Start Up No.1,130: the trouble with email, FTC slams Unroll.me, Skype translators may hear your calls, YouTube’s CEO speaks, and more


Some people “aged” over 100 actually aren’t – it’s just that birth records were a mess. CC-licensed photo by Kevin Dooley on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Reboot! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Was email a mistake? • The New Yorker

Cal Newport:

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Anyone who works in a standard office environment has firsthand experience with the problems that followed the enthusiastic embrace of asynchronous communication. As the distributed-system theorists discovered, shifting away from synchronous interaction makes coördination more complex. The dream of replacing the quick phone call with an even quicker e-mail message didn’t come to fruition; instead, what once could have been resolved in a few minutes on the phone now takes a dozen back-and-forth messages to sort out. With larger groups of people, this increased complexity becomes even more notable. Is an unresponsive colleague just delayed, or is she completely checked out? When has consensus been reached in a group e-mail exchange? Are you, the e-mail recipient, required to respond, or can you stay silent without holding up the decision-making process? Was your point properly understood, or do you now need to clarify with a follow-up message? Office workers pondering these puzzles—the real-life analogues of the theory of distributed systems—now dedicate an increasing amount of time to managing a growing number of never-ending interactions.

Last year, the software company RescueTime gathered and aggregated anonymized computer-usage logs from tens of thousands of people. When its data scientists crunched the numbers, they found that, on average, users were checking e-mail or instant-messenger services like Slack once every six minutes. Not long before, a team led by Gloria Mark, the U.C. Irvine professor, had installed similar logging software on the computers of employees at a large corporation; the study found that the employees checked their in-boxes an average of seventy-seven times a day. Although we shifted toward asynchronous communication so that we could stop wasting time playing phone tag or arranging meetings, communicating in the workplace had become more onerous than it used to be. Work has become something we do in the small slivers of time that remain amid our Sisyphean skirmishes with our in-boxes.

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The more email you get, the less work you do.
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Operator of email management service Unroll.me settles FTC allegations that it deceived consumers • Federal Trade Commission

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An email management company will be required to delete personal information it collected from consumers as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that the company deceived some consumers about how it accesses and uses their personal emails.

In a complaint, the FTC alleges that Unrollme Inc., falsely told consumers that it would not “touch” their personal emails, when in fact it was sharing the users’ email receipts (e-receipts) with its parent company, Slice Technologies, Inc.

E-receipts are emails sent to consumers following a completed transaction and can include, among other things, the user’s name, billing and shipping addresses, and information about products or services purchased by the consumer. Slice uses anonymous purchase information from Unrollme users’ e-receipts in the market research analytics products it sells.

Unrollme helps users unsubscribe from unwanted subscription emails and consolidates wanted email subscriptions into one daily email called the Rollup. The service requires users to provide Unrollme with access to their email accounts.

“What companies say about privacy matters to consumers,” said Andrew Smith, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It is unacceptable for companies to make false statements about whether they collect information from personal emails.”

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Pity there isn’t a fine too. Unroll.me “closed” to EU customers back in May 2018 because it couldn’t comply with GDPR; and had been discovered in early 2017 selling its data to Uber and others. (The CEO’s mea culpa from April 2017, which I linked to here, has mysteriously vanished from the company blog, which is filled instead with utter pap, and it doesn’t seem to figure in the retrospective. I did some digging on the Waybaack Machine: it was removed from the blog some time between mid-July and early August of 2018.)
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February 2013: Why email spam is on the decline • Fortune

Dan Mitchell, in February 2013:

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Those weird little ads on the right side of your Facebook page—the ones depicting ugly shoes or pitching iffy continuing education degrees—are partly the result of the changing economics of both spam and online advertising in general.

Email spam became a huge business—and a huge problem for both Internet users and network managers—because marginal costs are near zero. Once a sleazy pitch for gray-market Viagra or a porn site is written, the additional cost of each spam message sent is almost nothing. Sending out millions of emails doesn’t cost much more than sending out just one. Very few people fall for the usually scammy offers, so sending them in bulk is necessary to actually snag paying customers.

But improvements to spam-blocking technologies, together with ever-cheaper “legit” advertising have worked to decrease email spam, according to a report from Kaspersky Lab, a maker of antivirus software. “With the emergence of Web 2.0,” the report states, “advertising opportunities on the Internet have skyrocketed: banners, context-based advertising, and ads on social networks and blogs.”

The percentage of email identified as spam is still huge—72.1% in 2012, according to the report. But it’s been dropping every year recently, and is the lowest it’s been in five years.

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Wonder how this looks now. Facebook is definitely not too troubled about who advertises there; it’s only if they have huge problems – such as some cryptocurrency ads – that they block them. Statista, meanwhile, has some stats saying that spam now is about 56% of email.
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Revealed: Microsoft contractors are listening to some Skype calls • VICE

Joseph Cox:

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Contractors working for Microsoft are listening to personal conversations of Skype users conducted through the app’s translation service, according to a cache of internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings obtained by Motherboard. Although Skype’s website says that the company may analyze audio of phone calls that a user wants to translate in order to improve the chat platform’s services, it does not say some of this analysis will be done by humans.

The Skype audio obtained by Motherboard includes conversations from people talking intimately to loved ones, some chatting about personal issues such as their weight loss, and others seemingly discussing relationship problems. Other files obtained by Motherboard show that Microsoft contractors are also listening to voice commands that users speak to Cortana, the company’s voice assistant…

…”The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” a Microsoft contractor who provided the cache of files to Motherboard said. Motherboard granted the source anonymity to speak more candidly about internal Microsoft practices, and because the person is under a non-disclosure agreement with the company.

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At this rate we’re going to find out that everything involving voice has a chance of being listened to by a human at some point. And Microsoft will get whacked by the European data protection agencies for such slack practices.
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Study: many of the “oldest” people in the world may not be as old as we think • Vox

Kelsey Piper:

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We’ve long been obsessed with the super-elderly. How do some people make it to 100 or even 110 years old? Why do some regions — say, Sardinia, Italy, or Okinawa, Japan —produce dozens of these “supercentenarians” while other regions produce none? Is it genetics? Diet? Environmental factors? Long walks at dawn?

A new working paper released on bioRxiv, the open access site for prepublication biology papers, appears to have cleared up the mystery once and for all: It’s none of the above.

Instead, it looks like the majority of the supercentenarians (people who’ve reached the age of 110) in the United States are engaged in — intentional or unintentional — exaggeration.

The paper, by Saul Justin Newman of the Biological Data Science Institute at Australian National University, looked at something we often don’t give a second thought to: the state of official record-keeping.

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As the article (and paper) also shows, all the other places – Italy, Japan – with “supercentenarians” tend to have lousy records too.
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YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki: ‘Where’s the line of free speech – are you removing voices that should be heard?’ • The Guardian

Emine Saner:

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For all her careful, frustratingly corporate answers, Wojcicki is in an almost impossible position. Aside from the gargantuan task of trying to sift through the never-ending torrent of content, she has to contend with the fact that removing far-right commentators’ videos turns them into free-speech martyrs. She also has to keep “creators”, many of whom make a handsome living through the site, happy. I have no reason to disbelieve Wojcicki when she says “responsibility has been my number one priority”. The question is whether it is a task beyond her – and whether Google will tolerate changes that result in lower profits…

…Does she have time for anything else? “I like to garden,” she says. “I like animals.” She has chickens and goats. “I like to grow things. I love getting away by doing something completely different from technology, whether it’s learning about bees and having honey, or learning about different types of chickens, or varieties of fruit.” It sounds lovely, I say. She visibly relaxes and says: “It is.”

The day before we meet, the tech site Gizmodo publishes a piece on how extremist channels remain on YouTube, despite the new policies. In the face of fairly constant criticism, does Wojcicki ever feel like walking away? “No, I don’t. Because I feel a commitment to solving these challenges,” she says. “I care about the legacy that we leave and about how history will view this point in time. Here’s this new technology, we’ve enabled all these new voices. What did we do? Did we decide to shut it down and say only a small set of people will have their voice? Who will decide that, and how will it be decided? Or do we find a way to enable all these different voices and perspectives, but find a way to manage the abuse of it? I’m focused on making sure we can manage the challenges of having an open platform in a responsible way.”

Still, it is hard to resist picturing Wojcicki in her garden on a day off, attempting to nurture something beautiful while holding back the unstoppable force of weeds that just keep coming.

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Trump’s racist tweets: is the media part of the problem? • Vox

Ezra Klein:

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Let me start by being transparent about my own thinking. When I choose to cover racist comments like the ones Trump made, my implicit rationale for focusing on that story rather than anything else is something like this: It is newsworthy that the president of the United States is an unreconstructed racist. It is important that the public knows he is an unreconstructed racist. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

But as the media scholar Whitney Phillips has argued, the problem lurks inside the metaphor. Sunlight isn’t only, or even mainly, a disinfectant. What sunlight mostly does is help things grow. When Trump says of his racist arguments that “many people agree with me,” I agree with him. I believe, as many do, that there’s a lot of racism in America, and that one reason we don’t see more of it is it’s held in check by social opprobrium.

What I fear Trump is doing, with the media — including, at times, me — as his accomplice, is suffusing one of the hardiest weeds in American life with sunlight. These controversies are a constant signal to racists. They say, in short: You are not alone. You do not have to hide. You have powerful allies.

Phillips, whom I discussed this with on my podcast, argues that the “sunlight” metaphor has led the media astray. She prefers an ecological metaphor, where journalists are one of many groups trying to maintain the health of a public ecosystem. In this frame, some of what we cover is best understood as pollution — perhaps an inevitable byproduct of the ecosystem, but not something we want to disproportionately dump into the waterways.

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That’s a terrific, and much better, metaphor for what the media does with Trump. Stop polluting the airwaves is a much better call to arms.
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Video games don’t cause mass shootings. But gamer culture encourages hate • The Washington Post

Brianna Wu:

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Why are so many gamers angry and isolated? I often ask myself this question, because game developers are generally friendly and social people, as are the journalists who cover us. Yet our industry’s corrosive ideas about manhood and power bleed into too many of the products we ship. We’ve told one kind of player that they are the center of the universe, and we’ve catered to their every whim for 30 years. Consider the default video game protagonist: white, male and with a gun in hand as the solution to every problem. Meanwhile, in games from Smash TV to Super Mario, the default female character functions as a reward at the end of the adventure. Now that players are becoming more diverse, these tropes feel dated. But rather than change with the times, some revanchist players feel like their culture is being stolen — a sense of aggrieved resentment that will seem familiar to anyone who’s watched a Trump rally.

You can see all of this in our virtual worlds. In the Western action game “Red Dead Online,” for example, black players have reported being called the n-word by other gamers, their virtual avatars being hanged from cliffs in mock lynchings. One player has even built a YouTube following by recording taboo scenarios that he claims viewers want him to “test,” like whether it’s possible to feed a feminist character to an alligator. (It is.)

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“A gun in hand as the solution to every problem” is, in many ways, the defining American trope: it’s the founding myth of how the country was conquered, its inhabitants displaced, its slaves subjugated. Wu has hit on a key point. What’s different is that the US hasn’t recognised that it has no new lands to conquer.
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Atlanta appears to lead nation in e-scooter fatalities • Curbed Atlanta

Sean Keenan:

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according to industry observers and our research, Atlanta appears to be the only U.S. city to have seen at least three e-scooter riders die on its streets—four now, if including the recent death of a man run over while riding in nearby East Point, just south of downtown.

E-scooters have operated on Atlanta streets since May 2018, but all fatalities have occurred in the past three months.

Atlanta Bicycle Coalition leader Rebecca Serna told Curbed Atlanta that even one e-scooter-related death is unacceptable.

But what many people—city officials included—appear to be overlooking, she said, is that automobiles are far more deadly than any alternative mode of transportation.

“Having the context that 115 people died in one year of car crashes in Fulton County and 95 in DeKalb puts things in perspective,” she said. “Even one [death] is too many, but let’s recognize that our streets are unsafe for everyone, not just for scooters.”

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Well, OK, that’s fair context.
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Samsung is spamming Galaxy phones with multiple Note10 ads • Android Police

Corbin Davenport:

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Samsung is once again spamming Galaxy phones with advertisements, this time for the Note10.

This time around, push notifications advertising the Note10 are being sent out by at least three pre-installed applications — Samsung Pay, Bixby, and the Samsung Push Service. Bixby wants you to ask it about the Note10, Samsung Pay is offering points when you look at the phone’s product page, and Samsung Push Service just gives you a banner ad with no indication of where it came from. I received the Bixby ad on my international Galaxy S10e, but I haven’t personally seen the others.

To make matters even worse, Samsung has blocked disabling these alerts by holding down on them, at least for the Bixby app (again, I can’t verify the other types of alerts). To disable the Bixby notifications, you have to open Bixby, tap the menu icon at the top-right, select Settings, and set ‘Marketing notifications’ to off.

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“Marketing notifications” are a thing? That’s amazing. But of course nothing stands in the way of the rapacious desire of big corporations to Sell You Stuff.
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Google employees weighed free speech concerns before 2016 elections • CNBC

Jennifer Elias:

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In the 2016 [internal email] thread, titled “More political censorship and witch hunts in tech,” workers debated YouTube’s efforts to curb violent content.

YouTube has been under fire for failing to moderate widespread extremism content and misinformation. YouTube also recently faced backlash for its vague policies, including when it suspended the monetization of a popular conservative user Steven Crowder hours after defending him. Soon after, the company updated its policies by banning content that displays supremacy, but critics continue asking CEO Susan Wojcicki for more specifics on moderation efforts.

In the 2016 email thread, employees discussed a company effort called YouTube Heroes, a program where YouTube community members could sign up to act as additional mediators to flag content.

One employee noted that Heroes had been publicly criticized for enabling censorship, but others disagreed, saying that Heroes was simply a way to “scale up” moderation efforts without hiring more moderators…

…Perhaps most notably, in a precursor to the current fierce debates over conservative censorship within the company, one wrote, “I just hope the alt- right isn’t taking an innocent concept like free speech and perverting it for their own ends.”

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Gosh, who would imagine that they might do that.
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How a Norwegian Viking comedy producer hacked Netflix’s algorithm • Hollywood Reporter

Scott Roxborough:

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Netflix had given [“Norsemen” showrunner Anders] Tangen an Aug. 18, 2017, date for the premiere of Norsemen in its English-language territories (the show shot back-to-back versions in Norwegian and English). Three weeks before launch, he set up a campaign on Facebook, paying for targeted posts and Facebook promotions. The posts were fairly simple — most included one of six short (20- to 25-second) clips of the show and a link, either to the show’s webpage or to media coverage.

They used so-called A/B testing — showing two versions of a campaign to different audiences and selecting the most successful — to fine-tune. The U.S. campaign didn’t cost much — $18,500, which Tangen and his production partners put up themselves — and it was extremely precise. Tangen focused the initial campaign in and around major US cities (L.A., New York, Miami, Chicago) with additional pushes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota, three states with large ethnic Norwegian populations. He broke potential Norsemen fans down into seven separate target groups, with each getting its own tailored Facebook campaign.

In just 28 days, the Norsemen campaign reached 5.5 million Facebook users, generating 2 million video views and some 6,000 followers for the show. Netflix noticed. “Three weeks after we launched, Netflix called me: ‘You need to come to L.A., your show is exploding,'” Tangen recalls.

Netflix’s algorithm had started to kick in.

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Neat. And now everyone is going to do this (if they aren’t already – the show aired two years ago, it seems).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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