Start Up No.1,146: Google Assistant workers gripe, get fit for.. chess?, HP’s chatty printers, Microsoft doing foldables?, dogs at work, and more


CC-licensed photo by Joe Pemberton on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘A white-collar sweatshop’: Google Assistant contractors allege wage theft • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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to some of the Google employees responsible for making the Assistant work, the tagline of the conference – “Keep making magic” – obscured a more mundane reality: the technical wizardry relies on massive data sets built by subcontracted human workers earning low wages.

“It’s smoke and mirrors if anything,” said a current Google employee who, as with the others quoted in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “Artificial intelligence is not that artificial; it’s human beings that are doing the work.”

The Google employee works on Pygmalion, the team responsible for producing linguistic data sets that make the Assistant work. And although he is employed directly by Google, most of his Pygmalion co-workers are subcontracted temps who have for years been routinely pressured to work unpaid overtime, according to seven current and former members of the team.

These employees, some of whom spoke to the Guardian because they said efforts to raise concerns internally were ignored, alleged that the unpaid work was a symptom of the workplace culture put in place by the executive who founded Pygmalion. That executive, Linne Ha, was fired by Google in March following an internal investigation, Google said. Ha could not be reached for comment before publication. She contacted the Guardian after publication and said her departure had not been related to unpaid overtime.

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The depressing reality is how Wizard-of-Oz these assistants seem to be: ignore the temp worker behind the curtain.
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Why grandmasters like Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana lose weight playing chess • ESPN

Aishwarya Kumar:

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At 5-foot-6, [Fabiano] Caruana has a lean frame, his legs angular and toned. He also has a packed schedule for the day: a 5-mile run, an hour of tennis, half an hour of basketball and at least an hour of swimming.

As he’s jogging, it’s easy to mistake him for a soccer player. But he is not. This body he has put together is not an accident. Caruana is, in fact, an American grandmaster in chess, the No. 2 player in the world. His training partner, Chirila? A Romanian grandmaster. And they’re doing it all to prepare for the physical demands of … chess? Yes, chess.

It seems absurd. How could two humans — seated for hours, exerting themselves in no greater manner than intermittently extending their arms a foot at a time — face physical demands?

Still, the evidence overwhelms.

The 1984 World Chess Championship was called off after five months and 48 games because defending champion Anatoly Karpov had lost 22 pounds. “He looked like death,” grandmaster and commentator Maurice Ashley recalls.

In 2004, winner Rustam Kasimdzhanov walked away from the six-game world championship having lost 17 pounds. In October 2018, Polar, a U.S.-based company that tracks heart rates, monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess — or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.

Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day. Based on breathing rates (which triple during competition), blood pressure (which elevates) and muscle contractions before, during and after major tournaments, Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters’ stress responses to chess are on par with what elite athletes experience.

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Fabulous new excuse for loading your plate high with chips: you’re playing chess later.
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HP printers try to send data back to HP about your devices and what you print • Robert Heaton

He thought he was just helping his in-laws set up their new printer:

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In summary, HP wants its printer to collect all kinds of data that a reasonable person would never expect it to. This includes metadata about your devices, as well as information about all the documents that you print, including timestamps, number of pages, and the application doing the printing (HP state that they do stop short of looking at the contents of your documents). From the HP privacy policy, linked to from the setup program:

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Product Usage Data – We collect product usage data such as pages printed, print mode, media used, ink or toner brand, file type printed (.pdf, .jpg, etc.), application used for printing (Word, Excel, Adobe Photoshop, etc.), file size, time stamp, and usage and status of other printer supplies. We do not scan or collect the content of any file or information that might be displayed by an application.

Device Data – We collect information about your computer, printer and/or device such as operating system, firmware, amount of memory, region, language, time zone, model number, first start date, age of device, device manufacture date, browser version, device manufacturer, connection port, warranty status, unique device identifiers, advertising identifiers and additional technical information that varies by product.

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HP wants to use the data they collect for a wide range of purposes, the most eyebrow-raising of which is for serving advertising. Note the last column in this “Privacy Matrix”, which states that “Product Usage Data” and “Device Data” (amongst many other types of data) are collected and shared with “service providers” for purposes of advertising.

HP delicately balances short-term profits with reasonable-man-ethics by only half-obscuring the checkboxes and language in this part of the setup.

At this point everything has become clear – the job of this setup app is not only to sell expensive ink subscriptions; it’s also to collect what apparently passes for informed consent in a court of law. I clicked the boxes to indicate “Jesus Christ no, obviously not, why would anyone ever knowingly consent to that”, and then spent 5 minutes Googling how to make sure that this setting was disabled.

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Thanks to dark patterns, it can be really hard to be certain that you have disabled these things. You’re often navigating a chicane of tickboxes – just ticking all yes or all no won’t sort it.
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OnlyFans, Fancentro and Snapchat help models sell porn to fans • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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Dolly, an 18-year-old aspiring online model, was sitting in her kitchen one day in June when an exciting email arrived. Someone had just paid $10 to view her posts for a month on a social network called OnlyFans. Just like that, Dolly had her first subscriber.

Like a growing number of her counterparts in the world of online sexual content, Dolly is trying to start converting her social media following into a paid customer base. Models are using Twitter, Facebook-owned Instagram and Snapchat to promote their premium offerings on sites like OnlyFans, Fancentro and Patreon, where they can charge a recurring subscription.

In the opaque online porn industry, where billions of dollars a year flow to websites powered by ads and premium subscriptions, Dolly and others are aiming to wrest some control from the content distributors and take a bigger slice of the economic pie.

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The internet cycle: 1) internet undermines business model of Big Offline. 2) Big Offline tries to shift online, usually unsuccessfully. 3) Individuals begin exploiting online, and make it work.
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The new target that enables ransomware hackers to paralyze dozens of towns and businesses at once • ProPublica

Renee Dudley:

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On July 3, employees at Arbor Dental in Longview, Washington, noticed glitches in their computers and couldn’t view X-rays. Arbor was one of dozens of dental clinics in Oregon and Washington stymied by a ransomware attack that disrupted their business and blocked access to patients’ records.

But the hackers didn’t target the clinics directly. Instead, they infiltrated them by exploiting vulnerable cybersecurity at Portland-based PM Consultants Inc., which handled the dentists’ software updates, firewalls and data backups. Arbor’s frantic calls to PM went to voicemail, said Whitney Joy, the clinic’s office coordinator.

“The second it happened, they ghosted everybody,” she said. “They didn’t give us a heads up.”

A week later, PM sent an email to clients. “Due to the size and scale of the attack, we are not optimistic about the chances for a full or timely recovery,” it wrote. “At this time we must recommend you seek outside technical assistance with the recovery of your data.”

On July 22, PM notified clients in an email that it was shutting down, “in part due to this devastating event.” The contact phone number listed on PM’s website is disconnected, and the couple that managed the firm did not respond to messages left on their cellphones.

The attack on the dental clinics illustrates a new and worrisome frontier in ransomware — the targeting of managed service providers, or MSPs, to which local governments, medical clinics, and other small- and medium-sized businesses outsource their IT needs.

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Samsung might combine Galaxy S and Note lineups next year • Android Police

Corbin Davenport:

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Samsung’s yearly smartphone strategy has been the same for years — release a new mainstream Galaxy S device in the spring and a more premium Galaxy Note phone in the fall. Now that there are so few hardware and software differences between the two lineups, there has been plenty of speculation that they might be merged, and a new report from Evan Blass is lending more credibility towards the idea.

Evan Blass, better known as @evleaks, said on Twitter, “Samsung is said to be debating future Galaxy branding, including eliminating the distinction [between] the S and Note lines. Could manifest in different ways, possibly [with] a ‘Galaxy One’ in lieu of an S11. [..] One possibility is to simply fuse them into a single-first half handset, essentially an S-series with an S-Pen.” Blass went on to say that if the Galaxy Fold performs as well as Samsung hopes, it could replace the Note lineup as Samsung’s latter-year premium flagship.

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Or just smooooosh them all into one single release of a giant plastic blob. Smartphone launches really are for the birds now. (Sure, Dan Frommer and John Gruber have stats showing lots of people watching them. I don’t think this means excitement is mounting year by year (and there aren’t year-on-year comparison figures); more that it’s becoming easier to access the keynote.

For much the same reason, I’ll let the Google Pixel 4 actually appear rather than linking to any of the carefully crafted social media “leaks” (I imagine a marketing meeting: “let’s have your program of social media leaks, Derek”) leading up to it. It’s a smartphone, folks. We’ve been seeing them in this incarnation for 12 years.
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Illinois teen’s memory resets every two hours after head injury • BGR

Mike Wehner:

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Of all the types of injuries a person can sustain, head injuries tend to be the scariest. Scientists have learned a lot about how the human brain works, but there are still many uncertainties. That’s especially true when it comes to brain injuries, where a person can appear medically healthy but still exhibit dramatic cognitive symptoms.

16-year-old Riley Horner was a happy, healthy Illinois teen when she was struck in the head on June 11th of this year. Her injury — an accidental kick in the head from a fellow student who was crowd surfing at an event — resulted in what doctors initially believed was a concussion, but every day since, she’s woken up believing it was June 11th.

Horner’s memory never recovered, and as WQAD reports, the teen can remember things for about two hours before it all disappears. Doctors are stumped, since brain scans have revealed nothing, highlighting how incredibly difficult it can be to diagnose brain trauma.

To cope with her memory troubles, Horner carries a notebook where she jots down details of her day that she can read back when needed. She sets an alarm on her phone to remind her to read over her notes every two hours. Her parents are, understandably, struggling with the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

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A starring role in a revise of Memento? But of course it’s terribly debilitating – and must be horribly confusing in the moments when she wakes up.
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Microsoft is working on foldable Surface devices with liquid-powered hinges • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft has been working on a dual-screen Surface device that may well resemble the company’s Courier concept. The software giant is expected to tease the device at its Surface hardware event next month, but new patents show that Microsoft’s work goes far beyond just dual-screen hardware. A new patent, spotted by WindowsUnited, has surfaced that reveals Microsoft has been working on a special hinge that uses liquid to reduce the stress on flexible and foldable displays.

The liquid can be filled inside cavities around the flexible display to help it bend and move into different positions. Microsoft’s example shows a device with two separate sides and a flexible OLED display that extends across the entire device. Microsoft has long been focused on complex and impressive hinge work with its Surface devices, and this particular hinge is described in a lot of detail in the patent filing.

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Microsoft doesn’t make phones, though. I could believe that it’s making a Surface where you never detach the keyboard. But the hinge arrangement is quite messy.
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Why more companies are going dog friendly • The Conversation

Holly Patrick:

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From the perspective of human resources, being dog friendly could form an important part of an employer brand that is used to differentiate the company to potential recruits. This can be seen in the many online lists of pet friendly workplaces like this one on business news website Fortune. There’s also evidence that it’s an important way to retain valued employees, as bringing your dog to work may be seen as by employees as part of the reward package offered by their firm, which is not easily replicated by competitors.

Most of the empirical evidence on dogs at work concerns the benefits to employee well-being – and not just for dog owners. Research has shown that dogs promote interactions between staff resulting in an improved social atmosphere. Other research finds that dogs reduce the stress of owners and of others in the same office.

Dogs can even improve customer perceptions (for example students think professors with dogs are more friendly). And there may be benefits in terms of productivity, although the evidence for this is based on experimental medical studies rather than research involving dogs in actual workplaces.

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This is crying out for a Gary Larson cartoon, perhaps set in a tennis ball factory.
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How Wi-Fi almost didn’t happen • WIRED

Jeff Abramowitz:

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[In summer 1999] HomeRF was the biggest and most visible WLAN consortium at the time. The specification was developed by the group of Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft; it targeted the consumer market, and was backed by more than 80 other companies. Unlike 802.11 products, HomeRF products communicated with each other, and were considerably cheaper. HomeRF (short for home radio frequency) also had a catchier name than IEEE 802.11, and it had lofty plans for higher speeds and expansion into the business market.

Meanwhile, the second generation of the IEEE standard, 802.11b, was expected to get final approval at the end of September. The company 3Com, then a leading networking firm (both 3Com and Compaq were acquired by HP), had developed products based on this new and faster standard that were slated to ship toward the end of 1999. With the clock ticking, 3Com brought five strong IEEE advocates together to found an independent Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, or WECA, which aimed to ensure that products based on the pending standard would work together. The name “FlankSpeed” was proposed, but they ultimately trademarked the name “Wi-Fi”—a riff on “hi-fi,” or high-fidelity from the era of home stereos—and established the rules by which devices could become “Wi-Fi Certified.”

We all know Wi-Fi won, but there are many ways in which Wi-Fi might not have become ubiquitous, and instead HomeRF remained a competing standard. For one, IEEE 802.11b could have been delayed, which nearly occurred save for a brilliant compromise between two WLAN industry pioneers and foes, Lucent Technologies and Harris Semiconductor. Instead, let’s hypothesize a second scenario where WECA chose to focus on just business connectivity (which was also discussed), not “go-anywhere” connectivity, and “FlankSpeed” was chosen over “Wi-Fi.”

In a FlankSpeed world, workers would have used FlankSpeed at the office and HomeRF at home. It would be more difficult to bring work home with you. Which technology would you look for in a coffee shop or at the airport? Maybe neither. Wait, no public access? NoHO (not home/not office) zones might become no man’s lands for connectivity. Far worse, no FlankSpeed baked into smartphones. Mobility as we know it vanishes into thin air!

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Scary. Which makes me wonder if there are other non-standards around where we use different ones at home and in the office.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,146: Google Assistant workers gripe, get fit for.. chess?, HP’s chatty printers, Microsoft doing foldables?, dogs at work, and more

  1. Sadly, you left off “The internet cycle: … 4) Big Online takes over the market, monopolizing the profits, shifting the risks and costs and liability to the individual, and generating empty puffery about “gig economy” and “side hustle” and similar blather”. Haven’t we seen this story played out over and over? We should be especially skeptical of anything where workers have no collective bargaining organization against megacorporations.

    Regarding the brain-injured teen, ongoing lack of short-term memory is a neurological condition which has been seen before in some relatively well-studied cases. Look up the story of Clive Wearing for a very poignant example. He’s lived like that for decades (and is still alive). The two hour span seems wrong though, it’s always less than a minute. But maybe that’s just a reporting error.

    • Edit: I think, the discussion could/should move from “which takes the best picture” to “which never fails hard”. The good pictures all look OK (one can nitpick, but…). Some bad pictures look unusable.

      We’ve had the same gotcha moment about graphics card a while back: the issue is not so much which produces the best FPS, but which produces the least unacceptable stutter. Always that thing about means meaning little w/o standard deviations. A steady 30 FPS is OK, a 50% 45 FPS – 50% 15 FPS isn’t, especially if you’ve got the occasional 0 FPS in the mix.

      All those cameras, at their best, look amazing on-screen and are probably print-ready (for home, standard size). What hurts is the occasional utter misfire.

  2. I have a friend in the UK who has currently lives like this since she was 24 (although for her its a few minutes then her memory goes) for over 22 years now. She goes around with a diary bigger than the one River Song uses in Dr Who. I truly wonder if we’re missing some effective remedies when it comes to brain injury because we know so little.

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