Start Up No.1,046: where now for Wikileaks?, UK’s carbon miss, Microsoft admits mail hack, hands on the Galaxy Fold, and more

The European Parliament has passed Article 13 on copyright. What happens next? CC-licensed photo by Elias Bizannes on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Isn’t that enough? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

WikiLeaks and the lost promise of the internet • Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic:


The more common demand is now for more curation and moderation—what Assange would call censorship—not less. (Assange curates as well; a 2012 document release reportedly excluded material relating to a bank transfer between the Syrian government and a Russian-owned bank, and according to Foreign Policy, in the summer of 2016 WikiLeaks turned down an offer of documents containing information on the workings of the Russian government.) The free flow of information, it turns out, can do a great deal of damage to things other than governments—particularly if it is selective in its freedom. It can help cultivate extremism. It can spread disinformation. What Assange offers is not so enticing anymore. Despite the controversy over what indicting Assange means for a free press, his detractors within the US government might reasonably argue that public opinion on WikiLeaks has caught up to their skepticism.

The internet, at least in theory, at first appeared to complicate older notions of sovereignty. This was Assange’s “intelligence agency for the people,” using the internet to reorganize the relationship between government and citizen. The irony is that the intelligence agency for the people was employed by the Russian intelligence apparatus and subsumed into a traditional conflict between two Westphalian states. The internet’s initial promise of democratization succeeded in lessening the authority of the traditional gatekeepers, but the dynamics of power were never entirely flattened.


(The piece also deals with Assange’s overt sexism.) The question is, what is Wikileaks without Assange? Is it anything? Does it even exist?
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Analysis: half of UK’s electricity to be renewable by 2025 • Carbon Brief

Simon Evans:


Close to half of the UK’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2025, according to Carbon Brief analysis of new government projections.

This marks a significant increase on earlier projections, which as recently as 2016 saw renewables meeting less than a third of demand in 2025. At the same time, there are further cuts to the outlook for gas-fired electricity generation, which is now set to drop by two-fifths over the next six years.

Nevertheless, the projections show the UK missing its legally binding carbon budgets for 2023- 2032 by even wider margins than expected last year. The fifth carbon budget for 2028-2032 is now set to be missed by as much as 20%, according to the new energy and emissions projections from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

These latest projections highlight the large gap between the UK’s current climate goals and the policies that would be required to deliver them.


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EU Council of Ministers approves copyright directive, including Article 17 (13) • TorrentFreak



with both Germany and the UK voting in favor, the Copyright Directive is now adopted. EU member states will now have two years to implement the law, which requires platforms like YouTube to sign licensing agreements with creators in order to use their content. If that is not possible, they will have to ensure that infringing content uploaded by users is taken down and not re-uploaded to their services.

“The entertainment lobby will not stop here, over the next two years, they will push for national implementations that ignore users’ fundamental rights,” comments Julia Reda.

“It will be more important than ever for civil society to keep up the pressure in the Member States!”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says that with the passing of the legislation this morning, Europe is making copyright rules “fit for the digital age.”

“Europe will now have clear rules that guarantee fair remuneration for creators, strong rights for users and responsibility for platforms,” Juncker says. “When it comes to completing Europe’s digital single market, the copyright reform is the missing piece of the puzzle.”

Juncker also makes an additional comment which is likely to come under intense scrutiny.

He suggests that in addition to not having to worry about uploading memes, users will also be able to upload otherwise ‘pirate’ content to sites like YouTube without having to worry about the consequences.


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Microsoft: hackers compromised support agent’s credentials to access customer email accounts • TechCrunch

Ingrid Lunden and Zack Whittaker:


Microsoft has confirmed to TechCrunch that a certain “limited” number of people who use web email services managed by Microsoft — which cover services like and — had their accounts compromised.

“We addressed this scheme, which affected a limited subset of consumer accounts, by disabling the compromised credentials and blocking the perpetrators’ access,” said a Microsoft spokesperson in an email.

According to an email Microsoft has sent out to affected users (the reader who tipped us off got his late Friday evening), malicious hackers were potentially able to access an affected user’s e-mail address, folder names, the subject lines of e-mails, and the names of other e-mail addresses the user communicates with — “but not the content of any e-mails or attachments,” nor — it seems — login credentials like passwords.

Microsoft is still recommending that affected users change their passwords regardless.

The breach occurred between January 1 and March 28, Microsoft’s letter to users said. 


They “hacked” one of the customer support team.
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Samsung Galaxy Fold hands-on: 10 minutes with this futuristic beauty • SamMobile

“Martin R:


the magic starts when you unfold the Fold, and the first thing I noticed is how the thing suddenly snaps open. That’s the hinge in the middle of the screen doing its job; the hinge on the unit I played with had some wiggle to it, but Samsung assured me this would not be the case on the final product. And once unfolded, the device fit very well in my (rather large) hands and I never felt like I’d drop it. One thing I don’t like is how the Fold has a square form factor like the iPad, as you’ll see those hideous black bars when you watch videos. The bezels, however, are minimal, except for the part around the cameras, although I think that will be a non-issue after a few days of regular use.

And now, about that elephant in the room: the folding screen and the crease in the middle that has been talked about in recent weeks. Well, the crease was certainly there on the demo unit, but it’s barely noticeable when you look at the Fold from the front. However, you won’t be able to unsee the crease once you look at the device from an angle when the screen is off. Samsung said this crease would be less noticeable on the final product, and I certainly hope that’s the case.

Something that struck me is how, glassy the screen felt. The Galaxy Fold uses a plastic display, but there’s some kind of coating on top that makes it feel like glass, and I loved that. Also impressive is how the Fold’s display opens to a full 180 degrees. I was worried that would be hard because of the book-like implementation of Samsung’s foldable device, just like an actual book can start to tear in the middle if you try to make the two sides of the book lay completely flat. But there’s no such problem on the Fold, and it feels almost magical to use.


Let’s come back in nine months or so and find out how people are using it.
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iOS 13: Dark Mode, detachable panels, Safari and Mail, more • 9to5Mac

Guilherme Rambo has some leakiness:


The Mail app is getting smarter for the first time in a while: the upgraded app will be able to organize messages into categories such as marketing, purchases, travel, “not important” and more, with the categories being searchable. Users will also be able to add messages to a “read later” queue similar to third-party email apps.

Engineers are also working on bringing easy collaboration to third-party document-based apps, similar to what’s already available in Apple’s own productivity apps including Pages, Numbers and Keynote.

The focus on productivity on iOS continues with the inclusion of new gestures to allow for the selection of multiple items in table views and collection views, which make up for most of the user interfaces found in apps that list large amounts of data. Users will be able to drag with multiple fingers on a list or collection of items to draw a selection, similar to clicking and dragging in Finder on the Mac.

There will also be the ability for developers to use a different status bar style (light or dark) for each side of a Split View (side-by-side apps), which should prevent issues that currently happen in some apps where the status bar will lack contrast with the background in one side of the split view. Split Views on Marzipan apps based on iPad designs that run on the Mac will get the ability to be resized by dragging the divider and have their position reset when double-clicking the divider, like existing Split View apps on the Mac.


Dark Mode, blah, Mail being able to do “categories” (smart lists? Like a computer should be able to?) is long overdue.
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Google quietly disbanded another AI review board following disagreements • WSJ

Parmy Olson:


in late 2018, Google began to wind down another independent panel set up to do the same thing [as the recently short-lived one in the US]—this time for a division in the UK doing AI work related to health care. At the time, Google said it was rethinking that board because of a reorganization in its health-care-focused businesses.

But the move also came amid disagreements between panel members and DeepMind, Google’s UK-based AI research unit, according to people familiar with the matter. Those differences centered on the review panel’s ability to access information about research and products, the binding power of their recommendations and the amount of independence that DeepMind could maintain from Google, according to these people.

A spokeswoman for DeepMind’s health-care unit in the U.K. declined to comment specifically about the board’s deliberations. After the reorganization, the company found that the board, called the Independent Review Panel, was “unlikely to be the right structure in the future.”

… internally, some board members chafed at their inability to review the full extent of the group’s AI research and the unit’s strategic plans, according to the people familiar with the matter. Members of the board weren’t asked to sign nondisclosure agreements about the information they received. Some directors felt that limited the amount of information the company shared with them and thus the board’s effectiveness, according to one person.


Smart story from Olson, who is – you noticed? – now at the WSJ. The next question is, why did Google think that the format which had failed in the UK would work in the US?

unique link to this extract admits it was slow to intervene in Verify’s abject failure to meet user targets • The Register

Rebecca Hill:

» has admitted it was slow to intervene as it failed to meet “overambitious” targets for the adoption of [its identity service] Verify, and has been accused of splashing £154m on creating an open standard for the identity service.

Civil servants were hauled in front of the influential Public Accounts Committee this week to discuss a damning assessment of the Verify scheme that was published by the UK’s spending watchdog earlier this month.

Up to 2016, the Government Digital Service was claiming that 25 million people would be signed up to Verify by 2020 – based on current estimates, the real figure will be more like 5.4 million. As of last month, just 3.6 million were verified.

Despite acknowledging that some reasons for slow uptake – user demographic and the fact strong nudges can’t be used for systems like benefits – should have been predictable, the witnesses attempted to pin the blame on previous leadership teams and other government departments.

“In 2015, we had only 25 live services across the whole of government, yet we were projecting to have 46 more incorporate Verify over the next few years,” said GDS boss Kevin Cunnington.

“That has just not turned out to be true. The government has not transformed as quickly as we had hoped; therefore we have seen this reduction in volume.”


I used Verify, once; it was pretty nightmarish trying to get verified enough, because it wanted multiple independent sources. And then I never used it again.

Anyhow, £154m to set a standard. That must be one of the most expensive and simultaneously least worthwhile standards ever.
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The US is losing a major front to China in the New Cold War • Bloomberg

Lulu Yilun Chen and Yoolim Lee:


The more free-wheeling Silicon Valley model once seemed unquestionably the best approach, with stars from Google to Facebook to vouch for its superiority. Now, a re-molding of the internet into a tightly controlled and scrubbed sphere in China’s image is taking place from Russia to India. Yet it’s Southeast Asia that’s the economic and geopolitical linchpin to Chinese ambitions and where US-Chinese tensions will come to a head: a region home to more than half a billion people whose internet economy is expected to triple to $240bn by 2025.

“For authoritarian countries in general, the idea of the state being able to wall off to some extent its internet is deeply appealing,” said Howard French, author of “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. “This is about the regimes’ survival in an authoritarian situation. So that’s why they like to do this. They want to be able to insulate themselves against shocks.”

The Chinese model is gaining traction just as the American one comes under fire. Facebook and Twitter were used to manipulate the 2016 U.S. election, YouTube was criticized for failing to detect child porn, and American social media allowed a gunman to live-stream the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history for 10 minutes or more before severing it. Against the backdrop of wider fears about U.S. social media failings, Beijing’s approach now seems a reasonable alternative, or reasonable enough that self-serving governments can justify its adoption.

Vietnam’s controversial version went into effect Jan. 1 – a law BSA/The Software Alliance, which counts Apple and Microsoft among its members – called chilling and ineffectual. Indonesia, the region’s largest economy, already requires data be stored locally. The Philippines has stepped up what critics call a media crackdown, arrested the head of media outlet Rappler after it grew critical of President Rodrigo Duterte. And last year, the government of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak introduced a fake news law used to probe his chief opponent, though the current government may yet repeal it.


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Tech groups told to stop nudging children into using apps • Financial Times

Aliya Ram:


Technology companies must not suck children further into their websites and apps with psychological devices such as Facebook’s “like” button or Snap’s “streaks”, according to draft guidelines from the UK’s tech regulator.

The new code on safeguarding the privacy of users under 18, which is expected to come into force this year, would cover apps, connected toys, social media platforms, online games, educational websites and streaming services.

Among its 16 points is a ban on so-called “nudge techniques” that try to tempt users into further engagement.

“You should not exploit unconscious psychological processes (such as associations between certain colours or imagery and positive outcomes, or human affirmation needs) to this end,” the Information Commissioner’s Office’s code said.

So-called “streaks” reward Snapchat users who send messages to one another on consecutive days with special emojis, while “like” buttons allow Facebook users to affirm one another’s posts and pictures.

“Reward loops or positive reinforcement techniques (such as likes and streaks) can also nudge or encourage users to stay actively engaged with a service, allowing the online service to collect more personal data,” the report said.


Slowly but surely, regulators in Europe (I’m counting the UK in that, for now) are looking to roll back the addictive elements of social networks. After all, why shouldn’t it be “privacy by default”? Although these are draft guidelines, out for consultation until 31 May; probably in force by the end of the year.
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Power in the shadows • Tortoise

Xavier Greenwood:


[The closed Facebook group started by a local in a Welsh village] Merthyr Council Truths has emerged as a powerful force in local politics, stepping into the space left by the waning enthusiasm for political parties and the decline of local media. It’s not alone. Across the UK, these networks are growing. They’re private, popular and powerful. The gates are kept by locals; they’re where members can buy and sell, fight and gossip, but also politick: talk, protest, organise.

The pattern is repeating elsewhere, from Newport’s Casnewydd News (6,099 members), where dubious claims about “no deal” and the European Union infect discussions, to Essex’s Rayleigh Community Group (10,437 members), which a former councillor is “disappointed to see being used for party political purposes”. Next month’s local elections are argued out on them through the furious lens of the perceived disrespect shown towards the Brexit vote by the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

The nation is engaged in intense political discussions which most of us can’t see. With 270 councils up for grabs in the local elections on 2 May, Merthyr Council Truths is beginning to look like a prototype. Not as a folksy community group, but as an alternative, opaque kind of political organisation…

…In politics, Facebook is creating the next version of the public square, only it’s in private.


But there’s also trouble in the not-paradise. Tortoise is a new “slow news” publication: it takes its time and writes at length. Interesting concept, though how do you tell the difference between “slow news” and “news that arrives like all the other stuff”?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,045: San Fran likes scooters, China’s AI abuse, who’s buying Google’s Pixel 3?, and more

Google’s Location History is being used by US police to arrest people – sometimes wrongly. CC-licensed photo by Lars Plougmann on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. There you are! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

San Francisco finds controlled scooter pilot a success •

Carolyn Said, on how SF has limited scooter-ing to just two companies, Scoot and Skip:


Several spurned operators, including Spin, Lime and Uber’s Jump, had appealed their rejections, while Lyft wrote letters asking for reconsideration. All had hopes of being tapped for the program’s second half.

From riders’ perspective, fewer scooters makes the rentals less useful, according to people who attended a public workshop held by the agency this month.

“I used to use them and loved them — then they disappeared,” said Soni Mehra. “It’s harder and harder to find them now, so I can’t rely on them to get to work.”

Both Scoot and Skip said they’d be happy to increase their fleets, especially now that they’ve ironed out some kinks — notably preventing theft and deterring some vandalism by adding built-in locks to all scooters as of early February.

Locks also ensure that parked scooters aren’t tipped over and don’t block sidewalks, curb cuts or crosswalks as they have to be affixed to bike racks or posts.

“The locking is key,” Maguire said. “We’re the first city in the country that has all our scooters lockable.” Complaints about improper parking have plunged since the locks were implemented, he said. Scoot had only a fraction of its allotment on streets for the program’s initial months because theft was so rampant, but now is bringing its numbers up.

“We had a rough start with all the theft and vandalism and then a terribly rainy few months,” said Michael Keating, Scoot CEO. “We want to show that this can be done safely, respectfully and sustainably.”


So.. regulation is what’s needed? Novel idea.
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An algorithm is attempting to block drug deals at UK Wi-Fi kiosks • Engadget

Christine Fisher:


The InLink kiosks installed throughout the UK were meant to replace payphones and provide free calls, ultra-fast WiFi and phone charging. But it wasn’t long before they became a hotbed for drug dealing. Rather than do away with the free phone service, British telecom company BT and InLinkUK developed an algorithm to automatically block and disable “antisocial” calls.

The algorithm uses the frequency of attempted and connected calls, their length and distribution and insights provided by police to identify suspicious patterns and phone numbers. It can then automatically block those numbers. It’s already been deployed across all of the InLinkUK kiosks.

Before the system was in place, drug dealers reportedly arranged 20,000 sales from just five kiosks in a 15-week period. A separate kiosk was used to facilitate £1.28m in drug sales (about $1.68m). But BT and InLinkUK say less than half a% of the total calls across the InLink network are associated with antisocial behavior. And the company believes its new algorithm has already solved the problem.


It was so obvious that free phone services would be abused. And now the solution is technology? It won’t take long before this is figured out; apart from anything, there’s money to be made, so people will find out how to defeat it. There, at least, is what humans do have over machines: the profit motive.
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streaming the dawn chorus –

Adam Bowie:


Each year at the start of May there is an International Dawn Chorus day. And off the back of this comes Reveil, an annual broadcast that comes from an art collective called SoundCamp.

Around the world, people participate by placing open microphones wherever they happen to be, capturing all the glory of their local dawn chorus. These live streams can all be found on the Locus Sonus Soundmap.

From there these streams they produce a continuous stream of dawn choruses from across the globe:

Starting on the morning of Saturday 4 May just before daybreak in Rotherhithe near the Greenwich Meridian, the Reveil broadcast will pick up these feeds one by one, tracking the sunrise west from microphone to microphone, following the wave of intensified sound that loops the earth every 24 hours at first light.

The resulting stream is broadcast on a number of radio stations throughout the world including Resonance Extra in London.

Even if you do nothing else, the Soundmap is well worth exploring – especially over that weekend. But many of the microphones are live 24/7 all year round…

…The really great thing is that it’s surprisingly easy to create a live stream. While you could use your laptop, or even a mobile phone, my preferred method was to build a Raspberry Pi based streamer.


So cheap to do, such a nice idea; the most expensive thing is probably the microphone.
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Tracking phones, Google is a dragnet for the police • The New York Times

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries:


When detectives in a Phoenix suburb arrested a warehouse worker in a murder investigation last December, they credited a new technique with breaking open the case after other leads went cold.

The police told the suspect, Jorge Molina, they had data tracking his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months earlier. They had made the discovery after obtaining a search warrant that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area.

Investigators also had other circumstantial evidence, including security video of someone firing a gun from a white Honda Civic, the same model that Mr. Molina owned, though they could not see the license plate or attacker.

But after he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against Mr. Molina fell apart as investigators learned new information and released him. Last month, the police arrested another man: his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who had sometimes used Mr. Molina’s car.

The warrants, which draw on an enormous Google database employees call Sensorvault, turn the business of tracking cellphone users’ locations into a digital dragnet for law enforcement. In an era of ubiquitous data gathering by tech companies, it is just the latest example of how personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected. As privacy concerns have mounted among consumers, policymakers and regulators, tech companies have come under intensifying scrutiny over their data collection practices.


Hello, Google’s Location History feature – which will collect data about your location all the time (on Android) or when allowed (on iOS).

See yours:
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One month, 500,000 face scans: how China is using AI to profile a minority • The New York Times

Paul Mozur:


The facial recognition technology, which is integrated into China’s rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review. The practice makes China a pioneer in applying next-generation technology to watch its people, potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism.

The technology and its use to keep tabs on China’s 11 million Uighurs were described by five people with direct knowledge of the systems, who requested anonymity because they feared retribution. The New York Times also reviewed databases used by the police, government procurement documents and advertising materials distributed by the AI companies that make the systems.

Chinese authorities already maintain a vast surveillance net, including tracking people’s DNA, in the western region of Xinjiang, which many Uighurs call home. But the scope of the new systems, previously unreported, extends that monitoring into many other corners of the country.
Shoppers lined up for identification checks outside the Kashgar Bazaar last fall. Members of the largely Muslim Uighur minority have been under Chinese surveillance and persecution for years.

The police are now using facial recognition technology to target Uighurs in wealthy eastern cities like Hangzhou and Wenzhou and across the coastal province of Fujian, said two of the people. Law enforcement in the central Chinese city of Sanmenxia, along the Yellow River, ran a system that over the course of a month this year screened whether residents were Uighurs 500,000 times.


China is becoming the totalitarian nightmare: using technology to oppress and suppress minorities. It’s quite like what the Nazis did to identify Jews in Holland and elsewhere.
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From Macintosh to Granny Smith: the rise and fall of Apple • VentureBeat

Christina Wallace and David Kidder:


n the last five years. Microsoft has improved the way it identifies which research to use in which products and how to get even the most distant employees to collaborate. For example, every six months or so, they host a two-to-three day workshop between research and product teams to share their findings and participate in a hackathon.

Now the company is renowned for its AI efforts in vision, speech, language, and real-time calculation, from healthcare solutions to CPG inventory management.

Even an old signature like Office now subtly employs AI in just about every capability in the suite. In Powerpoint, for example, it’s training AI to be an intelligent assistant that can all but finish presentations for you. It’s a far cry from the days of the laughable “Clippy” assistant in Microsoft Word.

Microsoft is able to innovate at a previously unimaginable pace because in large part, they’ve given their terms permission to work together on customer problems. A simple yet surprisingly radical notion in many of the largest companies.

In asking Apple to innovate once more, the directive isn’t to rip up their product roadmap and halt all production of phones. For a large enterprise like Apple, steering the whole company in a new direction is neither feasible nor desirable.

Instead, Apple needs the framework other large companies are discovering to install a permanent, always-on growth capability.


The authors of this piece are from a “growth advisory firm”. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that in the past five years Microsoft did a reorg so that it would have the same horizontal structure as, ah, Apple. And the piece doesn’t mention Apple’s AirPods (that would spoil the story of “nothing new”). What’s Apple working on? We don’t know. That doesn’t mean it isn’t. People have been calling it over for ages, but I really don’t think Microsoft is the one to compare it to.
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I gathered stories of people transformed by Fox News • NY Mag

Luke O’Neil:


No matter where the stories came from they all featured a few familiar beats: A loved one seemed to have changed over time. Maybe that person was already somewhat conservative to start. Maybe they were apolitical. But at one point or another, they sat down in front of Fox News, found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia, and became a different person — someone difficult, if not impossible, to spend time with. The fallout led to failed marriages and estranged parental relationships. For at least one person, it marks the final memory he’ll ever have of his father: “When I found my dad dead in his armchair, fucking Fox News was on the TV,” this reader told me. “It’s likely the last thing he saw. I hate what that channel and conservative talk radio did to my funny, compassionate dad. He spent the last years of his life increasingly angry, bigoted, and paranoid.”

Something about the piece struck a chord. It had gone viral, and wave after wave of frustrated and saddened Fox News orphans began to commiserate with me and with each other on Twitter and in my messages. Others wrote of similar phenomenon in Australia with the television channel Sky or in the U.K. with the tabloid Daily Mail. I heard from more than a hundred people who felt like they could relate to what they all seemed to think of as a kind of ideological brain poisoning. They chose Fox News over their family, people told me. They chose Fox News over me.


This is the result of the loosening under the Reagan administration of the requirement that TV stations should not be political – that they had a responsibility to reflect the truth, and be impartial. The whirlwind has been slow to arrive, but no less big.
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Google Pixel 3 and OnePlus 6T sales driven by previous Samsung owners in Q4 2018 • Counterpoint Research


Over one-third of consumers who bought the Google Pixel 3 and the OnePlus 6T, during Q4 2018, were previous Samsung owners, according to Counterpoint Research’s US Smartphone Churn Tracker. Less than one in five people who bought either device was a previous Apple user. In Q4 2018, Google Pixel accounted for 7.3% of Verizon’s total sales while the OnePlus 6T made up 2.4% of T-Mobile’s total sales. Each device signaled an appetite for more diversity in premium device product line-ups from consumers.

Despite the initial sales success, the Pixel 3 series has been ineffective in converting a larger share of iPhone users to Android. Conversely, 6T sales have been down Q1 2019 in spite of the strong Q4 2018 start.
Of the Pixel smartphones, Jeff Fieldhack, Research Director at Counterpoint Research said, “The newest Google Pixel lineup was certainly successful in terms of disrupting the premium market space at Verizon. Google invested a lot of marketing money during Q4 2018 resulting in strong sales of the Google Pixel 3 lineup. Over half of all new Pixel 3 owners came from Samsung. A total of 31% of Pixel 3 sales came from previous Samsung Galaxy S7 owners. The Pixel was built to lead Android innovation and be a device to sway the iOS base over to Android. Over 80% of volumes are coming from its Android partners. This is probably seen as a disappointment.”


Given the small volumes that the Pixel and OnePlus sell in, this isn’t making a dent on Apple or Samsung. If Google or OnePlus could get real volume, it would be a different story.
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Health apps pose ‘unprecedented’ privacy risks • BBC News


Using popular health apps could mean private information about medical conditions is not kept confidential, researchers warn.
Of 24 health apps in the BMJ study, 19 shared user data with companies, including Facebook, Google and Amazon.

It warns this could then be passed on to other organisations such as credit agencies or used to target advertising.

And data was shared despite developers often claiming they did not collect personally identifiable information.

Users could be easily identified by piecing together data such as their Android phone’s unique address, the study says.

“The semi-persistent Android ID will uniquely identify a user within the Google universe, which has considerable scope and ability to aggregate highly diverse information about the user,” wrote co-author Dr Quinn Grundy of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing at the University of Toronto.
“These apps claim to offer tailored and cost-effective health promotion – but they pose unprecedented risk to consumers’ privacy given their ability to collect user data, including sensitive information.”

The authors conclude:
• doctors need to warn patients about the threat to their privacy from using such apps
• regulators should consider that loss of privacy is not a fair cost for the use of digital health services.


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Apple spends hundreds of millions on Arcade video game service • FT

Tim Bradshaw:


Several people involved in the project’s development say Apple is spending several million dollars each on most of the more than 100 games that have been selected to launch on Arcade, with its total budget likely to exceed $500m. The games service is expected to launch later this year.

That compares with the $1bn that Apple was said in 2017 to have budgeted for original content for TV , though analysts believe that its video spending has already exceeded that level.

Apple seeks up to $27bn in legal battle with Qualcomm
Apple is offering developers an extra incentive if they agree for their game to only be available on Arcade, withholding their release on Google’s Play app store for Android smartphones or other subscription gaming bundles such as Microsoft’s Xbox game pass. But after a few months of exclusivity, developers will be free to release their games on PCs or other games consoles such as Nintendo’s Switch or Sony’s PlayStation. 

Apple declined to comment.

Titles already announced for Apple Arcade include well-established brands such as Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, Cartoon Network and Lego, as well as new games from independent developers such as ustwo games, Annapurna Interactive and Bossa Studios. Most of those selected have previously proven successful on the iPhone’s App Store. Apple’s advances more than cover the cost of developing a typical indie game, according to people familiar with the terms. 

Apple Arcade’s focus on indie games contrasts with the big Hollywood names attached to TV , and has left some developers cautious about how many people will subscribe to the service. 

“It’s Sideways, not Marvel,” said one games industry executive, referring to the Oscar-winning independent film set in California’s wine country. 


In other words, you can’t predict what will be a hit. But Apple is seeing this as strategic; a long-term play, rather as Netflix does for its own content, because who knows where the licensed content might go?
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The coal cost crossover: economic viability of coal compared to new local renewables • Energy Innovation

Eric Gimon and Mike O’Boyle:


America has officially entered the “coal cost crossover” – where existing coal is increasingly more expensive than cleaner alternatives. Today, local wind and solar could replace approximately 74% of the US coal fleet [generating capacity 211GW] at an immediate savings to customers. By 2025, this number grows to 86% of the coal fleet.

This analysis complements existing research2 into the costs of clean energy undercutting coal costs, by focusing on which coal plants could be replaced locally (within 35 miles of the existing coal plant) at a saving.

It suggests local decision-makers should consider plans for a smooth shut-down of these old plants


In the end, cost is what will make this change. But it would be good if there were local politics driving it too. (The link is to a PDF paper.)
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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:


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.”


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:


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”.


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:


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.


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:


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:


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 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).


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.


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:


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


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:


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.


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:


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.”


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:


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.


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:


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.


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


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.”


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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Start Up No.1,043: Facebook’s AI death smarts, Amazon staff push for green scheme, how Russia trolls on vaccines, and more

Don’t want to alarm you, but scientists in China may have set us on this path. CC-licensed photo by James on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook to use AI to stop telling users to say hi to dead friends • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Facebook has promised to use artificial intelligence to stop suggesting users invite their dead friends to parties.

The site’s freshly emotionally intelligent AI is part of a rash of changes to how Facebook handles “memorialised” accounts – pages whose owner has been reported deceased, but that are kept on the social network in their memory.

Memorialisation of accounts allows for treasured images, videos and posts to be kept online, as well as providing a focal point for grieving friends and relatives to share memories.

But the feature has caused its fair share of pain: since the account is kept on the social network and treated similarly to any other Facebook user, it is used for the same algorithmic features as anything else. That means users have been sent recommendations to invite dead relatives to parties, suggestions to wish them a happy birthday, and more.

Facebook said that should be a thing of the past. “Once an account is memorialised, we use AI to help keep the profile from showing up in places that might cause distress, like recommending that person be invited to events or sending a birthday reminder to their friends,” wrote Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, in a blogpost published on Tuesday. “We’re working to get better and faster at this.”


But after that was written late on Tuesday, Facebook tweaked Sandberg’s blogpost:


The post now says that AI will be used, not to keep memorialised accounts from showing up in algorithmic features, but to keep accounts that haven’t been memorialised from doing so. “If an account hasn’t yet been memorialized, we use AI to help keep it from showing up in places that might cause distress,” Sandberg is now quoted as saying. In other words, Facebook’s AI is being deployed to work out which of its users are dead, rather than waiting to be told.


Given the average mortality rate of 8.1 per thousand per year, and 2 billion users, about 16.2 million users die every year – that’s about 45,000 per day. That AI can’t come too soon.

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Boeing 737 MAX crash and the rejection of ridiculous data • Philip Greenspun’s Weblog


“Boeing 737 Max: What went wrong?” (BBC) contains a plot showing the angle of attack data being fed to Boeing’s MCAS software. Less than one minute into the flight, the left sensor spikes to an absurd roughly 70-degree angle of attack. Given the weight of an airliner, the abruptness of the change was impossible due to inertia. But to have avoided killing everyone on board, the software would not have needed a “how fast is this changing?” capability. It would simply have needed a few extra characters in an IF statement.

Had the systems engineers and programmers checked Wikipedia, for example, (or maybe even their own web site) they would have learned that “The critical or stalling angle of attack is typically around 15° – 20° for many airfoils.” Beyond 25 degrees, therefore, it is either sensor error or the plane is stalling/spinning and something more than a slow trim is going to be required.

So, even without checking the left and right AOA sensors against each other (what previous and conventional stick pusher designs have done), all of the problems could potentially have been avoided…


As Greenspun points out, it would just be a little extra logic – if a reading is wildly impossible, then reality hasn’t shifted; the sensor is wrong. The logic presently tends to assume the sensor is right.
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Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys—and yes, they may be smarter • MIT Technology Review

Antonio Regalado:


scientists in southern China report that they’ve tried to narrow the evolutionary gap, creating several transgenic macaque monkeys with extra copies of a human gene suspected of playing a role in shaping human intelligence.

“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” says Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the effort.

According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop—as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.

The experiments, described on March 27 in a Beijing journal, National Science Review, and first reported by Chinese media, remain far from pinpointing the secrets of the human mind or leading to an uprising of brainy primates.


Is the Statue of Liberty still in place? Just checking.
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Public letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors • Medium

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice:


We, the undersigned 4,269* Amazon employees, ask that you adopt the climate plan shareholder resolution and release a company-wide climate plan that incorporates the principles outlined in this letter.

Amazon has the resources and scale to spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible and necessary to address the climate crisis. We believe this is a historic opportunity for Amazon to stand with employees and signal to the world that we’re ready to be a climate leader.
Climate change is an existential threat. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicts that a warming of 2° Celsius, which we’re currently on track to surpass, will threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people and put thousands of species at risk of extinction.

We’re already seeing devastating climate impacts: unprecedented flooding in India and Mozambique, dry water wells in Africa, coastal displacement in Asia, wildfires and floods in North America, and crop failure in Latin America. Vulnerable communities least responsible for the climate crisis are already paying the highest price.


A six-point manifesto, including transition away from fossil fuels, prioritise climate impact, and also stop donating to climate-denying legislators. Let’s hope this is heard.
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How Russia sows confusion in the US vaccine debate • Foreign Policy

Katherine Kirk:


The existence of a Russian disinformation campaign that could make Americans hesitant to vaccinate their children highlights something important about the Kremlin’s information war on the United States. Moscow’s goal has never been to advantage Republicans or Democrats. Instead, it is after a far bigger prize: the exacerbation of Americans’ distrust of one another and, in turn, the erosion of their confidence in society and the U.S. government.

A recent study from David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University, and his co-authors found that thousands of Russian accounts used to spread disinformation had seized on anti-vaccine messaging.

After combing through nearly 2 million tweets recorded between 2014 and 2017, the researchers found that Russian troll accounts were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than general Twitter users. They had turned to vaccines as a wedge issue in an effort to ramp up social discord, erode trust in public health institutions, and exacerbate fear and division in the United States.

Three tweets from the study go a long way toward capturing the style of this disorienting campaign. In one round of keystrokes, a Russian-backed account lashed out: “#vaccines are a parent’s choice. Choice of a color of a little coffin #VaccinateUS.”In one round of keystrokes, a Russian-backed account lashed out: “#vaccines are a parent’s choice. Choice of a color of a little coffin #VaccinateUS.” Another went with: “Did you know there was a secret government database of #vaccine-damaged children? #VaccinateUS.”

Moving toward the opposite pole of the discussion, a Russian troll account tweeted: “Do you still treat your kids with leaves? No? And why don’t you #vaccinate them? Its medicine! #VaccinateUS.” The study suggested that by giving the illusion of a grassroots debate, complete with content pushing both for and against vaccination, Russia could better tap into the fears and divisions among Americans—and exploit them.


It’s easy to suggest that social media is the problem, but it’s credulity and lack of education that’s the real problem.
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China spying: the internet’s underwater cables are next • Bloomberg

James Stavridis:


Just as the experts are justifiably concerned about the inclusion of espionage “back doors” in Huawei’s 5G technology, western intelligence professionals oppose the company’s engagement in the undersea version, which provides a much bigger bang for the buck because so much data rides on so few cables.

Naturally, Huawei denies any manipulation of the cable sets it is constructing, even though the US and other nations say it is obligated by Chinese law to hand over network data to the government. The US last year restricted federal agencies using from using its 5G equipment; Huawei responded with a lawsuit in federal court. Washington is pressuring its allies to follow its lead — the American ambassador to Germany warned that allowing Chinese companies into its 5G project would mean reduced security cooperation from the US — but this is an uphill battle. Most nations and companies feel that better cell phone service is worth the security risks.

A similar dynamic is playing out underwater. How can the US address the security of undersea cables? There is no way to stop Huawei from building them, or to keep private owners from contracting with Chinese firms on modernizing them, based purely on suspicions. Rather, the US must use its cyber- and intelligence-gathering capability to gather hard evidence of back doors and other security risks. This will be challenging — the Chinese firms are technologically sophisticated and entwined with a virtual police state.


The US and UK are itchy about this because they know they can do it: there’s a lot of tapping of cables at the point where they leave the ocean. What if the cables have the tapping built in?
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Ikea and Sonos made the ultimate speaker lamp • The Verge

Chris Welch:


eventually, Ikea’s smart home app will integrate music controls for the speakers, allowing customers to build scenes that factor in the lamp, Ikea’s smart blinds, and any bulbs you own. (Sonos speakers can already be controlled entirely within Spotify, iHeartRadio, and other apps, so to see that extending to Ikea isn’t a surprise, given the significance of this partnership.) Who needs an alarm clock when your bedroom lamp can blast some music and switch on the light come morning?

The bookshelf speaker is the smallest speaker that Sonos has ever made (and it’s smaller than what you might expect based on its name), so I’m not very hopeful that it’s going to offer blow-away sound. Spence more or less confirmed that the bookshelf speaker won’t pack quite the same bass punch as the company’s regular lineup.

But he also said that Sonos’ TruePlay feature, which tunes a speaker’s audio output based on its position in a room, makes a big difference in improving sound quality for both the lamp and bookshelf products. [Sonos CEO Patrick] Spence expressed confidence that both speakers will sound better than anything else at their respective price points. I wish the bookshelf speaker had a rechargeable battery inside — it seems like a good size to take outside during a party — but that’s not the case. Either way, like most things Ikea, I think the goal here was to make something good enough for the masses.


Really not sure what I make of the idea of a lamp speaker.
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Black hole pictured for first time — in spectacular detail • Nature

Davide Castelvecchi:


The EHT ran another observing campaign in 2018 — the analysis of those data is still in the works — but cancelled a planned observation campaign this year because of security issues near one of its most important sites, the 50-metre LMT Large Millimeter Telescope in Puebla, Mexico. They plan to continue to do observations once a year starting in 2020.

The collaboration is now looking for funding to establish a foothold in Africa, which would fill in a major gap in the network. The plan is to relocate a 15-metre dish — a decommissioned Swedish telescope — from Chile to the Gamsberg Table Mountain in Namibia. For now, the network has already secured two major additions: a dish in Greenland and an array in the French Alps.

An expanded EHT network could provide detail on what happens inside the voids — “how the world behaves inside black holes, and if it is as we expected it to be”, says David Sánchez Argüelles, a physicist at the Large Millimeter Telescope.

“It was a great sense of relief to see this, but also surprise,” says Doeleman of the results. “You know what I was really expecting to see? A blob. To see this ring is probably the best outcome that we could have had.”


A planet-sized telescope. Visualising a black hole. Amazing.
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Mysterious hackers hid their ‘Swiss Army’ spyware for five years • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:


Kaspersky says it first detected the TajMahal spyware framework last fall, on only a single victim’s network: The embassy of a Central Asian country whose nationality and location Kaspersky declines to name. But given the software’s sophistication, Shulmin says TajMahal has likely been deployed elsewhere. “It seems highly unlikely that such a huge investment would be undertaken for only one victim,” he writes. “This suggests that there are either further victims not yet identified, or additional versions of this malware in the wild, or possibly both.”

Those initial findings may indicate a very cautious and discreet state-sponsored intelligence-gathering operation, says Jake Williams, a former member of the National Security Agency’s elite Tailored Access Operations hacking group. “The extensibility of it requires a large developer team,” Williams notes. He points out also that the ability to avoid detection and the single known victim suggest extreme care in targeting, stealth, and operation security. “There’s all kinds of stuff here that screams opsec and very regimented tasking.”

Shulmin says Kaspersky hasn’t yet been able to connect TajMahal, named for a file the spyware uses to move stolen data off a victim’s machine, to any known hacker groups with the usual methods of code-matching, shared infrastructure, or familiar techniques. Its Central Asian target doesn’t exactly provide any easy clues as to the hackers’ identities either, given the vagueness of that description and the countries with sophisticated hacker teams with Central Asian interests, including China, Iran, Russia and the US. Nor has Kaspersky determined how the hackers behind TajMahal gain initial access to a victim network. But they do note that the group plants an initial backdoor program on machines, which the hackers labelled Tokyo.


“Central Asia” implies somewhere in the ambit of Russia and China to me. Could be US, could be Israel, could be China, could be Russia.
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Does Donald Trump have dementia? We need to know – psychologist • USA Today

John Gartner is a former assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine:


In Alzheimer’s, as language skills deteriorate, we see two types of tell-tale speech disorders, or paraphasias.

“Semantic paraphasia” involves choosing the incorrect words. For instance, after Attorney General William Barr released a letter on the Mueller report, Trump said: “I hope they now go and take a  look at the oranges, the oranges of that investigation, the beginnings of that investigation.”

“Phonemic paraphasia”, which is linked to the moderate to severe stages of Alzheimer’s, is described as “the substitution of a word with a nonword that preserves at least half of the segments and/or number of syllables of the intended word.” For example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu becomes “Betanyahu,” big league becomes “bigly,” anonymous becomes “enenamas” or “anenomynous,” renovation becomes “renoversh,” missiles become “mishiz,” space capsule becomes “capsicle,” midterm elections become “midtowm” and “midturn” elections, and Christmas becomes “Chrissus.”

Trump’s speech patterns appear even more disordered when you go beyond the sound bite and look at a whole speech. He careens from one thought to the next in a parade of non sequiturs, frequently interrupting himself in the middle of a sentence to veer into another free association. When commentators described his two-hour  speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month as “unhinged,” they were referring in large part to this quality.


He’s always – or at least, in our public experience of him – caromed around from topic to topic, but it seems to be getting worse. He’s 72, and the pressures of the office are enormous, even allowing for time spent tweeting in bed. Don’t forget that Reagan certainly had Alzheimer’s in his second term. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Video of Apple’s W.A.L.T. In action – the 1993-edition iPhone • Sonny Dickson

Sonny Dickson:


There has been a lot said about Apple’s development of the iPhone, and the history and inspiration behind the device – such as this notable 1983 concept of a “Telephone Mac.” One of the most notable examples of this is Apple’s lesser known desk phone known as the W.A.L.T. (Wizzy Active Lifestyle Telephone).

The W.A.L.T., which was announced at MacWorld 1983, was never released to the public, and only a very small handful of prototypes were ever constructed for the device. One of the few known samples of this was sold on eBay for $8,000 back in 2012. It was even prototyped in both “classic Mac” color and a somewhat more “business looking” dark gray color.

While there are some key details known about the device, such as that it was designed in partnership with BellSouth and offered advanced features for its time, such as online banking access, a full touchscreen, fax and caller ID support, a built in address book, and even the ability to customize ringtones (it even featured Newton-like full handwriting support), a functioning version of the device has never, to my knowledge, been seen by “virgin eyes.”

We’ve obtained exclusive video footage showing the device in working order. The Mac System 6 powered device is fascinating to see in function, and although it seems primitive by today’s standards, it was certainly an impressive feat for 1993. The videos show many features of the device, including the handwriting recognition and address book, as well as the hardware controls.


It really is primitive by today’s standards, but also shows that people don’t limit their dreams to what can be effectively done today.
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Ampere: SVOD originals struggle to survive beyond two seasons • Broadband TV News


VoD services posted the lowest number of seasons with cancellations coming after an average of 2.1 seasons. Netflix accounts for 68% of VOD cancellations in the USA. 12 of Netflix’s 13 cancellations since September 2018 occurred at three seasons or lower, including four Marvel shows, as well as Originals comedies All About the Washingtons, The Good Cop and Friends from College. Over half of Netflix’s cancellations have been in the sci-fi genre. No streaming series was renewed or cancelled beyond a seventh season.

The Cable Networks account for nearly half of cancellations – 12 of their 29 cancelled titles were Comedy. Cancellations were spread out, occurring over 21 different networks, with no channel making more than three cancellations (AMC and Comedy Central).

The Broadcast Networks accounted for just 22% of cancellations and had by far the highest average cancellation season [seasons before cancellation] at 6.5. Long-running series reaching their conclusion include Supernatural (The CW) and Criminal Minds (CBS) at season 15, and Last Call with Carson Daly (NBC) ending after its 17th season. With half of broadcast networks’ cancellations occurring at season two or below, if a show leaps this hurdle, the potential to run and run is close to infinite.

Fred Black, Analyst at Ampere Analysis says: “The VOD services seem determined to drive subscriber growth through a continuous pipeline of new content, but this comes at the cost of missing out on long-running franchises like NBC’s Law & Order that keep customers coming back year after year, reducing churn.”


The more I think about this, the more I think it’s poor showrunning by the SVODs. Netflix pays hugely to have Friends and The Office US and other long-running series. Unless the calculation is that the actors in a long-running series could hold it to ransom, with little marginal benefit in subscriber numbers.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,042: Walmart gets robotic, Google’s kids app problem, China bans bitcoin miners, Brexit causes medicine shortages, and more

Consumer PC sales are forecast to slow – again. CC-licensed photo by DocChewbacca on Flickr.

A selection of 14 links for you. Sorry, long extension. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Walmart is rolling out the robots • WSJ

Sarah Nassauer and Chip Cutter:


Walmart is expanding its use of robots in stores to help monitor inventory, clean floors and unload trucks, part of the retail giant’s efforts to control labor costs as it spends more to raise wages and offer new services like online grocery delivery.

The country’s largest private employer said at least 300 stores this year will add machines that scan shelves for out-of-stock products. Autonomous floor scrubbers will be deployed in 1,500 stores to help speed up cleaning, after a test in hundreds of stores last year. And the number of conveyor belts that automatically scan and sort products as they come off trucks will more than double, to 1,200.

The company said the addition of a single machine can cut a few hours a day of work previously done by a human, or allow Walmart to allocate fewer people to complete a task, a large saving when spread around 4,600 US stores. Executives said they are focused on giving workers more time to do other tasks, and on hiring in growing areas like e-commerce.


What’s the betting they’ll go with “allocate fewer people to complete a task”? A fast-food diner I occasionally go to used to have waiter service; now you go to the counter to make your order. The staff dislike it (less interaction with people), diners dislike it (more queing), but guess what: more money for the owners.
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Google’s founders haven’t shown up at its weekly town halls in 2019 • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz and Caroline O’Donovan:


Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have yet to make an appearance at any of the company’s weekly “TGIF” town halls in 2019, BuzzFeed News has learned. Their absence from these meetings, the longest attendance lapse in company history, comes at a time when Google is wrestling with tough questions from its employees on a variety of issues, ranging from harassment to censorship.

The town halls give Google employees a chance to ask questions of leadership with no limitations, and are a key element of Google’s transparent workplace culture. They regularly feature an introduction from leadership, a presentation from a team, followed by time for employee questions. For years, Page and Brin have attended, either individually or together, and faced questions from Google’s rank and file about the company and its direction. Asked when their last TGIF appearance was, Google declined to comment.

“I don’t think they’ve ever missed more than a few consecutively, and definitely not both,” one Google employee said. “It’s a double act! One of them was consistently always there at minimum.”

Their withdrawal isn’t entirely unexpected, according to a company source. The cofounders planned to step back their Google involvement when they formed Alphabet in 2015…


Are they bored with their toy? Uninterested in their staff? Yet Google’s facing more questions than ever.
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Google’s Play Store is packed with nasty, violent games aimed at kids • WIRED UK

K.G Orphanides:


Mad Max Zombies, an Android first-person shooter full of spurting blood, disturbing imagery of walking corpses and realistic firearms, was rated by its creator as Pegi 3 – a rating that’s considered suitable for all age groups, with no sounds or pictures that are likely to frighten young children and only the mildest, most childlike depictions of violence.

It’s just one gory example of a growing problem. The Play Store is full of apps that defy Google’s age rating policy and filtering tools. Some of these games have been installed millions of times. After we sent Google a sample of 36 games with inappropriate content for their ratings and a further 16 with other forms of dubious content and permissions, including some which tracked the location of users, 16 games have so far either been entirely removed or re-released with revised ratings and permissions…

…In contrast to Apple, which has a strict age rating policy and approval process on all apps, Google seemingly does not invest its profits into building a robust, human-monitored system to ensure that all age ratings across its platform are correct. In fact, there’s very little control whatsoever of ratings given to games that can be downloaded by children through the Play Store. Behind the scenes, each game’s age appropriateness is assigned automatically by a questionnaire filled in by its creator. For anyone downloading a game, the Play Store displays an official Pegi age rating, despite there being no manual monitoring and rating for individual titles.


Too reliant on algorithms. If Apple can afford humans to check this stuff, why can’t Google?
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Chinese state planner wants to ban crypto mining • Decrypt

Ben Munster:


Chinese state planners want to phase out China’s vast Bitcoin and cryptocurrency mining sector, in a move that will further push miners away from the country—which controls an estimated 74% of global Bitcoin mining power.

On Monday, the National Development and Reform Commission listed the enormous cryptocurrency mining sector among various other industries slated to be “eliminated,” saying the enormous wattage required to secure the Bitcoin network—and those of other cryptocurrencies—could be put to better use elsewhere, according to Reuters.

The news comes several months after China enacted a nationwide ban on cryptocurrencies, crypto news sites and crypto startups, while simultaneously building out its blockchain capabilities for surveillance purposes. Miners—many of which are situated in the energy rich provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan—have also begun to flee amid the clampdown, with mining giant Bitmain relocating to Singapore in January.


Love the “building out its blockchain capabilities for surveillance purposes” – which is slightly “but it’s so UNFAIR that they’re using this and stopping that.” Think this is going to crimp bitcoin quite a bit, quite soon.
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YouTube is developing choose-your-own-adventure programs • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw:


YouTube is developing choose-your-own-adventure-style shows, exploring a new storytelling format that could increase viewers and ad sales for the world’s largest video website.

An new unit will develop interactive programming and live specials under Ben Relles, who had been overseeing unscripted programs, the Google-owned company said Tuesday. Relles, who has worked at YouTube for eight years, just started in the role and is still exploring the best ways for YouTube viewers to participate in stories.

Producers have tried for years to tell stories that let viewers pick different outcomes, but only recently has the technology advanced enough to entice large investments from some of the world’s top media companies.

“We now have amazing new tools and opportunities to create and tell multilayered and interactive stories,” Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s head of original programming, said in a statement.


Notice that it has shut down its VR studios, but is opening up this avenue. Netflix has really blazed a trail here with Bandersnatch, but it’s difficult to pull that off again and again.
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Roblox games platform plans European expansion • Financial Times

Aliya Ram:


About a quarter of the company’s users are based in Europe, where it has been growing faster than the US, according to Chris Misner, president of Roblox International. 

He said Roblox, which was founded in 2004, had completed its first wave of growth in the US and Commonwealth countries and would now look to continental Europe and Asian markets for further growth. 

“We expect Europe to overtake the US in the next one or two years,” he said. “In Asia we are seeing green shoots, and I’m spending time looking at different markets out there.”

Roblox’s rise has gone relatively unnoticed by many adults, but its monthly active userbase of 90m people rivals some of the world’s most popular games, including shooting blockbuster Fortnite and Microsoft’s Minecraft, which have 78.3m and 91m monthly active users respectively, according to figures reported last year.

Unlike those titles, Roblox acts as a marketplace where users build their own games and virtual worlds that become more or less prominent based on their popularity with users. In this respect, the platform has become like a YouTube for games, which founder David Baszucki said enables developers to monetise their inventions. 


Cultural influences – principally, news organisation managers’ indifference to video games – means that this whole sector is underreported.
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What kind of local news is Facebook featuring on Today In? Crime, car crashes, and not too much community • Nieman Journalism Lab

Christine Schmidt:


If you don’t know what “Today In” is, don’t feel too bad — not many Facebook users do. Only about 1.1 million users have opted in to it in their app. (Check the hamburger-menu tab; you may have to tap on “More” to see it. It may sometimes pop up in your News Feed.) It began in a few test cities in early 2018 and it’s now live in 400-plus cities in the United States.

To see what sort of news it was surfacing, I tracked Today In’s stories for 10 different cities over a Monday–Friday period. The cities are a mix of big and small, some of which you’ll probably recognize without the state — Raleigh, New Orleans, Akron, Boise — and some you might not — Somerville, Massachusetts; Kingsport, Tennessee; Fort Pierce, Florida; Katy, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska, and Toms River, New Jersey. Some are close to places Facebook considers “news deserts”; others still have a comparatively rich local news ecosystem. I noted the first five stories shared each afternoon in each city. (You can get more by tapping a “see more” button.) It’s not the most scientific method, but it’s a pretty good scan of what Facebook is surfacing.

What did I see? Satire, obituaries from funeral home websites, lots of local TV, and a weird network of sites that scrape other local news and yet somehow make it into Facebook’s scanner. And again, over half of the news was just crime, courts, and dead bodies.


Basically, having laid waste to local journalism (along with Google), Facebook now finds there’s none to report. But also: its algorithms don’t know how or where to look.
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Brexit ‘already causing medicine shortages’ at pharmacies in England • The Guardian

Lisa O’Carroll:


Brexit has contributed to a shortage of certain medicines at pharmacies in England, according to a body that represents the sector.

It comes as a medical charity says anxiety over drugs shortages has risen among epilepsy patients because of Brexit, potentially causing them further health issues.

Supply issues partly blamed on Brexit contingency planning have caused an official list of “concession” priced medicines – those drugs for which the NHS will pay a higher than usual tariff – to reach its longest since 2014, when the system was introduced.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which draws up the list, said Britain’s planned exit from the EU coupled with manufacturers’ views of the country as a less attractive market had caused these significant problems.

Medicines are usually added to the concessions list when manufacturers or wholesalers raise their prices because of factors such as supply issues. The list is considered a good measure for increases in shortages.

Ninety-six medicines appear on the concessions list, including the common painkiller naproxen and certain morphine products prescribed to cancer patients.

Simon Dukes, the chief executive of PSNC, said: “Community pharmacies are reporting increasing problems sourcing some generic medicines for their patients.”


The irony is that it’s the older demographic, who mostly voted for Leave, who are now being affected. It might even shorten their lives. (I heard exactly the same point about medicine shortages, and the same reason, from my doctor the morning this story appeared.)
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Record 83% of surveyed US teens own an iPhone • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


A record 83% of U.S. teens own an iPhone as of spring 2019, according to investment bank Piper Jaffray’s semiannual “Taking Stock With Teens” survey of around 8,000 high school students. Respondents were roughly 54% male and 46% female with an average age of 16.3 years.

Meanwhile, 86% of U.S. teens expect their next smartphone to be an iPhone, matching an all-time high set in fall 2018. This metric has steadily grown in Apple’s favor over the years, rising from 75% in spring 2016.

iPhone popularity among teens is a good sign for Apple, as many of them could stick with the iPhone as an adult. Teens also become locked into the Apple ecosystem at an early age, becoming accustomed to services like iMessage, Apple Music, and iCloud as well as accessories like the AirPods and Apple Watch.

The survey found that 27% of US teens own a smartwatch, while 22% of respondents plan to purchase an Apple Watch within the next six months. By comparison, 20% of teens said they plan to purchase an Apple Watch in the next six months in the year-ago survey.


That’s a lot of Apple Watches. Surely the peak audience.
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A powerful spyware app now targets iPhone owners • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:


Security researchers have discovered a powerful surveillance app first designed for Android devices can now target victims with iPhones.

The spy app, found by researchers at mobile security firm Lookout, said its developer abused their Apple-issued enterprise certificates to bypass the tech giant’s app store to infect unsuspecting victims.

The disguised carrier assistance app once installed can silently grab a victim’s contacts, audio recordings, photos, videos and other device information — including their real-time location data. It can be remotely triggered to listen in on people’s conversations, the researchers found. Although there was no data to show who might have been targeted, the researchers noted that the malicious app was served from fake sites purporting to be cell carriers in Italy and Turkmenistan.

Researchers linked the app to the makers of a previously discovered Android app, developed by the same Italian surveillance app maker Connexxa, known to be in use by the Italian authorities.


What’s not clear is whether the app could grab those contacts, photos etc without the user’s permission, or whether iOS’s permissions structure is robust against that threat. Of course the social engineering side – “this app needs to access…” – can still work.
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Just like cops snared the Golden State killer, we tried to track down BuzzFeed employees from their DNA • Buzzfeed News

Peter Aldhous:


How hard is it to crack cases in this way? And what issues does it raise, as police recruit genealogists to help them solve crimes by sifting through the perpetrators’ extended family trees?

To explore these questions, my editor Virginia Hughes and I conjured up an experiment: She would recruit BuzzFeed employees to play the role of “suspects” and get their DNA tested with a company used by genealogy enthusiasts. She’d then download their DNA profiles, containing data on hundreds of thousands of genetic markers, and send the files to me labeled with randomly chosen fake names. Then I’d play genealogy “detective” and try to figure out who they really were.

In the end, I identified 6 out of our 10 volunteers. Four of those cases I solved by tracking them down through their relatives’ family trees, much as the cops did with DeAngelo. In a twist I didn’t anticipate, I found two more not through their relatives, but simply because their ancestry indicated that their family came from a specific country — raising uncomfortable questions about genetic racial profiling.


Pretty soon people are going to start doing this for their own entertainment. And then you’ll get people claiming to have solved murders. It could get to be a big mess.
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Global device shipments will be flat in 2019 • Gartner


“For the eighth consecutive year, the PC market is at a standstill,” said Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner. “PC shipments will total 258 million units in 2019, a 0.6% decline from 2018.” Traditional PCs are set to decline 3% in 2019 to total 189 million units.

Worldwide Device Shipments by Device Type, 2018-2021 (Millions of Units)

Device Type





Traditional PCs (Desk-Based and Notebook)





Ultramobiles (Premium)





Total PC Market





Ultramobiles (Basic and Utility)





Computing Device Market





Mobile Phones





Total Device Market





Source: Gartner (April 2019)

Slow upgrade on phones (though by 2023 foldables might be 5% of high-end phones – that’s tiny), and consumers are retiring but not replacing their PCs. Tech stasis.


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We may be just days away from seeing a black hole for the first time ever • BGR

Mike Wehner:


The Event Horizon researchers are going all-out with the announcement, which is scheduled for this Wednesday, and they’ll be holding press conferences in multiple languages simultaneously all around the globe.

The official announcement promises plenty of information as well as “audiovisual material” which we can only hope includes the first-ever images of a black hole.

Countless theories, calculations, and estimations have been made about black holes, leading science to suspect a jet black “pit” of sorts with gravitational pull so intense that nothing can escape it. What a real black hole actually looks like, however, could differ significantly. There’s a lot riding on what we see on Wednesday, and while we’ve seen black holes in science fiction for decades, we might be in for a surprise.

The images, once we see them, will have been made possible by a planet-wide network of telescopes working in unison to peer deeper into the galaxy than ever before. The Event Horizon Telescope project’s primary goal has always been to image a black hole, and they’re now just days away from delivering on that promise.

The announcement is scheduled for 0900 EST [1400 BST, 0600 PST] on Wednesday, April 10th. And the entire event will be streamed online via Facebook as well as the ESO’s official website.


That’s today, if you’re reading this on April 10. Let’s hope it’s more than a slide with a black dot at the centre.
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Fiat Chrysler pools fleet with Tesla to avoid EU emissions fines • Financial Times

Patrick McGee and Peter Campbell:


Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has agreed to pay Tesla hundreds of millions of euros so the electric carmaker’s vehicles are counted in its fleet in order to avoid large fines for breaking tough new EU emissions rules.

The move will allow FCA to offset CO2 emissions from its cars against Tesla’s, lowering its average figure to a permissible level. From next year, the EU’s target for average CO2 emissions from cars is 95g per kilometre.

In 2018, average emissions were 120.5g per kilometre, according to data supplier Jato Dynamics. FCA averaged 123g last year, according to UBS, which said the carmaker had the “highest risk of not meeting the target”.

Analysts at Jefferies forecast FCA could face fines in excess of €2bn in 2021 when the new targets become law. A study by PA Consulting last year said FCA was likely to exceed the target by 6.7g of CO2 per kilometre — the biggest gap among the 13 carmakers it profiled. 


Tesla getting more money must be a good thing; its very existence is pushing other vehicle makers towards electric. But this is a scuzzy way to do it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

Start Up No.1,041: the real US tax rate (it’s high!), when Google sees itself, the Mar-a-Lago incursion, dogs can smell epilepsy, and more

Watching Netflix: but with whose password? CC-licensed photo by Stock Catalog on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Still not fired. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

US workers are highly taxed if you count premiums • People’s Policy Project

Matt Bruenig:


The OECD may not be able to include employer-based health insurance premiums into its model, but I certainly can. And when I add them into the OECD model, I find that the average American worker has one of the highest compulsory payment rates in the developed world.

For this analysis, I take the information from the OECD’s Taxing Wages model and combine it with data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS). The MEPS data shows the average premium for employer insurance, broken down by type of coverage (family or single) and payer (employer or employee). By counting those average premiums as NTCPs, we can compute a compulsory payment rate that is comparable to the compulsory payment rates the OECD produces for other countries.

To be clear about what I am doing here, the following graph provides a detailed breakdown of the difference between what we normally think of as “employee taxes” and the OECD concept of “compulsory payments.” This graph is for a married wage-earner with two kids who earns the average wage and has a family insurance plan through their employer.


The Netherlands has compulsory private pensions as well as compulsory private health insurance. The UK’s down there at 26.1%; Denmark and Norway and Sweden, those crazy socialist places, are 26.7%, 32.4% and 38.3%. And the US up there at 43.2%.

Because private health insurance is inefficient compared to government-run healthcare. Monopsony works, sometimes.
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Does Google meet its users’ expectations around consumer privacy? This news industry research says no • Nieman Journalism Lab

Jason Kint:


Digital Content Next surveyed a nationally representative sample1 to find out what people expect from Google — and, as with a similar study we conducted last year about Facebook, the results were unsettling.

Our findings show that many of Google’s data practices deviate from consumer expectations. We find it even more significant that consumer’s expectations are at an all-time low even after 2018, a year in which awareness around consumer privacy reached peak heights.

The results of the study are consistent with our Facebook study: People don’t want surveillance advertising. A majority of consumers indicated they don’t expect to be tracked across Google’s services, let alone be tracked across the web in order to make ads more targeted.

Q: Do you expect Google to collect data about a person’s activities on Google platforms (e.g. Android and Chrome) and apps (e.g. Search, YouTube, Maps, Waze)?
YES: 48%NO: 52%

Q: Do you expect Google to track a person’s browsing across the web in order to make ads more targeted?
YES: 43%NO: 57%

Nearly two out of three consumers don’t expect Google to track them across non-Google apps, offline activities from data brokers, or via their location history.


Don’t expect – or perhaps aren’t aware that it’s capable of doing.
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Terrifying blog documents the times when the Google camera catches itself in a mirror • It’s Nice That

Liv Siddall:


Internet-loving artist Mario Santamaria has taken advantage of Google’s scheme to take the world into art galleries and ornate buildings all over the world by collecting screenshots of moments where the Google camera catches its own reflection in a mirror.

Ghostly figures interact with the camera in some shots, and in others the machinery is draped with a weird silver cloth – first prize goes to the person who can identify what this cloth actually does. For me this is the best Google-related blog since Jon Rafman’s 9 Eyes and is hopefully a new dawn for simple, spine-tingling projects that linger with you just a smidge longer than you’d like.


These are some weird, weird pictures. Like 2001’s end sequence.
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To stop copycats, Snapchat shares itself • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:


Snapchat’s plan is to let other apps embed the best parts of it rather than building their own half-rate copies.

Why reinvent the wheel of Stories, Bitmoji, and ads when you can reuse the original? A high-ranking Snap executive told me on background that this is indeed the strategy. If it’s going to invent these products, and others want something similar, it’s smarter to enable and partly control the Snapchatification than to try to ignore it. Otherwise, Facebook might be the one to platform-tize what Snap inspired everyone to want.

The “Camera company” corrected course and took back control of its destiny this week at its first ever Snap Partner Summit in its hometown of Los Angeles. Now it’s a camera platform thanks to Snap Kit. Its new Story Kit will implant Snapchat Stories into other apps later this year. They can display a more traditional carousel of your friends’ Stories, or lace them into their app in a custom format. Houseparty’s Stories carousel shares what your buddies are up to outside of the group video chat app. Tinder will let you show off your Snapchat Story alongside your photos to seduce potential matches. But the camera stays inside Snapchat, with new options to share out to these App Stories.

This is how Snapchat colonizes the native app ecosystem similarly to how Facebook invaded the web with the Like button.


I’ll admit, I don’t really get this. So we’re going to get the confusing Snapchat interface all over the place? Or Snapchat is going to learn what its interface ought to be?

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14% of Netflix users share passwords: survey • Recode

Peter Kafka and Rani Molla:


Odds are very good that if you’re reading this, you watch Netflix. Are you paying for Netflix? That’s another story.

The streaming service says it has at least 139 million paid subscribers around the world. But there are decent odds that many more people are watching Netflix and letting someone else pay for it.

A new survey from analysts MoffettNathanson finds that 14% of US Netflix users admit that they’re watching the service using an account paid for by someone they don’t live with. That is, they’re watching Netflix even though they’re not technically supposed to be watching Netflix.

As analyst Michael Nathanson points out, Netflix (which has not gone out of its way — at all — to stop password sharers) can view this as a half-empty/half-full situation.

On the plus side, he figures Netflix non-payers currently represent some 8 million users who could eventually be persuaded to pay for Triple Frontier and other Netflix content. On the other hand, if those non-payers never end up paying, they end up reducing Netflix’s growth prospects.

Another very interesting data point from Nathanson’s survey is that Netflix users love stuff like Triple Frontier and Friends and everything else in the company’s huge catalog. But content isn’t the only reason they love Netflix: They love the Netflix product itself — an ad-free, on-demand service that lets you watch whatever you want (assuming Netflix has it), whenever you want, as many times as you want.


Biggest reason people like Netflix? “I like not being interrupted by ads.” US TV is so screwed up. (Also: 55% of Netflix users say they have a personal subscription, 27% a family subscription. That 14% is probably low.)
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Feds: woman arrested at Mar-a-Lago had hidden-camera detector • Miami Herald

Jay Weaver, Sarah Blaskey, Caitlin Ostroff, and Nicholas Nehamas:


A federal prosecutor argued in court Monday that Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman arrested trying to enter President Donald Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach last month, “lies to everyone she encounters” and said a search of her hotel room uncovered more than $8,000 in cash, as well as a “signal-detector” device used to reveal hidden cameras.

Also uncovered in the search: $7,500 in US hundred-dollar bills and $663 in Chinese currency, in addition to nine USB drives, five SIM cards and other electronics, according to federal prosecutor Rolando Garcia.

Prosecutors are treating the case as a national-security matter and an FBI counterintelligence squad is investigating, sources familiar with the inquiry told the Miami Herald.

Zhang gave conflicting accounts of why she came to Mar-a-Lago on March 30, at one point saying she had been invited to attend a social event…

…Secret Service agent Samuel Ivanovich, who interviewed Zhang on the day of her arrest, testified at the hearing. He stated that when another agent put Zhang’s thumb-drive into his computer, it immediately began to install files, a “very out-of-the-ordinary” event that he had never seen happen before during this kind of analysis. The agent had to immediately stop the analysis to halt any further corruption of his computer, Ivanovich said. The analysis is ongoing but still inconclusive, he testified.


D’oh! You put the thumb drive in your sikrit FBI Computer?! (Among suggested tags for this story: “idiots”.)
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Researchers find Google Play store apps were actually government malware • Motherboard

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai and Riccardo Coluccini:


Hackers working for a surveillance company infected hundreds of people with several malicious Android apps that were hosted on the official Google Play Store for months, Motherboard has learned.

In the past, both government hackers and those working for criminal organizations have uploaded malicious apps to the Play Store. This new case once again highlights the limits of Google’s filters that are intended to prevent malware from slipping onto the Play Store. In this case, more than 20 malicious apps went unnoticed by Google over the course of roughly two years.

Motherboard has also learned of a new kind of Android malware on the Google Play store that was sold to the Italian government by a company that sells surveillance cameras but was not known to produce malware until now. Experts told Motherboard the operation may have ensnared innocent victims as the spyware appears to have been faulty and poorly targeted. Legal and law enforcement experts told Motherboard the spyware could be illegal.


Italy’s government subsequently shut down the malware infrastructure and investigated the company behind the spyware.
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Dogs demonstrate the existence of an epileptic seizure odour in humans • Nature

A six-strong team at the University of Rennes:


Although different studies have shown that diseases such as breast or lung cancer are associated with specific bodily odours, no study has yet tested the possibility that epileptic seizures may be reflected in an olfactory profile, probably because there is a large variety of seizure types. The question is whether a “seizure-odour”, that would be transversal to individuals and types of seizures, exists. This would be a pre requisite for potential anticipation, either by electronic systems (e.g., e-noses) or trained dogs.

The aim of the present study therefore was to test whether trained dogs, as demonstrated for cancer or diabetes, may discriminate a general epileptic seizure odor (different from body odours of the same person in other contexts and common to different persons). The results were very clear: all dogs discriminated the seizure odour. The sensitivity and specificity obtained were amongst the highest shown up to now for discrimination of diseases.


You think you could get a machine to do this? Dogs are about 100,000 times more sensitive to such smells than electronic noses. They’re also able to detect colon cancer, and the onset of migraines.

And yet the internet is stuffed with cat videos?
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Amazon shoppers misled by ‘bundled’ star-ratings and reviews •| The Guardian

Hilary Osborne:


The research found:

• Badly translated or updated Kindle versions of Emma by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which include references to “moms”, “guys” and “buddies”, but appear to have 4.5-star ratings from hundreds of reviewers.

• A 2017 TV version of Dirty Dancing that shares the 4.5-star reviews of the original film, despite being described by Hollywood Reporter as a “bloated” remake “that nobody asked for and nobody is likely to truly enjoy”.

• Reviews for Wuthering Heights appearing under listings for Jane Eyre, and vice versa.

• Complaints from consumers who said they had been misled when buying books from a variety of authors – from JK Rowling to Shakespeare.

• Star ratings being combined for different products in other departments, from electronics to gardening equipment.

The problems with some reviews seem to go back years, with complaints from readers pointing out they were appearing under the wrong works and editions since at least 2014.


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Start Up No.1,040: Netflix crashlands AirPlay, is Facebook the new Microsoft?, Google’s AI ethics board disbands, how to make remote working work, and more

What do we do when the antibiotics stop working? CC-licensed photo by mostly*harmless on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A mysterious infection, spanning the globe in a climate of secrecy • The New York Times

Matt Richtel and Andrew Jacobs:


The germ, a fungus called Candida auris, preys on people with weakened immune systems, and it is quietly spreading across the globe. Over the last five years, it has hit a neonatal unit in Venezuela, swept through a hospital in Spain, forced a prestigious British medical center to shut down its intensive care unit, and taken root in India, Pakistan and South Africa.

Recently C. auris reached New York, New Jersey and Illinois, leading the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to add it to a list of germs deemed “urgent threats.”

The man at Mount Sinai died after 90 days in the hospital, but C. auris did not. Tests showed it was everywhere in his room, so invasive that the hospital needed special cleaning equipment and had to rip out some of the ceiling and floor tiles to eradicate it.

“Everything was positive — the walls, the bed, the doors, the curtains, the phones, the sink, the whiteboard, the poles, the pump,” said Dr. Scott Lorin, the hospital’s president. “The mattress, the bed rails, the canister holes, the window shades, the ceiling, everything in the room was positive.”

C. auris is so tenacious, in part, because it is impervious to major antifungal medications, making it a new example of one of the world’s most intractable health threats: the rise of drug-resistant infections.


Between this and climate change, we’re really racing towards giant problems in the next decades.
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Netflix confirms it killed AirPlay support, won’t let you beam shows to Apple TVs anymore • The Verge

Sean Hollister:


With no warning and little explanation, Netflix has removed the easiest way to sling its shows from one Apple device to another: AirPlay.

Netflix confirmed to The Verge that it pulled the wireless casting feature this past week, due to what it’s calling a “technical limitation.” But it’s not the kind of technical limitation you’d think.

You see, Apple recently partnered with most of the major TV brands to allow AirPlay 2 to send shows directly to their 2019 TV sets with a firmware update later this year, but a Netflix spokeperson tells me AirPlay 2 doesn’t have digital identifiers to let Netflix tell those TVs apart — and so the company can’t certify its users are getting the best Netflix experience when casting to those new sets.

So now, it’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater and pulling the plug on AirPlay, period. “We can’t distinguish which device is which, we can’t actually certify the devices… so we’ve had to just shut down support for it,” a Netflix spokesperson says.

To be clear, that means Apple TV set-top box users can no longer cast Netflix, either.


Oh, sure. “ ensure our standard of quality for viewing is being met.” As if smart TVs don’t have a zillion settings – aspect ratio, zoom, motion smoothing – that Netflix completely ignores, even though they don’t give people the best quality for viewing.

It comes across as a pissant tit-for-tat, coming just after Apple announced its own video channel offering (but no date or price). All it does is inconvenience Netflix users; you’re not going to get people who own at least one Apple device (casting the show) to give it up just for this. And a smart TV will surely have the Netflix app on it, so this is doubly pointless.
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Google asked 5,600 employees about remote work. This is what they learned • Fast Company

Ruth Reader:


Working remotely can be really tough. To get some insight into how to do it better, Google conducted a two-year study involving data from 5,600 employees across the US, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Approximately 30% of the company’s meetings involve staff in more than two time zones, and 39% involve more than two cities. Veronica Gilrane, manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab, oversaw the study and has written a guide for how to make the most of distributed teams. Today, she is releasing a report of her findings.

On the outset of the study, the team hypothesized that distributed teams might not be as productive as their centrally located counterparts. “We were a little nervous about that,” says Gilrane. She was surprised to find that distributed teams performed just as well. Unfortunately, she also found that there is a lot more frustration involved in working remotely. Workers in other offices can sometimes feel burdened to sync up their schedules with the main office. They can also feel disconnected from the team.


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Samsung Electronics flags earnings miss as chip prices slide • Reuters

Ju-min Park and Heekyong Yang:


Samsung Electronics said on Tuesday first-quarter profit would likely miss market expectations due to falls in chip prices and slowing demand for display panels, in an unprecedented statement ahead of its earnings guidance.

The announcement came after the Apple Inc supplier and rival told shareholders last week that slack global economic growth and softer demand for memory chips, its core business, would weigh on operations in 2019.

“The company expects the scope of price declines in main memory chip products to be larger than expected,” Samsung said in a regulatory filing pre-empting its earnings guidance due next week.

Samsung did not elaborate on the purpose of its filing. A company official confirmed the global leader in smartphones, televisions and computer chips had not previously provided comment before its official earnings estimate.

The firm was forecast to post a 7.2 trillion won (US$6.4bn) operating profit for the January-March period, according to Refinitiv SmartEstimate, more than 50% below the 15.6 trillion won recorded in the same period a year ago.

Its sales were expected to fall to 53.7 trillion won from 60.6 trillion won a year ago, Refinitiv shows.


Chips and displays have been the driver of Samsung’s profits for a while now; memory chips have seen a glut worldwide, though.
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Exclusive: Google cancels AI ethics board in response to outcry • Vox

Kelsey Piper:


Thursday afternoon, a Google spokesperson told Vox that the company has decided to dissolve the panel, called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), entirely. Here is the company’s statement in full:


It’s become clear that in the current environment, ATEAC can’t function as we wanted. So we’re ending the council and going back to the drawing board. We’ll continue to be responsible in our work on the important issues that AI raises, and will find different ways of getting outside opinions on these topics.


The panel was supposed to add outside perspectives to ongoing AI ethics work by Google engineers, all of which will continue. Hopefully, the cancellation of the board doesn’t represent a retreat from Google’s AI ethics work, but a chance to consider how to more constructively engage outside stakeholders.


It was a total AI-wash (we need a better word), and good riddance. The board wouldn’t have agreed on anything, and there’s no indication Google would have taken any notice of what they said, or if they could have said it publicly. The puzzle is who at Google thought it was a good idea, and picked those people. Many more questions around this.
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Microsoft, Facebook, trust and privacy • Benedict Evans

Evans finds strong parallels, 25-odd years apart:


much like the [creators of the] Microsoft macro viruses, the ‘bad actors’ on Facebook did things that were in the manual. They didn’t prise open a locked window at the back of the building – they knocked on the front door and walked in. They did things that you were supposed to be able to do, but combined them in an order and with malign intent that hadn’t really been anticipated.

It’s also interesting to compare the public discussion of Microsoft and of Facebook before these events. In the 1990s, Microsoft was the ‘evil empire’, and a lot of the narrative within tech focused on how it should be more open, make it easier for people to develop software that worked with the Office monopoly, and make it easier to move information in and out of its products. Microsoft was ‘evil’ if it did anything to make life harder for developers. Unfortunately, whatever you thought of this narrative, it pointed in the wrong direction when it came to this use case. Here, Microsoft was too open, not too closed.

Equally, in the last 10 years many people have argued that Facebook is too much of a ‘walled garden’ – that is is too hard to get your information out and too hard for researchers to pull information from across the platform. People have argued that Facebook was too restrictive on how third party developers could use the platform. And people have objected to Facebook’s attempts to enforce the single real identities of accounts. As for Microsoft, there may well have been justice in all of these arguments, but also as for Microsoft, they pointed in the wrong direction when it came to this particular scenario. For the Internet Research Agency, it was too easy to develop for Facebook, too easy to get data out, and too easy to change your identity. The walled garden wasn’t walled enough. 


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Fun fact: GPS uses 10 bits to store the week. That means it runs out… oh heck – April 6, 2019 • The Register

Shaun Nichols:


Older satnavs and such devices won’t be able to use America’s Global Positioning System properly after April 6 unless they’ve been suitably updated or designed to handle a looming epoch rollover.

GPS signals from satellites include a timestamp, needed in part to calculate one’s location, that stores the week number using ten binary bits. That means the week number can have 210 or 1,024 integer values, counting from zero to 1,023 in this case. Every 1,024 weeks, or roughly every 20 years, the counter rolls over from 1,023 to zero.

The first Saturday in April will mark the end of the 1,024th week, after which the counter will spill over from 1,023 to zero. The last time the week number overflowed like this was in 1999, nearly two decades on from the first epoch in January 1980.

You can see where this is going. If devices in use today are not designed or patched to handle this latest rollover, they will revert to an earlier year after that 1,024th week in April, causing attempts to calculate position to potentially fail. System and navigation data could even be corrupted, we’re warned.


Newer devices are fine, though the Samsung Galaxy S2 seems to be affected. The weird way GPS counts time (using 1.5 second increments) is worth reading.
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The people behind ByteDance’s app factory • The Information

Yunan Zhang:


ByteDance’s huge headcount [of 40,000, more than Facebook’s 35,600 full-time staff] is the reflection of a nagging reality. The firm bills itself not as a content platform but as primarily an artificial intelligence business whose algorithms can automatically match any kind of content to users. But its operations are labor-intensive.

About half of the company’s labor force is engaged in either ad sales or content moderation. About 10,000 employees work on the ad sales side, trying to sell ad space in ByteDance apps to China’s small, medium and large enterprises. Many are employed in call centers, focused on recruiting new advertisers and trying to draw away advertisers from rival platforms like Baidu. These salespeople have high performance goals. Running the company’s monetization team is Zhang Lidong. Before joining ByteDance, he was an experienced journalist and head of advertising at a newspaper, the Beijing Times.

So far, ByteDance’s advertising revenue is nearly all derived from the domestic market. It’s unclear how it will build out a sales channel overseas once it starts marketing its platform to advertisers and whether it will require additional hires for sales teams.

Another 10,000 employees, spread across different products, monitor the content on ByteDance apps, including Toutiao and the domestic version of TikTok, called Douyin. Their task is to make sure content abides by China’s rules. China’s censorship rules are vague and often fluid. What’s OK to publish today is suddenly forbidden tomorrow, depending on opaque internal Communist Party dictates. President Xi Jinping has tightened the party’s grip on online expression. ByteDance has also faced claims that it is helping to spread gossip and disinformation.

ByteDance has in the past run afoul of China’s strict censorship regime, which even ordered the shutdown of a ByteDance popular comedy app. When last year ByteDance hired an extra 2,000 content moderators, it gave priority to hiring Communist Party members.


Got that? A quarter of its staff are there for content moderation. Depending on your viewpoint, that’s either proportionate, or crazy.
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Android TV update puts home-screen ads on multi-thousand-dollar Sony Smart TVs • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


The advertising is a “Sponsored Channel” part of the “Android TV Core Services” app that ships with all Android TV devices. A “Channel” in Android TV parlance means an entire row of thumbnails in the UI will be dedicated to “sponsored” content. Google provided XDA Developers with a statement saying that yes, this is on purpose, but for now it’s a “pilot program.”

Sony has tersely worded a support page detailing the “Sponsored channel,” too. There’s no mention here of it being a pilot program. Sony’s page, titled “A sponsored channel has suddenly appeared on my TV Home menu,” says, “This change is included in the latest Android TV Launcher app (Home app) update. The purpose is to help you discover new apps and contents for your TV.”

Sony goes on to say, “This channel is managed by Google” and “the Sponsored channel cannot be customized.” Sony basically could replace the entire page with a “Deal with it” sunglasses gif, and it would send the same message.

Buying a product knowing it has ads in it is one thing, but users on Reddit and elsewhere are understandably angry about ads suddenly being patched into their devices—especially in cases when these devices are multi-thousand-dollar 4K Sony televisions. There is an option to disable the ads if you dig into the settings but users are reporting the ads aren’t staying disabled. For now, uninstalling updates for the “Android TV Core Services” app is the best way to remove the ads.


“But that’s my nature,” said the scorpion.
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Apple hires AI expert Ian Goodfellow from Google • CNBC

Jordan Novet:


Goodfellow updated his LinkedIn profile on Thursday to acknowledge that he moved from Google to Apple in March. He said he’s a director of machine learning in the Special Projects Group. In addition to developing AI for features like FaceID and Siri, Apple also has been working on autonomous driving technology. Recently the autonomous group had a round of layoffs.

A Google spokesperson confirmed his departure. Apple declined to comment. Goodfellow didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Goodfellow is the father of an AI approach known as generative adversarial networks, or GANs. The approach draws on two networks, one known as a generative network and the other known as a discriminative network, and can be used to come up with unusual and creative outputs in the form of audio, video and text.

GAN systems have been used to generate “deepfake” fake media content.

Goodfellow got his Ph.D. at the University of Montreal in 2014, and since then he has worked at OpenAI and Google. At OpenAI he was paid more than $800,000, according to a tax filing. His research is widely cited in academic literature.


Quite what Apple is doing with machine learning remains unclear; there’s a paper on GANs published by one of its teams, and you don’t get any clue what application it has, except to other machine learning. But a big hire away from Google.
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What (probably) finally killed AirPower • iFixit

Craig Lloyd:


Wireless charging pads use electromagnetic induction to juice up your phone. Both the pad and your phone contain wire coils: the pad draws current from the wall and runs it through the coil, creating an electromagnetic field. That field induces an electric current in your phone’s wire coil, which it uses to charge the battery.

However, the electricity being transmitted to your phone isn’t perfectly clean or ideal. It generates some noise, which can interfere with other wireless devices. That’s why the FCC (and regulatory bodies in other countries) set strict limits on wireless emissions.

Noise from a single coil might not be a problem, but each charging coil generates a slightly different waveform. When those waves overlap, the constructive interference intensifies their strength. Just like when two ocean waves collide and combine their height, radio frequencies can combine their intensity as they interact.

Managing these overlapping harmonic frequencies is incredibly challenging, and gets harder the more coils that you are integrating. From patent filings, it looks like Apple’s ambitious plan was to use considerably more coils [maybe up to 32] than other charging pads on the market.

Other multi-device wireless chargers place two or three coils side-by-side, but require you to fiddle with your phone to find the “sweet spot” over one coil for it to start charging. With AirPower, Apple was trying to create one large charging surface using overlapping coils, allowing it to power multiple devices from anywhere on the mat. But that introduces multiple challenges.

We asked an engineer with experience building wireless charging systems what obstacles Apple was working to overcome. “Over time, these harmonics add up and they become really powerful signals in the air,” explains William Lumpkins, VP of Engineering at O & S Services. “And that can be difficult—that can stop someone’s pacemaker if it’s too high of a level. Or it could short circuit someone’s hearing aid.” If Apple’s multi-coil layout was spinning off harmonics left and right, it’s possible AirPower couldn’t pass muster with US or EU regulations.


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Start Up No.1,039: Facebook’s biased algorithm, Apple cuts HomePod price, US forces out Chinese investors, Trump whistleblowers abound, and more

You think you’re sending the army to the right place – but what if the reconnaissance photo is a deepfake? CC-licensed photo by Enough Project on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Indicatively voted. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook ad algorithm is a race and gender stereotyping machine • The Intercept

Sam Biddle:


Rather than targeting a demographic niche, the researchers requested only that their ads reach Facebook users in the United States, leaving matters of ethnicity and gender entirely up to Facebook’s black box. As Facebook itself tells potential advertisers, “We try to show people the ads that are most pertinent to them.” What exactly does the company’s ad-targeting black box, left to its own devices, consider pertinent? Are Facebook’s ad-serving algorithms as prone to bias like so many others? The answer will not surprise you.

For one portion of the study, researchers ran ads for a wide variety of job listings in North Carolina, from janitors to nurses to lawyers, without any further demographic targeting options. With all other things being equal, the study found that “Facebook delivered our ads for jobs in the lumber industry to an audience that was 72% white and 90% men, supermarket cashier positions to an audience of 85% women, and jobs with taxi companies to a 75% black audience even though the target audience we specified was identical for all ads.” Ad displays for “artificial intelligence developer” listings also skewed white, while listings for secretarial work overwhelmingly found their way to female Facebook users.

Although Facebook doesn’t permit advertisers to view the racial composition of an ad’s viewers, the researchers said they were able to confidently infer these numbers by cross-referencing the indicators Facebook does provide, particularly regions where users live, which in some states can be cross-referenced with race data held in voter registration records.

In the case of housing ads — an area Facebook has already shown in the past has potential for discriminatory abuse — the results were also heavily skewed along racial lines.


Machine learning specialists have observed that ML picks out little differences and emphasises them. That’s what this does – and magnifies the existing differences. So it amplifies existing discrimination.
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The newest AI-enabled weapon: ‘deep-faking’ photos of the Earth • Nextgov

Patrick Tucker:


Worries about deep fakes—machine-manipulated videos of celebrities and world leaders purportedly saying or doing things that they really didn’t—are quaint compared to a new threat: doctored images of the Earth itself.

China is the acknowledged leader in using an emerging technique called generative adversarial networks to trick computers into seeing objects in landscapes or in satellite images that aren’t there, says Todd Myers, automation lead and Chief Information Officer in the Office of the Director of Technology at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

“The Chinese are well ahead of us. This is not classified info,” Myers said Thursday at the second annual Genius Machines summit, hosted by Defense One and Nextgov. “The Chinese have already designed; they’re already doing it right now, using GANs—which are generative adversarial networks—to manipulate scenes and pixels to create things for nefarious reasons.”

For example, Myers said, an adversary might fool your computer-assisted imagery analysts into reporting that a bridge crosses an important river at a given point.  

“So from a tactical perspective or mission planning, you train your forces to go a certain route, toward a bridge, but it’s not there. Then there’s a big surprise waiting for you,” he said.


The concern seems a little overblown, but you have to worry about malicious actors, especially with open source.
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Social media bosses could be liable for harmful content, leaked UK plan reveals • The Guardian

Heather Stewart and Alex Hern:


Under plans expected to be published on Monday, the government will legislate for a new statutory duty of care, to be policed by an independent regulator and likely to be funded through a levy on media companies.

The regulator – likely initially to be Ofcom, but in the longer term a new body – will have the power to impose substantial fines against companies that breach their duty of care and to hold individual executives personally liable.

The debate has been sharpened in recent months by the case of the British teenager Molly Russell and issues raised by the Christchurch shootings. Molly’s parents said she killed herself partly because of self-harm images viewed on social media.

The scope of the recommendations is broad. As well as social media platforms such as Facebook and search engines such as Google they take in online messaging services and file hosting sites.

Other proposals in the online harm white paper include:
• Government powers to direct the regulator on specific issues such as terrorist activity or child sexual exploitation
• Annual “transparency reports” from social media companies, disclosing the prevalence of harmful content on their platforms and what they are doing to combat it
• Co-operation with police and other enforcement agencies on illegal harms, such as incitement of violence and the sale of illegal weapons.


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Apple cuts price of HomePod worldwide, now $299 at the US Apple Store • 9to5Mac

Benjamin Mayo:


Apple has officially lowered the price of the HomePod worldwide. In the price has fallen from $349 to $299, breaking the $300 level. HomePod has seen promotional discounts at many third party retailers (eg: it’s $279 right now at Best Buy) over its lifespan, but now Apple has dropped the smart speaker’s standard list price.

This price cut represents a roughly 15% drop and seemingly applies to every region, not just the US. For example, the UK price has fallen from £319 to £279.

It is rare for Apple to reduce the price of any of its products mid-cycle, but not unprecedented. Apple dropped the price of the third-generation Apple TV from $99 to $69 in March 2015; the tvOS successor did not debut until six months later.


It’s not featured on the front of the site. The next thing it needs is a software update to play other services. What would be impressive – and sort of what you’d expect from a hardware company – would be if it got that before the annual iOS update in autumn.
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CFIUS forces PatientsLikeMe into fire sale, booting Chinese investor • CNBC

Christina Farr and Ari Levy:


[US startup] PatientsLikeMe is being forced to find a buyer after the U.S. government has ordered its majority owner, a Chinese firm, to divest its stake.

PatientsLikeMe provides an online service that helps patients find people with similar health conditions. In 2017, the start-up raised $100m and sold a majority stake to Shenzhen-based iCarbonX, which was started by genomic scientist Jun Wang and is backed by Chinese giant Tencent.

That deal has recently drawn the attention of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is aggressively cracking down on Chinese investments in American companies, particularly when national security and trade secrets are at risk.

CFIUS is now forcing a divestiture by iCarbonX, meaning PatientsLikeMe has to find a buyer, according to several people with knowledge of the matter. PatientsLikeMe started receiving notifications from CFIUS late last year, said the people, who asked not to be named because the details are confidential.

The move could have dire implications for the start-up community, as Chinese investors are scared away or forbidden from participating in deals that can help emerging businesses.


Also means CFIUS thinks that personal data is worth treating as a valuable national asset. That has big, big implications.
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Prince Harry calls for ‘addictive’ Fortnite to be BANNED – ‘It shouldn’t be allowed’ •

Abbie Llewelyn:


The Duke of Sussex urged parents to protect their children from these “irresponsible” games during a visit to a YMCA in West London. He added that social media is “more addictive than drugs and alcohol”. Harry was speaking to mental health experts about the effects of social media and violent video games.

He said parents don’t know what to do about their children’s addiction to Fortnite.

The Duke said: “The game shouldn’t be allowed. Where is the benefit of having it in your household? It’s created to addict, an addiction to keep you in front of a computer for as long as possible. It’s so irresponsible.”

“Parents have got their hands up – they don’t know what to do about it. It’s like waiting for the damage to be done.”

Fortnite, which has millions of fans across the globe, is a game where players hunt for weapons to kill each other.


A brief note: the Daily Express, the newspaper which will surely run this story BIG in print, is notorious as a wildly right-wing paper catering to pensioners whose principal concern is whether it will be cold tonight, whether the value of their house is going to keep up, and the latest gossip about Princess Di, who died more than 20 years ago.

Anyhoooo, maybe Harry’s offspring will be explaining the attraction to him in 15 years or so. Or his father will explain that your young years are better spent playing strip billiards in Vegas. (Hard to argue with that, actually.)
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‘Dozens’ of whistleblowers are secretly cooperating with House Democrats • The Atlantic

Russell Berman:


[Executive Oversight] Committee veterans told me, however, that the number of whistleblowers who’ve come forward since Trump became president is far higher than the number who cooperated with the panel during previous administrations. “The biggest difference wasn’t necessarily us switching to the majority; the biggest difference was Donald Trump being elected president,” said the Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the committee’s investigative work. Democrats began hearing from whistle-blowers almost immediately after Trump was sworn in, the aide said, beginning with a report that then–National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had been exchanging text messages with his business partner during the inauguration.

Of the dozens of whistleblowers Democrats said they are working with, they have publicly confirmed that a handful work in the White House. All but Newbold, however, have come forward on the condition that they remain anonymous. Newbold spoke to the committee as part of its investigation of White House security clearances, and she’s not the only whistleblower involved in that matter, the panel confirmed in a memo describing her testimony. “Committee staff have spoken with other whistleblowers who corroborated Ms. Newbold’s account, but they were too afraid about the risk to their careers to come forward publicly,” the memo reads. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Members from both parties interact privately with whistleblowers, but under a longstanding agreement within the committee, those who want to make on-the-record testimony must agree to be questioned by Democrats and Republicans alike.


The thing that puzzles me is that there are no sanctions when people are shown to have bent the law. The current outrage is that Jared Kushner was given a security clearance against the clear advice of the security clearance vetting agency. If you can’t properly sanction someone, all the “Oversight” and “Ethics Offices” are pointless. That, above all, is the lesson of Trump’s presidency: the checks and balances need to have some big sticks – such as jail time – they can wield.
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Big Tech’s original sin • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:


Facebook’s rapid rise to two billion-plus users, numerous privacy debacles and a steady stream of reported negative revelations suggest that, like its counterparts, the company’s quest for expansion trumped pressing concerns of privacy and transparency. A New York Times investigation last year reported that, “bent on growth,” Facebook executives “ignored warning signs” that Facebook could “disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe.”

Scale is also seductive at an engineering level, bottom line aside. Adding users and engagement, in one interpretation, might signal that you’re giving people what they want. In 2017, I asked a former senior Facebook employee if staff members had felt a sense of blame for Facebook’s inability to stop the spread of misinformation that plagued the platform during the 2016 election. Not exactly, the employee explained:

“They believe that to the extent that something flourishes or goes viral on Facebook — it’s not a reflection of the company’s role, but a reflection of what people want. And that deeply rational engineer’s view tends to absolve them of some of the responsibility, probably.”

We can see this sensibility today in the way the platforms tend to obfuscate and deflect responsibility. Just last week, a YouTube executive argued that its recommendation algorithms weren’t designed to nudge users toward more extreme videos. Similarly, Twitter has and will continue to argue it was not designed specifically to be disproportionately hostile to women and people of color. And Facebook will argue that it was certainly not designed to help foreign countries interfere in our elections.

But this defensive posture seems only concerned with intent. Even if we take the platforms at their word that they did not intend to profit from extremism or to become hubs for radicalization online, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Intent is far less important than the actual outcomes.


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The whisper room: moderates on Twitter are losing their voice • Missouri University News Bureau


Michael Kearney, an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, found that while partisan users form highly partisan social networks on Twitter, moderate users – or those less politically engaged – continue to avoid politics, potentially creating an important void on social media.

“We are not necessarily getting farther and farther apart – it’s just the people in the middle are becoming more quiet and withdrawn,” Kearney said. “If you fail to consider all the people in the middle who do not care about politics as much, it seems like there is a more clear division when there is not, so social media might be artificially creating this sense that we are becoming more polarized.”

Kearney found that rather than increasing exposure to diverse viewpoints or sheltering users with self-reinforcing filter bubbles, social media simply amplifies and reflects the trends found in broader media environments. This was the first study of its kind to examine change in real-time behaviors of political polarization by looking at who Twitter users choose to follow during a general election.

Using software that he created himself, Kearney examined the user networks of 3,000 random followers of well-known partisan and entertainment-oriented accounts. Data was collected over six months leading up the 2016 general election, beginning shortly after Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump became the two major party nominees. Kearney found that as the election drew nearer, Democrats followed more Democrats, Republicans followed more Republicans, and moderates did not greatly expand who they followed on either political side.


Seriously, it’s taken him nearly three years to get this published? ArXiv is just over there, Prof Kearney, and it lets everyone take a gander at your possibly relevant work which would have been good to hear about a couple of years back. Not that it isn’t true now.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yesterday’s calculation that today’s 40-year-olds would be tomorrow’s 65-year-olds in 15 years’ time attracted the notice of many people capable of maths. Yes, it should have said 25 years.

Start Up No.1,038: the lost internet, editing amid outrage, Facebook redux, the end of the desktop?, Mac keyboards (again), and more

Warning: old folks online. CC-licensed photo by Valeri Pizhanski on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What an ageing population means for the future of the internet • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:


Four recent studies found that older Americans are more likely to consume and share false online news than those in other age groups, even when controlling for factors such as partisanship. Other research has found that older Americans have a poor or inaccurate grasp of how algorithms play a role in selecting what information is shown to them on social media, are worse than younger people at differentiating between reported news and opinion, and are less likely to register the brand of a news site they consume information from.

Those digital and news consumption habits intersect with key characteristics of older Americans, such as being more likely to live in rural and isolated areas, and, perhaps in part as a result, to experience a high degree of loneliness. A survey conducted by AARP of Americans found that 36% of people ages 60–69 were lonely, while 24% of those ages 70 and older registered as lonely. (The survey focused on adults over 45.)

As a result, it’s now essential to better understand the effects of social media, loneliness, and a lack of digital literacy on older people, according to Vijeth Iyengar, a psychologist focused on aging at the US Department of Health and Human Services, and Dipayan Ghosh, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“With recent evidence that older adults are much more likely to disseminate fake news compared with their younger counterparts, coupled with the projected growth for this population segment in the decades to come, it is crucial to advance our understanding of the factors affecting the ways in which older adults engage with these platforms and how in turn these platforms are affecting how they function in society,” they wrote in a recent article for Scientific American.


Although.. in 15 years, those 65-year-olds are going to be the people who are 40 now. Are they going to be as gullible as this current crop? Also, why is this current crop of 65yos so liable to get this stuff wrong?
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Why there’s so little left of the early internet • BBC Future

Stephen Dowling:


Around a decade ago, I spent two years working on a rock music blog and on the music section of AOL, the sprawling internet pioneer now owned by US phone company Verizon. I edited or wrote hundreds of live reviews, music news stories, artists interviews and listicles. Facebook and Twitter were already massive audience drivers, and smartphones were connecting us to the Web between work and home; surfing the Web had become a round-the-clock activity.

You could, quite reasonably, assume that if I ever needed to show proof of my time there it would only be a Google search away. But you’d be wrong. In April 2013, AOL abruptly closed down all its music sites – and the collective work of dozens of editors and hundreds of contributors over many years. Little of it remains, aside from a handful of articles saved by the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based non-profit foundation set up in the late 1990s by computer engineer Brewster Kahle.

It is the most prominent of a clutch of organisations around the world trying to rescue some of the last vestiges of the first decade of humanity’s internet presence before it disappears completely.
Dame Wendy Hall, the executive director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton, is unequivocal about the archive’s work: “If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have any” of the early material, she says. “If Brewster Kahle hadn’t set up the Internet Archive and started saving things – without waiting for anyone’s permission – we’d have lost everything.”


(So donate, people!)
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Editing in an age of outrage • Financial Times

Ian Buruma, reflecting on his decision to commission an article by a man who had been accused (but not convicted in court) of sexual assault and choking:


free speech can never be absolute. Too much depends on who says what, when and to whom. Common courtesy also puts limits on what we say and under what circumstances. Members of a minority can make jokes about themselves more readily than outsiders can. A novelist or film-maker can express the darker side of human behaviour in ways that a diplomat, say, or a university president cannot, at least not in public. A stand-up comedian can be more outrageous than a politician.

One thing that makes our times so disturbing is that the usual rules in public life no longer apply. The US president can voice or tweet insults as much as he likes, whereas stand-up comedians are held to such rigid standards, that offence, let alone insult, can derail a career.

So where does that leave a magazine editor? And what lesson should we draw from the storm over Ghomeshi’s article? An editor of a serious publication is not as bound to the normal rules of propriety as a politician, but has to be a bit more cautious than a stand-up comedian. I came of age in the late 1960s when a certain amount of provocation was not only more permissible than it is now but actually considered a virtue (this was the time when the NYRB published instructions on how to construct a Molotov cocktail; a lapse of judgment, however, that was quickly recognised even then)…

…Like all serious publications, editors would filter out gratuitous malice and utter nonsense. This is not true of the Twittersphere, which is often ad-hominem, intimidating and unhinged. As a result, debate can be stifled, because people fear the wrath of the mob.


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‘Grassroots’ Facebook Brexit ads secretly run by staff of Lynton Crosby firm • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:


A series of hugely influential Facebook advertising campaigns that appear to be separate grassroots movements for a no-deal Brexit are secretly overseen by employees of Sir Lynton Crosby’s lobbying company and a former adviser to Boris Johnson, documents seen by the Guardian reveal.

The mysterious groups, which have names such as Mainstream Network and Britain’s Future, appear to be run independently by members of the public and give no hint that they are connected. But in reality they share an administrator who works for Crosby’s CTF Partners and have spent as much as £1m promoting sophisticated targeted adverts aimed at heaping pressure on individual MPs to vote for a hard Brexit.

Repeated questions have been raised about who is backing at least a dozen high-spending groups that have flooded MPs’ inboxes with calls to reject Theresa May’s deal. Until now they were thought to be independent entities.

But according to the documents, almost all the major pro-Brexit Facebook “grassroots” advertising campaigns in the UK share the same page admins or advertisers. These individuals include employees of CTF Partners and the political director of Boris Johnson’s campaigns to be mayor of London, who has worked closely with Crosby in the past.

Their collective Facebook expenditure swamps the amount spent in the last six months by all the UK’s major political parties and the UK government combined.


The UK doesn’t allow political advertising on TV. Print media is too fragmented to reach a large targeted group. Facebook has made the equivalent of political TV advertising feasible in the UK. The effect isn’t good.
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The end of the desktop? • Computerworld

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols:


Of course, [Windows] Virtual Desktop is a play for business users — for now. I expect Virtual Desktop to be offered to consumers in 2020. By 2025, Windows as an actual desktop operating system will be a niche product.

Sound crazy? Uh, you do know that Microsoft already really, really wants you to “rent” Office 365 rather than buy Office 2019, don’t you?

But what about games, you say? We’ll always have Windows for games! Will we? Google, with its Google Stadia gaming cloud service, is betting we’re ready to move our games to the cloud as well. It’s no pipe dream. Valve has been doing pretty well for years now with its Steam variation on this theme.

So where is all this taking us?

I see a world where the PC desktop disappears for all but a few. Most of us will be writing our documents, filling out our spreadsheets and doing whatever else we now do on our PCs via cloud-based applications on smart terminals running Chrome OS or Windows Lite.

If you want a “real” PC, your choices are going to be Linux or macOS.

Well, maybe we’ll still have Linux and macOS. None of the major Linux companies — Canonical, Red Hat, SUSE — makes the desktop a priority anymore. The Linux desktop will continue on, but it will keep going in the same way it is now: a platform only for power-using enthusiasts.

MacOS, which also has Unix as its root, is essential in some fields. But Mac sales make up a smaller and smaller percentage of Apple’s bottom line. I know Computerworld’s own Jonny Evans hopes 2019 will be the year Macs make serious inroads into the PC market. I can’t see it.


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Hacker Eva Galperin has a plan to eradicate stalkerware • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:


“Full access to someone’s phone is essentially full access to someone’s mind,” says Galperin, a security researcher who leads the Threat Lab of the digital civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The people who end up with this software on their phones can become victims of physical abuse, of physical stalking. They get beaten. They can be killed. Their children can be kidnapped. It’s the small end of a very large, terrifying wedge.”

Now Galperin has a plan to end that scourge for good—or at least take a serious bite out of the industry. In a talk she is scheduled to give next week at the Kaspersky Security Analyst Summit in Singapore, Galperin will lay out a list of demands: First, she’s calling on the antivirus industry to finally take the threat of stalkerware seriously, after years of negligence and inaction. She’ll also ask Apple to take measures to protect iPhone users from stalkerware, given that the company doesn’t allow antivirus apps into its App Store. Finally, and perhaps most drastically, she says she’ll call on state and federal officials to use their prosecutorial powers to indict executives of stalkerware-selling companies on hacking charges. “It would be nice to see some of these companies shut down,” she says. “It would be nice to see some people go to jail.”

Ahead of her talk, Galperin has notched her first win: Russian security firm Kaspersky announced today that it will make a significant change to how its antivirus software treats stalkerware on Android phones, where it’s far more common than on iPhones. Rather than merely flag those spy apps as suspect but label them with a confusing “not a virus” message, as it has for most breeds of stalkerware in the past, Kaspersky’s software will now show its users an unmistakeable “privacy alert” for any of dozens of blacklisted apps, and then offer options to delete or quarantine them to cut off their access to sensitive information.


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You may hate metrics. But they’re making journalism better • Columbia Journalism Review

Chris Moran:


At 7am on Tuesday, March 18, Nick Dastoor, a member of The Guardian’s audience team, started working on the daily staff email that details how our audience responded to our stories the day before, and what we might learn from that.

He opened Ophan, the analytics tool that allows us to track stories in minute detail. He noticed a sustained spike in page views to an article about a church bombing in Pakistan.

He could tell that the 51,000 pageviews had come almost entirely from Facebook, that the audience was mainly viewing the story on their mobile phones, that the audience was global and mostly new to us, that we weren’t promoting the story ourselves, and that it was likely driven by niche Facebook pages. Many readers were spending just seconds on the 942-word story. It was clear to Dastoor that whatever was happening wasn’t about the journalism itself.  

He navigated, within Ophan, to see which tweets had sent people to the story: “Nothing on mainstream media,” “Just saying. . .,” “The news isn’t really talking about this, and many more like it. . .”

Apart from the fact that the authors of the tweets were condemning the mainstream media for not covering an event while linking to a mainstream media site covering the event, there was one other significant problem. The article was from 2013 and none of them seemed to know it.


This drove the Guardian to add very visible year tags to images from old stories, so that nobody (in alt-right and extremist sites – as in this case) could misuse stories like this. Here’s the Before and After.

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Microsoft removes the Books category from the Microsoft Store • ZDNet

Mary Jo Foley:


Microsoft is removing the Books category from the Microsoft Store as of today, April 2. This means users will no longer be able to buy, rent or pre-order books via the Store beginning now.

Previously purchased books and rentals will be accessible until early July, but after this, books will no longer be accessible, officials said in a customer-support article today. The company is promising full refunds for all content purchased from the Books category; anyone who bought books via the Store will receive further details on how to get refunds via email from Microsoft. 

Microsoft’s official reason for the move is it’s attempting to streamline the strategic focus of the Microsoft Store, I hear. GIven the timing of this announcement, I’m thinking the decision may have something to do with Microsoft’s next Windows 10 feature release (known as 1903, a k a the April 2019 Update) and/or the new Chromium-based Edge browser.


You don’t think the decision might have been about nobody buying books on Microsoft’s Books category of its bookstore that pretty much nobody has heard of? At least there’s a refund.
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‘Beyond sketchy’: Facebook demanding some new users’ email passwords • Daily Beast

Kevin Poulsen:


Facebook users are being interrupted by an interstitial demanding they provide the password for the email account they gave to Facebook when signing up. “To continue using Facebook, you’ll need to confirm your email,” the message demands. “Since you signed up with [email address], you can do that automatically …”

A form below the message asked for the users’ “email password.”

“That’s beyond sketchy,” security consultant Jake Williams told the Daily Beast. “They should not be taking your password or handling your password in the background. If that’s what’s required to sign up with Facebook, you’re better off not being on Facebook.”

In a statement emailed to The Daily Beast after this story published, Facebook reiterated its claim it doesn’t store the email passwords. But the company also announced it will end the practice altogether.  

“We understand the password verification option isn’t the best way to go about this, so we are going to stop offering it,” Facebook wrote.

It’s not clear how widely the new measure was deployed, but in its statement Facebook said users retain the option of bypassing the password demand and activating their account through more conventional means, such as “a code sent to their phone or a link sent to their email.” Those options are presented to users who click on the words “Need help?” in one corner of the page.


Not stored, but fosters insecurity – if people are used to that on Facebook, they’ll do it on a phishing page disguised as Facebook too. And at the same time, third-party apps integrated to Facebook left a whole lot of stuff exposed on some Amazon cloud servers.
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Tesla boom lifts Norway’s electric car sales to record market share • Reuters

Lefteris Karagiannopoulos and Terje Solsvik:


Almost 60% of all new cars sold in Norway in March were fully electric, the Norwegian Road Federation (NRF) said on Monday, a global record as the country seeks to end fossil-fueled vehicles sales by 2025.

Exempting battery engines from taxes imposed on diesel and petrol cars has upended Norway’s auto market, elevating brands like Tesla and Nissan, with its Leaf model, while hurting sales of Toyota, Daimler and others.

In 2018, Norway’s fully electric car sales rose to a record 31.2% market share from 20.8% in 2017, far ahead of any other nation, and buyers had to wait as producers struggled to keep up with demand.

The surge of electric cars to a 58.4% market share in March came as Tesla ramped up delivery of its mid-sized Model 3, which retails from 442,000 crowns ($51,400), while Audi began deliveries of its 652,000-crowns e-tron sports utility vehicle.


So government action can make a difference. Though we did see that in the UK when the government made diesel vehicles effectively cheaper than petrol-fuelled ones in 2001: that has had the knock-on effect, years later, of far worse air quality in cities due to particulate emissions. Still, it would be hard for a shift to electric to make fossil fuel emissions worse, and it must make air quality better.
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The MacBook keyboard fiasco is way worse than Apple thinks • Signal v. Noise

David Hansson:


Apple keep insisting that only a “small number of customers have problems” with the MacBook keyboards. That’s bollocks. This is a huge issue, it’s getting worse not better, and Apple is missing the forest for the trees.

The fact is that many people simply do not contact Apple when their MacBook keyboards fail. They just live with an S key that stutters or a spacebar that intermittently gives double. Or they just start using (1) an (2) external (3) keyboard (4). Apple never sees these cases, so it never counts in their statistics.

So here’s some anecdata for Apple. I sampled the people at Basecamp. Out of the 47 people using MacBooks at the company, a staggering 30% are dealing with keyboard issues right now!! And that’s just the people dealing with current keyboard issues. If you include all the people who used to have issues, but went through a repair or replacement process, the number would be even higher.


As John Gruber notes, Apple must know this; it uses its laptops internally. As a thought experiment: if Apple were to offer scissor-style keys as a build-to-order option on its laptops, what proportion of buyers do you think would take it up?

There are only two ways to fix this, because the “naked butterfly” mechanism (as in laptops; used in its iPad Pro keyboards, which have a synthetic cover, it’s delightful) is fundamentally flawed. Return to the scissor mechanism, or introduce “force touch” keys. I wouldn’t entirely put the latter past Jony Ive’s team.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,037: handset makers’ hard choices, China’s India app insurgency, solving the videogame meltdown, Ebola v fake news, and more

A child watches YouTube: is it in the hands of responsible adults? CC-licensed photo by Steve Schroeder on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Hacking your attention. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

YouTube executives ignored warnings, let toxic videos run rampant • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen:


YouTube doesn’t give an exact recipe for virality. But in the race to one billion hours, a formula emerged: Outrage equals attention. It’s one that people on the political fringes have easily exploited, said Brittan Heller, a fellow at Harvard University’s Carr Center. “They don’t know how the algorithm works,” she said. “But they do know that the more outrageous the content is, the more views.”

People inside YouTube knew about this dynamic. Over the years, there were many tortured debates about what to do with troublesome videos—those that don’t violate its content policies and so remain on the site. Some software engineers have nicknamed the problem “bad virality.” 

Yonatan Zunger, a privacy engineer at Google, recalled a suggestion he made to YouTube staff before he left the company in 2016. He proposed a third tier: Videos that were allowed to stay on YouTube, but, because they were “close to the line” of the takedown policy, would be removed from recommendations. “Bad actors quickly get very good at understanding where the bright lines are and skating as close to those lines as possible,” Zunger said.

His proposal, which went to the head of YouTube policy, was turned down. “I can say with a lot of confidence that they were deeply wrong,” he said. 

Rather than revamp its recommendation engine, YouTube doubled down.


Stunning piece of work by Bergen. There have been plenty of disaffected ex-YouTube staffers visible on Twitter, but he has pulled together the story of how money was allowed to trump safety.
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The Chinese takeover of Indian app ecosystem • FactorDaily

Shadma Shaikh:


2018 is likely to be remembered as the year when the Chinese took over Indian smartphones. In December 2017, the top 10 mobile apps on Google Playstore looked a lot different than what they look from a year later. The Playstore rankings for India in 2018 have China written all over it. Five out of the top 10 mobile apps in India are Chinese — versus two at the end of 2017.

That’s not all. As of December 2017, there were 18 Chinese apps among the top 100 across various categories on Google Playstore. These included popular ones such as UCBrowser, SHAREit, and NewsDog. Fast forward to the end of 2018. The number of Chinese apps in the top 100 Playstore apps has reached 44. Beyond the top 100, there are others like Rozbuzz, a social entertainment content platform, and YouStar, a video chat room platform, that enjoy a more than one million downloads in India – a threshold that evokes grudging respect in this app community.

The growth of many of these global apps has a new hotspot: India. The message is clear for the Chinese — if you want growth, conquer India.

Several Chinese apps have become significantly popular over the last year in India: social content platforms such as Helo and SHAREit; entertainment and engagement apps such as TikTok, LIKE, and Kwai; video and live streaming ones such as LiveMe, Bigo Live, and Vigo Video; utility apps such as BeautyPlus, Xender and Cam Scanner; gaming leaders such as PUBG, Clash of Kings, and Mobile Legends; not to forget popular e-commerce apps including ClubFactory, SHEIN, and ROMWE.

A starking similarity not missed by observers of this industry is the target group of most of these platforms is the new internet users in India, specifically those from smaller cities and towns. To be fair, this market was first recognised by Bengaluru-based ShareChat that was founded back in 2015.


Wonder how long it will take India to wrest this back with home-grown apps. You’d think they would have a cultural advantage. But many elements of successful apps – WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram – are cross-cultural. (Thanks Stormyparis for the link.)
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Pipdig update: dishonest denials, erased evidence, and ongoing offenses • Wordfence

Mikey Veenstra:


In last week’s post, we reported on some concerning code identified in the Pipdig Power Pack (P3) plugin. The plugin, which is installed alongside WordPress themes sold by Pipdig, was found to contain a number of suspicious or malicious features. Among these features were a remote “killswitch” Pipdig could use to destroy sites, an obfuscated function used to change users’ passwords, and code which generated hourly requests with the apparent intent of DDoSing a competitor’s site.

In the days since we published that report, Pipdig has taken a series of increasingly questionable steps in their attempts to mitigate the fallout of their actions. Their team has issued baseless accusations that facts have been fabricated, collusion between their competitors had taken place, and that no wrongdoing of any sort had occurred.

These assertions stand in direct conflict with their actions. They’ve pulled down incriminating files from their sites, pushed undocumented updates to their plugins to remove additional malicious code, and have attempted to rewrite history by modifying dates of changelog entries. Then, perhaps most egregiously, Pipdig took down the Bitbucket repository containing a great deal of evidence of these actions. All of this had been done while an entire community of WordPress developers watched.


Quite the detective story. Transparency in code, especially through repositories, has changed things a lot in the past decade. (Thanks Richard for the link.)
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This is why we can’t have nice things • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Goldberg:


A decade ago, we spoke with a small handset maker in Shenzhen who sold into China’s domestic market and a half dozen random emerging markets (Ukraine, El Salvador, Uruguay, etc.). His business was always cutthroat, shipping largely $25 feature phones and $100 smartphones. Unfortunately, he did not have enough resources to be able to build his own brand. (He tried; over the years we brought him a dozen marketing text books.) At one point, he tried offering his own software service – messaging, contacts, etc. But he knew that the only path to revenue for these was through selling customer data to ad brokers and others. He told us that his customers would not mind because many of them lived in markets where the government already intruded on users’ privacy in many ways. To his credit, he was very uncomfortable with this business model and did not pursue it. He went out of business five years ago.

Some companies have managed to thrive despite this. For instance, Xiaomi makes decent margins on their phones and is overall profitable (and to their credit still breaks out their unit shipments). Xiamoi had the funds to build their own brand, and to branch out into an ecosystem of related products (home networking, fitness bands, etc.). We do not know if Xiaomi sells its users’ data, but they do install a lot of their own software on phones, trying to build an Apple-like software ecosystem lock-in.

Another way to profit in this business is to bundle phone sales with other products. For example, they can sell base stations and networking products with phones thrown in as an adder, as in “would you like fries phones with that?”. That being said, we do not know if Huawei’s handset business is actually profitable. We are not convinced that Huawei itself knows the answer to this question. Our point is just that there are someways to stay in the business.

However, for the majority of the industry, the hard, cold reality is that handset profits are non-existent. And the only way for these companies to remain viable is to sell out their users.


The only exception, he notes, is Apple, which of course collects all the profits.
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Abigail Disney has more money than she’ll ever spend. What’s that like? • The Cut

Sarah McVeigh:


Q: In what ways did your dad change [as Disney’s stock took off], other than having a jet?
AD: Actually, having a jet is a really big deal. If I were queen of the world, I would pass a law against private jets, because they enable you to get around a certain reality. You don’t have to go through an airport terminal, you don’t have to interact, you don’t have to be patient, you don’t have to be uncomfortable. These are the things that remind us we’re human.

My dad’s plane was a 737, and it was insane to have a 737 as a private airplane. It had a queen-sized bed with one big long seatbelt across it, and a shower, and it was ridiculous. We would use the plane occasionally because I have four kids, so it was much easier, obviously, to ride on my dad’s plane with them. Then, at a certain point, I just said, “No, I think this is really bad for everybody.”

How did the jet change your dad?
It wasn’t just the plane, but it’s not a small thing when you don’t have to be patient or be around other people. It creates this notion that you’re a little bit better than they are. And for the past 40 years, everything in American culture has been reinforcing that belief. We say, “Job creators, entrepreneurs, these are the people who make America great.” So there are people walking around with substantial wealth who think that they have it because they’re better. It’s fundamental to remember that you’re just a member of the human race, like everybody else, and there’s nothing about your money that makes you better than anyone else. If you don’t know that and you have money, it’s the road to hell, no matter how much stuff you have around you.


Fascinating interview; she sounds like a really nice person.
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Google’s new external AI ethics council apparently already falling apart • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen, Jeremy Khan and Gerrit de Vynck:


In less than a week, the council is already falling apart, a development that may jeopardize Google’s chance of winning more military cloud-computing contracts.

On Saturday, Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioral economist and privacy researcher, said he won’t be serving on the council. “While I’m devoted to research grappling with key ethical issues of fairness, rights and inclusion in AI, I don’t believe this is the right forum for me to engage in this important work,” Acquisti said on Twitter. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

On Monday, a group of employees started a petition asking the company to remove another member: Kay Cole James, president of a conservative think tank who has fought against equal-rights laws for gay and transgender people. In less than two hours after it went live, more than 300 staff signed the petition anonymously…

…Some AI experts and activists have also called on Google to remove from the board Dyan Gibbens, the CEO of Trumbull Unmanned, a drone technology company. Gibbens and her co-founders at Trumbull previously worked on U.S. military drones. Using AI for military uses is a major point of contention for some Google employees.

Joanna Bryson, a professor of computer science at the University of Bath, in England, who was appointed to the Google ethics council, said she also had reservations about some of her fellow council members. “Believe it or not, I know worse about one of the other people,” she said on Twitter in response to a post questioning James’ appointment. “I know I have pushed (Google) before on some of their associations and they say they need diversity in order to be convincing to society broadly, e.g. the GOP.”


Couldn’t they have had “board splinters” in the headline?
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Why videogames trigger the nightly meltdown—and how to help your child cope • WSJ

Julie Jargon:


Children and adolescents don’t yet have the capability to stop doing a rewarding activity and move on to something less fun, neurologists say. That doesn’t mean a child is addicted to videogames. Although experts say children with depression and anxiety are more prone to immerse themselves in games as a coping mechanism, it’s just generally hard for most kids to stop. There are ways for parents to hack this problem, but first they have to understand their kids’ minds.

“What’s happening in our brains is that there are systems that evolved to sustain our interest. It will lead you to seek food for days until you find it, and that’s followed by satiety,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, who has studied similarities between the effects of gaming and substance abuse.

Pulling the plug in the middle of a videogame—before a child has had the chance to feel satisfied by completing a level or mission—is a bit like yanking a half-eaten donut out of someone’s hand.

The anticipation of playing videogames results in a roughly 75% boost to baseline dopamine levels in the brain, according to Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who has analyzed studies on gaming. That’s far less than the boost associated with doing hard drugs, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but it’s not much higher than the boost that comes from that donut.

Eating the donut is a finite act, however. Videogame makers build in a stream of intermittent rewards to keep people playing. In some games, there’s no real end or it can take hours to achieve.


Have rules on time spent, stick to them, that’s about it.
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Facebook, Twitter sucked into India-Pakistan information war • Reuters

Drazen Jorgic and Alasdair Pal:


[Pakistan social media campaigner Hanzala] Tayyab, 24, spends his days on Facebook and encrypted WhatsApp chatrooms organizing members of his Pakistan Cyber Force group to promote anti-India content and make it go viral, including on Twitter where he has more than 50,000 followers.

That ranges from highlighting alleged Indian human rights abuses to lionizing insurgents battling Indian security forces in Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan region at the heart of historic tensions between Pakistan and India.

Tayyab’s job became harder on Monday when the Pakistan Cyber Force’s Facebook account was taken down, one of 103 Pakistani accounts the social media giant said it had deleted because of “inauthentic behavior” and spamming. Some Indian nationalist accounts have also been suspended in recent weeks.

Portraying himself as an online combatant defending Pakistan from India’s attempts to destabilize his country, Tayyab plans to continue playing his role in the broader information war being fought between the nuclear-armed foes.

“We are countering the Indian narrative through social media, we are countering the enemies of Pakistan,” Tayyab told Reuters in the capital Islamabad.


Lovely, delightful social media. Connecting the world.
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Fighting Ebola is hard. In Congo, fake news makes it harder • AAAS

Laura Spinney:


The Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is providing a natural experiment in fighting fake news. Occurring in a conflict zone, amid a controversial presidential election, the epidemic has proved to be fertile ground for conspiracy theories and political manipulation, which can hamper efforts to treat patients and fight the virus’s spread. Public health workers have mounted an unprecedented effort to counter misinformation, saying the success or failure of the Ebola response may pivot on who controls the narrative.

Tensions are expected to rise again in the wake of the 10 January declaration by the DRC’s election commission that opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi won the election, held on 30 December 2018. Foreign observers and the Roman Catholic Church’s monitors say Martin Fayulu, another opposition figure, garnered more votes, and his supporters are alleging fraud. Health workers know rumors thrive amid uncertainty.

“I usually tell my teams that we fight two outbreaks, Ebola and fear,” says Carlos Navarro Colorado of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in New York City. “It is all about information.”


Now that would be a truly scary thing to have to deal with.
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Google’s constant product shutdowns are damaging its brand • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


It’s only April, and 2019 has already been an absolutely brutal year for Google’s product portfolio. The Chromecast Audio was discontinued January 11. YouTube annotations were removed and deleted January 15. Google Fiber packed up and left a Fiber city on February 8. Android Things dropped IoT support on February 13. Google’s laptop and tablet division was reportedly slashed on March 12. Google Allo shut down on March 13. The “Spotlight Stories” VR studio closed its doors on March 14. The URL shortener was cut off from new users on March 30. Gmail’s IFTTT support stopped working March 31.

And today, April 2, we’re having a Google Funeral double-header: both Google+ (for consumers) and Google Inbox are being laid to rest. Later this year, Google Hangouts “Classic” will start to wind down, and somehow also scheduled for 2019 is Google Music’s “migration” to YouTube Music, with the Google service being put on death row sometime afterward.

We are 91 days into the year, and so far, Google is racking up an unprecedented body count. If we just take the official shutdown dates that have already occurred in 2019, a Google-branded product, feature, or service has died, on average, about every nine days.

Some of these product shutdowns have transition plans, and some of them (like Google+) represent Google completely abandoning a user base. The specifics aren’t crucial, though. What matters is that every single one of these actions has a negative consequence for Google’s brand, and the near-constant stream of shutdown announcements makes Google seem more unstable and untrustworthy than it has ever been.


Wellll.. as someone who once tried to catalogue all the Google products and services that had opened, closed and/or survived (the mean lifespan was 1459 days, ie just under four years), I can’t say that many of these closures have harmed my opinion of the Google brand. Though I did think then that it would harm developers’ view of Google services’ reliability. Perhaps this is a trope. But is it true?
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