Start Up No.1,142: Apple event roundup, chameleon inks, the coming US college collapse, Uber cuts jobs, and more


A simple experiment reveals that we don’t have free will – or wait, does it? CC-licensed photo by Brian Auer on Flickr.

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

Evolving “nofollow” – new ways to identify the nature of links • Official Google Webmaster Central Blog

Danny Sullivan and Gary Illyes:

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Nearly 15 years ago, the nofollow attribute was introduced as a means to help fight comment spam. It also quickly became one of Google’s recommended methods for flagging advertising-related or sponsored links. The web has evolved since nofollow was introduced in 2005 and it’s time for nofollow to evolve as well.

Today, we’re announcing two new link attributes that provide webmasters with additional ways to identify to Google Search the nature of particular links. These, along with nofollow, are summarized below:

rel=”sponsored”: Use the sponsored attribute to identify links on your site that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements.

rel=”ugc”: UGC stands for User Generated Content, and the ugc attribute value is recommended for links within user generated content, such as comments and forum posts.

rel=”nofollow”: Use this attribute for cases where you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.

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Bet there are going to be lots of requests to sites which have sold links to spammers who’ll be requesting that their link now be marked “ugc” or “sponsored” as they figure out how that affects them in Google’s rankings.
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Apple iPhone event 2019: the biggest announcements • The Verge

Cameron Faulkner:

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Apple’s big hardware event for 2019 has wrapped, and, as expected, it brought a bounty of exciting announcements. Of course, the iPhone 11 happened — and, yes, a version is really called the iPhone 11 Pro Max — but there were a bunch of other good moments that are worth talking about.

If you weren’t able to follow along with this year’s Apple fall hardware event or if you just want to relive it again, you can read the live blog to see the moments unfold as they happened or check out this brief recap on the biggest announcements.

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Knock yourself out. The Watch with an always-on display is attractive.
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Objects can now change colors like a chameleon • Tech Xplore

Rachel Gordon:

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A team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has brought us closer to this chameleon reality, by way of a new system that uses reprogrammable ink to let objects change colors when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) and visible light sources.

Dubbed “PhotoChromeleon,” the system uses a mix of photochromic dyes that can be sprayed or painted onto the surface of any object to change its color—a fully reversible process that can be repeated infinitely.

PhotoChromeleon can be used to customize anything from a phone case to a car, or shoes that need an update. The color remains, even when used in natural environments.

“This special type of dye could enable a whole myriad of customization options that could improve manufacturing efficiency and reduce overall waste,” says CSAIL postdoc Yuhua Jin, the lead author on a new paper about the project. “Users could personalize their belongings and appearance on a daily basis, without the need to buy the same object multiple times in different colors and styles.”

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What sort of monster buys the same thing in different colours and styles?
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Apple TV+ finally gets its price: $4.99 per month • Yahoo Finance

Daniel Roberts:

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Since Apple (AAPL) first announced its big push into original programming at a star-studded event in March, questions have followed. Wells Fargo wrote in March that the event “leaves us/investors with more questions than answers.”

On Tuesday at its big event in Cupertino, Calif., Apple gave some answers. Apple TV+ will launch on Nov. 1 at a cost of $4.99 per month. “The price of a single movie rental,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said on stage. “This is crazy!”

The low price clearly aims to undercut Netflix and Disney’s forthcoming Disney+ service, and shares of Netflix and Disney both dropped on the news.

Prior to Tuesday’s event, Apple had released just three trailers for some of its biggest original shows: “The Morning Show” with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell, “Dickinson” starring Hailee Steinfeld as the poet Emily Dickinson, and “For All Mankind,” an alternate history about the space race.

…[Tim] Cook also said Apple will begin offering a free one-year subscription to Apple TV+ with the purchase of any new iPhone, iPad, or Mac.

To be sure, even with a slew of expensive originals, analysts had doubts the service can be an instant hit. Nomura, in a note in March, correctly predicted that pricing would have to be low “given the small content library at launch,” and added, “If Apple is playing the long game here it could pressure financials for years.”

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It definitely is a low price, and looks like a come-on with the one-year free offering if you buy something. (What, not with a Watch? Or – huh – an Apple TV?)
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A famous argument against free will has been debunked • The Atlantic

Bahar Gholipour:

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The participants sat in a chair, tucked neatly in a metal tollbooth, with only one task: to flex a finger on their right hand at whatever irregular intervals pleased them, over and over, up to 500 times a visit.

The purpose of this experiment was to search for signals in the participants’ brains that preceded each finger tap. At the time, researchers knew how to measure brain activity that occurred in response to events out in the world—when a person hears a song, for instance, or looks at a photograph—but no one had figured out how to isolate the signs of someone’s brain actually initiating an action.

The experiment’s results came in squiggly, dotted lines, a representation of changing brain waves. In the milliseconds leading up to the finger taps, the lines showed an almost undetectably faint uptick: a wave that rose for about a second, like a drumroll of firing neurons, then ended in an abrupt crash. This flurry of neuronal activity, which the scientists called the Bereitschaftspotential, or readiness potential, was like a gift of infinitesimal time travel. For the first time, they could see the brain readying itself to create a voluntary movement.

This momentous discovery was the beginning of a lot of trouble in neuroscience. Twenty years later, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet used the Bereitschaftspotential to make the case not only that the brain shows signs of a decision before a person acts, but that, incredibly, the brain’s wheels start turning before the person even consciously intends to do something. Suddenly, people’s choices—even a basic finger tap—appeared to be determined by something outside of their own perceived volition.

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This is a fascinating correlation v causation tale – and a great example of how science works when it works best.
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Expert predicts 25% of colleges “will fail” in the next 20 years • CBS News

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For the first time in 185 years, there will be no fall semester at Green Mountain College in western Vermont. The college, which closed this year, isn’t alone: Southern Vermont College, the College of St. Joseph, and Atlantic Union College, among others, have shuttered their doors, too.

The schools fell victim to trends in higher education – trends that lead one expert to believe that more schools will soon follow.   

“I think 25% of schools will fail in the next two decades,” said Michael Horn, who studies education at Harvard University. “They’re going to close, they’re going to merge, some will declare some form of bankruptcy to reinvent themselves. It’s going to be brutal across American higher education.”

Part of the problem, Horn explained, is that families had fewer kids after the 2008 recession, meaning that there will be fewer high school graduates and fewer college students. “Fundamentally, these schools’ business models are just breaking at the seams,” he said.

That’s what happened to Green Mountain College. When Robert Allen became president of the school in 2016, he realized “very quickly” that the school had a problem. “I’m a mathematician by training, a financial person,” he said. “And I realized that we were going to come up short.”

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Hadn’t considered the effect of a population squeeze, but it makes sense. Wonder how the UK looks on that basis.
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Face recognition, bad people and bad data • Benedict Evans

Evans on fine form again:

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what exactly is in the training data – in your examples of X and Not-X? Are you sure? What ELSE is in those example sets?

My favourite example of what can go wrong here comes from a project for recognising cancer in photos of skin. The obvious problem is that you might not have an appropriate distribution of samples of skin in different tones. But another problem that can arise is that dermatologists tend to put rulers in the photo of cancer, for scale – so if all the examples of ‘cancer’ have a ruler and all the examples of ‘not-cancer’ do not, that might be a lot more statistically prominent than those small blemishes. You inadvertently built a ruler-recogniser instead of a cancer-recogniser.

The structural thing to understand here is that the system has no understanding of what it’s looking at – it has no concept of skin or cancer or colour or gender or people or even images. It doesn’t know what these things are any more than a washing machine knows what clothes are. It’s just doing a statistical comparison of data sets. So, again – what is your data set? How is it selected? What might be in it that you don’t notice – even if you’re looking? How might different human groups be represented in misleading ways? And what might be in your data that has nothing to do with people and no predictive value, yet affects the result? Are all your ‘healthy’ photos taken under incandescent light and all your ‘unhealthy’ pictures taken under LED light? You might not be able to tell, but the computer will be using that as a signal.

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A very astringent look at a lot of the hoopla about machine learning.
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Uber lays off 435 people across engineering and product teams • TechCrunch

Megan Rose Dickey:

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Uber has laid off 435 employees across its product and engineering teams, the company announced today. Combined, the layoffs represent about 8% of the organizations, with 170 people leaving the product team and 265 people leaving the engineering team.

The layoffs had no effect on Eats, which is one of Uber’s top-performing products, and Freight, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Meanwhile, the company is lifting the hiring freeze on the product and engineering teams that has been in effect since early August, according to the source…

…Of those laid off, more than 85% are based in the U.S., 10% in the Asia-Pacific and 5% in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, according to the source.

The layoffs came after Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi asked every member of his executive leadership team if they were to start from scratch, would their respective organizations would look like the way they do today.

“After careful consideration, our Engineering and Product leaders concluded the answer to this question in many respects was no,” the spokesperson said.

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Uber’s PR instincts, putting this out when tech and to some extent stock markets would be stuffed with Apple stuff, is still good.
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Technostress: how social media keeps us coming back for more even when it makes us unhappy • The Conversation

Christian Maier:

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The constant stream of messages, updates and content that social media apps deliver right to our pockets can sometimes feel like a social overload, invading your personal space and obliging you to reply in order to maintain friendships.

You’d think an obvious response to this problem would be to stop using our devices or deleting the apps. But we have recently published research showing that, when faced with this pressure, many of us end up digging deeper and using our phones more frequently, often compulsively or even addictively.

Conventional wisdom implies that when people are faced with a stressful social situation, for example, an argument with someone – they cope with the stress by distancing themselves. They take a walk, go for a run, play with their kids. But when the stressful situations stem from the use of social media, we find people tend to adopt one of two very different coping strategies.

We surveyed 444 Facebook users from Germany three times over a year to find out how they responded to social media technostress. Sometimes, as we might have expected, they diverted or distracted themselves with unrelated activities such as hobbies. But counter-intuitively, we found it was more common for people to distract themselves by using social media even more.

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Why Teslas aren’t the future • The Week

Navneet Alang:

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technological change is a funny thing — unpredictable, non-linear, and often like a perpendicular slash against the present rather than a simple evolution. Far from being the thing that will save us, we would be better off if Teslas and electric cars in general weren’t the future of transportation. Instead, the only thing that will lead to better, greener, healthier cities is, quite simply, fewer cars.

That’s not to say that electric cars don’t have a place — or aren’t very cool. I’ve been learning a lot about the Model 3 in particular lately, and its minimalist interior, quiet ride, and ginger steps toward automated driving seem like they would be a significant upgrade for many drivers. For long distance trips, inclement weather, or for the elderly or disabled, of course cars will still play a role.

Yet, the idea that Teslas are the future is predicated on a more basic idea: that the role of the car in society shouldn’t change. Instead, the current car — noisy, polluting, backwards — gets replaced by a cleaner, more efficient one.

Technology, however, has a tendency to change in far less predictable ways. The most obvious example is, well, the car itself. The famous Henry Ford quote (which in truth was never said by Ford) is that if he had asked people in the early 20th century what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. True or not, it gets to the core of how tech changes.

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Trump dismisses John Bolton as National Security Adviser: ‘no longer needed’ • Daily Beast

Audrey McNamara, Betsy Woodruff and Asawin Suebsaeng:

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Bolton was scheduled to attend a press briefing at 1:30 p.m. with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin. And moments after Trump’s announcement, Bolton himself seemed to directly contradict the president’s account of the departure, writing: “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’”

In a text to The Daily Beast, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham disputed the now-former national security adviser’s description of how he left the administration. 

“Last night, Potus said he wanted Bolton’s resignation on his desk tomorrow AM. Bolton delivered it. Simply put, many of Bolton’s policy priorities did not align w POTUS,” Grisham said. 

Bolton responded in a text to The Daily Beast: “[White House] press secretary statement is flatly incorrect.”

Bolton had served as Trump’s third national-security adviser since April 9, 2018. Charlie Kupperman will serve as acting national security adviser.

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Hmm, who to believe between John Bolton and the White House Press Secretary. Bolton’s not known for dissembling. The WHPS, on the other hand…

Nice to know that Bolton didn’t get his wish to have war with Iran and North Korea.
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The race to create a perfect lie detector – and the dangers of succeeding • The Guardian

Amit Katwala:

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In the past couple of decades, the rise of cheap computing power, brain-scanning technologies and artificial intelligence has given birth to what many claim is a powerful new generation of lie-detection tools. Startups, racing to commercialise these developments, want us to believe that a virtually infallible lie detector is just around the corner.

Their inventions are being snapped up by police forces, state agencies and nations desperate to secure themselves against foreign threats. They are also being used by employers, insurance companies and welfare officers. “We’ve seen an increase in interest from both the private sector and within government,” said Todd Mickelsen, the CEO of Converus, which makes a lie detector based on eye movements and subtle changes in pupil size.

Converus’s technology, EyeDetect, has been used by FedEx in Panama and Uber in Mexico to screen out drivers with criminal histories, and by the credit ratings agency Experian, which tests its staff in Colombia to make sure they aren’t manipulating the company’s database to secure loans for family members. In the UK, Northumbria police are carrying out a pilot scheme that uses EyeDetect to measure the rehabilitation of sex offenders. Other EyeDetect customers include the government of Afghanistan, McDonald’s and dozens of local police departments in the US. Soon, large-scale lie-detection programmes could be coming to the borders of the US and the European Union, where they would flag potentially deceptive travellers for further questioning.

But as tools such as EyeDetect infiltrate more and more areas of public and private life, there are urgent questions to be answered about their scientific validity and ethical use.

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Oh my they do.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,142: Apple event roundup, chameleon inks, the coming US college collapse, Uber cuts jobs, and more

  1. I suspect “sponsored” is an upgrade from “nofollow”, and “ugc” means suspected spam if the link is to a low-grade site. That last is from seeing what happens to poorly-maintained blogs, which can end up collecting massive amounts of comment spam links akin to cobwebs and dust bunnies. The “ugc” also probably signals time-based popularity if to a high-grade site, so it can work on both ends of the site scale.

    The real news is that Google has now outright endorsed sponsored links as a business model, by creating a recognized special attribute for them.

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