Start Up No.1,133: WeWork’s dodgy loans, why NULL is a bad number, Google looks for plagiarism, the trouble with log graphs, and more


Not Egypt’s pyramids; it’s indium selenide atop epitaxial graphene. The latter could make your phone battery better. CC-licensed photo by Penn State on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. One more before the holiday. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

WeWork gave founder loans as it paid him rent, IPO filing shows • Bloomberg

Ellen Huet:

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The [WeWork] IPO filing details many more instances and indicates that Neumann, who chairs the company’s all-male board, remains the central figure at WeWork. The name Adam appears 169 times in the financial prospectus, far more than any other. The company wrote in the filing that it provided the disclosures to “avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest.” A spokesman for WeWork declined to comment.

In 2016, Neumann borrowed $7m from WeWork at a generous annual interest rate of 0.64%. Neumann paid it back early, in November 2017, with about $100,000 in interest. It was one of several times Neumann borrowed company money. “From time to time over the past several years, we made loans directly to Adam or his affiliated entities,” WeWork wrote in the filing.

Neumann took out a much bigger loan from WeWork a few months ago. The company lent him $362m in April at 2.89% interest to help him exercise options to buy stock. This month, Neumann repaid the debt by surrendering the shares back to the company. It’s not clear from the filing why these transactions happened.

The business is, in some respects, a family affair. Rebekah Neumann, the CEO’s wife and a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow, is listed as a founder, chief brand and impact officer of WeWork and founder and CEO of WeGrow, a corporate project to build and run private elementary schools. She was also among those behind a proposal this summer to hire Martin Scorsese to direct promotional videos for WeWork, Bloomberg reported last week.

Avi Yehiel, Neumann’s brother-in-law and a former professional soccer player in Israel, has served as WeWork’s head of wellness since 2017. He receives a salary of less than $200,000, according to the prospectus. WeWork hired another one of Neumann’s immediate family members to host eight events last year for a total of less than $200,000, the filing said. The events coincided with the Creator Awards, a live pitch competition with celebrity judges hosted by WeWork.

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It’s a disaster that’s not even waiting to happen – it lost $900m in the first six months of this year on (doubled) revenues of $1.54bn.
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A new way to help students turn in their best work • Google Blog

Brian Hendricks, product manager for Google Suite for Education:

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Today’s students face a tricky challenge: In an age when they can explore every idea imaginable on the internet, how do they balance outside inspiration with authenticity in their own work? Students have to learn to navigate the line between other people’s ideas and their own, and how and when to properly cite sources.
We’ve heard from instructors that they copy and paste passages into Google Search to check if student work is authentic, which can be repetitive, inefficient and biased. They also often spend a lot of time giving feedback about missed citations and improper paraphrasing. By integrating the power of Search into our assignment and grading tools, we can make this quicker and easier. 

That’s why Google is introducing originality reports. This new feature—with several reports included free in every course—will be part of Classroom and Assignments, which was also announced today. We create originality reports by scanning student work for matched phrases across hundreds of billions of web pages and tens of millions of books. 

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My initial reaction was that this is totally depressing – that you’re forced to twiddle words around so they’re desperately different from what you found in a book, and even then you might fall afoul of a book or paper you’ve never actually read, because how many ways are there to frame some sentences? Maybe the reality will be better. Maybe the teachers should have to take it too.
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Google’s algorithm for detecting hate speech is racially biased • MIT Technology Review

Charlotte Jee:

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Researchers built two AI systems and tested them on a pair of data sets of more than 100,000 tweets that had been annotated by humans with labels like “offensive,” “none,” or “hate speech.” One of the algorithms incorrectly flagged 46% of inoffensive tweets by African-American authors as offensive. Tests on bigger data sets, including one composed of 5.4 million tweets, found that posts by African-American authors were 1.5 times more likely to be labeled as offensive. When the researchers then tested Google’s Perspective, an AI tool that the company lets anyone use to moderate online discussions, they found similar racial biases.

A hard balance to strike: Mass shootings perpetrated by white supremacists in the US and New Zealand have led to growing calls from politicians for social-media platforms to do more to weed out hate speech. These studies underline just how complicated a task that is. Whether language is offensive can depend on who’s saying it, and who’s hearing it. For example, a black person using the “N word” is very different from a white person using it. But AI systems do not, and currently cannot, understand that nuance.

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That’s weird. Like, really weird. Unless the corpus had a ton of seriously offensive tweets.
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UK advertising watchdog upholds complaints against BitMEX bitcoin promotion • Yahoo News

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The U.K. Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld complaints over a bitcoin ad placed by crypto derivatives exchange BitMEX (HDR Global Trading).

The advertising regulator published its decision on Wednesday, saying that it supported the four complaints against the ad that had claimed it “failed to illustrate the risk of the investment,” “exaggerated the return on the investment” and “challenged whether it was misleading.”

…In its ruling, the watchdog pointed out that the graph “used a logarithmic scale on its y-axis which meant that the equally spaced values on that scale did not increase by the same amount each time and instead increased by orders of magnitude.”

While it acknowledged that log graphs can be “a valid and useful way of presenting data,” the agency said that interpreting the graph would need some specialist knowledge of the topic and that, without an accompanying explanation, the graph “was unlikely to be familiar or readily understandable to the national newspaper audience to whom the ad was directed.”

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Logarithmic graphs considered harmful. Agree.
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Netflix’s biggest bingers get hit with higher internet costs • Los Angeles Times

Gerry Smith:

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James Wright had never worried about staying under his data cap.

Then he bought a 4K TV set and started binge-watching Netflix in ultra-high definition. The picture quality was impressive, but it gobbled up so much bandwidth that his internet service provider, Comcast Corp., warned that he had exceeded his monthly data limit and would need to pay more.

“The first month I blew through the cap like it was nothing,” said Wright, 50, who lives with his wife in Memphis, Tenn. With a 4K TV, he said, “It’s not as hard to go through as you’d think.”

All that bingeing and ultra-HD video can carry a high price tag. As online viewing grows, more subscribers are having to pay up for faster speeds. Even then, they can run into data limits and overage fees. Some opt for an unlimited plan that can double the average $52-a-month internet bill.

Wright is what the cable industry calls a power user — someone who chews through 1 terabyte of data or more each month. Though still rare, the number of power users has doubled in the past year as more families stream TV shows, movies and video games online. They should continue to grow as new video services from Walt Disney Co., AT+T, Apple and NBCUniversal arrive in coming months.

In the first quarter of this year, about 4% of internet subscribers consumed at least 1 terabyte of data — the limit imposed by companies such as Comcast, AT&T and Cox Communications Inc. That’s up from 2% a year ago, according to OpenVault, which tracks internet data usage among cable subscribers in the US and Europe.

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What’s amazing is that the cable executives are even surprised by this. But of course they’re going to gouge people for it.
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Google in jobs search dispute • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee and Paresh Dave:

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Google’s fast-growing tool for searching job listings has been a boon for employers and job boards starving for candidates, but several rival job-finding services contend anti-competitive behaviour has fuelled its rise and cost them users and profits.

In a letter to be sent to EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager and seen by Reuters, 23 job search websites in Europe called on her to temporarily order Google to stop playing unfairly while she investigates. Similar to worldwide leader Indeed and other search services familiar to job seekers, Google’s tool links to postings aggregated from many employers. It lets candidates filter, save and get alerts about openings, though they must go elsewhere to apply.

Google places a large widget for the two-year-old tool at the top of results for searches such as “call-centre jobs” in most of the world.

Some rivals allege that positioning is illegal because Google is using its dominance to attract users to its specialised search offering without the traditional marketing investments they have to make.

Other job technology firms say Google has restored industry innovation and competition.

The tensions expose a new front in the battle between Google and online publishers reliant on search traffic, just as EU and US competition regulators heed calls to scrutinise tech giants including Google…

…Lack of action could spur the signatories, which include British site Best Jobs Online to German peers Intermedia and Jobindex, to follow with formal complaints against Google to Vestager, a person familiar with the matter said.

Berlin-based StepStone, which operates 30 job websites globally, and another German search service already have taken that step, another source said.

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Same as so many others: Google scrapes the sites and then re-presents the information, but to its own advantage.
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He tried to prank the DMV. Then his vanity license plate backfired big time • Mashable

Jack Morse:

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Everyone hates parking tickets. Not everyone, however, is an information security researcher with a mischievous side and a freshly minted vanity license plate reading “NULL.”

That would be Droogie (his handle, if that’s not obvious), a presenter at this year’s DEF CON hacking conference in Las Vegas and man with a very specific problem: He’s on the receiving end of thousands of dollars worth of tickets that aren’t his. But don’t tell that to the DMV.

It wasn’t, of course, supposed to end up this way. In fact, exactly the opposite. Droogie registered a vanity California license plate consisting solely of the word “NULL” —  which in programming is a term for no specific value — for fun. And, he admitted to laughs, on the off chance it would confuse automatic license plate readers and the DMV’s ticketing system. 

“I was like, ‘I’m the shit,'” he joked to the crowd. “‘I’m gonna be invisible.’ Instead, I got all the tickets.”

Things didn’t go south immediately. As Droogie explained, he’s a cautious driver and didn’t get any tickets for the first year he owned the vanity plate. Then he went to reregister his tags online, and, when prompted to input his license plate, broke the DMV webpage. 

It seemed the DMV site didn’t recognize the plate “NULL” as an actual input. 

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It’s a real-world version of little Bobby Drop Tables.
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Major breach found in biometrics system used by banks, UK police and defence firms • The Guardian

Josh Taylor:

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The fingerprints of over 1 million people, as well as facial recognition information, unencrypted usernames and passwords, and personal information of employees, was discovered on a publicly accessible database for a company used by the likes of the UK Metropolitan police, defence contractors and banks.

Suprema is the security company responsible for the web-based Biostar 2 biometrics lock system that allows centralised control for access to secure facilities like warehouses or office buildings. Biostar 2 uses fingerprints and facial recognition as part of its means of identifying people attempting to gain access to buildings.

Last month, Suprema announced its Biostar 2 platform was integrated into another access control system – AEOS. AEOS is used by 5,700 organisations in 83 countries, including governments, banks and the UK Metropolitan police.

The Israeli security researchers Noam Rotem and Ran Locar working with vpnmentor, a service that reviews virtual private network services, have been running a side project to scans ports looking for familiar IP blocks, and then use these blocks to find holes in companies’ systems that could potentially lead to data breaches.

In a search last week, the researchers found Biostar 2’s database was unprotected and mostly unencrypted. They were able to search the database by manipulating the URL search criteria in Elasticsearch to gain access to data.

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Not clear how you could use the fingerprints, though.
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Inverted yield curve rattles investors wary of dying stock bull market • Reuters

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A closely watched section of the US yield curve inverted on Wednesday for the first time in over 12 years, rattling investors already worried that a US-China trade war might trigger a global recession and kill off a decade-long bull market on Wall Street.

The yield on the US 10-year Treasury note tipped 1.4 basis points below 2-year Treasury yields, the first time this spread has been negative since 2007, which was the end of a trend of negative yield curves that started in 2005, according to Refinitiv data.

A yield curve typically has an upward slope — when the yields are plotted on a graph — because investors expect greater compensation for the risk of owning longer-maturity debt. An inversion, when shorter-dated yields are higher than longer-dated ones, is considered a warning of a looming recession.

With inverted yield curves widely viewed on Wall Street as a major danger signal for the economy, Bank of America Merrill Lynch warned this week that Wall Street’s decade-long rally is also under threat.

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Just to explain: if you get a better rate for loaning the government your money for two years rather than 10, it implies that something’s going to go bad in between. A yield curve inversion has preceded recession by about 15 months since 1978 (range 10-22 months).
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Huawei technicians helped African governments spy on political opponents • WSJ

Joe Parkinson, Nicholas Bariyo and Josh Chin:

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According to these officials, the team, based on the third floor of the [Ugandan] capital’s police headquarters, spent days trying to penetrate [opposition leader Bobi] Wine’s WhatsApp and Skype communications using spyware developed by an Israeli company, but failed. Then they asked for help from the staff working in their offices from Huawei, Uganda’s top digital supplier.

“The Huawei technicians worked for two days and helped us puncture through,” said one senior officer at the surveillance unit. The Huawei engineers, identified by name in internal police documents reviewed by the Journal, used the Israeli-made spyware to penetrate Mr. Wine’s WhatsApp chat group, named Firebase crew after his band. Authorities scuppered his plans to organize street rallies and arrested the politician and dozens of his supporters.

The incident in Uganda and another in Zambia, as detailed in a Wall Street Journal investigation, show how Huawei employees have used the company’s technology and other companies’ products to support the domestic spying of those governments.

Since 2012 the US government has accused Huawei—the world’s largest maker of telecom equipment and second largest manufacturer of smartphones—of being a potential tool for the Chinese government to spy abroad, after decades of alleged corporate espionage by state-backed Chinese actors. Huawei has forcefully denied those charges.

The Journal investigation didn’t turn up evidence of spying by or on behalf of Beijing in Africa. Nor did it find that Huawei executives in China knew of, directed or approved the activities described. It also didn’t find that there was something particular about the technology in Huawei’s network that made such activities possible.

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Samsung phone with graphene battery coming by 2021? • SamMobile

“Abhijeet M”:

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Samsung is reportedly hoping to have “at least one handset either next year or in 2021” with a graphene battery instead of a lithium-ion battery. Yes, many of you are probably shaking your head right now, as we have been hearing about graphene batteries becoming a viable solution for smartphones for years at this point. And the latest rumor, courtesy of leakster Evan Blass (aka evleaks), suggests that there is still a couple of years to go before we see a phone powered by a graphene battery.

Last year, rumors of Samsung being close to using graphene batteries in smartphones started floating around on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, but as we all know, no such device has made its way to market yet. Why are graphene batteries so important? Well, thanks to a material Samsung calls “graphene ball”, graphene batteries can charge up to five times faster than lithium-ion batteries. The material can also increase battery capacities by 45%, and these batteries can also handle higher temperatures.

All of those benefits would be right at home on smartphones, especially as manufacturers continue to insist on making their phones as thin as possible.

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Graphene for the cathode has been suggested as offering huge improvements for some years now. But it’s definitely getting closer to full-scale manufacturing implementation.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,133: WeWork’s dodgy loans, why NULL is a bad number, Google looks for plagiarism, the trouble with log graphs, and more

  1. I wonder why I haven’t heard of graphene for car batteries? (Usually the next leg of technology is solid state but still lithium based). High temperatures too high maybe? Or the re-charging tails off too quickly (if you’re keeping a battery for 10 years it has to be way more reliable than one that gets replaced at 2 years).

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