Start Up No.1,069: former MI6 chief warns on Huawei, the energy revolution challenge, the simple ransomware solution, and more


Facial recognition systems are spreading in the US and UK – but there’s pushback. CC-licensed photo by Sheila Scarborough on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. But it’s Friday! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Huawei poses security threat to UK, says former MI6 chief • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh and Jon Henley:

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In a report from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), the authors claimed Huawei “has long been accused of espionage” – a claim denied repeatedly by the firm – and notes that “while there are no definitely proven cases”, a precautionary principle should be adopted.

The document is co-authored by the Tory MP Bob Seely, who has already raised concerns about Huawei, and the expert academics Peter Varnish and John Hemmings. It adds to pressure heaped on the British government to reconsider letting Huawei participate in the UK’s 5G network from the US and Australia, whose intelligence agencies share information with the UK.

Last month May provisionally approved the use of Huawei technology for parts of the UK’s future 5G telecoms networks after a meeting of the NSC. A leaked account of the meeting said five cabinet ministers raised concerns about the company.

The HJS report has a foreword by Sir Richard Dearlove, who led MI6 between 1999 and 2004. Using blunter language than the report’s authors, he wrote: “I very much hope there is time for the UK government … to reconsider the Huawei decision.

“No part of the Communist Chinese state is ultimately able to operate free of the control exercised by its Communist party leadership,” Dearlove added. “Therefore, we must conclude the engagement of Huawei presents a potential security risk to the UK.”

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I’d link to the report, but the Henry Jackson Society has the slowest website in the world. Unless it’s being DDOSd (which seems unlikely).
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The man behind San Francisco’s facial recognition ban is working on more. Way more • The New York Times

Kate Conger:

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[Brian] Hofer is little known outside California, but his anti-surveillance measures have been making waves in the state.

He successfully pressed the Northern California cities of Richmond and Berkeley, which have sanctuary policies, to end their contracts with tech companies like Amazon and Vigilant Solutions that do business with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In Santa Clara County, in Oakland and elsewhere, he has secured transparency laws around surveillance technology.

His campaigns are just beginning. In Berkeley and Oakland, Mr. Hofer is pushing for more facial recognition bans. He has two additional privacy proposals winding their way through the state’s legislative process, focused on reining in surveillance technology. And he is establishing a nonprofit, Secure Justice, that will grapple with technology issues.

“My primary concern is when the state abuses its power, and because of the age we live in, it’s probably going to occur through technology and data mining,” Mr. Hofer said. “That’s where I see the most potential harm occurring. So I just wanted to jump right in.”

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(Thanks Jason H for the link.)
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The Met Police’s sinister facial recognition trial should worry us all • The Spectator

Jamie Bartlett:

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In a recent episode of BBC Click, journalist Geoff White followed the police’s pilot of live facial recognition technology. (The Metropolitan Police are running a number of pilots). In one chilling moment, a man walked past the facial recognition cameras and covered his face. The police stopped him, forced him to uncover and then took a photograph of him anyway. ‘This gives us grounds to stop and verify him,’ one officer said. The man got angry – understandably, I’d have done the same – which landed him a £90 fine for disorderly behaviour.

I’ve no idea what the legal basis is for any of this – but if covering your face is deemed suspicious, we’re heading somewhere where, for once, the word ‘Orwellian’ isn’t an exaggeration. Silkie Carlo from Big Brother Watch (who are running a campaign to stop this) reckons it’s a ‘free for all’ taking place in a legal vacuum. ‘The police are making up the rules as they go along,’ she says.

I won’t bother running through the possible misuses, bias data models (see here if you don’t believe that technology can’t contain biases), or the cost. Instead, just imagine real-time facial recognition technology running on the country’s six million CCTV cameras and ask yourself if you’re happy with that. And if it does roll out, I suspect thousands will do what this man did, principled or otherwise, which will surely make an ass of the law.

But what worries me most is not that facial recognition technologies won’t work – but the opposite. Despite the problems, I expect it will be very effective at tackling crime and keeping us safe. At what cost?

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I suppose the police might have been using stop and search, but it seems pretty thin.
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Energy revolution will come from foundational scientific discoveries—not renewables • City Journal

Mark Mills:

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If, in some alternative universe, the performance of silicon solar cells followed Moore’s Law, a single postage-stamp-size solar cell could fuel the Empire State Building. Similarly, a single battery the size of a book would cost 3 cents and power a jumbo jet to Asia. Such things happen only in comic books because, ultimately, physics, not policies, dictates the possibilities—and thus the economics—for energy technologies, regardless of subsidies and mandates.

Spending $1m on wind or solar hardware in order to capture nature’s diffuse wind and sunlight will yield about 50 million kilowatt-hours of electricity over a 30-year period. Meantime, the same money spent on a shale well yields enough natural gas over 30 years to produce 300 million kilowatt-hours. That difference is anchored in the far higher, physics-based energy density of hydrocarbons. Subsidies can’t change that fact.

And then batteries are needed, and widely promoted, as the way to convert wind or solar into useable on-demand power. While the physical chemistry of batteries is indeed nearly magical in storing tiny quantities of energy, it doesn’t scale up efficiently. When it comes to storing energy at country scales, or for cargo ships, cars and aircraft, engineers start with a simple fact: the maximum potential energy contained in hydrocarbon molecules is about 1,500% greater, pound for pound, than the maximum theoretical lithium chemistries. That’s why the cost to store a unit of energy in a battery is 200 times more than storing the same amount of energy as natural gas.

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*shakes fist at physics*
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Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and a history of mobile game data collection • Vox

Kaitlyn Tiffany:

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Something as vague and banal-sounding as “gameplay data” is not as obviously salacious as the types of personal data collection we know we should be scandalized by. Nobody’s getting your Social Security number from Angry Birds. Nobody’s getting your private messages.

“With Facebook, you’re putting a lot more clearly personal information out there, and with a game you’re not really sure what it’s getting from you,” says Chris Hazard, an engineer with experience in gaming and AI, currently the CTO of a startup called Diveplane. “It’s not as front and center.” Basically, it’s not obvious that data about how you play a mobile game can be as useful and as personal as your wedding photos or a rattled-off screed about the Democratic National Committee.

But people should be worried. The intricacies of gameplay data can tell you a lot about what makes people tick, and what’s going on with them — studies have shown that you play games differently when you’re depressed, or dieting. “Nobody gets too upset about games,” Nieborg says. “But the underlying technology is really powerful. These people are really pushing the technology to the limits where the potential for abuse is massive.”

Developers collect data on who was playing, for how long, how well, and how much money they were spending. It doesn’t seem like sensitive information, and it’s useful mostly because it helps developers target their Facebook ads to find more people who will “monetize well” on these games.

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The trade secret: firms that promised high-tech ransomware solutions almost always just pay the hackers • ProPublica

Renee Dudley:

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In a statement that day [in November 2018], the FBI said the “criminal actors” were “out of the reach of US law enforcement.” But they weren’t beyond the reach of an American company that says it helps victims regain access to their computers. Proven Data Recovery of Elmsford, New York, regularly made ransom payments to SamSam hackers over more than a year, according to Jonathan Storfer, a former employee who dealt with them.

Although bitcoin transactions are intended to be anonymous and difficult to track, ProPublica was able to trace four of the payments. Sent in 2017 and 2018, from an online wallet controlled by Proven Data to ones specified by the hackers, the money was then laundered through as many as 12 bitcoin addresses before reaching a wallet maintained by the Iranians, according to an analysis by bitcoin tracing firm Chainalysis at our request. Payments to that digital currency destination and another linked to the attackers were later banned by the US Treasury Department, which cited sanctions targeting the Iranian regime.

“I would not be surprised if a significant amount of ransomware both funded terrorism and also organized crime,” Storfer said. “So the question is, is every time that we get hit by SamSam, and every time we facilitate a payment — and here’s where it gets really dicey — does that mean we are technically funding terrorism?”

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Yes. Next question. Oh, you’re wondering if Proven Data was just getting the decryption keys from the hackers rather than using some Amazing Method? Yes to that too.
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DIY market may shrink further due to US-China trade tensions • Digitimes

Monica Chen and Joseph Tsai:

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With the cryptocurrency mining fad dissipating, most motherboard and graphics card players have seen their revenues returning to regular levels. But those who heavily rely on the two business segments have reported sharp drops in sales for the first quarter.

With the US government extending the 25% tariff to consumer products including notebooks and smartphones, Taiwan’s motherboard and graphics card players noted that the impact on their businesses will not be big since they have already increased the prices for products shipping to the US previously when the US increased the tariff to 10%. They have also prepared production sites outside of China as a precaution.

As for China’s 25% retaliatory tariff on US-imported products, the firms so far have not seen major impacts.

However, fierce trade tensions are expected to result in weakening demand from the end market. China is especially important as the popularity of the country’s PC DIY market is far strong than that of the US.

For motherboards, nearly half of the worldwide shipments go to China and if demand continues falling, Taiwan suppliers’ sales in 2019 are expected to be severely undermined.

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Didn’t know that stat about China. I wonder how big the crypto craze was as a factor.
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Samsung and Huawei agree to settle patent disputes • Android Authority

Williams Pelegrin:

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Samsung and Huawei have reportedly agreed to finally bury the hatchet and settle their years-long dispute over smartphone patents. The Guangdong High People’s Court in southern China mediated the settlement, according to Nikkei.

The terms of the alleged settlement have not been made public, but it’s believed that they include some sort of cross-licensing patent deal. The patents that are part of the supposed deal include those for basic technologies, with no further specifics mentioned.

It’s suggested that Samsung and Huawei are only settling now due to them wanting to pour more resources into the stagnant smartphone market. Even though Huawei now owns a company-record 17% of the market, Q1 2019 marked the sixth straight quarter of declining overall smartphone shipments. Meanwhile, Samsung saw a 10% decrease in market share year-over-year.

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They aren’t settling to “pour more resources into”; they’re doing it because wasting money on lawyers when your profits are shrinking is daft. Slightly different when Apple and Samsung were going at it: the market was on the rise and there were big prizes to be won. Purely at a guess, the patents cover modems (Huawei) and screens (Samsung) and cameras (both).
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The story my male editors kept killing • Human Parts

Laura Kiesel:

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A year and a half ago, in the wake of the tragic Las Vegas shootings, I was struck by a single idea: If mental illness is such a prominent culprit in the phenomenon of mass shootings — as so many politicians and media pundits claim it to be — where are all the female mass shooters? After all, we have mental illness too, in arguably much greater numbers than men (at least according to the best available data). And yet, almost all mass shootings to date have been committed by cis men (most of them white).

In October 2017, I shared my idea with AlterNet. The female editor I emailed enthusiastically accepted my pitch and, after a couple of weeks of rigorous research and interviewing, I filed it. Her initial remark was that it looked good to her as is, and she would be passing it on to her superior for a final review. Then something strange happened. She came back with a slew of criticisms, copy and pasted from her supervising editor, and the outlet’s publisher: a man.

After perusing his comments, the first thing I understood was that he hadn’t read my piece thoroughly. This became clear when he scolded me for blaming gun violence on mental illness. He then asked me to insert commentary and quotes that were already in the piece. But the most distressing part was when he began making grand — and factually incorrect — assertions.

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It wasn’t a one-off, and didn’t happen just to her. Worth considering, for those in the media.
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YTMND disappeared, 15 years after changing the internet – The Verge

Bijan Stephen:

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Before the apparent shutdown, the Internet Archive had preserved a copy of the site’s 787GB of data. (You can browse the site as it was through the Wayback Machine; although, as with most cultural products created by anonymous users, a lot of the offerings are at least somewhat offensive.) The site, however, started disappearing long before then — the last admin post was made in 2014, and the site had been bleeding users for years as its popularity waned and social media became the place where memes were created and spread. In 2016, Gizmodo published a story featuring an interview with Goldberg about the site’s impending death. “Besides being a time capsule I don’t really see a reason for it to continue to exist… It seems like the internet has moved on,” Golberg wrote in an email. “And I’ve moved on too. I don’t have much interest in the site beyond it being good memories.”

Those good memories are part of the web’s cultural history, but they’re not something people often need to revisit. “People are very strange with their cultural institutions,” says Jason Scott, an archivist at the Internet Archive, when I reach him by phone. “They’re happy to know it’s there, out there, but they don’t make it a part of their lives.”

That’s partly because the internet itself has changed. As more people came online, and the web became less a place for nerds and social misfits, and as the internet became more centralized because of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, community-first sites like YTMND became less and less important. The locus of online culture had shifted to places that were predicated on massive, unchecked growth and propped up by millions in venture capital. “We’re so driven by websites that have to make a million dollars in their IPO, that people seem to have been surprised that there are websites that are literally just run, like sideline hobbies,” says Scott.

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I’d… never heard of it. I think it must have been a “just joined the internet, let’s meme!” thing.
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Start Up No.1,068: Trump bans Huawei (in effect), how to change the world peacefully, Salon for sale, can Twitter solve discourse?, and more


Japan’s mobile phone numbers are about to get longer: they’re running out of numberspace. CC-licensed photo by Cocoarmani on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Could be worse. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why I (still) love tech: in defense of a difficult industry • WIRED

Paul Ford, in a sort of love letter/nostra culpa to the industry:

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People—smart, kind, thoughtful people—thought that comment boards and open discussion would heal us, would make sexism and racism negligible and tear down walls of class. We were certain that more communication would make everything better. Arrogantly, we ignored history and learned a lesson that has been in the curriculum since the Tower of Babel, or rather, we made everyone else learn it. We thought we were amplifying individuals in all their wonder and forgot about the cruelty, or at least assumed that good product design could wash that away. We were so hopeful, and we shaved the sides of our heads, and we never expected to take over the world.

I’m watching the ideologies of our industry collapse. Our celebration of disruption of every other industry, our belief that digital platforms must always uphold free speech no matter how vile. Our transhumanist tendencies, that sci-fi faith in the singularity. Our general belief that software will eat the world and that the world is better for being eaten.

It’s been hard to accept, at least for me, that each of our techy ideologies, while containing various merits, don’t really add up to a worldview, because technology is not the world. It’s just another layer in the Big Crappy Human System along with religion, energy, government, sex, and, more than anything else, money.

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Trump signs order to protect US networks from foreign espionage, a move that appears to target China • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima and Josh Dawsey:

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The order authorizes the commerce secretary to block transactions involving communications technologies built by companies controlled by a foreign adversary that put U.S. security at “unacceptable” risk — or pose a threat of espionage or sabotage to networks that underpin the day-to-day running of vital public services.

Wednesday’s announcement was expected nearly a year ago and comes as neither Washington nor Beijing appears willing to back down in their ongoing economic dispute. The National Economic Council, which had blocked the move for months, dropped its objection as trade talks hit an impasse, one official said.

Trump’s executive order does not immediately exclude any specific companies or countries but certainly will not lessen tensions with Beijing. It is consistent with an increasingly aggressive tack against China in which Trump has used tariffs as economic weapons, a tactic that he believes to be popular with his political base.

The move also boosts the administration’s somewhat uphill effort to persuade allies and partners in Europe to bar Huawei, which officials say is beholden to the Chinese government, from their next-generation 5G wireless networks.

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Of course, this could be seen as just another move in the trade war, but it feels like part of a long-planned policy driven by the US defence establishment.
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Japan plans to create 10 billion 14-digit phone numbers as 5G era nears • The Japan Times

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The communications ministry plans to create for assignment some 10 billion 14-digit phone numbers starting with the code “020.”

With the commercialization of fifth-generation, or 5G, superfast mobile communications fast approaching, 11-digit numbers are expected to run out as early as fiscal 2022.

The plan to introduce the new numbers, by the end of 2021 at the latest, was proposed at a recent meeting of a panel of experts. It was accepted by the three major mobile phone operators — NTT Docomo Inc., KDDI Corp. and SoftBank Corp.

After hearing public comments, the ministry will draw up a report on the matter as early as June and make necessary preparations, including a ministerial ordinance, by the end of this year.

New numbers will be allocated to the major carriers early if they finish work to update their systems ahead of schedule.

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Hmm. Japan has twice the population of the UK, but it does make one wonder how full the UK’s mobile number space (also 11 digits) is doing. The US, meanwhile, has three times Japan’s population, and uses 10-digit numbers. Not sure how long that’s going to last.
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Target of WhatsApp hack says he fears more victims are out there • Forbes

Thomas Brewster:

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The lawyer had been advising a legal team representing five Mexican journalists who are suing NSO in Israel after alleging their phones were hijacked with the company’s Pegasus spyware. He says he started receiving strange video calls over WhatsApp around three weeks ago in the early hours of the morning, from a number with Sweden’s +46 country code.

After his suspicions were aroused, he contacted Citizen Lab, an organization based at the University of Toronto that specializes in researching digital traces left by surveillance companies. Citizen Lab investigated and believed it had found traces of NSO Group’s software.

The Canadian organization then passed on the information to WhatsApp, which investigated and patched the vulnerability on Friday. “WhatsApp noticed on their own that the app itself was crashing at an abnormal level—they noticed irregularities,” the lawyer said.

WhatsApp told Forbes it was already investigating the vulnerability before Citizen Lab reached out, having discovered an issue while carrying out security improvements. It noticed “abnormal behavior” impacting a small number of users. Indeed, WhatsApp has received praise for contacting human rights groups to warn about the attack. “WhatsApp took a really good, proactive stance on this one. They contacted human rights groups in advance, and they closed it down first with a filter and then a patch,” said Citizen Lab researcher John Scott-Railton.

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It’s staringly obvious that there are more contacts out there. The question is who they are (and whether Jamal Kashoggi might have been one of them). That WhatsApp could see an increased number of crashes suggests that the NSO Group isn’t quite as clever as it thought.
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The ‘3.5% rule’: how a small minority can change the world • BBC Future

David Robson:

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In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands.

Earlier this year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance.  

In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.

There are, of course, many ethical reasons to use nonviolent strategies. But compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way.
Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

Chenoweth’s influence can be seen in the recent Extinction Rebellion protests, whose founders say they have been directly inspired by her findings. So just how did she come to these conclusions?

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3.5% of the UK’s 63m population would be 2.2m people; of the US’s 330m would be 11.55m, though if you’re only talking adults, then it’s smaller: 1.8m and 8m. Which leads us on to the next link…
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How do we go on? • ANU Science

Tabitha Carvan on how to deal with climate despair – the feeling that nothing you can do will make a difference:

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“The neoliberal economic system we’ve bought into is completely at odds with how the Earth works,” Professor Will Steffen continues. “We have to change this value system that we operate under. We need a social tipping point that flips our thinking, before we reach a tipping point in the climate system.

“I think Greta Thunberg could turn out to be that tipping element.”

But Greta, the sixteen year-old Swedish activist, hasn’t made a dent on the problem, I say.

“Not yet,” Steffen says. “The thing about a complex system, like our societies, is they are hard to predict because they’re highly non-linear. It’s not simple cause and effect. The state of the system – that is, the neoliberal economic system and our use of fossil fuels – seems so set, so stable, so tough, that nothing’s going to affect it. But it’s getting eroded from underneath – by the students, by legal battles, by increasing extreme weather events.

“Where you have a lot of people waking up and saying, ‘Something isn’t right’, that could be the kind of fundamental thing we need to reach the tipping point. It’s not just the students. I think more people are beginning to sense that too. For the first time, I’m seeing old white men in the bush saying something is changing there too.

“I’m not saying we’re now going to solve climate change but I’m saying we are getting to a point where reaching that kind of social tipping point is our only hope. The solutions are already there. It’s the system that’s preventing it.”

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Salon Media in talks for $5M fire sale in last-ditch effort • NY Post

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Salon Media Group, a one-time digital darling, has fallen on hard times. It lost its CEO of the past three years last week and appears to be on the brink of a deal to sell itself for a fire sale price of $5m.

The struggling company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on May 8 that it reached a deal to sell itself to a company called Salon.com LLC.

The filing contained no further info on the mystery buyer or buyers but said the deal would only require a $550,000 payment at closing. It said $100,000 would go to an escrow account and $500,000 was already paid as a deposit.

The remaining $3.85m would be a promissory note payable in two installments over two years.

Even with those favorable terms, Salon issued a dire warning in the filing: “There can be no guarantee that the asset sale will be completed and, if not completed, we may have to file for bankruptcy and liquidation.”

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Founded in 1995, went public in 1999 for $107m, permanent money-loser. Online media is tough.
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Microsoft patches zero-day bug under active attack • Threatpost

Tom Spring:

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Microsoft has released a patch for an elevation-of-privileges vulnerability rated important, which is being exploited in the wild.

The bug fix is part of Microsoft’s May Patch Tuesday Security Bulletin. It’s tied to the Windows Error Reporting feature and is being abused by attackers who have gained local access to affected PCs. They are able to trigger arbitrary code-execution in kernel mode — resulting in a complete system compromise.

“They would need to first gain access to run code on a target system, but malware often uses elevations like this one to go from ‘user’ to ‘admin’ code execution,” wrote Dustin Childs, communications manager for Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, in a blog post on Tuesday. “While details about the use of the exploit are not available, it is likely being used in limited attacks against specific targets.”

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It’s been quite the week for exploits – WhatsApp, Intel CPUs, now this.
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US births fall to lowest level since 1980s • WSJ

Anthony DeBarros and Janet Adamy:

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The number of babies born in the US last year fell to a 32-year low, deepening a fertility slump that is reshaping America’s future workforce.

About 3.79 million babies were born in the US in 2018, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. That was a 2% decline from the previous year and marked the fourth year in a row that the number fell. The general fertility rate—the number of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44—fell to 59.0, the lowest since the start of federal record-keeping.

With the latest decline, births in the US have fallen in 10 of the last 11 years since peaking in 2007, just before the recession. Many demographers believed that births would rebound as the economy recovered, but that trend hasn’t materialized.

Instead, experts say the continuing declines appear to be rooted in several trends, including teenagers and unmarried women having fewer babies, lower Hispanic fertility rates and the rise in women obtaining college degrees.

The decline has important implications for the US economy and workforce. The total fertility rate—an estimate of the number of babies a woman would have over her lifetime—has generally remained below the “replacement” level of 2.1 since 1971. A fertility rate falling farther below replacement level means that, without enough immigrants, the U.S. could see population declines and a workforce too small to support a growing segment of retirees.

Last year it fell to 1.7, a record low.

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The US also has the highest infant mortality of the G20 – 5.8 per thousand in 2017.

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Behind Twitter’s plan to get people to stop yelling at each other • Buzzfeed News

Nicole Nguyen:

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There are many challenges with fixing Twitter, but the primary issue has to do with the form of Twitter itself. It’s an extremely complex product: Every reply is itself a tweet, and every tweet can be infinitely replied to. Conversations can be hard to read, let alone understand, and that misunderstanding contributes to a lot of the repetitive first responses to tweets, reply dogpiling, and knee-jerk reactions — like the kind that flooded Stone’s mentions — that fuel the platform’s outrage cycle.

One user, @matthewreid, replying to Stone, summed up the issues facing Twitter nicely: “A quick scroll through many of these replies illustrates what made this place I love so toxic. Bullying. Mob mentality. Insufferable knowitalls.” Twitter CEO Dorsey has admitted the same himself: “I also don’t feel good about how Twitter tends to incentivize outrage, fast takes, short term thinking, echo chambers, and fragmented conversation and consideration.”

“Like, imagine being in a room and talking to a billion people. It’s chaos.”
“Having conversations that anyone can see and anyone can participate in is a really awesome super power that needs to feel really simple despite its complexity behind the scenes,” Twitter product lead and Periscope cofounder Kayvon Beykpour told BuzzFeed News. “Like, imagine being in a room and talking to a billion people. It’s chaos.“

To reduce the chaos, the twttr prototype is reimagining what Twitter could look like. “What are the mechanics that we allow you to do right at the surface versus one tap away? We are essentially rethinking paradigms that have been the case for 13-plus years,” Beykpour explained.

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In response, Sarah Jeong (of the NYT) suggested some ways to make it better: “An option to prevent new accounts from replying to you. Or an option to auto block those accounts if they try. Option to auto block accounts with under 10 followers. IDK, maybe like, all the stuff blocktogether did before Twitter nuked its API.”
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A report from the AMP advisory committee meeting • Terence Eden’s blog

Terence Eden doesn’t like Google’s AMP. So, obviously, he joined its advisory committee:

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My top recommendations:

Publish all user research
Don’t allow new components to be created without a clear user story and research to support them.
• Accessibly audit:
Don’t validate pages which can’t pass an automated a11y test
• Stop the forced bundling: Let users opt out of seeing AMP pages
• Don’t require AMP for prominent placement
• Stop discriminating against non-Google browsers
• Reconsider AMP4Email – lots of concerns from smaller email providers; security and archiving concerns
• Work with the ecosystem rather than imposing

Conclusions
The meeting was good natured. While there were some robust discussions, the AC seemed fairly unified that Google had to seriously rework parts of the AMP project.

As I said in the meeting – if it were up to me, I’d say “Well, AMP was an interesting experiment. Now it is time to shut it down and take the lessons learned back through a proper standards process.”

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As always, a force for good and good sense.
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Start Up No.1,067: AT+T’s jobs fib, Google adds more ads, hacking Tinder, the WhatsApp attack, and more


Intel’s in trouble again. Actually, we all are. CC-licensed photo by Uwe Hermann 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 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

AT&T promised 7,000 new jobs to get tax break; it cut 23,000 jobs instead • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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AT&T has cut more than 23,000 jobs since receiving a big tax cut at the end of 2017, despite lobbying heavily for the tax cut by claiming that it would create thousands of jobs.

AT&T in November 2017 pushed for the corporate tax cut by promising to invest an additional $1 billion in 2018, with CEO Randall Stephenson saying that “every billion dollars AT&T invests is 7,000 hard-hat jobs. These are not entry-level jobs. These are 7,000 jobs of people putting fiber in ground, hard-hat jobs that make $70,000 to $80,000 per year.”

The corporate tax cut was subsequently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump on December 22, 2017. The tax cut reportedly gave AT&T an extra $3 billion in cash in 2018.

But AT&T cut capital spending and kept laying people off after the tax cut. A union analysis of AT&T’s publicly available financial statements “shows the telecom company eliminated 23,328 jobs since the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed in late 2017, including nearly 6,000 in the first quarter of 2019,” the Communications Workers of America (CWA) said yesterday.

AT&T’s total employment was 254,000 as of December 31, 2017 and rose to 262,290 by March 31, 2019. But AT&T’s overall workforce increased only because of its acquisition of Time Warner Inc. and two smaller companies, which together added 31,618 employees during 2018, according to an AT&T proxy statement cited in the CWA report.

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Has there ever been so much dishonesty on show as there is at the top of the US now? It’s just stunning. (Thanks Nic for the pointer.)
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Intel flaw lets hackers siphon secrets from millions of PCs • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

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MORE THAN A year has passed since security researchers revealed Meltdown and Spectre, a pair of flaws in the deep-seated, arcane features of millions of chip sold by Intel and AMD, putting practically every computer in the world at risk. But even as chipmakers scrambled to fix those flaws, researchers warned that they weren’t the end of the story, but the beginning—that they represented a new class of security vulnerability that would no doubt surface again and again. Now, some of those same researchers have uncovered yet another flaw in the deepest guts of Intel’s microscopic hardware. This time, it can allow attackers to eavesdrop on virtually every bit of raw data that a victim’s processor touches.

Today Intel and a coordinated supergroup of microarchitecture security researchers are together announcing a new, serious form of hackable vulnerability in Intel’s chips. It’s four distinct attacks, in fact, though all of them use a similar technique, and all are capable of siphoning a stream of potentially sensitive data from a computer’s CPU to an attacker.

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😫😫😫😫
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Google to push new ads on its apps to snare shoppers • Reuters

Paresh Dave:

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Alphabet Inc’s Google will begin featuring ads on the homepage of its smartphone app worldwide later this year, as the search engine expands its advertising real estate to boost revenue from mobile shoppers.

Google said on Tuesday it will also start placing ads with image galleries in search results and show ads in new spots on Google Maps, increasing opportunities for advertisers.

The changes come as choppy revenue growth prompt questions from some Alphabet investors about whether services such as Amazon.com and Facebook’s Instagram are drawing online shoppers and in turn, advertisers away from Google.

Google executives told reporters on Monday the latest features were a response to how users behave, not competition.

The company wants to make it easier for users to discover and buy new products because they shop in spurts while watching TV or sitting in the bathroom, said Oliver Heckmann, vice president of engineering for travel and shopping.

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Remember Tom Foremski’s article a couple of weeks back wondering whether Google could keep growing its revenue? There you go. This is indeed about how users behave: show them enough ads and some percentage of them will click them, whether by accident or some weird purpose.
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The Tinder hacker • The Cut

Francesca Mari:

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It all started when Sean recruited his close friend and roommate Haley to create a Tinder profile. Haley, in the words of a Tinder user who would soon encounter her, was a “tall, dark, younger, better-looking version of Kim Kardashian.” Together Sean and Haley selected her profile photos — Haley lounging in a tube with a serving of side boob, Haley in shorts leaning on a baseball bat. Sean wanted her to appear seductive but approachable. Once finished, Sean ran two rather mischievous programs.

The first program had her dummy account indiscriminately swipe right on some 800 men. The second program was one that Sean had spent months coding. It paired men who matched with Haley with one another, in the order that they contacted her. A man would send a message thinking he was talking to Haley — he saw her pictures and profile — and instead another dude would receive the message, which, again, would appear to be coming from Haley. When the first dude addressed Haley by name, Sean’s code subbed in the name of the man receiving the message.

As soon as they ran this code, it was off to the races. Conversations streamed in, around 400 of them unfurling between the most unlikely people, the effect something like same-sex Tinder chat roulette.

“There was a certain breed of guy that this really worked on,” Sean told me. “It wasn’t the kind of guy looking for a girlfriend or looking to talk or be casual. It was the guy looking for a hookup.” And those guys cut to the chase, thrilled at how down “Haley” was to sext, thrusting their way through any miscommunication. (Remember, both dudes think the other is Haley.)

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I feel that I’ve seen this before, but it’s so splendid that it’s worth bringing back.
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Trash found littering ocean floor in deepest-ever sub dive • The Jakarta Post

Daniel Fastenberg:

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On the deepest dive ever made by a human inside a submarine, a Texas investor and explorer found something he could have found in the gutter of nearly any street in the world: trash.

Victor Vescovo, a retired naval officer, said he made the unsettling discovery as he descended nearly 6.8 miles (35,853 feet/10,928 meters) to a point in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench that is the deepest place on Earth. His dive went 52 feet (16 meters) lower than the previous deepest descent in the trench in 1960.

Vescovo found undiscovered species as he visited places no human had gone before. On one occasion he spent four hours on the floor of the trench, viewing sea life ranging from shrimp-like anthropods with long legs and antennae to translucent “sea pigs” similar to a sea cucumber.

He also saw angular metal or plastic objects, one with writing on it.

“It was very disappointing to see obvious human contamination of the deepest point in the ocean,” Vescovo said in an interview.

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WhatsApp voice calls used to inject Israeli spyware on phones • Financial Times

Mehul Srivastava:

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WhatsApp, which is used by 1.5bn people worldwide, discovered in early May that attackers were able to install surveillance software on to both iPhones and Android phones by ringing up targets using the app’s phone call function. 

The malicious code, developed by the secretive Israeli company NSO Group, could be transmitted even if users did not answer their phones, and the calls often disappeared from call logs, said the spyware dealer, who was recently briefed on the WhatsApp hack.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is too early into its own investigations of the vulnerability to estimate how many phones were targeted using this method, said a person familiar with the issue.

As late as Sunday, as WhatsApp engineers raced to close the loophole, a UK-based human rights lawyer’s phone was targeted using the same method. 

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Further reading on this: the CVE details about which platforms the WhatsApp vulnerability exists on (all of them, including Tizen, because the weakness is in the WhatsApp VOIP stack.

Iyad El-Baghdadi’s press conference transcript about being targeted by the Saudis using this attack.

A story from May 7, in the Guardian, about how the CIA and others warned El-Baghdadi he was being targeted.

Amnesty International’s supporting action for legal action in Israel to suspect NSO Group’s export licence, which would stop is selling software to governments which target human rights defenders.
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Israel’s NSO: the business of spying on your iPhone • Financial Times

Mehul Srivastava and Robert Smith:

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At an investor presentation in London in April, NSO bragged that the typical security patches from Apple did not address the “weaknesses exploited by Pegasus”, according to an unimpressed potential investor. Despite the annual software updates unveiled by companies such as Apple, NSO had a “proven record” of identifying new weaknesses, the company representative told attendees.

NSO’s pitch has been a runaway success — allowing governments to buy off the shelf the sort of software that was once thought to be restricted to only the most sophisticated spy agencies, such as GCHQ in the UK and the National Security Agency in America.

The sale of such powerful and controversial technologies also gives Israel an important diplomatic calling card. Through Pegasus, Israel has acquired a major presence — official or not — in the deeply classified war rooms of unlikely partners, including, researchers say, Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although both countries officially reject the existence of the Jewish state, they now find themselves the subject of a charm offensive by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that mixes a shared hostility to Iran with intelligence knowhow.

The Israeli government has never talked publicly about its relationship with NSO. Shortly after he stepped down as defence minister in November, Avigdor Lieberman, who had responsibility for regulating NSO’s sales, said: “I am not sure now is the right time to discuss this . . . I think that I have a responsibility for the security of our state, for future relations.” But he added: “It is not a secret today that we have contact with all the moderate Arab world. I think it is good news.”

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The Chernobyl disaster may have also built a paradise • WIRED

Adam Rogers:

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Møller and Mousseau inventoried the total populations of invertebrates in and around the Exclusion Zone, and they found that their populations were smaller inside. The same, they say, goes for birds and mammals, though the changes weren’t consistent for every species. “We see negative impacts of ionizing radiation on free-living organisms. This applies to mammals, insects, spiders, butterflies, you name it,” Møller says. “And a second issue is, are these populations of large mammals composed of healthy individuals? Or individuals that are sick or malformed or in other ways negatively impacted by radiation? That’s not investigated, and that’s the big question mark that hangs over the Exclusion Zone.”

Other researchers using different methods, though, have found quite the opposite. In the 1990s, a preliminary study of rodents showed that radiation had no effect on population. Twenty years later, a team of international researchers counting actual animals from helicopters found no measurable difference in the populations of elk, deer, and wild boar—and a sevenfold increase in wolf population—compared with similar, uncontaminated nature preserves. And all those populations had gone up since the first decade after the accident.

Why the difference? Possibly it’s that the animals in question reproduce faster than the radiation can kill them.

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Really fascinating piece. There’s a TV series running on US and UK TV; the first episode was excellent. (I haven’t seen the second just yet.)
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Lenovo shows off the world’s first ‘foldable PC’ • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Lenovo has just announced what it says is the world’s first “foldable PC:” a prototype ThinkPad that iterates the foldable tech we’ve already seen from phones on a much bigger scale.

It’s not just a cool tech demo, either: Lenovo has been developing this for over three years and has plans to launch a finished device in 2020 as part of its premium ThinkPad X1 brand. The goal here is a premium product that will be a laptop-class device, not an accessory or secondary computer like a tablet might be.

Cool factor aside, though, why build a folding PC? The answer is largely portability. Conceptually, it’s the opposite of what most of the foldable phones out there are trying to do. There, companies like Samsung and Huawei are trying to take a device the size of a regular phone and make them bigger. But the idea behind the folding ThinkPad is to take a full-sized PC and make it smaller.

The result is a 13.3-inch 4:3 2K OLED display that can fold up to about the size of a hardcover book (we don’t have the exact weight yet, but Lenovo says it’s less than two pounds, which is about as much as a hardcover copy of one of the larger Harry Potter books). That’s already enough to put it on the lighter side of the portable computer spectrum, but the size savings are really when you fold it in half, making it dramatically smaller than a regular laptop.

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Colour me sceptical. This looks like a foldable-screen version of the 2016 Yoga Book, which was (also) superficially impressive but in the end didn’t sell. We’ve have folding PCs for ages. They’re called laptops, and they have real keyboards.
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Handful of tablet vendors consolidate leadership positions in Q1 2019 as market falls 5% • Strategy Analytics

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Incredibly fierce price competition has put incredible pressure on many Android tablet vendors, but a few companies stood above the rest in Q1 2019. Apple, Huawei, Amazon, and Microsoft have each found ways to press their advantage and gain market share as the rest of the market struggles to find momentum. The global tablet market declined 5% year-on-year in Q1 2019. The question remains, can more vendors break through to growth or will they continue to cede ground to the market leaders?

Eric Smith, director – connected computing, said, “Amazon had an excellent post-holiday quarter on the back of several promotional discounts, pushing shipments 21% higher than a year ago. Huawei is still eating the lunch of its Android competitors, particularly in EMEA and China, growing 8% globally year-on-year. There are signs of stabilization among some vendors, including Samsung, HP, Dell, and even TCL-Alcatel. Certainly, the picture is rosier for many companies still in the tablet business when you look at revenues, which explains why competition is so heated.”

Chirag Upadhyay, senior research analyst, added, “Most Windows Detachable 2-in-1 vendors are targeting the premium tier for enterprise users to make higher profits but a crowded market prevents all vendors from growing at once, especially now that Apple is competing strongly with three iPad Pro models in this price tier. As a result of taking focus off of the larger consumer market, Windows market share actually fell by 1 percentage point year-on-year to 14%. Windows shipments fell 13% year-on-year to 5.0 million units in Q1 2019 from 5.7 million in Q1 2018. Shipments declined 29% from the previous quarter on low seasonality. Microsoft fully owns the leadership position in Windows Detachable 2-in-1s with the release of the lower cost Surface Go and a refreshed Surface Pro 6 all in the last half of 2018. This is the fifth straight quarter of year-on-year shipment and revenue gains for Microsoft.”

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I’d hazard a guess that average selling prices are rising, while small players are being squeezed out at the bottom end. In other words, the tablet market has hit maturity, and it’s all going to be consolidation now.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,066: Uber stutters, bad playlist antics, Apple loses Supreme Court case, the social robot failures, Foxconned in Wisconsin?, and more


Loyalty programs are a huge target for hackers. CC-licensed photo by John Hritz 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 10 links for you. What about a social robot graph? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Uber’s losses reach double digits in IPO debut debacle • Yahoo

Jeran Wittenstein and Sam Unsted:

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The ride-hailing giant dropped as much as 11% to $37.08 in New York. The San Francisco-based company sold 180 million shares at $45 apiece on Thursday, and on Friday it never traded above that price, ending the day down 7.6% at $41.57 even as other stocks gained.

“Sentiment does not change overnight, and I expect some tough public market times over the coming months,” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told staff in an email.

The share slump reflects investor skepticism about the size of the ride-hailing market, Uber’s ability to execute on food and package delivery and its push into autonomous vehicles, said Ygal Arounian of Wedbush Securities. The IPO also comes as investors shy away from riskier assets given U.S.-China trade tensions, said the analyst, who has an outperform rating on Uber and sees the stock reaching $65 in the next year.

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I link to this only to note it; I don’t think the first few days or weeks are anything either way. What’s going to matter is its financial results, and that’s going to play out over years. (Has anyone analysed how a company’s shares perform on its first day compared to how it performs over its life?)
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Anki, Jibo, and Kuri: what we can learn from social robots that didn’t make it • IEEE Spectrum

Guy Hoffman heads the Human-Robot Collaboration + Companionship Lab at Cornell University:

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I believe that Cozmo, Kuri, and Jibo (disclosure: Jibo was founded by my Ph.D. advisor Cynthia Breazeal) will play a similar role on the path towards successful social home robotics. If that is true, what exactly can we learn from their experience? Here are four lessons I have personally drawn from closely following these first attempts to put the promise of social robotics research into commercial practice:

Lesson 1: Long-term engagement is the holy grail, and the Gordian knot
All of the social robotics companies were struggling to sustain a long-term use-case for their products. Critics of the products would often say that this kind of product may be fun to use for a while, but that its tricks get old quickly. This made it especially difficult to succeed, given the upscale price point of some of the devices.

One big part of the longevity problem is the inability of the robots to escape the single turn structure of an interaction. There is only so far you can go with a single round of conversation, even when you stack a thousand single rounds back-to-back. At some point you want to follow-up and back-refer (“Remember when I asked you about Florida yesterday? I think I’m ready to commit.”); you want your conversant to make connections across conversations (“That is so similar to the story you told me about how your boss talks to you!”); and you want to be able to speak over each other while still understanding what’s going on.

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The other three are interesting too. Hoffman reckons that the three (failed) social robots leave us at about the point where the Newton left us in 1998 – a while before a really good implementation.
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One month ago, Foxconn said its innovation centers weren’t empty — they still are • The Verge

Josh Dzieza:

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At the event announcing the Madison project, Foxconn’s Alan Yeung said the innovation centers were “not empty,” which prompted laughter from the crowd. Yeung also said The Verge’s story contained “a lot of inaccuracies” and that the company would issue a correction soon. He did not say what those inaccuracies were, and Foxconn never issued a correction, nor has it responded to repeated requests to clarify Yeung’s statement.

One month after Yeung’s comments and promise of a correction, every innovation center in Wisconsin is still empty, according to public documents and sources involved with the innovation center process. Foxconn has yet to purchase the Madison building Yeung announced, according to Madison property records. No renovation or occupancy permits have been taken out for Foxconn’s Racine innovation center, though a permit has been taken out for work on the roof of another property Foxconn bought for “smart city” initiatives. There has been no activity in Foxconn’s Green Bay building, either.

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The Verge is doing good work by continuing to hold Foxconn (and by extension Wisconsin’s useless governor) to account on this boondoggle. How soon is an election where it will all get thrown out?
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Playlist malfeasance • Midia Research

null:

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Streaming economics are facing a potential crisis. The problem does not lie in the market itself; after all, in Q1 2019 streaming revenue became more than half of the recorded music business and Spotify hit 100 million subscribers. Nor does it even lie in the perennial challenge of elusive operating margins. No, this particular looming crisis is both subtler and more insidious. Rather than being an inherent failing of the market, this crisis, if it transpires, will be the unintended consequence of short-sighted attempts to game the system. The root of it all is playlists…

…With playlists being so important for both marketing and revenue, it was inevitable that people would seek out ways to attain any possible advantage. Consequently, playlists are becoming gamed, whether that be major labels getting more than their fair share of access to the biggest playlists or ‘fake artists’ filling them out.

Most recently, Humble Angel’s Kieron Donoghue identified a cynically constructed playlist called ‘Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms’(all terms optimised for user searches) that contained 330 one-minute songs of “ambient noise of rain and a few thunder storms thrown in for good measure”. The one-minute track length ensures they are long enough to qualify for a royalty share, but short enough to ensure that a typical listening session will generate a vast quantity of streams, thus generating more royalties.

The twist to this story is that this playlist was created by Sony Music and the artist behind all these tracks appears to be a Sony Music artist. Crucially Sony isn’t the only one doing this, with UMG getting in on the act and Warner Music signing an algorithm.

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All’s fair in love, war and making money in the music business.
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Why rewards for loyal spenders are ‘a honeypot for hackers’ • The New York Times

Tiffany Hsu:

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Some brands have hooked their rewards to other companies. Walgreens offers points to shoppers who connect their accounts to Fitbit fitness trackers. In March, Chipotle briefly promoted a new loyalty program with cash prizes for consumers who also used the social payments app Venmo. Participants submitted the phone number associated with their Venmo accounts on a website created by Chipotle.

Companies are collecting so much data that it is often “more than they can actually use,” said Emily Collins, an analyst with Forrester Research.

“They’ve got oceans of data and puddles of insight,” she said.

As consumers hand over more data, many of them fail to monitor their accounts closely. More than half of the rewards memberships in the United States are inactive, and more than $100 billion a year in rewards points go unredeemed, according to the marketing firm Bond Brand Loyalty.
Tate Holcombe, a photographer in Arlington, Va., said he was usually “pretty religious about changing passwords and multiple verifications,” especially for accounts linked to payment data. With rewards programs, he was much more lax.

“Of course, that’s the one place I got hacked,” he said.

On March 23, Mr. Holcombe woke up at home to a 3 a.m. notification from his Domino’s loyalty account: His pizza was ready for pickup in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Someone had hacked his profile and used a coupon for a free pizza, he said. Personal details, like his phone number and address, had been overwritten with gibberish. When he complained, the company replaced his coupon.

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A honeypot, because there are 3.8bn rewards memberships in the US – an average of 10 per person. Of course they’ll get hacked; that it’s only $1bn in value lost suggests hackers are only just warming up, or that rewards programs are pretty worthless.
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Friend portability is the must-have Facebook regulation • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:

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as the FTC considers how many billions to fine Facebook or which executives to stick with personal liability or whether to go full-tilt and break up the company, I implore it to consider the root of how Facebook gets away with abusing user privacy: there’s no simple way to switch to an alternative.

If Facebook users are fed up with the surveillance, security breaches, false news, or hatred, there’s no western general purpose social network with scale for them to join. Twitter is for short-form public content, Snapchat is for ephemeral communication. Tumblr is neglected. Google+ is dead. Instagram is owned by Facebook. And the rest are either Chinese, single-purpose, or tiny.

No, I don’t expect the FTC to launch its own “Fedbook” social network. But what it can do is pave an escape route from Facebook so worthy alternatives become viable options. That’s why the FTC must require Facebook offer truly interoperable data portability for the social graph.

In other words, the government should pass regulations forcing Facebook to let you export your friend list to other social networks in a privacy-safe way. This would allow you to connect with or follow those people elsewhere so you could leave Facebook without losing touch with your friends. The increased threat of people ditching Facebook for competitors would create a much stronger incentive to protect users and society.

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Good idea. Facebook has been able to strangle companies by denying them access to the social graph that people need to be able to build a presence on a new social network, while boosting its own by crosslinking Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp data, all purloined from your phonebook.
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Supreme Court allows antitrust lawsuit against Apple to proceed • The New York Times

Adam Liptak and Jack Nicas:

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The legal question in the case, Apple v. Pepper, was whether the lawsuit was barred by a 1977 decision in Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, a case that allowed only direct purchasers of products to bring federal antitrust lawsuits. Apple argued that it was an intermediary and so not subject to lawsuit.

The majority rejected that argument. “The plaintiffs’ allegations boil down to one straightforward claim: that Apple exercises monopoly power in the retail market for the sale of apps and has unlawfully used its monopoly power to force iPhone owners to pay Apple higher-than-competitive prices for apps,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote.

Apple argued that app developers set their own prices, meaning that consumers should not be able to sue the company. Justice Kavanaugh responded that the argument missed the economic reality of the relationship between Apple and app developers.

“A ‘who sets the price’ rule,” he wrote, “would draw an arbitrary and unprincipled line among retailers based on retailers’ financial arrangements with their manufacturers or suppliers.”

“Under Apple’s rule a consumer could sue a monopolistic retailer when the retailer set the retail price by marking up the price it had paid the manufacturer or supplier for the good or service,” he wrote. “But a consumer could not sue a monopolistic retailer when the manufacturer or supplier set the retail price and the retailer took a commission on each sale.”

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Here’s the Supreme Court ruling. In effect, it says that Apple’s a monopolistic retailer, and thus able to set prices (why is it 30% on top? How does one shop around to get apps at a different price?). Apple’s going to have to let apps be sold in a different way, or at least allow different transaction paths to be signposted.

Apple’s response: “Developers set the price they want to charge for their app and Apple has no role in that. The vast majority of apps on the App Store are free and Apple gets nothing from them… We’re confident we will prevail when the facts are presented and that the App Store is not a monopoly by any metric.”
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Switching to a Pixel 3a from any iPhone newer than the iPhone 6 is just silly • BGR

Chris Smith:

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Google says its $399 Pixel 3a does better night photography than the $999 “Phone X” from the competition. We all know that’s the iPhone X, or, better said its successor, the iPhone XS [the iPhone X, from last year, costs less than $999]. Even if Google’s Night Sight photo mode is remarkable and puts Apple’s low-light photography to shame, that’s an incredible narrow-sided way to compare these phones. Make no mistake, the Pixel 3a phones aren’t the equivalent of iPhone XR, or the Galaxy S10e for that matter. Google’s cheaper phones pack mid-tier hardware compared to Apple’s and Samsung’s cheapest new flagship.

Aside from taking photos at night, you probably want to use your phone for plenty of other things. While a $399 phone with incredible photo skills sounds excellent, the phone is still a mid-range handset whose performance pales when compared to the iPhone.

Switching from an iPhone 6s or newer to the Pixel 3a phones makes zero sense…

If you really want to switch your iPhone for a new Android phone, then go for the Pixel 3 flagship phones. Although, I would point out that the Pixel 3 phones still suffer from performance issues, the kind you wouldn’t expect from a flagship Android handset — that’s one other reason you shouldn’t swap an iPhone 6s or newer for the Pixel 3a series. Even better, if you want to trade-in your iPhone, then get a Galaxy S10, Huawei P30, or OnePlus 7 instead. It’d be a much better deal.

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Smith justifies this on the basis of benchmarks showing the Pixel 3a as slower on multi- and single-core tasks than anything Apple’s offered since 2015. I think people might find the visuals and UI slower – Apple optimises like crazy for scrolling (in particular) and other interactions.
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Privacy rights and data collection in a digital economy • Idle Words

Maciej Cieglowski, who runs the Pinboard service but is also one of the clearest thinkers on the state of the internet, gave evidence last week to the US Congress. As you’d expect, it’s a must-read:

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Until recently, even people living in a police state could count on the fact that the authorities didn’t have enough equipment or manpower to observe everyone, everywhere, and so enjoyed more freedom from monitoring than we do living in a free society today. [Note: The record for intensive surveillance in the pre-internet age likely belongs to East Germany, where by some estimates one in seven people was an informant.].

A characteristic of this new world of ambient surveillance is that we cannot opt out of it, any more than we might opt out of automobile culture by refusing to drive. However sincere our commitment to walking, the world around us would still be a world built for cars. We would still have to contend with roads, traffic jams, air pollution, and run the risk of being hit by a bus.

Similarly, while it is possible in principle to throw one’s laptop into the sea and renounce all technology, it is no longer be possible to opt out of a surveillance society.

When we talk about privacy in this second, more basic sense, the giant tech companies are not the guardians of privacy, but its gravediggers.

The tension between these interpretations of what privacy entails, and who is trying to defend it, complicates attempts to discuss regulation.

Tech companies will correctly point out that their customers have willingly traded their private data for an almost miraculous collection of useful services, services that have unquestionably made their lives better, and that the business model that allows them to offer these services for free creates far more value than harm for their customers.

Consumers will just as rightly point out that they never consented to be the subjects in an uncontrolled social experiment, that the companies engaged in reshaping our world have consistently refused to honestly discuss their business models or data collection practices, and that in a democratic society, profound social change requires consensus and accountability.

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Who to sue when a robot loses your fortune • Bloomberg

Thomas Beardsworth and Nishant Kumar:

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It all started over lunch at a Dubai restaurant on March 19, 2017. It was the first time 45-year-old Li, met Costa, the 49-year-old Italian who’s often known by peers in the industry as “Captain Magic.” During their meal, Costa described a robot hedge fund his company London-based Tyndaris Investments would soon offer to manage money entirely using AI, or artificial intelligence.

Developed by Austria-based AI company 42.cx, the supercomputer named K1 would comb through online sources like real-time news and social media to gauge investor sentiment and make predictions on US stock futures. It would then send instructions to a broker to execute trades, adjusting its strategy over time based on what it had learned.

The legal battle is a sign of what’s to come as AI is incorporated into all facets of life
The idea of a fully automated money manager inspired Li instantly. He met Costa for dinner three days later, saying in an email beforehand that the AI fund “is exactly my kind of thing.”

Over the following months, Costa shared simulations with Li showing K1 making double-digit returns, although the two now dispute the thoroughness of the back-testing. Li eventually let K1 manage $2.5bn — $250m of his own cash and the rest leverage from Citigroup. The plan was to double that over time.

But Li’s affection for K1 waned almost as soon as the computer started trading in late 2017. By February 2018, it was regularly losing money, including over $20m in a single day — Feb. 14 — due to a stop-loss order Li’s lawyers argue wouldn’t have been triggered if K1 was as sophisticated as Costa led him to believe.

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Ooh, this will be such fun if it ever reaches court – though as the court date is set for April 2020, I suspect it will get settled before it does.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,065: Ever had your photo misused?, Illinois faces the truth, Clegg’s Facebook switch, “Netflix and till”, and more


If you recognise these, you’ll already know that Ingress is an AR game where players may travel thousands of miles. CC-licensed photo by killbox 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 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How an augmented reality game escalated into real-world spy warfare • VICE

Elizabeth Ballou:

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Meng was tired. The weekend before, she’d flown from Beijing to Seattle and back in less than forty-eight hours in order to meet one of her counterparts and obtain the key required to complete the connection from Jiangsu Province to Alaska. Then she’d spent the following days coordinating with the Nanjing group. Now she was getting ready to sleep in a tent on a backwater island. She only hoped that all her effort to marshal other teams into following her lead would pay off, because her plan hinged on whether they could take and hold that island long enough to complete their mission.

At first, Meng hadn’t wanted to get involved in the Resistance. But she made an ideal agent, which is why they recruited her. She traveled a lot for work, and made enough money that she could travel extensively outside of it. Those two factors would make her a powerful player within the intensely competitive community around Ingress, an augmented reality mobile game. It uses the same geolocation functions as an app like Foursquare, but places them in the context of a sci-fi story about factional intrigue: to seize territory, players go to different physical locations in the world. Which is where Meng came in. In 2016, some friends convinced her to start doing them small favors on her travels, little side-trips that wouldn’t take her too far out of her way. Within a year, 25-year-old Meng was planning and executing some of the group’s most ambitious operations while working another job full-time.

«

This is quite surreal – and it would only require another layer, in which the people behind the game are actively trying to carry out some sort of espionage, for it to be really mindbending.
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What Sony’s robot dog teaches us about biometric data privacy • CNET

Megan Wollerton:

»

Because of our office pet’s face-detecting capabilities, Sony doesn’t sell Aibo in Illinois. The state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) regulates the collection of biometric data, including face scans.

So Aibo’s out in the land of Lincoln, but the story doesn’t stop with Sony’s quirky robot. Illinois also limits access to facial recognition in home security cameras, a feature that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in the consumer security market. Let’s take a closer look at BIPA, the growth of biometric tech in consumer products – and how other states in the US treat your biometric info.

The Biometric Information Privacy Act was established in 2008 to regulate “the collection, use, safeguarding, handling, storage, retention, and destruction of biometric identifiers and information.” BIPA defines “biometric identifiers” as retina scans, iris scans, fingerprints, hand scans, face scans and voiceprints.

Basically, an individual or a company needs “informed written consent” to use another individual’s biometric info. 

State senator Terry Link for Illinois’ 30th district introduced Senate Bill 2400 on Feb. 14, 2008 to protect the biometric privacy of Illinois residents. State senators Christine Radogno, Iris Y. Martinez, David Koehler and Heather Steans served as co-sponsors of the bill. It was approved as the Biometric Information Privacy Act on Oct. 3, 2008.

Senator Link filed an amendment to BIPA on May 26, 2016 to redefine “biometric identifier,” to make it easier to collect certain biometric data, but later withdrew the amendment.

«

Which also prevents various other bits of kit being sold there – such as Nest’s facial recognition-enabled systems, which are disabled there. Texas and Washington states have some too.
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Millions of people uploaded photos to the Ever app. Then the company used them to develop facial recognition tools • NBC News

Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar:

»

“Make memories”: That’s the slogan on the website for the photo storage app Ever, accompanied by a cursive logo and an example album titled “Weekend with Grandpa.”

Everything about Ever’s branding is warm and fuzzy, about sharing your “best moments” while freeing up space on your phone.

What isn’t obvious on Ever’s website or app — except for a brief reference that was added to the privacy policy after NBC News reached out to the company in April — is that the photos people share are used to train the company’s facial recognition system, and that Ever then offers to sell that technology to private companies, law enforcement and the military.

In other words, what began in 2013 as another cloud storage app has pivoted toward a far more lucrative business known as Ever AI — without telling the app’s millions of users.

“This looks like an egregious violation of people’s privacy,” said Jacob Snow, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “They are taking images of people’s families, photos from a private photo app, and using it to build surveillance technology. That’s hugely concerning.”

«

Wonder if this is legal in Illinois?
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Opinion: breaking up Facebook is not the answer • The New York Times

Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister of the UK, now a PR for Facebook, in a placed op-ed at the NYT:

»

In this competitive environment, it is hard to sustain the claim that Facebook is a monopoly. Almost all of our revenue comes from digital advertising, and most estimates say Facebook’s share is about 20% of the United States online ad market, which means 80% of all digital ads happen off our platforms.

The second misunderstanding is of antitrust law. These laws, developed in the 1800s, are not meant to punish a company because people disagree with its management. Their main purpose is to protect consumers by ensuring they have access to low-cost, high-quality products and services. And especially in the case of technology, rapid innovation. That is exactly where Facebook puts its attention: building the best products, free for consumers, and funded by advertisers.

What antitrust law isn’t about is size alone. In Facebook’s case, our size has not only brought innovation, it has also allowed us to make a huge investment in protecting the safety and security of our services.

Over the past two years we’ve focused heavily on blocking foreign adversaries from trying to influence democratic elections by using our platforms. We’ve done the same to protect against terrorism and hate speech and to better safeguard people’s data. And the resources that we will spend on security and safety this year alone will be more than our overall revenues at the time of our initial public offering in 2012. That would be pretty much impossible for a smaller company.

«

And here’s Clegg, writing in 2017 (after he’d left government), in The Independent:

»

As an old-fashioned liberal who believes in the virtues of competition, I remain perplexed at the way in which US competition law only seems to care about the effect of near monopoly market dominance by a tiny number of big players if and when it increases the prices paid by consumers.

«

(H/t Olivia Solon, who spotted the latter.)
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Farmers plough through Netflix while ploughing fields • WSJ

Jacob Bunge:

»

After kissing his three children goodnight this spring, Aaron Newell settled in to binge-watch the “Avengers” movies ahead of the franchise’s new theater release, “Avengers: Endgame.”

Mr. Newell’s home theatre — equipped with a stereo sound system and an ergonomically designed chair—sits inside a five-by-five foot soundproofed cab above roughly 30,000 pounds of rumbling machinery, crawling over fields on massive caterpillar tracks.

“People think I’m crazy, but I look forward to it,” Mr. Newell, 35, said of planting-season hours on his farm that can begin before dawn and stretch past midnight.

Mr. Newell, who plowed through all six seasons of Netflix’s “House of Cards” while tilling his fields near Callender, Iowa, last fall, said he would farm with or without modern conveniences. But glancing over at “The Wolf of Wall Street” or the “Star Wars” series on a cabin-mounted iPad makes long days go by faster, he said. “If it was dead silence for 12 to 13 hours, that might be a different issue.”

Thanks to GPS-enabled guidance systems and high-speed planters, US farmers can plant and harvest fields faster than ever before, often with minimal human involvement. Self-steering tractors and combines free farmers to monitor seeding rates, haggle on the phone over crop sales, watch the weather—and get bored.

«

Or, as one wag on Twitter put it, “Netflix and till”. (Bet the WSJ’s subeditors are kicking themselves at missing that one.)
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“Strong opinions loosely held” might be the worst idea in tech • The Glowforge Blog

Michael Natkin:

»

in the tech industry, with our motto of “strong opinions, loosely held”, we’ve glorified overconfidence. The same foolishness that would cost your money and pride in a pool hall is the stuff of legend in Silicon Valley. Stroll through an engineering office and you are likely to hear the (mostly white, mostly male) denizens making statements like:

“Only an idiot would use MongoDB.”

“We should absolutely build this using GoLang.”

“All of our users would kill for that feature.”

“Linguini’s is the worst restaurant in the world and I’d rather eat dehydrated bat vomit for the rest of my life than have lunch there again.”

The idea of strong opinions, loosely held is that you can make bombastic statements, and everyone should implicitly assume that you’ll happily change your mind in a heartbeat if new data suggests you are wrong. It is supposed to lead to a collegial, competitive environment in which ideas get a vigorous defense, the best of them survive, and no-one gets their feelings hurt in the process.

On a certain kind of team, where everyone shares that ethos, and there is very little power differential, this can work well. I’ve had the pleasure of working on teams like that, and it is all kinds of fun. When you have a handful of solid engineers that understand each other, and all of them feel free to say “you are wrong about X, that is absolutely insane, and I question your entire family structure if you believe that, clearly Y is the way to go”, and then you all happily grab lunch together (at Linguini’s), that’s a great feeling of camaraderie.

Unfortunately, that ideal is seldom achieved.

What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion.

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See also: Twitter.
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Dooce.com’s Heather Armstrong was the “queen of the mommy bloggers.” Then her life fell apart • Vox

Chavie Lieber:

»

The Armstrongs’ divorce was finalized in March 2013, and Jon moved to New York a year later to be with a new girlfriend. Armstrong now has custody of her two daughters for most of the year (they spend summers with their father).

The Armstrong marriage wasn’t the only thing in the Dooce universe that had gone south. By 2012, Dooce’s audience — like that of so many blogs — had scattered to social media, so readership declined. Blogging started to fizzle out as a medium, and display advertising money dried up.

Dooce did have a somewhat diversified revenue stream; Armstrong started doing sponsored content as early as 2009. Brands would pay her for blog posts that promoted their products, but she says brand demands began to cross a line.

“It became about products in posts, manufacturing experiences I may not have had, and then including photos of my children,” Armstrong recalls. “It very quickly spiraled and I didn’t feel comfortable with it.”

The Dooce blog lived on for a bit after the divorce. Armstrong filled it with recipes, shopping guides, and tales of single parenthood. In 2015, though, she announced she was taking a break.

«

Divorce apart, it’s the story of so many bloggers who found success in the mid-noughts: social media (particularly Facebook) swallowed their audience.
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Review: Shell Recharge • Terence Eden’s Blog

Terence Eden has an electric car:

»

Even when I had a petrol car, I boycotted Shell – refusing to use their petrol stations. I thought that would continue once I got an electric car – no dino-juice for me!

My car has more than enough range for me, but on a recent journey I decided it would be prudent to do a splash-and-dash – shove a few kWh in the battery just in case. I fired up Zap Map and was pleasantly surprised to see that Shell had a rapid charger near me. So, here’s my review. Can a station forecourt deliver the power I need?

«

Worth reading, especially in conjunction with his calculation that electric cars get the equivalent of 165mpg. (The calculation is slightly different in the US, where fuel is underpriced relative to the negative externalities that it has.)
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Google launches Portals, a new web page navigation system for Chrome • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

At the I/O 2019 developer conference yesterday, Google launched a new technology called Portals that aims to provide a new way of loading and navigating through web pages.

According to Google, Portals will work with the help of a new HTML tag named . This tag works similarly to classic tags, allowing web developers to embed remote content in their pages.

The difference between a portal and an iframe tag is that Google’s new Portals technology is an upgrade over iframes.

Google says portals allow users to navigate inside the content they are embedding –something that iframes do not allow for security reasons…

…Google engineers hope that their new Portals technology will take over the web and become the standard way in which websites transition between links.

«

Chrome dev track-only, non-standard (“it is not a W3 Standard nor is it on th W3C Standards Track”). Remember when Google was about the open web? Now it’s about the Google-defined web. When Microsoft used to do this stuff, people went mad.
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Trump’s washing machine tariffs stung consumers while lifting corporate profits • The New York Times

Jim Tankersley:

»

President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported washing machines has had an odd effect: It raised prices on washing machines, as expected, but also drove up the cost of clothes dryers, which rose by $92 last year.

What appears to have happened, according to new research from economists at the University of Chicago and the Federal Reserve, is a case study in how a measure meant to help domestic factory workers can rebound on American consumers, creating unexpected costs and leaving shoppers with a sky-high bill for every factory job created.

Research to be released on Monday by the economists Aaron Flaaen, of the Fed, and Ali Hortacsu and Felix Tintelnot, of Chicago, estimates that consumers bore between 125% and 225% of the costs of the washing machine tariffs. The authors calculate that the tariffs brought in $82m to the United States Treasury, while raising consumer prices by $1.5bn.

And while the tariffs did encourage foreign companies to shift more of their manufacturing to the United States and created about 1,800 new jobs, the researchers conclude that those came at a steep cost: about $817,000 per job.

Mr. Trump imposed the tariffs last year in response to a complaint by the Michigan-based manufacturer Whirlpool, which claimed foreign competitors were cornering the American washing machine market with cheaper models that threatened domestic manufacturers. The tariffs started at 20% per imported washer and rose to 50% late in the year, after total imports exceeded a quota set by the administration.

«

Yet there are people who believe China is paying the tariffs and that this is a successful readjustment.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,064: time to break up Facebook?, self-driving cars delayed, China’s coal bonanza, Disney writes off Vice, and more


A busy restaurant: will staff have time to answer a phone call from “Google”? CC-licensed photo by Ralph Daily 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 10 links for you. Friday! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

It’s time to break up Facebook • The New York Times

Chris Hughes, formerly of Facebook (he worked to develop its News Feed), with a very long article about why he thinks it’s time for antitrust action, which boils down to this:

»

How would a breakup work? Facebook would have a brief period to spin off the Instagram and WhatsApp businesses, and the three would become distinct companies, most likely publicly traded. Facebook shareholders would initially hold stock in the new companies, although Mark and other executives would probably be required to divest their management shares.

Until recently, WhatsApp and Instagram were administered as independent platforms inside the parent company, so that should make the process easier. But time is of the essence: Facebook is working quickly to integrate the three, which would make it harder for the F.T.C. to split them up.
Mark Zuckerberg after ringing the opening bell for the Nasdaq stock market on the day his company went public.

Some economists are skeptical that breaking up Facebook would spur that much competition, because Facebook, they say, is a “natural” monopoly. Natural monopolies have emerged in areas like water systems and the electrical grid, where the price of entering the business is very high — because you have to lay pipes or electrical lines — but it gets cheaper and cheaper to add each additional customer. In other words, the monopoly arises naturally from the circumstances of the business, rather than a company’s illegal maneuvering. In addition, defenders of natural monopolies often make the case that they benefit consumers because they are able to provide services more cheaply than anyone else.

Facebook is indeed more valuable when there are more people on it: There are more connections for a user to make and more content to be shared. But the cost of entering the social network business is not that high. And unlike with pipes and electricity, there is no good argument that the country benefits from having only one dominant social networking company.

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One year later, restaurants are still confused by Google Duplex • The Verge

Natt Garun:

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Some employees were even skeptical about whether the voice on the other line is truly a robot. Gabriel Murphy, owner and chef at Gogi’s Restaurant in Jacksonville, Oregon, said he tried the AI out on his staff as he monitored the call in private. When he later told them it was Duplex, the team didn’t believe they were truly talking to an AI. “None of the staff seemed to have any issue with it, [but] there were plenty of jokes about Skynet and machines taking over,” Murphy says.

But Google’s machines don’t seem to be taking over yet. As the US continues to deal with an onslaught of spammy robocalls, it seems that many restaurant employees are inadvertently shielding themselves from Duplex by ignoring incoming calls that do not display a person’s name. Mark Seaman, a manager at two-year-old restaurant Queens Bully, in Forest Hills, New York, says he often tries to avoid calls from businesses that look like they could be pitching the restaurant on a product or service. “Most of our growth comes from our own social media efforts and the parties we throw,” Seaman tells me. “We get calls all the time from people trying to sell us something [we don’t need].”

Although Google does not personally call businesses to convince them to buy ads, it stands to reason why many restaurant employees would shy away from answering calls that list the company in its caller ID in the first place. As Google plans to extend Duplex beyond restaurants and into other appointment-based services like hair salons, it’ll have to do more to convince businesses that its robocalls, at least from the surface, are different than the ones most Americans are accustomed to.

«

The Caller ID issue is going to be a big one. Americans suffer terribly from spam calls. (Though what if Google gets its CallJoy system to answer them? AI talking to AI. Or would it block them?) Also, it’s been less than a year that Duplex has been in use. You’d have got the same reaction (generally) to the iPhone, iPad, Amazon Echo etc a year after their launch.
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Ford taps the brakes on the arrival of self-driving cars • WIRED

Aarian Marshall:

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Ford CEO Jim Hackett Tuesday joined the growing ranks of vehicle and tech execs willing to say publicly that self-driving cars won’t arrive as soon as some had hoped.

The industry “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Hackett told the Detroit Economic Club. Though Ford is not wavering from its self-imposed due date of 2021 for its first purpose-built driverless car, Hackett acknowledged that the vehicle’s “applications will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex.” Bloomberg earlier reported the comments.

Hackett is the latest high-ranking industry insider to engage in public real talk about the prospects for self-driving cars, which back in 2016 seemed just around the corner…

…What’s so complicated about full self-driving? For one, there are no federal regulations for the tech, and states have struggled to fill the void with their own testing rules. Second, industry insiders say sensors need to get better—to “see” farther more cheaply—before the tech can be deployed widely. And developers are still hacking away at better algorithms, ones that can handle the uncertainty of new road situations without hurting their cargo.

«

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Who has gone where • Centre For Towns

Concom Website Design:

»

Moving out of London

This map shows the number of people who have moved from London to each local authority over the last four years.

House prices where you live: This map has four options: 1. Average house price in 1997; 2. Average house price in 2017; 3. Change in house price (£), 1997-2017; 4. House price:Income ratio. The last option uses average houshold income.

«

And plenty more: mental health contacts in the last 12 months, post office closures in the past three years, train station usage, access to broadband, and much more.
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Global smartwatch shipments grew 48%yoy in Q1 2019; one in three was an Apple Watch • Counterpoint Research

»

Global smartwatch shipments grew a healthy rate of 48% year-on-year (YoY) in Q1 2019 driven by Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, and Huawei, according to the latest research from Counterpoint’s Global Smartwatch Tracker.

Commenting on the major shift in the market, Counterpoint Research Analyst, Satyajit Sinha, noted, “Apple Watch shipments grew a solid 49% YoY despite the weak demand for its iPhones. Apple continues to focus on the health-related features like ECG and fall detection in the Apple Watch Series 4. The ECG capability in the Apple Watch is the most desirable feature, according to our latest Consumer Lens survey. Apple has now received approval on its ECG features from healthcare authorities of Hong Kong and 19 other countries including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK.”

Sinha added: “The heart rate sensor for health monitoring, GPS and pedometer sensors for fitness, and NFC embedded for payment are some of the key integrated technologies. Related use-cases and in addition to notifications with cellular capability are driving the smartwatch adoption. However, limited battery life remains a pain point for consumer’s decision-making process, irrespective of region and price band.”

«

I don’t think Apple is going to dramatically extend battery life. Surprised that after four years people haven’t figured this out. It hasn’t done on its laptops, phones, tablets or AirPods. Not going to happen on the Watch. Meanwhile, Huawei is coming up fast.
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North American smartphone market plunges to five-year low • Canalys

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Smartphone shipments in North America plummeted 18% year on year in Q1 2019 to a five-year low of 36.4m units, down from a record high of 44.4m in Q1 2018. This is the steepest fall ever recorded, due to a lacklustre performance by Apple and the absence of ZTE. But Apple remained the clear leader, despite suffering a regional decline of 19%. It shipped more than 4.5m iPhone XR handsets in the quarter, while Samsung shipped more than 2.0m each of its Galaxy S10+ and S10e models.

Samsung narrowed Apple’s lead in the first quarter, shipping 29% of North America’s smartphones, against 23% in Q1 2018. Samsung scheduled an earlier launch date for the S10 series, and more than doubled shipments over the S9 series in their respective launch quarters.

“Samsung brought real differentiation to its Galaxy S10 devices,” said Canalys Research Analyst Vincent Thielke. “Its triple camera, ultra-wide-angle lens, hole-punch display and reverse wireless charging all raised consumer interest. While these technologies are not new, Samsung is among the first to bring them to the US in a mass-market smartphone, and the appeal of such new features will be important for other launches this year.”

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Saturated market; replacement cycles lengthening. I don’t think people are honestly gagging for triple cameras or the rest. A few wanted a new phone, is all.
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What happened after my 13-year-old son joined the alt-right • The Washingtonian

“Anonymous”:

»

the transfer, midyear, to a new school—after he’d been wrongly accused, unfairly treated, then unceremoniously dropped by his friends—shattered Sam. He felt totally alone. I counseled patience, naively unprepared for what came next: when he found people to talk to on Reddit and 4chan.

Those online pals were happy to explain that all girls lie—especially about rape. And they had lots more knowledge to impart. They told Sam that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that Jews run global financial networks. (We’re Jewish and don’t know anyone who runs anything, but I guess the evidence was convincing.) They insisted that the wage gap is a fallacy, that feminazis are destroying families, that people need guns to protect themselves from government incursions onto private property. They declared that women who abort their babies should be jailed.

Sam prides himself on questioning conventional wisdom and subjecting claims to intellectual scrutiny. For kids today, that means Googling stuff. One might think these searches would turn up a variety of perspectives, including at least a few compelling counterarguments. One would be wrong. The Google searches flooded his developing brain with endless bias-confirming “proof” to back up whichever specious alt-right standard was being hoisted that week. Each set of results acted like fertilizer sprinkled on weeds: A forest of distortion flourished.

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Google thought my phone number was Facebook’s and it ruined my life • VICE

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

»

In the last three days, I’ve gotten more than 80 phone calls. Just today, in the span of eight minutes, I got three phone calls from people looking to talk to Facebook. I didn’t answer all of them, and some left voicemails.

Initially, I thought this was some coordinated trolling campaign. As it turns out, if you Googled “Facebook phone number” on your phone earlier this week, you would see my cellphone as the fourth result, and Google has created a “card” that pulled my number out of the article and displayed it directly on the search page in a box. The effect is that it seemed like my phone number was Facebook’s phone number, because that is how Google has trained people to think.

Considering that on average, according to Google’s own data, people search for “Facebook phone number” tens of thousands of times every month, I got a lot of calls.

“[Google is] trying to scrape for a phone number to match the intent of the search query,” Austin Kane, the director for SEO strategy for the New York-based consulting company Acknowledge Digital, told me in an email. “The first few web listings … don’t actually have a phone number available on site so it seems that Google is mistakenly crawling other content and exposing the phone number in Search Engine Results Pages, thinking that this is applicable to the query and helpful for users.” (Vice Media is a client of Acknowledge Digital.)

When I reached out to Facebook’s PR to get their thoughts, a spokesperson started his email response with: “Huh, that’s an odd one.”

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But the fault is Google’s.
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Belt and Road summit puts spotlight on Chinese coal funding • The Guardian

Jonathan Watts:

»

At the opening last week of a 660MW coal power station in Tharparkar – supported by China Machinery Engineering Corporation – officials declared the new facility to be “the pride of Pakistan”, but the plant will make the country dependent on a new open-cast coalmine that will produce 3.8m tonnes of low-quality fuel each year. Climate campaigners said this was a missed opportunity because the surrounding Sindh province had rich potential for renewables, with wind corridors and abundant sunlight.

In Europe, China is financing, building or equipping 4.1GW of coal-fired plants, according to the Danish NGO VedvarendeEnergi (Sustainable Energy), including the Kostolac B3 power station in Serbia and the Tuzla 7 plant in Bosnia, which are subject to investigations, lawsuits or petitions from environmental groups.

Wawa Wang, a senior adviser to VedvarendeEnergi, said the forum should address the double standards between China’s domestic climate actions and its overseas actions. “I’d like to see China introduce binding policy and law that restrict financing of overseas coal projects,” she said.

Xi has declared that the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] should be green. But the balance so far has been towards black energy.

«

A riposte to my suggestion that China would rein back on coal. Instead it seems to be ramping it up abroad, through funding. (Thanks Robert Howarth for the link.)
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Disney put more than $400m into Vice Media. Now it says that investment is worthless • Vox

Peter Kafka:

»

Disney’s accounting decision is yet another example — perhaps the most stunning one — of the turnabout we’ve seen in digital media over the past few years. Investors have decided that high-flying publishers that once confidently explained that they’d created a new media paradigm are now worth very little … or even less.

Here’s a partial roll call familiar to some of you:

• Mic, which raised more than $60m, sold for less than $5m late last year
• Mashable, which was valued at about $250m in 2016, sold for less than $50m in 2017
• The properties formerly known as Gawker Media, plus the Onion and other sites, just sold for a price that’s likely well below $50m; Univision, the TV conglomerate which sold them off, had paid $135m for the Gawker sites alone in 2016
• We don’t (yet) know the value that Comcast, which put a collective $600m into Vox Media (which owns this site) and BuzzFeed over the past few years now thinks those two publishers are worth. But it’s a reasonable bet that Comcast thinks they are worth less than it thought in 2015.

All of those companies have different stories and different particulars. The through-line is that a few years ago, all of them were confident that they were going to shoot up in value, because they knew how to reach young audiences by exploiting the big tech platforms — in particular, Facebook and Google.

Instead, Facebook and Google have hoovered up the majority of digital ad revenue — the money the new publishers expected to get, once they reached scale. And publishers that had expected Facebook and Google to rely on them for content have learned that Facebook and Google don’t really need them, after all.

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The valuations were always wild, based on starry-eyed guesses from early growth rather than realism. So it goes.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,063: are App Stores over?, Google’s 15m music subs, the rise of apps built on fear, peak copper?, and more


Now decommissioned, Battersea Power Station was coal-fired. But the UK has gone without burning coal for power for a week. CC-licensed photo by mendhak 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 13 links for you. So get reading! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The end of App Stores is rapidly approaching • OneZero

Owen Williams:

»

t’s time to blow up the walled garden that keeps you locked into the products Apple and Google allow into their app stores. A new generation of Progressive Web Applications (PWAs), now taking root on desktop computers, may soon make the jump to your smartphone, changing how you download apps — and where they come from — forever.

An update in recent preview versions of Google Chrome, which enjoys 63% of the browser market share worldwide, hints at the potential here. Users can now install apps from sites simply by clicking a button that materializes in the URL bar, giving near-instant access to powerful, web-based versions of services like Spotify — no more app stores or finicky download pages.

These install buttons are a magic peek at the future of app development. If you navigate to a PWA, such as Spotify’s web player, you’ll see a desktop-style experience and a new option to install the app, so long as you’re using a browser that supports the feature.

Once you’ve installed it, the app will open in its own independent window outside of the browser, create desktop shortcuts, and offer a full feature set — like the ability to use your computer’s media keys to skip tracks or pause music — as if it were a “real,” native app.

Upcoming improvements will allow these apps to do even more. Hidden options in Chrome allow PWAs to launch themselves whenever relevant links are accessed — Twitter’s PWA becomes almost as good as a desktop app with this option enabled, auto-redirecting tweet URLs to the right place.

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I love how this story appears every two years. The future is web apps, and has been since Steve Jobs told the WWDC audience in 2007 he had a “sweet solution” to their desire to put apps on the iPhone – the web! – and was greeted by the stoniest of silences. PWAs aren’t even fully functional on the desktop; you can’t use any browser. On mobile, still a non-starter.
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Google tops 15 million music subscribers as it chases Spotify • Bloomberg

:

»

Google’s paid music services have eclipsed 15 million subscribers, according to two people familiar with the numbers, a milestone for a company that has struggled to build subscription media businesses.

The figure includes subscribers to two services – YouTube Music and Google Play Music, an older service that is being folded into YouTube Music – said the people, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. The number also includes some customers who are still on promotional trials.

Google, part of Alphabet Inc., is still a long way from the market leaders: Spotify has more than 100 million subscribers, while Apple has more than 50 million. But the progress is a good sign for an ad-supported company that has rarely gotten customers to pay for its services.

YouTube declined to comment on the total number of customers for its paid music service, but said subscribers to YouTube Music and Premium grew 60% between March 2018 and March of this year. Premium subscribers pay for the music service, as well as access to the regular YouTube without ads.

«

Lousy headline.It’s probably more accurate to say it’s chasing Amazon, which has somewhere over 20m, though those mix Prime and Music Unlimited subscribers.
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Fear-based social media Nextdoor, Citizen, Amazon’s Neighbors is getting more popular • Vox

:

»

These apps have become popular because of — and have aggravated — the false sense that danger is on the rise. Americans seem to think crime is getting worse, according to data from both Gallup and Pew Research Center. In fact, crime has fallen steeply in the last 25 years according to both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Of course, unjustified fear, nosy neighbors, and the neighborhood watch are nothing new. But the proliferation of smart homes and smart devices is putting tools like cameras and sensors in doorbells, porches, and hallways across America.

And as with all things technology, the reporting and sharing of the information these devices gather is easier than it used to be and its reach is wider.

These apps foment fear around crime, which feeds into existing biases and racism and largely reinforces stereotypes around skin color, according to David Ewoldsen, professor of media and information at Michigan State University.

“There’s very deep research saying if we hear about or read a crime story, we’re much more likely to identify a black person than a white person [as the perpetrator],” Ewoldsen said, regardless of who actually committed the crime.

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China is wasting less solar and wind power • Sixth Tone (via Caixin)

David Kirton:

»

China is wasting less electricity generated by renewables thanks to rising demand, falling costs, and greater grid connectivity.

The drop in wasted electricity, which industry types call “curtailment,” suggests that the government is coming to grips with an issue that has kept cleaner energy off the grid even as policymakers try to make renewable power a greater part of the country’s energy mix. According to its latest five-year plan, the government aims to increase the mix of nonfossil power consumption to 15% by the end of the decade.

While China leads the world in solar and wind capacity, much of the power generated has gone to waste as a lack of coordinated construction led to an overabundance of capacity in regions far from centers of power demand without adequate transmission infrastructure. Around 17.1% of total wind generated power was going to waste as of 2017, according to government statistics.

Yet the rotor may have turned. In the first quarter of 2019, China wasted 2.7%, or 1.24 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), of the solar power it generated, and 4%, or 4.35 billion kWh, of wind-generated power, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said in a press conference last week. This marks major progress, with curtailment down 1.7 percentage points and 4.5 percentage points from the same figures a year earlier.

«

If any country might have both the ability and the desire to seriously slow down climate change, it’s China. Its government knows that the disruption from floods would be colossal – and that threatens its power. Its coal-building will slow dramatically, if not stop completely.
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Britain passes one week without coal power for first time since 1882 • The Guardian

Jasper Jolly:

»

Britain has gone a week without using coal to generate electricity for the first time since Queen Victoria was on the throne, in a landmark moment in the transition away from the heavily polluting fuel.

The last coal generator came off the system at 1.24pm on 1 May, meaning the UK reached a week without coal at 1.24pm on Wednesday, according to the National Grid Electricity System Operator, which runs the network in England, Scotland and Wales.

Coal-fired power stations still play a major part in the UK’s energy system as a backup during high demand but the increasing use of renewable energy sources such as wind power means it is required less. High international coal prices have also made the fuel a less attractive source of energy.

The latest achievement – the first coal-free week since 1882, when a plant opened at Holborn in London – comes only two years after Britain’s first coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution…

…Reductions in coal use in the UK have been responsible for halving electricity generation emissions since 2013, according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), whose report last week called for the UK to pursue a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

«

You can follow the Twitter account UK_Coal to see how long the UK has gone without burning coal for electricity (176 hours at this moment) and there’s also a live dashboard of the mix of all the UK’s electricity sources.
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The mighty US consumer is struggling • Bloomberg

:

»

As for what’s pushing households to tap into their rainy-day funds, Deutsche Bank recently pointed to the 15% year-on-year increase in household interest payments. Levels of payments rising at a similar pace preceded the onsets of the last two recessions.

Is it any wonder credit-card issuers are bolstering their cushions to absorb future losses? And it’s not just Capital One that caters to lower-credit quality borrowers. All seven of the largest U.S. card issuers boosted their charge-off rates in the first quarter to an average of 3.82%, an almost seven-year high.

Mortgage lenders are reporting similar strains. According to Knight Black’s latest Mortgage Monitor, a typical first quarter sees the national delinquency rate decline by 15% as borrowers use tax refund proceeds to catch up on their household finances. The first three months of 2019, however, marked the smallest drop in delinquency rates since 2009.

It’s almost as if the tax cut never happened…

…TS Lombard Chief Economist Steven Blitz notes that two-thirds of April’s new jobs were generated in lower-wage services industries such as administration and support services, health and social services, leisure and hospitality, among others. The flipside of this dynamic is that high-paying job growth has been nearly halved to 1.6% since peaking in 2015.

«

A fist on the horizon the size of a man’s hand.
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Epson’s $500 smart glasses are literally powered by your phone • Engadet

Rachel England:

»

Google has already demonstrated that it’s possible to build a pair without bottle-thick lenses and chunky frames, and yet the market’s newest arrival, Epson’s Moverio BT-30C smart glasses, boast exactly that.

Aesthetics aside, though, Epson’s latest offering comes with features that could help give smart glasses the nudge they need to take hold in the consumer market — at the moment such devices are largely the sole domain of business. The Moverio BT-30C connect with an Android smartphone of Windows PC over USB-C, a plug and play function that mitigates some of the hassle seen in previous iterations with custom controller boxes.

The glasses project up to three apps on three different screens against a transparent background and come with an OLED display for sharp, bright imagery. The glasses also come with a dark lens shade, for a movie-theater experience when streaming videos. Of course, none of these features alone will have consumers lining up for a pair, but their reasonable price tag of $499 will certainly make them a little more enticing, given previous models hit the market at $699.

«

Why why why would you want this, at whatever price? They’d be in the cupboard under the stairs in a day.
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Rainforest in Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil, Colombia rapidly depleting • Quartz Africa

Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu:

»

Ghana’s rainforest is being lost at an alarming rate, according to a new report about the state of forests worldwide.

Global Forest Watch (GFW) used updated remote sensing and satellite data from the University of Maryland and estimates that there was a 60% increase in Ghana’s primary rainforest loss in 2018 compared to 2017, the highest in the world. The second highest was neighboring Côte d’Ivoire with a 28% increase. Together, these two countries produce nearly 60% of the world’s cocoa.

However, the Democratic Republic of Congo lost the largest size of tropical primary rainforest in Africa and collectively, the world lost 3.6 million hectares of primary rainforest last year—an area the size of Belgium in 2018 alone.

«

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Peak Copper is back, thanks to Teslas and smart tech • TreeHugger

Lloyd Alter:

»

Remember Peak Copper? Back when TreeHugger was young, we worried about Peak Everything – oil, corn, natural gas, water, electricity and even dirt. Copper was in there, too, with TreeHugger John noting that “ore extraction and smelting takes a serious toll on the environment, and that the ‘easy pickings’ are already either long gone or in places where mining companies and their nations of origin get no respect.”

Apparently, Peak Copper is back. It takes a lot of it to build an electric car; according to Ernest Scheyder of Reuters, about twice as much as in a gas powered car, and there may not be enough of the stuff:

»

Tesla expects global shortages of nickel, copper and other electric-vehicle battery minerals down the road due to underinvestment in the mining sector, the company’s global supply manager for battery metals told an industry conference on Thursday, according to two sources.

«

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Google Face Match brings privacy debate into the home • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:

»

The “Google Nest” rebranding comes with a prompt for Nest customers to merge their user accounts with their Google profiles. “We want to make sure we are seamlessly integrating these devices,” said Rishi Chandra, vice-president and general manager of Google’s Home and Nest products.

For some customers, merging Nest data could include years of information on a family’s comings and goings, home energy usage and security camera video recordings. Google says it will not use that information for advertising.

“That data will never be used for ads personalisation,” said Mr Chandra, before being corrected by a member of Google’s public relations team. “We can never say never,” he added hastily, “but the commitment we are making is, it is not being used.”

Google is hoping to recapture some of the trust it lost this year when it emerged that its Nest security hub included a secret microphone. Mr Chandra conceded that it was a “mistake” not to inform customers when it went on sale.

«

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It’s time you stopped worrying so much about video game addiction • WIRED UK

Pete Etchells is Reader in Psychology and Science Communication at Bath Spa University:

»

The way loot boxes are implemented varies from game to game. In some, the items are locked into the game environment, with no tangible outside value. In others, they can be bought and sold on external marketplaces (and sometimes for eye-watering sums of money: in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, some items have sold for upwards of $3000).

Regardless of the specific way they are implemented though, there’s some emerging research evidence to suggest that there’s a link between paying for loot boxes and problematic gambling behaviours. What little work we currently have in this area is largely correlational in nature, so we don’t know whether paying for loot boxes causes problematic gambling behaviour, or whether it’s instead the case that people who have a tendency to show problems with gambling are drawn to loot box systems in games. But either way, science is starting to provide an early indication that there are some clear aspects of video games that addiction researchers should be looking at more closely.

These sorts of issues are complex, and don’t fit neatly into simplistic narratives that often form the basis of news reports about gaming effects.

«

Loot boxes are bad news; they’re like fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – a terrible compulsion to lead on gamblers (who might not even know they’re gamblers).§
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Children change their parents’ minds about climate change • Scientific American

Lydia Denworth:

»

The team of social scientists and ecologists from North Carolina State University who authored the report found that children can increase their parents’ level of concern about climate change because, unlike adults, their views on the issue do not generally reflect any entrenched political ideology. Parents also really do care what their children think, even on socially charged issues like climate change or sexual orientation.

Postulating that pupils might be ideal influencers, the researchers decided to test how 10-to-14–year-olds’ exposure to climate change coursework might affect, not only the youngsters’ views, but those of their parents. The proposed pass-through effect turned out to be true: teaching a child about the warming climate often raised concerns among parents about the issue. Fathers and conservative parents showed the biggest change in attitudes, and daughters were more effective than sons in shifting their parents’ views. The results suggest that conversations between generations may be an effective starting point in combating the effects of a warming environment. “This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit,” says graduate student Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author. “[It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”

Scientists in the field find the study heartening. “These encouraging results suggest that not only are children increasingly engaged in advocating for their future, they are also effective advocates to their parents,” says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. She was not involved in the research but works to bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders on the issue. “As a woman myself and someone who frequently engages with conservative Christian communities,” she says, “I love that it’s the daughters who were found to be most effective at changing their hard-nosed dads’ minds.”

«

Greta Thunberg is just an example, not an outlier.
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512GB SSDs’ price-per-GB estimated to fall below US$0.1 and hit an all-time low this year end • Trendforce

Alan Chen:

»

According to research by DRAMeXchange , a division of TrendForce , the NAND flash industry this year is clearly exhibiting signs of oversupply, and SSD suppliers have gotten themselves into a price war, causing SSD prices for PC OEMs to take a dive. Average contract prices for 512GB and 1TB SSDs have a chance to plunge below US$0.1 per GB by the end of this year, hitting an all-time low. This change will cause 512GB SSDs to replace their 128GB counterparts and become market mainstream, second only to 256GB SSDs. We may also look forward to PCIe SSDs achieving 50% market penetration, since PCIe SSDs and SATA SSDS are nearly identical in price.

TrendForce points out that SSD adoption among notebooks had already come above the 50% threshold in 2018. Contract prices for mainstream 128/256/512GB SSDs have fallen a long way by over 50% since peaking in 2017, and those for 512GB and 1TB SSDs have a chance to fall below US$0.1 per GB by year-end. This will stimulate demand from those seeking to replace their 500GB and 1TB HDDs. SSD adoption rate is expected to land between 60 and 65% in 2019.

«

$100 for a 1TB SSD. Amazing times.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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.

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 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:

»

“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.

«

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:

»

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.”

«

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:

»

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:

»

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:

»

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.

«

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

Niall Ferguson and Eyck Freymann:

»

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

»

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.

«

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:

»

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.

«

*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:

»

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.«

«

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

Start Up No.1,061: the right to drive?, HDDs begin to fade, Facebook’s crypto plan, this subscription life, and more


CC-licensed photo by Steve%20Corey 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. Unfortunately. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life • The Guardian

Jonathan Watts:

»

Human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, the world’s leading scientists have warned, as they announced the results of the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.

From coral reefs flickering out beneath the oceans to rainforests desiccating into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years, according to the UN global assessment report.

The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.

Two in five amphibian species are at risk of extinction, as are one-third of reef-forming corals, while other marine animals by down by close to one-third. The picture for insects – which are crucial to plant pollination – is less clear, but conservative estimates suggest at least one in 10 are threatened with extinction and, in some regions, populations have crashed. In economic terms, the losses are jaw-dropping. Pollinator loss has put up to $577bn (£440bn) of crop output at risk, while land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of global land.

The knock-on impacts on humankind, including freshwater shortages and climate instability, are already “ominous” and will worsen without drastic remedial action, the authors said.

«

Yes, it is depressing. What’s more depressing is the inaction.
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Facebook building cryptocurrency-based payments system • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

»

Seeking total investments of about $1bn, Facebook has talked to financial institutions including Visa, Mastercard and payment processor First Data, the people said. The money would underpin the value of the coin to protect it from the wild price swings seen in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, they said.

Facebook is also talking to e-commerce companies and apps about accepting the coin, and would seek smaller financial investments from those partners, one of the people said.

Bloomberg News reported in December that Facebook was working on a digital coin that users of its WhatsApp messaging service could use to transfer money, with a focus on overseas remittances. The New York Times reported in February that the company was seeking to raise as much as $1bn for the project.

Facebook is following rivals including Apple and Amazon into the financial lives of its users. Each has explored or launched major financial products in the past year, joining with traditional financial firms to manage the logistics and regulatory burdens.

Facebook aims to burrow more deeply into the lives of its users. It is building a type of checkout option that consumers could use on other websites, some of the people said. Similar to how a Facebook profile can be used to log into hundreds of websites (including The Wall Street Journal), Facebook envisions allowing those credentials to be selected as a payment method when users buy goods online.

One idea under discussion is Facebook paying users fractions of a coin when they view ads, interact with other content or shop on its platform—not unlike loyalty points accrued at retailers, some of the people said.

This would reward the kind of genuine interaction that Facebook, beset by bots and hate speech, has been trying to encourage. It could also blunt criticism that the company makes billions of dollars on the backs of its users, sometimes in troubling or invasive ways.

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One can see that a cryptocoin (this is definitely not Bitcoin) being used for transactions on WhatsApp could work. As Ben Thompson said in his discussion of this, it might be used to pay for ads. But it would also make it way easier for Facebook to track what you’re doing – and this time, through your spending.
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The fight for the right to drive • New Yorker

M. R. O’Connor:

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Perhaps it was inevitable that a nascent right-to-drive movement would spring up in America, where—as fervent gun-rights advocates and anti-vaccinators have shown—we seem intent on preserving freedom of choice even if it kills us. “People outside the United States look at it with bewilderment,” Toby Walsh, an Australian artificial-intelligence researcher, told me. In his book “Machines That Think: The Future of Artificial Intelligence,” from 2018, Walsh predicts that, by 2050, autonomous vehicles will be so safe that we won’t be allowed to drive our own cars. Unlike Roy, he believes that we will neither notice nor care. In Walsh’s view, a constitutional amendment protecting the right to drive would be as misguided as the Second Amendment. “We will look back on this time in fifty years and think it was the Wild West,” he went on. “The only challenge is, how do we get to zero road deaths? We’re only going to get there by removing the human.”

Broussard has a term for the insistence that computers can do everything better than humans can: technochauvinism. “Most of the autonomous-vehicle manufacturers are technochauvinists,” she said. “The big spike in distracted-driving traffic accidents and fatalities in the past several years has been from people texting and driving. The argument that the cars themselves are the problem is not really looking at the correct issue. We would be substantially safer if we put cell-phone-jamming devices in cars. And we already have that technology.” Like Roy, she strongly disputes both the imminence and the safety of driverless technology. “There comes a point at which you have to divorce fantasy from reality, and the reality is that autonomous vehicles are two-ton killing machines. They do not work as well as advocates would have you believe.”

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A fascinating article on the inherent tensions as we try to decide whether self-driving cars really will. Not short, but well worthwhile.
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Shipments of PC hard drives predicted to drop by nearly 50% in 2019 • Anandtech

Anton Shilov:

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According to a new financial presentation from Nidec, a Japanese motor manufacturer that is responsible for around 85% of all HDD spindle motors, the company believes that shipments of hard drives for PCs will drop significantly this year. Citing numerous ongoing trends, the motor maker is preparing for HDD motor sales to drop by around 50% year-over-year for 2019. Meanwhile the company also expects sales of other types of HDDs to slow, but not as drastically. In fact, unit shipments of hard drives for datacenters are projected to increase a bit.

According to Nidec’s data, unit sales of hard drives declined by around 43% from 2010 to 2018, going from around 650m units in 2010 to 375m units in 2018. And it looks like sales will continue to drop in the coming years. Recently Nidec revised its HDD shipment forecast downwards from 356m drives to 309m drives in 2019, which will further drop to 290m units in 2020. The recent drops in HDD shipments have already forced Nidec to optimize its HDD motor production capacities and repurpose some capacity to other types of products.

Shipments of PC HDDs have been hit the hardest among all types of HDDs due to a combination of general market weaknesses and the transition of notebooks to SSDs. According to Nidec, shipments of PC HDDs decreased gradually from 289m drives in 2013 to 124m devices in 2018. However, this year sales of hard drives for PCs will drop sharply, going from 124m devices in 2018 to 65m units in 2019, or by around 48%.

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What with the declining SLR market and now this, Japan’s got it hard at the moment.
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A mystery frequency disrupted car fobs in an Ohio city; now residents know why • NY Times

Heather Murphy:

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Not every car fob failed to work, said Chris Branchick, whose parents live in North Olmsted. He said that whenever he visited his parents in his GMC vehicle, the fob would not unlock the car door; if he went in his fiancée’s Nissan, things were fine.

“We thought maybe it was a foreign versus domestic thing,” he said.

Officials from the cable company and AT&T joined the search for answers, and on Thursday, the Illuminating Company, a local electric utility, dispatched inspectors to investigate.

“They began by shutting off the power in the places where they detected the strongest reading for interfering radio frequencies,” said Chris Eck, a company spokesman. But even after shutting off power on an entire block, the overpowering frequency persisted.

“It’s like trying to talk to someone at a nightclub,” said Adam Scott Wandt, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, in explaining how a strong frequency can derail a weak frequency.
Dan Dalessandro, a television repairman, was one of several ham radio aficionados who went to investigate. At first, he said, all he picked up were “little blips” on a signal detector, but on one block — and at one house in particular — the signal was extraordinarily powerful.

By Saturday afternoon, City Councilman Chris Glassburn announced that the mystery had been solved: The source of the problem was a homemade battery-operated device designed by a local resident to alert him if someone was upstairs when he was working in his basement. It did so by turning off a light.

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Yes, I know what you’re thinking: hell of a battery, hell of a light.
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The only thing you can’t subscribe to now is stability • The Atlantic

Amanda Mull:

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For most of American consumer history, subscriptions were the province of magazines, cable, and other media: You paid an annual fee, and news and entertainment organizations gave you their new work as it became available. But as digital-payment technology has improved and people look for ways to navigate stress, stagnant wages, and online shopping’s near-infinite purchase choices, the value proposition of subscriptions has changed. So too have the kinds of products people can subscribe to.

Today, things that can routinely show up at your doorstep include: misshapen vegetables, personalized vitamin cocktails, dog toys, a vast wardrobe of clothing and accessories, and even a sofa. In a consumer market of disposable fast fashion and cheap assemble-at-home furniture, the idea of wasting less while getting to use nicer, higher-quality things for a monthly fee is a compelling sell. But what’s harder to predict is what might be lost when the effort to buy less stuff turns into renting huge swaths of your daily life.
A subscription, at its base, is simply a schedule of recurring fees that gives consumers continual access to goods or services. A car lease is a subscription, but so is your gym membership and the way you use Microsoft Office. Subscription creep dates to at least 2007, when Amazon launched Subscribe & Save, a service that lets shoppers pre-authorize periodic charges for thousands of consumable goods, such as sandwich bags or face wash (or toilet paper), usually at a slight discount over individual purchases. Then, in 2010, came Birchbox, which provides women with miniature portions of beauty products on a monthly basis for $15. At its peak, the company was valued at more than $500m.

Both Amazon’s and Birchbox’s models have been widely copied, and their success underscores the appeal of subscriptions to businesses and consumers alike, according to Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University. “The pain of payment and the friction of how a person is going to pay is totally gone,” he says.

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Neat observation.
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The thing about owning a Tesla no one talks about: nightmarish repair delays • SF Gate

Mike Moffitt:

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Neither vehicle was moving very fast, but the Tesla sustained front fender and suspension damage and wasn’t drivable. So the Burlingame resident had it towed a few days later to Chilton Auto Body in San Carlos, the nearest Tesla-approved body shop and the preferred shop of his insurer, Allstate.

Nearly six months later, he says his Model S still hasn’t been repaired.

“When my car got in an accident, it was somewhere in the thirties to be worked on and the last time I had a conversation with someone there a few weeks ago, there was well over 130 Teslas there to get fixed,” Hedges said.
“Now I think if you’re number 130 [in line to get fixed], it’s going to be well over a year to get your car back.”

We reached out to Chilton Auto Body over the phone and by email to confirm that scores of damaged Teslas were queued up at the shop and to learn out why the wait was so long. A Chilton representative said no one there was available to talk about the issue, referring SFGATE  to a manager who would not be back in the office until mid-May. There was no response to the email.

According to Hedges, Chilton has only two certified Tesla auto body technicians, and only one of of them has the credentials to repair suspensions.

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That’s sure to be the downside of a car that doesn’t have a standard outlet system of dealers.
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The race to develop the moon • New Yorker

Rivka Galchen:

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Water in space is valuable for drinking, of course, and as a source of oxygen. [George] Sowers [a professor of space resources at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden] told me that it can also be transformed into rocket fuel. “The moon could be a gas station,” he said. That sounded terrible to me, but not to most of the scientists I spoke to. “It could be used to refuel rockets on the way to Mars”—a trip that would take about nine months—“or considerably beyond, at a fraction of the cost of launching them from Earth,” Sowers said. He explained that launching fuel from the moon rather than from Earth is like climbing the Empire State Building rather than Mt. Everest. Fuel accounts for around 90% of the weight of a rocket, and every kilogram of weight brought from Earth to the moon costs roughly $35,000; if you don’t have to bring fuel from Earth, it becomes much cheaper to send a probe to Jupiter.

Down the hall, in the Center for Space Resources’ laboratory, near buckets of lunar and asteroid simulants, was a small 3D printer. Four graduate students were assembled there with Angel Abbud-Madrid, the center’s director. I asked them how difficult it would be to 3D-print, say, an electrolyzer—the machine needed to separate the hydrogen and oxygen in water to make rocket fuel. They laughed.

“Here, let me show you something very fancy,” Hunter Williams, who was wearing sapphire-colored earrings, said. He poured some Morton sea salt into a plastic cup and added water. He stuck two silver thumbtacks through the bottom of the plastic cup, then held a battery up to them. Small bubbles began forming on the thumbtacks. The oxygen was separating from the hydrogen. You probably did this experiment in middle school, without knowing that you were doing rocket science. “The idea is for whatever goes up to the moon to be that simple,” Williams said. “To be that basic.”

“It would be like living off the land,” Ben Thrift, another graduate student, added.

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The Uber IPO is a moral stain on Silicon Valley • NY Times

Farhad Manjoo:

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Uber — and to a lesser extent, its competitor Lyft — has indeed turned out to be a poster child for Silicon Valley’s messianic vision, but not in a way that should make anyone in this industry proud. Uber’s is likely to be the biggest tech I.P.O. since Facebook’s. It will turn a handful of people into millionaires and billionaires. But the gains for everyone else — for drivers, for the environment, for the world — remain in doubt. There’s a lesson here: If Uber is really the best that Silicon Valley can do, America desperately needs to find a better way to fund groundbreaking new ideas.

Today’s Uber is more responsible than yesterday’s: Travis Kalanick, Uber’s onetime Night King, was ousted as chief executive in 2017, and Dara Khosrowshahi, its new chief, has led a thorough rehabilitation. Yet Uber’s early insiders paid no real price for their sins. Mr. Kalanick’s stake will be worth nearly $9bn. Tech giants — including Apple, Google and Jeff Bezos, who all acquired significant stakes in Uber — will make a killing. Saudi Arabian petromonarchs will too.

Not Uber’s drivers. Recent studies show that Uber drivers make poverty wages — about $10 an hour after their vehicle expenses are deducted from their pay. Drivers’ fortunes might only worsen after the company goes public. Uber lost nearly $2bn in 2018, and the best long-term hope for Uber’s business is that drivers disappear altogether, replaced by cars that drive themselves. In rushed pursuit of that profitable vision, one of Uber’s self-driving cars killed a pedestrian last year.

The environmental gains have also yet to materialize.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

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.