompanied minors — usually parents or close relatives already in the country. They can even check the papers of any other adults living in their home, including Grandma.

It’s a masterclass in evil: use defenseless children as bait to lure immigrants to the authorities. It’s like when scofflaws show up at police headquarters to collect their “free prize,” which is actually just jail. Of course, this is far more repulsive because the government is preying on immigrants’ concern for the well-being of their family members. This is usually why it’s Lex Luthor who kidnaps Lois Lane or Martha Kent. You don’t see Superman holding Lex’s sister hostage in return for an orderly surrender. Although ruthlessly efficient, it would lead to a much shorter and more depressing movie.


Wow. That is really benthically evil. One has to imagine that people sat around a table and planned this to see quite how evil they were; the banality of planning it, minuting it, and getting it carried out. And you can also bet they were pleased with themselves. The children, meanwhile, are still in jail for no offence they knowingly committed.
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Apple can’t win over media with its old approach • Bloomberg

Shira Ovide:


Bloomberg News detailed on Wednesday why some news and magazine publishers are wary of Apple’s effort to refashion Texture, a company Apple acquired this year that offers a collection of digital magazines for $10 a month. One concern is that Apple could lure publications’ current subscribers, who might save money by reading the same articles on a revamped Texture instead.

It struck me that Apple is repeating many of the same missteps from its earlier digital news and magazine hub called Newsstand and from its multiple attempts at subscriptions for online television. And I’m equally surprised that Apple’s vision for Newsstand 2.0 — or at least what journalists have unearthed so far — seems unoriginal and potentially misguided. 

Reading about Apple’s negotiations, I had flashbacks to 2010, when I spent a chunk of time writing about Apple’s first significant stab at an iPad storefront for newspapers and magazines. What Apple called Newsstand wasn’t a single fee for an array of publications like what Apple is developing now, but fears about Apple cannibalizing existing sales and controlling data on publications’ subscribers were sticking points with many partners then, too. Newsstand flopped, and participating publishers wasted time and resources on Steve Jobs’s ill-conceived plan. 

It was utterly predictable that many of those same publishers would have similar misgivings about Newsstand 2.0, but Apple’s reported pitch hasn’t changed in eight years: We’re Apple, and this will draw masses who wouldn’t have otherwise subscribed to your newspapers or magazines. Apple may be right, but the publishers that Apple really wants believe they’re better off luring readers on their own without Apple serving as a middleman.


The content game isn’t what it was back in 2002-3, when Steve Jobs negotiated with record labels to create the iTunes Music Store.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.974: the trouble with baby ads, Apple kills artist music pages, Russia’s too-human robot, France checks les facts, et plus

  1. “what we truly want is systems that do watch and are attentive to us – including the bad part”

    Speak for yourself. What I want is ads that don’t rely on my data, and systems that don’t follow me around the web. If you must give me ads then give me car ads when I’m looking at car pages, holiday ads when I’m looking for holidays, ads for pizza when I’m checking restaurants.

    After all this time tech/ad companies are still terrible at suggesting appropriate adverts. I get ads for bicycles months after I bought a bike, ads for Chuck Taylor’s because I used the word ‘converse’ in a post (it took me a while to work that one out), a company named Chrysalis trying to sell me inappropriate junk because I attended a theatre called The Chrysalis.
    I’m sure Google et al have convinced advertisers that these adverts reached their target buyer with pin-point accuracy, and charged them accordingly, but they might as well have thrown flyers off a tall building.

    • Totally agree.

      I still get adverts for slippers from when I did a search for some for my mum when she was in a nursing home 3 years ago.

      I never wear slippers and my mum died 18 months ago.

    • Indeed.

      I’m not 100% adverse to being tracked. I’ll even volunteer some info on what I’m interested in. But I need to get something in return, which I’m not.

      I just bought a couple of phones and tablets. I don’t need more ads for phones and tablets, I need USB-C cables and hubs, and SD cards, now. It’s Yuletide. Why do I have to bust my brain every year trying to be the cool uncle, they must know by now how many kids are around me, their ages, that one is into Lego, the other into Hockey… instead I’m still seeing ads for products I was buying for my dad who died 10 months ago and I’ve got the searches to prove it – I think I could be an estate planner now.

      Even just for news, they seem to be only tallying clicks, not whether I actually scroll through the stuff, or spend a credible amount of time on the page. I’ll usually read Ars Technica articles, and then read the comments. I’ll also click some crazy, repellent political stuff just to try and keep my bias in check. So now I get mostly no interesting tech stories (reading them takes time, I click fewer ?), and a lot of stuff that used to be fringe because I’ll spend a lot less time on it, try to work out the logic or emotion of it before getting heaves, and move on. So now I’m tagged MAGA more than nerd. Even Medium seems to be confusing my interest in Fuchsia and Flutter for interest in Swift and Kottlin.

  2. It seems Google is kind of deprecating widgets in its own apps.

    It might be an oversight, but widgets are missing from some of Google’s latest app updates. I noticed it when I installed Messages to give it another try (MMSes work alright now ^^), and exploring the forums about the issue I came across similar missing widgets for a handful of other apps.

    That’s a very weird move, because widgets aren’t hard to do, and are a key differentiator from iOS. Specifically half my users, the very non-tech ones, have a Texts widget on their home, and use+like it a lot.

    On the other hand, it’s similar to the deprecation of RSS: Google prefers to have us use some proprietary Google-specific information integrator for the lock-in and the data. Hopefully they just mess with their apps not the OS, because “no widgets” would keep a whole lot of people away from Fuchsia in my neck of the woods.

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