Start Up No.997: the workforce split, MPs’ Twitter mistake, Apple’s tax payback, Fortnite’s big show, and more


The Onion! From 2007, yet it feels as though it could be from right now. And it can teach machines about satire. CC-licensed photo by Jonathan Harford on Flickr.

What’s been among your favourite Overspill links? Seems for quite a few people in November 2015 was how hypothermia takes you. (You don’t shiver towards the end; you might even tear off your clothes.) There’s also “I wish mum’s phone was never invented” (May 2018). What’s yours?

A selection of 11 links for you. No, it’s referenda. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tech is splitting the US workforce in two • The New York Times

Eduardo Porter:

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Automation is splitting the American labor force into two worlds. There is a small island of highly educated professionals making good wages at corporations like Intel or Boeing, which reap hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit per employee. That island sits in the middle of a sea of less educated workers who are stuck at businesses like hotels, restaurants and nursing homes that generate much smaller profits per employee and stay viable primarily by keeping wages low.

Even economists are reassessing their belief that technological progress lifts all boats, and are beginning to worry about the new configuration of work.

Recent research has concluded that robots are reducing the demand for workers and weighing down wages, which have been rising more slowly than the productivity of workers. Some economists have concluded that the use of robots explains the decline in the share of national income going into workers’ paychecks over the last three decades.

Because it pushes workers to the less productive parts of the economy, automation also helps explain one of the economy’s thorniest paradoxes: despite the spread of information technology, robots and artificial intelligence breakthroughs, overall productivity growth remains sluggish.

“The view that we should not worry about any of these things and follow technology to wherever it will go is insane,” said Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Semiconductor companies like Intel or NXP are among the most successful in the Phoenix area. From 2010 to 2017, the productivity of workers in such firms — a measure of the dollar value of their production — grew by about 2.1% per year, according to an analysis by Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton of the Brookings Institution. Pay is great: $2,790 a week, on average, according to government statistics.

But the industry doesn’t generate that many jobs. In 2017, the semiconductor and related devices industry employed 16,600 people in the Phoenix area, about 10,000 fewer than three decades ago.

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link to this extract


The Onion headlines could teach AI what makes satire funny • Science News

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The researchers compiled a dataset of satirical and serious headlines using the online game Unfun.me, where players edit humorous headlines from the satirical publication The Onion as little as possible to make them serious. These tweaks “put a finger onto the exact switch that induces the humor,” says Robert West, a computer scientist École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. He and coauthor Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., amassed about 2,800 serious versions of nearly 1,200 headlines.

Most of the joke headlines followed a common logical structure, which West and Horvitz call “false analogy.” Words switched between spoof and serious headlines share a crucial similarity, as well as a fundamental difference.

Consider the humorless headline “BP ready to resume oil drilling” and its comedic counterpart “BP ready to resume oil spilling.” Subbing spilling for drilling works because both share the critical commonality of being activities famously associated with BP, but with one being intended and the other accidental. West and Horvitz identified several types of oppositions between words in serious and satirical headlines, such as modern versus outdated, human versus animal and obscene versus not.

These findings could help programmers create AI systems that better understand and have more natural interactions with humans, says Dan Goldwasser, an AI and natural language processing researcher at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., not involved in the analysis.

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The Onion team works by making up headlines, and then writing the stories for it. They also keep a list of headlines that don’t quite make the cut. My favourite of those is “Man knifed with spork”.
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MPs, step away from the social media. Twitter is not your friend • The Guardian

Political journalist Martha Gill:

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Almost all MPs have an account now and some tweet more than 60 times a day. But Twitter is not there to help them. It is there to trip them up. First it lulls them into a false sense of security – rewarding chit chat about their pets or their constituency, welcoming them into an environment where other people (not MPs) are free to tweet unguarded thoughts and opinions – and then, at some unspecified but certain point, it brutally shames them in front of the whole world. Twitter has nothing to lose, and they do.

In the last few days Twitter has claimed the dignity of no fewer than four Conservative MPs…

…Why do MPs go on Twitter at all? Why bother to control your public image – media advisers, training, care in interviews with journalists – and then risk it all by joining this lawless public message board? They can’t really claim it helps them with their jobs: only a narrow demographic slice of their constituents will be on the platform, and in any case few seem to use it for the purposes of engagement – an average 23% of tweets by MPs are direct replies (fewer for cabinet members). Some do seem to be good at it, such as the Labour MP Jess Phillips, but I’m not sure this bolsters their image either: shouldn’t elected representatives have better things to do?

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The details of how the Conservative MPs screwed up is hilarious, though. I have to agree with the first comment below the piece:

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It gives twitter users a chance to see how fatuous and bigoted and ignorant some of these politicians are. In the case of [Tory MP Nadine] Dorries, her twitter feed is an absolute delight. She is almost a parody of herself. In this day and age of course, it matters little that our elected representatives are dim or ill informed.

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Apple agrees to pay back-taxes to French authorities • Reuters

Simon Carraud:

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Apple’s French division said it had reached a deal with France to pay an undeclared amount of back-dated tax, which French media estimated at around 500 million euros (£441 million).

Apple’s French division confirmed the tax payment agreement, but did not disclose how much it had agreed to pay.

“As a multinational company, Apple is regularly audited by fiscal authorities around the world,” Apple France said in a statement.

“The French tax administration recently concluded a multi-year audit on the company’s French accounts, and those details will be published in our public accounts,” it said.
French business magazine L’Express/L’Expansion, which reported the tax payment figure, said the deal was reached in December after several months of negotiations between tax authorities and the company.

France is pushing for a European Union-wide tax on the world’s top digital and software companies such as Google, owned by Alphabet Inc, Amazon , Facebook and Apple that use complex intra-group arrangements to pay low single-digit tax rates on profits derived from European customers. The arrangements are not illegal.

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I cut Apple out of my life. It was devastating • Gizmodo

Kashmir Hill, continuing her series of blocking the big tech giants from her life in order; she’s given up her iPhone and has got a Nokia featurephone:

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Typing on the device is excruciating. It has 15 buttons: 0-9, *, #, left, right, and enter. If you want to type “c”, you have to press 1 three times. (Or you can turn on T9 predictive text, which I do, so that I can press 1-1-8 and have it guess that I mean “act,” “cat,” “bat,” or “abu,” in that order.)

It is basic as hell, but incredibly you can access the internet on it, very slowly, via a browser from Opera.

As I leave T-Mobile, I send my husband, Trevor, a text; his is the only number I have memorized, and the new phone doesn’t have my contacts. “Hello from my new phone” is exhausting to compose, and I have to stand still while I write the message. I can’t believe people actually wanted to text rather than call when texting was this hard to do.

Trevor doesn’t text me back. Rude.

I try to explore the phone while walking home, but it’s so hard to do without a touch screen that I almost turn my ankle twice on the sidewalk before I give up.

When I get home, I find out why I haven’t gotten a text from Trevor: There are two iMessages from him on the notification screen of my (now banned) iPhone. Apple still has iMessaging turned on for me and is automatically routing text messages from people with iPhones to its own messaging service.

Apple still has iMessaging turned on for me and is automatically routing text messages from people with iPhones to its own messaging service.

Still using my damn MacBook Air, I Google “how to turn off iMessaging.” I turn it off, but it causes problems for the rest of the experiment; some people’s texts just don’t get to me, particularly if they are sent to group threads in which all the people have iPhones except me. It’s harder to get out of Apple’s ecosystem than Google’s.

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The rest of the series is here. Two more weeks to go.
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Facebook paid people $20 monthly for access to their digital activity. Why did they sign up? • Slate

Shannon Palus:

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One user, who identified themselves as 32 years old and reported that they had netted $30 in gift cards with the app, told me via email, “I’m not too worried about that data because I’m almost certain these companies collect that stuff anyway,” and that, “Google and Amazon know a lot already.” The user explained they do a lot of little paid tasks to earn money, like downloading apps or completing surveys. It isn’t significant, they said, but acts as a little bonus to their household income, which they told me is $60,000 a year. “Lately most of my earnings have gone to simple things (groceries, MetroCards, date night),” they wrote.

Others on Reddit expressed similar sentiments. “I have been enjoying the small amount of money. It helps me buy frivolous things like new games which I may not get as often,” wrote another user, who said they were perplexed as to why reporters like me were “asking about why I would give up so much data.” They wrote they thought the program was upfront in “clearly stat[ing] they farm data for money.” (Perhaps fittingly, when I messaged this person for more information, they offered to answer for $25—a deal which journalistic ethics compelled me to decline.)

Not everyone seemed as unquestioningly enthusiastic about the trade. One user, who said they were 40 (which put them over the age that Facebook was recruiting for), posted that the VPN was “quite obviously some shady shit,” and said they had purposefully installed it on an old junk phone they didn’t use anymore.

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Their bigger worry was that the program would get shut down. And guess what!
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Apple restores Google’s internal iOS apps after certificate misuse punishment • TechCrunch

Just for completeness. It did the same for Facebook after a short period in the sin bin.
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Marshmello just played a live set to 10m people in video game Fortnite – and that wasn’t even the most interesting move he made this weekend • Music Business Worldwide

Tim Ingham:

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We’ve been intrigued by the fact that Tencent – yes, that Tencent – acquired 40% of Fortnite maker Epic Games for a mere $330m in 2013. And we’ve marveled at the game’s huge audience, which stood at a total of over 200m players in November last year… roughly the same volume as Spotify’s monthly active user count at the close of 2018.

Now, following on from loose tie-ins with the likes of Drake and record label Astralwerks (via Twitch star Ninja), Fortnite has formed yet another significant link to the music industry.

Yesterday (February 2), DJ star Marshmello played an exclusive in-game concert in Fornite at 2pm ET. Fortnite players could watch the virtual show for free, so long as they made sure their avatar was available at the concert’s location (Pleasant Park).

The numbers are now coming in on the event’s audience, and they’re mighty impressive: according to reliable sources, over 10 million concurrent users witnessed Marshmello’s virtual concert. These people’s in-game avatars were all able to hit the virtual dancefloor in front of Marshmello’s own avatar and show off their moves.

Fans now can, and no doubt will, buy official Marshmello X Fortnite merch – with a hooded sweatshirt setting you back no less than $55.

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Second Life did it first, but Fortnite has probably done it best.
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EU orders recall of children’s smartwatch over severe privacy concerns • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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For the first time, EU authorities have announced plans to recall a product from the European market because of a data privacy issue.

The product is Safe-KID-One, a children’s smartwatch produced by German electronics vendor ENOX.

According to the company’s website, the watch comes with a trove of features, such as a built-in GPS tracker, built-in microphone and speaker, a calling and SMS text function, and a companion Android mobile app that parents can use to keep track and contact their children.

The product is what most parents regularly look in a modern smartwatch but in a RAPEX (Rapid Alert System for Non-Food Products) alert published last week and spotted by Dutch news site Tweakers, European authorities ordered a mass recall of all smartwatches from end users citing severe privacy lapses.

“The mobile application accompanying the watch has unencrypted communications with its backend server and the server enables unauthenticated access to data,” said authorities in the RAPEX alert. “As a consequence, the data such as location history, phone numbers, serial number can easily be retrieved and changed.”

On top of this, authorities also said that “a malicious user can send commands to any watch making it call another number of his choosing, can communicate with the child wearing the device or locate the child through GPS.”

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But it gets worse: the Android app is owned not by Enox, but by a Chinese developer, so the data loops through Chinese servers.
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Web design test • Can’t Unsee

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Select the design that is most correct

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Very simple at first, then harder: pick which of two onscreen designs (dialog boxes, profile pictures, auction site listings) better conforms to good web design rules. Engaging.
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Apple Watch ‘fall detection’ feature credited with saving man’s life • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

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According to a report from NRK, a 67-year old from Norway named Toralv Østvang credits his Apple Watch Series 4 with saving his life. The story is that Østvang experienced a serious fall in his bathroom whereupon his Apple Watch automatically contacted rescue personnel. Recall, the Apple Watch, upon detecting a fall, will send a message to local emergency services — along with information regarding your location —  if it detects that a user has been immobile for a full minute following a fall.

About a half hour after the fall, rescue workers arrived on the scene and found Østvang lying on his bathroom floor, unconscious and bloody. In the midst of the fall, Østvang also sustained three fractures to his face.

The fall detection feature on the Apple Watch is obviously geared towards older folks and, as a result, is off by default unless a user is 65 or older.

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All else it needs is to contact the news agencies and you’ve got the perfect self-marketing device. As with the stories about the Watch identifying unusual heart activity and ECG patterns, this is technology that you’re only indifferent to if you’re indifferent to living – which makes the sale just that bit easier.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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5 thoughts on “Start Up No.997: the workforce split, MPs’ Twitter mistake, Apple’s tax payback, Fortnite’s big show, and more

  1. re. cutting Apple…

    What’s interesting is the different difficulties in getting rid of Apple or Google.

    Apple: social pressure and purposefully locked-in tools (iMessage and iFace are the only non-crossplatform comms apps).
    Google: infrastructure incl. stuff you’d never suspect they have their fingers in.

    Also, the author seems biased: suddenly when reaching the no-Apple stage, instead of getting rid of Apple she decides to get rid of *all* big players instead of just Apple, making the task a couple orders of magnitude harder than before. Switching to Windows/ChromeOS and Android would have been much easier than switching to a marginal Linux OEM + an antique dumbphone.

    And I know stupid is the new relatable, but forgetting one’s password as a major topic in a platforms discussion… I’m split about that. On the one hand it happens all the time, on the other hand it’s a platform-neutral issue, I run into it on all OSes, apps, services…

      • I read it. She also explains why she went for some weird laptop.

        It doesn’t make it right or logical. I can explain a bunch of stuff I did that was to wrong and/or silly.

        One would assume that when reporting on how hard it is to remove one GAFA, the most basic requirement for comparison is to remove just one at a time, and to go for the consensually best alternative.

        To suddenly remove all of them, go for consensually worst alternatives, and headline “I cut Apple out of my life. It was devastating” is a) fore-ordained 2- misleading, she also cut MS, Google…

        Frankly my first reaction was a throwback to when my 8yo nephew wasn’t allowed to bring his 20 transformers to he last days of school, so he went into a hissy fit and took none, taken them out one by one “then I’m not taking that one either., and not that one…”

  2. Re. the Fortnite “concert,” I’m surprised that nobody has really picked up on the fact that as soon as it was over, players were able to revert to shooting each other up! Music concert + guns = a toxic look, if you ask me. Shocking, in fact.

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