Start Up No.1,060: how online extremists exhaust researchers, the battery buyer’s problem, seeing Maoris anew, Pixel 3 woes, and more


The European Commission is anticipated to open an antitrust investigation into Spotify’s complaint about Apple’s App Store. CC-licensed photo by Andrew%20Mager on Flickr

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0700GMT each weekday). You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.«

A selection of 9 links for you. What holiday? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The existential crisis plaguing online extremism researchers • Wired

Paris Martineau:

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Many researchers in the field cut their teeth as techno-optimists, studying the positive aspects of the internet—like bringing people together to enhance creativity or further democratic protest, á la the Arab Spring—says Marwick. But it didn’t last.

The past decade has been an exercise in dystopian comeuppance to the utopian discourse of the ’90s and ‘00s. Consider Gamergate, the Internet Research Agency, fake news, the internet-fueled rise of the so-called alt-right, Pizzagate, QAnon, Elsagate and the ongoing horrors of kids YouTube, Facebook’s role in fanning the flames of genocide, Cambridge Analytica, and so much more.

“In many ways, I think it [the malaise] is a bit about us being let down by something that many of us really truly believed in,” says Marwick. Even those who were more realistic about tech—and foresaw its misuse—are stunned by the extent of the problem, she says. “You have to come to terms with the fact that not only were you wrong, but even the bad consequences that many of us did foretell were nowhere near as bad as the actual consequences that either happened or are going to happen.”

Worst of all, there don’t appear to be any solutions. The spread of disinformation and rise of online extremism stem from a complex mix of many factors. And the most common suggestions seem to underestimate the scope of the problem, researchers said.

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And that’s quite a depressing thing. Imagine how it must feel for climate change scientists.
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Brussels poised to probe Apple over Spotify’s fees complaint • FT

Rochelle Toplensky:

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Spotify’s complaint centres on Apple’s policy of charging digital content providers a 30% fee for using its payment system for subscriptions sold in its App Store. The policy applies to Spotify and other music subscription services but not apps, such as Uber.

After considering the complaint and surveying customers, rivals and others in the market, the EU competition commission has decided to launch a formal antitrust investigation into Apple’s conduct, according to three people familiar with the probe.

Apple and Spotify both declined to comment.

EU enforcers can require companies to change business practices they deem unlawful and levy fines of up to 10% of a company’s global turnover. The investigations have no set deadlines and can take years to resolve. However, companies can speed up the process and avoid fines by offering to settle the probes with binding promises of behavioural change.

In an interview in March after filing the complaint, Daniel Ek, Spotify’s chief executive, told the Financial Times that the company’s long-running battle with Apple had become “untenable”. He warned that the music-streaming service would raise prices if Apple continued to charge the 30% fee. 

Deezer, a rival music-streaming service, and BEUC, a European consumers’ group, echoed Spotify’s concerns. 

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Well, this is going to get interesting. Assume the EC rules for Spotify: Apple will either have to reduce its 30% fee (to zero?) or let companies offer alternative payment schemes, as Google does.
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April is shaping up to be momentous in transition from coal to renewables • IEEFA US

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This month, for the first time ever, the renewable energy sector (hydro, biomass, wind, solar and geothermal) is projected to generate more electricity than coal-fired plants, which totals about 240 gigawatts (GW) of still-operating capacity. According to data published this month in the Energy Information Administration (EIA) Short-Term Energy Outlook, renewables may even trump coal through the month of May as well.

As the chart below indicates, the EIA sees renewable generation topping coal-fired output sporadically this year, and again in 2020. The estimates in the EIA outlook show renewable energy generating 2,322 and 2,271 thousand megawatt-hours (MWh/day) per day in April and May, respectively. This would top coal’s expected output of 1,997 and 2,239 thousand MWh/day during the same two months.

To be fair, there are seasonal considerations. Of particular note, is the long-held practice of taking coal plants offline during the lower demand periods of the spring (and fall) to perform maintenance and upgrades to ensure that they are ready for the higher demand of the summer and winter seasons. In addition, spring tends to be peak time for hydro generation.

That said, this represents a momentous development driven by the deep transition under way in the electric generation arena.

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Jay Inslee, the latest Democrat to join the 2020 presidential campaign (at the time of writing), has a plan to get the US over to renewables by 2025. Ambitious; and that noise you hear is the Overton window creaking over.
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Analysis: does Google’s $1bn revenue miss reveal a flawed business model? • ZDNet

Tom Foremski:

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Every quarter Google reports a drop in revenues per click – compared with the prior year – of around 20%. This has been going on for years. Google always manages to outpace its falling per click revenues by selling more ads in more places. But is this a sustainable business model? 

The recent financial report could be a sign of cracks in the company’s growth strategy.

Google said that the largest drivers of revenue growth in Q1 included mobile ads. But how many ads can Google show on a mobile screen? Is Google running out of places to sell and show more ads?

The company has been trying to hedge its future by building other business outside of advertising such as its Cloud IT services. These non-advertising businesses reported Q1 revenues of $5.4bn – missing Wall Street estimates of $5.67bn. And “Other bets” such as the Waymo self- driving cars venture reported a loss of $868m.

Clearly, these businesses are far from ready to take up any slack on lower ad revenues, plus they offer far lower profit margins.

The future viability of Google remains in figuring out how to sell more poorly performing ads in more places. This will do little to improve the internet user experience.

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“Revenue miss” means “analyst overestimate”, of course. The point about declining cost-per-click is a good one, and with smartphone growth effectively dead, where are the new slots to place ads? YouTube is the obvious place: we don’t know how many ads appear there.
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When your Amazon purchase explodes • The Atlantic

Alana Semuels:

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An untold number of lithium-ion-battery incidents go unreported, and no one agency tracks them. But the US Fire Administration declared the batteries the “root cause” of at least 195 separate fires and explosions from 2009 to 2017. The Federal Aviation Administration has reported a few hundred incidents of smoke, fire, extreme heat, or explosions involving lithium-ion or unknown batteries in flight cargo or passenger baggage. And there were 49 recalls of high-energy-density batteries from 2012 to 2017, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, concerning more than four million devices, including mobile phones, scooters, power tools, and laptops.

In 2016, David Jarrett, a student at Rowan University, suffered first-, second-, and third-degree burns after a portable phone combusted in his pocket, according to a complaint filed in New Jersey federal court. In 2017, the lithium-ion battery that Kyle Melone had bought for his vape pen on Amazon exploded in his pocket, setting his shorts and leg on fire; he ended up in the intensive-care unit, according to a complaint filed in Rhode Island federal court. Exploding lithium-ion batteries have caused hoverboards to catch fire and houses to burn down; [Greg] Bentley [a lawyer who has taken on a number of cases about Li-ion injuries] told me his clients include a man who lost an eye, another who burned his genitals, and one who experienced “massive brain injury.”

The link among many of these dangerous products is Amazon, where the world shops. More than half of the items sold on Amazon are listed by third-party sellers—not by Amazon itself—which makes ensuring that products are safe and authentic difficult, according to Juozas Kaziukenas, the founder of Marketplace Pulse, a firm that researches Amazon. In the case of batteries, batches of lithium-ion cells made in China that don’t pass inspection sometimes end up listed by sellers on Amazon, said Michael Rohwer, a director of Business for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit that works with companies on their supply-chain practices.

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Google Pixel 3 owners are still facing problems six months later. Here’s the list • 9to5 Google

Ben Schoon:

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Regardless of what issues your phone has, often the only way to get it fixed is to get a replacement device entirely, and that’s where another big problem with the Pixel 3 lies. Google’s customer service for these devices is rough. Reddit is full of horror stories of complete incompetence when trying to get an issue taken care of. Sometimes there are also hilarious mistakes like sending 10 phones to a guy who just wanted a refund.

It speaks volumes that the r/GooglePixel subreddit has a way to escalate your case within Google.

Every smartphone is going to have issues. That’s just a fact, but Google’s Pixel line seems to get some basic things wrong and then not properly fix them for ages. We still love these devices and many on the 9to5Google team personally purchased Pixel 3 devices. However, it’s hard to ignore that, clearly, quality assurance on the Pixel line just isn’t what it should be. It’s also clear that things have actually gotten worse in some ways since the launch of the original Pixel.

Should that stop you from buying the phone? It’s a tough call. I’ll still recommend the Pixel 3 as one of the best Android phones available for the foreseeable future, as I see the issues as an unfortunate asterisk on an otherwise great device.

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Given the small volumes the Pixel 3 has sold – a few million? – the problems that Google still has with customer service suggests that it either hasn’t got a handle on QA, or is underfunding the aftersales process. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Maori cultural tattoos invisible in wet collodion prints • FStoppers

Michael B. Stuart:

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A photographer has found an amazingly cool way to capture and honor the art of facial tattoos from the indigenous New Zealand culture the Māori. Using the wet collodion process, the subjects appear to have their ink magically removed in portraits hung next to modern digital photos creating a surreal before and after effect.

The permanent face designs are called tā moko. There is a very rich and cherished history of this tradition. In Māori culture, it is believed everyone has a tā moko under the skin, just waiting to be revealed to the world. Members of the society without the markings were considered of a lesser social status. Receiving the moko was an important milestone in becoming an adult. It was also desirable because they were believed to make oneself more attractive to the opposite sex.

Traditionally the designs were actually chiseled into the skin using a tool called a uhi, as opposed to being punctured like a modern ink based tattoo gun. This means although the pigment of the ink appears invisible in the historical wet collodion photos, you can still see the texture and grooves made by the application tools if you look closely enough. Most of the Māori will opt for the convenience and effectiveness of modern day tattoo tools these days so the disappearance is drastic.

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Next step surely is to apply some machine learning to the new with/without photos, and then apply that to old photos to bring the vanished markings back.
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Health insurance deductibles soar, leaving Americans with unaffordable bills • LA Times

Noam N. Levey:

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At a time when healthcare is poised to be a central issue in the 2020 presidential election, these sources provide a comprehensive look at changes that have profoundly reshaped insurance.
The explosion in cost-sharing is endangering patients’ health as millions, including those with serious illnesses, skip care, independent research and the Times/KFF poll show.

The shift in costs has also driven growing numbers of Americans with health coverage to charities and crowd-funding sites like GoFundMe in order to defray costs.

And it is feeding resentments and deepening inequalities, as healthier and wealthier Americans are able to save for unexpected medical bills while the less fortunate struggle to balance costly care with other necessities.

“It feels like the system isn’t working,” said Andrew Holko, a 45-year-old father of two who is facing $5,000 in outstanding medical bills because of diabetes medications, cortisone injections his wife needs for pelvic pain, a recent trip to the emergency room for his nine-year-old daughter and other services.

Holko’s information technology job puts his household income above $80,000, close to the median for a family of four. But with a mortgage, student loans and two growing children, Holko says he has little extra to cover a $4,000 annual deductible.

Tomas Krusliak, a 27-year-old chef in western Virginia, took on two extra jobs to pay medical bills after his wife had a miscarriage.

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This is one of a pair of pieces the LA Times ran (one an overview of how screwed up the US system is, where employers’ plans cover less and less of individuals’ likely costs, the other looking at individual cases).

Yet aside from a brief mention of the NHS, there’s no view outside; no idea that it could be different. A failure of media, as much as anything.
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Deoldify • Github

Jason Antic has built a deep learning system for colourising old photos – and also video. It’s pretty amazing, using generative adversarial networks (where you pit one that creates an image, and one that says “that’s not good enough, try again” until it’s happy:

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NoGAN training is crucial to getting the kind of stable and colorful images seen in this iteration of DeOldify. NoGAN training combines the benefits of GAN training (wonderful colorization) while eliminating the nasty side effects (like flickering objects in video). Believe it or not, video is rendered using isolated image generation without any sort of temporal modeling tacked on. The process performs 30-60 minutes of the GAN portion of “NoGAN” training, using 1% to 3% of imagenet data once. Then, as with still image colorization, we “DeOldify” individual frames before rebuilding the video.

In addition to improved video stability, there is an interesting thing going on here worth mentioning. It turns out the models I run, even different ones and with different training structures, keep arriving at more or less the same solution. That’s even the case for the colorization of things you may think would be arbitrary and unknowable, like the color of clothing, cars, and even special effects (as seen in “Metropolis”).

My best guess is that the models are learning some interesting rules about how to colorize based on subtle cues present in the black and white images that I certainly wouldn’t expect to exist. This result leads to nicely deterministic and consistent results, and that means you don’t have track model colorization decisions because they’re not arbitrary. Additionally, they seem remarkably robust so that even in moving scenes the renders are very consistent.

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Probably won’t be long before we have all the old silent black-and-white films in full colour and stable video.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: twisted graphene isn’t a room-temperature superconductor, unless your room is at 1.7 Kelvin.

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,060: how online extremists exhaust researchers, the battery buyer’s problem, seeing Maoris anew, Pixel 3 woes, and more

  1. re. Google miss. I think ads are a fairly constant % of GDP. This means “more ads” isn’t the most obvious growth venue, “better ads” to grab more ad money from other ads and “more content” to grab more brain-time from other media seem more obvious.

    I’m fearing the end of the adblocker bonanza though. Right now I’m enjoying ad-free most everything, I’m sure this won’t last.

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