Start Up No.1,171: Indian call centre virus scam arrests (redux), Facebook zaps more foreign spies, why no carbon tax?, China lives the American Dream (sorta), and more

Would you go near this in a small unpowered boat with just your feet to save you? CC-licensed photo by Lois Lindemann on Flickr.

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

‘I lost £4,000 in a call centre scam’ • BBC News

Rory Cellan-Jones:


When Doug Varey clicked on a pop-up ad offering computer security protection for 12 years for £556, he signed up.

“I had no reason to suspect it wasn’t genuine,” he says. That was a mistake. Mr Varey was a victim of a common online scam known as computer software service fraud, which ended up costing him some £4,000.

Indian police have now shut two call centres and arrested seven people suspected of involvement in the scam, which has seen victims lose thousands. The arrests follow an international operation involving British and Indian Police and the tech giant Microsoft.

The BBC has had exclusive access to the operation. The investigation, which has taken four years, focused on what is known as computer software service fraud.

The City of London Police say it is one of the most common online scams, with over 2,000 cases reported to Action Fraud every month.


I’d love to think that these fraudulent calls will now stop, but they won’t. It’s lucrative, and closing the call centre doesn’t catch the masterminds behind them. There are arrests like this every so often: in November 2018 we were told of raids on 26 centres, with 60 arrests; in March 2017 we were “inside” the scam, which was targeting TalkTalk customers; the US FTC said it had shut down a “massive” scam in November 2014; I discovered that two men in Canada were behind one of the scams and raking in millions of pounds/dollars annually. I told the London police. Nothing I could discern happened.
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Removing more coordinated inauthentic behavior from Iran and Russia • Facebook Newsroom

Nathaniel Gleicher is Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy:


Today, we removed four separate networks of accounts, Pages and Groups for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram. Three of them originated in Iran and one in Russia, and they targeted a number of different regions of the world: the US, North Africa and Latin America. All of these operations created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing. We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.

We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.


I thought manipulating people was basically the point. Also, this is just the stuff they’re catching.
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A carbon tax is an effective and progressive solution for climate change. Why won’t Democrats embrace it? • The Washington Post


The IMF reiterates what economists have long understood: enacting a carbon tax is “the single most powerful and efficient tool” because pricing mechanisms “make it costlier to emit greenhouse gases and allow businesses and individuals to choose how to conserve energy or switch to greener sources through a range of opportunities.” Politicians should favor choice and flexibility over central planning. “People and firms will identify which changes in behavior reduce emissions — for example, purchasing a more efficient refrigerator versus an electric car — at the lowest cost.”

By contrast, “regulations might not leave sufficient flexibility for households and firms to find least-cost options.” Regulators might not foresee or support novel technologies, and intrusive rules “motivate firms to collude with officials to alter or evade the regulations.” They also provide weak incentives for companies to invest in a wide range of better technology, because only the state’s favored approaches to decarbonizing the economy would be rewarded. For these reasons, regulatory and other alternative approaches cost society some 50% to 100% more than a carbon tax for the same environmental benefits.

The IMF found that the average global price is a paltry $2 per ton of carbon dioxide, while the world requires a $75-per-ton global carbon tax by 2030 to keep warming below the 2-degree Celsius threshold scientists advise. Electricity prices would rise 70% on average — though only 53% in the United States — and gasoline prices 5% to 15% in most places.

But that’s the picture before one considers what the money raised by a carbon tax could do. If governments recycled the revenue back to low-income and vulnerable people, and cut economically inefficient taxes — such as income taxes — a $50-per-ton carbon tax would feel to the economy more like $20/ton. The plan would help low-income households and place a higher burden on the upper-income bracket. There could also be money for essential research and development to aid the energy transition.


Amazing that fuel prices would rise so little compared to electricity. And this is overdue.
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Peak District anglers dangerously close to huge plug hole • BBC News


Two anglers in small boats have been filmed dangerously close to a giant “plug hole” at a reservoir.

They were spotted on Saturday a few metres from a 20m deep overflow hole at Derbyshire’s Ladybower Reservoir.

Severn Trent Water, which owns the reservoir, warned people boating and fishing there to keep “well away” from the plug hole and to stay safe.

Flo Neilson, who captured the footage while walking her dogs, said the anglers’ actions looked dangerous. “It appeared they were floating towards the plughole whilst still casting their lines, but they were purposely paddling with flippers on their feet,” she said. “It looked a dangerous and risky thing to do, but they seemed to be in control of the boats and had soon moved away after I’d stopped filming.”

Severn Trent Water said the plugholes led to a 66ft (20m) drop into a tunnel carrying water to the river through a grill, and warned that anyone who fell in could get seriously injured or trapped.


Just to say that the overspill featured here is indeed a feature of this very site. Also, they’re lucky not to be fish food. (Thanks Steve for the link.)
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It is your own fault if you get hooked on technology • Financial Times

Susie Mesure:


In an open-plan office he swears something as simple as printing out a sign that says, “I need to focus right now but please come back soon” will work wonders, important because research shows our brains take 20 minutes to switch between tasks.

At home, his wife wears a “concentration crown” complete with built-in LED lights to show she is otherwise engaged…

…Mr Eyal [who formerly advised on how to make apps more addictive] sometimes wears a T-shirt emblazoned with INDISTRACTABLE although today his tech-chic suit-jacket-and-jeans combo seems to embody his best-of-both-worlds iPhone philosophy: owning the latest model — he whips his out to show me — doesn’t equate to hours lost scrolling because he has hacked his apps right back, plus scrolling is fine provided you scroll on your schedule.

The key is timeboxing, a personal productivity tool to organise your calendar for anything from browsing Facebook or exercising to writing a report or doing the dishes.

Mr Eyal is evangelical about the approach — derided as infantilising by FT columnist Tim Harford — crediting it with saving his marriage among other things because he and his wife now divvy up chores that were falling to her.

“If something is on your to-do list, that’s output. You can’t plan output without input and your input is your time, so it’s important to make sure you have that time on your schedule. I agree it is more work but look, we live in the 21st century. We don’t have to hunt our own food. We don’t have to chop our own wood. I’m asking you to keep a calendar.”

Timeboxing doesn’t mean he never feels the urge to check Twitter or email when he should be doing something else, but he insists he has learnt to ride the urge by waiting it out: imposing a ten-minute rule is helpful.


Surely money to be made from that LED-powered concentration crown.

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The American Dream is alive in China • Palladium Magazine

Jean Fan:


Coverage I’ve read in American discourse focuses on the dystopian side of the Chinese government. Examples abound: from its oppression of Uyghurs, to its outright ban of many religious groups, to its increasingly aggressive influence in American political and social life—like the Blizzard and NBA cases over the last week. But over the last five years, this discourse, though often correct, has felt increasingly disconnected from my personal experiences in China and the more fundamental problems at hand. In particular, it fails to comment on the larger, more important context: how much better life has become for many Chinese people, China’s new self-confidence, and America’s struggle with development, optimism, and sovereignty.

China is changing in a deep and visceral way, and it is changing fast , in a way that is almost incomprehensible without seeing it in person. In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better.

In China, the pace of change is on everyone’s mind. Last March, my cousin was marveling to me how quickly items could be delivered to her house: with same-day delivery on clothing ordered from Taobao (the world’s biggest e-commerce website), for example, and with takeout often being delivered within ten minutes of ordering food via smartphone. Meanwhile, my grandpa proudly noted that the government had reduced or eliminated entrance fees to many national parks, and was also in the process of significantly reducing university tuition for students over the next couple of years. My dad, on a drive between Hangzhou and Shanghai, said that the government was planning to test a ban on the production and sale of non-electric cars in certain cities by the early 2020s, as well as figuring out when to institute a more general ban.

I was struck by the pride Chinese people now have in their country. As an American, it felt foreign to me—the sort of thing I’d seen when people talked about going to space in the 1960s, or when they talked about the U.S. before 9/11. In my father’s car, I felt a bit of envy and then nostalgia for something that I experienced only briefly as a child…

…Given recent discord and stagnation in American life, it can be hard to imagine what China feels like right now. In many ways, China in the 2010s reminds me of what I’ve read of America in the 1950s: the country is powerful, economic development is booming, and people are optimistic about the future.


This is something of an “apart from the oppression of the Uyghurs, repression of political opinion and pervasive government surveillance and censorship, how was the play Mrs Lincoln?” sort of article. And yet, and yet…
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SoftBank to take control of WeWork – sources • CNBC

David Faber and Thomas Franck:


SoftBank, led by Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, plans to spend somewhere between $4bn and $5bn on new funding and existing shares, sources say.

The deal will value WeWork between $7.5bn to $8bn on a pre-funding basis and could be announced as soon as Tuesday. It is SoftBank itself taking control, not the start-up focused Vision Fund. After the move, Softbank would then have as much as 70% or more control of WeWork.

SoftBank exec Marcelo Claure will be involved in the company’s management, while former CEO Adam Neumann’s stake will fall to low double digits. Prior to the takeover, SoftBank had already invested $10.65bn in the space-sharing company. Part of the new funding will involve warrants that were expiring, the sources said.

The anticipated SoftBank takeover marks the latest chapter in a dramatic year for what was at one point anticipated to be one of Wall Street’s hottest initial public offerings. Last month, the start-up terminated plans to go public. Its much-anticipated IPO prospectus in August revealed a huge $900m loss in the first six months of 2019 and drew worries over its corporate governance practices.


Well that’s an Icarus-style story coming to a rapid conclusion. SoftBank pumped up the valuation wildly, now it’s eating the results.
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Make your own vinyl records with the $1,100 Phonocut • WIRED

Boone Ashworth:


Better clear out several shelves of storage space, vinylheads, because your record collection is about to expand into infinity. Soon, you’ll be able to get absolutely anything on vinyl. Even better—you’ll be able to make it.

The Phonocut is an analog vinyl lathe, the first consumer device capable of making custom records immediately, right there in your home (assuming you’re willing to pay $1,100 for the privilege).

The device cuts 10-inch vinyl records, which can hold about 10 to 15 minutes of audio on each side. It’s a connected device; a companion app helps with formatting and song arrangement to better fit your music onto the two sides. But at its core, the Phonocut was designed for simplicity. All you have to do is plug in an audio cable, like from a headphone jack, and press Play.

“It has to be idiot-proof,” says Florian “Doc” Kaps, an Austrian analog enthusiast and Phonocut cofounder. “Even I myself should be in a position to cut the records.”

The machine works in real time. As the music plays, a diamond stylus etches the sound wave straight into the surface of the vinyl. Theoretically, you could put any audio you want on there—a custom playlist, your own embarrassing electronica experiments, whale sounds—whatever. After a half hour of playback, you have a physical saucer of sound ready to pick up, hold, and toss on a turntable.


Then you can put it on a turntable which outputs via an analogue-to-digital converter, capture it as a digital file, and.. what just happened? You’re also $1,100 poorer, plus the cost of the vinyl. Meanwhile the Earth and you are both one day closer to extinction.
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Google Pixel 4 XL review: Untapped potential • Android Authority

Kris Carlon:


It’s difficult to position the Pixel 4 in Android terms because Google itself seems intent on positioning it in Apple terms. Specs aren’t the priority here, convenience is. Customization is trumped by auto-everything. The price is not backed up by any traditional definition of value, and so on. The only phone I can honestly say the Pixel 4 is competing with is the iPhone 11 series. It certainly isn’t speaking the same language as other Android phone makers and so can’t really be understood in those terms.

For us, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are the “but” phone. They have amazing capabilities and some groundbreaking tech, but they’re a bit myopic. Yes, a radar-based gesture system is awesome, but what good is it if the battery life sucks? Yes, astrophotography mode is a remarkable achievement, but it needs a wide-angle lens to shine (especially at this price). Yes, a face unlock system is good, but if your apps don’t support it because Google didn’t flex like Apple did, is it really better than a fingerprint? You get the idea: the Pixel 4 is great, but…


For another point of view, there’s Dieter Bohn at The Verge: he’s enthusiastic, but harder to excerpt. Personally, in their Pixel 4-v-iPhone 11 shootouts, I prefer the look of the iPhone 11 photos.
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Alexa and Google Home abused to eavesdrop and phish passwords • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:


The malicious apps [written as demonstrations by white hat hackers] had different names and slightly different ways of working, but they all followed similar flows. A user would say a phrase such as: “Hey Alexa, ask My Lucky Horoscope to give me the horoscope for Taurus” or “OK Google, ask My Lucky Horoscope to give me the horoscope for Taurus.” The eavesdropping apps responded with the requested information while the phishing apps gave a fake error message. Then the apps gave the impression they were no longer running when they, in fact, silently waited for the next phase of the attack.

As the following two videos show [embedded in the original article], the eavesdropping apps gave the expected responses and then went silent. In one case, an app went silent because the task was completed, and, in another instance, an app went silent because the user gave the command “stop,” which Alexa uses to terminate apps. But the apps quietly logged all conversations within earshot of the device and sent a copy to a developer-designated server.

The phishing apps follow a slightly different path by responding with an error message that claims the skill or action isn’t available in that user’s country. They then go silent to give the impression the app is no longer running. After about a minute, the apps use a voice that mimics the ones used by Alexa and Google home to falsely claim a device update is available and prompts the user for a password for it to be installed.

SRLabs eventually took down all four apps demoed. More recently, the researchers developed four German-language apps that worked similarly. All eight of them passed inspection by Amazon and Google.


That’s clever. Very clever.
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European wearables market more than doubled in 2Q19 • IDC


“Earwear brands continue to modernize their portfolios by including more connected products. This enables them to know more about and engage more with their customers than ever before,” said Francisco Almeida, senior research analyst for wearable devices at IDC. “Knowing the customer profile and having a broad installed base enables better development of future product lines and a sustainable services strategy. That has been a recurrent theme across all form factors in the wearables market.”

“Smart wearable devices like watches and wrist bands offer interesting use cases for the connected consumer, including the smart home owner,” said Jiří Teršel, senior research analyst for Systems and Infrastructure Solutions at IDC. “There is still room for vendors to educate different consumer segments about smart wearables/smart home synergy. Even some experienced users don’t know everything that’s possible. When devices are properly deployed, users should almost forget that automation exists.”
Earwear continued to register outstanding growth year over year at more than 400%. Apple takes the lion’s share of the market, and strong brands in the audio space continue to introduce new products and devote more marketing efforts to the category — helping the device to become the “new normal” for consumers.

Watch shipments grew 18.3% from 2Q18. The notable difference is in the mix between basic and smart wearables, with basic representing 26% of watch shipments, up from 22.8% in 2Q18, at a time when some of 2018’s leading players in the basic space are migrating to smart wearables, namely Fitbit and Garmin. Huawei has been the main driver behind the surge in basic watches.

Wrist bands registered strong results, with shipments growing 222% in Europe. Added to continued strong performances from Fitbit, Xiaomi, and Huawei, the entrance of Samsung in the space with the Galaxy Fit and Galaxy Fit E at customer-friendly price points also helped to drive the wrist band market in 2Q19.


“Earwear” is an eyecatching word, though the idea that brands build loyalty through them makes a lot of sense. IDC says Apple has a third of the market, twice as much as its next rival – take a bow, Samsung, which is three times bigger than nearest rival Fitbit.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,171: Indian call centre virus scam arrests (redux), Facebook zaps more foreign spies, why no carbon tax?, China lives the American Dream (sorta), and more

  1. Re Pixel Photos: If we wander outside the closed Apple-only perspective, the Pixel 4 is ranked 8th best photophone by DxOMark

    That’s a bit of a letdown, though keep in mind
    a) DxO is very lab-oriented while the Pixel’s computational cam is geared towards IRL. The problem with lab stuff is that if you forget to test for something, it doesn’t exist in the grade; real-life reviews are less catastrophic-oversight prone
    b) that one score is an aggregation of several distinct sub-scores (daytime/low-light, pics/vids/selfies, portraits/landscapes…) and worth re-computing to your own profile (I never take selfies, have given up on landscapes… or is it the other way round ? ^^)

    But I think Apple has closed the picture gap that had opened up these last few years, and it doesn’t have any weak spots (Huaweis have one w/ videos). They’ve also closed the battery gap that had opened up… this last decade. They’ve only got to close the price and features gap and they’ll be golden, but at least there’s no longer a crucial reason to *not* get an iPhone.

    I’ve gotten a very photo-happy friend to buy a pocket-friendly compact digital camera for the first time in years, because the extra cost to get a top-shelf cam in a smartphone is very high. It’s mostly a failure, he’s taking it on week-end outings most of the time, but not daily and in the end takes less than 20% of his pics with it. The pics are not overwhelmingly better though there are fewer failed pics especially in special circumstances (contre-jour, macro…), and the extra steps to share them are a bother. He’s getting a new top shelf… not Huawei, so Samsung. The idea that some people spend $700+ every 2 years to get a $350 compact camera in the $200 phone they’d otherwise be happy with is a bit frustrating, but there doesn’t seem to be a better way to do that in practice.

    “I prefer the look of the iPhone 11 photos.”. Hey, I won a bet ! The easiest bet ever !
    “Dieter Bohn at The Verge: he’s enthusiastic, but harder to excerpt.” “but” or “so” ? ;-p

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