Start Up No.1,121: Hong Kong’s facial fights, Huawei and Google’s smart speaker plans, Russia’s radiation leak, would Netflix add ads?, and more


The Fortnite World Cup: it was really quite the event. CC-licensed photo by Several seconds on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Probably. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

In Hong Kong’s protests, faces become weapons • The New York Times

Paul Mozur:

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The police officers wrestled with Colin Cheung in an unmarked car. They needed his face.

They grabbed his jaw to force his head in front of his iPhone. They slapped his face. They shouted, “Wake up!” They pried open his eyes. It all failed: Mr. Cheung had disabled his phone’s facial-recognition login with a quick button mash as soon as they grabbed him.

As Hong Kong convulses amid weeks of protests, demonstrators and the police have turned identity into a weapon. The authorities are tracking protest leaders online and seeking their phones. Many protesters now cover their faces, and they fear that the police are using cameras and possibly other tools to single out targets for arrest.

And when the police stopped wearing identification badges as the violence escalated, some protesters began to expose officers’ identities online. One fast-growing channel on the social messaging app Telegram seeks and publishes personal information about officers and their families. The channel, “Dadfindboy,” has more than 50,000 subscribers and advocates violence in crude and cartoonish ways. Rival pro-government channels seek to unmask protesters in a similar fashion…

…The authorities in Hong Kong have outlined strict privacy controls for the use of facial recognition and the collection of other biometric data, although the extent of their efforts is unclear. They also appear to be using other technological methods for tracking protesters. Last month, a 22-year old man was arrested for being the administrator of a Telegram group.

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16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf becomes Fortnite’s first-ever solo world champion • CNN

Shannon Liao:

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Fortnite has wrapped its first-ever massive sporting event in New York’s Arthur Ashe tennis stadium. It was anyone’s game: It didn’t matter how famous a player was nor what large organization was backing each member of the all-male playing field.

Beating out other pros and famous streamers, Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf, 16, made a name for himself by dominating from the first round and ultimately taking home the $3 million grand prize for individual players. That’s the largest-ever payout for a single player in an esports tournament.
After securing a victory in the first round and nine in-game kills, Giersdorf went on to rack up dozens of in-game kills each round, until he ended up with 59 points — a huge lead over the second-place winner…

In second place, 24-year-old Harrison “Psalm” Chang — a former professional Heroes of the Storm player — won $1.8 million. Shane “Epikwhale” Cotton took third, winning $1.2 million. He is 16 years old and from Redondo Beach, California. In fourth, Nate “Kreo” Kou, 18, from Parkland, Florida, won $1.05 million.

At 24, Chang was one of the oldest competing on Sunday.

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Whole new world.
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Huawei and Google were working on new smart speaker before Trump’s ban • The Information

Juro Osawa:

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Before the US president’s action, which was in response to national security concerns, Huawei’s plan was to unveil the new speaker at the IFA tech trade show in Berlin this September, the people said. The speaker, powered by Google Assistant, was aimed at markets outside China, and Huawei was hoping to sell it online in the US.

“We worked on this project with Google for a year and made a lot of progress. Then everything suddenly stopped,” said a Huawei employee who declined to be named. 

A Huawei spokesman declined to comment. Google representatives didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment. 

Huawei has been a major Google business partner for years: Huawei phones run on the Android operating system and Huawei smartwatches use Google’s OS for wearable devices. The smart speaker project, which hasn’t previously been reported, highlights the breadth of Google’s collaborations with Huawei, the world’s second-largest smartphone maker by shipments. Before May, the two companies also discussed other topics including how to make Huawei phones compatible with Android Auto, a Google program that connects cars with smartphones, according to the people familiar with the matter.

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That must have really annoyed Samsung: it hasn’t had anything like that kind of help from Google. But after the publicity that Huawei has had, how eager would people have been to have a permanent listening device in their home branded to a Chinese company?
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Gigantic, mysterious radiation leak traced to facility in Russia • New Scientist

Ruby Prosser Scully:

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The source of a gigantic, mysterious leak of radioactive material that swept across Europe in 2017 has been traced to a Russian nuclear facility, which appears to have been preparing materials for experiments in Italy.

The leak released up to 100 times the amount of radiation into the atmosphere that the Fukushima disaster did. Italian scientists were the first to raise the alarm on 2 October, when they noticed a burst of the radioactive ruthenium-106 in the atmosphere. This was quickly corroborated by other monitoring laboratories across Europe.

Georg Steinhauser at Leibniz University Hannover in Germany says he was “stunned” when he first noticed the event. Routine surveillance detects several radiation leaks each year, mostly of extremely low levels of radionuclides used in medicine. But this event was different.

“The ruthenium-106 was one of a kind. We had never measured anything like this before,” says Steinhauser. Even so, the radiation level wasn’t high enough to impact human health in Europe, although exposure closer to the site of release would have been far greater.

The Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Security in Paris soon concluded that the most probable source of the leak was between the Volga river and Ural mountains in Russia. This is where Russia’s Mayak facility is located. The site, which includes a plant that processes spent nuclear fuel, suffered the world’s third most serious nuclear accident in 1957.

At the time of the 2017 leak, Russian officials denied the possibility of the facility being the source, saying there were no radioactive ruthenium traces in the surrounding soil. Instead, they suggested the source may have been a radionuclide battery from a satellite burning up during re-entry into the atmosphere.

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How much radiation did the Fukushima disaster release, you ask? One X-ray for everyone. A hundred times that is a bit more significant.
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The economics of legalising cannabis: pricing and policing are crucial • The Conversation

Alice Mesnard is a reader in economics at the University of London:

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The increased competition that the legal market would bring would likely substantially increase consumption – not something most policy makers want. So as well as implementing a legal market, there needs to be a mix of policies to control consumption, including sanctions that are enforced against illegal activities. This would allow a government to price out dealers, while keeping the price of legal cannabis relatively high.

The reasoning is simple: if production or distribution costs of illegal cannabis increase, it is easier to drive criminals out of business by selling legal cannabis. My research shows that the harsher the punishments you put in place against people selling cannabis illegally, the higher you can set the price of legal cannabis to price out dealers. We call this the “eviction price”.

Other instruments governments can use to increase the eviction price are to deter consumers from buying illegal cannabis through enforced sanctions or warning them against the dangers of using illegal cannabis compared to high-quality, safe products supplied on the legal market.

It’s also important to introduce incentives for illegal cannabis producers and sellers to turn their activity toward the legal sector. So as well as investment in law enforcement to crack down on criminal activity, it’s important that former cannabis dealers are given viable job alternatives. Otherwise they may just switch to selling alternative illegal drugs or close substitutes.

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A trio of MPs visited Canada and came back convinced that cannabis should be legalised in the UK. (A step further than decriminalisation, which simply makes it not an offence to possess.) This would be very overdue. But the point about finding something for cannabis sellers to do which isn’t just moving to harder drugs is key.
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Thinking the unthinkable: Netflix as gatekeeper • Midia Research

Tim Mulligan:

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the financial reality [for Netflix] of running a subscription-based digital entertainment service on wafer-thin margins is starting to appear increasingly challenged. In light of declining net revenues, with net income for H1 2019 at $614.7m, down from $674.473m for H1 2018 – and with the cost of revenues increasing from $4.7bn in H1 2018 to $5.9bn in H1 2019, change is now required. Add to this stalling membership growth, and the previously unthinkable becomes thinkable as advertising becomes an area for revisiting.

As the above chart illustrates, despite being SVOD subscribers Netflix paid members are actually more responsive than the consumer average for relevant targeted and considered advertising.

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The worst possible thing Netflix could do for customer loyalty is to start running adverts, and I have no idea who the 74% of monsters who expect to see ads if they have paid a subscription fee for online video are. Into the sea with the lot of them.
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How to do PR as an early stage startup • Sifted

Max Tatton-Brown:

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The natural story of a business involves a steady cadence of events. 

You found it, you begin to make progress, you get your first big customer, you hire some interesting people to the team. THEN YOU TAKE FUNDING (potentially big moment.) Then you hire some more, move offices, learn something important that means you pivot slightly THEN YOU PARTNER WITH ONE OF THE BIGGEST COMPANIES IN THE WORLD AND BRING YOUR PRODUCT TO MILLIONS. Then you hire some more people, and so on and so forth.

It’s easy to not say anything about the smaller stories when you are early on with your business. But actually, once you are a year or two down the line, it will really benefit you to be able to point back to that consistent steady rhythm of progress which built to the current moment. 

The crucial point here is: it’s impossible to go back and build it in retrospect. You don’t want to regret something you can’t go back and “have done”.

Furthermore, if you don’t leverage a piece of information by capturing it somewhere public, it cannot act on your behalf with scale. You will have to tell people one by one, instead of it showing up when they search for you (or the topic.)

Short notes, on a regular basis (that read nothing like a press release) can go a long way. Publicly capture the breadcrumb trail so it’s where when you need it.

Here’s a fantastic recent example from Paul Smith at Ricochet — publishing the latest user metrics for their app while still in beta. Five minutes work to take data they are tracking anyway and leave a little public essence for their narrative to pick up later.

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When doing media training, I’ve often pointed out to startups that just as they have a multi-year product strategy, so they should have a multi-year media strategy. (And it might not involve lots of press releases.)
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The problems with risk assessment tools • The New York Times

Chelsea Barabas, Karthik Dinakar and Colin Doyle:

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Algorithmic risk assessments are touted as being more objective and accurate than judges in predicting future violence. Across the political spectrum, these tools have become the darling of bail reform. But their success rests on the hope that risk assessments can be a valuable course corrector for judges’ faulty human intuition.

When it comes to predicting violence, risk assessments offer more magical thinking than helpful forecasting. We and other researchers have written a statement about the fundamental technical flaws with these tools.

Risk assessments are virtually useless for identifying who will commit violence if released pretrial. Consider the pre-eminent risk assessment tool on the market today, the Public Safety Assessment, or P.S.A., adopted in New Jersey, Kentucky and various counties across the country. In these jurisdictions, the P.S.A. assesses every person accused of a crime and flags them as either at risk for “new violent criminal activity” or not. A judge sees whether the person has been flagged for violence and, depending on the jurisdiction, may receive an automatic recommendation to release or detain.

Risk assessments’ simple labels obscure the deep uncertainty of their actual predictions. Largely because pretrial violence is so rare, it is virtually impossible for any statistical model to identify people who are more likely than not to commit a violent crime.

The P.S.A. predicts that 92% of the people that the algorithm flags for pretrial violence will not get arrested for a violent crime. The fact is, a vast majority of even the highest-risk individuals will not commit a violent crime while awaiting trial.

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The trio of authors are experts in the topic, based at MIT and Harvard, and note that “There are more legally innocent people behind bars in America today than there were convicted people in jails and prisons in 1980.”
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Scientists frown at technology’s ability to read facial expressions • The Times

Mark Bridge:

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Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Massachusetts and lead author of the paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, said: “People scowl when angry, on average, approximately 25% of the time, but they move their faces in other meaningful ways when angry.

“They might cry, or smile, or widen their eyes and gasp. And they also scowl when not angry, such as when they are concentrating. Similarly, most smiles don’t imply a person is happy.”

The team said this was significant while companies and nations are investing in technology to predict feelings, often for security or law-enforcement. “It is not possible to confidently infer happiness from a smile, anger from a scowl or sadness from a frown as much of technology tries to do when applying what are mistakenly believed to be the scientific facts,” they wrote.

Technology giants including Microsoft, IBM and Amazon have developed algorithms to infer emotions from faces in photos and videos. Such technology is expected to be used increasingly in policing and border control.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,121: Hong Kong’s facial fights, Huawei and Google’s smart speaker plans, Russia’s radiation leak, would Netflix add ads?, and more

  1. Re. Fortnite tournament. On the one hand it’s a bit shocking to see people that young make that much money for something that useless and that specialized. On the other hand, that’s the same as all spectator sports, and this one might be less harmful than anything “contact”, more fair with players considered Pro and getting money w/o a high-school/college slave phase, and possibly with a longer career.
    Bound to make arguing with The Teen about laying off the console even more fun though.

  2. China and India smartphone stats are trickling in. Apart from Huawei’s China- based resilience, the salient fact is how concentrated those markets are becoming, especially once you wrap Oppo Vivo OnePlus and Realme into their BBK parent. “Others” ( ie not Huawei Xiaomi BBK Samsung Apple) dropped 30-50%, to 8 and 4% (China and India) and that’s before counting 1% for OnePlus.
    I’m wondering at what point concentration restores some pricing power to OEMs. Looking at what they’re doing right now, Xiaomi and BBK are trying to move existing users upmarket, but are not rising prices nor gimping specs at the low end. Huawei was trying that a bit before The Troubles, but on the other hand Samsung’s midrange has been getting better.
    This is getting boring. Especially with the recent competitive focus (ah!) on megapixel count, which does mostly nothing for picture quality. The Redmi Note 7’s 48mpx shooter will mostly take worse real-life pics than the 5’s 12 mpx.

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