Start Up No.1,148: Imagenet Roulette goes Milkshake Duck, WeWork’s mad king, California v Trump on car quality, the Amazon’s criminal deforestation, and more


A HomePod with Siri operating: would you like it more if you chatted to it more? Or vice-versa? CC-licensed photo by Joe Wilcox on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Free at point of sale. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The viral selfie app ImageNet Roulette seemed fun – until it called me a racist slur • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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ImageNet Roulette, a project developed by the artificial intelligence researcher Kate Crawford and the artist Trevor Paglen…[aims] not to use technology to help us see ourselves, but to use ourselves to see technology for what it actually is.

The site’s algorithm was trained on photos of humans contained in ImageNet, a dataset described by Crawford as “one of the most significant training sets in the history of AI”. Created in 2007 by researchers at Stanford and Princeton, ImageNet includes more than 14m photographs, mostly of objects but also of humans, that have been classified and labeled by legions of workers on Amazon’s crowdsourcing labor site, Mechanical Turk.

If you upload your photo, ImageNet Roulette will use AI to identify any faces, then label them with one of the 2,833 subcategories of people that exist within ImageNet’s taxonomy. For many people, the exercise is fun. For me, it was disconcerting.

As a technology reporter, I’m regularly tasked with writing those scolding articles about why you should be careful which apps you trust, so I usually eschew viral face apps. But after a day of watching my fellow journalists upload their ImageNet Roulette selfies to Twitter with varying degrees of humor and chagrin about their labels (“weatherman”, “widower”, “pilot”, “adult male”), I decided to give it a whirl. That most of my fellow tech reporters are white didn’t strike me as relevant until later.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting the machine to tell me about myself, but I wasn’t expecting what I got: a new version of my official Guardian headshot, labeled in neon green print: “gook, slant-eye”. Below the photo, my label was helpfully defined as “a disparaging term for an Asian person (especially for North Vietnamese soldiers in the Vietnam War)”.

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Which is also part of why diversity among journalists matters: because they can make a noise about it. If Wong had been just another user, her justifiable outrage would have been lost in the noise.
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‘This is not the way everybody behaves’: how Adam Neumann’s over-the-top style built WeWork • WSJ

Eliot Brown:

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Mr. Neumann moved to the US when he was 22, where he attended Baruch College and tried to start businesses. One was a collapsible heel on women’s shoes that didn’t get off the ground. Working out of his Tribeca apartment, he started Krawlers, which sought to make baby clothes with knee pads to make crawling more comfortable. The slogan, he has said: “Just because they don’t tell you, doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.” It never gained traction.

He and Mr. McKelvey started a small co-working space on the side during the recession that followed the financial crisis and were amazed by the demand… [and that became WeWork…]

…Alcohol has been a big part of the culture, particularly in We’s first half-decade. Mr. Neumann has told people he likes how it brings people together, and tequila, his favorite, flows freely. Executive retreats sport numerous cases of Don Julio 1942, with a retail price of more than $110 a bottle, and pours sometimes start in the morning.

A few weeks after Mr. Neumann fired 7% of the staff in 2016, he somberly addressed the issue at an evening all-hands meeting at headquarters, telling attendees the move was tough but necessary to cut costs, and the company would be better because of it.

Then employees carrying trays of plastic shot glasses filled with tequila came into the room, followed by toasts and drinks.

Soon after, Darryl McDaniels of hip-hop group Run-DMC entered the room, embraced Mr. Neumann and played a set for the staff. Workers danced to the 1980s hit “It’s Tricky” as the tequila trays made more rounds; some others, still focused on the firings, say they were stunned and confused.

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At this point everyone knows that WeWork is going to implode – it’s a house of cards that will be vulnerable to the slightest economic downturn, or change in leasing conditions – and is just enjoying the absurd stories that come out of it.
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California promises to fight EPA plan on car standards • Scientific American

Anne C. Mulkern:

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The Trump administration’s plan to revoke California’s ability to set its own clean car standards promises to ignite a monumental legal fight between a dozen states and the federal government.

“We’ll see you in court,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) said yesterday.

His comments came after news broke that Trump EPA officials will announce a formal effort as soon as today to repeal California’s ability to set vehicle standards that exceed federal requirements. Two sources familiar with the plans confirmed the event to E&E News after Bloomberg News first reported it.

California’s special oversight of tailpipe pollution dates back to the 1960s when the state was grappling with high levels of smog. The 1970 Clean Air Act folded in California’s authority to set its own standards, because the state’s law predated the federal act. The Obama administration in 2009 extended California’s authority to include greenhouse gas emissions from cars. Thirteen other states now follow California’s rules.

“The evidence is irrefutable: today’s clean car standards are achievable, science-based, and a boon for hardworking American families and public health,” Becerra said in a statement. “It’s time to remove your blinders, President Trump, and acknowledge that the only person standing in the way of progress is you. You have no basis and no authority to pull this waiver. We’re ready to fight for a future that you seem unable to comprehend.”

…EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said yesterday at the National Automobile Dealers Association that “we embrace federalism and the role of the states, but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation.”

…States that use California’s car standards include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Together they represent nearly 40% of the U.S. car market, said Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

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Of those 14 states (including California), only Pennsylvania voted for Trump. It makes sense to have a federal standard, but if you’re going to allow states to have the power to set their own standards in anything (which Republicans insist on, calling it “states’ rights”), you can’t do it piecemeal. I predict the Trump admin’s position won’t stand up in court.
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Apple Watch Series 5 review: always on time • WIRED

Lauren Goode:

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This year’s Apple Watch doesn’t look different from last year’s Watch. I wouldn’t say the Apple Watch is unilaterally attractive, but it is distinctive. It lacks the overtly masculine aesthetic some sporty smartwatches have, and it’s more sophisticated than most Fitbits. (Then again, Fitbits are less expensive than Apple Watches, and work with Android phones instead of just with iOS devices.)

This year’s base model of Apple Watch has an aluminum case, just like in past years. It costs $399, unless you want one with a cellular modem (for when you’re swept out to sea!), in which case it costs $499. You can upgrade to a stainless steel model ($699), a titanium version ($799), or a model with a ceramic case ($1,299). You can even buy a Hermès-branded version for the low, low price of $1,399. I’ve been wearing the aluminum Series 5 with cellular connectivity.

The Watch comes with easy-to-swap watch bands, and this year the buying flow for a new watch is more customizable: You can go to the Apple website and pick your size, casing, and band all at the same time. Some of the pricier bands cost an extra $100 or more.

If those prices are all too steep, you can now buy the Apple Watch Series 3 for a discounted $199. It has GPS and the water expulsion feature first introduced in the Series 2, so you can take it in the pool.

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So the S3 isn’t more expensive than a Fitbit Versa 2 – it’s exactly the same price, and almost all the same features. Though the Versa does have a longer battery life.

Goode gives the S5 a score of 8/10. Seems that not being compatible with Android is its “con” to set against its “pros”.
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New iPhone pre-orders in China are triple last year’s, but lack of 5G may damp sales • Yicai Global

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First day pre-orders of Apple’s much-anticipated new iPhone 11 were more than triple the first day of sales of last year’s iPhone XR, according to Alibaba Group Holding’s Tmall online shopping website.

But turnover is expected to slump 15% this year due to the iPhones’ lack of fifth-generation network capability, industry analyst IDC said. 

Within the first minute of pre-orders starting on Sept. 13, CNY100 million (USD14m) worth of the smartphones had been purchased on Tmall, data obtained by Yicai Global showed. The iPhone 11 Pro series sold out within five minutes, according to e-commerce platform JD.com.

Android handset makers are ahead of Apple in 5G technologies with some 5G smartphones already on the market, IDC said.

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Guessing that it’s a thing to have the multi-camera “looks new” shape – and the new green colour. China seems to be that shallow in some ways.
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How the Internet Archive is waging war on misinformation • Financial Times

Camilla Hodgson:

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Since the 2016 US election, as fears about the power of fake news have intensified, the archive has stepped up its efforts to combat misinformation. At a time when false and ultra-partisan content is rapidly created and spread, and social media pages are constantly updated, the importance of having an unalterable record of who said what, when has been magnified.

“We’re trying to put in a layer of accountability,” said founder Brewster Kahle.

Mr Kahle founded the archive, which now employs more than 100 staff and costs $18m a year to run, because he feared that what was appearing on the internet was not being saved and catalogued in the same way as newspapers and books. The organisation is funded through donations, grants and the fees it charges third parties that request specific digitisation services.

So far, the archive has catalogued 330bn web pages, 20m books and texts, 8.5m audio and video recordings, 3m images and 200,000 software programs. The most popular, public websites are prioritised, as are those that are commonly linked to. Some information is free to access, some is loaned out (if copyright laws apply) and some is only available to researchers.

Curled up in a chair in his office after lunch, Mr Kahle lamented the combined impact of misinformation and how difficult it can be for ordinary people to access reliable sources of facts.

“We’re bringing up a generation that turns to their screens, without a library of information accessible via screens,” said Mr Kahle. Some have taken advantage of this “new information system”, he argued — and the result is “Trump and Brexit”.

Having a free online library is crucial, said Mr Kahle, since “[the public is] just learning from whatever . . . is easily available”.

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Apple study suggests chattier users prefer chattier AI assistants • VentureBeat

Kyle Wiggers:

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How might you characterize the conversational style of a digital assistant like Siri? No matter your impression, it stands to reason that striking the wrong tone could dissuade users from engaging with it in the future.

Perhaps that’s why in a paper (“Mirroring to Build Trust in Digital Assistants“) accepted to the Interspeech 2019 conference in Graz, Austria, researchers at Apple investigated a conversational assistant that considered users’ preferred tones and mannerisms in its responses. They found that people’s opinions of the assistant’s likability and trustworthiness improved when it mirrored their degree of chattiness, and that the features necessary to perform the mirroring could be extracted from those people’s speech patterns.

“Long-term reliance on digital assistants requires a sense of trust in the assistant and its abilities. Therefore, strategies for building and maintaining this trust are required, especially as digital assistants become more advanced and operate in more aspects of people’s lives,” wrote the paper’s coauthors. “We hypothesize that an effective method for enhancing trust in digital assistants is for the assistant to mirror the conversational style of a user’s query, specifically the degree of ‘chattiness,’ [which] we loosely define chattiness to be the degree to which a query is concise (high information density) versus talkative (low information density).”

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In the paper, they describe their putative assistant as “an interactive Wizard-of-Oz (WOZ)”. Nicely played, people.
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A veterans for Trump Facebook page was hijacked by a North Macedonian businessman for months • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg:

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The takeover of Vets for Trump, which has not previously been reported, underscores how money, politics and online misinformation remain deeply and often invisibly entangled ahead of the 2020 presidential election, despite years of promises by government officials and technology companies to combat such problems.

Foreign actors — some seeking profit, some seeking influence and some seeking both — haven’t flagged in their efforts to reach U.S. voters through online information sources such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Veterans and active-duty military personnel are especially valuable targets for manipulation because they vote at high rates and can influence others who admire their records of service.

“Veterans as a cohort are more likely than others to participate in democracy. That includes not only voting but running for office and getting others to vote,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, chief investigator for Vietnam Veterans of America. He was the first to discover the takeover of Vets for Trump during research for a report to be released Wednesday that documents widespread, persistent efforts by foreign actors to scam and manipulate veterans over Facebook and other social media.

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Doesn’t say many good things about veterans though does it?
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Amazon deforestation is driven by criminal networks, report finds • The Guardian

Dom Phillips:

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Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is a lucrative business largely driven by criminal networks that threaten and attack government officials, forest defenders and indigenous people who try to stop them, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

Rainforest Mafias concludes that Brazil’s failure to police these gangs threatens its abilities to meet its commitments under the Paris climate deal – such as eliminating illegal deforestation by 2030. It was published a week before the UN Climate Action Summit.

Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister in the government of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, has argued that poverty drives degradation, and that development of the Amazon will help stop deforestation.

But the report’s author, Cesar Muñoz Acebes, argues that Amazon needs to be better policed.

“As long as you have this level of violence, lawlessness and impunity for the crimes committed by these criminal groups it will be impossible for Brazil to rein in deforestation,” he said. “These criminal networks will attack anyone who stands in their way.”

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,148: Imagenet Roulette goes Milkshake Duck, WeWork’s mad king, California v Trump on car quality, the Amazon’s criminal deforestation, and more

  1. Trump might win it’s case because the Supreme Court has already weakened the Clean Air Act with regards to CO2 as a pollutant, and it’s pollution why California has an exception in the first place (I still can’t get over Ronald Reagan being the one who pushed for it). The environmental lawyers in DC seem to think that it’s not going to be an easy win for California, although they will enjoy the convoluted reasoning the court will come up with to say why State Rights don’t matter, a 180 degree position away from their ‘normal’ cry.

    Basically it will boil down to whether Trump gets a second term. If he does then its dead, along with most environmental regulation.

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