Start Up No.996: Zuckerberg’s big hopes, a new Huawei sting, VPN truths, a five-year bet on Bitcoin, the Captcha puzzle, and more


Afraid so: the machines are now able to beat us at this game too. CC-licensed photo by Chris on Flickr.

Ahead of No. 1,000, send in your three favourite links – leave a comment, email or DM me. Popular so far: Why drowning doesn’t look like drowning (May 2018); why I hope we don’t find extraterrestrial life (Aug 2016); the heroes of the cave dive rescue (Jan 2019). What do you remember best?

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. Borderless. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Mark Zuckerberg – Fifteen years ago today, I launched the… • Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg on his oldest baby, now 15:

»

We’re now taking steps that wouldn’t have been possible even just a few years ago – for example, this year we plan to spend more on safety and security than our whole revenue at the time of our IPO, and the artificial intelligence required to help manage content at scale didn’t exist until recently. But as people use these networks to shape society, it’s critical we continue making progress on these questions.

At the same time, there is another force at play as well. As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society – from government to business to media to communities and more – there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasize the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.

To the contrary, while any rapid social change creates uncertainty, I believe what we’re seeing is people having more power, and a long term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time. We’re still in the early stages of this transformation and in many ways it is just getting started. But if the last 15 years were about people building these new networks and starting to see their impact, then the next 15 years will be about people using their power to remake society in ways that have the potential to be profoundly positive for decades to come.

«

I have a question: are those people going to be unaccountable Russians working in low-rise buildings and pretending to be African-Americans based in Chicago protesting against police brutality in order to stir up division? Just so we’re clear on meaning, you understand.
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Facebook’s research app isn’t the only VPN to mine user data • Abacus News

Karen Chiu:

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VPNs are supposed to help you protect your data. But the Facebook flap shows that there’s one party that has full access to everything you’re doing: the VPN provider itself. And it’s a concern with several Chinese-owned VPNs, which reportedly send data back to China.

Recently, Top10VPN – a review site for VPN services – looked into the world’s 30 most downloaded free VPN apps. Among them, VPN Master, Turbo VPN, and Snap VPN claim the right to gather private information like IP addresses, time zones, and IMEIs (the unique number that identifies your phone). They also state that they may route personal data to China.

Another Chinese-owned app, VPN 360, notes that they may log and share an individual’s usage data with government authorities and law enforcement when required by law.

Unlike Facebook’s semi-secret “market research” app, these VPN services are readily available for everyone to download from Google Play and the iOS App Store.

And it means that while Facebook has said it will shut down its controversial market research app, other questionable VPN services are still being downloaded every day, with little transparency on where the data they collect will go.

«

Why, it’s as if VPNs aren’t a panacea to put you on the golden path to privacy at all, but instead might just mine your data. I guess you could ask the malicious hackers who have been busted via their VPN activity what they think for a second opinion.
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Bitcoin’s ‘Five-Year Bet’ now has an official winner between Ben Horowitz and Felix Salmon • Bitcoinexchangeguide

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Horowitz and Salmon both agreed to meet after five years and assess the state of the market during their 2014 appearance on NPR’s podcast. They also agreed on an official bet, the conditions for which are as follows:

“If 10% of Americans or more said they’d bought something with Bitcoin in the past month, Ben would win. If the number was lower, Felix would win.”

Before declaring the winner of the bet on episode #891, Planet Money published a poll on their website in an effort to gauge whether or not BTC (or any other major altcoin) had really been able to break into the financial mainstream.

Not only that, even Ipsos recently conducted a poll that took into consideration the opinions of 900 Americans who were asked the simple question:

“Have you purchased anything using Bitcoin as your payment within the past month?” In response, only a meager 3% of the respondents replied in the affirmative.

«

The transcript of the podcast makes for fun reading. That 3% is definitely a ceiling; in quite a few of the cases, people saying yes were using it to but other cryptocoins, and in some cases they claimed to have used it in places which don’t exchange bitcoin.

Salmon’s prediction – that bitcoin’s deflationary tendencies (forcing its price up) would kill its use as currency – turned out to be correct.
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Why CAPTCHAs have gotten so difficult • The Verge

Josh Dzieza:

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Recently there have been efforts to develop game-like CAPTCHAs, tests that require users to rotate objects to certain angles or move puzzle pieces into position, with instructions given not in text but in symbols or implied by the context of the game board. The hope is that humans would understand the puzzle’s logic but computers, lacking clear instructions, would be stumped. Other researchers have tried to exploit the fact that humans have bodies, using device cameras or augmented reality for interactive proof of humanity.

The problem with many of these tests isn’t necessarily that bots are too clever — it’s that humans suck at them. And it’s not that humans are dumb; it’s that humans are wildly diverse in language, culture, and experience. Once you get rid of all that stuff to make a test that any human can pass, without prior training or much thought, you’re left with brute tasks like image processing, exactly the thing a tailor-made AI is going to be good at.

“The tests are limited by human capabilities,” Polakis says. “It’s not only our physical capabilities, you need something that [can] cross cultural, cross language. You need some type of challenge that works with someone from Greece, someone from Chicago, someone from South Africa, Iran, and Australia at the same time. And it has to be independent from cultural intricacies and differences. You need something that’s easy for an average human, it shouldn’t be bound to a specific subgroup of people, and it should be hard for computers at the same time. That’s very limiting in what you can actually do. And it has to be something that a human can do fast, and isn’t too annoying.”

Figuring out how to fix those blurry image quizzes quickly takes you into philosophical territory: what is the universal human quality that can be demonstrated to a machine, but that no machine can mimic? What is it to be human?

«

Really it comes down to our tendency to dither when we don’t know. Or else be too certain when we don’t know. Unfortunately, machines can copy that too.
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The lifespan of news stories • Newslifespan

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The shapes of the plots can tells us more about the nature of attention to the topic. The duration of news events is dependent on the speed at which an event develops, and whether or not its outcome was expected. The North Korea summit, for example, was in the news in the lead up to the event, and continued to be reported on afterwards, producing a symmetrical interest plot. An event like July’s blood moon, by contrast, was rarely mentioned after the fact, resulting in a leftward skew in the plot. An unexpected event, on the other hand, like the death of Anthony Bourdain, can yield a rightward skew in the plot as the public continues to process unanticipated information. Lastly, some events can even produce multiple peaks, like the government shutdown of January 2018 that was followed by the threat of a second shutdown in early February, resulting in a bimodal search interest plot.

«

As a journalist, the question one always wanted to be able to answer was: how important will this story appear to readers? Is this just a short hit or does it tug at something deeper? After a while you’d get a feel for that, but could still be surprised by things. This tries to offer a clearer view. (Via @Sophiewarnes’s Fair Warning newsletter.)
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Huawei sting offers rare glimpse of US targeting Chinese giant • Bloomberg

Erik Schatzker:

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Like all inventors, Khan was paranoid about knockoffs. Even so, he was caught by surprise when Huawei, a potential customer, began to behave suspiciously after receiving the meticulously packed sample [of a screen coated on one side with artificial diamond]. Khan was more surprised when the US Federal Bureau of Investigation drafted him and Akhan’s chief operations officer, Carl Shurboff, as participants in its investigation of Huawei. The FBI asked them to travel to Las Vegas and conduct a meeting with Huawei representatives at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show. Shurboff was outfitted with surveillance devices and recorded the conversation while a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter watched from safe distance.

This investigation, which hasn’t previously been made public, is separate from the recently announced grand jury indictments against Huawei. On Jan. 28, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn charged the company and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, with multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy. In a separate case, prosecutors in Seattle charged Huawei with theft of trade secrets, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, claiming that one of its employees stole a part from a robot, known as Tappy, at a T-Mobile US Inc. facility in Bellevue, Wash. “These charges lay bare Huawei’s alleged blatant disregard for the laws of our country and standard global business practices,” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, said in a press release accompanying the Jan. 28 indictments. “Today should serve as a warning that we will not tolerate businesses that violate our laws, obstruct justice, or jeopardize national and economic well-being.” Huawei has denied the charges…

The first sign of trouble came two months later, in May, when Huawei missed the deadline to return the sample. Shurboff says his emails to Han requesting its immediate return were ignored. The following month, Han wrote that Huawei had been performing “standard” tests on the sample and included a photo showing a big scratch on its surface. Finally, a package from Huawei showed up at Gurnee on Aug. 2.

Shurboff remembers opening it. It looked just like the package Akhan had sent months earlier. Inside the cardboard box was the usual protective packaging—air bags, plastic case, gel insert, and wax paper. But he could tell something was wrong when he picked up the case. It rattled. The unscratchable Miraj sample wasn’t just scratched; it was broken in two, and three shards of diamond glass were missing.

Shurboff says he knew there was no way the sample could have been damaged in shipping—all the pieces would still be there in the case.

«

link to this extract


Shouldn’t we all have seamless micropayments by now? • WIRED

Zeynep Tufekci:

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I don’t really want a flying car, but I do want to be able to shed pennies (and fractions of pennies) as I browse news or read fiction online. I want to easily support artists and writers without having to set up an account, create a password, fork over my credit card details, and commit to an ongoing relationship that involves receiving a new piece of spammish email at least once a week.

What would such a system look like? It would be as seamless as browsing itself. It could have an automatic mode (a news subscription consortium, for instance, could silently disperse payments to individual publications as I read articles from members) or a one-click mode. (Stumble across a nice poem on some unfamiliar site? A small green button on your browser lights up, and you can make a one-time contribution.) And, much as Apple Pay already does now, vendors wouldn’t necessarily get your account information, just a cryptographic payment token that’s good for exchange or verification.

Of course, we already make payments online all the time, but under current conditions, frankly, it sucks to do so. If you buy things directly from small vendors, you’re stuck entering your credit card information, your email, and your billing address on site after site—sinking ever deeper into the surveillance economy as each digital form puts your personal details into someone else’s database, while also giving hackers ever more opportunities to filch your data.

«

Zeynep is usually reliably wonderful, but this is one area where she’s got a blindness to the subtle combination of economics and internet behaviour that would result. I used to have a running bet with Jakob Nielsen: he said we would soon have micropayments, I said we wouldn’t. We gave up after I’d been correct four, or possibly five, years in a row; that was about 2003.

I wrote about why this won’t ever happen a week short of ten years ago. Not a single thing about the dynamic has changed since, despite the invention of bitcoin. Micropayments have too many perverse incentives to ever happen.
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Robots have already mastered games like chess and Go. Now they’re coming for Jenga • The Washington Post

Peter Holley:

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AI long ago mastered chess, the Chinese board game Go and even the Rubik’s cube, which it managed to solve in just 0.38 seconds.

Now machines have a new game that will allow them to humiliate humans: Jenga, the popular game —— and source of melodramatic 1980s commercials —— in which players strategically remove pieces from an increasingly unstable tower of 54 blocks, placing each one on top until the entire structure collapses.

A newly released video from MIT shows a robot developed by the school’s engineers playing the game with surprising precision. The machine is quipped with a soft-pronged gripper, a force-sensing wrist cuff and an external camera, allowing the robot to perceive the tower’s vulnerabilities the way a human might, according to Alberto Rodriguez, the Walter Henry Gale career development assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

“Unlike in more purely cognitive tasks or games such as chess or Go, playing the game of Jenga also requires mastery of physical skills such as probing, pushing, pulling, placing, and aligning pieces,” Rodriguez said in a statement released by the school. “It requires interactive perception and manipulation, where you have to go and touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks.”

“This is very difficult to simulate, so the robot has to learn in the real world, by interacting with the real Jenga tower,” he added.

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These things are really ruining party games.
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Analysis: why the UK’s CO2 emissions have fallen 38% since 1990 • Carbon Brief

Zeke Hausfather:

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UK emissions have declined from around 600m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) in 1990 to 367MtCO2 in 2017. If underlying factors driving emissions had not changed, Carbon Brief’s analysis shows that a growing population and a constant electricity generation mix would have led to emissions increasing by around 25% compared to 1990 levels.

Instead, emissions actually fell by 38% to 367MtCO2, as shown in the black area in the figure below. Each coloured wedge in the figure shows one factor contributing to this decline.

As the chart shows, no single factor was responsible for more than around a third of the total reduction in the UK’s CO2. Overall, emissions in 2017 were 51% lower than they would have been without these changes.

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The surprising data point: UK CO2 emissions peaked in 1973, because we were burning so much coal.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

7 thoughts on “Start Up No.996: Zuckerberg’s big hopes, a new Huawei sting, VPN truths, a five-year bet on Bitcoin, the Captcha puzzle, and more

  1. re “Why, it’s as if VPNs aren’t a panacea to put you on the golden path to privacy at all, but instead might just mine your data.”

    I’m wondering if you really don’t understand the issue, or are just pretending not to.

    1- Of course VPNs aren’t a panacea for security and privacy, there isn’t one, and nothing is. They’re a *requirement* but not a panacea, one tool in a toolbox that also includes updates, non-default browser (I fully avoided Windows/IE dark years just by using Opera !), browser extensions, apps permissions management, app curation, good sense…

    2- Why is it a requirement ? Because anything between your device and a server can see at least that there’s traffic between your and a server, and most probably most of what that traffic is (type, content…); then the server can see where/whom that traffic comes from. A VPN obfuscates all that info to anyone between you and the VPN, and makes the traffic between the VPN and the server mostly anonymous.

    3- “But there are bad VPNs !” is a straw man logical fallacy. Yes there are. Doesn’t mean they all are bad, but does mean it’s a powerful tool and choosing one needs research. Free VPNs are obviously always quite bad, since the only way they can make money is by selling your info instead of protecting it. They’re probably better than a man-in-the-middle siphoning your credentials and services geo-locking you out, but much worse than for-pay VPNs with solid security and confidentiality.

    But don’t take my word for it;
    “a VPN is a uniquely powerful tool that you should definitely have in your personal security toolkit, especially in today’s connected world. Whether you opt for a free service or even go all-in with an encrypted router, having some way to encrypt your internet traffic is critically important.” pcmag.com/article/352757/you-need-a-vpn-and-heres-why

    Also, lifehacker.com/why-you-should-be-using-a-vpn-and-how-to-choose-one-5940565

    Of course, Apple won’t say it’s important, because reuters.com/article/us-china-apple-vpn/apple-says-it-is-removing-vpn-services-from-china-app-store-idUSKBN1AE0BQ . Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think independently.

    • ““But there are bad VPNs !” is a straw man logical fallacy.”

      A strawman is the creation of a false objection. There are bad VPNs; the fact you say one needs to research before choosing shows that it’s true. I think it’s questionable how essential VPNs are now, given that the overwhelming majority of sites use https. That Lifehacker article is from 2012, well before https became so commonly used. The PC Mag article notes that if you’re using your mobile connection, it’s pretty much impossible to track what’s happening. Your principal risk is being on public Wifi that you’re joining for the first time and connecting to a non-https site. That, these days, isn’t common.

      Now, your Apple suggestion – that’s a strawman. You’re suggesting that Apple isn’t saying VPNs are important because it has removed them in the China App Store because of a law change there. However you haven’t shown that Apple says VPNs are unimportant; in fact, it provides a setting which lets you connect to them.

      Your desire to portray Apple as evil and awful really is a bizarre one, and I suggest that you try putting “Samsung” or “Xiaomi” into sentences where you find yourself writing “Apple”. How many non-China-approved VPNs does Xiaomi sell on its Mi App Store? Does Samsung run its App Store in China, and are there non-China-approved VPNs on sale there? If the answer to both is zero, does that make them heroes, zeroes, or just businesses run by people trying to strike a moral balance?

      • – “That Lifehacker article is from 2012, well before https became so commonly used.” That PCMag article is from Nov. 2018. Web traffic is still not 100% https, and all internet traffic isn’t web traffic, by far. Also, https protects the data, not the meta-information (source, dest, volume, timing…)
        – It’s exactly a straw man. You’re trying to discredit all VPNs because some (most ^^) VPNs are bad, which nobody is arguing about. It is a false objection.
        – I’m not trying to portray Apple as evil and awful. Nor am I trying to portray Xiaomi Samsung Google as good. My point is: they’re all the same, Apple ain’t special.

        Also, again, whether VPNs are on sale in Android appstores isn’t nearly as vital as what’s on Apple’s appstore, and this is a beautifully archetypical situation: Android allows sideloading apps, so even governmental appstore-level censorship can *always* be sidestepped.

        Can you install and run a VPN on Xiaomis, Samsungs, any Androids in China ? Yes. You’re not dependent on an appstore to do that.

        … as well as any other app that’s banned. You probably don’t want to because it’s illegal to run them and sources may be iffy, but you can, if your life depends on it and you get hold of an anonymous device.

        That’s a key point in the “moral balance” debate. Apple takes the stance that it can and should control anything a user runs on their device, and collaborate with any and all governments to further their commercial interests. Android/Google are much more reticent about that, cf sideloading and the China exit (well, and possible re-entry… so, evil Google too, heh ?)

  2. Courage and honesty: theverge.com/2019/2/4/18211044/apple-att-5g-e-network-icon-iphones-misleading-ios-software-update-beta

    Everyone’s kowtowing to ATT and up for a quick buck. Most don’t claim courage though, and are justly regarded as average morally-bankrupt-ish (*) corps.

    (*) I’d say amoral, but that’s when you don’t know right from wrong. I think they do know the difference, but don’t care all that much – as long as the publicity doesn’t make it a business issue. Again, that’s how things are supposed to work: profit motive etc… What’s not supposed to happen is customers/citizens not distancing from corps’ views/PR. That issue is very intense in the Apple world.

    • From that story: “AT&T, Apple, and all of the other Android manufacturers that have already agreed to this can call it “5G E” all they want…”

      I guess it’s just normal amorality if Android OEMs do it (or does Google have to get involved somehow?) but Really Bad Amorality if Apple is involved in a marketing scheme by a big operator.

      Consider the alternative. Android OEMs will go along with ATT, because they’ll do anything (a) to stay in ATT’s favour (it’s the biggest phone company in the US) and (b) they might get some marketing spend for it. That means that Android phones will show “5G” in the bar. But iPhones wouldn’t. What’s the normal person going to conclude? That the iPhone isn’t up-to-date. “This Samsung phone says it’s 5G!” Is Apple going to invest in advertising or marketing to say “actually, nobody’s got 5G”? No, because that would harm its relationship with ATT.

      Who gets hurt if ATT claims it has 5G? Nobody, unless some people actually switch from other operators to ATT based on the claim, in which case the other operators can begin adverts about how nobody’s got 5G, and perhaps sue ATT for false representation. To repeat: this ATT claim might actually please some of its customers (“I’m on 5G!”) which makes it no less crappy, but to suggest that it’s Apple’s place to tell ATT how it can describe its network comes across as extremely naive about how the world really works.

      And it’s possible that Apple doesn’t have any control over what is displayed in the menu bar. What that tweet says: “@cgartenberg ref [that story], if this still works as it did last I hacked around with iOS, this is not something Apple controls. The carrier settings file contains a link to an image to use. More likely AT&T has set the 5G e image for their iOS 12.2 config file.”

      The Verge writer didn’t try to contact Apple or ATT, so we don’t know where this lies. Gives people plenty of room to spin up Evil Corporation Theories, though.

      • – calling 4G “5G E” is evil (that’s what the E is for !), in the lightest sense of the term. Nobody will die, but it’s a lie for profit.
        – Again, not saying Apple is particularly evil, just that it is like all others.
        – Apple managed to get updates and crapware off carriers’ grip, but couldn’t get an icon if they set their mind to it ? Seriously ?

        I understand it’s a detail and a fight not worth fighting for Apple, especially if it results in Androids showing “5G” while iPhones show “4G”. But then don’t claim courage, the others don’t.

  3. Not specifically an “evil Apple” story, just a general story about GAFA skirting taxes and govs trying to claw them back: pocketnow.com/apple-france-back-taxes

    France has an interesting legal concept of “abuse of rights”, which blew my mind when I learned about it back in business school. The state, generally the tax authorities, can arbitrarily decide that although you followed the letter of the law, you still cheated its spirit, so whatever your shenanigans get annulled. Thankfully a rare, last-resort maneuver not nearly as common as the US’ civil forfeiture.

    I’m still wondering if moving the tax base to added value + profit and differentiating corps and individuals wasn’t a massive compound mistake, and if the only stable way forward isn’t tax on income (not added value, not profit) + much lower tax on assets, for both corps and individuals. At my small personal scale I spent a few days researching how to move assets around between family members following my dad’s death. It’s very impactful in terms of taxes, utterly irrelevant in terms of economic value, complex, expensive, and with that “abuse of right” a bit risky… Make-work ?

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