Start Up No.1,013: FTC fines, Coinhive buzzes off, did China fund the Crispr babies?, taxing robots, and more

Smart speakers mean you should write your songs like this, apparently. CC-licensed photo by Nesster on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

FTC ruling sees (TikTok) fined $5.7m for violating children’s privacy law, app updated with age gate • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:


A significant FTC ruling issued today will see video app TikTok fined $5.7m for violating US children’s privacy laws, and will impact how the app works for kids under the age of 13. In an app update being released today, all users will need to verify their age, and the under 13-year-olds will then be directed to a separate, more restricted in-app experience that protects their personal information and prevents them from publishing videos to TikTok .

In a bit of bad timing for the popular video app, the ruling comes on the same day that TikTok began promoting its new safety series designed to help keep its community informed of its privacy and safety tools.

The Federal Trade Commission had begun looking into TikTok back when it was known as, and the ruling itself is a settlement with

The industry self-regulatory group Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) had last spring referred to the FTC for violating U.S. children’s privacy law by collecting personal information for users under the age of 13 without parental consent. (The complaint, filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Commission, is here.), technically, no longer exists. It was acquired by Chinese firm ByteDance in 2017. The app was then shut down mid-2018 while its user base was merged into TikTok.

But its regulatory issues followed it to its new home.


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Coinhive cryptojacking service to shut down in March 2019 • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:


Coinhive, an in-browser Monero cryptocurrency miner famous for being abused by malware gangs, announced this week its intention to shut down all operations next month, on March 8, 2019.

The service cited multiple reasons for its decision in a blog post published yesterday.

“The drop in hash rate (over 50%) after the last Monero hard fork hit us hard,” the company said. “So did the ‘crash’ of the crypto currency market with the value of XMR depreciating over 85% within a year.”

“This and the announced hard fork and algorithm update of the Monero network on March 9 has lead us to the conclusion that we need to discontinue Coinhive,” the company said.

Coinhive said all in-browser Monero mining will stop working after March 8, and registered users will have until April 30 to withdraw funds from their accounts.


Until someone malicious buys the domain and reactivates the code, which will still be sitting dormant on thousands of sites. Of note: “according to an academic paper, the company was making in an estimated $250,000 per month up until last summer.”
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Chinese government may have funded ‘CRISPR babies’ project • STAT

Jane Qiu:


Three government institutions in China, including the nation’s science ministry, may have funded the “CRISPR babies” study that led to the birth last November of two genetically modified twin girls, according to documents reviewed by STAT.

These findings appear to support what many researchers inside and outside China have suspected since scientist He Jiankui revealed the births in late November, sparking international condemnation for violating scientific guidelines against the use of gene-edited human embryos to start pregnancies. “I don’t think He Jiankui could have done it without the government encouragement to press ahead” with research they thought would merit a Nobel Prize, said Jing-Bao Nie, a bioethicist at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

If the documents are correct, they would suggest China is supporting research that the US and other countries consider unethical, and raise doubts about the preliminary conclusion of a government investigation that He acted mostly on his own…

…The documents examined by STAT — a slide presentation prepared by He’s team, Chinese-language patient consent forms, and China’s clinical trial registry — list three funding sources for the study that led to the twins’ birth: the Ministry of Science and Technology; Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Commission, part of the municipal government; and Southern University of Science and Technology, where He worked.


It always seemed a little surprising that anyone could do such work on private funding in China, of all places.
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GCHQ chief warns on Huawei security threat • Financial Times

David Bond:


Jeremy Fleming said on Monday that the UK needed greater understanding of the implications of Beijing’s technological ambitions.

“We have to understand the opportunities and threats from China’s technological offer,” he told an event organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.

“Understand the global nature of supply chains and service provision irrespective of the flag of the supplier. Take a clear view on the implications of China’s technological acquisition strategy in the west. And help our governments decide which parts of this expansion can be embraced, which need risk management and which will always need a sovereign or allied solution.”

Mr Fleming reiterated that GCHQ and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre would not compromise on the standards they expect from Huawei.

A report by an oversight board set up to test Huawei equipment and software used by UK telecoms suppliers is due to be published soon and is expected to be severely critical of the company’s cyber security standards.


You realise that if you were a minister whose portfolio intersected in any way with the security services that this is how they’d lobby you: not with hard evidence but with a steady drip-drip-drip of teeth-sucking, controlled wincing, and eyebrow-raising. Imagine it day after day, week after week: “minister, if I could just have a word…”
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Don’t fight the robots. Tax them • The New York Times

Eduardo Porter:


properly constructed, a tax on automation may not be as destructive as it sounds. South Korea, the most robotized country in the world, instituted a robot tax of sorts in 2018 when it reduced the tax deduction on business investments in automation.

There are two sound arguments for taxing robots. The easiest is this: Governments need the money. In the United States, income taxes account for half of the $3 trillion collected every year by the Internal Revenue Service; payroll taxes account for another third.

Imagine that the fears about robots taking over jobs actually come true. Two years ago, the McKinsey Global Institute found that the job functions that are “most susceptible to automation” in the United States account for 51% of the activities in the economy and $2.7 trillion worth of wages. The institute estimates “half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055.” If that happens, hundreds of billions of tax dollars would be lost every year.

And at the same time that the rise of robots shrinks government tax revenue, the fallout from automation will place more demands on government services. The United States will probably need more money to retrain workers bumped from their jobs by automation, to give them a shot at a new one. Welfare rolls could grow, as millions of workers are displaced to the bottom end of the service economy, where wages are low and robots are scarce.

To afford any kind of government services in the robot era, governments will have to find something else to tax. Why not the robots themselves?


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A few Mate X musings after finally getting to touch it • Android Authority

Kris Carlon:


Seeing the Mate X up close was enough to satisfy any concerns I might have had about its overall build quality (it’s surprisingly good), but it also confirmed my other concern about the screen. A bumpy kind of dimpling is noticeable where the flexible part happens, and I can only imagine that will only become more pronounced over time. Like anything you fold and refold repeatedly, it’s going to degrade.

It’s the exact same issue Samsung will face with the Fold. Unlike Huawei, Samsung wouldn’t let anyone touch the Galaxy Fold at MWC 2019. It’s very clear that neither of these products are fully ready yet, but the impulse to be first is real. Perhaps Samsung knew that by keeping the Fold behind glass it wouldn’t get articles like this written about it, even if it probably is in a similar state to the Mate X.

Huawei assures me that by the time the Mate X goes on sale the display will be in much better shape. While of course Huawei would say that, it’s also hard to lambast “what might be” given Huawei’s generally good attention to detail. The same goes for Samsung. Maybe the various wrinkles are ironed out in the months to come, maybe they’re not, we’ll just have to wait and see.


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Samsung expects Galaxy Fold supply to be limited, hints at luxury launch • The Verge

Tom Warren:


“We’ll have less supply than we would of the S10 at launch, and also how it goes to market is really important to us,” explains [Samsung UK director of product, services and commercial strategy Kate] Beaumont. “This is a super premium device, and we want to make sure it has a concierge-like service and experience, so it’s not going to be on display in all stores. You’re not going to see it on the stands, we want to make sure it’s a very personal experience. There will be quite intensive aftercare that goes with it as well.”

That means you won’t be walking into your local store to try out the Galaxy Fold, and then sign a contract and walk off. It sounds like Samsung is taking a similar approach to how Apple launched its $10,000 Apple Watch Edition, with supplies restricted to select retailers.

…“We considered a lot of options [for the fold direction – innie v outie],” says Beaumont. “There’s things like if you want to put a case on it, usability, durability, and we feel that having the screen on the inside is the best way to protect that screen. We have the technology to do a fold that is very very tiny, as of course if you have the fold on the outside it doesn’t take quite the same amount of research and development to get that device to fold as it does something that is folding with a much lower angle degree on it.”


Neat bit of shade on Huawei there. (In passing: Apple’s Watch Edition was discontinued after v1.)
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Five reasons foldable phones are a bad idea • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:


Smartphones used to come in all shapes and sizes — there were phones with keyboards, phones with rotating cameras, and phones with 3D screens. Smartphone design has standardized around the flat, glass slab in recent years, but things are starting to get weird again. Multiple smartphone makers seem to think 2019 is the time to make science-fictional folding phones a reality.

Devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X look cool in demos, but foldable phones are probably a long, long way from being any good. Here are five reasons the current crop of devices is going to be bad.


Briefly: plastic is plastic (“You encounter a lot of things throughout the day that are harder than plastic, but few that are harder than Gorilla Glass. While your flat smartphone can ride around in your pocket or bag with keys, pens, and coins, a foldable phone might come out looking likes a scuffed mess. Oh, your phone folds inward like the Galaxy Fold? Good luck never getting dust trapped in there when you close it.”); they will break; the designs are still clunky; they’re too pricey; app support will never arrive.

Of the five, the last one – app support – is what’s probably going to make these “meh” on Android. As Whitwam says, “Android apps didn’t work well on tablets, and there’s no reason to think it’ll be any better with foldables.”

If Apple does a foldable, on the other hand, you know developers will be falling over themselves to support it in surprising ways. There’s potential for racing games where the fold is the horizon, for example.
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Universal Music CEO to artists: fine-tune your lyrics for smart speakers • CNet

Lucian Grainge:


The popularity of voice-activated smart speakers has rocketed since Amazon first introduced the Echo at the end of 2014. But when it comes to finding new music, or playing a song you wished you’d noted the name of when you heard it on the radio the other day, they’re not necessarily set up to help you find what you’re looking for. You really need to know precisely what you want to listen to before you activate the device.

For music makers, these device present both an opportunity and a risk, said CEO and Chairman of Universal Music Group Lucian Grainge, speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday. “The amount of traffic there is with them is incredibly compelling,” he said. But, he added, it can be a challenge for people to find what they’re looking for. “Our experience is people can’t ask for a song when they don’t know what title is.”

But Grainge, who has attracted many of the world’s most popular artists into his fold, has a little tip for songwriters and musicians who want people to stream their music through smart speakers. He uses the example of the timeless hit, perennially popular among the global toddler population, “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?” to explain that the title of a song must be front and center in a song’s lyrics.

“If you’ve got something that is a brand, is a soundtrack, is a song where the title is in the chorus and the melodies, we’re seeing really explosive data and activity,” he said. “That helps us in the creative process because it enables us, with the data and with consumption, to use the technology to say to the talent, you need to have something as basic as the song title […] in the chorus.”


If Leonard Cohen were to hear this, he’d turn in his grave. (Well, OK, his best-known hit did follow this advice.) Along with “don’t waste time with an intro, just start singing” it feels like music is being algorithmed to creative death.
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Forget USB 3.0 & USB 3.1: USB 3.2 moving forward

Zhiye Lu:


Both USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 are to be considered generations of the USB 3.2 specification. USB 3.1 Gen 1 (formerly known as USB 3.0), which offers speeds up to 5 Gbps, will be rebranded into USB 3.2 Gen 1 while USB 3.1 Gen 2, which supports communication rates up to 10 Gbps, will be called USB 3.2 Gen 2 moving forward. Since USB 3.2 has double the throughput (20 Gbps) of USB 3.1 Gen 2, the updated standard has been designated as USB 3.2 Gen 2×2.

Specification Previous Term Technical Term Marketing Term
USB 3.2 N/A USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps
USB 3.1 USB 3.1 Gen 2 USB 3.2 Gen 2 SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps
USB 3.0 USB 3.1 Gen 1 USB 3.2 Gen 1 SuperSpeed USB

In order to achieve a data transfer rate of 20 Gbps, USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 employs up to two high-speed 10 Gbps channels. Last year, Synopsys gave us a small taste of the level of performance that we can expect from the USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 standard. As noted by the USB-IF, conventional USB hosts and devices were designed as single-lane solutions. USB Type-C cables, on the other hand, support multi-lane operations that open the doors for scalable performance. As a result, USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 is only possible over the USB Type-C connection.

It’s of utter importance that manufacturers and vendors communicate each USB 3.2 standard to the consumer in a clear way. To avoid overwhelming the consumer with technicalities, USB-IF suggested a separate marketing nomenclature for each standard.


I can’t understand the doublethink necessary to believe that it makes any kind of sense simply to rename something that has been around for years to something which hasn’t and is barely meaningful.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Just on this point about “U.S” v “US” v “us”: as Jock Stein points out, a screen reader would not distinguish between ‘US’ and ‘us’. Even so I’m removing the points and I’ll trust readers to figure it out.

Start Up No.1,012: US disrupted Russia’s trolls, data != oil, Saudis v Bezos, weedkiling wine, and more

Wind farms: now DeepMind’s AI is forecasting their output. CC-licensed photo by reynermedia on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Tested on humans for irritancy. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

US Cyber Command operation disrupted internet access of Russian troll factory on day of 2018 midterms • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima:


The US military blocked Internet access to an infamous Russian entity seeking to sow discord among Americans during the 2018 midterms, several US officials said, a warning that the Kremlin’s operations against the United States are not cost-free.

The strike on the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, a company underwritten by an oligarch close to President Vladi mir Putin, was part of the first offensive cyber campaign against Russia designed to thwart attempts to interfere with a US election, the officials said.

“They basically took the IRA offline,” according to one individual familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. “They shut them down.”

The operation marked the first muscle-flexing by US Cyber Command, with intelligence from the National Security Agency, under new authorities it was granted by President Trump and Congress last year to bolster offensive capabilities.

Whether the impact of the St. Petersburg action will be long-lasting remains to be seen. Russia’s tactics are evolving, and some analysts were skeptical the strike would deter the Russian troll factory or Putin, who, according to US intelligence officials, ordered an “influence” campaign in 2016 to undermine faith in US democracy. US officials have also assessed that the Internet Research Agency works on behalf of the Kremlin.


Could they block the Trump family’s Twitter and Instagram access next?
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Machine learning can boost the value of wind energy • DeepMind

Carl Elkin, Sims Witherspoon and Will Fadrhonc, from DeepMind and Google:


over the past decade, wind farms have become an important source of carbon-free electricity as the cost of turbines has plummeted and adoption has surged. However, the variable nature of wind itself makes it an unpredictable energy source—less useful than one that can reliably deliver power at a set time.

In search of a solution to this problem, last year DeepMind and Google started applying machine learning algorithms to 700 megawatts of wind power capacity in the central United States. These wind farms—part of Google’s global fleet of renewable energy projects—collectively generate as much electricity as is needed by a medium-sized city.

Using a neural network trained on widely available weather forecasts and historical turbine data, we configured the DeepMind system to predict wind power output 36 hours ahead of actual generation. Based on these predictions, our model recommends how to make optimal hourly delivery commitments to the power grid a full day in advance. This is important, because energy sources that can be scheduled (i.e. can deliver a set amount of electricity at a set time) are often more valuable to the grid.

Although we continue to refine our algorithm, our use of machine learning across our wind farms has produced positive results. To date, machine learning has boosted the value of our wind energy by roughly 20%, compared to the baseline scenario of no time-based commitments to the grid.


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No, data is not the new oil • WIRED

Antonio García Martínez:


[Imagine that] Amazon sends a delivery van to my home filled with hard drives containing all its sales and user browsing data for the past year. What do I do with it?

Keep in mind, this trove is worth billions. Accounting rules don’t call (yet) for tech companies to specify their data as a separate asset on the balance sheet, but by any reasonable valuation, Amazon’s purchase data is worth an immense fortune … to Amazon.

That’s because Amazon has built an expansive ecommerce presence, a ruthlessly efficient recommendation and advertising engine, and a mind-bogglingly complex warehouse and fulfillment operation around the data on those hard drives. Ditto Google, Uber, Airbnb, and every other company you’d identify as an “oil field” in this tired metaphor.

Sure, you could maybe sell some of that data—there are companies that would love to know Amazon’s sales data or Google’s search queries or Uber’s routing and pricing history. But here’s the key thing: Those interested outside parties are competitors, and the owners of the data would never in a million years sell it. [Unlike oil, sold between multiple sellers and buyers,] Uber isn’t selling data to Lyft, Amazon isn’t selling data to Walmart, and Airbnb sure isn’t selling user lists to…

…The annual revenue per user for Facebook globally is about $25. In the US and Canada, it’s about $130. Don’t spend it all in one place.

That’s even assuming it’s owed to you by Facebook. Many of the high-value ad placements, such as that creepy ad for the product you browsed but didn’t buy on the web somewhere, are driven by data that Facebook doesn’t own. That outside party, be it Zappos or Walgreens, engages in some data-joining acrobatics to tell Facebook whom to show ads to, but the data itself isn’t shared with the social network; advertisers don’t trust Facebook either.


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Glimpse: discover exploding trends before they take off


We track every topic across the internet to identify growing trends. Select a category below to explore our example data.


Your options are companies, products, industries and styles. There’s a free monthly newsletter with “two exponentially growing trends”, a $29/mo newsletter with 7 exponentially growing trends plus 3 “hyper growth” trends, or a $479/mo newsletter with 10 exponential and 5 hyper growth trends.

I think monetised newsletters is a growth trend.
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How the Saudis made Jeff Bezos public enemy No. 1 • Daily Beast

Iyad El-Baghdadi:


• Oct. 2 2018: Jamal Khashoggi is last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Soon, The Washington Post raises the alarm and demands answers from the Saudi government.

• Oct. 7: Turkey asserts that Khashoggi has been killed inside the Saudi consulate. The Washington Post escalates its relentless coverage, demanding justice for Jamal.

• Oct. 15: A hashtag linking Jeff Bezos to The Washington Post’s reporting appears on Saudi social media: “Boycott Amazon.” The first tweet with the hashtag proclaims: “To the people of the Great Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: The leftist Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post, the newspaper of evil and betrayal … we have to defend our country and boycott Amazon.”

• Nov. 2: The Washington Post publishes an op-ed by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom the Saudi government accuses of “politicizing” Khashoggi’s murder.

• Nov. 3: A spike in anti-Bezos tweets begins in Saudi social media showing clear signs of government manipulation. In addition to “Boycott Amazon,” two additional hashtags are launched, one calling for the boycott of, an Amazon-owned Middle Eastern e-commerce company. The initial tweet reads: “We as Saudis will never accept to be attacked by The Washington Post in the morning, only to buy products from Amazon and by night! Strange that all three companies are owned by the same Jew [sic] who attacks us by day, and sells us products by night!”

• Nov. 4: Several news outlets notice the calls to boycott Amazon on Saudi social media–and at least one points to clear signs of manipulation

…• Jan. 7, 2019: AMI’s Dylan Howard finally sends a message advising Bezos that they have the story and will publish within three days

• Jan. 9: AMI announces that they have “successfully completed the refinancing of all outstanding debt.” Although the company was emphatic that no foreign investors were directly involved, AMI refused to name their white knights. They have not ruled out that the Saudis may have invested indirectly, as you’ll see below.

• Jan. 10: The National Enquirer publishes a special-edition mid-week issue, an unprecedented 12-page story about Bezos’ affair. Although Bezos is known to most Americans as the world’s richest man and the founder of Amazon, on the magazine cover, beneath the photo of Bezos are the words, “The Owner of The Washington Post”—the same way the Saudi Twitter campaigns had been describing him for months.


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The route of a text message, a love story • Motherboard

Scott Weingart gives a hugely detailed explanation of how a text message gets from your stubby fingers to its destination, in which this bit seems notable:


When my wife finally hits ‘send’, the text gets sent to the SMS Service Center (SMSC), which then routes the message to me. I’m upstairs and my phone is on, so I receive the text in a handful of seconds, but what if my phone were off? Surely my phone can’t accept a message when it’s not receiving any power, so the SMSC has to do something with the text.

If the SMSC can’t find my phone, my wife’s message will just bounce around in its system until the moment my phone reconnects, at which point it sends the text out immediately. I like to think of the SMSC continuously checking every online phone to see if its mine like a puppy waiting for its human by the door: is that smell my human? No. Is that smell my human? No. Is this smell my human? YESYESJUMPNOW.

The validity period (VP) bytes tell the carrier how long the puppy will wait before it gets bored and finds a new home. It’s either a timestamp or a duration, and it basically says “if you don’t see the recipient phone pop online in the next however-many days, just don’t bother sending it.” The default validity period for a text is 10,080 minutes, which means if it takes me more than seven days to turn my phone back on, I’ll never receive her text.


Something about lost phones and lost texts seems apt here. (Thanks, John Naughton.)
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Apple is said to plan sleep tracking feature for future Watch • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


The company has been using the sleep-tracking feature for several months with testers at secret sites around its Cupertino, California, headquarters, according to people familiar with the work. If the functionality is successful in the testing stages, the company plans to add it to the Apple Watch by 2020, according to one of the people. The company has released new versions of the Apple Watch each fall since 2016.

Sleep tracking on the Apple Watch would reduce a competitive advantage that longtime fitness-wearable developer Fitbit has had on the market. Besides Fitbit, Withings – formally known as Nokia Health – also makes sleep-tracking gadgets.

Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment on the company’s plans.

A new Apple Watch wouldn’t be the iPhone maker’s first foray into sleep-tracking hardware. In May 2017, Apple acquired Finnish startup Beddit, which makes a sleep-tracking sensor strip. Apple sells the product on its website under the Beddit brand and launched an updated version at the end of last year.


Apple sells Beddit stuff? They kept that quiet.
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Content moderation has no easy answers • Whole Lotta Nothing



I ran a somewhat popular indie site [MetaFilter] for 15 years, the last half or so with ample moderation. But to put the scale of the work in perspective, we were dealing with 10-15 thousand active people daily posting about 3,000 things. Slightly big numbers but still small enough you can wrap your head around them. Mostly day to day we broke up bickering matches between two grad students on the site. And even that was still a drag and after many years doing it I had to hang it up to take a break from the day to day stress.

People often say to me that Twitter or Facebook should be more like MetaFilter, but there’s no way the numbers work out. We had six people combing through hundreds of reported postings each day. On a scale many orders of magnitude larger, you can’t employ enough moderators to make sure everything gets a check. You can work off just reported stuff and that cuts down your workload, but it’s still a deluge when you’re talking about millions of things per day. How many moderators could even work at Google? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?

YouTube itself presents a special problem with no easy solution. Every minute of every day, hundreds of hours of video are uploaded to the service. That’s physically impossible for humans to watch it even if you had thousands of content mods working for YT full time around the world.

So everyone says “I guess AI will solve it” but then you have all of AI’s problems on top of it. Baby videos get flagged as porn because there’s too much skin tone filling the screen. Subtle forms of abuse aren’t picked up because the patterns don’t exist yet in the AI and every day is a cat-and-mouse game to stay head of AI. AI is prone to the same biases in the creators and will have negative effects down the line.

I don’t know how to counteract the effects of moderation, or how to mitigate the toll it takes on people.


We live in a world where we crave easy answers, because the questions are easy.
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Weed killer in your wine and beer? That’s what a new US PIRG study found • USA Today

Zlati Meyer:


Stating that a pesticide is “the last thing you want to think about” as you raise a glass, PIRG wanted to highlight what it sees as a potential danger.

“No matter the efforts of brewers and vintners, we found that it is incredibly difficult to avoid the troubling reality that consumers will likely drink [the weedkiller] glyphosate at every happy hour and backyard barbecue around the country,” said US PIRG Education Fund’s Kara Cook-Schultz, who authored the study.

The 2018 Sutter Home Merlot was the wine with the highest concentration of glyphosate at 51.4 parts per billion, or ppb, while in the beer category, it was Tsingtao from Hong Kong with 49.7 ppb. The American beer with the largest trace was Coors Light with 31.1. ppb.

Organic adult beverages were also implicated in the U.S. PIRG research. For example, A 2016 Inkarri Malbec had 5.3 ppb and a 2017 Samuel Smith Organic Lager, 5.7 ppb.

William Reeves, a toxicologist for Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, accused the group of publicizing misleading information about pesticide residues in food.

“Assuming the greatest value reported, 51.4 ppb, is correct, a 125-pound adult would have to consume 308 gallons of wine per day, every day for life to reach the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s glyphosate exposure limit for humans,” he said “To put 308 gallons into context, that would be more than a bottle of wine every minute, for life, without sleeping.”


*mic drop*
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: many thanks to the multiple people who explained that U.S. is point-abbreviated while EC or EU is not because when telegrams and headlines used to be in ALL CAPS the story FOREIGN THREAT TO BOMB US would be ambiguous but FOREIGN THREAT TO BOMB U.S. isn’t.

However, we’re not doing stuff in all caps any more. Not telegrams, not headlines.

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.

Start Up No.1,011: Facebook’s moderation horror, inside Theranos’s dying days, hands on Huawei’s foldable, and more

Room-temperature superconductivity (unlike this): has the US Navy found it? CC-licensed photo by Argonne National Laboratory on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Isn’t that cool? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America • The Verge

Casey Newton, with a stunning piece of journalism about the subcontractors doing content moderation for Facebook:


For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her fellow trainees. When it’s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays a video that has been posted to the world’s largest social network. None of the trainees have seen it before, Chloe included. She presses play.

The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed. She knows that section 13 of the Facebook community standards prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people. When Chloe explains this to the class, she hears her voice shaking.

Returning to her seat, Chloe feels an overpowering urge to sob. Another trainee has gone up to review the next post, but Chloe cannot concentrate. She leaves the room, and begins to cry so hard that she has trouble breathing.

No one tries to comfort her. This is the job she was hired to do. And for the 1,000 people like Chloe moderating content for Facebook at the Phoenix site, and for 15,000 content reviewers around the world, today is just another day at the office…

…Collectively, the employees described a workplace that is perpetually teetering on the brink of chaos. It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions. It’s a place where employees can be fired for making just a few errors a week — and where those who remain live in fear of the former colleagues who return seeking vengeance.

It’s a place where, in stark contrast to the perks lavished on Facebook employees, team leaders micromanage content moderators’ every bathroom and prayer break; where employees, desperate for a dopamine rush amid the misery, have been found having sex inside stairwells and a room reserved for lactating mothers; where people develop severe anxiety while still in training, and continue to struggle with trauma symptoms long after they leave; and where the counseling that [subcontractor] Cognizant offers them ends the moment they quit — or are simply let go.


The detail – about how the moderators themselves become radicalised by the content they have to watch – is horrifying.
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Our commitment to our content reviewers • Facebook Newsroom

Justin Osofsky is Facebook’s VP of Global Operations:


A lot of the recent questions are focused on ensuring the people working in these roles are treated fairly and with respect. We want to continue to hear from our content reviewers, our partners and even the media – who hold us accountable and give us the opportunity to improve. This is such an important issue, and our Global Ops leadership team has focused substantial attention on it and will continue to do so.

However, given the size at which we operate and how quickly we’ve grown over the past couple of years, we will inevitably encounter issues we need to address on an ongoing basis. Today, we already have mechanisms in place with our partners who run these sites to make sure any concerns being reported are the uncommon exception and never the norm.


“Even the media”. Gee, thanks. The core problem isn’t the media, or the content reviewers; it’s that Facebook foolishly assumes everyone’s lovely to each other, even while it’s brutal to its own people or contractors.
link to this extract

Navy files for patent on room-temperature superconductor •

Troy Carter:


A scientist working for the U.S. Navy has filed for a patent on a room-temperature superconductor, representing a potential paradigm shift in energy transmission and computer systems.

Salvatore Cezar Pais is listed as the inventor on the Navy’s patent application made public by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday.

The application claims that a room-temperature superconductor can be built using a wire with an insulator core and an aluminum PZT (lead zirconate titanate) coating deposited by vacuum evaporation with a thickness of the London penetration depth and polarized after deposition.
An electromagnetic coil is circumferentially positioned around the coating such that when the coil is activated with a pulsed current, a non-linear vibration is induced, enabling room temperature superconductivity.

“This concept enables the transmission of electrical power without any losses and exhibits optimal thermal management (no heat dissipation),” according to the patent document, “which leads to the design and development of novel energy generation and harvesting devices with enormous benefits to civilization.”


Umm. Will believe it when I see it working.
link to this extract

“She never looks back”: inside Elizabeth Holmes’s final months at Theranos • Vanity Fair

Nick Bilton:


Immediately after returning to California, Holmes decided that [nine-week-old husky puppy acquired following a transcontinental flight] Balto would hardly leave her side on the quest to save Theranos. Each day, Holmes would wake up with Balto at the nearly empty Los Altos mansion that she was renting about six miles from her company’s headquarters. (Theranos covered the house’s rent.) Soon after, one of her two drivers, sometimes her two security personnel, and even sometimes one of her two assistants, would pick them up, and set off for work. And for the rest of the day, Balto would stroll through the labs with his owner.

Holmes brushed it off when the scientists protested that the dog hair could contaminate samples. But there was another problem with Balto, too. He wasn’t potty-trained. Accustomed to the undomesticated life, Balto frequently urinated and defecated at will throughout Theranos headquarters. While Holmes held board meetings, Balto could be found in the corner of the room relieving himself while a frenzied assistant was left to clean up the mess.

Around this same time, Holmes says that she discovered that Balto—like most huskies—had a tiny trace of wolf origin. Henceforth, she decided that Balto wasn’t really a dog, but rather a wolf. In meetings, at cafés, whenever anyone stopped to pet the pup and ask his breed, Holmes soberly replied, “He’s a wolf.”


This pretty much sums it all up.
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Don’t get clever with login forms • Brad Frost

Frost has many examples of how to be annoying; this one struck me:


3: don’t get funky with magic links

I think this may have started with Slack, but I’m seeing other digital products like Notion (which I love by the way) send users a temporary password to their email in order to login. I can appreciate the cleverness of this pattern as it avoids the rigamarole of users having to remember yet another password and building out all the “Forgot password” flow stuff. But.

This pattern is incredibly tedious. 1. Enter email into login form. 2. Open new tab or switch programs. 3. Open your inbox. 4. Find message from service (if you don’t get distracted by other emails first). 5. Open message. 6. Copy gobbledygook password. 7. Go back to website. 8. Paste in gobbledygook password. 9. Submit login form. Holy shit.

This doesn’t work at all with password managers, which is incredibly annoying as I want to lean on password managers to, uh, manage my passwords. With the advent of design systems we talk a lot about consistency. But it’s not just about creating consistency within your own ecosystem, it’s about being consistent with the rest of the internet.

It forces users to learn a new convention – Users learn patterns (login, checkout, navigation, etc) by experiencing them again and again in many applications over many years. While I’m not saying we shouldn’t ever innovate, it’s important to recognize users come to your product or service with a lifetime of hard-earned knowledge about how to use the internet. When we try to get too clever we force users to learn new conventions which slows them down (at least initially).


We have to log in so often it’s worth getting it really right.
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You do not need blockchain: eight popular use cases and why they do not work • Smartdec

Ivan Ivanitskiy:


1. Supply chain management
Let’s say you ordered some goods, and a carrier guarantees to maintain certain transportation conditions, such as keeping your goods cold. A proposed solution is to install a sensor in a truck that will monitor fridge temperature and regularly transmit the data to the blockchain. This way, you can make sure that the promised conditions are met along the entire route.

The problem here is not blockchain, but rather sensor, related. Being part of the physical world, the sensor is easy to fool. For example, a malicious carrier might only cool down a small fridge inside the truck in which they put the sensor, while leaving the goods in the non-refrigerated section of the truck to save costs.

I would describe this problem as: Blockchain is not Internet of Things (IOT).

We will return to this statement a few more times.


Quite a few.
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How to decarbonize America — and the world • TechCrunch

Ramez Naam:


Solar panels and electricity-producing wind farms have been around for decades. Yet, for most of that time, they’ve been a far more expensive way to produce electricity than burning coal or natural gas. Germany changed that. Starting in 2010, Germany’s Energiewende legislation heavily subsidized solar and wind. That, in turn, drove utilities and home owners and corporations to purchase solar and wind. And that, in turn, made the technology cheaper. As prices fell, other nations – first European nations, then the US, and then China – jumped into the fray, enacting more ambitious policies that further brought down the price of solar and wind (and now batteries and electric cars).

Why did subsidies bring down the price of technology? Because industry scale leads to industry learning and innovation, and that, in turn, leads to lower cost ways to manufacture, deploy, and manage new technologies. We’ve seen this for a century. Almost all technologies improve via Wright’s Law, often referred to as the learning curve or the experience curve. In the late 1930s, Theodore Paul Wright, an aeronautical engineer, observed that every doubling of production of US aircraft brought down prices by 13%. Since then, a similar effect has been found in nearly every technology area, going back to the Ford Model T.

Electricity from solar power, meanwhile, drops in cost by 25-30% for every doubling in scale. Battery costs drop around 20-30% per doubling of scale. Wind power costs drop by 15-20% for every doubling. Scale leads to learning, and learning leads to lower costs.


There’s a lot more – and plenty more diagrams.
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Huawei Mate X hands-on: our foldable future • The Verge

Vlad Savov:


There are still huge questions about what the software UX will be like, how durable and scratch-resistant that wraparound display will be over the long term, and how long the battery will last if you use this 5G tablet to its fullest. I can’t answer those today, but I can tell you what I know about the Huawei Mate X so far.

The Mate X’s OLED display is plastic, not glass as with most smartphones today. That’s going to be an unavoidable feature of all foldable devices going forward, because glass doesn’t like to fold. Nothing about the plastic surface gave me trouble or cause for concern, however. It has comparable friction and identical responsiveness to a regular glass-covered phone, and the only issue is the potential for more scratches owing to the plastic’s softness.

Viewing angles, contrast, color saturation, vibrancy, and uniformity all look as good as you’ll find in most smartphones today. I find the plastic display to be a little less reflective than its glass counterparts, which I like and prefer.

As to the all-important question of whether I can see or feel the spine in the middle of the screen where the fold happens, the answer is “no.” My time with the Mate X hasn’t yet been long enough to make that a categorical statement, but this is definitely the flattest foldable I’ve yet come across…

…The shape of the Mate X when it’s semi-open is great for perching it up on a surface — you can basically use the thinner rear part of the display as a kickstand.

…The hinge feels almost gritty in its operation. There’s no tactile smoothness to speak of, you just have to kinda shove it open. I suppose Huawei prioritized durability with this design, as the hinge has plenty of resistance and feels like it will withstand a lot of opening and closing — it just won’t feel particularly elegant or smooth while doing it.


Having an “outie” (the fold screen on the outside) is going to lead to tons of scratches in no time.
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Florida doctor and mom Free Hess exposes suicide tips hidden in clips on YouTube and YouTube Kids • The Washington Post

Lindsey Bever:


minutes into the clip from a children’s video game, a man appeared on the screen — offering instructions on how to commit suicide.

“I was shocked,” [paediatrician and mother Free] Hess said, noting that since then, the scene has been spliced into several more videos from the popular Nintendo game Splatoon on YouTube and YouTube Kids, a video app for children. Hess, from Ocala, Fla., has been blogging about the altered videos and working to get them taken down amid an outcry from parents and child health experts, who say such visuals can be damaging to children.

One on YouTube shows a man pop into the frame. “Remember, kids,” he begins, holding what appears to be an imaginary blade to the inside of his arm. “Sideways for attention. Longways for results.”

“I think it’s extremely dangerous for our kids,” Hess said about the clips Sunday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “I think our kids are facing a whole new world with social media and Internet access. It’s changing the way they’re growing, and it’s changing the way they’re developing. I think videos like this put them at risk.”

…Andrea Faville, a spokeswoman for YouTube, said in a written statement that the company works to ensure that it is “not used to encourage dangerous behavior and we have strict policies that prohibit videos which promote self-harm.”


Yeah, those policies aren’t working. Pay attention, YouTube: Not. Working. Hess has documented more of this stuff.
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Huawei frightens Europe’s data protectors; America does, too • Bloomberg

Helen Fouquet and Marie Mawad:


The Cloud Act (or the “Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act”) addresses an issue that came up when Microsoft in 2013 refused to provide the FBI access to a server in Ireland in a drug-trafficking investigation, saying it couldn’t be compelled to produce data stored outside the US.

The act’s extraterritoriality spooks the European Union – an issue that’s become more acute as trans-Atlantic relations fray and the bloc sees the US under Trump as an increasingly unreliable ally.

Europe may seek to mitigate the impact of the law by drawing on a provision in the act that allows the US to reach “executive agreements” with countries allowing a mutual exchange of information and data. The European Commission wants the EU to enter into talks with the US, and negotiations may start this spring.

France and other EU countries like The Netherlands and Belgium are pushing for the bloc to present a common front as they struggle to come up with regulations to protect privacy, avert cyber attacks and secure critical networks in the increasingly amorphous world of information in the cloud.

A Dutch lawmaker at the European Parliament, Sophie in ’t Veld, recently expressed frustration at what she called the EU’s “enormous weakness” in the face of the US’s “unlimited data hunger.”

“Because of the Cloud Act, the long arm of the American authorities reaches European citizens, contradicting all EU law,” she said. “Would the Americans accept it if the EU would grant itself extraterritorial jurisdiction on US soil? And would the Commission also propose negotiations with Russia or China, if they would adopt their own Russian or Chinese Cloud Act?”


Got to love the tortuous de-acroynmisation of American legislation (can anyone recall what the “Patriot” bit in the Patriot Act stands for). The US has acted extraterritorially in the UK for as long as I’ve been writing about computing, which is a very long time. What’s changed is the EU’s willingness to block it, legally.

(Minor stylistic niggle: Bloomberg writes “U.S.” for United States but “EU” for European Union. Both are abbreviations. Why only dots for one? Extraterritorial punctuation? Anyhow, I remove them.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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Start Up No.1,010: Apple’s ARM Macs timetable? Huawei folds in, a world not built for women, scooter glitches, and more

They’re useful – so why don’t horses have them? CC-licensed photo by Njambi Ndiba on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Unfolding story. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple’s move to ARM-based Macs creates uncertainty • Axios

Ina Fried:


What we’re hearing: Although the company has yet to say so publicly, developers and Intel officials have privately told Axios they expect such a move as soon as next year.

• Bloomberg offered a bit more specificity on things in a report on Wednesday, saying that the first ARM-based Macs could come in 2020, with plans to offer developers a way to write a single app that can run across iPhones, iPads and Macs by 2021.
• The first hints of the effort came last year when Apple offered a sneak peek at its plan to make it easier for developers to bring iPad apps to the Mac.

Why it matters: The move could give developers a way to reach a bigger market with a single app, although the transition could be bumpy. For Intel, of course, it would mean the loss of a significant customer, albeit probably not a huge hit to its bottom line.

Our thought bubble:
• If anything, the Bloomberg timeline suggests that Intel might actually have more Mac business in 2020 than some had been expecting.
• The key question is not the timeline but just how smoothly Apple is able to make the shift. For developers, it will likely mean an awkward period of time supporting new and classic Macs as well as new and old-style Mac apps.


That sounds backward. You’d offer devs the way to have cross-platform apps first, so they can write for it. Then you introduce ARM Macs, on which the ARM-first code will run a lot faster. Unless the cross-compilation to Intel is too hard.. except we know it isn’t, because there are already four Marzipan apps.

So I’d expect the app framework this year, ARM Macs next year.
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Why do zebras have stripes? To confuse flies • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:


By comparing [captive zebras and horses], as well as horses that were comically cloaked in zebra-striped coats, the team found fresh evidence for what [University of California biologist Tim] Caro thinks is the only plausible explanation for the striking stripes: they evolved to deter bloodsucking flies.

Scientists have been puzzling over the role of zebra stripes for more than 150 years. But, one by one, the most commonly proposed explanations have all been refuted. Some researchers have suggested that the stripes act as camouflage—they break up zebras’ outlines or resemble fields of tree trunks. But that can’t be true: Amanda Melin of the University of Calgary recently showed that lions and hyenas can’t even make out the stripes unless they get very close. Another hypothesis says that the black stripes heat up faster than the white ones, setting up circulating air currents that cool the zebras. But a recent study showed that water drums cloaked in zebra pelts heat up just as much as those covered in normal horse skins.

That leaves the fly idea. When it comes to biting insects, zebras are doubly cursed. For one, they’re highly susceptible to a variety of fatal diseases, including trypanosomiasis, African horse sickness, and equine influenza, that are spread by horseflies and tsetse flies. They’re also very vulnerable to insect attacks: compared with other grazers such as antelopes, the hairs on their coat are unusually short, allowing flies to more easily find blood vessels with their piercing mouthparts.


You’re wondering: why don’t (normal) horses have the same pattern, since they get bitten by horseflies and so on? Zebras diverged from the main horse evolutionary line quite early on – about 5m years ago; equus, as a genus, became separate about 5.8m years ago.
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Facebook will shut down its spyware VPN app Onavo • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:


Facebook will end its unpaid market research programs and proactively take its Onavo VPN app off the Google Play store in the wake of backlash following TechCrunch’s investigation about Onavo code being used in a Facebook Research app the sucked up data about teens. The Onavo Protect app will eventually shut down, and will immediately cease pulling in data from users for market research, though it will continue operating as a Virtual Private Network in the short-term to allow users to find a replacement.

Facebook has also ceased to recruit new users for the Facebook Research app that still runs on Android but was forced off of iOS by Apple after we reported that it violated Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program for employee-only apps. Existing Facebook Research app studies will continue to run, though.


Still waiting to hear what Apple’s doing about all the Enterprise certificates being misused for porn and gambling apps.
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Mate X: what Huawei’s $2,600 foldable 5G phone with three screens feels like • CNET

Jessica Dolcourt:


Huawei’s vision for the Mate X is of a phone you mostly use in its “closed” position, but open up when you want to be entertained or more productive. There’s a screen on the back that could be useful for taking selfies: The phone’s four rear cameras have been codesigned with Leica.

The “main” screen configuration is a 6.6in display that Huawei thinks you’ll use most. Unfold it outward to get an 8in edge-to-edge OLED display with no notch (there is a camera, though). When it’s folded up, the back is a slightly smaller 6.4in screen and a sidebar with the rear camera array. In the open position, the sidebar becomes a grippable handle, which Huawei whimsically calls the “Falcon Wing” design because of its swooping shape. The idea is to hold the Mate X one-handed, and use your other hand to tap and swipe. Fold the phone closed again and one side aligns with the handle to give it all a flat look. And yes, there’s still a bendable hinge.

My colleague Roger Cheng had hands-on time with the phone, noting that even though the phone is large it feels light, but it will definitely be a two-handed experience. Here are his thoughts:

“The Mate X closes flush as promised, with little gap between the two sides of the phone. Folding the phone is a little scary, and the movement is a little stiff, but Huawei consumer CEO Richard Yu says it’s tested for 100,000 folds. When it’s closed, the phone knows which side of the device you’re facing. It’ll automatically flip sides when you face it.

“For such a large device, it feels pretty light. The spine housing the camera works as a pretty good ergonomic handle when unfolded. But good luck folding it with one hand – I almost dropped it. When folded, it did feel a little thick. There’s a bulkiness to it that’s unavoidable.”


6.6in which then becomes 8in? That doesn’t sound like a lot extra for $2,600.

Foldables are interesting. Let’s get into peoples’ hands and see what the real use cases are.
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The deadly truth about a world built for men – from stab vests to car crashes • The Guardian

Caroline Criado-Perez:


The average smartphone size is now 5.5 inches. While the average man can fairly comfortably use his device one-handed, the average woman’s hand is not much bigger than the handset itself. This is obviously annoying – and foolish for a company like Apple, given that research shows women are more likely to own an iPhone than men.

The tech journalist and author James Ball has a theory for why the big-screen fixation persists: because the received wisdom is that men drive high-end smartphone purchases. But if women aren’t driving high-end smartphone purchases – at least for non-Apple products – is it because women aren’t interested in smartphones? Or could it be because smartphones are designed without women in mind? On the bright side, Ball reassured me that screens probably wouldn’t be getting any bigger because “they’ve hit the limit of men’s hand size”.

Good news for men, then. But tough breaks for women like my friend Liz who owns a third-generation Motorola Moto G. In response to one of my regular rants about handset sizes she replied that she’d just been “complaining to a friend about how difficult it was to zoom on my phone camera. He said it was easy on his. Turns out we have the same phone. I wondered if it was a hand-size thing.”

When Zeynep Tufekci, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, was trying to document tear gas use in the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in 2013, the size of her Google Nexus got in the way. It was the evening of 9 June. Gezi Park was crowded. Parents were there with their children. And then the canisters were fired. Because officials “often claimed that tear gas was used only on vandals and violent protesters”, Tufekci wanted to document what was happening. So she pulled out her phone. “And as my lungs, eyes and nose burned with the pain of the lachrymatory agent released from multiple capsules that had fallen around me, I started cursing.” Her phone was too big. She could not take a picture one-handed – “something I had seen countless men with larger hands do all the time”. All Tufekci’s photos from the event were unusable, she wrote, and “for one simple reason: good smartphones are designed for male hands”.


This is the topic of Criado-Perez’s new book; the whole article is a fascinating tour through biases you probably didn’t know exist (if you’re male). It’s certainly puzzling why Apple, and others, don’t persist with the SE-sized phone: women I know love them.
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You give apps sensitive personal information. Then they tell Facebook • WSJ

Sam Schechner and Mark Secada:


Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which operate the two dominant app stores, don’t require apps to disclose all the partners with whom data is shared. Users can decide not to grant permission for an app to access certain types of information, such as their contacts or locations. But these permissions generally don’t apply to the information users supply directly to apps, which is sometimes the most personal.

In the Journal’s testing, Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor, the most popular heart-rate app on Apple’s iOS, made by California-based Azumio, sent a user’s heart rate to Facebook immediately after it was recorded.

Flo Health Inc.’s Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker, which claims 25 million active users, told Facebook when a user was having her period or informed the app of an intention to get pregnant, the tests showed.

Real-estate app, owned by Move Inc., a subsidiary of Wall Street Journal parent News Corp , sent the social network the location and price of listings that a user viewed, noting which ones were marked as favorites, the tests showed.

None of those apps provided users any apparent way to stop that information from being sent to Facebook.

Facebook said some of the data sharing uncovered by the Journal’s testing appeared to violate its business terms, which instruct app developers not to send it “health, financial information or other categories of sensitive information.” Facebook said it is telling apps flagged by the Journal to stop sending information its users might regard as sensitive. The company said it may take additional action if the apps don’t comply…

…Flo Health’s privacy policy says it won’t send “information regarding your marked cycles, pregnancy, symptoms, notes and other information that is entered by you and that you do not elect to share” to third-party vendors.

Flo initially said in a written statement that it doesn’t send “critical user data” and that the data it does send Facebook is “depersonalized” to keep it private and secure.

The Journal’s testing, however, showed sensitive information was sent with a unique advertising identifier that can be matched to a device or profile. A Flo spokeswoman subsequently said the company will “substantially limit” its use of external analytics systems while it conducts a privacy audit.


Just astonishing. Facebook can’t help itself; the companies can’t help themselves. They’re all in thrall to the promise, whether real or not, that gathering more personal data will lead to riches through targeted ads. When in reality the ads just creep us out. And this may be illegal under the GDPR, in Europe at least.
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Life cycle: is it the end for Britain’s dockless bike schemes? • The Guardian

Niamh McIntyre and Julia Kollewe:


in January, ofo followed oBike and Urbo to become the third dockless operator to withdraw from Britain in just over a year.

New data gathered by Oliver O’Brien, an academic at UCL’s Consumer Data Research Centre, shows that the four major dockless operators covered an area of 617 sq km during the peak competition period in July 2018. Of those four, only Mobike remains, and its operating areas have shrunk, to a total of around 37sq km. Yobike operates a smaller dockless scheme in Bristol and Southampton which is not captured in the data.

The most dramatic boom and bust was oBike, which put 1,300 bikes in London in July 2017, and withdrew them four months later. Wandsworth council impounded hundreds, complaining the bikes had appeared “without any warning”. In the absence of regulation, operators don’t need to consult councils before launching.

It’s impossible to know the exact number of bikes on the streets. Operators are cagey because of high losses to vandalism and theft. In London, O’Brien’s latest count shows just over 2,100 bikes at the end of January, down from a peak of 5,800.

But Joe Seal-Driver, a Trustee of CoMo UK, a trade body which represents shared mobility firms, says dockless isn’t dead.

“The industry’s taken a breath, there’s been a pause in the expansion of bike services. But you’ve got new operators coming through. The fact that we’ve not seen a model with hundreds of thousands of bikes running for years in the UK yet doesn’t testify to [failure].”


A graphic with the article points out that “dockless operators” now cover just 136 sq km, down from an earlier peak of 617 sq km. London is still the best represented by far, but even there it has shrunk considerably. And that’s before you get on to other problems with “micromobility” products…
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Lime scooter software glitch causes random braking, dozens of rider injuries • Forbes

Biz Carson:


A software error sent Lime scooter riders flying after a glitch caused the scooters’ front wheels to lock up randomly mid-ride. The sudden braking caused at least 30 injuries in 155 known incidents, Lime told Auckland, New Zealand officials. Injuries ranged from bumps and scrapes to at least three more serious cases like a broken jaw or dislocated shoulder. On Friday, the city decided to suspend the San Francisco-based scooter company until it can prove its scooters are safe again.

“We recently became aware of a software issue that may cause the locking mechanism on the front wheel to engage while on a trip,” Lime said in a statement to Forbes. “Less than a fraction of a% of all Lime trips in New Zealand have been impacted by this issue, specifically 0.0086%. While a small fraction of the more than 1.8 millions scooter rides to date, even one incident reported is too many.”

It’s not the first time Lime has had to remove its scooters because of safety concerns around braking. In January, TechCrunch reported that Lime had removed its scooters from Switzerland after a similar string of random braking causing injuries to riders.


Lime soon put out a “Safety Update” on its blog saying that “in very rare cases — usually riding downhill at top speed while hitting a pothole or other obstacle — excessive brake force on the front wheel can occur, resulting in a scooter stopping unexpectedly.” Though it sounds like it happened more often than that. Teething problems?
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Grand Canyon museum: Experts dispute claim that uranium radiation was risk • AZ Central

Dennis Wagner:


The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Arizona Bureau of Radiation Control are investigating the matter with the Park Service, and have declined comment on Stephenson’s assertion. Instead, they say readings at the building — taken after the contents of the buckets were dumped into a defunct uranium mine — show no danger.

As the controversy went viral this week, however, a number of experts declared that uranium is simply not a threat to humans, and questioned either the radiation readings taken by the Park Service or Stephenson’s interpretation of that data.

“It’s just a bucket of rocks,” declared Craig Little, a health physicist who worked 25 years at the Oakridge National Laboratory and now serves as a consultant at uranium producing facilities. “I wouldn’t line my baby’s crib with it, but …”

Little and Modi Wetzler, a chemistry professor at Clemson University who studies nuclear waste, said there are three types of radiation, and uranium ore emits almost exclusively the least-dangerous alpha particles.

Wetzler said alpha particles  are hazardous if inhaled or swallowed, but not externally dangerous because they can be absorbed and rendered harmless by a sheet of paper, a few inches of air, or a person’s outer layer of dead skin.

“The safety manager doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Wetzler said. “Uranium ore would have a (radiation) value of zero. Either that, or it’s not ore and there’s some communication problem.”


This is indeed true: uranium decays through an alpha particle (helium nucleus) pathway. So – as I faintly suspected in the first place – this is a big fuss about nothing, as with so many stories about rAdIaTiOn. (Thanks Seth F for the followup link.)
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Intel’s neuro guru slams deep learning: ‘it’s not actually learning’ • ZDNet

Tiernan Ray:


Intel’s director of its neuromorphic computing initiative, Mike Davies, chided Facebook’s Yann LeCun at an industry conference for failing to appreciate the virtues of the Intel technology. He derided the deep learning approach of LeCun and others as failing to truly add up to “learning.”

“Backpropogation doesn’t correlate to the brain,” insists Mike Davies, head of Intel’s neuromorphic computing unit, dismissing one of the key tools of the species of A.I. In vogue today, deep learning. For that reason, “it’s really an optimizations procedure, it’s not actually learning.” 

Davies made the comment during a talk on Thursday at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, a prestigious annual gathering of semiconductor designers. 

Davies was returning fire after Facebook’s Yann LeCun, a leading apostle of deep learning, earlier in the week dismissed Davies’s own technology during LeCun’s opening keynote for the conference.  

“The brain is the one example we have of truly intelligent computation,” observed Davies. In contrast, so-called back-prop, invented in the 1980s, is a mathematical technique used to optimize the response of artificial neurons in a deep learning computer program. 

Although deep learning has proven “very effective,” Davies told a ballroom of attendees, “there is no natural example of back-prop,” he said, so it doesn’t correspond to what one would consider real learning. 


Ah, “real learning”. Don’t look at the ends, look at the means.
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Tech industry worker survey reveals deep skepticism of media • Buzzfeed News

Joseph Bernstein:


To gain a fuller understanding of how Silicon Valley understands its changing relationship with the press, BuzzFeed News conducted the first-ever survey of attitudes of tech workers toward the media. The survey, of 1,000 professionals across a broad range of companies ranging in size from 500 to more than 10,000 employees, reveals an industry with deep skepticism toward the media and significant concerns about the role identity politics plays in press coverage of technology.

Indeed, more than half (51%) of tech industry professionals “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement that “President Trump has a point when it comes to the media producing fake news.” A separate survey conducted by BuzzFeed News, of 1,000 Americans representing the national population, found that only 42% somewhat or strongly agree with that statement.*

This finding puts in new context Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s much-publicized desire to build a site for tracking journalists’ credibility — a campaign many dismissed as eccentric grandstanding but which appears to arise from a pervasive sentiment in the industry, one that appears to be stronger than in the country at large. Older employees (over 55), employees of larger tech companies, and employees of companies with over $1bn in revenue were more likely to have a negative opinion of the media than younger employees (18-49), employees of smaller companies, and employees of companies with less than $1bn in revenue. In addition, women in the tech industry are less likely to hold a positive opinion of the media than their male counterparts.


link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,009: how Kodak discovered atomic tests, when kids search for themselves, who’ll splash out on phones?, AT&T dumps YouTube in paedo row, and more

“Are you going to the Fortnite Live festival there, Father Ted?” CC-licensed photo by Insomnia Cured Here on Flickr.

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 9 links for you. Untested on Kodak. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

When kids Google themselves • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz:


Allie was in fourth grade the first time she Googled herself. Like Ellen, she wasn’t expecting to find anything, since she doesn’t yet have her own social-media accounts. Google turned up just a few photos, but she was shocked that there was anything at all. She immediately became hyperaware of the image her mother was building for her on Instagram and Facebook. “My parents have always posted about me,” she said. “I was basically fine with it … then I realized I was making an impression and I was an actual person online too, through her page.”

Not all kids react poorly to finding out they’ve been living an unwitting life online. Some are thrilled. In fourth grade, Nate searched his name and discovered that he was mentioned in a news article about his third-grade class making a giant burrito. “I didn’t know,” he said. “I was surprised, really surprised.” But he was pleased with his newfound clout. “It made me feel famous … I got to make new friends by saying, ‘Oh, I’m in a newspaper [online],’” he said. Ever since, he has Googled himself every few months, hoping to find things.

Natalie, now 13, said that in fifth grade she and her friends competed with one another over the amount of information about themselves on the internet. “We thought it was so cool that we had pics of ourselves online,” she said. “We would brag like, ‘I have this many pics of myself on the internet.’ You look yourself up, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, it’s you!’ We were all shocked when we realized we were out there. We were like, ‘Whoa, we’re real people.’”

Natalie’s parents are stringent about not posting photos of her to social media, so there are only a handful of photos of her out there, but she yearns for more. “I don’t want to live in a hole and only have two pics of me online. I want to be a person who is a person. I want people to know who I am,” she said.


We all want to be someone, don’t we? And this is the first way that children discover that they are, to other people – maybe to the people they want to impress, which is their peers. Comes with a word I hadn’t seen before: “sharenting” (parents who share too much).
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Lessons from 6 software rewrite stories • Medium

Herb Caudill:


Almost two decades ago, Joel Spolsky excoriated Netscape for rewriting their codebase in his landmark essay Things You Should Never Do.
He concluded that a functioning application should never, ever be rewritten from the ground up. His argument turned on two points:
• The crufty-looking parts of the application’s codebase often embed hard-earned knowledge about corner cases and weird bugs.
• A rewrite is a lengthy undertaking that keeps you from improving on your existing product, during which time the competition is gaining on you.

For many, Joel’s conclusion became an article of faith; I know it had a big effect on my thinking at the time. In the following years, I read a few contrarian takes arguing that, under certain circumstances, it made a lot of sense to rewrite from scratch. For example:
• Sometimes the legacy codebase really is messed up beyond repair, such that even simple changes require a cascade of changes to other parts of the code.
• The original technology choices might be preventing you from making necessary improvements.
• Or, the original technology might be obsolete, making it hard (or expensive) to recruit quality developers.

The correct answer, of course, is that it depends a lot on the circumstances. Yes, sometimes it makes more sense to gradually refactor your legacy code. And yes, sometimes it makes sense to throw it all out and start over.

But those aren’t the only choices. Let’s take a quick look at six stories, and see what lessons we can draw.


Netscape, Basecamp, Visual Studio, Gmail/Inbox, Fogbugz/Trello, FreshBooks/BillSpring. In depth, fascinating.
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People don’t want to pay big bucks for a new smartphone • ZDNet

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes:


The survey of 1,303 smartphone buyers in the US, carried out earlier this month for USA Today by SurveyMonkey, makes hard reading for companies who expect buyers to drop a thousand dollars on a smartphone, because it seems that the majority of the market belongs to the sub-$500 smartphone.

Here’s the breakdown

Sub-$300: 30%
$300 to $500: 26%$501 to $750: 25%
$751 to $1,000: 16%
More than $1,000: 3%

For comparison, a 64GB iPhone XR is $749, while a full-spec 512GB iPhone XS Max is a whopping $1,449. This means that the entirety of Apple’s new iPhone line is at the upper end of what people are willing to pay, with the high-end devices existing at the very thinnest end of the wedge.

And it’s the sort of price that most people would balk at when it comes to buying far bigger gadgets such as desktops and laptops.

Apple’s cheapest iPhone currently on sale is the 32GB iPhone 7, which retails for $449. While this seems like a reasonable deal – especially when you consider that Apple’s priciest iPhone is $1,449 – it’s a lot of money for old hardware. It even raises the question of whether Apple could use a budget $300 iPhone designed from the ground-up to be cheap yet functional. 

That would certainly allow Apple the chance to go after a much bigger market share.


In the words of Gregory House, MD, “everybody lies”. Especially about what they’re prepared to pay for a new smartphone. Though that $750+ group is nearly one-fifth of the whole market. And if you’re looking just at revenue, 44% of the total is in the $750-1,000 space; just 9% in the sub-$300 space. You need revenue to make profit, given fixed overheads.
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The vanishing flights of the monarch butterfly • The New Yorker

Sue Halpern:


[Emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Chip] Taylor has a one-word explanation for why 2018 was an especially good year for eastern monarchs, and why that good year likely portends bad ones to come: temperature. In March, when the monarchs arrived in Texas from Mexico, the mean temperatures were 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, which should have blown the butterflies all the way to Kansas. The butterflies couldn’t go farther north, though, because it was too cold in northern Texas. “I looked at the weather every day and I’d say, ‘damn, that’s good. Keep your babies in Texas,’” Taylor said. In May, the temperatures were optimal as the butterflies moved north, and they were ideal in the summer as monarchs spread out across their breeding range. Then, in the fall, as the butterflies headed south, those numbers were favorable, too. “What we had this year is everything was positive in every one of those stages,” Taylor told me. “This is why I say this is not likely to happen again—because you’re not likely to see a pattern like this again.”

West of the Rockies, the number of monarchs overwintering in California is estimated to be around twenty thousand, down 86% since last year, which “isn’t completely unprecedented,” Emma Pelton, a researcher with the Xerces Society, told me. “I’ve looked back at data between 1980 and today, and there have been other instances where we’ve had a single-year drop of this magnitude. But the difference is that this is all in the context of a 97% decline since the 1980s.” The current situation, Pelton added, is considered “a quasi-extinction.” There may not be enough butterflies to repopulate the range. If that happens, there will still be western monarchs, but they will be increasingly hard to find. “That would be like losing all the rhinos, except the rhinos in the zoos,” Pelton said. “Really, the threat is that we’re going to lose migration.”


So even when it’s good, the news is bad.
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AT&T pulls all ads from YouTube amid pedophilia controversy • CNBC

Todd Haselton and Sara Salinas:


“Until Google can protect our brand from offensive content of any kind, we are removing all advertising from YouTube,” an AT&T spokesperson told CNBC. The company originally pulled its entire ad spend from YouTube in 2017 after revelations that its ads were appearing alongside offensive content, including terrorist content, but resumed advertising in January.

On Wednesday, Nestle and “Fortnite” maker Epic Games pulled some advertising. Disney reportedly also paused its ads.

There’s no evidence that AT&T ads ran before any of the videos brought into question by recent reports. Advertisers such as Grammarly and Peloton, which did see their ads placed alongside the videos, told CNBC they were in conversations with YouTube to resolve the issue.

YouTube declined to comment on any specific advertisers, but said in a statement on Wednesday, “Any content — including comments — that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube. We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling violative comments.”

Also on Thursday, AdWeek obtained a memo YouTube sent to advertisers that outlines immediate changes YouTube says it’s making in an effort to protect its younger audience.

YouTube said it is suspending comments on millions of videos that “could be subject to predatory comments.”


Peloton and Grammarly seem to be a bit lacklustre about something that is a serious breach of ethics. YouTube enables this stuff. Its algorithms make it easier because, as Ben Thompson pointed out, none of the people doing this is going to report it – so self-reporting fails.
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Citymapper just announced a subscription service for London’s muddled transport network • WIRED UK

Nicole Kobie:


Citymapper already plots a range of routes in its journey planning app, and soon it’ll let you pay for it all under one subscription. It’s the start of mobility as a service, or at least that’s the company’s ambition. “The idea is to make public transport effortless. The way our app makes it easy to plan, we want to make it easy to pay,” says CEO and founder Azmat Yusuf. “We’re trying to create a vision of this future where mobility is something where, as a user, you care about getting from point A to point B. We want to make it so it’s a bit like a utility, you can access whatever comes along.”

That’s the long-term plan, though the initial packages are rather more limited. From launch, there will be two subscriptions. The first, at about £30 (prices may still be subject to final tweaking), will give Citymapper Pass subscribers full access to zones one and two of Transport for London’s network for a week. For £40, they’ll get the same, plus unlimited rides on TfL’s Santander docked bike shares as well as two journeys on Citymapper’s Ride, its cab-sharing system similar to Uber Pool.

Why sign up? To start, it’s cheaper. The first offer is a £5.10 discount on TfL’s own weekly price for zones one and two. For the second, two trips in Citymapper Ride are worth about £10, while Santander bikes cost £2 a day. Citymapper suggested bulk buying helped keep prices down, and the fares are similar to those offered by group-buying scheme Commuter Club; unlike that system, subscribers will be charged weekly and not be locked in. “It’ll be easy to sign up, easy to pause, easy to cancel,” says Yusuf.


“Muddled transport network”? In what way is the London transport network muddled? If you buy an Oyster card, you can use any part of it. Citymapper is going to pay TfL the full fare, so it’s bearing the losses here. This is screwy. Anyone can sell pounds for 90p.
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Norwich’s Fortnite Live festival was a complete disaster •

Tom Phillips:


A festival designed to recreate Fortnite on the outskirts of Norwich has, somewhat predictably, not lived up to expectations.

Event organisers flogged 2500 tickets to kids and parents. Entry cost upwards of £12 and unlimited access wristbands a further £20.

In return, families got what amounted to a few fairground attractions. Photos from the event show a climbing wall for three people, archery for four people, and four go-karts.

An attraction dubbed a “cave experience” was a lorry trailer with tarpaulin over it.

An indoors area where you could play actual Fortnite was probably the best thing there – although it cost money to access and you had to queue to do so. So much for free-to-play.

And all of that was if you could actually get into the event to start with. Hundreds of people were left queuing for hours due to staff shortages.


A tarpaulin over a lorry trailer 😂😂. This is one of those stories which is a delight to research as a journalist, because it keeps turning up people at their absolute bumbling worst. Norwich, as an area, is also famous for its vague efforts to make money by promising far too much from a few lorries in a field.

Unsurprisingly, Epic Games sued since its mark was being used without permission, and the company behind it (“Exciting Events” 😂) has liquidated itself.

As someone commented on Twitter, it was like the episode of Father Ted when the funfair comes to Craggy Island.

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A philosopher argues: AI can’t be an artist • MIT Technology Review

Sean Dorrance Kelly, who is a philosophy professor at Harvard:


Human creative achievement, because of the way it is socially embedded, will not succumb to advances in artificial intelligence. To say otherwise is to misunderstand both what human beings are and what our creativity amounts to.

This claim is not absolute: it depends on the norms that we allow to govern our culture and our expectations of technology. Human beings have, in the past, attributed great power and genius even to lifeless totems. It is entirely possible that we will come to treat artificially intelligent machines as so vastly superior to us that we will naturally attribute creativity to them. Should that happen, it will not be because machines have outstripped us. It will be because we will have denigrated ourselves…

…my argument is not that the creator’s responsiveness to social necessity must be conscious for the work to meet the standards of genius. I am arguing instead that we must be able to interpret the work as responding that way. It would be a mistake to interpret a machine’s composition as part of such a vision of the world. The argument for this is simple.

Claims like Kurzweil’s that machines can reach human-level intelligence assume that to have a human mind is just to have a human brain that follows some set of computational algorithms—a view called computationalism. But though algorithms can have moral implications, they are not themselves moral agents. We can’t count the monkey at a typewriter who accidentally types out Othello as a great creative playwright. If there is greatness in the product, it is only an accident.


Your long read for today. May require registration.
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When Kodak accidentally discovered A-bomb testing • Popular Mechanics

Matt Blitz:


It all started when Kodak had a problem with its packaging. Even today, X-ray film is highly sensitive (much more so than regular photographic film) and subject to ruin due to dirt, scratches and even minimal light exposure. Proper packaging and protection is essential to make sure the film gets from manufacturing to shipping to the customer’s place of business safely. According to an article Webb would write in 1949 for the American Physical Society, the paper and cardboard used for packaging in the ’40s were often salvaged from wartime manufacturing plants where radium-based instruments were also produced. Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that can cause flecks of spots or fogging when “in intimate contact with (sensitive film) for a period several weeks.” During wartime, Kodak took precautions to avoid radium contamination. It moved packaging manufacturing to mills where Kodak had full control over the raw materials.

One of these mills was located along the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana; it specialized in producing strawboard, used as a stiffener board between sheets of film. When Webb investigated the mysterious fogging in 1945, he found that it originated not from the X-ray film itself but the packaging, which he tracked to this particular mill, and specifically, the production run of strawboard from August 6, 1945. After testing the radioactive material on the strawboard, he discovered—rather alarmingly—that the spots on the film were not caused by radium nor any other naturally occurring radioactive material, but “a new type radioactive containment not hitherto encountered.” What was this unknown radioactive material, he must have wondered, and what was it doing in southwest Indiana?


This is a wonderful detective story; one wonders whether we could have an equivalent today, in which an innocuous everyday product is a telltale for a huge government project (albeit one that produced a gigantic fireball visible for 250 miles).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,008: YouTube’s paedophile problem, Nest’s secret mic, picking real people, Samsung folds, and more

Machine learning predicted lots about film popularity – but this one surprised it. CC-licensed photo by AntMan3001 on Flickr

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0700GMT each weekday). You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.«

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Pinterest blocks vaccination searches in move to control the conversation • WSJ

Robert McMillan and Daniela Hernandez:


Pinterest has stopped returning search results for terms relating to vaccinations, a drastic step the social-media company says is aimed at curbing the spread of misinformation but one that demonstrates the power tech companies can exert to control the conversation around hot-button issues.

Most shared images on Pinterest relating to vaccination cautioned against it, contradicting established medical guidelines and research showing that vaccines are safe, Pinterest said. The image-searching platform tried to remove the antivaccination content, a Pinterest spokeswoman said, but has been unable to remove it completely.

Pinterest described the search ban—which the company hasn’t previously publicly discussed but went into effect late last year—as a temporary but necessary measure until it can develop better strategies to sift through what it calls “polluted” content. The company made a similar decision last year to block searches for dubious cancer therapies.

Users can still pin vaccine-related images to their online boards, which could lead to suggestions to more similar content, but the posts no longer show up in searches. “It’s better not to serve those results than to lead people down what is like a recommendation rabbit hole,” said Ifeoma Ozoma, Pinterest’s public policy and social impact manager.


They’re being responsible. It’s weird. Quite a contrast.
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Samsung’s foldable phone is the Galaxy Fold, price $1,980 • The Verge

Tom Warren:


Samsung has built a sturdy backbone to the device, with a hinge system that has multiple interlocking gears. All of these gears are hidden at the rear of the device, and allow the Galaxy Fold to transform from tablet to phone modes. At the rear of the device there’s also a triple-camera system that will be used for both tablet and phone modes. There’s a 16-megapixel ultra-wide camera, alongside 12-megapixel wide-angle and telephoto cameras at the rear, and a 10-megapixel cover camera for selfies. Samsung is also creating four different colors for the Galaxy Fold, but it’s the main tablet display that’s key here.

Samsung is allowing the Galaxy Fold to run three apps at once on this Android device, and it’s using an app continuity system to adjust these apps when you move between tablet and phone modes. Apps like WhatsApp, Microsoft Office, and YouTube have all been optimized for the new display and modes, and Samsung has been working with Google to ensure Android 9 Pie fully supports this display.

Samsung demonstrated a variety of apps running in this mode, and the switching from phone to tablet and vice versa. It looks rather smooth in the software right now, but it’s fair to say that the Galaxy Fold looks far better when it’s folded out than being used as a traditional phone. The phone display is clearly designed to be used with one hand, but it’s flanked by large bezels that aren’t found on the tablet mode. We’ll need to get a closer look at the Galaxy Fold to find out exactly how this impacts the device usability, though.


Sooo.. an iPad you can fold up?
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Oracle claims a fighter of pirated apps is a front for ad fraud • Ad Age

Garett Sloane:


A company that claims to combat app piracy is a pirate itself, according to a report Oracle released on Wednesday. Oracle claims the company, Tapcore, has been perpetrating a massive ad fraud on Android devices by infecting apps with software that ring up fake ad impressions and drain people’s data.

Based in The Netherlands, Tapcore works with developers to identify when apps are pirated and then enables developers to make money from those bootleg copies by serving ads. Oracle says that Tapcore’s anti-piracy code was a Trojan horse that was generating fake mobile websites to trick ad serving platforms into paying them for non-existent ad inventory.

“The code is delivering a steady stream of invisible video ads and spoofing domains,” Dan Fichter, VP of software development at Oracle Data Cloud, tells Ad Age. “On all those impressions it looked like the advertiser was running ads on legitimate mobile websites. Not only were they not on a website, they were on an invisible web browser.”

On its website, Tapcore says it works with more than 3,000 apps, serving 150 million ad impressions a day. The apps whose pirated versions it has worked with include titles like “Perfect 365,” “Draw Clash of Clans,” “Vertex” and “Solitaire: Season 4,” according to Oracle’s report.

Tapcore’s scheme works like this, according to Oracle: the app developer signs up with Tapcore and is given code to put in its software. After the app is downloaded by a consumer, hours, even days later, the code updates with new functions—what’s known as sideloading—that turn a device into a fake ad generator.


Hope Oracle is certain about that, or Tapcore is going to have a big lawyer’s letter.
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Zittrain and Zuckerberg discuss encryption, ‘information fiduciaries’ and targeted ads • Harvard Law


“The idea of us having a fiduciary relationship with the people who use our services is intuitive,” said Zuckerberg [interviewed by Jonathan Zittrain].  “[Facebook’s] own self-image of ourselves and what we’re doing is that we’re acting as fiduciaries and trying to build services for people. … Where this gets interesting is who gets to decide in the legal sense, or in the policy sense, of what’s in people’s best interest.”

The conversation segued into another topic area involving competing sets of interests: the use of end-to-end message encryption to make private communications inaccessible to eavesdroppers. End-to-end encryption has come under criticism for making it difficult in some cases for law enforcement agents (with the proper warrants) to access evidence locked up on devices. Zittrain raised the possibility that governments not embracing the rule of law might use their legal and technical capabilities to peek into unencrypted private communications at will. “The modern surveillance states of note in the world have a lot of arrows in their quivers… they’ve got a plan B, a plan C, and a plan D,” he said.

Zuckerberg said he is inclined to implement more end-to-end encryption. “I basically think that if you want to talk in metaphors, messaging is like people’s living room, and we definitely don’t want a society where there’s a camera in everyone’s living room,” he said.

Zittrain pointed out that people are happily installing Facebook’s own smart camera–the Portal–in their living rooms. Zuckerberg laughed. “That is I guess… yeah. Though that would be encrypted.”


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How 20th Century Fox uses machine learning to predict a movie audience • Google Cloud blog


Understanding the market segmentation of the movie-going public is a core function of movie studios. Over the years, studios have invested in high-level data processes to try to map out customer segments, and to make predictions for future films. However, to date, granular predictions at the segment level, not to mention at the customer level, have remained elusive because of technological and institutional barriers.  

Miguel and his team have been able to lift some of those barriers by working with partners like Google Cloud. Together, we’ve built privacy-robust data partnerships to better understand moviegoers, and have developed in-house deep learning models that train on granular customer data and movie scripts to identify the basic patterns in audiences’ preferences for different types of films. In the span of 18 months, these models have become routine considerations for important business decisions, and provide one of their most objective, data-driven, and effective barometers to evaluate the tone of a movie, its affinity with core and stretch audiences, and its potential financial performance.

When it comes to movies, analyzing text taken from a script is limiting because it only provides a skeleton of the story, without any of the additional dynamism that can entice an audience to see a movie. The team wondered if there was some way to use modern, advanced computer vision to study movie trailers, which remain the single most central element of a movie’s entire marketing campaign. The trailer release for a new movie is a highly anticipated event that can help predict future success, so it behoves the business to ensure the trailer is hitting the right notes with moviegoers. To achieve this goal, the 20th Century Fox data science team partnered with Google’s Advanced Solutions Lab to create Merlin Video, a computer vision tool that learns dense representations of movie trailers to help predict a specific trailer’s future moviegoing audience.


This is entirely predictable, though also slightly weird. However, notice what happens: the right-hand column is what it forecast, the left-hand what happened. The ones to pay attention to are the unexpected, grey ones – particularly Deadpool.

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Which face is real?

Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom at the University of Washington:


while we’ve learned to distrust user names and text more generally, pictures are different. You can’t synthesize a picture out of nothing, we assume; a picture had to be of someone. Sure a scammer could appropriate someone else’s picture, but doing so is a risky strategy in a world with google reverse search and so forth. So we tend to trust pictures. A business profile with a picture obviously belongs to someone. A match on a dating site may turn out to be 10 pounds heavier or 10 years older than when a picture was taken, but if there’s a picture, the person obviously exists.

No longer. New adverserial machine learning algorithms allow people to rapidly generate synthetic ‘photographs’ of people who have never existed.

Computers are good, but your visual processing systems are even better. If you know what to look for, you can spot these fakes at a single glance — at least for the time being. The hardware and software used to generate them will continue to improve, and it may be only a few years until humans fall behind in the arms race between forgery and detection.

Our aim is to make you aware of the ease with which digital identities can be faked, and to help you spot these fakes at a single glance.


So now we’re using humans as the adversarial network (which calls out the generative network).
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This Cat Does Not Exist • TCDNE

It’s thispersondoesnotexist but for cats. Though the adversarial network (the yin to the yang of the generative network, which creates the non-existent cat) needs some work; it still lets too many obviously non-cats through.
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Is the insect apocalypse really upon us? • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:


In their review, Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys found 73 studies showing insect declines.

But that’s what they went looking for! They searched a database using the keywords insect and decline, and so wouldn’t have considered research showing stability or increases. The studies they found aren’t representative either: most were done in Europe and North America, and the majority of insects live in the tropics. This spotty geographical spread makes it hard to know if insects are disappearing from some areas but recovering or surging in others. And without “good baselines for population sizes,” says Jessica Ware from Rutgers University, “when we see declines, it’s hard to know if this is something that happens all the time.”

It’s as if “our global climate dataset only involved 73 weather stations, mostly in Europe and the United States, active over different historical time windows,” explained Alex Wild from the University of Texas at Austin on Twitter. “Imagine that only some of those stations measured temperature. Others, only humidity. Others, only wind direction. Trying to cobble those sparse, disparate points into something resembling a picture of global trends is ambitious, to say the least.”

For those reasons, it’s hard to take the widely quoted numbers from Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys’s review as gospel. They say that 41% of insect species are declining and that global numbers are falling by 2.5% a year, but “they’re trying to quantify things that we really can’t quantify at this point,” says Michelle Trautwein from the California Academy of Sciences.


Useful nuance, but it’s still concerning unless we’re going to train cockroaches to fertilise all the crops.
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On YouTube, a network of paedophiles is hiding in plain sight • Wired

K.G Orphanides:


Videos of little girls playing Twister, doing gymnastics, playing in the pool and eating ice lollies are all routinely descended upon by hordes of semi-anonymous commenters, sharing time codes for crotch shots, directing other people to similar videos of children and exchanging phone numbers along with a promise to swap more videos via WhatsApp or Kik. On some videos, confused children who have uploaded videos of them playing in the garden respond to comments asking them how old they are. On one video, a young girl appears to ask another commenter why one of the videos had made him “grow”. The video shows the child and her friend doing yoga and is accompanied by pre-roll advertising from L’Oreal. The video has almost two million views.

“We’re absolutely horrified and have reached out to YouTube to rectify this immediately,” a Grammarly spokesperson said. “We have a strict policy against advertising alongside harmful or offensive content. We would never knowingly associate ourselves with channels like this.”

A spokesperson for Fortnite publisher Epic Games said it had paused all pre-roll advertising on YouTube. “Through our advertising agency, we have reached out to YouTube to determine actions they’ll take to eliminate this type of content from their service,” the spokesperson added. A World Business Forum spokesperson said it found it “repulsive that paedophiles are using YouTube for their criminal activities”. A Peloton spokesperson said it was working with its media buying agency to investigate why its adverts were being displayed against such videos.


Remarkable investigation – but this is terrible for YouTube’s reputation. (Is there ever good news for YouTube?) This will surely get pickup by the big news organisations. And then, YouTube has a gigantic problem. Not only that; exactly the same story was reported in August 2017. YouTube has failed.
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Nest Secure had a secret microphone, can now be a Google Assistant • CSO Online

Ms. Smith:


When announcing that a software update will make Google Assistant available on Nest Guard, Google added, “The Google Assistant on Nest Guard is an opt-in feature, and as the feature becomes available to our users, they’ll receive an email with instructions on how to enable the feature and turn on the microphone in the Nest app. Nest Guard does have one on-device microphone that is not enabled by default.”

Nest Secure owners have been able to use Google Assistant and voice commands, but it previously required a separate Google Assistant device to hear your commands. I suppose it depends upon your outlook on if you are happy or creeped out that your security system secretly had an undocumented microphone capable of doing the listening all along.

Google didn’t really focus on the “surprise there was a microphone hidden in the Nest Guard brain of your Nest Secure” angle, preferring a take on how Google Assistant and Nest Guard can help you out.


This is not something you accidentally include. It’s not something you accidentally forget to tell people about either, because your engineers know that it’s there, because they’re going to enable it in the future: it’s on the schedule.

Surprising that a teardown by iFixit et al didn’t find this. But it’s bad for Google not to tell people, because that’s how you undermine trust.
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Grand Canyon tourists exposed to radiation, safety manager says • AZ Central

Dennis Wagner:


For nearly two decades at the Grand Canyon, tourists, employees, and children on tours passed by three paint buckets stored in the National Park’s museum collection building, unaware that they were being exposed to radiation.

Although federal officials learned last year that the 5-gallon containers were brimming with uranium ore, then removed the radioactive specimens, the park’s safety director alleges nothing was done to warn park workers or the public that they might have been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.

In a rogue email sent to all Park Service employees on Feb. 4, Elston “Swede” Stephenson — the safety, health and wellness manager — described the alleged cover-up as “a top management failure” and warned of possible health consequences.

“If you were in the Museum Collections Building (2C) between the year 2000 and June 18, 2018, you were ‘exposed’ to uranium by OSHA’s definition,” Stephenson wrote. “The radiation readings, at first blush, exceeds (sic) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safe limits. … Identifying who was exposed, and your exposure level, gets tricky and is our next important task.”…

…Stephenson said the uranium threat was discovered in March 2018 by the teenage son of a park employee who happened to be a Geiger counter enthusiast, and brought a device to the museum collection room…

…The report indicated radiation levels at “13.9 mR/hr” where the buckets were stored, and “800 mR/hr” on contact with the ore. Just 5 feet from the buckets, there was a zero reading. The abbreviation, “mR” typically stands for milliroentgen, a measurement roughly equivalent to a millirem, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC says average radiation exposure in the United States from natural sources is 300 millirems per year at sea level, or 400 at high altitude.

The commission lists a maximum safe dosage for the public, beyond natural radiation, is no more than 2 millirems per hour, or 100 per year.


At no point explained: what the hell the buckets were doing there.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

Start Up No.1,007: should OpenAI release GPT2?, a new ‘Oumuamua theory, where flat earthers come from, and more

The US FDA is warning old folk not to be vampires. Yup. CC-licensed photo by Abc Abc on Flickr.

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 10 links for you. Almost an armful. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Blood of the young won’t spare rich old people from sadness and death, FDA says • Ars Technica

Beth Mole:


The US Food and Drug Administration issued an alert Tuesday, February 19, warning older consumers against seeking infusions of blood plasma harvested from younger people. Despite being peddled as anti-aging treatments and cures for a range of conditions, the transfusions are unproven and potentially harmful.

In a statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and the director of FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Peter Marks, wrote: “Simply put, we’re concerned that some patients are being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors touting treatments of plasma from young donors as cures and remedies.”

Establishments in several states are now selling young blood plasma, which is the liquid portion of blood that contains proteins for clotting. The sellers suggest that doses of young plasma can treat conditions ranging from normal aging and memory loss to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, or post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the FDA.

The claims are wild extrapolations from intriguing but preliminary findings in mouse studies.


Ah, mouse studies. When I wrote about science all the time, the phrase “shown in mice” always meant “won’t be shown in humans”. Even so, 2019 really is screwed up if one of its official warnings has to be “don’t be a vampire”.
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Dear OpenAI: please open source your language model • The Gradient

Hugh Zhang is a research in the neuro-linguistic programming group at Stanford University:


While OpenAI is correct to be concerned about potential misuse, I disagree with their decision not to open source the GPT-2. To justify this, I first argue that only certain types of dangerous technology should be controlled by suppressing access. Then, on the basis of this analysis, I argue that withholding the full GPT-2 model is both unnecessary for safety reasons and detrimental to future progress in AI.

I broadly classify modern technology with potential for misuse as either destructive or deceptive technology. Destructive technologies operate primarily in the physical realm. Think chemical weapons, lab-engineered super viruses, lethal autonomous weapons, or the atom bomb.

On the other hand, deceptive technologies operate primarily in the realm of our minds and can potentially be misused to manipulate and control people on a broad scale. Think deepfakes, Photoshop, or looking back in history, the Internet or the printing press. With the notable exception of autonomous weapons, fears around AI misuse tend to fall into this category…

…with deceptive technologies, there is an alternative, more effective option. Instead of suppressing a technology, make knowledge of its power as public as possible. While counterintuitive, this method of control relies on realizing that deceptive technologies lose most of their powers if the public is broadly aware of the potential for manipulation. While knowledge of nuclear weapons will not save me from fallout, awareness of recent advances in speech synthesis will make me significantly more skeptical that Obama can speak Chinese. Bullets do not discriminate on one’s beliefs, but my knowledge of modern photo editing makes it difficult to convince me that Putin is capable of riding a bear.


I think OpenAI are trying to work out how to make sure it can’t be destructive.
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No, ‘Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship. It might be even weirder • SYFY WIRE

Phil Plait:


for the math to work out with the acceleration seen, ‘Oumuamua had to be flat. Like, really flat: So thin that it looked more like a solar sail, a very thin sheet of material designed to catch sunlight and accelerate. But that, in turn, meant that ‘Oumuamua was artificial. As in, a spaceship.

Besides the obvious (it seems like a big leap!), I have my problems with this idea. Not much has changed with that hypothesis since I wrote that, and while I wouldn’t dismiss it being an alien probe out of hand, the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion, and in fact points against it.

So, I ask again: what the frak is ‘Oumuamua?

A new paper has come out that might have a solution, and it’s really clever. Maybe ‘Oumuamua’s not flat. Maybe it’s fluffy.

Fractal structures can look solid but actually be mostly empty space; this is called a Koch Curve, and snowflakes can have structures similar to this. Credit: Eric Baird / Wikimedia

When the astronomers speculated it might be a thin and flat, giving it a large area like a sail, they had to assume a density for it. That’s because the amount of pressure sunlight exerts is very small, so if an object is massive it has to be spread out very thin and big to catch enough sunlight to accelerate it enough to match the observations. So they assumed it had some normal density like 1 – 3 grams per cubic centimeter (roughly somewhere between the density of water to rock).

The new paper turns that around. Instead of assuming a density to find the area, let’s assume the size determined using normal methods is correct, use that to get an area, and from there get the density needed to match the observations.


In essence, a three-dimensional interstellar snowflake, an accretion disc from the galaxy’s early days
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Why women are underrepresented in clinical trials • Endpoints (a science publication by Elysium Health)


Up until the late 1970s , the decades-long Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, one of the world’s longest running studies of aging, followed more than 1,000 men and zero women—even though women represented the majority of the elderly population. The Physicians Health Study, which concluded in 1989 that taking low-dose aspirin might lower your risk for heart disease, included 22,000 men and zero women. And just a few years ago, researchers investigating the possible interactions between libido-boosting drug flibanserin — known as “female Viagra” — and alcohol, used a study group of 25 participants, of which twenty-three were men.

Historically, excluding women in clinical trials has been less about bias, and more so due to a lack of knowledge about the biological differences between men and women and how disease symptoms might present differently based on sex, says Dr. Natalie DiPietro Mager, an associate professor of pharmacy practice at Ohio Northern University and co-author of a recent paper documenting women’s involvement in clinical trials.

While we’ve seen a dramatic shift toward inclusion in the last 25 years, the biomedical research world still has a long way to go in terms of robust representation of women, says Mager.


(Thanks @Reynolds for the link.)
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Interview: David Runciman • E-International Relations

Runciman is professor of politics at the University of Cambridge:


Q: You are currently engaged in two fascinating research projects, Conspiracy and Democracy and AI: Trust and Society. Are there conspiracy theories surrounding artificial intelligence in democratic societies and what impact are they having?

DR: One part of the Conspiracy and Democracy project was to look at a common view that AI (and digital technology more generally) is driving conspiracy theories because it’s allowing them to spread. There is a perspective that we live in a world where there are more and more conspiracy theories because the Internet has provided people with an opportunity to believe the craziest things. They then find other people who believe them, creating a network of people. What we’ve found is that this is probably not true. That behaviour does exist, but there are also more people who debunk conspiracy theories, so it’s not all skewed one way. Conspiracy theories are actually debunked quicker. There have always been conspiracy theories, so it’s not a phenomenon of the internet age, it goes way back.

It’s also interesting that there is a perception that this technology is responsible for creating conspiracy theories. However, it isn’t until very recently that there were conspiracy theories about the technology itself. There are lots of conspiracy theories now that say that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is secretly up to something. A lot of the reporting on Cambridge Analytica is written in the style of a conspiracy theory. It involves the idea that you uncover the network that involves the Mercers, Trump, and Brexit and everything connects – they’re joining all of the dots. There are more people seeing the world and how everything connects to everything else, and this knowledge is power for a few players in the tech space. But those are still not the dominant conspiracy theories. There are many more conspiracy theories that are depressingly old-fashioned ones and they are anti-Semitic. Even some of the conspiracy theories about technology are anti-Semitic because every conspiracy theory has an anti-Semitic variant of it. It’s not particularly the dominant mode, but I suspect that it will grow.


Runciman is always worth listening to; the Talking Politics podcast, which he presents every week, is a necessary antidote to the thin gruel of analysis in most news outlets.
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Researchers blame YouTube for the rise in Flat Earthers • Engadget

Rachel England:


Despite steps taken to counteract problematic material YouTube is still a hotbed of hoaxes and fake news — a problem that’s become so prevalent the site recently announced it is changing its AI in a bid to improve matters. But now the scope of the problem has really come to light, as new research suggests that the increasing number of Flat Earthers can be attributed to conspiracy videos hosted on the site.

According to Asheley Landrum, assistant professor of science communication at Texas Tech University, all but one of 30 Flat Earthers interviewed said they hadn’t considered the Earth to be flat until watching videos promoting the theory on YouTube. Presenting her results at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC, Landrum said that most were recommended videos after watching clips about other conspiracies, such as alternative 9/11 theories and fake moon landing theories.

Landrum’s interest in the topic was first piqued after she attended the world’s largest gatherings of Flat Earthers at the movement’s annual conference in Rayleigh, North Carolina, in 2017. She visited the conference again in 2018, when it took place in Denver, Colorado, to interview a number of the attendees. According to Landrum, the one person who didn’t point to YouTube as a catalyst for their opinion change had their mind changed by family members who themselves were convinced by YouTube videos.


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Japan smartphone market Q42018 • Canalys Newsroom


Smartphone shipments fell 3.8% year on year in Japan to 9.9m in Q4 2018, marking a fourth consecutive quarter of shipment decline. In terms of shipment numbers, Japan came fourth worldwide, behind China, the US and India; 32.5m smartphones shipped in Japan in the whole of 2018, 1.9% fewer than in 2017.


Really wouldn’t have expected Japan to be a bigger market than, well, so many others. (Population of 126 million, 11th largest in the world; China, India and US are the three largest.)

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America’s signature mode of transportation is high-cost rail • Hmm Daily

Jacob Bacharach:


This demonstrable ability of other nations to build public works at reasonable—or at least bearable—cost puts lie to the most common excuses for the cost and complexity of American transit projects. America is densely populated and right-of-way property is expensive here? Same goes for Western Europe. America is big? So is China. Unions? Europe, again. You can easily believe that the unique combination of these exacerbating factors of cost and distance would lead to a state where American rail would be the most costly in the world. But more costly by an order of magnitude?

American infrastructure is this costly because of immense, endemic, universal public-private corruption—systems of both direct and financialized graft at every stage of infrastructure development, from the planning to the ribbon-cutting to the use of deferred maintenance to ransack public transportation budgets for cash, year after year, after which the responsible authorities claim that fixing the century-old signals is just too damn pricey. This system of legal fraud begins with the bevies of project consultants, continues through ludicrous private contractor and labor costs, and continues when, years later, high-paid administrative fixers and new armies of consultants and contractors arrive to fix what broke because it was never maintained. It is a system of tolerated kleptocracy that may be the only thing that America still does better than anyone else in the world. It is baked into every assumption about building for the public benefit.

You will of course notice that the responsible scolds saying of a 400-mile railroad, It cannot be done, were not so much in evidence when TransCanada and ConocoPhillips, for example, ran the Keystone Pipeline across 2,000-plus unfriendly miles.


I liked his description of Megan McArdle as “a self-styled contrarian libertarian who writes well-actually columns for the Washington Post in the style of a ‘For Dummies’ book”.

Which reminds me, isn’t the US due another infrastructure week real soon now?
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Emoji are showing up in court cases exponentially, and courts aren’t prepared • The Verge

Dami Lee:


Bay Area prosecutors were trying to prove that a man arrested during a prostitution sting was guilty of pimping charges, and among the evidence was a series of Instagram DMs he’d allegedly sent to a woman. One read: “Teamwork make the dream work” with high heels and money bag emoji placed at the end. Prosecutors said the message implied a working relationship between the two of them. The defendant said it could mean he was trying to strike up a romantic relationship. Who was right?

Emoji are showing up as evidence in court more frequently with each passing year. Between 2004 and 2019, there was an exponential rise in emoji and emoticon references in US court opinions, with over 30% of all cases appearing in 2018, according to Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has been tracking all of the references to “emoji” and “emoticon” that show up in US court opinions. So far, the emoji and emoticons have rarely been important enough to sway the direction of a case, but as they become more common, the ambiguity in how emoji are displayed and what we interpret emoji to mean could become a larger issue for courts to contend with.

Emoticons started appearing in court in 2004, and they have since been found most commonly in sexual predation cases. But that’s just counting the cases that were able to be tracked with the words “emoji” and “emoticon.” Electronic databases of court opinions aren’t set up to handle the actual emoji, and they aren’t displayed in case database services like Westlaw or Lexis, which is where Goldman finds his references.


At which point the question is: how do you translate from emoji to legal English?
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Morgan Stanley: Spaceflight Industries disrupting rocket launch market • CNBC

Michael Sheetz:


Spaceflight Industries has two businesses: The all-in-one launch services unit, known as Spaceflight, and a satellite imagery unit called BlackSky. The former “has launched 210 satellites” to date, Morgan Stanley said. Spaceflight isn’t slowing down, either, with contracts to launch about 100 satellites this year.

BlackSky represents the company’s reach into satellite operations. The unit successfully launched two satellites at the end of last year, Global-1 and Global-2, and expects to launch six more this year. Spaceflight Industries aims to eventually have constellation of 60 satellites to provide high-resolution photos of Earth nearly on demand.

The company announced a $150m fundraising round in March for the first 20 satellites of the BlackSky constellation.

Additionally, BlackSky is one of several companies working with Amazon Web Services for the recently-announced AWS Ground Station business. Amazon’s cloud business is building a network of satellite connection facilities, representing the e-commerce giant’s first public move into space-related hardware.

Ground stations are a vital link for transmitting data to-and-from satellites in orbit, used by companies engaged in a variety of activities like weather forecasting, communications and broadcasting. AWS Ground Station aims to remove the heavy capital costs for these companies of building their own ground station networks off of satellite operators.


The element of this I find jawdropping is AWS Ground Station, whose announcement completely passed me by. It is “a fully managed service that lets you control satellite communications, downlink and process satellite data, and scale your satellite operations quickly, easily and cost-effectively without having to worry about building or managing your own ground station infrastructure.” Wow.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: pushups by firefighters (in yesterday’s post) probably aren’t a good guide to how the general population is going to get on or a prediction for heart disease – especially as women show different symptoms from men, and few of the firefighters were men. Thanks @Reynolds for pointing this out.

Start Up No.1,006: Apple preps odd-sized laptops and iPads, MPs slam Facebook, Amazon aims low on carbon, AI music!, LG holds its fold, and more

Your pushup capacity could predict your risk of heart disease. CC-licensed photo by Orin Zebest on Flickr.

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 11 links for you. Popular Front of Judea? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

New science shows the power of the pushup • Quartz

Chase Purdy:


What they hoped to figure out was whether there exists an easy, in-person way that doctors could assess heart disease risk in their patients. It turns out, it might be as simple as asking people to do push-ups, according to a new study published Feb. 15 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As part of their research, the scientists followed 1,104 firefighters from 10 Indiana-based fire departments for a decade. When the fire fighters would see the their local doctors for routine check-ups, they were also checked for the number of pushups they could complete.

A physician would pull out a metronome and set it at 80 beats per minute. Then the firefighters would be counted for the number of pushups they could complete until they reached 80, missed three or more beats, or stopped entirely because of exhaustion.

Over the 10 years, the researchers reported noticing significantly fewer signs of heart disease-related issues among the firefighters who could complete a greater number of pushups. Among the people who could complete more than 40, there was a 96% reduction in the cardiovascular disease incidents compared to those who could complete fewer than 10.

“The push-up examination requires no special equipment, is low cost or no cost, can easily be performed in almost any setting within two minutes, and provides an objective estimate of functional status,” the researchers wrote in the study. “It is a quantitative measurement that is easily understood by both the clinician and the patient.”


That seems quite strenuous. Mean age 39.6, mean BMI 28.7.
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Delivering Shipment Zero, a vision for net zero carbon shipments • Amazon corporate blog


Amazon has a long-term goal to power our global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy, and we are making solid progress. With improvements in electric vehicles, aviation bio fuels, reusable packaging, and renewable energy, for the first time we can now see a path to net zero carbon delivery of shipments to customers, and we are setting an ambitious goal for ourselves to reach 50% of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030. We are calling this project “Shipment Zero” – it won’t be easy to achieve this goal, but it’s worth being focused and stubborn on this vision and we’re committed to seeing it through…

…To track our progress on this journey and as part of an overall commitment to sharing our sustainability goals, we plan to share Amazon’s company-wide carbon footprint, along with related goals and programs, later this year.


Actually? 50% isn’t ambitious enough. 100% would be ambitious. 50% isn’t one thing or the other.

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Facebook is out of control and politicians have no idea what to do • The Guardian

Simon Jenkins:


Some of the report’s accusations are astonishing. Facebook “purposefully obstructed” the committee. Its boss, Mark Zuckerberg, who “continues to choose profit over data security,” held parliament in contempt. His rambling empire is portrayed as lying, thieving “digital gangsterism”. Yet British electoral law is puny. It is “unfit for purpose,” leaving elections “vulnerable to foreign influence, disinformation and voter manipulation”. Not a week passes without evidence that cybersecurity is inadequate and public services have been left vulnerable to hacking.

So far, so familiar, as are the report’s proposals: the usual comfort blankets of a code of ethics, an independent regulator and “more transparency”. We have sought them for a decade and still not found them. The real question is, why not? What are the pressures, who are the lobbyists, why the inertia? As over Brexit, parliament is fine at demolition, hopeless at construction. The spirit fails at the door marked Something Must Be Done.

The Germans are so ahead of Britain that they have Facebook staff fact-checking frantically, taking down material. America is steeling itself for a monopoly-busting assault on Silicon Valley. The Russians are running wild round the regulators. The Chinese are pioneering web “repatriation”, in effect blocking anything they consider unsuitable. Much of this is not nice for purists, but it must be full of lessons. The running joke among social media pundits is that regulation is so far behind technology – and profit – as to be out of sight.

We still await a legal declaration that social media platforms are publishers not “conduits”. That has to be rubbish. Copyright on the internet is where it was for the printed word in the 19th century, which was nowhere until the law caught up. Attempts to tax and fine social media operators fall foul of the scandalous indulgence of tax shelters. Those who do not pay taxes where they live should not be allowed to live there, period.


Once he gets onto a topic, Jenkins goes through it at a gallop. You can read the full DCMS report on Facebook. The evidence includes a ton of hyperlinks – including a tranche of Six4Three emails, crucial to some of the adverse findings about Facebook.
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Music created by artificial intelligence is better than you think • Medium

Stuart Dredge:


Can an A.I. create original music? Absolutely. Can it create original music better than a human can? Well, it depends which human you’re comparing the A.I.’s music to, for a start.

Human-created music already spans everything from the sublime to the unlistenable. While an A.I. may not be able to out-Adele Adele (or Aretha Franklin, or Joni Mitchell) with a timeless song and performance, it can compose a compelling melody for a YouTube video, mobile game, or elevator journey faster, cheaper, and almost as well as a human equivalent. In these scenarios, it’s often the “faster” and “cheaper” parts that matter most to whoever’s paying.

The quality of A.I. music is improving in leaps and bounds as the technology becomes more sophisticated. In January 2017, Australian A.I.-music startup Popgun could listen to a human playing piano and respond with a melody that could come next; by July 2018, it could compose and play piano, bass, and drums together as a backing track for a human’s vocals.

Popgun is just one of a number of technology startups exploring the potential of A.I. and what it could mean for humans — both professional musicians and those of us who can barely bang a tambourine in time alike. Startups include Jukedeck, Amper Music, Aiva, WaveAI, Melodrive, Amadeus Code, Humtap, HumOn, AI Music, Mubert, Endel, and Boomy, while teams from Google, Sony, IBM, and Facebook are also looking at what A.I. music can do now and what it could do in the future.


As he points out, really quick way to get corporate music or YouTube vlog stuff. As much as anything you could get it to seed something which you improve.
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Apple expected to launch 16in MacBook Pro, 31in 6K display, iPhones with reverse wireless charging • News18

Kunal Khullar:


We could see a brand new MacBook this year as reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has yet again revealed announcements that Apple could make in 2019. Known for his precise predictions, Kuo has said in a research note, that Apple will release a new 16in MacBook Pro, a 31in 6K monitor, iPhones with bilateral charging, new iPads, and more.

While it sounds uncanny, the analyst says that new MacBook Pro having dimensions between 16in and 16.5in with an updated design is expected to launch this year. This would make it the biggest MacBook since the 17in MacBook which stopped selling in 2012. As an add-on, the 13in MacBook Pro might get the option of adding 32GB of RAM. Currently, the 13in variant only supports up to 16GB of RAM while the 15-inch variant supports 32GB.

We can also expect a new display from the company, a 31.6in 6K resolution monitor which is said to feature “mini-LED backlight” to render excellent picture quality. There is also the mention of a new Mac Pro with “easy to upgrade components”.


These are some seriously weird predictions. 16in? There’s also predictions of a 10.2in iPad Pro. It’s all strange sizes and stuff.
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China surveillance firm tracking millions in Xinjiang – researcher • Reuters

Cate Cadell and Philip Wen:


A Chinese surveillance firm is tracking the movements of more than 2.5 million people in the far-western Xinjiang region, according to a data leak flagged by a Dutch internet expert.

An online database containing names, ID card numbers, birth dates and location data was left unprotected for months by Shenzhen-based facial-recognition technology company SenseNets Technology Ltd, according to Victor Gevers, co-founder of non-profit organisation GDI.Foundation, who first noted the vulnerability in a series of social media posts last week.

Exposed data also showed about 6.7m location data points linked to the people which were gathered within 24 hours, tagged with descriptions such as “mosque”, “hotel,” “internet cafe” and other places where surveillance cameras were likely to be found.

“It was fully open and anyone without authentication had full administrative rights. You could go in the database and create, read, update and delete anything,” said Gevers.


When surveillance states get sloppy.
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China reveals plans for first solar power station in space • Sydney Morning Herald

Kirsty Needham:


A solar power station orbiting the earth at 36,000 kilometres could tap the energy of the sun’s rays without interference from the atmosphere, or seasonal and night-time loss of sunlight, Chinese media reported.

Construction of an early experimental space power plant has begun in the inland city of Chongqing, China’s Science and Technology Daily reported on its front page.

A researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology Corporation, Pang Zhihao, said a space solar power station held the promise of providing “an inexhaustible source of clean energy for humans”.
Electric cars could be charged at any time and any place.

It could reliably supply energy 99% of the time, at six times the intensity of solar farms on earth, he said.

Chinese scientists first plan to build and launch small- to medium-sized solar power stations to be launched into the stratosphere to generate electricity, between 2021 and 2025.

The next step will be a megawatt-level space solar power station, slated for construction in 2030.


This is slightly bonkers. That’s a geostationary orbit, but you’d only need a tiny amount of drift for that downward beam to start zapping substantial areas of land. Or of course zapping other satellites in orbit.
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Google may kill Android’s Back button for Android Q’s new gestures • XDA Developers

Mishaal Rahman:


Since Apple removed the iconic home button in favor of gesture navigation on the iPhone X, we’ve seen companies roll out their own implementations of gesture controls. Some gesture control systems like the one from OnePlus and Xiaomi are widely praised for their intuitiveness and eye-catching animations, while others like the one from Google in Android Pie have been met with mixed reviews. Just as Google accidentally leaked Android P’s gestures before Google I/O 2018, we have found evidence of a prototype revamp of navigation gestures from a leaked build of Android Q that we obtained last month.

In Android 9 Pie, the 3 button navigation system was replaced by a two-button system. Although the recent apps button was removed, the back button stayed. The home button, however, turned into a gesture pill.

Most of the complaints that people have towards Android Pie’s gestures focus on the presence of the dedicated back button and the difficulty of performing the long swipe up of the pill to open the app drawer. While I don’t know if the latter gesture will be changed in Android Q, there’s a really good chance that Google may kill the dedicated back button.


It’s had a good run.

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LG puts foldable phone on hold, focuses on “optional” dual displays • Android Authority

Scott Adam Gordon:


In an email today, an LG spokesperson said: “Since Mr. Hwang (former MC President) made that statement in October, management didn’t see the market as becoming very favourable for an expensive, first-gen foldable smartphone. So we’ve decided to focus our efforts in other areas, such as optional dual displays.”

Earlier in January, rumors emerged suggesting an LG device with an optional display was headed to MWC 2019. The extra screen is tipped to be part of an additional phone case.

LG isn’t the only manufacturer wary of the folding phone market. Last month, Honor President George Zhao said folding phones were “too thick and heavy,” and questioned if consumers really needed them.

With all of that in mind, Kwon said LG was “fully ready” to respond to folding smartphone demand if it’s there. It seems like LG has the technology, but whether it will pursue it may depend on what everybody thinks of the Galaxy F.


Probably wise, given that (1) LG’s mobile phone business fell even deeper into the red in Q4 (-18% operating margin) (2) its mobile phone business shrank by 42% in Q4, and by 29% for the year. LG is becoming an afterthought in the phone space. When was its heyday?
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Samsung gives up on Blu-Ray, will not release any new players in the US • Gizmodo

Tom McKay:


This is not entirely surprising. The 4K UHD Blu-ray market is growing fast, but disc sales in general fell by double digits (11.5% in Q3 2018, per Variety) and the growth of streaming may have left the format without much of a future. Last year, competitor Oppo also dropped out of the Blu-ray market. As Engadget noted, the Digital Entertainment Group said that 2.3m devices capable of playing 4K Blu-rays were purchased in the U.S. in the first nine months of 2018, “but those included game consoles that might never play a disc-based movie.”

Meanwhile, subscription video services reach many times that number of households (Netflix alone is in the 150m range). It seems like there is a significant number of consumers who don’t think they need an expensive Blu-ray player to enjoy movies (as Forbes noted, well over half of disc sales are still DVDs). Additionally, Samsung’s devices didn’t support Dolby Vision, just HDR10 and HDR10+, further limiting their appeal to a subset of the Blu-ray market.

In any case, Blu-rays are not quite going the way of the dinosaur yet—indeed, they remain the best way for home viewing as close to movie-theater quality as possible—but they are being undercut by the rise of streaming.


Not surprising when you consider this graphic (taken from The Verge, same story) and try to find Blu-ray viewing. It’s the light green bit.

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How Huawei targets Apple trade secrets • The Information

Wayne Ma:


To arrange the November meeting [with the maker of Apple’s heart sensor component for its Watch], the Huawei engineer first dangled a potential business deal with the supplier, according to messages reviewed by The Information.

“Our design is similar to Apple’s,” the engineer wrote in a text message to the executive with the supplier. “Let’s first talk generally about the cost of a prototype before we provide the schematic,” he wrote. “Sales of Huawei wearables this year are expected to hit 1 million units,” he added.

After the executive expressed reservations about making a component that was too similar to Apple’s, the Huawei engineer backpedaled. “The shape of the product won’t be the same,” the engineer said.

At one point, the Huawei engineer emailed the executive a photo of material it was considering for a heart rate sensor. “Feel free to suggest a design you already have experience with,” the engineer wrote.

The Huawei engineer attended the supplier meeting with four Huawei researchers in tow. The Huawei team spent the next hour and a half pressing the supplier for details about the Apple Watch, the executive said.

“They were trying their luck, but we wouldn’t tell them anything,” the executive said. After that, Huawei went silent.

In another incident, Huawei is suspected of copying a connector Apple developed in 2016 that made the MacBook Pro hinge thinner while still attaching the computer’s display to its logic board, according to a person familiar with the matter. A similar component, made of 13 similar parts assembled in the same manner, showed up last year in Huawei’s MateBook Pro, which was released as a competitor to Apple’s MacBooks, the person said. Apple submitted a patent for the component in 2016, and it remains pending.

Huawei approached multiple Apple suppliers with expertise making the component and provided them with the same schematic. Those suppliers recognized the component as Apple’s design and refused to make it for Huawei, the person said. But Huawei eventually found a willing manufacturer.

In response to questions from The Information, Huawei said it requires its suppliers to uphold a high standard of ethics and expects them to honor their confidentiality obligations to other customers when communicating with Huawei.


Huawei, the new Samsung, and then some. Odd that they can’t just disassemble things to figure this out.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,005: Google backtracks on Chrome adblock block, make your own cloud, Apple hires to up IoT game, how AI is messing up science, and more

Brexit effects mean the UK’s House of Commons needs four sides rather than two, according to a new study. CC-licensed photo by UK Parliament on Flickr.

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 10 links for you. Interactive, but not graphically. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google backtracks on Chrome modifications that would have crippled ad blockers • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:


At the root of Ghostery’s benchmark into ad blocker performance stands Manifest V3, a new standard for developing Chrome extensions that Google announced last October.

The long-winded document contained many new rules about what Chrome functions and APIs an extension should use. One of the modifications was for extensions that needed to intercept and work with network requests. Google wanted extension developers to use the new DeclarativeNetRequest API instead of the older webRequest API.

This new API came with limitations that put a muzzle on the number of network requests an extension could access. It took some time before ad blocker developers caught on to what this meant, but when they did, all hell broke loose, with both extension developers and regular users accusing the browser maker of trying to kill third-party ad blockers for the benefit of Chrome’s new built-in ad blocker (which wouldn’t be impacted).

Chrome engineers justified the change by citing the performance impact of not having a maximum value for the number of network requests an extension could access.

But the Ghostery team disagreed with this assessment.

“This work [referring to the study] was motivated by one of the claims formulated in the Manifest V3 proposal of the Chromium project: ‘the extension then performs arbitrary (and potentially very slow) JavaScript’, talking about content-blockers’ ability to process all network requests,” said Cliqz, the company behind the Ghostery ad blocker.

“From the measurements, we do not think this claim holds, as all popular content-blockers are already very efficient and should not incur any noticeable slow-down for users,” they added.


Basically, it seems Google wants to stop any adblockers that aren’t its own, because it wants the choice of which ads are blocked to be its own, not users’.
link to this extract

How Brexit has created four new political factions – interactive graphic • The Guardian

Josh Holder:


Our study clusters MPs by the similarity of their voting patterns: if two MPs always vote the same way, the chart groups them tightly together.

The patterns on key Brexit votes reveal the emergence of four cross-party political factions that are wrangling for control of the negotiations.

A cross-party group of pro-European MPs usually votes with each other, with or against their own frontbenches, while Europhobe Conservatives now constitute a party within the party.


The votes described here probably won’t mean anything to anyone outside the UK, but scroll down and the evolution from two-party system to four-group dynamic becomes clear. The Europhobes are indeed a party within a party in the Tories, and extremists outside the party in Labour. The Europhiles, meanwhile, are effectively homeless, politically. There are rumours that the Labour Europhiles will break away this week.
link to this extract

Dropgangs, or the future of darknet markets • Opaque Link


To prevent theft by the distribution layer, the sales layer randomly tests dead drops by tasking different members of the distribution layer with picking up product from a dead drop and hiding it somewhere else, after verification of the contents. Usually each unit of product is tagged with a piece of paper containing a unique secret word which is used to prove to the sales layer that a dead drop was found. Members of the distribution layer have to post security – in the form of cryptocurrency – to the sales layer, and they lose part of that security with every dead drop that fails the testing, and with every dead drop they failed to test. So far, no reports of using violence to ensure performance of members of these structures has become known.

This concept of using messaging, cryptocurrency and dead drops even within the merchant structure allows for the members within each layer being completely isolated from each other, and not knowing anything about higher layers at all. There is no trace to follow if a distribution layer member is captured while servicing a dead drop. He will often not even be distinguishable from a regular customer. This makes these structures extremely secure against infiltration, takeover and capture. They are inherently resilient.

Furthermore the members of the sales layer often employ advanced physical tradecraft to prevent surveillance by the procurement layer when they pick up product. This makes it very hard to dismantle such a structure from the top.

If members of such a structure are captured they usually have no critical information to share, no information about persons, places, times of meeting. No interaction that would make this information necessary ever takes place.

It is because of the use of dead drops and hierarchical structures that we call this kind of organization a Dropgang.


We ain’t on the Silk Road any more.
link to this extract

Differential privacy: an easy case • Substack

Mark Hansen:


By law, the Census Bureau is required to keep our responses to its questionnaires confidential. And so, over decades, it has applied several “disclosure avoidance” techniques when it publishes data — these have been meticulously catalogued by Laura McKenna, going back to the 1970 census.

But for 2020, the bureau will instead release its data tables using a “formal privacy” framework known as “differential privacy.”

A unique feature of this new approach is that it explicitly quantifies privacy loss and provides mathematically provable privacy guarantees for those whose data are published as part of the bureau’s tables. 

Differential privacy is simply a mathematical definition of privacy. While there are legal and ethical standards for protecting our personal data, differential privacy is specifically designed to address the risks we face in a world of “big data” and “big computation.”

Given its mathematical origins, discussions of differential privacy can become technical very quickly.


Apple and Google use this to make it harder to de-anonymise personal data. This is quite a long post, but it explains it while sticking to quite simple maths.
link to this extract

Internet censorship: Facebook, Patreon will always be frustrating • Bloomberg

Tyler Cowen:


Facebook recently has devoted a lot of resources to regulating speech on its platform. Yet undesired uses of the platform hardly have gone away, especially outside the U.S. Furthermore, the need for human judgment makes algorithms increasingly costly and hard to scale. As Facebook grows bigger and reaches across more regions and languages, it becomes harder to find the humans who can apply what Facebook considers to be the proper standards. 1

I’d like to suggest a simple trilemma. When it comes to private platforms and speech regulation, you can choose two of three: scalability, effectiveness and consistency. You cannot have all three. Furthermore, this trilemma suggests that we — whether as users, citizens or indeed managers of the platforms themselves — won’t ever be happy with how speech is regulated on the internet.

One view, which may appear cynical, is that the platforms are worth having, so they should appease us by at least trying to regulate effectively, even though both of us know they won’t really succeed. Circa 2019, I don’t see a better solution. Another view is that we’d be better off with how things were a few years ago, when platform regulation of speech was not such a big issue. After all, we Americans don’t flip out when we learn that Amazon sells copies of “Mein Kampf.”

The problem is that once you learn about what you can’t have — speech regulation that is scalable, consistent and hostile to bad agents — it is hard to get used to that fact. Going forward, we’re likely to see platform companies trying harder and harder, and their critics getting louder and louder.


(Via Nathan Taylor’s fine roundup.)
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The cloud is just someone else’s computer… but what if it were your computer? • Coding Horror


Given the prevalence and maturity of cloud providers, it’s even a little controversial these days to colocate actual servers, but we’ve also experimented with colocating mini-pcs in various hosting roles. I’m still curious why there isn’t more of a cottage industry for colocating mini PCs. Because … I think there should be.

I originally wrote about the scooter computers we added to our Discourse infrastructure in 2016, plus my own colocation experiment that ran concurrently. Over the last three years of both experiments, I’ve concluded that these little boxes are plenty reliable, with one role specific caveat that I’ll explain in the comments. I remain an unabashed fan of mini-PC colocation. I like it so much I put together a new 2019 iteration…

…Let’s break this down and see what the actual costs of colocating a Mini-PC are versus the cloud. Let’s assume a useful life of say, three years? Given the plateauing of CPU speeds, I think five years is more realistic, but let’s use the more conservative number to be safe.

$880 mini-pc 32GB RAM, 6 CPUs, 500GB SSD
$120 taxes / shipping / misc
$29 × 12 × 3 = $1,044
That’s $2,044 for three years of hosting. How can we do on Digital Ocean? Per their current pricing page:

32GB RAM, 8 vCPUs, 640GB SSD
$160 × 12 × 3 = $5,760


Colocation is quite a thing.

link to this extract

AAAS: Machine learning ‘causing science crisis’ • BBC News


Machine-learning techniques used by thousands of scientists to analyse data are producing results that are misleading and often completely wrong.

Dr Genevera Allen from Rice University in Houston said that the increased use of such systems was contributing to a “crisis in science”.

She warned scientists that if they didn’t improve their techniques they would be wasting both time and money. Her research was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

A growing amount of scientific research involves using machine learning software to analyse data that has already been collected. This happens across many subject areas ranging from biomedical research to astronomy. The data sets are very large and expensive.

But, according to Dr Allen, the answers they come up with are likely to be inaccurate or wrong because the software is identifying patterns that exist only in that data set and not the real world.

“Often these studies are not found out to be inaccurate until there’s another real big dataset that someone applies these techniques to and says ‘oh my goodness, the results of these two studies don’t overlap‘,” she said.

“There is general recognition of a reproducibility crisis in science right now. I would venture to argue that a huge part of that does come from the use of machine learning techniques in science.”


Reproducibility means what it says: can you get the same result starting from the same data? This isn’t a new problem – it’s just becoming more visible.
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The convergence of the phone and laptop • AVC

Fred Wilson:


The Gotham Gal [Wilson’s wife, who also works in venture capital] wanted to get a new laptop. Her late 2015 Macbook has started to fade on her.

So yesterday we made a visit to the local Apple Store and checked out the options. We looked at the Macbooks, the Macbook Airs, and we also looked at the iPad Pros. We debated the choice and she ended up deciding to go for the iPad Pro. We work with a few people who have iPad Pros and love them. And she noticed how much I am using and enjoying my Pixel Slate.

One of the most interesting things about these hybrid tablet/laptop devices is that they run operating systems that are designed for the tablet or phone. They are touch devices like our phones vs mouse devices like our laptops.

A good example of this is how I do email on my Pixel Slate. I could run Gmail in the browser on my Pixel Slate. But I have found it much more pleasing to do email in the Gmail Android App on my Pixel Slate. I swipe emails away like I do on my phone. But I also have the keyboard when I want to write a long response. It is literally the best of both worlds.


I think she’s going to be happy with it, though I wonder what is actually meant by saying a 2015 machine “has started to fade”. The comments on the piece are worth reading too: as many saying she’ll go back to a laptop as saying the tablet is the way forward.
link to this extract

Sam Jadallah to join Apple as its new leader on smart home devices • CNBC

Christina Farr:


Jadallah previously ran a start-up called Otto, which made a $700 lock that was backed by the venture firm Greylock. He also spent more than a decade at Microsoft, and had a stint in venture capital at the firm Mohr Davidow.

Otto suspended its operations four months after launching its beautifully-designed Bluetooth- and Wi-Fi-enabled luxury lock. In interviews, Jadallah hinted at having found a buyer, which pulled out at the last minute.

About 70% of the early team behind Otto were actually poached from Apple’s ranks, Jadallah has previously said. The lock was compared favorably by reviewers to the “Apple of smart locks.” It’s not clear whether Jadallah will bring these early employees with him, or will have a fresh mandate to hire. There are currently about half-a-dozen job openings in Apple’s home division.

But Apple also competes against rivals like Alphabet and Amazon, both of which have had a head start on moving into the home.


As was discussed on the latest Talk Show podcast by John Gruber and Rich Mogull, it makes no sense for Apple to offer an Apple TV, HomePod, integration to home devices via HomeKit, and yet not have something comparable to Eero or the Google Home router. Maybe Jadallah will see that too.
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Major games publishers are feeling the impact of peaking attention • MIDiA Research

Karol Severin:


Earlier in February, Electronic Arts (EA) reported disappointing quarterly results; now Activision has laid off nearly 800 staff, mostly in marketing and sales.

As MIDiA has reported multiple times before, engagement has declined throughout the sector, suggesting that the attention economy has peaked. Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritising between them.

This downward trend in engagement has persisted for a while now, and the latest quarterly results from some major games publishers confirm that a revenue slowdown will ultimately follow consumer behaviour. Arguably sooner than most of the games industry would have thought.

Publishers will be quick to blame declining engagement and revenues on Fortnite. While the title indeed intensified the manifestation of the peak attention economy dynamics among gamers, the coming slowdown is part of a much bigger challenge – how to capture attention in an increasingly attention-scarce landscape…

…Not only is engagement declining across mobile, PC and console gaming, at the same time, video is winning the race against gaming in capturing attention on multipurpose devices such as PC. Between Q1 and Q4 2018, gaming on PC declined faster than TV show viewing on PC among gamers.


They’re all watching Twitch or YouTube rather than playing the games themselves. It’s like football losing its park players. But the idea that the attention economy can’t grow any further is quite dramatic.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,004: AI gets closer and creepier, Facebook’s watch list, Amazon won’t make it in New York, what the FBI director saw, and more

A Little Red Book? How retro. President Xi makes you use an app now. CC-licensed photo by g33kgrrl on Flickr.

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 10 links for you. Spared again! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook’s security team tracks posts, location for ‘BOLO’ threat list • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:


In early 2018, a Facebook user made a public threat on the social network against one of the company’s offices in Europe.

Facebook picked up the threat, pulled the user’s data and determined he was in the same country as the office he was targeting. The company informed the authorities about the threat and directed its security officers to be on the lookout for the user.

“He made a veiled threat that ‘Tomorrow everyone is going to pay’ or something to that effect,” a former Facebook security employee told CNBC.

The incident is representative of the steps Facebook takes to keep its offices, executives and employees protected, according to more than a dozen former Facebook employees who spoke with CNBC. The company mines its social network for threatening comments, and in some cases uses its products to track the location of people it believes present a credible threat.


“BOLO” is “be on the lookout”. There seemed to be a fair amount of pearl-clutching about this online, but it seems reasonable to me: recall that a woman critically injured three people in a shooting at YouTube in April 2018, and she had made lots of noise about her anger on social media ahead of time. I’d say it’s sensible to protect your employees.
link to this extract

The dawn of the Little Red Phone • China Media Project

David Bandurski:


The platform is interesting and significant not only for the nature of its content as reflective of a renewed push to enforce the dominance of the Party’s ideology and positions, and to consolidate the power of Xi Jinping around the developing notion of “Xi Jinping Thought,” but also for the way it reinvents the process of ideological dominance for the digital era.

This is most evident in the points system employed by the “Xi Study Strong Nation,” the way it is engineered to make demands, in actionable and measurable ways, on how Party members spend what might otherwise be considered their personal time.

The idea is that users of the platform earn points through their active engagement with the material, so that more time on the platform rewards more points. Reading one article earns you 0.1 points. Watching a single video earns you 0.1  points. And a full 30 minutes of either reading articles or viewing video content earns you a full 1.0 points. The beauty of digital media technology — disquieting for those who care about privacy and freedom from intrusion — is that our smart apps know a great deal about our actual behaviour. This means that “Xi Study Strong Nation” (and by extension the Party) cannot be bamboozled into awarding points in the absence of real engagement, meaning that you will have to not just open an article or video but will have to stick with it. The app will know if you’ve only viewed the first paragraph, or if you’ve moved away from the video. If you want to earn points (and you are probably now required to), you will have to devote your full attention to the Party.


Scary. It really is 1984-style surveillance.
link to this extract

New AI fake text generator may be too dangerous to release, say creators • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Feed it the first few paragraphs of a Guardian story about Brexit, and its output is plausible newspaper prose, replete with “quotes” from Jeremy Corbyn, mentions of the Irish border, and answers from the prime minister’s spokesman.

One such, completely artificial, paragraph reads: “Asked to clarify the reports, a spokesman for May said: ‘The PM has made it absolutely clear her intention is to leave the EU as quickly as is possible and that will be under her negotiating mandate as confirmed in the Queen’s speech last week.’”

From a research standpoint, GPT2 is groundbreaking in two ways. One is its size, says Dario Amodei, OpenAI’s research director. The models “were 12 times bigger, and the dataset was 15 times bigger and much broader” than the previous state-of-the-art AI model. It was trained on a dataset containing about 10m articles, selected by trawling the social news site Reddit for links with more than three votes. The vast collection of text weighed in at 40 GB, enough to store about 35,000 copies of Moby Dick.

The amount of data GPT2 was trained on directly affected its quality, giving it more knowledge of how to understand written text. It also led to the second breakthrough. GPT2 is far more general purpose than previous text models.


They’re not releasing it because they haven’t yet figured out all the ways it might be used maliciously. Echoes the moratorium on genetic engineering of bacteria in the 1970s. But the first time I’ve seen it for a neural network.

I mean, imagine it allied to the next system…
link to this extract is face-generating AI at its creepiest • The Next Web

Tristan Greene:


Nvidia is a company most lauded for its impressive graphics cards. But in the world of machine learning, it’s one of the most ingenious companies using deep learning today. A couple of years back TNW reported on a new generative adversarial network (GAN) the company developed. At the time, it was an amazing example of how powerful deep learning had become.

This was cutting edge technology barely a year ago. Today, you can use it on your phone. Just point your web browser to “” and voila: the next time your grandmother asks when you’re going to settle down with someone nice, you can conjure up a picture to show them.


It really is pretty amazing. The paper explaining it is remarkable. Try it:
link to this extract

Amazon cancels HQ2 plans in New York City • WSJ

Laura Stevens, Jimmy Vielkind and Katie Honan:


The company said in a blog post Thursday that its commitment to a new headquarters required supportive elected officials and collaboration.

“While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City,” the company said.

Amazon’s decision to abandon plans for a new headquarters in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City marks a stunning reversal. Amazon spent a year conducting a public search for a second headquarters, in which hundreds of locations vied for a shot at a promised 50,000 jobs and $5bn in investment…

The governor and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, fellow Democrats who have often clashed, led the deal to woo Amazon and have continued to support it.

Local officials, though, questioned everything from the project’s impact on transportation to neighborhood gentrification, as well as Amazon’s opposition to unionization.

Mr. de Blasio said Thursday afternoon that the company threw away an opportunity to be in New York. “You have to be tough to make it in New York City,” he said in a statement. “We gave Amazon the opportunity to be a good neighbor and do business in the greatest city in the world. Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity.”


link to this extract

Ad IDs behaving badly • The Appcensus Blog

Serge Egelman:


both iOS and Android have policies that prohibit developers from transmitting other identifiers alongside the ad ID. For example, in 2017, it was major news that Uber’s app had violated iOS App Store privacy guidelines by collecting non-resettable persistent identifiers. Tim Cook personally threatened to have the Uber app removed from the store. Similarly, Google’s Play Store policy says that the ad ID cannot be transmitted alongside other identifiers without users’ explicit consent, and that for advertising purposes, the ad ID is the only identifier that can be used…

…I examined the AppCensus database [of Android apps] to examine compliance with this policy. That is, are there apps violating this policy by transmitting the ad ID alongside other persistent identifiers to advertisers? When I performed this experiment last September, there were approximately 24k apps in our database that we had observed transmitting the ad ID. Of these, approximately 17k (i.e., ~70%) were transmitting the ad ID alongside other persistent identifiers. Based on the data recipients of some of the most popular offenders, these are clearly being used for advertising purposes.

…as of today, there are over 18k distinct apps transmitting the Ad ID alongside other persistent identifiers.

In September, our research group reported just under 17k apps to Google that were transmitting the ad ID alongside other identifiers. The data we gave them included the data types being transmitted and a list of the recipient domains, which included some of the following companies involved in mobile advertising…


They’ve heard nothing from Google. Those apps have billions of installs. Among the companies involved in mobile advertising is DoubleClick. You know, Google’s advertising arm.
link to this extract

The RCA Selectron — Tubes vs. Transistor


It’s 1959 and this man is worried. He may work for General Electric but he has counterparts at Westinghouse, Sylvania, RCA and the rest of the Tube Titans and they are worried as well. That Regency pocket transistor radio may be a cute novelty item but IBM has just announced their 1401 and 1620 computer lines. And they use only transistors. No tubes.

This man is worried because he sees his entire capital plant becoming scrap within the decade. He makes tubes.

But this is America headed into the sixties. There is nothing that a half a dozen paunchy middle-aged white men can’t solve over a lunch, some cigars, and more than a few martinis. A plan was hatched: A smear campaign on that little three-legged bastard.


And it would have worked if it hadn’t been for you interfering kids with your TRANSISTOR RADIOS.
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Chinese smartphone vendors take a record 32% market share in Europe in 2018 • Canalys


Canalys estimates show that European smartphone shipments fell 4% in 2018 to 197m units. In Q4 2018, shipments fell 2% to 57m, though Chinese vendors gained significantly. Samsung remained the largest vendor in 2018 but its shipments were down over 10% at 61.6m units. Apple was down 6% but clung onto second place with 42.8m units shipped. Huawei was the stand-out vendor, growing 54% with 42.5m shipments. Relative newcomers Xiaomi and HMD Global grew strongly and were fourth and fifth respectively.

“The US administration is causing Chinese companies to invest in Europe over the US. The European market is mature, and replacement rates have lengthened, but there is an opportunity for Chinese brands to displace the market incumbents. The likes of Huawei and Xiaomi bring price competition that has stunned their rivals as they use their size against the smaller brands in Europe.”

Western European smartphone shipments fell 8%, the biggest decline of the sub-regions, to 128m units in 2018, the lowest level since 2013. An increase in average selling prices, caused by an uplift in flagship pricing by Apple, Samsung and Huawei, offset some of the declines.


China, Europe, the US: all shrinking.
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Ex-FBI director: every day is a new low in Trump’s White House • The Atlantic

Andrew G. McCabe, in an extract from his new book about his time as FBI director, describes a call he took from Trump on his first day in the job, in May 2017 – when Trump demanded to know why James Comey had been allowed to fly back, from giving a speech, on an official plane:


I told him that bureau lawyers had assured me there was no legal issue with Comey coming home on the plane. I decided that he should do so. The existing threat assessment indicated he was still at risk, so he needed a protection detail. Since the members of the protection detail would all be coming home, it made sense to bring everybody back on the same plane they had used to fly out there. It was coming back anyway. The president flew off the handle: That’s not right! I don’t approve of that! That’s wrong! He reiterated his point five or seven times.

I said, I’m sorry that you disagree, sir. But it was my decision, and that’s how I decided. The president said, I want you to look into that! I thought to myself: What am I going to look into? I just told you I made that decision.

The ranting against Comey spiraled. I waited until he had talked himself out.

Toward the end of the conversation, the president brought up the subject of my wife. Jill had run unsuccessfully for the Virginia state Senate back in 2015, and the president had said false and malicious things about her during his campaign in order to tarnish the FBI. He said, How is your wife? I said, She’s fine. He said, When she lost her election, that must have been very tough to lose. How did she handle losing? Is it tough to lose?
I replied, I guess it’s tough to lose anything. But she’s rededicated herself to her career and her job and taking care of kids in the emergency room. That’s what she does.

He replied in a tone that sounded like a sneer. He said, “Yeah, that must’ve been really tough. To lose. To be a loser.”

I wrote a memo about this conversation that very day. I wrote memos about my interactions with President Trump for the same reason that Comey did: to have a contemporaneous record of conversations with a person who cannot be trusted.


link to this extract

What happened when I moved into a house that had solar panels • Bloomberg

Esmé Deprez:


The solar array was a modern addition to a property that otherwise hadn’t changed much since 1950, when the late owner, Michael “Jug” Jogoleff, moved into the home’s 948 square feet as a preschooler with his mother and aunt, transplants from Iowa. He never moved again. He grew tall and barrel-chested and remained a lifelong bachelor, becoming a neighborhood fixture who organized block parties. His décor reflected his obsession with all things electronic, in particular ham radio. “Radios and computers were packed into every available square inch of space he could find,” and “his roof bristled with every form of antenna,” Santa Barbara’s amateur radio club wrote after he died of cancer at the age of 70 in January 2017. “He was the consummate ‘ham’ and could build anything—and did! Amateur radio has lost one of the last of the ‘real hams.’”

Two days after walking through Jug’s ham shack, we made an offer. A week later, just before we entered escrow, we learned the solar array hadn’t belonged to Jug. It was, in the language of the industry, a third-party-owner, or TPO, system, belonging to Sunrun Inc., the largest provider of residential solar in the U.S. I started looking into the TPO model. It’s used less often than it once was, but it’s been important in making residential solar, once out of reach for most people, much more widespread. The reason is simple: homeowners usually pay nothing upfront. A company like Sunrun puts solar panels on your roof, connects them to your home, and claims a tax benefit for owning the system. Going forward, you pay Sunrun to provide the bulk of your electricity needs instead of your utility.

I’d soon learn that the system was tied to the title of the house. It appeared that if we bought Jug’s place, we’d have to assume his lease arrangement with Sunrun. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this as a buyer, but it definitely piqued my curiosity as a journalist. I set out to examine the value proposition carefully.


A good thing she did: third-party ownership is pretty poisonous, especially when it comes to selling (or buying) a property. There’s a lot to this article, which digs deep into what’s happening with this model – much of it built on unreliable financial promises. Solar works, but capitalism about the future sometimes doesn’t.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: “computer programmer” did exist as a notion in the 1950s, contrary to my surprise expressed in No.1,003. Thanks Seth Finkelstein for the info.