Start Up No.1,151: TikTok’s meme vision, Huawei’s unfinished dev tool, YouTube creators hit by hackers, looking at Imagenet in detail, and more


This photo was taken in Holland, but some in Switzerland are saying the same: they don’t want 5G. CC-licensed photo by Mike Gifford on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Unprorogued. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How TikTok holds our attention • The New Yorker

Jia Tolentino:

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Connie Chan, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, told me that investors normally look for “organic growth” in social apps; ByteDance has been innovative, she said, in its ability and willingness to spend its way to big numbers. One former TikTok employee I spoke to was troubled by the company’s methods: “On Instagram, they’d run ads with clickbaity images—an open, gashed wound, or an overtly sexy image of a young teen girl—and it wouldn’t matter if Instagram users flagged the images as long as the ad got a lot of engagement first.”

In April, the Indian government briefly banned new downloads of the app, citing concerns that it was exposing minors to pornography and sexual predation. (At least three people in India have died from injuries sustained while creating TikToks: posing with a pistol, hanging out on train tracks, trying to fit three people on a moving bike.) In court, ByteDance insisted that it was losing $500,000 a day from the ban. The company announced plans to hire more local content moderators and to invest a billion dollars in India during the next three years. The ban was lifted, and the company launched a campaign: every day, three randomly selected users who promoted TikTok on other platforms with the hashtag #ReturnOfTikTok would receive the equivalent of $1,400.

TikTok is a social network that has nothing to do with one’s social network. It doesn’t ask you to tell it who you know—in the future according to ByteDance, “large-scale AI models” will determine our “personalized information flows,” as the Web site for the company’s research lab declares. The app provides a “Discover” page, with an index of trending hashtags, and a “For You” feed, which is personalized—if that’s the right word—by a machine-learning system that analyzes each video and tracks user behavior so that it can serve up a continually refined, never-ending stream of TikToks optimized to hold your attention. In the teleology of TikTok, humans were put on Earth to make good content, and “good content” is anything that is shared, replicated, and built upon. In essence, the platform is an enormous meme factory, compressing the world into pellets of virality and dispensing those pellets until you get full or fall asleep.

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Returning rogue weather app continues mobile ad fraud • Upstream

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First discovered in January 2019 by mobile technology company Upstream to be triggering false premium transactions and, at the time, secretly harvesting consumer data, the app – called Weather Forecast: World Weather Accurate Radar – is preinstalled on specific Alcatel phones and also available on Google Play Store.  Following the revelation by Upstream the app immediately ceased its background activity and was withdrawn from the Play Store. [It subsequently returned to the Google Play Store.]

However, after an idle two-month period and despite the earlier exposure, Upstream says its Secure-D mobile security platform combating advertising fraud detected and blocked some 34 million fresh suspicious transaction attempts from Weather Forecast. The version of the weather app preinstalled on Alcatel Pixi4 devices attempted to subscribe nearly 700,000 mobile consumers to premium digital services without their knowledge in just six months.

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Health fears prompt Swiss 5G revolt • Yahoo News

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Switzerland was among the first countries to begin deploying 5G, but health fears over radiation from the antennas that carry the next-generation mobile technology have sparked a nationwide revolt.

Demonstrators against the technology are due to fill the streets of Bern later this month, but already a number of cantons have been pressured to put planned constructions of 5G-compatible antennae on ice.

The technology has been swept up in the deepening trade war between China and the United States, which has tried to rein in Chinese giant Huawei – the world’s leader in superfast 5G equipment – over fears it will allow Beijing to spy on communications from countries that use its products and services.

But far from the clash of the titans, a growing number of Swiss are voicing alarm at possible health effects from exposure to the electromagnetic rays radiating from the new antennae, and are threatening to put the issue to a referendum in the country famous for its direct democratic system.

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This rolls around with pretty much every new version of wireless tech. I’ve seen it with the original mobile phones, with 3G, with Wi-Fi, but oddly not 4G. It never comes to anything, because it’s based on a misunderstanding of what “radiation” can be. (We worry far too much about ionising radiation too, but that’s separate.)
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Programmers complain that Huawei’s Ark Compiler is ‘not even half-finished’ • Abacus

Josh Ye:

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A scam. A publicity stunt. Premature. These are just a few of the things Chinese developers are saying about the release of Huawei’s supposed secret weapon: the Ark Compiler.

Developers are even claiming the program feels incomplete. The reception has been so bad that one programmer told Abacus that he wondered whether it was released just for publicity.

“Maybe they’re doing it to help in the PR and trade war, adding leverage against the US,” said Max Zhou, co-founder of app-enhancement company MetaApp and former head of engineering at Mobike.

The Ark Compiler is a key component of Huawei’s new operating system, HarmonyOS. The tool is meant to allow developers to quickly port their Android apps to the new OS, ideally helping to quickly bridge the gap of app availability. It is also said to be able to improve the efficiency of Android apps, making them as smooth as apps on iOS.

As of right now, though, developers say the promises are too good to be true.

“The ad says it’s a Michelin 3-star. But when it’s served, it turns out to be a pack of Tingyi cup noodles and it doesn’t even come with hot water. Do you think it has met expectations?” one programmer wrote on Q&A site Zhihu under the question “Did the open source code of the Ark Compiler meet everyone’s expectations?

Huawei declined to comment for this article, but the company has said before that the Ark Compiler would be rolled out in phases, with the source code for the complete toolchain not being available until 2020.

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This does not seem to be going well. Without the toolchain, without the apps, there’s pretty much nothing.
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Massive wave of account hijacks hits YouTube creators • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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Over the past few days, a massive wave of account hijacks has hit YouTube users, and especially creators in the auto-tuning and car review community, a ZDNet investigation discovered following a tip from one of our readers.

Several high-profile accounts from the YouTube creators car community have fallen victim to these attacks already. The list includes channels such as Built, Troy Sowers, MaxtChekVids, PURE Function, and Musafir.

But the YouTube car community wasn’t the only one targeted. Other YouTube creatorss also reported having their accounts hijacked last week, and especially over the weekend, with tens of complaints flooding Twitter and the YouTube support forum .

The account hacks are the result of a coordinated campaign that consisted of messages luring users to phishing sites, where hackers logged account credentials.

According to a channel owner who managed to recover their account before this article’s publication and received additional information from YouTube’s staff, we got some insight into how the full attack chain might have gone down.

• Hackers use phishing emails to lure victims on fake Google login pages, where they collect users’ account credentials
• Hackers break into Google accounts
• Hackers re-assign popular channels to new owners
• Hackers change the channel’s vanity URL, giving the original account owner and his followers the impression that their account had been deleted.

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Possibly made easier because YouTube has been messing around with user verification recently, which maybe made some more vulnerable to phishing.

The hackers also managed to break into some two-factor-protected accounts, most likely by using a toolkit that can intercept codes sent by SMS. Moral: don’t use SMS for two-factor. Use an app. (I’ll once more recommend Authy.)
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Samsung’s Galaxy Fold will finally be released in the US on Friday • BGR

Zach Epstein:

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The Galaxy Fold will be sold by AT+T, which has proven over the years that it will sell literally any cell phone made by any company regardless of how good or bad it may be. No other US wireless carriers will offer the handset at launch, but an unlocked version will be available in Samsung stores and on Samsung’s website. As far as pricing goes, it’ll cost $1,980 despite a recent rumor that the relaunched Galaxy Fold might end up being a bit cheaper than Samsung had initially announced.

Our advice: save yourself $2,000 and skip it. Word on the street is the redesigned Galaxy Fold can still break if dust or dirt works its way into certain parts of the phone, which is pretty much inevitable despite how careful you might be. And even if that weren’t the case, the Galaxy Fold still has an awful design with massive bezels and a huge notch chomped out of the corner of the main display. The company is working on much better designs for its second-generation foldable smartphone that will be released next year, and several other folding phones are also expected in 2020.

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It’s going to be fun seeing the reviews, and then the scratched screens after, oh, let’s give it two weeks’ use.
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Excavating AI

Kate Crawford and Trevor Paglen:

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Images do not describe themselves. This is a feature that artists have explored for centuries. Agnes Martin creates a grid-like painting and dubs it “White Flower,” Magritte paints a picture of an apple with the words “This is not an apple.” We see those images differently when we see how they’re labeled. The circuit between image, label, and referent is flexible and can be reconstructed in any number of ways to do different kinds of work. What’s more, those circuits can change over time as the cultural context of an image shifts, and can mean different things depending on who looks, and where they are located. Images are open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

This is part of the reason why the tasks of object recognition and classification are more complex than Minksy—and many of those who have come since—initially imagined.

Despite the common mythos that AI and the data it draws on are objectively and scientifically classifying the world, everywhere there is politics, ideology, prejudices, and all of the subjective stuff of history. When we survey the most widely used training sets, we find that this is the rule rather than the exception.

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Great essay.
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Google Play Pass on Android: $5/mo for 350+ games, apps sans microtransactions • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:

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Google has opened the door on Google Play Pass, a $5/mo subscription service for Android phones that unlocks access to a whopping 350 games and apps. The move follows Apple’s much ballyhooed dive into its own mobile gaming subscription service, Apple Arcade, which launched last week at the same monthly price point.

Google’s service will go live exclusively on Android phones in the United States on a rolling basis “this week.” In order to access Google Play Pass, you’ll have to wait for your Android device’s Play Store app to update with a new “Play Pass” toggle in its hamburger menu. Once you have access, your account can claim a free 10-day trial and then begin paying only $2/mo for the service’s first 12 months, so long as you start paying by October 10.

Google has yet to release a formal list of compatible Play Pass software, but its “games and apps” designation already confirms an effort to step outside the “games only” reputation that its rival Apple Arcade currently enjoys…

Once Play Pass is available, participating games and apps will include a multi-colored ticket icon in their store listings. By paying for Play Pass, these apps become wholly free to download and use—and they will have all ads and microtransactions disabled, so any extra tidbits in a game or app can simply be downloaded and accessed without fears of auto-playing videos or $1-a-pop charges after the fact.

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The fact that both Apple and Google have gone for the $5 (£5? €5?) price point is interesting in itself: one guesses that the proportion of Android users for whom this is a good deal (they spend more on games per month, so this represents a saving) is lower than for Apple users. But the absolute number of Android users should be higher. So Google ought to do better out of this.
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Apple to keep building Mac Pro in US after securing tariff relief • WSJ

Tripp Mickle and Sarah E. Needleman:

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Apple said it is keeping production of its new Mac Pro computer in Texas, reversing earlier plans to shift manufacturing of the device to China.

The decision follows the Trump administration’s granting Apple exemptions last week from tariffs on 10 items it imported from China. The exclusions for components, including a power supply and a logic board, cover a period from September of last year to August 2020, and the US will refund tariffs already paid.

The tech giant had earlier tapped Taiwanese contractor Quanta Computer Inc. to manufacture the nearly $6,000 desktop computer outside Shanghai. The previous version of the high-end computer, which was introduced in 2013, had been assembled in Austin, Texas, by contractor Flex Ltd. and was touted as Apple’s only Made in USA product.

Escalating trade tensions over the summer challenged Apple’s plans to make the product in China, where labor and logistics costs are lower than in the US. In August, President Trump said he planned to extend tariffs of 10% to essentially all Chinese imports in December and raise tariffs on items already subject to duties. The tariffs could have cut into Apple’s profits or forced it to increase the cost of its $5,999 Mac Pro made in China.

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I don’t think the margins on the Mac Pro are exactly wafer-thin, but also the number being produced will be comparatively small – perhaps 300,000 in the first quarter, when demand is high, and then 100k afterward? – so this sounds more like a PR coup for those concerned.
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Is hi-res audio coming of age? • Futuresource Consulting

Alexandre Jornod:

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Amazon has just launched Amazon Music HD in the US, UK, Germany and Japan, becoming the first mainstream streaming service to offer Hi-Res. This new plan, which provides CD quality (16bit/44.1 kHz) and Hi-Res streaming of up to 24bit/192 kHz (when available) is priced at $14.99/month and $12.99/month for Prime members; compared to a minimum $19.99/month for Tidal and Qobuz, the other high-audio quality streaming services. Additionally, thanks to the growth of wireless speakers, notably driven by Amazon, the components required to fully benefit from Hi-Res have been significantly simplified, now incorporating all the required audio components into a single device. To successfully establish its service, Amazon will need to launch a new speaker, which offers an enhanced audio experience to justify the extra investment. This new device is rumoured to launch imminently and is likely to have a significant impact on bringing Hi-Res to the mass market by leveraging Amazon’s wider ecosystem.

Similarly, the audio manufacturer Devialet and streaming service Qobuz have recently partnered in France to offer for a fixed monthly price (from €39.90 per month, depending on the length of the contract) and a one-off initial payment, a high-end wireless speaker with a CD quality streaming subscription. This partnership might help in reducing the barrier of adoption for high-quality streaming by providing both the device and its content under a unique subscription. It also introduces long-term contractual commitment to a streaming plan, which so far was a specificity of telcos and TV cable providers.

While these two initiatives are mainly focussing on CD quality streaming (Hi-Res being anything above CD quality), they are expected to create awareness about higher audio quality streaming on top of incentivising users to invest in better quality speakers.

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Getting people to buy new kit when their old stuff is perfectly capable is a hell of a trick. Most people will never hear the difference: you need super-top-end kit and an acoustically excellent room. (I’ve been in those rooms with that kit.) Save your money. AAC is fine.
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ImageNet Roulette

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ImageNet Roulette is a provocation designed to help us see into the ways that humans are classified in machine learning systems. It uses a neural network trained on the “Person” categories from the ImageNet dataset which has over 2,500 labels used to classify images of people.

Warning: ImageNet Roulette regularly returns racist, misogynistic and cruel results. That is because of the underlying data set it is drawing on, which is ImageNet’s ‘Person’ categories. ImageNet is one of the most influential training sets in AI. This is a tool designed to show some of the underlying problems with how AI is classifying people.

UPDATE: IMAGENET ROULETTE HAS ACHIEVED ITS GOALS.

Starting Friday, September 27th this application will no longer be available online.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,151: TikTok’s meme vision, Huawei’s unfinished dev tool, YouTube creators hit by hackers, looking at Imagenet in detail, and more

  1. This is funny: https://www.thurrott.com/hardware/217209/xiaomis-mi-mix-alpha-is-a-crazy-phone-with-180-screen-to-body-ratio?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=xiaomis-mi-mix-alpha-is-a-crazy-phone-with-180-screen-to-body-ratio

    It’s a folding phone… that doesn’t unfold.I’ve been brainstorming with ex-i-Bro what it could be used for. Put a pic or vid of your face on the other side so the teacher doesn’t catch on you’re using your phone ?

    More seriously, the 108MP camera on that thing has impressive zoom capabilities. Or rather, you can crop and blow up and still get something very nice. All the samples are w/ lots of light and static subjects though, I smell a rat. https://www.gsmarena.com/xiaomi_publishes_first_camera_samples_from_mi_mix_alphas_108mp_camera-news-39324.php

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