Start Up No.1,056: the marijuana conviction cleanup, Wikipedia’s Brexit war, Apple defends app zap, will 5G mess up weather forecasts?, and more


Anki, the AI/robotics company behind Anki Drive, is shutting down. Now what for the cars? CC-licensed photo by Jason Kneen on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Hold the door! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

An algorithm wipes clean the criminal pasts of thousands • BBC News

Dave Lee:

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This month, a judge in California cleared thousands of criminal records with one stroke of his pen. He did it thanks to a ground-breaking new algorithm that reduces a process that took months to mere minutes. The programmers behind it say: we’re just getting started solving America’s urgent problems…

…It’s estimated there are a million people in California with a cannabis-related charge in their past, an invisible shackle that blocks opportunities to get housing, jobs and thousands of other things most of us would regard as necessities.

Yet fewer than 3% of people thought to qualify have sought to have their records cleared since the passing of the new law. It’s thought many are overwhelmed or intimidated by the complex expungement process. The clinic may only come to town once every few months, if at all. Others simply don’t know expungement is possible.

But now, work to automate this entire ordeal has begun – with remarkable results.

“I formed the opinion that this is really our responsibility,” said George Gascon, San Francisco’s district attorney. Though almost 10,000 people in the city were predicted to be eligible for expungement, just 23 had come forward.

So in January 2018, Mr Gascon pledged to proactively review past marijuana cases – but there was a snag.
San Francisco’s District Attorney George Gascon quickly realised doing the task manually would take too long.

“When we started to do this by hand, we recognised very rapidly that this was going to take a long time.”
He enlisted Code For America, a non-profit organisation that works on creating Silicon Valley-esque solutions to problems within the many antiquated systems powering the US government.

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Tech for good! It can happen.
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The once-hot robotics startup Anki is shutting down after raising more than $200 million • Recode

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Anki, the robotics company that has raised over $200m in venture capital, is laying off its entire staff and the startup is shuttering, Recode has learned.

In a teary all-hands meeting on Monday morning, CEO Boris Sofman told his staff they would be terminated on Wednesday and that close to 200 employees would be paid a week of severance, according to people familiar with the matter. Sofman had told employees a few days earlier that the company was scrambling to find more money after a new round of financing fell through at the last minute, imperiling the company’s future.

The startup is frequently called “cute” for the little robots it produces like Cozmo, but it has raised serious money from investors like Index Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, whose co-founder, Marc Andreessen, at one point sat on the company’s board.

Anki said last fall that it “approached” $100m in revenue in 2017 and expected to exceed that figure in 2018. So this isn’t some small lemonade stand closing down.

Leadership had previously told employees that it was fielding acquisition interest from companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Comcast.

The company said in a statement to Recode that it was left “without significant funding to support a hardware and software business and bridge to our long-term product roadmap.”

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Damn. Anki did the self-driving cars that were demonstrated at Apple’s WWDC in 2013, but after that struggled to find a hit. Sofman has vision, though; I hope his next fares better. Again: the hardest thing to make in hardware is a profit.
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The facts about parental control apps • Apple

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We recently removed several parental control apps from the App Store, and we did it for a simple reason: they put users’ privacy and security at risk. It’s important to understand why and how this happened.

Over the last year, we became aware that several of these parental control apps were using a highly invasive technology called Mobile Device Management, or MDM. MDM gives a third party control and access over a device and its most sensitive information including user location, app use, email accounts, camera permissions, and browsing history. We started exploring this use of MDM by non-enterprise developers back in early 2017 and updated our guidelines based on that work in mid-2017.

MDM does have legitimate uses. Businesses will sometimes install MDM on enterprise devices to keep better control over proprietary data and hardware. But it is incredibly risky—and a clear violation of App Store policies—for a private, consumer-focused app business to install MDM control over a customer’s device. Beyond the control that the app itself can exert over the user’s device, research has shown that MDM profiles could be used by hackers to gain access for malicious purposes.

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It’s very unusual for Apple to make a public statement like this. It removed 11 of 17 of the most-downloaded screen time/parental control apps, which the NY Times suggested was anti-competitive. Apple’s saying: not at all.
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Global 5G wireless networks threaten weather forecasts • Nature

Alexandra Witze:

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The US government has begun auctioning off blocks of wireless radio frequencies to be used for the next-generation mobile communications network known as 5G. But some of these frequencies lie close to those that satellites use for crucial Earth observations — and meteorologists are worried that 5G transmissions from cellphones and other equipment could interfere with their data collection.

Unless regulators or telecommunications companies take steps to reduce the risk of interference, Earth-observing satellites flying over areas of the United States with 5G wireless coverage won’t be able to detect concentrations of water vapour in the atmosphere accurately. Meteorologists in the United States and other countries rely on those data to feed into their models; without that information, weather forecasts worldwide are likely to suffer.

“This is a global problem,” says Jordan Gerth, a meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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But the US, as often happens, isn’t listening.
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Why pleasure always trumps possessions • Financial Times

Janan Ganesh:

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The savings rate among millennials is already dire. In 2017, the property magnate Tim Gurner said they had no right to bewail their asset-poverty while they subsisted on “smashed avocado at $19”. It was what the novelist Joyce Cary once called a “tumbril remark”: a Marie Antoinette-ish incitement to revolution.

Gurner was duly routed on social media for his lavish idea of the millennial lifestyle. No one thought to defend that lifestyle on its own terms. And it is eminently defensible. Is it really intelligent to spend the prime years of your life living below your means? Is the far-off prospect of an asset worth more than a consistent flow of sensory treats in the present?

Shakiest of all is the premise that an asset lasts and an experience does not. Once a pleasure has been consumed — a holiday taken, a concert attended — that is not the end of the matter. The memory becomes itself a kind of asset, and an inflation-proof one at that. It can sustain you later in life. And by later in life, I mean much earlier than I expected. I am already mawkishly wistful about my twenties, which were spent in rented flats that were better than anywhere I could have afforded to buy. The idea that I have “nothing to show for it” is eccentric. I have the best years of my life to show for it. A financial adviser would have had me in a Zone 6 grotto, saving up much cash, storing up no memories.

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Because economists can’t value what they can’t price.
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Making sense of Huawei • Balding’s World

Christopher Balding, a co-author of the “Who owns Huawei?” paper that I linked to last week, which Huawei sorta-kinda tried to rebut with a 90-minute press conference which ended up mostly confirming what the paper said:

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There are a few remaining issues I would like to cover here given that there is some confusion or dispute on these points.

All unions in China are under the umbrella of the All China Federation of Trade Unions and all companies with more than 25 employees are required by law to have unions. Each union, at any level is responsible to the union organization above it. This upward relationship exists all the way so that every union in China is technically a member of the All China Federation of Trade Unions and responsible to its head. This is not an interpretation, this is clear Chinese law in the law on trade unions. Huawei even acknowledges this stating that “Huawei pays a portion of its compensation package to Shenzhen’s Federation of Trade Unions via Huawei’s own Union. Huawei’s Union is registered under Shenzhen’s Federation of Trade Unions.”

• Huawei has argued that this is a non-story because other companies have at times used similar structures. We never claimed this was an entirely unique structure. Our primary claim is that Huawei is not telling the truth by saying they are employee owned private company.

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Made in China, exported to the world: the surveillance state • The New York Times

Paul Mozur, Jonah M. Kessel and Melissa Chan:

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Ecuador’s system, which was installed beginning in 2011, is a basic version of a program of computerized controls that Beijing has spent billions to build out over a decade of technological progress. According to Ecuador’s government, these cameras feed footage to the police for manual review.

But a New York Times investigation found that the footage also goes to the country’s feared domestic intelligence agency, which under the previous president, Rafael Correa, had a lengthy track record of following, intimidating and attacking political opponents. Even as a new administration under President Lenín Moreno investigates the agency’s abuses, the group still gets the videos.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has vastly expanded domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever lower prices. A global infrastructure initiative is spreading that technology even further.

Ecuador shows how technology built for China’s political system is now being applied — and sometimes abused — by other governments. Today, 18 countries — including Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates and Germany — are using Chinese-made intelligent monitoring systems, and 36 have received training in topics like “public opinion guidance,” which is typically a euphemism for censorship, according to an October report from Freedom House, a pro-democracy research group.

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Want to know what it isn’t good at? Stopping crimes such as assault.
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A bitter turf war is raging on the Brexit Wikipedia page • WIRED UK

Matt Reynolds:

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Originally posted in January 2014, what began life as “Proposed referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union” has bloated into a 11,757-word behemoth.

But the article’s vast size is the least of its problems. In private, and on discussion pages, editors tell tales of turf wars, sock puppet accounts, and anonymous figures hellbent on stuffing the article with information that supports their point of view.

“I was heavily involved with the Brexit page, but gave up more than a year ago because the level of bias on it proved impossible to address and the aggravation of trying to deal with that was not worthwhile,” says EddieHugh, a Wikipedia editor who has made 186 edits on the Brexit page – making them one of its most prolific contributors. Since leaving the page behind, EddieHugh now specialises in editing entries about obscure mid-century jazz musicians.

For the dedicated cabal of Wikipedians who are still editing the page, the battle against bias is never-ending. “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view,” reads the second of the Wikipedia “five pillars”, the fundamental principles that guide editing on the website. But who gets to decide what counts as neutrality?

“Brexiteer-types frequently complain that the page has an anti-Brexit bias because the page simply covers what credible economic research indicates about the likely impact of Brexit,” says Snoogans Snoogans, who has made 12% of all the edits on the page. As with all of the editors I spoke to for this piece, Snoogans asked to be referred to by their Wikipedia moniker.

“I edit a lot of controversial politics pages and have experienced death threats and attempts to doxx me as a result,” they say. On the Brexit page, Snoogans mainly adds information to the section that details the potential impact of Brexit on the UK and Europe, one of the most controversial aspects of the page.

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Predictable, I suppose. But at least Wikipedia has checks and balances, of sorts.
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Uber’s IPO and local network effects • Tech-Thoughts

Sameer Singh on Uber’s IPO prospectus, and the problems he sees ahead:

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Unlike Airbnb and Amazon, Uber’s network effects exist purely within a tight geographical radius (within a few miles). Both Amazon and Airbnb could scale up a supply network in one location, leverage that to grow demand in another which would then attract more supply in that location and so on. However, Uber needs to scale up a supply network in one location and then start from scratch all over again at the next one. In other words, when Uber expands into a new market, its only advantage is capital. This is especially troublesome when first movers in local markets (e.g. Grab in Southeast Asia, Didi in China, Yandex in Russia, Ola in India etc.), have already established local supply networks, which makes competition even more of an uphill climb. 

Notably, the pattern of local network effects isn’t limited to the ridesharing business. It also affects food delivery, grocery delivery, classifieds, C2C marketplaces or any service that needs to be delivered locally (and in-person). One common theme among these industries is that tend to be regionally fragmented. Apart from Uber, can you think of a single, standalone and global player in ridesharing, food delivery or classifieds? The very nature of local network effects makes it nearly impossible (or in Uber’s case, prohibitively expensive) for these businesses to expand to multiple markets.

Uber has been attempting to divest local units and find other avenues of growth to make up for their network effect handicap. Micromobility is one that Uber seems particularly bullish about. The fact that nearly 50% of vehicle trips are under three miles clearly shows that there is latent demand for scooter and bike rental services. But the complete lack of network effects strains pricing power and unit economics even further.

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Singh hasn’t been writing much lately, which is a loss to us all. He always has a smart take. There’s a remark in here about “asymptotic network effects” – when a network gets “good enough” – which can probably be broadened to social networks too.
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Winter is here • The Ecologist

Nathan Thanki considers how well Game Of Thrones works as an allegory about our own attitude to climate change:

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Everybody knows winter is coming. The Starks have been beating their drum about it forever. It’s literally their motto. Yet nobody seems to care. Sound familiar? 

The challenge in both our world and Game of Thrones is that existential threats don’t automatically unite the realms behind a common cause. Especially when said threats are seen to be far-off, either temporally or geographically.

Naive notions that logic would prevail doomed both Jon Snow’s and liberalism’s approach to communicating the problem. 

For some, seeing is believing and it is enough. But not for everybody, and certainly not for the likes of Cersei. Jon and friends go to extraordinary lengths to secure proof that the threat is real in the hope that this will convince Cersei to abandon her agenda and call a truce. In a better world it would. But neither we nor Jon live in that world. 

For Cersei, it doesn’t really matter that winter is coming to the north. All that matters is maintaining the power of her house and the pursuit of a narrow self-interest. If she can use the fact that winter is coming to her advantage, all the better. That should definitely sound familiar…

…Those in the centres of power in both worlds are as unmoved by faraway destruction as they are by the suffering of the people at their feet – be that in Fleabottom or the left-behind places of the industrialised world.

We would do well to remember that there’s no point appealing to the better natures of the Cersei Lannisters of this world.

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The feature Apple needs to change in AirDrop • Yahoo Finance

Rob Pegoraro:

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AirDrop’s default setting, which only lets people already in your contacts list send you files, isn’t the problem. But if you spend enough time with other people who use iPhones, you’ll probably find somebody not in your contacts list offering to share a file via AirDrop.

For example, Donald Glover used AirDrop to give away shoes at Coachella. And after my daughter’s Brownie troop had an event at our neighborhood’s Apple Store two weeks ago, the staff offered to AirDrop pictures of the kids to the parents on hand.

My wife was unable to take them up on this offer, since she uses an Android phone. But anybody with an iPhone would have only had to switch AirDrop to accepting files from “Contacts Only” to “Everyone,” either via the iOS Control Center or in the Settings app under the General heading…

The predictable result: creepy guys exploiting this to send photos of a particular body part to iPhones, especially those whose names suggest they’re used by women. It seems to happen most often on crowded trains, but in 2017, a friend had this happen on an airplane. Unfortunately, the flight attendants she summoned for help were unable to locate the offender and transfer him to the cargo hold.

Apple’s response every time has been to remind iPhone users that they can switch AirDrop back to “Contacts Only” or to “Receiving Off.” That’s not good enough. AirDrop’s architecture enables this abuse, and telling targets of it to change how they use this feature is a lame response.

The simplest fix would be to have AirDrop’s “Everyone” setting expire after a few minutes—the suggestion cybersecurity consultant Ken Munro offered to the BBC in 2015 after what appears to be the first reported case of “cyber flashing.”

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I was ready to ignore this – 90% of people never shift from defaults – but for that “expire after time” suggestion, which is fair. Perhaps in iOS 13?
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1 thought on “Start Up No.1,056: the marijuana conviction cleanup, Wikipedia’s Brexit war, Apple defends app zap, will 5G mess up weather forecasts?, and more

  1. Re. Apple and parental controls: add “and we just realized this as we were launching our own solution entirely by chance”. Magic !

    Re. Apple and NFC sharing: iOS needs a whole OS update just to add a timeout to one app ? Isn’t that medieval ?

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