Start Up No.1,095: US’s cyberattack on Iran, big expectations for 16in MacBook Pro, stopping Libra, the trouble with fertiliser, and more


Amazon and Walmart want to recommend stuff based on your indoor camera. In this case, a cleaner. CC-licensed photo by Scott Miller on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Switching the week back on again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Trump approved cyber-strikes against Iran’s missile systems • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima:

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President Trump approved an offensive cyberstrike that disabled Iranian computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches, even as he backed away from a conventional military attack in response to its downing Thursday of an unmanned US surveillance drone, according to people familiar with the matter.

The cyberstrikes, launched Thursday night by personnel with US Cyber Command, were in the works for weeks if not months, according to two of these people, who said the Pentagon proposed launching them after Iran’s alleged attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman earlier this month.

The strike against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was coordinated with US Central Command, the military organization with purview of activity throughout the Middle East, these people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the operation remains extremely sensitive.

Though crippling to Iran’s military command and control systems, the operation did not involve a loss of life or civilian casualties — a contrast to conventional strikes, which the president said he called back Thursday because they would not be “proportionate.”

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My reading of this is that the cyberattacks were to disable the missile defences against the planned US missile attack. Which makes sense.

What’s absurd about the entire US-Iran scenario, though, is that the US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, on spurious claims (repudiated by every other western signatory to the JCPOA) that Iran was breaching its requirements. Then Iran says it’s enriching its nuclear fuel, because if it isn’t bound by the JCPOA any more, then it might as well because there’s no agreement to break any more. To which John Bolton, who never saw a tense situation that he didn’t want to turn into a conflagration, declares that Iran is going too far and rattles his sabre. Whose fault was this? America’s. Who’s going to suffer? Not America. This isn’t a symmetrical allocation.
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Walmart and Amazon want to see inside your house. Should you let them? • Los Angeles Times

Sam Dean:

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Walmart — which is rolling out its service in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Vero Beach, Fla., this fall — said it was too early to say how the footage would be stored and processed. But the fact that Walmart owns the in-home recording device, in contrast to the customer-owned Cloud Cam, could lead to even less accountability for how footage of customers’ homes is used.

“For these companies, it would be very difficult to resist the temptation of ‘Look, we have all this video inside people’s houses,’ ” Gillula said. “Let’s use it to train AI to recognize specific products we can recommend.”

In fact, Google last year filed a patent application laying out a system that would do exactly that.
Featuring smart speakers and cameras, Google Home competes with Amazon’s smart home suite. But, unlike Amazon, Google depends on advertising for the vast majority of its revenue.

It’s unclear whether Google is using your home as a data mine to improve its ad targeting, but in its patent, Google engineers described how that would work in detail. In-home cameras and audio sensors would look at the objects in your house, create a detailed profile of your tastes and potential desires, and then serve up ads and content that fit that profile.

In one of the patent’s example scenarios, a smart video camera sees that you have a paperback of “The Godfather” on your bedside table, then feeds that information back to a local processing hub. Some light profile-crunching later, and a notification pops up: “I noticed you have a copy of ‘The Godfather’ by your bed. The movie based on this novel is showing tonight at 9:30 PM on Channel 5.”

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“I notice that you have thrown the camera out of the window and disabled our ability to show you relevant adverts.”
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Apple plans to ship 16in MacBook Pro this year, says IHS Markit, with more details • Forbes

Brooke Crothers:

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The 16in MacBook Pro is slated for release this fall, according to IHS Markit.

“We foresee that Apple will release a new product [at the] Sep’19 Apple event if there’s no unexpected development issue,” Jeff Lin, Associate Director, Consumer Electronics at IHS Markit, said in an email, referring to the 16in MacBook Pro.

IHS Markit describes the future MacBook Pro as having a “new display size (16in), new Mac OS (Catalina) & CPU,” as cited in its “IHS Markit Q1’19 Mobile PC Market Tracker.”


The coming 16-inch MacBook Pro: expected specs. CREDIT: IHS MARKIT

If the IHS Markit data is accurate, Apple will opt for a 3,072-by-1,920 resolution* LCD not an OLED display – at least on the model specified by IHS Markit. Hewlett-Packard and Dell are now moving to OLED displays on large, select 15.6in laptops.

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The demand forecast points to sales of 750k per quarter, which is a bit over 15% – or nearly one-seventh – of all Apple’s quarterly computer sales. There are seven different models of Mac (MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, iMac Pro, Mac Pro, Mac mini). If the forecast is right, this would be one *variant* of one model, the MacBook Pro, taking a huge chunk of the market. In other words, they’re expecting it to sell well.
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Why brilliant people lose their touch • Tim Harford

Tim Harford:

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The story of triumph followed by disappointment is not limited to investment [such as suddenly-struggling investment fund manager Neil Woodford]. Think of Arsène Wenger, for a few years the most brilliant manager in football, and then an eternal runner-up. Or all the bands who have struggled with “difficult second-album syndrome”.

There is even a legend that athletes who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated are doomed to suffer the “SI jinx”. The rise to the top is followed by the fall from grace.

There are three broad explanations for these tragic career arcs. Our instinct is to blame the individual. We assume that Mr Woodford lost his touch and that Mr Wenger stopped learning. That is possible. Successful people can become overconfident, or isolated from feedback, or lazy.

But an alternative possibility is that the world changed. Mr Wenger’s emphasis on diet, data and the global transfer market was once unusual, but when his rivals noticed and began to follow suit, his edge disappeared. In the investment world — and indeed, the business world more broadly — good ideas don’t work forever because the competition catches on.

The third explanation is the least satisfying: that luck was at play. This seems implausible at first glance. Could luck alone have brought Mr Wenger three Premier League titles? Or that Mr Bolton was simply lucky for 28 years? Do we really live in such an impossibly random universe?

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Second-album syndrome is easily explained: a band has all the time up until it records its first album to refine and write its songs. That’s often many years. Then it typically gets a year to write the same number of songs which are meant to be just as good. That’s really hard.
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Facebook’s Libra must be stopped • Project Syndicate

Katharina Pistor:

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Zuckerberg seems to understand that technological innovation alone will not ensure Libra’s success. He also needs a commitment from governments to enforce the web of contractual relations underpinning the currency, and to endorse the use of their own currencies as collateral. Should Libra ever face a run, central banks would be obliged to provide liquidity.

The question is whether governments understand the risks to financial stability that such a system would entail. The idea of a private, frictionless payment system with 2.6 billion active users may sound attractive. But as every banker and monetary policymaker knows, payment systems require a level of liquidity backstopping that no private entity can provide.
Unlike states, private parties must operate within their means, and cannot unilaterally impose financial obligations on others as needed. That means they cannot rescue themselves; they must be bailed out by states, or be permitted to fail. Moreover, even when it comes to states, currency pegs offer only an illusion of safety. Plenty of countries have had to break such pegs, always while insisting that “this time is different.”

What sets Facebook apart from other issuers of “private money” is its size, global reach, and willingness to “move fast and break things.”

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So to put it in words that Zuckerberg might understand, “Libra delenda est”?
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It wasn’t the cows after all • A Greener World

Andrew Gunther:

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While the cattle industry is repeatedly accused of being the main culprit for increased global methane emissions (and a leading cause for climate change), a new study shows that the fertilizer industry is the root cause.

The report by researchers from Cornell and the Environmental Defense Fund, published in Elementa, shows that emissions of methane from the industrial fertilizer industry have been ridiculously underestimated (and, it turns out, based on self-reporting) and the production of ammonia for fertilizer may result in up to 100 times more emissions than previously estimated for this sector. What’s worse is that these newly calculated emission amounts from the industrial fertilizer industry are actually more than the total amount the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated for all industries to emit across the US.

Researchers used a Google Street View car equipped with a high-precision methane sensor to measure the emissions of six fertilizer plants for this study. They drove the car on public roads, downwind from the facilities to record the methane levels in the air. The study reveals an enormous disparity between EPA estimates and actual emissions levels. The team discovered that on average, 0.34% of the gas used in the plants is emitted to the atmosphere. Scaling this emission rate from the six plants to the entire industry suggests total annual methane emissions of 28 gigagrams, which is 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s self-reported estimate of 0.2 gigagrams per year.

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The more we look into the realities of greenhouse gas emissions, the more complicated the picture is.
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Why Chennai, India’s sixth biggest city, has run out of water • Gizmodo

Brian Kahn:

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Climate change has an influence on heat waves, raising the risks of more evaporation and baking in drought by sucking moisture out of the soil. Background warming has also raised Chennai’s temperatures about 1.3ºC (2.4ºF) over the past 60 years meaning even without heat waves, climate change is altering the hydrological cycle. But the problems for Chennai’s water supply extend beyond low rainfall.

“The issue plaguing Chennai is a mix of over consumption and low rainfall during 2018 North East Monsoon,” Bhagat said. “The city and its neighbouring region has witnessed massive growth in all sectors over the last century which had resulted in massive [increases in water] consumption.”

Indeed, the city has seen its population grow by double digit percentages every decade since the 1940s. The huge growth coupled with weak planning has led to a water system that’s both overtaxed and widely inefficient. The rapid urbanization has also paved over once permeable surfaces, reducing groundwater recharge rates. Chennai’s reservoir capacity also remains well below what’s needed to serve the population and there’s no water metering program in place, meaning already scarce water resources aren’t being monitored for overuse.

In short, it’s the perfect storm of human failures and a harsher climate coming together create huge issues for the city’s residents.

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“No water metering program in place”. Which isn’t surprising (it’s an old city), but suddenly looks necessary. However the cost of doing that would be colossal.

Cape Town in 2018 (and that site is worth a look in its own right), Chennai in 2019, which ones shall we nominate for 2020?
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Deepfakes: a threat to individuals and national security • Lionbridge AI

Limarc Ambalina:

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The dangers of deepfakes are serious, but OpenAI policy director Jack Clark emphasized that misinformation is not a new problem and fake media is not a new issue. AI itself is not the problem, but just an “accelerant to an issue that’s been with us for some time.” Deepfake technology is merely a tool which has more positive applications than negative. Certain actions and precautions should be taken to minimize the damage done by those who use deepfakes with nefarious intent.

“The people that share this stuff are part of the problem,” said Doermann. Individuals, social media platforms, and the press should all have the tools readily available to quickly and easily test media they suspect to be fake. Policing content should be put it in the hands of individuals rather than the government. Individuals should be able to identify immediately whether or not something they are viewing or sharing is authentic.

[Former head of Media Forensics (MediFor) at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), David] Doermann also called for social media sites to be pressured to moderate their content more seriously. Websites and platforms where harmful manipulated media is shared should hold more responsibility and accountability. Not all deepfakes are nefarious, but at the very least, social media sites should more diligently label synthetic media, increase public awareness of such material and allow the public to make better decisions.

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The trajectory to watch is Facebook’s position on whether it removes deep fakes, particularly about politicians, or not. So far it looks like it will say no, but there’s going to be a lot of pressure which it might find irresistible.
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US air quality is slipping after years of improvement • Associated Press

Seth Borenstein and Nicky Forster:

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Over the last two years the nation had more polluted air days than just a few years earlier, federal data shows. While it remains unclear whether this is the beginning of a trend, health experts say it’s troubling to see air quality progress stagnate.

There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America both last year and the year before than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when America had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed just the opposite, saying earlier this month in Ireland: “We have the cleanest air in the world, in the United States, and it’s gotten better since I’m president.”

That’s not quite the case. There were noticeably more polluted air days each year in the president’s first two years in office than any of the four years before, according to new Environmental Protection Agency data analyzed by The Associated Press.

The Trump administration is expected to replace an Obama-era rule designed to limit emissions from electric power plants on Wednesday. Called the Clean Power Plan, it would have gradually phased out coal-burning power plants that emit both air pollutants and heat-trapping gases responsible for climate change.

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It’s wrong to say “That’s not quite the case” about Trump’s claim on air quality. It’s not the case, full stop. Spade = spade.
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Before you use a password manager • Medium

Stuart Schechter:

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In this article, I’ll start by examining the benefits and risks of using a password manager. It’s hard to overstate the importance of protecting the data in your password manager, and having a recovery strategy for that data, so I’ll cover that next. I’ll then present a low-risk approach to experimenting with using a password manager, which will help you understand the tough choices you’ll need to make before using it for your most-important passwords. I’ll close with a handy list of the most important decisions you’ll need to make when using a password manager.

There are a lot of password managers to choose from. There’s a password manager built into every major web browser today, and many stand-alone password managers that work across browsers. In addition to remembering your passwords, most password managers will type your password into login forms. The better ones will create randomly-generated passwords for you, ensuring that you’re not using easily-guessed passwords or re-using passwords between sites. Some will even identify passwords you’ve re-used between sites and help you replace them.

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The low-risk approach seems like a good plan. It’s the idea of jumping in that many people find problematic.
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Amazon will pay $0 in taxes on $11,000,000,000 in profit for 2018 • Yahoo Finance

Kristin Myers:

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While some people have received some surprise tax bills when filing their returns, corporations continue to avoid paying tax — thanks to a cocktail of tax credits, loopholes, and exemptions.

According to a report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), Amazon (AMZN) will pay nothing in federal income taxes for the second year in a row.

Thanks to the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), Amazon’s federal tax responsibility is 21% (down from 35% in previous years). But with the help of tax breaks, according to corporate filings, Amazon won’t be paying a dime to Uncle Sam despite posting more than $11.2 billion in profits in 2018.

How is that possible?

“It’s hard to know exactly what they’re doing,” said Steve Wamhoff, ITEP’s Director of Federal Tax Policy. “In their public documents they don’t lay out their tax strategy. So it’s unclear exactly which breaks [the company is taking advantage of]. They vaguely say tax credits. One could think of many different ways a corporation could do this, like the depreciation breaks which were expanded under TCJA.”

… this isn’t the first year that Amazon has avoided paying federal tax. The company reported $5.6bn in US profits in 2017 and paid $0 last year as well.

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As Vlad Savov tweeted, just by buying a sandwich at an airport in the US he paid more taxes (sales tax) than Amazon. It’s incomprehensible to the average person how this can happen.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,095: US’s cyberattack on Iran, big expectations for 16in MacBook Pro, stopping Libra, the trouble with fertiliser, and more

  1. Surprise launch of the Raspberry Pi 4B today, funny how a non-profit w/ no PR dept. manages to keep a secret much better than the Samsung Google and Apple of this world ;-p

    Its specs are awe-inspiring: 4GB RAM, Cortex A72, dual HDMI, true Ethernet (direct to CPU, not trough USB), 4xUSB, BT 5.0. This will make for an incredibly fast server (no more I/O contention, especially between network and disk access which is what killed my one-time Raspi NAS) and general tinkering machine. That’s plenty for use as a lightweight Desktop too. But while the Raspi is excellent and has a “magical” level of software and community support, it’s not as extraordinary specs&price-wise as it seems at first sight.

    On, the tinkerer side, the Odroid N2 is broadly similar, at similar prices https://www.hardkernel.com/shop/odroid-n2-with-4gbyte-ram/ . And Odroid is a serious company too. Also, “official” Android build (from Odroid not Google-approved)

    And most important to me, on the low-end Desktop side, a similar Beelink GT-King https://www.geekbuying.com/item/Beelink-GT-King-Amlogic-S922X-Android-9-4GB-64GB-TV-Box-416147.html comes in at 100€ just like the Raspi 4 once you add a case, storage, PSU, cables, shipping, tax. I was planning on switching my “Android Desktops” to those, now I’ll try both, if only to avoid a “Skull !” case.

    For Desktop duty, I’ll have to try out at least the Pi and the Beelink:
    – users prefer Android over Linux because apps and familiarity. Android on the Pi has a very patchy history. Pi 4 looks like a platform that should excite Android/ChromeOS/Fuchsia nerds at Google , but a lone nerd’s tinkering rarely produces something end-user-ready.
    – Not sure where the Pi is at about the Graphics Drivers issue. There used to be only the most basic unaccelerated one outside of their own OS, I think they’ve made progress on that.
    – 3rd-tier OEM HW and SW can be iffy; Beelink has a patchier history than Pi on the whole.

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