Start Up No.1,044: why the US is charging Assange, iTunes to split?, EU v Internet Archive, Netflix’s DVD customers, PC market shrinks further, and more


Plagiarism is becoming a problem on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited – and authors are getting angry. CC-licensed photo by Jimmy Jim Jim Shabadoo on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Uber’s S-1 can wait. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Plagiarism, ‘book-stuffing’, clickfarms … the rotten side of self-publishing • The Guardian

Alison Flood with a fascinating look at all the scams around Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited offering:

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Ghostwriting isn’t anything new: big-time authors including James Patterson have credited multiple co-writers for years, while ghosts carried on series for VC Andrews, and franchises such as Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew, for years after their original authors moved on. But it has boomed in recent years: searching on Fiverr, the website [alleged romance novel plagiarist Cristiane] Serruya claimed she had used, there were more than 80 authors offering to ghostwrite romance novels for minuscule amounts: £165 for 20,000 words, another £60 for 30,000 words of erotica. Sixty-nine more jobs were available on freelance site Upwork, where one employer was looking for ghostwriters to produce stories “in the historical mail order bride romance genre” ($2,300 for 23,000 words). Another was offering $170 for 18,000 words of Amish romance, while on KBoards, which is “devoted to all things Kindle”, a writer was offering buyers “10 Full-Length 50K Novels to Publish As Your Own – $10,000”. As [novelist and scourge of plagiarists Nora] Roberts wrote: “This culture, this ugly underbelly of legitimate self-publishing is all about content. More, more, more, fast, fast, fast.”

Shiloh Walker was alerted to this practice when she saw readers working to identify the lifted passages in Serruya’s books on Twitter. “There’s a running joke in romance-land about how we might as well play plagiarism bingo or have a drinking game every time a plagiarism scandal pops up, because they always follow a pattern,” she says. “First, they deny it. ‘I didn’t. I would never.’ Then they make excuses. ‘My cat died, my mom has the flu.’ Then they disappear. Cris followed this pattern exactly, but she used a new excuse: ‘My ghostwriter did it.’”

That’s when Walker wanted to, in her words, “call bullshit”: “Some people thought ghostwriters were part of the problem and that isn’t the case. There are definitely those who ghostwrite for people who use predatory practices, but legit, professional ghostwriters aren’t the problem.”

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Neatly demonstrating that the price of content has fallen almost to zero – but the amount you can earn from it hasn’t, if you find the correct niche.
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US essay mill firm targets new students through WhatsApp • The Guardian

Iftikhaar Aziz and Sarah Marsh:

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A US firm is targeting first-year university students by infiltrating their private WhatsApp groups and offering to write essays for £7 a page, the Guardian can reveal.

The firm and a series of anonymous individuals are offering made-to-order essays and have been hijacking new students’ group chats at at least five universities, including four prestigious Russell Group institutions.

The messages, posted on accommodation and course group chats created to help freshers settle into university life, boast that students can “pay after delivery”.

Academics said the practice is extremely concerning. One professor called the tactics employed by essay mills to market to students “abhorrent”.

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More cheap content through the expansion of access to the internet. “Essay mills” are putting the normal structures of university courses under serious strain.
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macOS 10.15 to include standalone media apps, splitting iTunes • 9to5Mac

Guilherme Rambo:

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Fellow developer Steve Troughton-Smith recently expressed confidence about some evidence found indicating that Apple is working on new Music, Podcasts, and perhaps Books apps for macOS, to join the new TV app.

I’ve been able to independently confirm that this is true. On top of that, I’ve been able to confirm with sources familiar with the development of the next major version of macOS – likely 10.15 – that the system will include standalone Music, Podcasts, and TV apps, but it will also include a major redesign of the Books app. We also got an exclusive look at the icons for the new Podcasts and TV apps on macOS.

The new Books app will have a sidebar similar to the News app on the Mac, it will also feature a narrower title bar with different tabs for the Library, Book Store, and Audiobook Store. On the library tab, the sidebar will list the user’s Books, Audiobooks, PDFs and other collections, including custom ones.

The new Music, Podcasts, and TV apps will be made using Marzipan, Apple’s new technology designed to facilitate the porting of iPad apps to the Mac without too many code changes. It’s not clear whether the redesigned Apple Books app will also be made using the technology, but given that the redesign came to iOS first and its usage for the other apps, it’s likely that this new Books app will also be using UIKit.

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But there will still be iTunes – because people need a way to back up their phone to their computer. Not everyone uses iCloud. Interesting that both Rambo and Troughton-Smith, highly experienced third-party developers, have figured this out but don’t want to say how. It’s too soon to be hidden in beta software.
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EU tells Internet Archive that much of its site is ‘terrorist content’ • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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We’ve been trying to explain for the past few months just how absolutely insane the new EU Terrorist Content Regulation will be for the internet. Among many other bad provisions, the big one is that it would require content removal within one hour as long as any “competent authority” within the EU sends a notice of content being designated as “terrorist” content. The law is set for a vote in the EU Parliament just next week.

And as if they were attempting to show just how absolutely insane the law would be for the internet, multiple European agencies (we can debate if they’re “competent”) decided to send over 500 totally bogus takedown demands to the Internet Archive last week, claiming it was hosting terrorist propaganda content:

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In the past week, the Internet Archive has received a series of email notices from Europol’s European Union Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) falsely identifying hundreds of URLs on archive.org as “terrorist propaganda”. At least one of these mistaken URLs was also identified as terrorist content in a separate take down notice from the French government’s L’Office Central de Lutte contre la Criminalité liée aux Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication (OCLCTIC).

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And just in case you think that maybe the requests are somehow legit, they are so obviously bogus that anyone with a browser would know they are bogus.

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Wasn’t aware of this proposed legislation. Sounds wildly overreaching.
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Why 2.7 million Americans still get Netflix DVDs in the mail • CNN

Neil Monahan and Brandon Griggs:

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Remember when Netflix used to be a DVD-by-mail company? Well, for 2.7 million subscribers in the US, it still is.

The familiar red envelopes have been arriving in customers’ mailboxes since 1998 and helped earn the company a healthy $212m profit last year.

Why are so many people still using this old-school service in the age of streaming? There are a number of reasons. Streaming Netflix video requires a lot of bandwidth – so much so that Netflix consumes 15% of all US internet bandwidth, according to a 2018 industry report.

But many rural areas of the country remain without broadband access. The Federal Communications Commission estimates 24 million Americans fall on the wrong side of this digital divide.

The US Postal Service, however, can reach every ZIP code with those red envelopes. One such customer is Dana Palmateer, who lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “Streaming movies was a no-go, so I just went with the disc service that Netflix offers,” she says. “As all of us are doing it in these parts.”

But Netflix also has plenty of DVD customers in urban areas who prefer the service for its convenience and selection of movies, spokeswoman Annie Jung says.

“People assume that our customers must either be super seniors or folks that live in the boonies with no internet access,” she says. “Actually, our biggest hot spots are the coasts, like the Bay Area and New York.”

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Spotify, the decline of playlists and the rise of podcasts • Music Industry Blog

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Two of Spotify’s most significant moves have been playlist curation and podcasts. Spotify is moving into the second major phase of its existence. Phase 1 was about establishing itself as a streaming music powerhouse, Phase 2 is about what it becomes next, extending beyond the streaming music beachhead. This is the typical trajectory of tech companies, establishing themselves in their core competencies and then expanding. This can either be a dramatic expansion – e.g. Amazon moving from eCommerce into video and music – or a more focused value-chain extension – e.g. Netflix moving from simply streaming other’s shows to making its own. For Spotify, playlists were a Phase 1 strategy and podcasts are very much part of Phase 2.

Podcasts may just have come in the nick of time for Spotify because curated playlists remain much more about potential than they do reality. Just 15% of streaming consumers listen to curated playlists. In fact, of all the key streaming feature activities, curated playlists come lowest. Curated playlists are clearly not to streaming music what binge watching is to streaming video. Instead streaming activity is fragmented across multiple features and just 10% of streaming consumers regularly do all four of the activities listed in the chart above…

…Enter stage left podcasts. With its acquisitions of Gimlet, Anchor and Parcast, Spotify is betting big on podcasts. Already, more streaming users (18%) listen to podcasts than curated playlists while overall consumer podcast penetration is 11%. In Sweden – the early adopter market that gives us a view of where other markets are heading – podcast penetration is 19%, rising to 28% among streamers.

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December 2011: US Army piles on evidence in final arguments in WikiLeaks hearing • WIRED

Kim Zetter, writing in 2011, when Chelsea Manning was still identified as a male US recruit accused of leaking secrets:

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In another chat, dated March 8, 2010, Manning asked “Nathaniel Frank,” believed to be [Wikileaks founder Julian] Assange, about help in cracking the main password on his classified SIPRnet computer so that he could log on to it anonymously. He asked “Frank” if he had experience cracking IM NT hashes (presumably it’s a mistype and he meant NTLM for the Microsoft NT LAN Manager). “Frank” replied yes, that they had “rainbow tables” for doing that. Manning then sent him what looked like a hash.

The WikiLeaks twitter feed noted the new allegation on Thursday, without confirming or denying the password-cracking charge.

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This is almost surely the “computer-related” US charges on which Assange was re-arrested in Britain after being forced out of the Ecuadorean embassy, where he had been for nearly 2,500 days. In general, Wikileaks is a publisher, not a hacker – but in this case, if the US can link “Nathaniel Frank” to Assange, there’s a clear incitement to hack.
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Serious flaws leave WPA3 vulnerable to hacks that steal Wi-Fi passwords • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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the current WPA2 version (in use since the mid 2000s) has suffered a crippling design flaw that has been known for more than a decade: the four-way handshake—a cryptographic process WPA2 uses to validate computers, phones, and tablets to an access point and vice versa—contains a hash of the network password. Anyone within range of a device connecting to the network can record this handshake. Short passwords or those that aren’t random are then trivial to crack in a matter of seconds…

…A research paper titled Dragonblood: A Security Analysis of WPA3’s SAE Handshake disclosed several vulnerabilities in WPA3 that open users to many of the same attacks that threatened WPA2 users. The researchers warned that some of the flaws are likely to persist for years, particularly in lower-cost devices. They also criticized the WPA3 specification as a whole and the process that led to its formalization by the Wi-Fi Alliance industry group.

“In light of our presented attacks, we believe that WPA3 does not meet the standards of a modern security protocol,” authors Mathy Vanhoef of New York University, Abu Dhabi, and Eyal Ronen of Tel Aviv University and KU Leuven wrote. “Moreover, we believe that our attacks could have been avoided if the Wi-Fi Alliance created the WPA3 certification in a more open manner.”

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Amazing: the Wi-Fi Alliance has screwed the pooch on the security of Wi-Fi since before Wi-Fi was a standard: as I wrote in my book, a security researcher pointed out that WEP (the first Wi-Fi security method) was trivial to crack before it was standardised. Some people just don’t learn.
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[By] Retiring as a judge, Trump’s sister ends court inquiry into her role in tax dodges • The New York Times

Russ Buettner and Susanne Craig:

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President Trump’s older sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, has retired as a federal appellate judge, ending an investigation into whether she violated judicial conduct rules by participating in fraudulent tax schemes with her siblings.

The court inquiry stemmed from complaints filed last October, after an investigation by The New York Times found that the Trumps had engaged in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud, that greatly increased the inherited wealth of Mr. Trump and his siblings. Judge Barry not only benefited financially from most of those tax schemes, The Times found; she was also in a position to influence the actions taken by her family.

Judge Barry, now 82, has not heard cases in more than two years but was still listed as an inactive senior judge, one step short of full retirement. In a letter dated Feb. 1, a court official notified the four individuals who had filed the complaints that the investigation was “receiving the full attention” of a judicial conduct council. Ten days later, Judge Barry filed her retirement papers.

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By now you’re losing count of the Trump scandals, aren’t you, but don’t worry – the prosecutors in the state of New York are keeping tabs. (Also: I’d never known Trump had a sister. Only knew about his brother who drank himself to death, which is why Trump doesn’t drink.)
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Amazon workers are listening to what you tell Alexa • Bloomberg

Matt Day , Giles Turner , and Natalia Drozdiak:

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Amazon employs thousands of people around the world to help improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers. The team listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands. 

The Alexa voice review process, described by seven people who have worked on the program, highlights the often-overlooked human role in training software algorithms. In marketing materials Amazon says Alexa “lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.” But like many software tools built to learn from experience, humans are doing some of the teaching.

The team comprises a mix of contractors and full-time Amazon employees who work in outposts from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania, according to the people, who signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking publicly about the program. They work nine hours a day, with each reviewer parsing as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift, according to two workers based at Amazon’s Bucharest office, which takes up the top three floors of the Globalworth building in the Romanian capital’s up-and-coming Pipera district.

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That is a LOT of listening. Is this another “not really AI” example?
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Commercial segment provides a bright spot in the traditional PC market • IDC

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The worldwide market for traditional PCs, inclusive of desktops, notebooks, and workstations, declined 3.0% year over year in the first quarter of 2019 (1Q19), according to preliminary results from International Data Corporation’s (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. Global shipments were above expectations, reaching 58.5m during the quarter.

Although the shortage of Intel processors, mostly at the lower end, remained a factor in seeing a contraction in 1Q19, the market performed better than expected with most regions exceeding forecast. Stronger than expected desktop shipments further boosted volume, coming on the heels of a tough previous quarter, (4Q18), which had lackluster consumer demand and desktop supply issues. Furthermore, more PC brands turned to AMD chips. All of this, combined with firms rounding the last corner on its Windows 10 migration deployments, led to a shift in the market for traditional PCs towards more commercial and premium products.

“Desktop PCs were surprisingly resilient as the commercial segment helped drive a refresh during the quarter,” said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC’s Mobile Device Trackers. “Capitalizing on this refresh cycle, the top vendors – HP, Lenovo, and Dell – each increased their year-over-year volume and captured additional share in the desktop PC market.”

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So it’s “above expectations” when shipments fall below 60m, the first time that’s happened in the first quarter since 2006? A fall of 3% is “better than expected”? This is “the glass has a hole, but just now it’s half-full! Yay!”

Gartner is gloomier, reckoning shipments fell 4.6%, and OEMs allocated their hard-to-get CPUs to high-margin devices and Chromebooks. “Including Chromebook shipments, the decline would have been 3.5%” – which to me implies Chromebook shipments were just 0.7m, unless it’s comparing the PCs+Chromebooks figure for both the 2018 and 2019 quarters; in the latter case you can’t know how many Chromebooks were shipped, only that 0.7m fewer shipped in 2019.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,044: why the US is charging Assange, iTunes to split?, EU v Internet Archive, Netflix’s DVD customers, PC market shrinks further, and more

  1. I’m away right now so I’ll be brief, but if PC are down 4.5% and PC + Chromebooks are down 3.5%, and we assume they aren’t utterly silly and adding Chromebooks for this year only, it means Chromebooks are up, or at least down much less than PCs. especially is CBs are 10% of PC.

    I’m not finding any figures in the source, but in theory, assuming Chromebooks = 10% of PCs
    Year 1 : PC1 =100, CB1 = 10
    Year 2 : PC2 = 95.4, PC2+CB2 = .965 x 110
    (Since PC is 4.6% down and PC+CB 3.5% down)

    means CB2 = 106.15 – 95.4 = 10.75

    CB 2 is bigger than CB1, CB sales are up.

  2. Here’s the best, well, not “pro-Assange”, but “anti-prosecution-of-Assange”, article I’ve come across, by people who have serious credentials:

    https://www.justsecurity.org/63595/assange-indictment-is-shot-across-the-bow-of-press-freedom/

    “The problem is that the indictment seems to have been drafted not just to justify the prosecution of Assange but to tar legitimate journalistic activities by association with Assange’s alleged crime. ”

    Much of the chattering class reaction I’ve read seems to be a sort of cognitive dissonance. It’s journalists and similar trying to reconcile their evident belief that Assange is a bad person with bad politics who is essentially an enemy-of-the-people, yet quite aware that (especially with Trump), many government officials think exactly the same thing about them. There’s arguably a classic psychological case study in resolving this by finding the way to distinguish why he did something worth prison, but nothing they would ever do would similarly give a Trump-loyal prosecutor justification to put them in prison.

    If there are subsequent charges against him which seems likely, we’ll see more of this problem.

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