Start Up No.1,105: Alaska overheats, machines search for new theories, Google ticked off in NZ, ransomware’s new targets, and more


Jony Ive’s designs have influenced a lot of others. What do we think? CC-licensed photo by Duncan Rawlinson – Duncan.co on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not speeded up. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

With little training, machine-learning algorithms can uncover hidden scientific knowledge • Techxplore

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Sure, computers can be used to play grandmaster-level chess (chess_computer), but can they make scientific discoveries? Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have shown that an algorithm with no training in materials science can scan the text of millions of papers and uncover new scientific knowledge.

A team led by Anubhav Jain, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Storage & Distributed Resources Division, collected 3.3 million abstracts of published materials science papers and fed them into an algorithm called Word2vec. By analyzing relationships between words the algorithm was able to predict discoveries of new thermoelectric materials years in advance and suggest as-yet unknown materials as candidates for thermoelectric materials.

“Without telling it anything about materials science, it learned concepts like the periodic table and the crystal structure of metals,” said Jain. “That hinted at the potential of the technique. But probably the most interesting thing we figured out is, you can use this algorithm to address gaps in materials research, things that people should study but haven’t studied so far.”

…”The paper establishes that text mining of scientific literature can uncover hidden knowledge, and that pure text-based extraction can establish basic scientific knowledge,” said [Gerbrand] Ceder, who also has an appointment at UC Berkeley’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering

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What happens when the machines start finding out things that we can’t understand? What do we do with that discovered knowledge? Happened with Go, happening with chess.
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Google accused of ‘flipping the bird’ at New Zealand laws after Grace Millane murder • The Guardian

Charles Anderson:

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Tech giant Google has been accused of “flipping the bird” at New Zealand laws by refusing to change company policy after it broke suppression orders related to the murder case of British backpacker Grace Millane.

Last December, a 27-year-old Auckland man appeared in the city’s high court charged with murdering Millane. His name was suppressed but it appeared in Google’s “what’s trending in New Zealand” email that went out to thousands of subscribers.

Millane, 22, from Essex, vanished in Auckland in December. Her body was later found in the Waitākere Ranges, west of the city.

Google executives met with New Zealand justice minister Andrew Little in Wellington to discuss the suppression breach, and assured the minister and prime minister Jacinda Ardern the issue would be dealt with.

However, when justice officials followed up with Google in March and again this week, the company said it had no plans to make changes. Little released an email from Google’s New Zealand government affairs manager Ross Young on Wednesday.

“We have looked at our systems and it appears that last year’s situation was relatively unique as it was a high-profile case involving a person from overseas, which was extensively reported by overseas media,” the email read…

…[Little said:] “In the end, Google is effectively acting as a publisher and publishing material that is under suppression orders in New Zealand, and they cannot and should not be allowed to get away with that.”

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Interesting question. Google Alerts simply take a headline (and excerpt) of content that’s already around. Is that publishing? Of course it is: news organisations republish content from Reuters and Associated Press all the time. The difference is that news orgs take some care about what they put out. Google’s learning that the hard way.
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Google still keeps a list of everything you ever bought using Gmail, even if you delete all your emails • CNBC

Todd Haselton:

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In May, I wrote up something weird I spotted on Google’s account management page. I noticed that Google uses Gmail to store a list of everything you’ve purchased, if you used Gmail or your Gmail address in any part of the transaction.

If you have a confirmation for a prescription you picked up at a pharmacy that went into your Gmail account, Google logs it. If you have a receipt from Macy’s, Google keeps it. If you bought food for delivery and the receipt went to your Gmail, Google stores that, too.

You get the idea, and you can see your own purchase history by going to Google’s Purchases page.

Google says it does this so you can use Google Assistant to track packages or reorder things, even if that’s not an option for some purchases that aren’t mailed or wouldn’t be reordered, like something you bought a store.

At the time of my original story, Google said users can delete everything by tapping into a purchase and removing the Gmail. It seemed to work if you did this for each purchase, one by one. This isn’t easy — for years worth of purchases, this would take hours or even days of time.

So, since Google doesn’t let you bulk-delete this purchases list, I decided to delete everything in my Gmail inbox. That meant removing every last message I’ve sent or received since I opened my Gmail account more than a decade ago.

Despite Google’s assurances, it didn’t work.

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Google begins showing British Android users rival search engines to appease EU regulators • Daily Telegraph

Margi Murphy:

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Google has begun asking British smartphone users whether they would like to switch to rival search engines in a bid to appease European regulators.

Android users will now have the option to go online using search engines such as Microsoft’s Bing, Yahoo or privacy-focused Google critic DuckDuckGo.

Google hopes the tactic will brush off any further advances from the European Commission, which delivered it a record €4.34bn fine (£3.9 bn) for being anticompetitive in July 2018. 

The European Commission’s competition chief Margrethe Vestager said it was wrong for Google to require Android manufacturers to install Google’s search app and Chrome browser app as a condition for licensing Google’s app store.

 While she acknowledged that Google didn’t prevent customers from using other search engines, she said that only 1pc of Android users chose to do so…

…“Once you have it, it is working, very few are curious enough to look for another search app or browser,” said Vestager.

At the time, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said the decision rejected “the business model that supports Android, which has created more choice for everyone, not less”.

Google’s web browser Chrome has always appeared as the default. Now, Android users are being asked whether they would like to download one different apps offering the same service instead.

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Hang on, though. Other browsers offer Google as the default search engine. What if people were assigned a search engine randomly?
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For better and worse, we live in Jony Ive’s world • The New Yorker

Nikil Saval:

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The archetypal telephone, the Model 500, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, had a clunking rotary dial, a heavy base, and a coiled cord that connected to a curved handset. It had, surprisingly, some mobility: you could hold the base of the phone in one hand, ideally with your middle and ring fingers, while walking around a room to the extent that the connection to the copper-wire outlet would allow. But it was the handset that was the product’s masterpiece. Molding itself to your hand and also to the crook between your shoulder and ear, it was a perfect instantiation of how a designer could shape everyday technology to the form of the human body, while anticipating the instincts—such as the desire to speak hands-free—that would guide the use of that technology.

The Apple iPhone, in the various iterations that the industrial designer Jony Ive produced, is the opposite. Few objects so continuously in use by human beings are as hostile to the human body as this slim, black, fragile slab, recalcitrant to any curve of head or shoulder or even palm, where it usually rests. It is made for a world without liquids, secretions, or hard surfaces, all of which threaten its destruction. Except for the curve of the edges, where the bevel of the glass screen has been painstakingly fused to the phone’s body, it is the shape of a photo, not a face.

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The extent to which Ive’s designs are anti-ergonomic is something that hasn’t been remarked on much, but it seems important. OK, the purpose of a smartphone isn’t to curve around your face; it’s to show you things at arm’s length. But the thrust of this article seems right, to me.
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Jony Ive’s fragmented legacy: unreliable, unrepairable, beautiful gadgets • iFixit

Kyle Wiens runs iFixit:

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Ive succeeded at building on the concepts he celebrated in Rams’ work at a vastly greater scale than anything Braun ever produced. The iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air, the physical Apple Store, even the iconic packaging of Apple products—these products changed how we view and use their categories, or created new categories, and will be with us a long time. And Apple has made a lot of them—they’ve stamped out over one billion iPhones to date, with a current production rate north of 600,000 per day.

Rams loves durable products that are environmentally friendly. That’s one of his 10 principles for good design: “Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment.” But Ive has never publicly discussed the dissonance between his inspiration and Apple’s disposable, glued-together products. For years, Apple has openly combated green standards that would make products easier to repair and recycle, stating that they need “complete design flexibility” no matter the impact on the environment.

Gary Hustwit, the documentarian behind the design-focused films Objectified and Rams, understands Dieter Rams’ conflicted views on Apple’s products better than many alive. “He doesn’t feel like he’s responsible [for consumerism], but I think he definitely feels like he had a role in getting to where we are now…

…It’s a shame that Ive is leaving Apple without reconciling this. His iPod started the practice of gluing in batteries, a technique that initially brought scorn but has since become the industry norm. AirPods channel much of Rams’ design aesthetic, except they have a built-in death clock and stop working after a couple years. The last seven years of Apple laptop designs have pushed the envelope of thinness, sacrificing upgradeability, serviceability, external ports, and usable keyboards along the way.

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Hedge funds are tracking private jets to find the next megadeal • Bloomberg

Justin Bachman:

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In April, a stock research firm told clients that a Gulfstream V owned by Houston-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. had been spotted at an Omaha airport. The immediate speculation was that Occidental executives were negotiating with Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to get financial help in their $38bn offer for rival Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Two days later, Buffett announced a $10bn investment in Occidental.

Where there’s a jet, there’s a data trail, and several “alternative data” firms are keeping tabs on private aircraft for hedge funds and other investors. The data on the Occidental plane came from Quandl Inc., which was acquired by Nasdaq Inc. in December. (Bloomberg LP, which publishes Bloomberg Businessweek, provides clients with reports from another company called JetTrack.)
There’s some evidence that aircraft-tracking can be used to get an early read on corporate news. A 2018 paper from security researchers at the University of Oxford and Switzerland’s federal Science and Technology department, tracked aircraft from three dozen public companies and identified seven instances of mergers-and-acquisitions activity.

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This uses planes’ ADS-B data, which as this other article explains, can be used to track dictators and arms embargo-busters too. (Also: here’s that 2018 paper.)

Should we call this “dark data” – info that’s available to some, but only at a price or to governments?
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Baked Alaska: record heat fuels wildfires and sparks personal fireworks ban • The Guardian

Susie Cagle:

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Alaska is trapped in a kind of hot feedback loop, as the arctic is heating up much faster than the rest of the planet. Ocean surface temperatures upwards of 10F hotter than average have helped to warm up the state’s coasts. When Bering and Chukchi sea ice collapsed and melted months earlier than normal this spring, the University of Alaska climate specialist Rick Thoman characterized the water as “baking”.

“I intentionally try to not be hyperbolic, but what do you say when there’s 10- to 20- degree [ºF] ocean water temperature above normal?” Thoman told the Guardian. “How else do you describe that besides extraordinary?”

The hot water has affected sea birds and marine life, with mass mortality events becoming commonplace in the region. The National Park Service characterizes Alaska’s increasingly frequent sea bird die-offs, called “wrecks”, as “extreme”. “The folks in the communities are saying these animals look like they’ve starved to death,” said Thoman.

Accelerating ice melt stands to put the state’s coastal communities at risk, reshaping food sources the people rely on and the very land on which they live. Where there are no built roads, Alaskans rely on frozen ground as infrastructure for traveling. Less ice means less of the life that’s evolved to depend on that ice, both animal and human.

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I was wondering earlier today what things might have been like if Al Gore had won the 2000 election outright, and begun making significant moves to act on climate. Would this still be happening? Would we feel it was all as impossible to shift as (I think) we do?
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A city paid a hefty ransom to hackers, but its pains are far from over • The New York Times

Frances Robles:

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More than 100 years’ worth of municipal records, from ordinances to meeting minutes to resolutions and City Council agendas, have been locked in cyberspace for nearly a month, hijacked by unidentified hackers who encrypted [Florida’s Lake City] city’s computer systems and demanded more than $460,000 in ransom.

Weeks after the city’s insurer paid the ransom, the phones are back on and email is once again working, but the city has still not recovered all of its files. There is a possibility that thousands of pages of documents that had been painstakingly digitized by Ms. Sikes and her team will have to be manually scanned, again.

Lake City’s troubles are hardly unique. In the past month alone, at least three Florida cities have been victims of ransomware attacks, after intrusions on larger cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Baltimore.

What sets the latest cyberattacks apart is the stunning size of their ransom demands. Riviera Beach, Fla., last month agreed to pay more than $600,000, several times what was asked of Baltimore, which did not have insurance and did not pay. The Village of Key Biscayne, near Miami, has not publicly disclosed whether it plans to pay the perpetrators of a recent ransomware attack. Earlier this year Jackson County, Ga., paid $400,000.

Atlanta’s mayor testified last week to Congress that an attack last year, when the city refused to pay $51,000 in extortion demands, has so far cost the city $7.2m.

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After some years of random phishing, the criminals have figured out that cities have both the resources and the urgent need to pay a sizeable ransom.
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Fake Samsung firmware update app tricks more than 10 million Android users • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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Over ten million users have been duped in installing a fake Samsung app named “Updates for Samsung” that promises firmware updates, but, in reality, redirects users to an ad-filled website and charges for firmware downloads.

“I have contacted the Google Play Store and asked them to consider removing this app,” Aleksejs Kuprins, malware analyst at the CSIS Security Group, told ZDNet today in an interview, after publishing a report on the app’s shady behaviour earlier [on July 4].

The app takes advantage of the difficulty in getting firmware and operating system updates for Samsung phones, hence the high number of users who have installed it.

“It would be wrong to judge people for mistakenly going to the official application store for the firmware updates after buying a new Android device,” the security researcher said. “Vendors frequently bundle their Android OS builds with an intimidating number of software, and it can easily get confusing.”

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Was still there on Friday evening. I think it might have been a mistake to publish his report on a huge public holiday in the US.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,105: Alaska overheats, machines search for new theories, Google ticked off in NZ, ransomware’s new targets, and more

  1. Re. Browsers: I’m getting the vote screen in France too. Funny thing is it’s showing up even though I’ve got 4 out of 5 browsers installed and Chrome isn’t my default.
    As for changing search engines, Tim Cook explained the Google is a lot better and is what users want. So there.

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