Start Up No.1,153: TikTok’s moderation revealed, Apple still seeks thinner keyboards, Amazon’s new kit, WeWork’s counterfeit capitalism, and more


OK, iOS 13 won’t ask for permission over this sort of Bluetooth. CC-licensed photo by Carlos Merigo on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Revealed: how TikTok censors videos that do not please Beijing • The Guardian

Another great scoop by Alex Hern:

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The guidelines divide banned material into two categories: some content is marked as a “violation”, which sees it deleted from the site entirely, and can lead to a user being banned from the service. But lesser infringements are marked as “visible to self”, which leaves the content up but limits its distribution through TikTok’s algorithmically-curated feed.

This latter enforcement technique means that it can be unclear to users whether they have posted infringing content, or if their post simply has not been deemed compelling enough to be shared widely by the notoriously unpredictable algorithm.

The bulk of the guidelines covering China are contained in a section governing “hate speech and religion”.

In every case, they are placed in a context designed to make the rules seem general purpose, rather than specific exceptions. A ban on criticism of China’s socialist system, for instance, comes under a general ban of “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc”.

Another ban covers “demonisation or distortion of local or other countries’ history such as May 1998 riots of Indonesia, Cambodian genocide, Tiananmen Square incidents”.

A more general purpose rule bans “highly controversial topics, such as separatism, religion sects conflicts, conflicts between ethnic groups, for instance exaggerating the Islamic sects conflicts, inciting the independence of Northern Ireland, Republic of Chechnya, Tibet and Taiwan and exaggerating the ethnic conflict between black and white”.

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The spread of Chinese apps has concomitant risks to what we are shown about the world around us. Is it “censorship” or “moderation”?
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Everything Amazon announced: Echo Buds, Echo Frames, Echo Loop • WIRED

Boone Ashworth and Michael Calore:

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If cramming Alexa into your ears isn’t enough, how about putting Alexa directly onto your face? Echo Frames are Amazon’s new Alexa-enabled smart glasses that let you talk to Alexa without having to whip out your phone. This means you can talk to Alexa in all the places you previously could not without being a rude phone person, like at the movies, in the gym locker room, or at your favorite brunch spot. OK, maybe barking at Alexa in those situations would still be rude—which is likely why Amazon is releasing these glasses in limited quantities to start. If they’re a hit, then we’ll see production ramp up. These smart glasses—which have microphones but, critically, no camera—go on sale to beta testers this fall for $180 a pair. You can add a prescription if you want as well.

[Which brings us to the Echo Loop.] At this point, do you have any limbs that aren’t Alexa-enabled? The new Echo Loop is a smart ring, because of course it is. (The company really missed the opportunity to call it the Ring Ring.) Two microphones, a tiny speaker, and haptic alerts let you talk to the hand (your own) to respond to notifications or ask Alexa a question.

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Not sure what the point of the Echo Frames is, honestly. And the Ring looks weird. I could see the point of a smart ring which tells you things, but not one you just talk to. (The Echo Buds are wireless earbuds.)
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Apple is evaluating new keyboard mechanisms to make thinner MacBooks • Apple Insider

Malcolm Owen:

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The butterfly keyboard mechanism used in the current generation of MacBook Pro models has gone through a number of revisions to fix issues with how it functions, including occasions where debris could interfere with the mechanism’s operation. The issues have led to the creation of a repair program to fix the problem, but complaints about the component continue to be made.

The keyboard is also a space-occupying component of a notebook’s design, with the switch mechanism providing an actuation, namely the physical movement of the key to register a press and to reset. In order to allow this to happen, a mechanism has to sit between the key and the circuit board, taking up valuable space that could be used to make the notebook design even thinner, or to provide more battery capacity.

In a patent published by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday titled “Keyboard assemblies having reduced thickness and method of forming keyboard assemblies,” Apple seeks to do just that.


An illustration of the PCB at the bottom of the stack, with layers for the membrane, switching mechanism, and keycap.

In Apple’s filing, the company suggests the use of a single membrane sheet adhered directly to the printed circuit board (PCB). A switch housing can optionally be affixed directly to the membrane layer or to the PCB, sandwiched between the two, and a dome switch coupled directly on top to the membrane layer.

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This had better be tested to death. Also: won’t that be incredibly difficult to replace in the event of a single key failure?
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Regulating Big Tech makes them stronger, so they need competition instead • Open Voices

Cory Doctorow:

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Over the past 12 months there has been a radical shift in the balance of power on the internet. In the name of taming the platforms, regulators have inadvertently issued them a “Perpetual Internet Domination Licence”, albeit one that requires that they take advice from an aristocracy of elite regulators. With only the biggest tech companies able to perform the regulatory roles they have been assigned because of complexity and cost, they officially become too big to fail, and can only be nudged a little in one direction or another by regulators drawn from their own ranks.

As has been the case so often in the internet’s brief life, humanity has entered uncharted territory. People (sort of) know how to break up a railway or an oil company and America once barely managed to break up a phone company. No one is sure how to break up a tech monopolist. Depending on how this moment plays out, that option may be lost altogether.

But competition is too important to give up on.

One exciting possibility is to create an absolute legal defence for companies that make “interoperable” products that plug into the dominant companies’ offerings, from third-party printer ink to unauthorised Facebook readers that slurp up all the messages waiting for you there and filter them to your specifications, not Mark Zuckerberg’s. This interoperability defence would have to shield digital toolsmiths from all manner of claims: tortious interference, bypassing copyright locks, patent infringement and, of course, violating terms of service.

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All well and good; but what if they just don’t want to compete? Did companies compete with Microsoft once the SMB protocol was more open? (I don’t know the answer to this.) Interop sounds attractive. But competition only arises if there are willing competitors.
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Google’s knowledge panels are magnifying disinformation • The Atlantic

Lora Kelley:

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Over the years, the [UK national who works in tech consultancy called Martin John] Bryant I spoke with has gotten messages calling him a psycho; been taunted by Australian teens on WhatsApp; received an email from schoolchildren saying how evil he was (their teacher wrote an hour later to apologize); and even had a note sent to his then-employer informing them that they’d hired a killer.

But the biggest issue? When people Google him, an authoritative-looking box pops up on the right side of the results page, informing them that “Martin John Bryant is an Australian man who is known for murdering 35 people and injuring 23 others in the Port Arthur massacre.” He fears that he’s missed out on professional opportunities because when people search his name, “they just find this guy with a very distinct stare in his eyes in the photos and all this talk about murder.”

That box is what Google calls a “knowledge panel,” a collection of definitive-seeming information (dates, names, biographical details, net worths) that appears when you Google someone or something famous. Seven years after their introduction, in 2012, knowledge panels are essential internet infrastructure: 62% of mobile searches in June 2019 were no-click, according to the research firm Jumpshot, meaning that many people are in the habit of searching; looking at the knowledge panel, related featured snippets, or top links; and then exiting the search. A 2019 survey conducted by the search marketing agency Path Interactive found that people ages 13 to 21 were twice as likely as respondents over 50 to consider their search complete once they’d viewed a knowledge panel.

This is all part of an effort to “build the next generation of search, which taps into the collective intelligence of the web and understands the world a bit more like people do,” as Amit Singhal, then the senior vice president in charge of search at Google, wrote in a 2012 blog post.

But people do not populate knowledge panels. Algorithms do.

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WeWork and counterfeit capitalism • Matt Stoller’s BIG

Matt Stoller has a newsletter, and this is from the latest:

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Amazon has spawned a host of imitators, including WeWork. It has also reshaped venture investing. The goal of Son, and increasingly most large financiers in private equity and venture capital, is to find big markets and then dump capital into one player in such a market who can underprice until he becomes the dominant remaining actor. In this manner, financiers can help kill all competition, with the idea of profiting later on via the surviving monopoly.

Engaging in such a strategy used to be illegal, and was known as predatory pricing. There are laws, like Robinson-Patman and the Clayton Act, which, if read properly and enforced, prohibit such conduct. The reason is very basic to capitalism. Capitalism works because companies that thrive take a bunch of inputs and create a product that is more valuable than the sum of its parts. That creates additional value, and in such a model companies have to compete by making better goods and services.

What predatory pricing does is to enable competition purely based on access to capital. Someone like Neumann, and Son’s entire model with his Vision Fund, is to take inputs, combine them into products worth less than their cost, and plug up the deficit through the capital markets in hopes of acquiring market power later or of just self-dealing so the losses are placed onto someone else. This model has spread. Bird, the scooter company, is not making money. Uber and Lyft are similarly and systemically unprofitable. This model is catastrophic not just for individual companies, but for their competitors who have to *make* money. I’ve written about this problem before. Amazon has created a much less competitive and brittle retail sector. Netflix’s money-losing business is ruining Hollywood.

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This part at least isn’t libellous, but Stoller isn’t restrained in his criticism of many of the key players. A must-read. (Thanks John Naughton for the link.)
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Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 review: master entertainer, amateur worker • The Verge

Dan Seifert:

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Using DeX on such a small screen is also frustrating due to the amount of scrolling and flipping between windows that’s required to multitask. Virtual desktops would help with this, but DeX doesn’t support them. There is also no window snapping features that I could find; resizing the windows requires tapping and dragging on the screen or using the fiddly trackpad on the keyboard. DeX on the Tab S6 is nice to have in a pinch to knock out an email while on the go, but it’s not something I’d like to use as my primary computer or for any extended length of time.

There are other bugs in Samsung’s software that I’ve found frustrating to deal with. The night mode, which flips the interface to a dark shade in the evening, constantly forgets its settings; the screen brightness will aggressively dim itself to unreadable levels when I hold the tablet in landscape because my hand blocks the light sensor; search in DeX doesn’t work on the first keystroke, requiring me to type “OOutlook” if I want to launch my email app; and I’ll have to frequently reboot the tablet to get the Wi-Fi to work.

Basically, the Tab S6 is a very good tablet to use to watch video, provided you don’t block the light sensor with your palm. If all you want from a tablet is to lean back and watch video on your couch, the Tab S6 is excellent for that.

The problem is that “good for watching video” is about the lowest bar to hit for a tablet in 2019. The iPad was great for watching video almost 10 years ago, and Amazon’s Fire HD 10 will do the job for about a third of the cost of the Tab S6 if that’s all you need.

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Amazing that at this point Samsung isn’t just cutting its prices to push everyone else on Android out of the market. Instead it sticks with its high-end products, which can’t be selling well enough to justify it.
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Here’s why so many apps are asking to use Bluetooth on iOS 13 • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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A beacon is very easily able to detect your device’s Bluetooth chip and log that with a retailer or some other app on your phone. So getting more strict about Bluetooth is a good move by Apple to prevent unwanted tracking of its customers.

Similarly, the company is also getting even more transparent about location, showing you on a map how often and where apps have recorded your position. This prompt is much easier to understand, and will probably startle people into slimming down the list of apps that can monitor where they are. As it should!

But there’s more room for confusion around the Bluetooth prompt.

At the most basic level, I think some iPhone owners are going to wonder and maybe even assume that they must grant Bluetooth permission for music and other media apps to continue working with their Bluetooth earbuds, headphones, or speakers. It’s a reasonable question when you see that an app “would like to use Bluetooth.” (To be clear, you don’t have to. Bluetooth audio is handled through system settings, is separate from apps, and will continue working for apps that you deny permission for.)

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Most people probably won’t know that about the audio. That generic “would like to use” could probably be improve. Might be fun to deny all these and see how things change.
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Mysterious Mac Pro shutdowns likely caused by Google Chrome update • Variety

Janko Roettgers:

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A serious data corruption issue that resulted in Mac Pro workstations being rendered unusable at a number of Hollywood studios Monday was likely caused by a browser update gone haywire: Google told Mac Pro users Tuesday evening that an update to its Chrome browser is likely to fault for the issue, which particularly impacted video editors across Hollywood and beyond.

“We recently discovered that a Chrome update may have shipped with a bug that damages the file system on MacOS machines,” the company wrote in a forum post. “We’ve paused the release while we finalize a new update that addresses the problem.”

Reports of Mac Pro workstations refusing to reboot started to circulate among video editors late Monday. At the time, the common denominator among impacted machines seemed to be the presence of Avid’s Media Composer software.

The issue apparently knocked out dozens of machines at multiple studios, with one “Modern Family” reporting that the show’s entire editing team was affected. Avid’s leadership updated users of its software throughout the day, advising them to back up their work and not to reboot their machines.

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Thanks Nic for the pointer.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,153: TikTok’s moderation revealed, Apple still seeks thinner keyboards, Amazon’s new kit, WeWork’s counterfeit capitalism, and more

  1. re. SMB: it’s complicated.
    – Samba got better, so you could discreetly slide a few Linux+Samba servers and they would work in the end, with a fair bit of elbow grease. This probably got leveraged into a relatively painless switch to less-Windows in some shops
    – SMB mainly got obsoleted
    – SMB kept evolving (1.0 even 2.0 IIRC has fatal security flaws and is now not only disabled by default, but a pain to re-enable)

    I struggled last summer with sharing the content of a USB drive hooked up to my PC with my Android devices because for some reason SMB 3+ was required (not well supported on older Androids) *and* there’s weirdness combining USB + Windows sharing + SMB. Ended hooking up several external drives to my NAS, which now looks like a tentacular monstrosity. And glitches a bit, I’ve got to hook them back up one by one after a reboot, which thankfully is about once a year.

  2. Re. Galaxy Tablets: Samsung has a whole range starting around $100 with the A line, then the E line (or maybe the other way around), then the S line, then previous years models (usually, 2 years back catalog remains available).
    They’re not competing on pure price. DeX probably works well enough for a few use cases.They’re still the only ones with a pen.
    Also, Samsung likes promos a lot, I’d take those prices with a shovel of salt. One must be either in a great hurry or a bit stupid to pay anywhere near list price. Maybe discounts are more effective than everyday low prices.
    And finally, contrary to the doom and gloom PR from some quarters, the Android market tablet is quite lively (why get a smart speaker or singly-use Assistant device when you can get a tablet for about the same price ?). I don’t think Lenovo, Huawei, Xiaomi, Amazon (with an added PlayStore) could be easily driven out of it.

    Lenovo is even resurrecting its excellent Yoga Tab line, hooray !

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