Start Up No.1,062: Alexa’s eavesdropping problem, Google’s new Pixel (and sayonara Daydream VR), Fold on hold, and more


She’s closer to the median age of Americans than any current political leader. That’s going to have big consequences soon. CC-licensed photo by nrkbeta on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Hey, Alexa: stop recording me • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:

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“Eavesdropping” is a sensitive word for Amazon, which has battled lots of consumer confusion about when, how and even who is listening to us when we use an Alexa device. But much of this problem is of its own making.

Alexa keeps a record of what it hears every time an Echo speaker activates. It’s supposed to record only with a “wake word” — “Alexa!” — but anyone with one of these devices knows they go rogue. I counted dozens of times when mine recorded without a legitimate prompt. (Amazon says it has improved the accuracy of “Alexa” as a wake word by 50% over the past year.)

What can you do to stop Alexa from recording? Amazon’s answer is straight out of the Facebook playbook: “Customers have control,” it says — but the product’s design clearly isn’t meeting our needs. You can manually delete past recordings if you know exactly where to look and remember to keep going back. You cannot stop Amazon from making these recordings, aside from muting the Echo’s microphone (defeating its main purpose) or unplugging the darned thing.

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As he points out, this is true too about devices that hook into the Alexa system if they’re activated (I haven’t activated it on Sonos speakers with the capability). Google has changed its defaults: it now doesn’t record. Nor does Apple.
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Google I/O 2019: new, cheaper Pixel smartphone announced • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

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Google executive Brian Rakowski said the cheaper devices are designed to fill in for people left behind by the rising price of many high-end phones. “We can adapt, and this is a good example,” he added.

The 3a and 3a XL displays aren’t as advanced as those on the high-end Pixel smartphones. But in a test, the screens weren’t noticeably inferior. They look nearly identical to the current Pixel 3 line, save for a few key differences:

The new phones have a poly-carbonate back instead of glass or metal; lack wireless charging; main processor is a slightly slower Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor (Google says it makes up for some of that with software); 64 gigabytes of storage, but lack the 128 gigabyte option of the more-expensive models; one camera on the front instead of two, which means Group Selfie mode isn’t available on these devices; Pixel Visual Core, a Google chip for processing photos, is missing. Google is replacing that with software that processes photos instead.

Still, the 3a line does include some new features:

Battery life is 30 hours, slightly more than the regular Pixel 3; a headphone jack, so people don’t need to pay extra for wireless earbuds; an augmented-reality feature for 3-D navigation in Google Maps is coming to the phone as a preview (it’ll come to other Pixels as well); camera app gets a Time Lapse feature, which has been present on iPhones (other Pixels will get this too)

Last week, [CFO Ruth] Porat suggested the Pixel phones didn’t perform well in the first quarter. “Hardware results reflect lower year-on-year sales of Pixel, reflecting in part heavy promotional activity industrywide, given some of the recent pressures in the premium smartphone market.”

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So having failed to set the premium market alight, Google’s aiming to do it on the midrange market. Think the competition there is going to be even fiercer; the question is whether Google’s prepared to manufacture in sufficient volume to make a difference (as Benedict Evans observed).
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Gartner Survey: 90% of blockchain-based supply chain projects are in trouble • Modern Consensus

Leo Jakobson:

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Ninety% of blockchain-based supply chain projects are faltering because they cannot figure out important uses for the technology, research firm Gartner said on May 7.

As a result of this inability to identify strong use cases, “blockchain fatigue” will begin setting in over the next five years, according to “Predicts 2019: Future of Supply Chain Operations,” a survey of the wants and needs of more than 300 executives involved in blockchain projects worldwide. In large part, this is due to blockchain suppliers’ inability to live up to the technology’s hype, said Alex Pradhan, a senior principal research analyst at Gartner.

Despite the great amount of time and effort invested in pilot projects aiming to use distributed ledgers to verify authenticity, improve traceability, and build more trust into supply chain transactions, only 19% of respondents ranked blockchain as a very important technology for their business, the company said in a release. Only 9% have invested in it.

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Even 9% sounds like a lot.
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Google plans to rebrand all Home products to Nest • Android Police

Scott Scrivens:

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With the unveiling today of the Google Nest Hub Max, you might be wondering what’s going on with the branding. Google must value the Nest name more than has previously been apparent and will be using it for all of its smart home products going forward.

For now, only the Home Hub is being renamed (to Google Nest Hub), so we won’t see the original Google Home or Home Mini rebranded. But the implication is that if those products were to be updated, they too would carry the Nest appellation. One other consequence of this new direction is that Nest subscribers will be given the choice of switching to a Google account or merging their Nest subscription into a pre-existing Google account. However, the Google Home and Nest apps will continue as distinct products for the time being, although the prospect of merging them is under consideration.

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Google is proving itself as great at snappy naming as Microsoft back in the day.
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Google’s new Pixel 3A phone won’t support Daydream VR • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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The new Google Pixel 3A phone won’t support Daydream — Android’s built-in, but increasingly forgotten, virtual reality platform. Google confirmed the news before I/O, stating that “resolution and framerate” issues made the phone incompatible with Daydream. Google’s Daydream View headset will continue to work with the older Pixel 3 and other supported Android phones.

Google’s Cardboard headset gave VR a huge boost in the mid-‘10s, when it offered smartphone owners a chance to run very simple VR experiences. Daydream was effectively an upgrade meant for more sophisticated mobile VR. Google launched a dedicated Daydream app with access to a special section of the Google Play Store, as well as the Daydream View, an attractive and relatively cheap headset similar to the Samsung Gear VR.

Daydream grew slowly, however. Unlike Cardboard, it didn’t support iOS devices at all. It launched exclusively on Pixel phones, and it spent almost a year restricted to low-profile Android devices before Samsung added support in mid-2017. The delayed rollout was partly because of display issues — Google would only approve low-persistence screens that could provide a very smooth VR experience.

It’s a little ironic that Google itself would decide to sacrifice Daydream support on its new “gOLED” screen, given how long it spent getting other manufacturers on board. Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 line isn’t compatible with Daydream either, and with Pixel and S10 devices off the table, the Daydream View appears largely locked out of the high-end phone market.

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Well that about wraps it up for Daydream VR.
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The coming generation war • The Atlantic

Niall Ferguson and Eyck Freymann:

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As Karl Mannheim pointed out more than 90 years ago, a generation is defined not solely by its birth years but also by the principal historical experience its members shared in their youth, whatever that might be. Nevertheless, we do believe that a generational division is growing in American politics that could prove more important than the cleavages of race and class, which are the more traditional focuses of political analysis.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is often described as a radical, but the data show that her views are close to the median for her generation. The Millennials and Generation Z—that is, Americans aged 18 to 38—are generations to whom little has been given, and of whom much is expected. Young Americans are burdened by student loans and credit-card debt. They face stagnant real wages and few opportunities to build a nest egg. Millennials’ early working lives were blighted by the financial crisis and the sluggish growth that followed. In later life, absent major changes in fiscal policy, they seem unlikely to enjoy the same kind of entitlements enjoyed by current retirees.

Under different circumstances, the under-39s might conceivably have been attracted to the entitlement-cutting ideas of the Republican Tea Party (especially if those ideas had been sincere). Instead, we have witnessed a shift to the political left by young voters on nearly every policy issue, economic and cultural alike…

…Young voters are also far more willing than their elders to point to other countries as proof that the U.S. government isn’t measuring up. Gen Z voters are twice as likely to say that “there are other countries better than the US” than that “America is the best country in the world.” As Ocasio-Cortez puts it: “My policies most closely resemble what we see in the UK, in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.”

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Ferguson is nobody’s idea of a leftwing radical (quite the opposite), so this is quite notable. The article has absolutely gobsmacking data about the problems that “millennials” face, such as toxic debt, that older generations don’t. And the “better than the US” phrase? Anathema to many older Americans; reality to younger ones.
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Samsung Electronics says no anticipated shipping date yet for Galaxy Fold • Reuters

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Samsung Electronics said on Tuesday it cannot confirm the shipping date for its foldable device Galaxy Fold yet and apologized to its pre-order customers in the United States for the delay.

The world’s top smartphone maker delayed global sales of the splashy $1,980 foldable phone after reviewers discovered problems with its display, dealing a setback to Samsung and its efforts to showcase its innovation.

“If we do not hear from you and we have not shipped by May 31st, your order will be canceled automatically,” the South Korean tech giant’s US subsidiary told Galaxy Fold pre-order customers in an email late on Monday, which was confirmed by a Samsung spokeswoman.

As per US regulations, Samsung was required to notify customers that the pre-orders would be canceled in the event the product had not been shipped by May 31, it said in a separate statement to Reuters.

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Which is going to come first, Brexit or the Galaxy Fold actually going on sale and arriving in punters’ hands?
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How Chinese spies got the NSA’s hacking tools, and used them for attacks • NY Times

Nicole Perlroth, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane:

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Symantec’s discovery, unveiled on Monday, suggests that the same Chinese hackers the agency has trailed for more than a decade have turned the tables on the agency.

Some of the same N.S.A. hacking tools acquired by the Chinese were later dumped on the internet by a still-unidentified group that calls itself the Shadow Brokers and used by Russia and North Korea in devastating global attacks, although there appears to be no connection between China’s acquisition of the American cyberweapons and the Shadow Brokers’ later revelations.

But Symantec’s discovery provides the first evidence that Chinese state-sponsored hackers acquired some of the tools months before the Shadow Brokers first appeared on the internet in August 2016.

Repeatedly over the past decade, American intelligence agencies have had their hacking tools and details about highly classified cybersecurity programs resurface in the hands of other nations or criminal groups.

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This makes it much more risky to deploy hacks; any and all targets are getting much better at isolating and identifying cyberweapons. It’s getting like chemical or biological warfare: the tools are getting too dangerous to deploy.
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Airpods are a tragedy • Vice

Caroline Haskins with the first (?) of a series about “what if you found these artefacts in a thousand years’ time”:

»

For roughly 18 months, AirPods play music, or podcasts, or make phone calls. Then the lithium-ion batteries will stop holding much of a charge, and the AirPods will slowly become unusable. They can’t be repaired because they’re glued together. They can’t be thrown out, or else the lithium-ion battery may start a fire in the garbage compactor. They can’t be easily recycled, because there’s no safe way to separate the lithium-ion battery from the plastic shell. Instead, the AirPods sit in your drawer forever.

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, which does electronics teardowns and sells repair tools and parts, told Motherboard that AirPods are “evil.” According to the headphones review team at Rtings.com, AirPods are “below-average” in terms of sound quality. According to people on every social media platform, AirPods are a display of wealth.

But more than a pair of headphones, AirPods are an un-erasable product of culture and class. People in working or impoverished economic classes are responsible for the life-threatening, exhaustive, violent work of removing their parts from the ground and assembling them. Meanwhile, people in the global upper class design and purchase AirPods.

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*Microsoft Clippy voice* Hi there! It looks like you’re critiquing capitalism! Would you like to follow your logic through to its effects on your life?
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Why Richland Source built a system for automating high school sports articles (and stopped selling apparel) • Niemen Lab

Christine Schmidt:

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after completing a beta phase with seven other news organizations (which Richland Source declined to name) and over 20,000 articles published with zero inaccuracies, the team is trying to get other newsrooms onboard.

What do these articles actually look like? Often, just a headline, “Sports Desk” byline, a sentence, and a bunch of ads. (There’s no mention of the software or robo-writing on the articles themselves, but Allred and Phillips pointed to a featured article Richland Source published last week explaining Lede Ai.) Here are some examples, with screenshots of the shorter ones:

Here’s one highlighted in Lede Ai’s whitepaper; it was the longest one I saw:

» Massillon Washington could use an Emily Post tutorial in manners, but its competitive spirit was fine-tuned while punishing Wadsworth 41-19 in Division II Ohio high school football action on Friday night.

The Tigers opened with a 7-0 advantage over the Grizzlies through the first quarter. Massillon Washington’s offense darted to a 24-10 lead over Wadsworth at halftime. The Tigers carried a 27-12 lead into the fourth quarter.

This marked the Grizzlies first loss of the season, as they completed a 12-1 campaign. Massillon sports a 13-0 mark heading to the state semifinals.

The OHSAA releases the state semifinal pairings and locations on Sunday.«

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Sports stories like that are just the most awful wallpaper. The other thing that you come to notice is that sports writeups are almost always about men, for men. They’re a sort of literary shed.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,062: Alexa’s eavesdropping problem, Google’s new Pixel (and sayonara Daydream VR), Fold on hold, and more

  1. I think the Pixel 3a not supporting Daydream VR is about as much the end of Daydream as the iPhone XR not supporting 3D touch is the end of 3D touch. In both cases, consumer uptake hasn’t been crazy, and you do need missing features to get people to up-buy.
    Adding Daydream would have been possible with the same SoC and at little to no extra cost, but since VR is mostly a pro thing for now, Google wants to keep selling the expensive stuff to that market. Of course it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem, but if there was any consumer demand, some OEMs would have barged in.

  2. Airpods: There’s a fair bit of bad faith hyperbole in your take down. I don’t think airpods are the embodiment of capitalism, not any more than diesel engines and flaming rivers.

    Airpods, and BT earphones in general, are very eco-unfriendly: need a battery, which is not user-replaceable, which is probably not worth replacing in-shop; can be lost, are more fragile… I think this bears repeating, especially when the company pushing them and the users using them pretend to be eco-conscious. I don’t think capitalism has to be planet-destroying any more than it has to be murderous.
    And I’m not sure conspicuous consumption is synonymous with capitalism either. It’s present, but probably not essential, and certainly not its epitome.

    The free market will of course stray into “tragedy” every once in a while, but the “free” part mostly means not biased for specific actors, not allowed to completely ignore consequences and externalities. The author of the article exaggerates a bit, but that’s understandable when dealing with magic.

    I’m using a BT headset too these days coz’ I broke the audio jack on my previous phone, so I’m no eco-angel, eh ?

    • “I don’t think capitalism has to be planet-destroying”

      The planet isn’t able to charge for its resources, yet they’re limited, which means that capitalism is a free rider on a limited resource. Just pull on that thread for a moment.
      Capitalism *with regulation* doesn’t have to be planet-destroying, but it needs a lot more regulation than it’s getting at present.

      • Agreed. In the end I meant capitalism doesn’t have to be unregulated.

  3. Android OS updates: I stand corrected: 10% adoption of a year-old OS is actually “250% better”.

    https://www.thurrott.com/mobile/android/206386/android-9-pie-adoption-up-250-percent-over-previous-version?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=android-9-pie-adoption-up-250-percent-over-previous-version

    Like going from an F to an E I guess ;-p Actually, I blame Google PR. They wanted to make a splash, so hid the stat until their shindig, leading everyone to think it was bad, which it is, but not as utterly bad as before.

    Again, for context, this is not iOS, an old Android still gets fully updated Google apps, system apps and 3rd-party apps (those are PlayStore, not OS, dependent), most new OS and ecosystem features (those are Play Services, not OS, dependent), most security patches (those are distributed separately, not OS dependent), and from Q onwards will even get some core OS updates (some sensitive libs: media playing, networking… : those will be distributed via a 4th bespoke PlayStore-based channel too).

    On iOS everything is OS version-based, there’s no separately updating anything. Makes sense for Apple, but leads iUsers to grossly misoverestimate the importance of OS updates on Android.

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