Start Up No.984: Facebook’s eager Portal reviewers, Britain’s upper-class twits, how to give up your phone, Google gets Fossil tech, and more


‘Oumuamua was a very, very peculiar asteroid. CC-licensed photo by Stuart%20Rankin on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Disciplined so far. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Have aliens found us? An interview with the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb about the mysterious interstellar object ‘Oumuamua • The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner talks to Loeb, who thinks that the mysterious object dubbed ‘Oumuamua is an alien artefact:

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the evidence in this particular case is that there are six peculiar facts. And one of these facts is that it deviated from an orbit shaped by gravity while not showing any of the telltale signs of cometary outgassing activity. So we don’t see the gas around it, we don’t see the cometary tail. It has an extreme shape that we have never seen before in either asteroids or comets. We know that we couldn’t detect any heat from it and that it’s much more shiny, by a factor of ten, than a typical asteroid or comet. All of these are facts. I am following the facts.

Last year, I wrote a paper about cosmology where there was an unusual result, which showed that perhaps the gas in the universe was much colder than we expected. And so we postulated that maybe dark matter has some property that makes the gas cooler. And nobody cares, nobody is worried about it, no one says it is not science. Everyone says that is mainstream—to consider dark matter, a substance we have never seen. That’s completely fine. It doesn’t bother anyone.

But when you mention the possibility that there could be equipment out there that is coming from another civilization—which, to my mind, is much less speculative, because we have already sent things into space—then that is regarded as unscientific…

…Given the data that we have, I am putting this on the table, and it bothers people to even think about that, just like it bothered the Church in the days of Galileo to even think about the possibility that the Earth moves around the sun. Prejudice is based on experience in the past. The problem is that it prevents you from making discoveries. If you put the probability at zero% of an object coming into the solar system, you would never find it!

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Weirdly compelling. If it comes back… everyone hide. (Good Scientific American article by Loeb too.)
link to this extract


Facebook’s own employees appear to be leaving 5-star Amazon reviews for the Portal camera • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Facebook’s Portal smart displays have had an uphill battle, trying to convince people to willingly give the notoriously security-lax social media company another avenue into their homes. But it seems some people are pretty happy with their Portals: Facebook employees, who were just caught leaving five-star reviews for their own product on Amazon.

Credit for spotting this incredible coincidence goes to NYT tech columnist Kevin Roose.

But it’s not just a coincidence. Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth has seemly confirmed on Twitter that they’re indeed employees of the company, even though he says the company didn’t encourage this behavior.

As Roose notes in his tweet, at least three of the roughly 100 five-star reviews for the Facebook Portal all match the names of specific Facebook employees…

…the rules at Amazon are clear: the online retailer bans “Creating, modifying, or posting content regarding your (or your relative’s, close friend’s, business associate’s, or employer’s) products or services,” which this would definitely fall under.

According to Facebook’s Bosworth, the reviews were “neither coordinated nor directed from the company,” noting additionally that when Portal first launched, Facebook actively encouraged employees internally to not review products it sells on Amazon, and that it would ask those employees to remove their reviews.

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link to this extract


Google buys undisclosed smartwatch technology from Fossil for $40m, includes some personnel • Android Police

Ryne Hager:

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Google’s wearables platform hasn’t been as successful as Android itself, but that isn’t stopping Google from investing in it further. Today Fossil has announced that Google is acquiring undetermined “smartwatch technology” it is currently developing for a cool $40 million. Together with the IP acquisition, Google is also picking up part of Fossil’s research and development team, with the sale set to close this month.

Precise details aren’t certain, and we’re as curious as you are when it comes to the nature of this new technology, still allegedly in development. All we know is Fossil and Google seem to think it’s a pretty big deal. “We’ve built and advanced a technology that has the potential to improve upon our existing platform of smartwatches.” said Greg McKelvey, Executive Vice President, and Chief Strategy and Digital Officer at Fossil Group. “Together with Google, our innovation partner, we’ll continue to unlock growth in wearables.”

Still, this move is at least partly reminiscent of Google’s HTC’s hardware team acquisition in 2017-2018. Perhaps in-house wearable hardware may finally be in the pipeline?

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It sure looks that way. Indicating that Android Wear – well, WearOS – has not been a success in the market.
link to this extract


Zimbabwe cracks down violently on fuel protesters • Financial Times

Joseph Cotterill:

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In Moscow, Mr Mnangagwa defended the fuel price increase as necessary. “It will take time for things to settle and results to be shown,” he said. At the same time his government unleashed the fiercest crackdown since the July election.

On Tuesday Zimbabwean social media users said they were unable to access WhatsApp, Twitter and other services. NetBlocks, an international civil society group, said the shutdown widened to a full internet blackout later on Tuesday.

On Monday police fired tear gas and live rounds at protesters in Harare, Bulawayo, the second-largest city, and other urban areas as trade unions called a three-day national shutdown over the fuel price rise. Some businesses were looted. Activists confirmed dozens were injured in the violence.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, an NGO, said its members treated several victims for gunfire wounds.

“This is a polarising set of actions by the state. They are faced with a situation they do not know how to control at the economic level,” Piers Pigou, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said.

The US dollar is the main benchmark currency used in Zimbabwe since 2008 but there are crippling shortages of the currency, throttling the ability to pay for imports.

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Notice the shutting down of the internet – the first move now for autocracies seeking to squash conflict. Poor Zimbabwe: it never finds its way out of the mess. (Mnangagwa’s visit to Moscow will either be to get aid money or get buyers for produce.)
link to this extract


Microsoft pledges $500m for affordable housing in Seattle area • The New York Times

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Microsoft’s money represents the most ambitious effort by a tech company to directly address the inequality that has spread in areas where the industry is concentrated, particularly on the West Coast. It will fund construction for homes affordable not only to the company’s own non-tech workers, but also for teachers, firefighters and other middle- and low-income residents.

Microsoft’s move comes less than a year after Amazon successfully pushed to block a new tax in Seattle that would have made large businesses pay a per-employee tax to fund homeless services and the construction of affordable housing. The company said the tax created a disincentive to create jobs. Microsoft, which is based in nearby Redmond, Wash., and has few employees who work in the city, did not take a position on the tax.

The debate about the rapid growth of the tech industry and the inequality that often follows has spilled across the country, particularly as Amazon, with billions of taxpayer subsidies, announced plans to build major campuses in Long Island City, Queens, and Arlington, Va., that would employ a total of at least 50,000 people. In New York, elected officials and residents have raised concerns that Amazon has not made commitments to support affordable housing.

Microsoft has been at the vanguard of warning about the potential negative effects of technology, like privacy or the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence. Executives hope the housing efforts will spur other companies to follow its lead.

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Very laudable. Will Amazon follow?
link to this extract


Tim Harford: how behavioural economics helped kick my phone addiction • Financial Times

Tim Harford cut back on his digital use, starting last November:

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The big question was: what to do with my social media accounts? Facebook was simply too troublesome to delete, especially since my personal account is connected in opaque ways to a “Tim Harford” page maintained by my publishers. But I never had Facebook on my phone and after briefly unfollowing or muting all my contacts, I had no problem staying logged out.

My Twitter habit is more of a problem. I have 145,000 followers, gently persuaded over 10 years and 40,000 tweets to follow me — that’s about 10 books’ worth, or 20 years of weekly columns. This alone was a reminder of just what an effort Twitter could be; but deleting the account felt like the nuclear option.

So what could I do? Two years ago, I hid the “mentions” column so that I don’t see what other people say about me on Twitter. (Much is friendly, some hurtful and almost all superfluous.) Yet I was still wasting a lot of time noodling around there for no obvious gain. So I deleted the smartphone app and on November 23 2018, I tweeted that I was planning to “get off Twitter for a bit”. By a pleasing coincidence, the last person I interacted with before logging out was the man who named the endowment effect, Richard Thaler.

But time for what? One of the most important — and misunderstood — ideas in economics is that of opportunity cost. Everything we do is an implicit decision not to do something else. If you decide to go to an evening lecture, you’re also deciding not to be at home reading a bedtime story. If you spend half an hour browsing news websites, that’s half an hour you can’t spend watching football. Those 40,000 tweets cost me something, but I am not sure what and I certainly didn’t ponder the cost while tweeting them.

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Well worth it for the explanation of this paragraph:

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Fifteen years ago, I would have struggled to explain this sequence of events to my wife. But nowadays, no explanation is really needed. We all know how swiftly and easily “When will it stop raining?” can lead to “What do Tomasz Schafernaker’s nipples look like?”

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link to this extract


YouTube says Tommy Robinson will no longer be able to make money from his videos • Buzzfeed

Mark di Stefano:

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On Thursday, YouTube told BuzzFeed News that it had suspended advertising on Robinson’s channel — boasting more than 270,000 subscribers — for violating the company’s advertising guidelines.

“We have suspended ads on Tommy Robinson’s YouTube channel as it breaches our advertising policies,” a YouTube spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

Earlier this week, Robinson uploaded a photo of a computer screen to Instagram, which appeared to show YouTube taking action against a recent video. According to the message, YouTube had “placed restrictions on how the video will be shown”.

“We believe in the principles of free speech, even when the speech is unpopular or potentially offensive to some viewers,” the statement from The YouTube Team read. “However, YouTube doesn’t allow hate speech or content that promotes or incites violence.”

In the 23-minute recap video of 2018, Robinson rails against “press-titutes” and “left-wing big tech platforms in Silicon Valley”, and shows footage that he claims is of him punching a migrant on an Italian street.

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YouTube, please explain how he breaches your advertising policies but not your speech policies.
link to this extract


The malign incompetence of the British ruling class • The New York Times

Pankaj Mishra:

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From David Cameron, who recklessly gambled his country’s future on a referendum in order to isolate some whingers in his Conservative party, to the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who jumped on the Brexit bandwagon to secure the prime ministerial chair once warmed by his role model Winston Churchill, and the top-hatted, theatrically retro Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose fund management company has set up an office within the European Union even as he vehemently scorns it, the British political class has offered to the world an astounding spectacle of mendacious, intellectually limited hustlers.

Even a columnist for The Economist, an organ of the British elite, now professes dismay over “Oxford chums” who coast through life on “bluff rather than expertise.” “Britain,” the magazine belatedly lamented last month, “is governed by a self-involved clique that rewards group membership above competence and self-confidence above expertise.” In Brexit, the British “chumocracy,” the column declared, “has finally met its Waterloo.”

It is actually more accurate, for those invoking British history, to say that partition — the British Empire’s ruinous exit strategy — has come home. In a grotesque irony, borders imposed in 1921 on Ireland, England’s first colony, have proved to be the biggest stumbling block for the English Brexiteers chasing imperial virility. Moreover, Britain itself faces the prospect of partition if Brexit, a primarily English demand, is achieved and Scottish nationalists renew their call for independence.

It is a measure of English Brexiteers’ political acumen that they were initially oblivious to the volatile Irish question and contemptuous of the Scottish one.

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Mishra is the author, most recently, of “Age of Anger: A History of the Present.” There’s an undertone – or perhaps overtone – of utter rage in this piece which is echoed by many watching the incompetent buffoons shamble towards a trade cliff edge. (Boris Johnson suggested this week he knows more about the car industry than the head of British vehicle maker Jaguar Land Rover.)
link to this extract


Say hello, new logo • The Official Slack Blog

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Firstly, it’s not change for the sake of change. That said, change is inevitable, and something to be embraced, etc. etc., but that’s not a good enough reason to change a logo. A good reason to change a logo is that it’s not doing the job you want it to do—and because a simpler, more distinctive evolution of it could do that job better.  

Our first logo was created before the company launched. It was distinctive, and playful, and the octothorpe (or pound sign, or hash, or whatever name by which you know it) resembled the same character that you see in front of channels in our product.

It was also extremely easy to get wrong. It was 11 different colors—and if placed on any color other than white, or at the wrong angle (instead of the precisely prescribed 18º rotation), or with the colors tweaked wrong, it looked terrible. It pained us. Just look:

Simply awful.

We developed different versions of the logo to compensate, which worked well for different purposes. But that meant that every app button looked different, and each one in turn was different from the logo.

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This new logo is getting kicked up and down Twitter – John Gruber’s critique is a good example – but I think in two months people will struggle to remember the old one. It was always the same with newspaper design: people hated the new design. A week later, they couldn’t remember the old design. I saw this happen again and again.
link to this extract


An astonishing 773 million records exposed in monster breach • Wired

Brian Barrett:

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The data set was first reported by security researcher Troy Hunt, who maintains Have I Been Pwned, a way to search whether your own email or password has been compromised by a breach at any point. (Trick question: It has.) The so-called Collection #1 is the largest breach in Hunt’s menagerie, and it’s not particularly close.

If anything, the above numbers belie the real volume of the breach, as they reflect Hunt’s effort to clean up the data set to account for duplicates and to strip out unusable bits. In raw form, it comprises 2.7 billion rows of email addresses and passwords, including over a billion unique combinations of email addresses and passwords.

The trove appeared briefly on MEGA, the cloud service, and persisted on what Hunt refers to as “a popular hacking forum.” It sat in a folder called Collection #1, which contained over 12,000 files that weigh in at over 87 gigabytes. While it’s difficult to confirm exactly where all that info came from, it appears to be something of a breach of breaches; that is to say, it claims to aggregate over 2,000 leaked databases that contain passwords whose protective hashing has been cracked.

“It just looks like a completely random collection of sites purely to maximize the number of credentials available to hackers,” Hunt tells WIRED. “There’s no obvious patterns, just maximum exposure.”

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It’s worth using Hunt’s Pwned Passwords service to check whether your own email/other account has been hacked. (In passing: Android users who don’t use two-factor authentication must have more to lose from being hacked, because their Gmail sign-in also lets someone set up a new device with their credentials).

Personally, my email password isn’t in there. Nor are other family members’. How about you?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.984: Facebook’s eager Portal reviewers, Britain’s upper-class twits, how to give up your phone, Google gets Fossil tech, and more

  1. “It sure looks that way. Indicating that Android Wear – well, WearOS – has not been a success in the market.”

    I’m unsure where that comes from. It seems Google is acquiring a smartwatch team, same as it acquired a phone team. I’m not saying WearOS is a success, but I’m not seeing how Google wanting to make its own just like it does for phones (and Android is very successful in phones) indicates by itself that WearOS isn’t a success.

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