Start Up No.1,120: Norway’s electric plane plan, Weird Al and the spyware, IRS writes to bitcoiners, Tumblr’s demise, and more

Siri, couldn’t we opt out of ever having what we say heard by your humans? CC-licensed photo by Joe Wilcox on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Idiocracy, documentary? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Norway to begin electrifying its aircraft • E+T Magazine


In an announcement this week, Avinor, a government-owned company which operates most of Norway’s civil airports, announced that it would aim to move to 100% electric flights. It set a goal of electrifying all short-haul flights by 2040.

“We think that all flights lasting up to 1.5 hours [90 minutes] can be flown by aircraft that are entirely electric,” said Dag Falk-Peterson, chief executive of Avinor, in a statement to AFP.

This would include all domestic flights and flights to other Scandinavian capitals, he said. Avinor is working on a tender offer for a small electric aircraft with 19 seats which could be trialled in commercial flights by 2025.

Electric planes are cheaper to run, and are reportedly less noisy than standard planes. In the coming years, Avinor intends to phase in biofuels for aircraft in order to reduce its carbon footprint before going electric.

Although electric aircraft have been flown in demonstrations for decades, such as with the much-publicised flight of the Airbus E-Fan across the English Channel in July 2015, they have yet to go mainstream. At present, the storage capacity of the batteries is not great enough to compensate for their weight.

As rapid advances in battery technology improve energy density, however, it is likely that other vehicles will follow cars and trucks in going electric.


Promising, though a long way from replacing the capacity that we have now. (Thanks Arthur M for the link.)
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Mathematician solves computer science conjecture in two pages • Quanta Magazine

Erica Klarreich:


A paper posted online this month has settled a nearly 30-year-old conjecture about the structure of the fundamental building blocks of computer circuits. This “sensitivity” conjecture has stumped many of the most prominent computer scientists over the years, yet the new proof is so simple that one researcher summed it up in a single tweet.

“This conjecture has stood as one of the most frustrating and embarrassing open problems in all of combinatorics and theoretical computer science,” wrote Scott Aaronson of the University of Texas, Austin, in a blog post. “The list of people who tried to solve it and failed is like a who’s who of discrete math and theoretical computer science,” he added in an email.


I’ll be honest: I understand the problem (at least as described by Klarreich in her excellent explanatory metaphor – an achievement which deserves some sort of prize itself), but I don’t understand the answer. However, I’m sure plenty of you will lap it up.
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The hidden costs of automated thinking • The New Yorker

Jonathan Zittrain:


As knowledge generated by machine-learning systems is put to use, these kinds of gaps [between what is understood, and what is possible – such as drugs whose mechanism isn’t understood] may prove consequential. Health-care A.I.s have been successfully trained to classify skin lesions as benign or malignant. And yet—as a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School and M.I.T. showed, in a paper published this year—they can also be tricked into making inaccurate judgments using the same techniques that turn cats into guacamole. (Among other things, attackers might use these vulnerabilities to commit insurance fraud.) Seduced by the predictive power of such systems, we may stand down the human judges whom they promise to replace. But they will remain susceptible to hijacking—and we will have no easy process for validating the answers they continue to produce.

Could we create a balance sheet for intellectual debt—a system for tracking where and how theoryless knowledge is used? Our accounting could reflect the fact that not all intellectual debt is equally problematic. If an A.I. produces new pizza recipes, it may make sense to shut up and enjoy the pizza; by contrast, when we begin using A.I. to make health predictions and recommendations, we’ll want to be fully informed.


That’s the tone of the article, but the fine detail is much more nuanced.
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Tumblr has transformed into a brand-safe zombie of its former self • One Man And His Blog

Adam Tinworth:


Based on an interview with Verizon Media’s chief business officer Iván Markman, [Tumblr’s origins as a hub of creativity “and, let’s be honest, porn” is] dead and gone. The interview itself is almost eye-watering in its relentless use of corporate jargon — what happens to a human being to make them talk like this? — and the section on Tumblr particularly depressing:  


Q: What about Tumblr? Are you not pitching it anymore? Is it still a part of Verizon Media’s goal to serve the customer?

A: We’ve been focused on making that environment more brand safe. We invested a lot in that. To the extent that our advertises and by the way the programmatic side of the house, the DSP and native, they are accessing those audiences and whatnot. To your point, as you think about how we present ourselves, we present ourselves more in the horizontal capabilities like the connected channels, brand safety, diverse insights. If we’re in a meeting with someone and they’re really focused on a younger demo, more focused on art, and I want to deliver in that environment.


Yes, Tumblr is now for “brand safe” art from a younger demographic. That’s  destroying everything that it was in order to make it profitable at a corporate scale.

In other words — it’s a stumbling, zombie-like shell of its past self.


You might think “hey, making money is good”, but Tinworth’s point is that Tumblr offered a pseudonymous space for that exploration that other platforms don’t.
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This is what going viral looks like: the numbers behind FaceApp • Appfigures

Ariel Michaeli:


What does going viral mean for downloads? Let’s look at our App Intelligence:

Before going viral FaceApp averaged around 4.8K downloads per day across both the iOS App Store and Google Play in the US. After going viral, downloads grew by a multiple of more than 40 to 195K per day.

What’s also obvious from the chart above is that although the app averaged a similar number of downloads on the iOS App Store and Google Play before going viral, it’s the iOS App Store that’s fueling much of this growth.

In the 25 days before going viral, we estimate FaceApp for iOS had 68K downloads in the US. In the last 5 days, we estimate the total to be 854K. And, that’s a comparison of 25 days to just 5 days.

On Google Play the numbers are much lower. In the 25 days prior to the app going viral, FaceApp totaled 54K downloads in the US. After going viral, the 5-day total increased to just 119K, roughly double.


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Apple contractors ‘regularly hear confidential details’ on Siri recordings • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Apple contractors regularly hear confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of couples having sex, as part of their job providing quality control, or “grading”, the company’s Siri voice assistant, the Guardian has learned.

Although Apple does not explicitly disclose it in its consumer-facing privacy documentation, a small proportion of Siri recordings are passed on to contractors working for the company around the world. They are tasked with grading the responses on a variety of factors, including whether the activation of the voice assistant was deliberate or accidental, whether the query was something Siri could be expected to help with and whether Siri’s response was appropriate.

Apple says the data “is used to help Siri and dictation … understand you better and recognise what you say”.

But the company does not explicitly state that that work is undertaken by humans who listen to the pseudonymised recordings.


So there’s the trifecta: all of Amazon, Google and Apple sends some audio to humans to listen. In its way, rather like the revelation that your smartphone maps where you go and stores it, which we didn’t intuitively know in 2011 – but turns out everyone did that too.
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How we are talking to Alexa • NHS Digital

Eva Lake is head of engagement for the NHS website team:


There are currently over 1,500 organisations consuming content from the NHS website. Our syndication service allows these third-party partners to integrate our clinically approved content and service information through free application programming interfaces (APIs) or widgets.

It is estimated that 14% of UK households now have voice-activated speakers. Whether or not you believe predictions that 50% of searches will be by voice by 2020, this is a significant market – and is particularly significant for health information. Using websites can be hard for people with literacy difficulties and accessibility needs. Voice-activated devices offer one way, for some people, of getting around these problems. So, this is an important new opportunity for us – but one that we have approached carefully.

Members of our syndication team went to NHS Expo 2017 to talk to people about the API offer from the NHS website. We met members of the Amazon Alexa team at the event and found there was mutual interest in exploring this further.

We had previously looked at how to build a ‘skill’, the equivalent of an app which individual users can enable on their Alexa speaker. We could have developed a skill ourselves, without a close partnership with Amazon, but the contact at Expo developed into a chance to take advantage of their expertise in creating content for voice. By adding our content to Alexa’s core knowledge base, it could be used for all relevant questions not requiring a user to enable a skill in advance. This is key when you consider the challenge of reaching those who are not actively engaging in their own health.


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Amazon as experiment • Benedict Evans


I sometimes think that if you could look in the safe behind Jeff Bezos’s desk, instead of the sports almanac from Back to the Future, you’d find an Encyclopedia of Retail, written in maybe 1985. There would be Post-It notes on every page, and every one of those notes has been turned into a team or maybe a product.

Amazon is so new, and so dramatic in its speed and scale and aggression, that we can easily forget how many of the things it’s doing are actually very old. And, we can forget how many of the slightly dusty incumbent retailers we all grew up with were also once radical, daring, piratical new businesses that made people angry with their new ideas.

This goes back to the beginning of mass retail. In Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, a tremendously entertaining novel about the creation of department stores in 1860s Paris, Octave Mouret builds a small shop into a vast new enterprise, dragging it into existence through force of will, inspiration, and genius. In the process, he creates fixed pricing, discounts, marketing, advertising, merchandising, display, and something called “returns.” He sends out catalogs across the country. His staff is appalled that he wants to sell a new fabric at less than cost; “that’s the whole idea!” he shouts. Loss leaders are nothing new.

Meanwhile, the other half of the story follows the small, traditional shopkeepers in the area, who are driven out of business one by one. Zola sees them as part of the past to be swept away. They’re doomed, and they don’t understand—indeed, they’re both baffled and outraged by Mouret’s new ideas.


Also worth listening to: the (short; 15 mins) podcast from the “50 Things That Made The Modern Economy” series about the Montgomery Ward shopping catalogue. The whole series is excellent; cue it up for those quarters of an hour that would otherwise go to waste.
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Apparently, I have to install spyware on my phone to attend a Weird Al concert • PocketNow

Adam Lein found that the tickets for said concert were only available inside the AXS app – not PDFs, not part of Wallet:


There’s an article on The Outline that goes into a lot of detail about the AXS app and how much data it’s designed to collect from your phone and subsequently share with all sorts of 3rd party companies for marketing, ad sales, and who knows what else. You can read about how the app scrapes your first and last name, precise location, how often the app is used, what content is viewed using the app, which ads are clicked, what purchases are made (and not made), a user’s personal advertising identifier, IP address, operating system, device make and model, billing address, credit card number, security code, mailing address, phone number, email address, etc. All of that data can be matched up to your other advertising profiles in other big-data collection companies like Facebook & Google in order to influence you in other ways… such as buying more stuff.

Some Reddit users have found that the app can be used to track your locations within a venue as well using Bluetooth beacons to promote discounts in a nearby food court or whatnot. The privacy-violating features are generally disguised as something that ads convenience, but the data collected can certainly be used for more nefarious purposes.


Once again, the utterly rapacious nature of American companies towards peoples’ data is just mindboggling.
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We tested Europe’s new digital lie detector. It failed • The Intercept

Ryan Gallagher and Ludovica Jona:


Prior to your arrival at the airport, using your own computer, you log on to a website, upload an image of your passport, and are greeted by an avatar of a brown-haired man wearing a navy blue uniform.

“What is your surname?” he asks. “What is your citizenship and the purpose of your trip?” You provide your answers verbally to those and other questions, and the virtual policeman uses your webcam to scan your face and eye movements for signs of lying.

At the end of the interview, the system provides you with a QR code that you have to show to a guard when you arrive at the border. The guard scans the code using a handheld tablet device, takes your fingerprints, and reviews the facial image captured by the avatar to check if it corresponds with your passport. The guard’s tablet displays a score out of 100, telling him whether the machine has judged you to be truthful or not.

A person judged to have tried to deceive the system is categorized as “high risk” or “medium risk,” dependent on the number of questions they are found to have falsely answered. Our reporter — the first journalist to test the system before crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border earlier this year — provided honest responses to all questions but was deemed to be a liar by the machine, with four false answers out of 16 and a score of 48. The Hungarian policeman who assessed our reporter’s lie detector results said the system suggested that she should be subject to further checks, though these were not carried out…

…The results of the test are not usually disclosed to the traveler; The Intercept obtained a copy of our reporter’s test only after filing a data access request under European privacy laws.


Developed in the UK, and claims to pick up on “micro gestures” in facial expressions, etc. As if a virtual border agent viewing you through a webcam (which you probably won’t look at) weren’t weird enough already.
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Cryptocurrency investors start receiving letters from the IRS • The Block


The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has begun sending letters to over 10,000 U.S. cryptocurrency investors last week, asking them to report their crypto holdings and pay taxes properly. The IRS said that the names of these taxpayers “were obtained through various ongoing IRS compliance efforts.”

There are three variations of the educational letter (6173, 6174 and 6174-A), all of which are supposed to help taxpayers understand their tax and filing obligations and how to correct past errors.

Letter 6174 and 6174-A are no-action letters, which means that if all the obligations have been met, there is no need to respond. The taxpayers could receive these letters despite being fully compliant. Letter 6173, on the other hand, alleges noncompliance and requires action. If there is none, the tax account will be examined by the IRS.


The chickens start coming home to roost: realisable appreciation in the value of an asset, even if it’s virtual, can still attract attention (the IRS letter makes clear it’s about asset trading, rather than just hodling). Wonder if the UK’s Revenue and Customs service will start doing the same soon.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,120: Norway’s electric plane plan, Weird Al and the spyware, IRS writes to bitcoiners, Tumblr’s demise, and more

  1. With the news that Apple’s Siri uses people to review some voice requests just like Amazon’s and Google’s respective voice thingamybobs, it makes the big tech companies start to look like purveyors of ‘Mechanical Turks’ in contrast to all their talk about machine learning and AI.

  2. > In its way, rather like the revelation that your smartphone maps where you go and stores it, which we didn’t intuitively know in 2011 – but turns out everyone did that too.

    We knew intuitively about data collection earlier on as anyone wondering how the blue dot of one’s current location was shown on Google Maps should have realised. I wrote about this for El Reg back in 2009. That article got very little reaction so it didn’t seem people/readers were concerne by this back then. I also pointed out that not carrying a mobile phone had been found suspect in France and Germany, i.e., the mobile phone was and is a voluntary electronic tag.


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