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.

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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:

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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.

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“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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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


Thispersondoesnotexist.com is face-generating AI at its creepiest • The Next Web

Tristan Greene:

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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 “thispersondoesnotexist.com” 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.

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


Amazon cancels HQ2 plans in New York City • WSJ

Laura Stevens, Jimmy Vielkind and Katie Honan:

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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.”

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link to this extract


Ad IDs behaving badly • The Appcensus Blog

Serge Egelman:

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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…

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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

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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.

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And it would have worked if it hadn’t been for you interfering kids with your TRANSISTOR RADIOS.
link to this extract


Chinese smartphone vendors take a record 32% market share in Europe in 2018 • Canalys

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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.

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China, Europe, the US: all shrinking.
link to this extract


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:

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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.

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link to this extract


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

Esmé Deprez:

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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.

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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.
link to this extract


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.

2 thoughts on “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

  1. re. EU smartphones. The other point made in Canalys’ report is that the high end is faring worse than the low/mid-range, which seems logical:
    – the midrange has become Good Enough for most, about 2-3 yrs ago with the Honor and Redmi brands. We’re still seeing the impact of that, with ex-high-end customers switching downmarket.
    – at this point, over 1/3 the phone purchases around me are due to breakage (I think I read somewhere the rate for that is 15%/yr), so treating a phone as “disposable”, not “investment” makes sense for most.
    – related but different, fixing a midranger is a lot cheaper, and can be DIYed. We recently did it for a Redmi Note screen, and the battery on my old Mi Max. $20 each time, and fussy but not inhuman (a “read all steps through before starting and take a breather after each step” thing, not a “call you expert friend” thing. I had a totally non-nerd friend do his by hammering on: “walkthrough, slow, steady, no shortcuts”.)
    – if your $150 phone gets a broken screen, you either do the $20 repair or get a new phone. I see a lot more iPhones with broken screens than Redmis.
    – in most EU countries, subsidized handsets are disappearing, hurting the high end.

  2. re. Solar panels. The US version of a Free Market is weird. I’m still not over “fees” being tacked on to prices w/o being mentioned in the advertised price. That financial montage for solar is in the same vein.
    The closest I can come up with for France was pre-billed Life Insurance, for which the first few payments were all seller’s commission and didn’t accrue to the capital at all. I think it’s outlawed now.
    I’d be totally paranoid as a consumer / debtor in the US. There’s no referee !

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