Start Up No.1,113: Bezos’s space plan, EU goes after Amazon, Apple’s anti-theft team, FaceApp’s privacy problem, and more


Pearson is aiming to phase out printed textbooks for digital ones. Want to guess what’ll happen to prices? CC-licensed photo by zaveqna on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Smithereens! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why Jeff Bezos spends billions on space technology • CNBC

Catherine Clifford:

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developing space technologies is critical for human beings to have a long future, Bezos says.

“We humans have to go to space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilization,” Bezos says. “We have become big as a population, as a species, and this planet is relatively small. We see it in things like climate change and pollution and heavy industry. We are in the process of destroying this planet. And we have sent robotic probes to every planet in the solar system — this is the good one. So, we have to preserve this planet.”

To do that will require being able to live and work in space, says Bezos.

“We send things up into space, but they are all made on Earth. Eventually it will be much cheaper and simpler to make really complicated things, like microprocessors and everything, in space and then send those highly complex manufactured objects back down to earth, so that we don’t have the big factories and pollution generating industries that make those things now on Earth,” Bezos says. “And Earth can be zoned residential.”

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Oh but ‘It will be “multiple generations” and “hundreds of years” before this is a reality, Bezos said’. Not sure we have that much time.
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EU opens Amazon antitrust investigation • The Verge

Jon Porter:

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The EU’s Competition Commission has opened a formal antitrust investigation into Amazon to investigate whether the company is using sales data to gain an unfair advantage over smaller sellers on the Marketplace platform. The Commission says it will look into Amazon’s agreements with marketplace sellers, as well as how Amazon uses data to choose which retailer to link to using the “Buy Box” on its site. The announcement comes on the same day that Amazon announced changes to its third-party seller service agreement in response to a separate antitrust investigation by German regulators.

“E-commerce has boosted retail competition and brought more choice and better prices,” said the EU’s Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. “We need to ensure that large online platforms don’t eliminate these benefits through anti-competitive behavior. I have therefore decided to take a very close look at Amazon’s business practices and its dual role as marketplace and retailer, to assess its compliance with EU competition rules.”

Responding to the news, Amazon told The Verge that it “will cooperate fully with the European Commission and continue working hard to support businesses of all sizes and help them grow.”

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Hmm. Tesco, Sainsbury and other supermarkets sell their own-brand products in their supermarkets while selling third party products at the same time. What’s the difference, exactly? That Amazon can reorganise its store on the fly, where a supermarket can’t?
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Firefox to warn when saved logins are found in data breaches • Bleeping Computer

Lawrence Abrams:

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Starting in Firefox 70, Mozilla aims to have the browser report when any of your saved logins were found in data breaches. This will be done through their partnership with the Have I Been Pwned data breach site.

Mozilla is slowly integrating their independent Firefox Monitor service and the new Firefox Lockwise password manager directly into Firefox.  Mozilla is also considering premium services based around these features in the future.

As part of this integration, Firefox will scan the saved login names and passwords and see if they were exposed in a data breach listed on Have I been Pwned. If one is found, Firefox will alert the user and prompt them to change their password.

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Neat. Wonder how long it will take for the other major browsers to incorporate this.
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Inside Apple factory thefts: secret tunnels, hidden crawl spaces • The Information

Wayne Ma:

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Some factory workers have hidden sensitive parts in crawl spaces and later returned to retrieve them when security guards aren’t looking. Employees have hidden parts in used mop water, tissue boxes, shoes and under discarded metal shavings. A factory worker was once caught hiding parts inside his belt buckle, hoping security guards wouldn’t pat down that area. 

A woman at Jabil once hid dozens of glass screens in her bra but was caught by security guards after they noticed her unusual style of walking. Apple once caught factory workers digging a small tunnel in a corner of a room behind a large piece of machinery, hoping to use it to ferry stolen parts to the outside world. “People were chipping away little by little at the wall ‘Shawshank Redemption’ style,” the person said. 

“Scrapping” companies, which help Apple suppliers destroy prototypes and defective parts, have also been a source of leaks. Apple once traced leaked enclosures to a major scrapping vendor, Singapore’s Tes-Amm. Apple removed the company from its approved list of vendors for a year but was forced to restore it because its options were limited, a person familiar with the matter said. Tes-Amm didn’t reply to a request for comment. Apple’s supplier security policies require an Apple employee or an Apple-approved contractor to be physically present when scrap is destroyed. 

Leaks also can come from Apple’s packaging and printing contractors. One worker snuck a smartphone into a printing factory in 2017 and was able to take photos of an instruction manual for the iPhone X before its release.

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Education publisher Pearson to phase out print textbooks • BBC News

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The world’s largest education publisher has taken the first step towards phasing out print books by making all its learning resources “digital first”.

Pearson said students would only be able to rent physical textbooks from now on, and they would be updated much less frequently.

The British firm hopes the move will make more students buy its e-textbooks which are updated continually.

“We are now over the digital tipping point,” boss John Fallon told the BBC.

“Over half our annual revenues come from digital sales, so we’ve decided a little bit like in other industries like newspapers or music or in broadcast that it is time to flick the switch in how we primarily make and create our products.”

The firm currently makes 20% of its revenues from US courseware, but has been struggling as students increasingly opt to rent second-hand print textbooks to save money.

To counter this Mr Fallon said Pearson would stop revising print books every three years, a model that has dominated the industry for 40 years.

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Despite Pearson’s protests, it’s obvious that it’s looking to move to a subscription model, and that it will jack up prices. Perhaps they could use themselves in an economics textbook as an example of “rent-seeking“.

Corollary: prices of secondhand textbooks are going to rocket in the next year or two. If you’ve got university-age kids, get their textbooks purchased soon.
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How to end Asia’s plastic waste war • Nikkei Asian Review

James Crabtree:

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The world churned out around 300 million tons of plastic waste in 2015, a figure academic estimates suggest has roughly doubled in the last two decades. Environmental groups fear it could double again by 2030, clogging up oceans and toxic landfills alike…

…Governments in countries including Canada and Australia have traditionally taken little care over the waste they send abroad. Recycled materials are traded via complex chains of middlemen, and often mislabeled and poorly regulated. Southeast Asian governments say they have little control over what they receive. Rather than clean recyclable material, Indonesia said the shipments it sent back to Australia in mid-July were actually filled with electronic waste and other toxic kinds of junk.

These clashes over plastics might soon get worse. Other countries want to join China in banning imports, including Thailand and Vietnam, both of whom plan to phase the trade out. Even those who do not go for outright prohibition are likely to reduce their intake. New global rules on plastics were recently agreed under the United Nation’s Basel Convention, a treaty governing the world’s waste system ratified by close to 200 countries, although not the United States. Coming into force in 2021, these will give recipient nations more control over the waste they receive.

Environmental campaigners back further import bans in the hope of forcing governments in richer countries to act and pushing companies in plastic-heavy sectors like food and consumer goods to find alternatives. Such shock treatment might be needed, but it is far from clear that more bans alone, and with them a further deglobalization of the world’s recycling system, would in fact be the best outcome.

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And yet when a member of Extinction Rebellion was on the BBC’s Today show, he was interrogated on why he “wanted a recession”.
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FaceApp responds to privacy concerns • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

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The tl;dr here is that concerns had been raised that FaceApp, a Russian startup, uploads users’ photos to the cloud — without making it clear to them that processing is not going on locally on their device.

Another issue raised by FaceApp users was that the iOS app appears to be overriding settings if a user had denied access to their camera roll, after people reported they could still select and upload a photo — i.e. despite the app not having permission to access their photos.

As we reported earlier, the latter is actually allowed behavior in iOS — which gives users the power to choose to block an app from full camera roll access but select individual photos to upload if they so wish.

This isn’t a conspiracy, though Apple could probably come up with a better way of describing the permission, as we suggested earlier.

On the wider matter of cloud processing of what is, after all, facial data, FaceApp confirms that most of the processing needed to power its app’s beautifying/gender-bending/age-accerating/-defying effects are done in the cloud.

Though it claims it only uploads photos users have specifically selected for editing. Security tests have also not found evidence the app uploads a user’s entire camera roll.

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The app first surfaced two years ago, so that’s a pretty tenacious startup.
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Tech journalism’s ‘on background’ scourge • Columbia Journalism Review

Brian Merchant:

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I’ve been a tech journalist for a decade. I was a senior editor at Motherboard for about four years, and have written and edited stories for outlets including Wired, The Atlantic, and Gizmodo. “On background” has been a scourge throughout my career. Every single conversation I have had with a big-five tech company representative this year has been on background. It has become the default method by which Silicon Valley disseminates information to reporters. 

This is a toxic arrangement. The tactic shields tech companies from accountability. It allows giants like Amazon and Tesla an opportunity to transmit their preferred message, free of risk, in the voice of a given publication. It leaves no trace of policy that might later be criticized—that could form part of the public record to be scrutinized by regulators, lawyers, or investors. If the company later reverses course or modifies its position, the egg is on the reporter’s face, not the company’s. 

Corporations such as Apple, Google, and Uber have become infamous for their secrecy and unwillingness to comment on most matters on the record. And tech reporters, myself very much included, have not done enough to push them to do otherwise.

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Definition: ‘According to the Associated Press, an on background arrangement with a reporter means that “information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position.”’

I agree with Merchant; like him I’ve had to take “on background” briefings from many companies, and wondered why they didn’t have the courage just to say it. As Merchant says, Nilay Patel at The Verge decided not to take it from YouTube in a recent controversy. More could do the same: just refuse to take “on background”. It’s either no quote, or attributed-to-company quote.
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iOS and iPadOS 13 beta 4 signals death of 3D Touch, rise of Context Menu • VentureBeat

Jeremy Horwitz:

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If you aren’t already familiar with 3D Touch, the concept was simple: slight, medium, and heavy pressure on an iPhone’s screen could be recognized differently, such that a light press would open an app while a firm press in the same spot would instead conjure up a contextual menu. Apple sometimes nested additional “peek and pop” features within iPhone apps using the same pressure sensitivity, giving users extra options if they pressed down more on the screen.

Over the last few beta releases of iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, Apple has been rolling out a replacement called Context Menus — a change it set the stage for last year, by releasing the iPhone XR without 3D Touch hardware. Back then, Apple said it was giving the XR an alternative called “Haptic Touch” that pulled up the same sort of contextual menus as earlier iPhones, but did so using two tricks: instead of pressure, it sensed button press time, counting an extra split-second as a stronger button press, confirming the different intent with a “thump” from the phone’s vibration feature.

Now iPad users will get a version of Haptic Touch minus the haptics. The “hold slightly longer” feature works the exact same way as on the iPhone XR, but there’s no confirming thump because iPads don’t have vibration actuators inside. (Presumably, the feature will work the same way on the seventh-generation iPod touch, the only iPod that supports iOS 13, while similarly lacking vibration hardware.)

The key change in iOS/iPadOS 13 beta 4 is that the timing for the Context Menus and a related UI feature — Home screen icon rearrangement — has been tightened to perfection. Hold down on an app icon for just under two seconds, or long enough to be “holding down” rather than tapping for selection, and a Context Menu pops up, as shown above. Hold an additional second or so and icons begin to shake to indicate they can be arranged.

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It had a good run, but was mostly used only by Apple; hardly any third-party apps did. It’s got to be expensive to implement, and the challenge of “force touch” v “just press it” could be tricky. Unusual for Apple to dump a feature from its phones, though.
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I wish Google’s Smart Displays were the kitchen companions they promised to be • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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The first fundamental flaw of using a smart display as a recipe canvas is that the display can only access a limited subset of recipes available online. These recipes must either have schema formatting that Google recognizes in its search platform and then displays in a cookie cutter style on the display, or algorithmically be flagged as a recipe and render as a desktop web page (often in barely readable, tiny font). For now, only the largest recipe repositories online use the dedicated markup formatting, and mostly because they received early access to this tool from Google. Ordinary sites are able to do it as well, but many simply haven’t – and some websites have such heavily customized recipe formatting that Google’s one-size-fits-all approach simply wouldn’t make sense for them.

This means that when you search for a recipe, you’re only getting a curated selection of the total search results for that recipe on the web. And oftentimes, I dig through a half dozen or more recipes before deciding on the one that sounds best or provides the most information on the processes and techniques involved. Searching “red pepper soup” on a smart display will yield results, but it won’t yield the one I settled on after doing a search on my phone last week, because apparently Google doesn’t think that page contains a recipe.

When I do find a recipe I want, I should be able to just push that recipe from my laptop, phone, or tablet to the smart display – at the very least it could give me a web browser view. But it can’t. There is no way to push web content to the smart display, it can only show you pages in the results of a voice search query. This, frankly, makes no sense: the screen is clearly capable of and does display web pages, it just won’t let you display any page you want.

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So he says it ends up being what most people use these devices for – a music player, and a timer.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,113: Bezos’s space plan, EU goes after Amazon, Apple’s anti-theft team, FaceApp’s privacy problem, and more

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