Start Up No.1,126: Europe heated by climate crisis, the games company that wasn’t, VR market shrinks, Huawei readies its OS, and more


Just one example of the sort of image you don’t see on Google’s Recaptcha. But why not? CC-licensed photo by Michael Fleming on Flickr.

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

Climate change made European heatwave up to 3°C hotter • Nature

Quirin Schiermeier:

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The extreme heatwave that caused record temperatures last week across western Europe was made more likely — and severe — by human-induced climate change.

In France and the Netherlands, where temperatures rose above 40°C, climate change made such a heat spell at least 10 times — and possibly 100 times — more likely to occur than a century or so ago. The findings come from a rapid analysis by scientists with the World Weather Attribution group that combined information from models and observations.

In the United Kingdom and Germany, climate change made last week’s event five to ten times more likely, the group found. And in all locations, observed temperatures were 1.5–3°C hotter than in a scenario in which the climate was unaltered by human activity.

The group has analysed six European heat waves since 2010 — including the one that occurred in late June — and has found that each one has been made significantly more likely and intense because of climate change.

Meanwhile, the latest European heat wave has moved to Greenland, where it is causing unprecedented surface melting of the thick ice sheet that covers most of the island.

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There is no evil like reCAPTCHA (v3) • Stoicism & Me

Nils Gronkjaer:

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Now?

THE AVERAGE TIME IS OVER 30 SECONDS!

But don’t for one second think that it has anything to do with some increasing level of complexity in the war against bots. No no no. How long it takes to now solve these things has increased due to completely deliberate and specific choices that Google has made in reCAPTCHA v3.

I’m talking about why, despite you being a completely normal human being of sound deductive capability. You… just… keep… FAILING these things!

So why… whyyyy does this happen? It isn’t because you are in fact a dunce who cannot count up to 3 or cannot tell how many buses or traffic lights there are in a few blurry photos and it also isn’t because you don’t know what a fire hydrant looks like. The reason that people fail reCAPTCHA v3 prompts so consistently now is because Google realised there was no punishment to forcing people to solve more of these ‘human verification puzzles’ and only more to gain by forcing (yes it IS forcing) people to train their AI for free.

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Got to agree that it seems like one ends up doing a lot more of these screens than in the past. All for the good of Waymo’s self-driving cars, it seems. They’re never “click the pictures with rivers” or “click the pictures with waterskiers”.
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How over 25 people got scammed into working at a nonexistent game company • Kotaku

Cecilia D’Anastasio:

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“Professionally inexperienced but passionate team manager looking for a hobby project to help support and manage,” [Brooke Holden] posted to a subreddit for assembling game dev teams. It was just a lark, yet a half dozen replies accumulated under the post. One in particular stood out, from an account with an active Reddit history on developer recruitment boards. The poster’s name was “Kova,” and he told Holden that his small team of three developers had recently ballooned into a 48-member operation that needed a manager “on everyone’s ass.”

Holden was exhilarated. On June 22, 2019, she signed a contract with Kova’s company Drakore Studios, accepting the position of junior production manager at $13 per hour.

There was just one problem: Drakore Studios didn’t actually exist.

Over the course of a month and a half, “Kova,” real name Rana Mahal, convinced at least 25 people to join a game studio that was not a registered company, and develop a video game to which he did not own the rights, in exchange for no pay. Six of them came forward to tell their story to Kotaku.

The story they told was one of deceit, exploitation, incompetence, and hope, and one fueled by gamers’ desperation to participate in an industry that has stoked their imagination, lifted their mood and forged friendships since childhood. It was a story of a boss who constantly told aspiring developers that their paychecks were on the way and that investors were just about to sink tons of cash into the company’s coffers, and that his high-placed friends at major game development studios were advising him throughout the process. The reality was quite different, and when Drakore unraveled, it unraveled fast.

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Shady online marketers are selling links in articles on the New York Times, BBC, CNN, and other news sites • Buzzfeed News

Dean Sterling Jones:

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Forbes was the worst affected by this scheme. BuzzFeed News identified 15 articles that contained links that had been redirected to sites selling hospital supplies, hotel deals, and online payment services. In a statement, a Forbes spokesperson said the site has removed the redirected links and is “exploring options that will allow [the site] to test future redirects to ensure they are performing as intended.”

The New York Times and the Guardian acknowledged the issue after being contacted by BuzzFeed News, and both news sites said they were working on solutions.

BBC News has at least 10 articles with links that now redirect to sites advertising online gambling, free consultations with a Utah bankruptcy lawyer, and a privacy browser that circumvents China’s internet firewall. BBC’s press office did not return a request for comment. A disclaimer on the site states that the company “is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.” (The investigation did not identify anyone selling links from BuzzFeed or BuzzFeed News.)

Online marketers based in places such as India and Pakistan sell this service on Fiverr, an online marketplace rife with vendors pitching black hat SEO offerings. The link on the Hollywood Reporter obit was hijacked by a vendor with the handle “maryfarrow,” who currently charges up to $215 for backlinks on the New York Times, the Independent, and Mashable.

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Huawei’s Hongmeng OS could be revealed this week • The Verge

Sam Byford:

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Huawei will reportedly show off Hongmeng OS at its developer conference, which kicks off this week on Friday August 9th in Dongguan, China. Huawei executives have said that the software is primarily designed for IoT devices, though it will first come to Honor smart TVs, according to Reuters.

The report compares Hongmeng OS to Google’s long-in-the-works Fuchsia, which is similarly an experimental operating system that is designed to run on various form factors. Hongmeng OS is also said to be built around a microkernel so it can “better accommodate artificial intelligence and can run on multiple platforms.”

That said, the Global Times [a Chinese publication] also claims that a Hongmeng OS smartphone is very much in the works and already in the process of being tested. The first device could debut alongside Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro flagship later in the year, with a release date set for the fourth quarter. However, the phone is expected to target the low-to-mid-range segment, with pricing set at around 2,000 yuan (~$288).

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I bet there have been some Huawei engineers pulling some 24-hour shifts ahead of this one. And it’s going to carry on that way for some time.
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Sony captures a third of VR hardware revenues as market transitions to higher quality • Strategy Analytics

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In 2018 VR hardware revenues declined slightly to $1.8bn from $1.9bn in 2017. The decline in shipments was much more dramatic, shrinking over 50% from 31m units in 2017 to only 15m units in 2018. Driving these changes is the evaporation of the market for low cost VR headsets such as Google Cardboard, Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR.

David MacQueen, executive director of Strategy Analytics’ VAR (Virtual and Augmented Reality) research program noted the causes of this decline. “Brands and marketing agencies have transitioned budgets away from VR towards novel AR services such as Snapchat, so the giveaways of Cardboard headsets by brands such as the New York Times and McDonalds have halted. Samsung and other vendors have largely ceased bundling VR headsets with smartphone sales. However, our research shows that consumers who have tried VR really enjoy the experience, and are seeking out higher quality experiences with better headsets. The simple devices helped to drive demand, but their time is coming to an end. This is reflected in Google’s market share, which has dropped from a market-leading 21% in 2017 to 11% in 2018.”

“The real winners in 2018 and 2019 have come from the higher price tier, higher quality VR headset market segments, primarily those that are PC- or console-tethered. Sony’s PSVR headset is continuing to sell well, and its position as the leading hardware vendor will be helped by the news that the PS5 will support the headset, removing fears of compatibility issues with next generation consoles. HTC and Facebook continue to split the PC segment, which is expanding beyond consumer into enterprise markets, mainly around the design, training and education use cases. These segments will help drive growth in 2019 and beyond.”

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Is VR really just waiting for a killer app? I’m just not hearing the buzz about it. Does it need more drones offering a real-time first-person view, or something? I just don’t see it. If sales aren’t accelerating, it’s effectively done.
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Injecting yourself with dog insulin? Just a normal day in America • The Guardian

Alan MacLeod:

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The article [on the ESPN site about a mixed martial arts fighter] is a standard “triumph over adversity” piece until it casually notes in the 17th paragraph: “Williams doesn’t have medical insurance and cannot afford the treatment. So he buys insulin that’s sold for dogs at Walmart for $24.99 per bottle.”

It accepts without comment that insulin costs up to $470 a bottle and that Williams considers himself “super lucky” that somebody told him he could use the cheaper, animal-grade substitute. Super lucky?

This is a disturbing, but not uncommon, story in the US, where more than 1 million adults have type 1 diabetes and the cost of insulin, the drug that keeps them alive, rises exponentially year on year to the point where Americans must pay thousands of dollars a year simply to not die. Turning 26, the age when you are no longer eligible for cover on your parents’ health insurance, can be a death sentence for diabetics, who often also resort to reusing costly needles into oblivion to save money.

This is part of a deeper malaise in American healthcare where hospital bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy and one-third of all GoFundMe donations are for medical expenses. Increasingly, those who cannot afford health insurance are turning to fish antibiotics as cheaper alternatives to human ones, despite the health consequences. Unsurprisingly, a 2015 poll found healthcare was the public’s most pressing issue; Americans are more scared of getting sick than of a terrorist attack. Medicare for All is overwhelmingly popular as an answer to the crisis, with even a majority of Republican voters favoring the idea. But none of this was noted in the article, tacitly endorsing the idea of injecting dog insulin as normal, and not an indictment of the current system.

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It is true: you can almost always use “dog insulin” rather than the human form, because there’s essentially no difference. Doesn’t make it any less bad, though.
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March 2018: Reddit rises up against CEO for hiding Russian trolls • Daily Beast

Ben Collins:

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academic research specifically shows that banning disruptive Reddit subreddits that degrade the larger community can have a chilling effect on harassers on the rest of the platform.

Eshwar Chandrasekharan, a doctoral student at Georgia Tech, worked with two other researchers at Georgia Tech, plus researchers at Emory University and the University of Michigan, on “You Can’t Stay Here: The Efficacy of Reddit’s 2015 Ban Examined Through Hate Speech” in 2015.

Chandrasekharan, who had already been studying extremism in online communities, tracked Reddit’s ban of hate speech communities r/FatPeopleHate and r/Coontown in 2015. He determined that, after the ban, users didn’t move their racism or hate speech to other parts of the web, and some stopped participating in harassment entirely, rendering their accounts inactive.

“It creates a fear in their mind. If they do it again, they get banned,” Chandrasekharan told The Daily Beast. “In the new communities they go to, they are careful about this. Some stop doing this. There’s fear.”

Chavrasvkharan said that, while “it totally depends on what the userbase is” for a specific subreddit, Huffman’s comment that “banning (communities) probably won’t accomplish what you want” is not in line with the research.

“You can’t really state this unless you have some evidence that this is the case,” he said.

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In other words: closing these places down diminishes their ability to create a focus where they all egg each other on.
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Terminating service for 8Chan • CloudFlare

Matthew Prince is CEO of the hosting service:

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While removing 8chan from our network [because its lawless approach provides a focus for people who then go on to cause “multiple tragic deaths”] takes heat off of us, it does nothing to address why hateful sites fester online. It does nothing to address why mass shootings occur. It does nothing to address why portions of the population feel so disenchanted they turn to hate. In taking this action we’ve solved our own problem, but we haven’t solved the Internet’s.

In the two years since the Daily Stormer [was removed from CloudFlare’s network, yet still found a host on the internet] what we have done to try and solve the Internet’s deeper problem is engage with law enforcement and civil society organizations to try and find solutions. Among other things, that resulted in us cooperating around monitoring potential hate sites on our network and notifying law enforcement when there was content that contained an indication of potential violence. We will continue to work within the legal process to share information when we can to hopefully prevent horrific acts of violence. We believe this is our responsibility and, given Cloudflare’s scale and reach, we are hopeful we will continue to make progress toward solving the deeper problem.

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I think I might have a suggestions on the “why mass shootings occur”, and it’s to do with availability of deadly weapons. Less sure on the other ones.
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Facial recognition… coming to a supermarket near you • The Guardian

Tom Chivers:

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Facewatch is keen to say that it’s not a technology company – it’s a data management company. It provides management of the watch lists in what it says is compliance with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). If someone is seen shoplifting on camera or by a staff member, their image can be stored as an SOI [subject of interest]; if they are then seen in that shop again, the shop manager will get an alert. GDPR allows these watch lists to be shared in a “proportionate” way; so if you’re caught on camera like this once, it can be shared with other local Facewatch users. In London, says [CEO Nick] Fisher, that would be an eight-mile radius. If you’re seen stealing repeatedly in many different cities, it could proportionately be shared nationwide; if you’re never seen stealing again, your face is taken off the database after two years.

[Big Brother Watch director Silkie] Carlo is not reassured: she says that it involves placing a lot of trust in retail companies and their security staff to use this technology fairly. “We’re not talking about police but security staff who aren’t held to the same professional standards. They get stuff wrong all the time. What if they have an altercation [with a customer] or a grievance?” The SOI database system, she says, subverts our justice system. “How do you know if you’re on the watch list? You’re not guilty of anything, in the legal sense. If there’s proof that you’ve committed a crime, you need to go through the criminal justice system; otherwise we’re in a system of private policing. We’re entering the sphere of pre-crime.”

Fisher and Facewatch, though, argue that it is not so unlike the age-old practice of shops and bars having pictures up in the staff room of regular troublemakers. The difference, they say, is that it is not relying on untrained humans to spot those troublemakers, but a much more accurate system.

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Is it different from the no-fly list that the US government has operated for years, where there’s little or no recourse if you’re on it? Facewatch has been around for quite a while; maybe it’s finally hitting its stride.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,126: Europe heated by climate crisis, the games company that wasn’t, VR market shrinks, Huawei readies its OS, and more

  1. So much bad faith it’s irritating: mailchi.mp/ben-evans/benedicts-newsletter-no-299

    “Amazon will not pay any US federal income taxes this year. And? Objecting to this is a nice case of having your cake and eating it – in most countries, you can set losses in past years against current profits (‘tax losses’), which is very old and a basic way to encourage investment. If you don’t allow this, investment becomes more expensive, encouraging companies to, um, give them money back to shareholders in buyback instead… oh wait. So which do you want?”. Obv. the guy is a (venture, but is there any other kind) capitalist.

    Actually, Amazon (and Apple and Google etc) aren’t paying much in taxes because they’re abusing the (lack of an) international tax system to repatriate profits and added value to low-to-zero-tax countries via fake internal sales, dubious IP sales and then royalty payments to dummy subsidiaries, …

    Also, the money is not being invested nor even redistributed, but, for over $100b of it right now in the case of Goog and Appl, stored in banks.

    The actual question is “Which do you want, Apple now Google to have hundreds of billions in the bank from tax evasion, or good healthcare, schools, cops and public transport”.

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