Start Up No.998: bad news on global warming, why Spotify wants podcasts, EU roaming charges loom, hacking your airline ticket, and more


A melting glacier: indicative of global warming. It’s getting worse. CC-licensed photo by Len Radin on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not assigned any particular place in hell. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

It’s official: 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record • The New York Times

John Schwartz and Nadja Popovich:

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NASA scientists announced Wednesday that the Earth’s average surface temperature in 2018 was the fourth highest in nearly 140 years of record-keeping and a continuation of an unmistakable warming trend.

The data means that the five warmest years in recorded history have been the last five, and that 18 of the 19 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. The quickly rising temperatures over the past two decades cap a much longer warming trend documented by researchers and correspond with the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human activity.

“We’re no longer talking about a situation where global warming is something in the future,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the NASA group that conducted the analysis. “It’s here. It’s now.”

While this planet has seen hotter days in prehistoric times, and colder ones in the modern era, what sets recent warming apart in the sweep of geologic time is the relative suddenness of the rise in temperatures and its clear correlation with increasing levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane produced by human activity over the same period.

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The other day I was reading a depressing article about plastics being all through the marine food chain, and thought: this is the dinosaurs’ revenge. They got turned into oil, and now we burn them and wreck our ecosystem. A slow-motion meteor.
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A hole opens up under Antarctic glacier — big enough to fit two-thirds of Manhattan

Denise Chow:

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The discovery is described in a paper published Jan. 30 in the journal Science Advances. The researchers expected to see significant loss of ice, but the scale of the void came as a shock.

“The size of the cavity is surprising, and as it melts, it’s causing the glacier to retreat,” said Pietro Milillo, a radar scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the paper’s lead author. He said the ice shelf encompassing the Florida-sized glacier is retreating at a rate in excess of 650 feet per year, and that most of the melting that led to the void occurred during the past three years.


Sinking areas at Thwaites Glacier are shown here in red and rising areas in blue. The growing cavity (red mass, center) caused the greatest sinking. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Previous research showed that meltwater from Thwaites accounts for about 4% of the global sea level rise, said Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, who was not involved with the new study.

If the loss of ice becomes so severe that the glacier collapses — something computer models predict could happen in 50 to 100 years — sea levels would rise by two feet. That’s enough to inundate coastal cities across the globe.

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Worth declaring a state of emergency for the crisis on the US’s south-eastern sea border?
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Instacart changes tip policy after worker backlash • CNN

Sara Ashley O’Brien:

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After mounting criticism from workers over its payment practices, Instacart has agreed to make some changes.

In a blog post on Wednesday, CEO Apoorva Mehta said the on-demand grocery delivery startup will no longer decrease the amount it contributes to worker base pay based on the size of their tips. He also said the company will reimburse workers who have been impacted by that practice.

“While our intention was to increase the guaranteed payment for small orders, we understand that the inclusion of tips as a part of this guarantee was misguided. We apologize for taking this approach,” said Mehta.

Instacart, along with rival DoorDash, has been under fire in recent weeks from workers who say the tips added by customers on orders are being used to subsidize a minimum pay rate, instead of being used as bonuses.

«

Meet the new boss class, same as the old boss class.
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Spotify is spending up to $500m on podcast startups including Gimlet, Anchor • Recode

Peter Kafka:

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Not only has Spotify acquired Gimlet Media, a podcast producer and network, for around $230m — a deal Recode told you about last week — but it has also bought Anchor, a startup that makes it easier for people to record and distribute their own podcasts.

The company says it isn’t done — it says it has other podcast acquisitions in mind and that it expects to spend up to $500m on deals this year. Reminder: with these deals, Spotify is now fully in the content creation business, a move it has yet to make with music.

In a blog post up this morning, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek says he didn’t plan on getting into podcasting when he founded the company 11 years ago, but he’s in it now. He says Spotify is now the world’s second-biggest podcast platform (behind Apple), and that podcast listening will eventually make up 20% of Spotify’s usage.

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Here’s why. Spotify struggles to be profitable because when playing licensed music, it has to pay a fixed amount per track. Two hours of music listening costs it twice as much, and the subscriber has only paid once. For ad-funded listening, Spotify can play twice as many ads, but they don’t monetise as well as a subscription.

However: if someone listens to one hour, two hours of podcast – there’s no payout. The more time people spend listening to podcasts instead of music, the better Spotify’s margins get. Ideally, people would spend 100% of their time listening to lovely non-royalty-bearing podcasts. So buying podcast companies is an initially expensive method of aligning yourself with “listening” while improving your profitability, long-term.
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Brits will face immediate return of mobile phone roaming charges under No-Deal Brexit, government reveals • HuffPost UK

Paul Waugh:

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A little-noticed government regulation laid before parliament on Tuesday confirms that the UK will revoke the current legislation that allows holidaymakers and business people to use their smartphones in the EU at no extra cost.

The draft ‘statutory instrument’, which has been tabled as part of a raft of no-deal preparations, means that from March 29 phone users will be liable for surcharges when they travel on the continent.

In a note accompanying the secondary legislation – the Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 – government admits that consumer groups lobbied hard for a new scheme to maintain the current arrangements.

But “after careful consideration, the government decided not to adopt this proposal”, it states.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) justified its stance by saying that if the current system continued after Brexit, UK phone firms would face “increased costs” from EU carriers that they might then pass on to customers.

«

For American readers: charges for UK visitors to the continent used to be a ripoff. Then the EU forced carriers to zero-rate them across the EU. Now the UK’s going to repeal it (probably).
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Advancing research on fake audio detection • Google Blog

Daisy STanton is a software engineer at Google AI:

»

we’re keenly aware of the risks this [speech generation] technology can pose if used with the intent to cause harm. Malicious actors may synthesize speech to try to fool voice authentication systems, or they may create forged audio recordings to defame public figures. Perhaps equally concerning, public awareness of “deep fakes” (audio or video clips generated by deep learning models) can be exploited to manipulate trust in media: as it becomes harder to distinguish real from tampered content, bad actors can more credibly claim that authentic data is fake.

We’re taking action. When we launched the Google News Initiative last March, we committed to releasing datasets that would help advance state-of-the-art research on fake audio detection.  Today, we’re delivering on that promise: Google AI and Google News Initiative have partnered to create a body of synthetic speech containing thousands of phrases spoken by our deep learning TTS models. These phrases are drawn from English newspaper articles, and are spoken by 68 synthetic “voices” covering a variety of regional accents.  

We’re making this dataset available to all participants in the independent, externally-run 2019 ASVspoof challenge. This open challenge invites researchers all over the globe to submit countermeasures against fake (or “spoofed”) speech, with the goal of making automatic speaker verification (ASV) systems more secure. By training models on both real and computer-generated speech, ASVspoof participants can develop systems that learn to distinguish between the two. The results will be announced in September at the 2019 Interspeech conference in Graz, Austria.

«

Another arms race, or maybe speech (voice?) race.
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Inside Wisconsin’s disastrous $4.5bn deal with Foxconn • Bloomberg

Austin Carr:

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[Foxconn chief Terry] Gou deputized his special assistant, Woo, and another lieutenant, Alan Yeung, Foxconn’s director of US strategic initiatives, to handle the details. They aggressively pursued cash subsidies, calling and texting at all hours. At one point, according to state records released to the public, Woo texted Neitzel at 1:17 a.m., “Give us 200m upfront then it is a done deal.” (Neitzel declined.)

As a bidding war heated up among a handful of states, including Michigan and Ohio, Wisconsin upped its offer. Foxconn demanded subsidies that would make US operations as cheap as in China, and Hogan says Foxconn estimated a 30% cost difference. He acknowledges the subsidy numbers grew “staggering” but says Foxconn won’t get those incentives without delivering the promised numbers of jobs.

Wisconsin’s final bid, written on a single piece of paper, offered as much as $150m in sales tax exemptions and $2.9bn in refundable tax credits on the condition that Foxconn meet certain hiring and capital investment thresholds. Other public costs, including $764m in local incentives from Mount Pleasant and its home county of Racine, made up the other third of the package. When the team slid the paper to Woo in July, Hogan recalls, he folded it up and said, “Terry wants to do business with Governor Walker.”

Even before Foxconn signed the contract in November 2017, Walker’s win began to morph into a political liability. As details of the mostly closed-door negotiations came to light, the narrative soured. At a time when Trump was stoking economic nationalism and ripping on companies that shipped jobs to China, many saw the subsidies as a desperate giveaway to a foreign company with close ties to Beijing…

…“There’s no way this will ever pay itself off,” says Tim Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. He says Foxconn’s incentives are more than 10 times greater than typical government aid packages of its stripe.

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E-ticketing system exposes airline passengers’ personal information via email • Cyberscoop

Jeff Stone:

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At least eight airlines, including Southwest, use e-ticketing systems that could allow hackers to access sensitive information about travelers merely by intercepting emails, according to research published Wednesday by the mobile security company Wandera.

The systems fail to secure customers’ personally identifiable information, including names, boarding passes, passport numbers and flight numbers, Wandera said.

The email vulnerabilities still exist, Wandera found, even though researchers notified affected companies weeks ago, and despite growing corporate awareness about the risks associated with sacrificing security for convenience.

The weakness is a check-in link that is emailed to customers, Wandera researchers found. Customer information is embedded in the links, allowing travelers to travel from their email to a website where they check in for a flight without needing to enter their username and password. However the links are unencrypted and re-usable, presenting a tempting target for hackers, according to Michael Covington, vice president of product at Wandera.

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“Weeks” isn’t enough time to change a system that will be deeply embedded, and airlines aren’t known for having the fastest-moving approach to changing their systems. I’m sure some readers would have more knowledge of this.
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Apple paid its retail head $170M to transform its stores. Did she do it? • Euronews

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Apple’s sleek, minimalist, glass-enshrined stores have long been holy places for Apple diehards, and expanded to 506 retail locations on five continents during Ahrendt’s tenure.

As the former chief executive of Burberry, Ahrendts was expected to be the face of Apple, but instead quietly worked in the background, carefully choosing her media appearances and staying out of the spotlight most of the time at the company’s semi-annual press events.

Ahrendts made her first on-stage appearance at Apple’s annual iPhone event in September 2017, where she called retail Apple’s “largest product” and shared how she envisioned the stores becoming “town squares” with plenty of green space, where people come together to hang out, learn new skills and, oh, buy the new $1,000 iPhone.

In an effort to get people to think of Apple products as part of a lifestyle, Ahrendts also spearheaded free “Today at Apple” courses, which launched in 2017. Apple continues to launch new sessions, including coding classes, software lessons and walking tours, where people can learn how to use the Apple Watch for fitness or how to shoot cinematic photos. Apple said it has held more than 18,000 free sessions since the launch and has reached millions of people.

During her tenure, Ahrendts also introduced more practical shopping functions that customers have come to expect from retailers, including the option to buy online and pick up in-store; and text message alerts, so people don’t have to linger waiting for an appointment at the Genius Bar.

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Hm. The stores were already well-liked (despite former Dixons chief John Browett’s brief, unlamented, efforts). It’s really hard to get any feel for what impact Ahrendts had. If anything, the stores now feel too sparse to me when I look inside them: where is the excitement about new products? The big excited posters? The tables crammed with other extras to buy? They feel more like service centres than shopping destinations, and I don’t think that’s positive.

Her departure feels like she didn’t think she could make further impact. I couldn’t find any better analysis; nobody with contacts at this level will share the insights.
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Hands up who reuses the same password everywhere, even with your Nest. Keep your hand up if you like being spied on by hackers • The Register

Kieren McCarthy:

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Nest has urged its customers to not reuse passwords between their smart home gizmos and other websites and services.

This comes after miscreants were spotted taking usernames and passwords leaked or stolen from other websites, and using them to attempt to log into Nest accounts and hijack the internet-connected home gadgets, a type of attack known as credential stuffing.

Rishi Chandra, general manager of the Google-owned smart home outfit, sent an email to all Nest customers on Wednesday noting that the manufacturer had “heard from people experiencing issues with their Nest devices” before running through some security tips to secure their accounts…

…according to Nest, the likelihood is that dirtbags are trying out usernames and passwords dumped online from unrelated website security breaches, to access Nest accounts where credentials have been reused.

“Even though Nest was not breached, customers may be vulnerable because their email addresses and passwords are freely available on the internet,” Chandra’s email warned. “If a website is compromised, it’s possible for someone to gain access to user email addresses and passwords, and from there, gain access to any accounts that use the same login credentials.”

Nest claims to proactively look out for passwords being spilled online, “and when compromised accounts are found, we alert you and temporarily disable access. We also prevent the use of passwords that appear on known compromised lists.”

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As we have said before, Nest allows two-factor authentication, though presently only via SMS (which is weaker than TOTP – timed one-time password – systems such as Authy or Google Authenticator). Odd that a company which is part of Google shouldn’t have TOTP.
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Can Big Tech save its soul? • UnHerd

I wrote a piece over at Unherd:

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As corporate mottos go, “Don’t be evil” is hard to beat. If your company’s ambitions are to change the world, having those little three words in the back of every employee’s mind is sure to lead to good outcomes – isn’t it? That’s why Google adopted it after a meeting about corporate values in 2000 or 2001 (the history is hazy), where it was suggested by Paul Buchheit, who also went on to create Gmail. “Don’t be evil!” Seriously, how hard can that be to follow?

Yet, as the novelist Stephen King points out, nobody considers themselves the “bad guy”. People start with good intentions and then, somehow, bad things happen. That’s what has happened to the lofty goals of the big Silicon Valley companies. They started with a raw-ingredient mix of idealism, social networks, mobile phones and software. And we cooked it into a stew of partisanship, hate, abuse and even murder.

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Of course, you may well ask whether Big Tech had a soul in the first place.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up No.998: bad news on global warming, why Spotify wants podcasts, EU roaming charges loom, hacking your airline ticket, and more

  1. Regarding a slow moving meteor. In popular mythology the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs instantly. In fact (assuming I remember my history correctly), it was a much longer process last a few years, so from one perspective, its pretty similar to the timescale we’re looking at now (50-100 years).

    The other aspect with Ahrendts is that she talks about missing her kids in London, and as the article points out, she was paid pretty well. So from all accounts she wasn’t fired, but decided to move on. Tim Cook’s tweet about her leaving (and welcoming her replacement) is something he hasn’t done before for those who were let go, so it looks like they are parting amicably (John Lewis seems to be the closest to Apple in surviving with retail stores, and it all comes down to customer service).

  2. This is why discussion about OS updates between Androiders and iPhoners are mostly a “dialogue of the deaf” as we French say: https://www.thurrott.com/mobile/ios/199207/apple-releases-ios-patch-to-fix-major-facetime-privacy-bug?utm_source=feedly&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=apple-releases-ios-patch-to-fix-major-facetime-privacy-bug

    An OS update ? To fix one app’s bug ? Reminds me of those “Reformat hard drive, reinstall Windows” tech support jokes.On the Android side, it is https://www.slashgear.com/google-duo-now-available-worldwide-on-play-store-19452610/ . Boom, PlayStore download, install and updates. Modularity, people !

    PS I know iOS does incremental/differential updates, they’re still OS updates, not app updates. I’m not even saying it’s a Bad Thing: that way “OS version” means all 1st-party apps are on the same page too. What I’m saying is that iPhoners assume OS updates mean the same thing for Androiders. They don’t, and Androiders can have the latest apps + features on very out-of-date OSes (5.0 is dandy for anything, 4.4 and 4.1 start tingle a bit), which takes a lot of the sting out of running an ancient version.

    • “An OS update ? To fix one app’s bug ?”

      Apple relies on system-wide frameworks for iOS more than Android seems to. In that sense the OS is more monolithic, so it seems that yes, updating FaceTime and its associated frameworks throughout the OS does require an OS-level update. Google Play updates are the same thing: updates of frameworks that the associated apps rely on. A discussion to be had perhaps about whether Apple should force those updates, as Google does.

  3. Shooting oneself in the foot, media edition:”Google experiment finds 45% traffic decline to news sites with search results without snippets, in a moderate version of what is proposed in EU’s Article 11″ https://www.blog.google/around-the-globe/google-europe/now-time-fix-eu-copyright-directive/

    Not said is whether the whole page was truncated snippets, or if truncated snippets were intermingled with full ones, and if the overall volume of clicks in this second case also dived, or moved to full snippets. So maybe, just PR.

    Plus anyway, Google could probably pay a few tens of millions to news outfits to get rights to full snippets, if not full articles.

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