Start Up No.1,186: Google’s data grab, Apple’s AR headset timings, what if China makes Libra?, and more

Magic Leap has put up a bunch of patents as collateral for a loan. Is it in trouble? CC-licensed photo by Collision Conf on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Not unseated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google’s ‘Project Nightingale’ gathers personal health data on millions of Americans • WSJ

Rob Copeland:


The data involved in the initiative encompasses lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.

Neither patients nor doctors have been notified. At least 150 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients, according to a person familiar with the matter and the documents.

Some Ascension employees have raised questions about the way the data is being collected and shared, both from a technological and ethical perspective, according to the people familiar with the project. But privacy experts said it appeared to be permissible under federal law. That law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, generally allows hospitals to share data with business partners without telling patients, as long as the information is used “only to help the covered entity carry out its health care functions.”

Google in this case is using the data, in part, to design new software, underpinned by advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, that zeroes in on individual patients to suggest changes to their care. Staffers across Alphabet, Google’s parent, have access to the patient information, internal documents show, including some employees of Google Brain, a research science division credited with some of the company’s biggest breakthroughs.


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Apple eyes 2022 release for AR headset, 2023 for glasses • The Information

Wayne Ma, Alex Heath and Nick Wingfield:


Apple’s headset, code-named N301, will offer a hybrid of AR and VR capabilities, according to people familiar with the device. It resembles the Oculus Quest, a Facebook virtual reality headset released earlier this year, but with a sleeker design, these people said. Cameras will be mounted on the outside of the device, allowing people to see and interact with their physical surroundings, they said. Apple wants to make heavy use of fabrics and lightweight materials to ensure the device is comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, executives said in the presentation in October.

The headset will have a high-resolution display that will allow users to read small type and see other people standing in front of and behind virtual objects. The technology will be able to map the surfaces, edges and dimensions of rooms with greater accuracy than existing devices on the market, executives said at the meeting. To illustrate these capabilities, attendees at the October meeting were shown a recording of a demonstration in which a virtual coffee machine was placed on a real kitchen table surrounded by people in a room. The virtual coffee machine obscured people standing behind it in the room.

Apple is planning to reach out to third-party software developers as early as 2021 to encourage them to build apps for the new hardware, the company told employees at the October meeting. 

In contrast, Apple’s AR glasses, code-named N421, present bigger technical challenges than the headset and are further from release. They are meant to be worn all day, and current prototypes look like high-priced sunglasses with thick frames that house the battery and chips, according to a person who has seen them. 


“Thick frames”. Hmmm. At least three years away from production though.
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All Magic Leap patents have apparently been assigned to J.P. Chase Morgan as collateral • Karl Guttag

Karl Guttag:


Things have been very quiet lately with respect to Magic Leap. So quiet, that apparently the assignment of all of Magic Leap patents over 2 months ago went unnoticed. Except for a few users trying to keep it alive, the Sub-Reddit on Magic Leap pretty dead for many months. The initial source of information for this article came from a post on the AR_MR_XR Sub-Reddit. Reddit user, u/LegendOfHiddnTempl found that USPTO is now showing all Magic Leap patents to be assigned to J.P. Morgan Chase as collateral. The patents include the former Osterhaut Design Group (ODG) patents Magic Leap acquired via Magic Leap’s shell company Mentor Acquisitions earlier this year.

I checked on the official USPTO website and sure enough, the assignment as collateral document was executed on August 20th, 2019 and is publicly available copied here. I have cut and pasted a few key parts of the 451-page document listing all the patents and applications that have been assigned. I have not checked every patent, but it appears to be all of Magic Leap’s I.P. including the former ODG patents.

Apparently Magic Leap needed to put up their I.P. as collateral for a loan. As recent as April 2019, it was announced that NTT Docomo had invested $280m on top of deals with AT&T and SK Telecomm. Magic Leap is estimated to have over 1,800 employees and 19 office sites.

Employees of high-tech companies doing work like Magic Leap typically run about $250,000 or more of salary, benefits, office/facilities/equipment per employee per year. Senior R&D people can cost even more, but even if technicians are paid much less, the equipment they run is often very expensive. Then you have the SG&A on which Magic Leap appears to be heavily spending with a lot of marketing and facilities. When you total it all up, most people I talk to think Magic Leap is spending somewhere between $600m and $800m per year and that they have burned through all of their initial $2.4bn.


Ooww. There’s still no sign of Magic Leap.. leaping. It’s barely even crawling. Another crunch for a hugely hyped augmented reality startup.
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Deep learning has a size problem • Heartbeat

Jameson Toole:


There are many examples of massive models being trained to achieve ever-so-slightly higher accuracy on various benchmarks. Despite being 24X larger than BERT, MegatronLM is only 34% better at its language modeling task. As a one-off experiment to demonstrate the performance of new hardware, there isn’t much harm here. But in the long term, this trend is going to cause a few problems.

First, it hinders democratization. If we believe in a world where millions of engineers are going to use deep learning to make every application and device better, we won’t get there with massive models that take large amounts of time and money to train.

Second, it restricts scale. There are probably less than 100 million processors in every public and private cloud in the world. But there are already 3 billion mobile phones, 12 billion IoT devices, and 150 billion micro-controllers out there. In the long term, it’s these small, low power devices that will consume the most deep learning, and massive models simply won’t be an option.

To make sure deep learning lives up to its promise, we need to re-orient research away from state-of-the-art accuracy and towards state-of-the-art efficiency. We need to ask if models enable the largest number of people to iterate as fast as possible using the fewest amount of resources on the most devices.


This does then go very deep into all the machine learning models out there. But the general point seems worth making.
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The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising • The Correspondent

Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn:


Two weeks later, [professor of economics at the UCal Berkeley, Steve] Tadelis met the marketing consultants in the flesh. The advisers had put together a slick presentation demonstrating how eBay was raking in piles of cash with its brilliant ad campaigns. Tadelis recalled: “I looked around the room, and all I saw were people nodding their heads.”

Brand keyword advertising, the presentation informed him, was eBay’s most successful advertising method. Somebody googles “eBay” and for a fee, Google places a link to eBay at the top of the search results. Lots of people, apparently, click on this paid link. So many people, according to the consultants, that the auction website earns at least $12.28 for every dollar it spends on brand keyword advertising – a hefty profit!

Tadelis didn’t buy it. “I thought it was fantastic, and I don’t mean extraordinarily good or attractive. I mean imaginative, fanciful, remote from reality.” His rationale? People really do click on the paid-link to an awful lot. But if that link weren’t there, presumably they would click on the link just below it: the free link to The data consultants were basing their profit calculations on clicks they would be getting anyway.

Tadelis suggested an experiment: stop advertising for a while, and let’s see whether brand keyword advertising really works. The consultants grumbled.

When, a few weeks later, Tadelis contacted the consultants about a follow-up meeting, he was told the follow-up had come and gone. He hadn’t been invited.


This is a deep look at what’s fairly evident: a lot of ad spend is to make people (advertiser, publisher, middlemen-aplenty) feel good.
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About the Apple Card (JHH) • DHH

Following on from that “Apple Card gave my wife lower credit than me” row..:


My name is Jamie Heinemeier Hansson. Since my husband, David, tweeted about an unfortunate and ridiculous situation with AppleCard that involves me, I have been (or my credit-worthiness has been) the subject of lots of speculation. Unlike David, I am an extremely private person who does not post on social media. I am slightly mortified to have my name in the news. However, lest I be cast as a meek housewife who cannot speak for herself, I would like to make the following statement:

I care about digital privacy. It’s why I wanted an AppleCard in the first place.

I care about transparency and fairness. It’s why I was deeply annoyed to be told by AppleCard representatives, “It’s just the algorithm,” and “It’s just your credit score.” I have had credit in the US far longer than David. I have never had a single late payment. I do not have any debts. David and I share all financial accounts, and my very good credit score is higher than David’s. I had a career and was successful prior to meeting David, and while I am now a mother of three children — a “homemaker” is what I am forced to call myself on tax returns — I am still a millionaire who contributes greatly to my household and pays off credit in full each month. But AppleCard representatives did not want to hear any of this. I was given no explanation. No way to make my case.


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Unpacking the Apple Card credit limit fiasco • FinTech Today

Ian Kar follows up on the original post of the above:


we just gotta get this outta the way: There’s no way Goldman Sachs nor Apple — two of the biggest companies in the world — didn’t vet the shit outta their cobranded credit card prior to launch. Goldman’s not made up of idiots that just skirt regulation whenever they want. And Apple isn’t the type of company to just allow gender discrimination (or any other type) on a financial product they put their name to. And, as Aaron Suplizio pointed out, that’s also very illegal. [You can’t use gender/age/ethnicity as an input for a credit line amount in the US.]

How likely do you think it is that Apple and Goldman Sachs rolled out an illegal credit card?

…Also, discrimination is a tricky thing of course, but there have been a few instances (also on Twitter) that show that the opposite of DHH’s experience, namely from my buddy Alex Cohen [who got a lower credit limit than his wife]. 

The second bit: I’m not DHH’s accountant nor am privy to his financial situation but it’s safe to assume that the founder of a successful software company is more wealthy than the average person. But the Apple Card was designed to be a mass market credit card for the average American. Retrofitting that for the ultra-wealthy—like DHH, Steve Wozniak, and others—is difficult and something that’s not really scalable. And yelling at GS customer support people won’t do much—they’re not privy to all the details, (like, you know most customer service teams.)  

The most likely issue here is around spending behavior: credit card limits are designed to enable spending within your means. If you spend $5,000 a month, what the hell are you going to do with a credit card with a spending limit of $30,000? If anything, those credit card systems would be irresponsibly: they’d be enabling users to potentially fall into debt. These are also unsecuritized credit lines. A bank isn’t and doesn’t want to be in the business of repoing assets to pay back credit card debt, so its unlikely things like assets matter that much. 


That “spending per month” point seems the best one. But: it would still be good to know.
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A Chinese digital currency is the real threat, not Facebook’s Libra • The Guardian

Professor Kenneth Rogoff (economics and public policy at Harvard U):


China’s burdensome capital controls, its limits on foreign holdings of bonds and equities, and the general opaqueness of its financial system leave the yuan many decades away from supplanting the dollar in the legal global economy.

Control over the underground economy, however, is another matter entirely. The global underground economy, consisting mainly of tax evasion and criminal activities, but also terrorism, is much smaller than the legal economy (perhaps one-fifth the size), but it is still highly consequential. The issue here is not so much whose currency is dominant, but how to minimise adverse effects. And a widely used, state-backed Chinese digital currency could certainly have an impact, especially in areas where China’s interests do not coincide with those of the west.

A US-regulated digital currency could in principle be required to be traceable by US authorities, so that if North Korea were to use it to hire Russian nuclear scientists, or Iran were to use it to finance terrorist activity, they would run a high risk of being caught, and potentially even blocked. If, however, the digital currency were run out of China, the US would have far fewer levers to pull. Western regulators could ultimately ban the use of China’s digital currency, but that wouldn’t stop it from being used in large parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, which in turn could engender some underground demand even in the US and Europe.

…Just as technology has disrupted media, politics, and business, it is on the verge of disrupting America’s ability to leverage faith in its currency to pursue its broader national interests.


Libra worries me, because of its potential to become a completely out-of-control global currency. A Chinese cryptocurrency could, as he points out, be equally bad, but in different ways.
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Facebook claims we’re ‘clickbait.’ and it won’t explain why • Truth or Fiction?

Arturo Garcia:


Even as Facebook hides behind “free speech” concerns to justify a lack of action against the spread of far-right content, it does reserve the right to determine what constitutes “clickbait” with no explanation as to how that decision is reached and who makes decisions when affected outlets file an appeal.

In August 2019, we were notified that our fact-checking site — which is made up entirely of reporters who once worked for a former Facebook partner, — has been deemed by the platform several times as engaging in “clickbait” practices. In each case, the notices contain vague advisories about “misleading or sensational headlines”.

As we can confirm from speaking to two other legitimate outlets tagged as “clickbait” in Wonkette and KTOO-FM, Facebook’s appeals process does not provide an opportunity to speak with an actual person behind the platform’s rationale for limiting the reach of our posts and with that our ability to make money through pageviews and reader engagement.

Rebecca Schoenkopf, owner and publisher of the often acerbic news and commentary site Wonkette, told us that being docked as “clickbait” had not affected her site’s reach, because she believed that Facebook had already been throttling the site — since at least January 2018.

“We’re getting 2,000 visitors from Facebook a day across a dozen posts, with [having] 100,000 followers on Facebook,” she said. “Now they have an official excuse to do it, though.”

According to Schoenkopf, her site also began getting “clickbait” notices in August 2019. An appeal on their part was denied. “They just tell us that we have been clickbaity and we will be throttled and we can appeal, and then we appeal and it just says, ‘Your appeal is the same, you are clickbait,” Schoenkopf told us. She called it “aggravating” for right-wing blogs like the Daily Wire and Breitbart to receive consistent boosts from Facebook.

“I can’t imagine there’s no clickbait in any of their headlines,” Schoenkopf said. “It really feels like we’re being scapegoated.”


I bet there’s a Facebook moderator saying “ehh, this site gets people sharing it when a meme comes up. Must be clickbait.”
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Netflix, HBO and cable giants are coming for password cheats • Bloomberg

Gerry Smith:


Programmers and cable-TV distributors are considering an array of tactics to cut off people who borrow credentials from friends and relatives to access programming without paying for it. The possible measures include requiring customers to change their passwords periodically or texting codes to subscribers’ phones that they would need to enter to keep watching, according to people familiar with the matter.

Some TV executives want to create rules governing which devices can be used to access a cable-TV subscription outside the home. While someone logging in from a phone or tablet would be fine, someone using a Roku device at a second location could be considered a likely freeloader, one person said.

If none of those tactics work, pay-TV subscribers could someday be required to sign into their accounts using their thumbprints.

“I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall,” Tom Rutledge, the chief executive officer of Charter Communications Inc., said during an earnings call last month. “It’s just too easy to get the product without paying for it.”


How is Netflix going to organise it for its family accounts, where you have multiple users who might legitimately be in multiple locations (parents, students, older children)? Will thumbprints be de rigeur there too? What if you don’t have a thumb-enabled device, or any biometrically-capable device? There’s a very “bell the cat” approach here: everyone wants it to have happened, but nobody wants to actually do it.
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The ham-handed, money-driven mangling of Sports Illustrated and Deadspin • The New Yorker

Louisa THomas:


Former Deadspin staffers have strongly disputed G/O Media’s contention that non-sports posts did not attract the highest traffic. In fact, they have claimed the opposite. (A story in the Los Angeles Times looked at the numbers and backed up the former staffers.) On another level, though, that argument doesn’t matter: it has long been a fundamental tenet of the site that in order to understand what happens in sports you have to look outside of them. You have to understand power, money, and the broader culture in which athletes—and the people in their orbit—operate. If you want to understand the flaws in the way the major sports leagues address domestic violence, for instance, you need to understand the problems with zero-tolerance policies. To understand anything in America right now, you have to talk about the context that has created Donald Trump, and the context that Trump, in turn, has helped to create. And another of Deadspin’s central themes has been that human beings should be allowed to talk about important things, and joke about ridiculous things, regardless of what their job is—not because they have a platform or a mandate but just because they’re human beings.

I don’t doubt that ESPN’s audience research suggested that many people, as they eat their Cheerios, prefer not to read about anything more controversial than going for a two-point conversion. That’s a human impulse, too. But the anxiety around preserving sports as a carefully insulated and entertaining distraction may be as damaging as treating them merely as a vehicle for short-term profits—and may not be entirely unrelated.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,185: the tech crash risk, the wonders of ‘Chi-fi’, how AirBnB screwed its New Jersey vote, and more

Who can control the algorithm that decides how much credit you get? Who can query it? Who can change it? CC-licensed photo by Jeff Geerling on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash • The Guardian

Rana Foroohar:


[the wealth divide has been emphasised by] the rise of intangibles such as intellectual property and brands (both of which [Apple] has in spades) relative to tangible goods as a share of the global economy. As Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake show in their book Capitalism Without Capital, this shift became noticeable around 2000, but really took off after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. The digital economy has a tendency to create superstars, since software and internet services are so scalable and enjoy network effects (in essence, they allow a handful of companies to grow quickly and eat everyone else’s lunch). But according to Haskel and Westlake, it also seems to reduce investment across the economy as a whole. This is not only because banks are reluctant to lend to businesses whose intangible assets may simply disappear if they go belly-up, but also because of the winner-takes-all effect that a handful of companies, including Apple (and Amazon and Google), enjoy.

This is likely a key reason for the dearth of startups, declining job creation, falling demand and other disturbing trends in our bifurcated economy. Concentration of power of the sort that Apple and Amazon enjoy is a key reason for record levels of mergers and acquisitions. In telecoms and media especially, many companies have taken on significant amounts of debt in order to bulk up and compete in this new environment of streaming video and digital media.

Some of that debt is now looking shaky, which underscores that the next big crisis probably won’t emanate from banks, but from the corporate sector. Rapid growth in debt levels is historically the best predictor of a crisis. And for the past several years, the corporate bond market has been on a tear, with companies in advanced economies issuing a record amount of debt; the market grew 70% over the past decade, to reach $10.17tn in 2018. Even mediocre companies have benefited from easy money.

But as the interest rate environment changes, perhaps more quickly than was anticipated, many could be vulnerable.


If it all goes tits up, then the tech companies will get the blame, rather than the banks.
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Global smartwatch shipments leap to 14 million units in Q3 2019 • Strategy Analytics


According to the latest research from Strategy Analytics, global smartwatch shipments grew an impressive 42% annually to reach 14m units in the third quarter of 2019. Apple Watch maintained first position with 48% global smartwatch marketshare, while Samsung held second place, and Fitbit clung on to third.

Steven Waltzer, Senior Analyst at Strategy Analytics, said, “Global smartwatch shipments grew an impressive 42% annually from 10.0 million units in Q3 2018 to 14.2 million in Q3 2019. Smartwatch growth continues to soar, as consumers increasingly accessorize their smartphones with fitness-led and health-focused wearables.”

Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics, added, “Apple shipped 6.8 million smartwatches worldwide in Q3 2019, rising an above-average 51% from 4.5 million in Q3 2018. Apple Watch remains a long way ahead of the chasing pack and its global smartwatch marketshare has grown from 45% to 48% in the past year. Apple Watch continues to fend off strong competition from hungry rivals like Fitbit and Samsung. Apple Watch owns half the worldwide smartwatch market and remains the clear industry leader.”

Steven Waltzer, Senior Analyst at Strategy Analytics, added, “Samsung shipped 1.9 million smartwatches worldwide in Q3 2019, almost doubling from 1.1 million a year ago. Samsung’s global smartwatch marketshare has jumped from 11% to 13% during the past year. Samsung is firmly established as the world’s number two smartwatch vendor. Recent new models, such as Galaxy Watch Active 2, should enable Samsung to improve its global smartwatch presence during the upcoming Q4 holiday season.”


This is a long, long way from a mature market. Though it’s looking a lot like the tablet market, or the iPod market: Apple collects all the money and has a sizeable share; everyone else scrabbles for scraps.
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This solar farm has to switch off every second day due to negative prices • RenewEconomy

Giles Parkinson:


When Australia’s renewable energy portfolio reached its important milestone on Wednesday of providing 50% of the main grid’s demand for the first time, one solar farm couldn’t be part of the fun, and had to look on from the sidelines.

The sight of wind and solar farms being switched off when wholesale electricity prices fall into negative territory has become increasingly common over the last few months, particularly in Queensland and South Australia.

But the facility that appears to have been affected the most has been the 95MW Tailem Bend solar farm in South Australia, owned by Vena Energy and operating since earlier this year.

Tailem Bend has an off-take agreement with Snowy Hydro that broadly requires it to switch off when wholesale electricity prices go into negative territory, although the details are likely to be more complex than that.


It’s bizarre that Australia is such a huge user of solar power, and yet its politicians are so indifferent to the risks posed by climate change.
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The wonderful world of Chinese hi-fi • The Verge

Dan Nosowitz on the rise of the surprisingly cheap, surprisingly hi-quality “Chi-fi”:


Chinese brands cut out all of that [branding/marketing/testing] stuff. Only the biggest and most ambitious of these companies even bother with a website; most of them have little more than a vendor page on AliExpress. Some of these companies buy their drivers — the actual speakers — from the same factories that provide Sennheiser and Beats with theirs. Tin Audio uses Knowles balanced armature drivers for its T3 model; those are the most important thing inside this product. Those same drivers, or at least very similar ones, can also be found in Ultimate Ears IEMs that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The factories that make the drivers don’t care who they sell to; they maintain a certain level of quality because their clients depend on that. And once you’ve sourced the parts, it’s not expensive at all to put them together. “If you have a van and a bottle of glue,” Klasco says, “you can be in the business.”

What you sometimes end up with is a headphone with shockingly high-end internals, meaning excellent sound quality, from a company that has essentially no overhead. Those companies can still make a solid profit — if anyone can find their stuff.

It’s difficult to say how much intellectual property theft is in the mix. There’s rampant counterfeiting going on in these same Chinese tech hub cities, and you can often find homegrown Chinese brands sitting alongside counterfeit Western products at the markets and conventions around China (and on AliExpress and Amazon, for that matter). Klasco told me that he’ll often just ask vendors at these conventions for a tour of their facilities. If they make excuses for why he can’t come visit, the company might be doing something they want to keep quiet — reselling, or counterfeiting, or worse.


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EU unhappy with changes to Google’s Shopping service • Mediapost

Laurie Sullivan:


Google’s efforts to drive more traffic to European comparison shopping rivals have failed, Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s Competition Commissioner, told attendees at a conference.

Two years ago, Vestager fined Google $2.65bn (€2.4bn) for favoring its own price-comparison shopping service, citing anti-competitive business practices.

Google then offered to allow competitors to bid for advertising space at the top of a search page, giving them the opportunity to compete on equal terms.

“We may see a show of rivals in the shopping box,” she told attendees, according to one report. “We may see a pickup when it comes to clicks for merchants. But we still do not see much traffic for viable competitors when it comes to shopping comparison.”


The problem has always been that Google could put its own shopping adverts for free on top of any organic SEO, so it wins from those. If rivals have to buy adverts, it wins from those (and sees the data on what succeeds). It can’t be made fair without wholesale reform.
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I ranked every UK constituency by deprivation and then coloured them by party affiliation – for fun! • CityMetric

Alasdair Rae:


What would it look like if we made a map of UK politics that wasn’t a map at all? What if we mapped out all 650 UK constituencies based on their level of deprivation, ranked them in ten equal groups of 65 and then coloured them by the party who won in each area in 2017?

Well, we’d have something that looks quite like a patchwork quilt of UK politics, as you can see below. The most deprived constituencies are in the left hand column, the least deprived are in the right hand column. In each column, constituencies towards the top are more deprived than the ones at the bottom.

[Click for larger version]

I originally attempted this in 2017 and with a new election looming and UK politics very much in a state of flux, I thought it would be interesting to do it again. Constituencies are coloured by who won in 2017, not the medley of party affiliations we ended up with at the end of the current parliamentary session.


That’s interesting enough, but then you get into Remain/Leave by deprivation per constituency, which turns out to have no clear correlation apart from a lot of Remain at the least deprived end.

This is one of the more interesting ways to slice and dice the data on parties and constituencies. (Via Sophie Warnes’s Fair Warning newsletter.)
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Financial crime through video games is on the rise; counter-terrorists win • The Economist


On October 28th Valve announced it was stopping the trading between players of “container keys”—an in-game gambling device that players can buy (with real money) to try to win (virtual) rewards such as special weapons or clothing. The firm says “nearly all” of the trades of such keys were “believed to be fraud-sourced”. It is a rare admission of the growing problem of using video games to facilitate financial crime.

The company has released no further details, and did not reply to a request for information from The Economist. But it seems likely that the keys, which were bought with stolen credit cards, were then traded between accounts on Steam’s marketplace. Players cannot withdraw real money from their accounts, but in-game credit can be used to buy new virtual rewards or games. There is a burgeoning market (on third-party websites) for accounts already loaded up with virtual cash. Criminals can cash out by selling to gamers keen to acquire games or virtual items cheaply.


You’ll need to register to read more, but it’s quite a move that Valve is taking this seriously.
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Child abusers run rampant as tech companies look the other way • The New York Times

Michael Keller and Gabriel Dance:


Approaches by tech companies are inconsistent, largely unilateral and pursued in secret, often leaving pedophiles and other criminals who traffic in the material with the upper hand.

The companies have the technical tools to stop the recirculation of abuse imagery by matching newly detected images against databases of the material. Yet the industry does not take full advantage of the tools.

Amazon, whose cloud storage services handle millions of uploads and downloads every second, does not even look for the imagery. Apple does not scan its cloud storage, according to federal authorities, and encrypts its messaging app, making detection virtually impossible. Dropbox, Google and Microsoft’s consumer products scan for illegal images, but only when someone shares them, not when they are uploaded.

And other companies, including Snapchat and Yahoo, look for photos but not videos, even though illicit video content has been exploding for years. (When asked about its video scanning, a Dropbox spokeswoman in July said it was not a “top priority.” On Thursday, the company said it had begun scanning some videos last month.)

The largest social network in the world, Facebook, thoroughly scans its platforms, accounting for over 90% of the imagery flagged by tech companies last year, but the company is not using all available databases to detect the material. And Facebook has announced that the main source of the imagery, Facebook Messenger, will eventually be encrypted, vastly limiting detection.


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How Airbnb’s fight to overturn a New Jersey law imploded • Ars Technica

Paris Martineau:


In 2015, Mayor Steve Fulop entered into an agreement with Airbnb that was estimated to potentially earn the city up to $1m in occupancy tax revenue a year. In exchange, Airbnb worked to get Jersey City officials to implement rules legalizing short-term rentals. Airbnb touted its work with Jersey City as an exemplary partnership, highlighting it at length in PR materials concerning regulations in the following years. At the time of the agreement, Jersey City officials lauded Airbnb and explicitly encouraged the use of the platform generally in statements issued at the time.

City officials now say that the legalization of short-term rentals was a grave mistake. When the deal was struck in 2015, there were around 300 active Airbnb listings in Jersey City. Within one year, that number had grown to roughly 2,000, according to an Airbnb press release from December 2016. At present, there are upward of 3,000 Airbnb listings in Jersey City, the majority of which are whole-home rentals—where the owner isn’t present during the guests’ stay—and are operated by hosts that run multiple properties, according to data from Inside Airbnb, an independent site tracking the company. (Airbnb questioned the methods used to collect the data, but did not provide WIRED with any evidence disputing the claims.)

Officials say that the boom converted precious housing stock into de facto hotels, resulting in higher rents, quality of life issues in neighborhoods plagued by transient occupants, and an exacerbated housing crisis. It’s a concern echoed by many cities, as local government officials around the nation grapple with how best to handle the increasing popularity of short-term rental platforms like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO in high-tourism areas.

In June 2019, the Jersey City council introduced a new ordinance aimed at remedying these issues. Starting in January 2020, rentals of a whole home or apartment where the owner isn’t present are capped at 60 days a year; renters are largely barred from listing their homes on platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway; and short-term rentals are banned in many multifamily buildings, among many other provisions. The ordinance passed, but Airbnb poured money into the city to gather resident signatures in opposition. Within 20 days of the ordinance’s passage, the company gathered more than 20,000 signatures, forcing a referendum.


The referendum went 70% against AirBnB (on a pretty small turnout; 26,000 votes total, and only 8,000 pro-AirBnB, which makes the 20,000-signature thing look a bit odd). Neighbours tend not to like short-term lets, and until you get a city to being 50% AirBnB “hosts”, there’ll always be more neighbours than hosts.
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“The @AppleCard is such a fucking sexist program… • Thread Reader App (via Twitter)

David Hansen found his wife assigned a different credit limit on her Apple/Goldman Sachs credit card, even though he and she are essentially the same financially – though she, it turned out, has a higher credit score than him:


So let’s recap here: Apple offers a credit card that bases its credit assessment on a black-box algorithm that 6 different reps across Apple and GS have no visibility into. Even several layers of management. An internal investigation. IT’S JUST THE ALGORITHM!

So nobody understands THE ALGORITHM. Nobody has the power to examine or check THE ALGORITHM. Yet everyone we’ve talked to from both Apple and GS are SO SURE that THE ALGORITHM isn’t biased and discriminating in any way. That’s some grade-A management of cognitive dissonance.

Apple has handed the customer experience and their reputation as an inclusive organization over to a biased, sexist algorithm it does not understand, cannot reason with, and is unable to control. When a trillion-dollar company simply accepts the algorithmic overlord like this…

What’s even worse is how complete and unquestioned the faith of these Apple reps were in the wisdom of THE ALGORITHM. To be point of essentially credit shaming my wife, assuming her score must have been lower than mine, and roping us into a TransUnion shakedown to check.

So yeah, I completely stand by my original charge: @AppleCard is a sexist program. It does not matter what the intent of individual Apple reps are, it matters what THE ALGORITHM they’ve placed their complete faith in does. And what it does is discriminate. This is fucked up.

It’s also fucked up how they chose to raise my wife’s limit without ever addressing the root of the issue. Let’s just, essentially, bribe one loud mouth on Twitter, then we don’t have to actually examine our faulty faith in THE ALGORITHM…

This is the soft undermining of people’s sense of self. The algorithm might discriminate out of biased historical training data, faulty but uncorrectable inputs, programming errors, or malicious intent. You’ll never be able to know.


Lots (and I mean LOTS) of people on Twitter thought this was (a) simply about gender discrimination (b) were happy to say “well, I’m sure that the banks must have good reasons, who are we to argue?”, thus demonstrating that they’d entirely missed his point – and also reinforcing it.

(Thread Reader App, by the way, creates a page of a thread: you respond to any tweet in a single person’s thread with “@threadreaderapp unroll” and it puts them onto a single page. Very useful.)
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British electricity since 2012 by Andrew Crossland • Infogram


The charts below show the energy mix each year. Note how coal is being squeezed out by gas and renewables.


I’d say that the thing to note is that consumption has gone down enormously – from 318TWh in 2012 to 272TWh in 2018, a fall of 15% – even while GDP has risen. Obvious question: is that due to a decline in manufacturing (especially steel) output, which is especially reliant on electricity? Hard to find clear data immediately, but it looks like output has stayed essentially the same.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,184: Twitter tries to dump the dunk, Microsoft’s lost bet, ‘personal CRM’, misunderstood marginalia, and more

The good news: all this is now open source. The bad news: it’s effectively dead. Or maybe that’s the good news. CC-licensed photo by sndrv on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Friday! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter is trying to fix the dunk and ratio with new product tweaks • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz:


Twitter knows we treat each other terribly on Twitter. We dunk, ridiculing friends and strangers via quote-tweets. We ratio, piling on replies to bad tweets. We retweet without a second thought, spreading outrage and misinformation at warp speed.

But within the next two weeks, Twitter will debut a series of experiments meant to calm us down — subtly motivating us to use the quote-tweet, reply, and retweet in nondestructive ways.

“Everything on our platform incentivizes some form of behavior,” David Gasca, a senior director of product management at Twitter, told BuzzFeed News. Amid the company’s push for healthier conversations, he’s wondering “if we modify how people can do retweets, or how people can reply, or how people can engage, how does that change conversation on the platform?”

Twitter hopes to find out. In a meeting at its San Francisco headquarters in late October, Gasca and Suzanne Xie, director of product management at Twitter, showed off two experiments among several that will go live in the coming weeks: In the first, Twitter will add an emoji to a retweet, giving people a chance to quote-tweet without going into the compose field. Gasca and Xie want to find out if this feature might encourage people to express more nuanced emotions, putting a damper on dunking and mindless retweeting.

In the second experiment, Twitter will automatically suggest people use an emoji in their replies. If you like something, you could use the heart-eyes emoji. If you don’t, you could use the red circle with a line going through it. But if you pick a negative emoji, Twitter will ask, “Why do you disagree?” — which it hopes will prompt a more thoughtful reply, rather than a flame war.


Good luck with that. (Alternatively: 🙄) A good idea, but there’ll surely be a lot of resistance.
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DxOMark scores shouldn’t be your definitive camera rating system • Android Authority

Robert Triggs:


DxO Labs, the company which runs the DxOMark testing suite, is primarily a consultancy company. In other words, the company charges fees to advise camera hardware companies on how to improve their photography products. This is based on its own analysis and expertise in the camera industry.

No review site is guaranteed to be free from bias, but DxO’s business revolves around attracting big companies to it to make use of its expertise, which adds a lot of baggage to their reviews. Ranking test results in a way that encourages consumers to buy certain phones over others complicates everything.

The company claims to run an independent test, but is that really possible when it offers for-profit consultancy at the same time? There’s no reason to believe DxOMark is in anyway rigging results. After all, the company’s business model depends on its reputation and its results tend to roughly fit with the broader consensus on camera hardware.

However, manufacturers that tune their cameras against the testing suite are likely to score higher than those who don’t. We have heard that a few smartphone manufacturers don’t think DxO’s consultancy fees are worthwhile. These manufacturers don’t score highly on DxO’s tests, if the company even reviews these phones at all.


I’ve never understood DxOMark’s number-specific testing; how does one slice up photo quality in the way that they do and hope ever to keep it sensible? Corralling all that into a single number seems even worse. Personally, I ignore these figures. Smartphones are long past this point, at least at the top end.
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Microsoft bet against Intel with its new Surfaces — and lost • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:


The focus on non-Intel chips was a big part of Microsoft’s 2019 Surface announcement. The company went out of its way to highlight the new, co-engineered Ryzen Surface Edition processor for the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, which was optimized specifically for Microsoft’s design. And the ARM-powered Surface Pro X, with a next-generation design and a custom variant of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx chip, was supposed to represent the future of the Surface.

Unfortunately, the reviews are in, and experience has shown that neither of those custom chips have panned out quite like Microsoft had hoped.

Let’s start with the Surface Laptop 3’s Ryzen Surface Edition chip from AMD. Microsoft said that the new chip was meant to offer faster speeds and improved graphics performance in particular, thanks to an extra core. But as my colleague Dan Seifert noted in his review, the AMD chipset still struggled with most games and even basic 4K video playback. More importantly, the AMD chip was crushed in a head-to-head contest when it came to exporting video against the 13-inch, Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3, which has more thermal limits due to its size and is cheaper than the larger model.

…Unfortunately, the Surface Pro X seems to prove once again that the dream of an ARM-based Windows laptop is still a half-baked idea. App compatibility is still a big issue, performance isn’t great, and the much-vaunted battery life doesn’t always hold up as well as promised. A lot of this is down to 32-bit app emulation: when apps are designed to run on ARM, the Surface Pro X actually does pretty well. But those apps are still few and far between — the hardware may be here, but the software isn’t. And if past history is anything to go by, Microsoft may have a hard time getting developers on board.


Wonder how that ARM Mac laptops are doing in their tests.
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How Google edged out rivals and built the world’s dominant ad machine: a visual guide • WSJ

Keach Hagey and Vivien Ngo:


Nexstar Media Group, the largest local news company in the US, recently tested what would happen if it stopped using Google’s technology to place ads on its websites.

Over several days, the company’s video ad sales plummeted. “That’s a huge revenue hit,” said Tony Katsur, senior vice president at Nexstar. After its brief test, Nexstar switched back to Google.

Alphabet’s Google is under fire for its dominance in digital advertising, in part because of issues like this. The US Justice Department and state attorneys general are investigating whether Google is abusing its power, including as the dominant broker of digital ad sales across the web. Most of the nearly 130 questions the states asked in a September subpoena were about the inner workings of Google’s ad products and how they interact.

We dug into Google’s vast, opaque ad machine, and in a series of graphics below, show you how it all works—and why publishers and rivals have had so many complaints about it.

Much of Google’s power as an ad broker stems from acquisitions of ad-technology companies, especially its 2008 purchase of DoubleClick. Regulators who approved that $3.1bn deal warned they would step in if the company tied together its offerings in anticompetitive ways.

In interviews, dozens of publishing and advertising executives said Google is doing just that with an array of interwoven products. Google operates the leading selling and buying tools, and the biggest marketplace where online ad deals happen.


It would take a huge lawsuit by the US DOJ to reverse this. It might be possible, but proving it would be hellish – and what would replace it?
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UpHabit, Dex, and the stilted rise of the personal CRM • The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:


“When life gets busy, sometimes we need to be reminded to enjoy our most meaningful relationships,” the creators of Garden write on their website. “Your relationships are secured for today!” the activity-completion page on Ryze announces once you’ve taken care of all your “following up.” Ntwrk promises to make its users into better friends, mentors, siblings, salespeople, and networkers; reminders to reach out also come with a summary of “what you last chatted about.” Social Contact Journal provides anniversary reminders and prewritten message templates.

While many of the apps have an explicit professional-networking utility, the Irish company Monaru, one of the Y Combinator companies, is focused specifically on users’ 10 to 15 closest relationships. Not only will Monaru remind you of a loved one’s birthday, but it will also suggest specific gifts to buy her. It can help you plan a date night, or remember to call your parents regularly. “Millennials are four times lonelier than seniors,” the company’s homepage reads, probably erroneously. The service costs $20 a month, and its tagline is “Be the most thoughtful person you know.” (The creators declined to be interviewed, saying they were “heads down” on the product.)

The idea of people as self-contained collections of data points is not a new one—the Quantified Self movement has been booming and busting since 2007. The idea of offloading your brain into a computer is not new either, though it’s a little more controversial now that we’re more aware of what happens to our personal information after we do so. But quantifying other people is different, and mediating relationships with software isn’t a purely personal decision.

All these apps released their first version in 2018 or 2019 (though Monaru is in private beta and Clay has a waitlist). They appear in the “Productivity” section of the App Store. They are, on their surface, another blurring of work and life, another viral tweet about how modern life is like a dystopian Mad Lib, and while you can fill in whatever nouns you like, the overarching story will be about exploitation, isolation, and capitalism run wild. Is that all they are?


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Misunderstanding nonlinear prices: evidence from a natural experiment on residential electricity demand • American Economic Association

Blake Shaffer:


This paper examines how consumers respond to nonlinear prices. Exploiting a natural experiment with electricity consumers in British Columbia, I find evidence that some households severely misunderstand nonlinear prices| incorrectly perceiving that the marginal price applies to all consumption, not simply the last unit. While small in number, the exaggerated responses by these households have a large effect in aggregate, masking an otherwise predominant response to average price. Previously largely unexplored in the literature, this type of misunderstanding has important economic, policy and methodological implications beyond electricity markets.


The full paper isn’t yet available except to AEA members. But as Paul Kedrosky (via) points out, this isn’t really about BC Hydro’s electricity pricing; it’s about how bad we are mentally at understanding marginal rates, where you pay (say) 10% tax on your first $1m of earnings, and then 90% for anything above it.

Quick: how much tax does someone who earns $1m pay? And someone who earns $2m, who is into the 90% tax bracket? Who ends up with more money? Our mental models work on linear maths, but this crucial tax system isn’t. (A human cognitive bias of sorts, perhaps?)
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Amazon’s Fire TV to carry Disney+ • WSJ

Dana Mattioli and Ethan Smith:


Amazon has reached a deal with Walt Disney Co. to carry the Disney+ streaming-video service on Fire TV devices, according to people familiar with the matter.

The two companies had been at loggerheads over terms for carrying Disney’s apps on Amazon’s Fire TV devices, the Journal reported last month. At the time, Fire TV wasn’t listed as a partner that would carry Disney’s new streaming service as a result of those disputes, The Journal reported.

Amazon was pushing for the right to sell a substantial percentage of the ad space on Disney apps. It is unclear if Disney agreed to Amazon’s terms. Disney+ launches on Tuesday. Disney is set to report earnings Thursday afternoon.

…Disney+, which will include franchises such as “The Simpsons,” “Frozen” and “Star Wars,” has been a draw for providers. Last month, Verizon Communications Inc. said it would offer its wireless customers on unlimited data plans a year of free access to Disney+, giving the cellphone carrier a fresh way to hold on to customers.

Under that agreement, Disney and Verizon would share the cost of providing the content to the carrier’s subscribers, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.


The subtle push and pull of platforms v content is playing out all over again; we saw it before with smartphones and services. What sort of deal – if any – did Apple make with Amazon to get Apple+ onto Fire sticks, one wonders?

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‘Fake News’ isn’t easy to spot on Facebook, according to new study • University of Texas News


In the study, participants fitted with a wireless electroencephalography headset were asked to read political news headlines presented as they would appear in a Facebook feed and determine their credibility. They assessed only 44% correctly, overwhelmingly selecting headlines that aligned with their own political beliefs as true. The EEG headsets tracked their brain activity during the exercise.

“We all believe that we are better than the average person at detecting fake news, but that’s simply not possible,” said lead author Patricia Moravec, assistant professor of information, risk and operations management. “The environment of social media and our own biases make us all much worse than we think.”

Moravec, along with Randall K. Minas of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Alan R. Dennis of Indiana University, authored the study, “Fake News on Social Media: People Believe What They Want to Believe When it Makes No Sense at All,” published today in Management Information Systems Quarterly.

The researchers worked with 80 social media-proficient undergraduate students who first answered 10 questions about their own political beliefs. Each participant was then fitted with an EEG headset. The students were asked to read 50 political news headlines presented as they would appear in a Facebook feed and assess their credibility. Forty of the headlines were evenly divided between true and false, with 10 headlines that were clearly true included as controls: “Trump Signs New Executive Order on Immigration” (clearly true), “Nominee to Lead EPA Testifies He’ll Enforce Environmental Laws” (true), “Russian Spies Present at Trump’s Inauguration — Seated on Inauguration Platform” (false).

The researchers randomly assigned fake news flags among the 40 noncontrol headlines to see what effect they would have on the participants’ responses…

…As they worked through the exercise, the participants spent more time and showed significantly more activity in their frontal cortices — the brain area associated with arousal, memory access and consciousness — when headlines supported their beliefs but were flagged as false. These reactions of discomfort indicated cognitive dissonance when headlines supporting their beliefs were marked as untrue.


Love that last bit. Also: explains why Facebook would be so lairy of labelling news content. It doesn’t want readers feeling uncomfortable.
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Google open-sources Cardboard SDK to keep it alive • Android Police

Manuel Vonau:


Long before Google introduced Daydream and subsequently left it dead in the water, the company created the Cardboard platform. You can use the carton headsets as an ultra-low-budget entry to VR to this day, and they’re compatible with almost any regularly shaped phone on the market. Google has now open-sourced the underlying VR SDK which will allow interested developers to create their own VR experiences on Cardboard viewers and improve and enhance the project as they see fit.

Google says that it still wants to contribute to the project and plans to release a Unity SDK package, but it hasn’t actively developed the Google VR SDK for some time already. Still, it sees “consistent usage around entertainment and education experiences,” so it didn’t want to shut down the platform altogether. Google states that “an open source model will enable the community to continue to improve Cardboard support and expand its capabilities, for example adding support for new smartphone display configurations and Cardboard viewers as they become available.”


Alternative headline: “Google puts Cardboard into back of car to drive to the mountains for a long refreshing walk.” It’s dead, Jim. All the signs are that virtual reality is heading for another winter.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,183: Saudi moles inside Twitter, Facebook docs show data plan, Uber ignored jaywalkers (fatally), Xerox + HP = ?, and more

Another dose of PM25 pollution, brought to you by the piston effect. All aboard! CC-licensed photo by ben.snider on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Accept notifications Yes/Agree/OK? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima and Greg Bensinger:


The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing the company’s information on dissidents who use the platform, marking the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused the kingdom of running agents in the United States.

One of those implicated in the scheme, according to court papers, is an associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who the CIA has concluded likely ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.

The case highlights the issue of foreign powers exploiting American social media platfoms to identify critics and suppress their voices. And it raises concerns about the ability of Silicon Valley to protect the private information of dissidents and other users from repressive governments.

The charges, unveiled Wednesday in San Francisco, came a day after the arrest of one of the former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen who is alleged to have spied on the accounts of three users — including one whose posts discussed the inner workings of the Saudi leadership — on behalf of the government in Riyadh.


People getting access to inner workings is a classic method of espionage; the other is blackmail, so maybe Twitter (and Facebook…) could think about how they might discover that happening among their staff. The stakes are so high for nation states that a bit of light national destabilisation (or national boosting) goes with the territory.
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Xiaomi’s Apple Watch clone removes everything good about the Apple Watch • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


Xiaomi has gone back to its roots as a purveyor of shameless Apple ripoffs, and hot off the photocopier is the Xiaomi Mi Watch, a new wearable that is decidedly Cupertino-inspired. The Mi Watch is an Apple Watch clone, but the design is pretty much the only thing that’s cloned here. You won’t get a good SoC, a good operating system, good battery life, good haptics, or a good app ecosystem. From a distance, though, some people might mistake the Mi Watch for an Apple Watch, and maybe that’s enough.

The Mi Watch is a Wear OS device powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 3100, a combination that makes any wearable device pretty much dead on arrival. Qualcomm has been neglecting the smartwatch market since basically its inception and has never produced a serious competitor to the chips Samsung and Apple regularly put out. The Snapdragon Wear 3100 features a quad-core, 1.2GHz Cortex A7 CPU, a CPU design that is just barely from this decade, having been originally introduced in 2011. This 28nm chip doesn’t stand a chance against its faster, smaller, more battery-efficient rivals, but Qualcomm’s monopoly ensures it is basically the only game in town for smartwatch chips.

Surrounding the museum piece of a CPU is a 1.78-inch, 448×368 OLED display, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, and a 570mAh battery.


I’m getting the feeling that Ron isn’t a fan.
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Amazon testing workout tracking in Echo Buds • CNBC

Todd Haselton:


Amazon sent us a version of the Echo Buds to review a few weeks ago. While writing a review of the Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet on Tuesday, I paired the review unit Echo Buds to listen to some music. As I was moving through the Alexa app on the tablet, which is how you manage the Echo Buds connected to a device, I saw something I didn’t see when I first reviewed the Echo Buds a couple of weeks ago.

Inside the Alexa app, under where you would normally manage the equalizer settings for the Echo Buds, was a whole new “Fitness” section.

The section included the option to track a workout, a fitness profile that included only a space for my height, and a Workouts heading.

Under the Workouts heading, it suggested I could start tracking a workout by speaking “Alexa, start a workout.”

I said this and it said “OK, starting your workout.” I walked around the office with the Echo Buds in my ears, and it appeared to have tracked my movement, telling me, “You’ve worked out for 1 minute and 37 seconds. You’ve logged 0.04 miles with an average pace of 44 minutes and 13 seconds per mile. You took 114 steps.”


So that’s “workout” as in “running or walking”. But a clever way to annexe the fitness-oriented user; it’s pretty primitive, but sufficient as an add-on. I don’t honestly see this as a giant rival for the Apple Watch; it’s more likely to gain users on Android, for ecosystem reasons. Pity that Haselton didn’t try running, or going up and down some stairs, as part of his testing.
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Twitter Topics: follow subjects automatically in the timeline • The Verge

Casey Newton:


Recently, a friend told me he wanted to spend more time using Twitter, but he didn’t quite know how. His primary interest is comedy, he told me, and he hoped to find a way to see comedians’ best jokes on Twitter as they were posted. But when he followed comedians, he mostly saw a lot of self-promotion — tour dates, late-night appearances, and that sort of thing. No matter your personal interests, there are countless good and relevant tweets on Twitter. But where are they?

Topics, a new feature from Twitter that is starting to roll out this week, represents a significant effort to answer that question. You will be able to follow more than 300 “topics” across sports, entertainment, and gaming, just as you are currently able to follow individual accounts. In return, you’ll see tweets from accounts that you don’t follow that have credibility on these subjects.

Twitter executives hope that Topics will make the platform more approachable for new and intermittent users and make it easier for heavier users to discover new accounts and conversations. The feature, which began testing on Android in August, is set to roll out globally on November 13th.

“We know that the main reason that people come to Twitter is to keep up on the things that they’re interested in,” said Rob Bishop who leads Topics team. “The challenge is it’s really quite difficult to do that on Twitter day to day.”

The idea of letting people follow topics in addition to (or instead of) individual accounts dates back to the earliest days of the company. But it took the development of machine learning tools and the hiring of a human editorial team, among other things, to make it happen.


Every formless machine-mediated system used by humans tends towards a human-curated system: discuss. Examples: Facebook’s News Tab; Twitter Trends and Moments.
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Leaked documents show Facebook leveraged user data to fight rivals and help friends • NBC News

Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar:


A cache of leaked Facebook documents shows how the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, oversaw plans to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip. The documents were obtained and are being published by NBC News.

This trove comprises approximately 7,000 pages in total, of which about 4,000 are internal Facebook communications such as emails, web chats, notes, presentations and spreadsheets, primarily from 2011 to 2015. About 1,200 pages are marked as “highly confidential.”

Taken together, they show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook users’ data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over the companies it partnered with. In some cases, Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.

For example, Facebook gave Amazon special access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising. In another case the messaging app MessageMe was cut off from access to data because it had grown too popular and could compete with Facebook.

All the while, Facebook planned to publicly frame these moves as a way to protect user privacy, the documents show.


Links to the documents on the page. (Might take a little while to skim them.) More fallout from the Six4Three lawsuit, where Facebook preemptively yanked its access – unfairly, the smaller company says.
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London Underground: the dirtiest place in the city • Financial Times

Camilla Hodgson, Leslie Hook and Steven Bernard:


If you are one of the 4.8m passengers who uses the London Underground every day, you might think you are escaping the pollution dangers from road travel, with its exhaust fumes and soot.

The reality is very different. Although its health risks have been little studied and little publicised, other than a handful of recent scientific papers, the Tube is by far the most polluted part of the city. Fine particles of dust, metal, skin and clothing fibre have built up in the tunnels over a century of use, leaving a toxic miasma that is stirred up by passing trains and inhaled by passengers.

A Financial Times investigation has mapped the air quality in the carriages of the London Underground. Using hundreds of measurements covering 75 tunnel segments inside Zone 1 in central London, the investigation found that levels of pollution on the Underground are dangerously high — as much as 10 times above the guidelines set by the World Health Organization in some parts of the network.

Commuters travelling on the Central, Victoria and Northern lines are most at risk, according to the analysis by the Financial Times.

“These are shocking, worrying findings. We know particulates are the most dangerous of the air pollutants,” says Jenny Bates, an air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “We must sort out this terrible level of bad air. It’s absolutely essential for the health of anybody using the Tube.”


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The World Has Gone Mad and the System Is Broken • LinkedIn

Ray Dalio is co-chief investment officer and co-chairman of Bridgewater Associates, L.P.:


investors lending to those who are creditworthy will accept very low or negative interest rates and won’t require having their principal paid back for the foreseeable future. They are doing this because they have an enormous amount of money to invest that has been, and continues to be, pushed on them by central banks that are buying financial assets in their futile attempts to push economic activity and inflation up. The reason that this money that is being pushed on investors isn’t pushing growth and inflation much higher is that the investors who are getting it want to invest it rather than spend it. This dynamic is creating a “pushing on a string” dynamic that has happened many times before in history (though not in our lifetimes) and was thoroughly explained in my book Principles for Navigating Big Debt Crises…

…At the same time, pension and healthcare liability payments will increasingly be coming due while many of those who are obligated to pay them don’t have enough money to meet their obligations. Right now many pension funds that have investments that are intended to meet their pension obligations use assumed returns that are agreed to with their regulators. They are typically much higher (around 7%) than the market returns that are built into the pricing and that are likely to be produced. As a result, many of those who have the obligations to deliver the money to pay these pensions are unlikely to have enough money to meet their obligations. Those who are recipients of these benefits and expecting these commitments to be adhered to are typically teachers and other government employees who are also being squeezed by budget cuts. They are unlikely to quietly accept having their benefits cut.


Flippantly: can’t we got those investors to lend their money to the pension and healthcare liabilities?

More seriously: Dalio also points to growing government deficits as pointing towards rising interest rates, but the world economy is too overleveraged, and so can’t bear that. Something’s got to give.
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Xerox considers takeover offer for HP • WSJ

Cara Lombardo:


A deal would join two household names with storied pasts that have been scrambling to retool their businesses as the need for printed documents declines. Both companies are in cost-cutting mode and a union could afford new opportunities to shed expenses—to the tune of more than $2bn, the people said.

Xerox, based in Norwalk, Conn., primarily makes large printers and copy machines and most of its almost $10bn in annual revenue comes from renting and maintaining them for businesses. HP, based in Palo Alto, Calif., sells mainly smaller printers and printing supplies and is also one of the largest PC makers in the world. It posted revenue of more than $58bn for its most recent fiscal year, ended in October 2018.

HP is what remains after Hewlett-Packard Co. split off Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which sells servers, data-storage gear and related services to corporate clients, in 2015. Before a decline in its printing-supplies business in recent quarters, it had grown faster than expected as a stand-alone company.


This is two bald men fighting over a parachute or something, isn’t it?
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Remember the Uber self-driving car that killed a woman crossing the street? The AI had no clue about jaywalkers • The Register

Katyanna Quach:


the code couldn’t recognize her as a pedestrian, because she was not at an obvious designated crossing. Rather than correctly anticipating her movements as a person moving across the road, it ended up running right into her.

“The system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians,” the [National Traffic Safety Board] stated [PDF] in its write-up. “Instead, the system had initially classified her as an ‘other’ object which are not assigned goals.”

The computer-vision systems in self-driving cars are trained to identify things, such as other vehicles, trees, sign posts, bicycles, and so on, and make decisions on what to do next using that information. It appears Uber’s software wasn’t able to identify Herzberg since there was no classification label for a person not using a proper crossing point, and it wasn’t able to make the right decisions.

Some 5.6 seconds before hitting her, the car’s radar detected Herzberg, and at 5.2 seconds, she was picked out by the Lidar. However, the machine-learning system more or less ignored her, figuring her to be a non-moving object not in the vehicle’s way.

As the robo-vehicle drew nearer, it categorized her variously as a vehicle, a bike, or some other thing that was not, or was only partially, in its way.

Just 1.2 seconds before hitting her, it identified her not only as a bicycle but also clearly in the path of its travel, by which point it was far too late to change course.


Forget trolley problems – this ought to be the most obvious problem of all. Shouldn’t the system recognise small moving objects?
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This is a horror story: how private equity vampires are killing everything • The Nation

Kim Kelly:


This wrongheaded corporate plundering did not start and will not stop with Deadspin; vampires are forever in need of new hosts. Private-equity firms have quietly taken over a large swath of the American economy: buying up companies, selling them off for parts, then stealing away unscathed. There’s a reason presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has been so outspoken against them. Private equity is a danger to the free press, and a scourge upon the already weakened state of journalism. In just under two years, these firms have turned LA Weekly into a lifeless husk, ravaged The Denver Post, gutted Sports Illustrated, and silently strangled dozens of local newspapers across the country.

Media is far from their only target, though private equity does have a taste for the most vulnerable. Over the past decade, they have killed 1.3 million retail jobs, and the Los Angeles Times reports that 10 of the 14 largest retail chain bankruptcies since 2012 were at private equity-acquired chains. A famous example of their brutal negligence is Toys “R” Us, which was driven into bankruptcy after being acquired in 2014 by a pair of private equity firms, KKR and Bain Capital. Some 33,000 workers were laid off, and it took months—and a class-action lawsuit—before workers got the severance payouts they were owed. Today, Bain Capital holds over $100bn in assets, and continues to seek new victims.

Not even the ill and injured are safe from this particular strain of supernatural avarice. The Carlyle Group, a massive private equity firm, came under fire in 2018 when conditions at ManorCare, a nursing home chain that it had purchased in 2007 and driven into bankruptcy, were revealed to have been so understaffed that residents were frequently left to wallow in their own filth.


All aboard for late-stage capitalism, I guess.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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Start Up No.1,182: US cops get big genetics warrant, who wins a meal with Trump?, AirPods Pro compared, and more

Does this 1977 Exxon advert count as political, or non-political? What about the modern ones? CC-licensed photo by Classic Film on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Observation: common sense generally isn’t. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

‘Game-changer’ warrant let detective search genetic database • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill and Heather Murphy:


For police officers around the country, the genetic profiles that 20 million people have uploaded to consumer DNA sites represent a tantalizing resource that could be used to solve cases both new and cold. But for years, the vast majority of the data have been off limits to investigators. The two largest sites, and 23andMe, have long pledged to keep their users’ genetic information private, and a smaller one, GEDmatch, severely restricted police access to its records this year.

Last week, however, a Florida detective announced at a police convention that he had obtained a warrant to penetrate GEDmatch and search its full database of nearly one million users. Legal experts said that this appeared to be the first time a judge had approved such a warrant, and that the development could have profound implications for genetic privacy.

“That’s a huge game-changer,” said Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University. “The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out, and that’s been overridden by a court. It’s a signal that no genetic information can be safe.”

DNA policy experts said the development was likely to encourage other agencies to request similar search warrants from 23andMe, which has 10 million users, and, which has 15 million. If that comes to pass, the Florida judge’s decision will affect not only the users of these sites but huge swaths of the population, including those who have never taken a DNA test.


Sleepwalking into a surveillance age. Mission accomplished. Yes: it’s always good to solve more crime. But: you don’t know what sort of government you might get in the future: what if you get one which declares that certain DNA characteristics are illegal, and that people with them should be ejected from the country?
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Why you shouldn’t fear the gray tsunami – MIT Technology Review

David Rotman:


The aging of the world is happening fast. Americans 65 and older are now 16% of the population and will make up 21% by 2035. At that point, they will outnumber those under 18. In China the large numbers of people born before the one-baby policy was introduced in 1979 are swelling the ranks of older people, even as younger age groups shrink. Other countries are even older. Japan leads—more than a quarter of its population is 65 or older—but Germany, Italy, Finland, and much of the rest of the European Union aren’t far behind. A quarter of the people in Europe and North America will be 65 or older by 2050…

…The conventional wisdom is that an aging population is toxic for economic growth. Who will do all the work? How will we pay for all those old people’s medical and welfare programs? Economists like to call it the dependency ratio: the size of the working-age population relative to those too old (or too young) to have a job. And they like to show scary projections of how this demographic crisis is coming to get us.

The warnings sound ominous. The gray tsunami. The demographic cliff. The demographic time bomb. But maybe what’s truly not aging well is all the fretting about an inevitable crisis.

The truth is that economists don’t know much about how an aging population will affect us.

“There has been a productivity hit,” says Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard. “It’s big, and it’s economically meaningful.” She and her colleagues have calculated, on the basis of data from 1980 to 2010, that a 10% increase in the population age 60 and older has decreased growth in GDP per capita by 5.5%. It means, if the past is any lesson, that the aging US population could slow economic growth by 1.2 percentage points this decade and 0.6 percentage points in the next. Some of this will be because fewer people are working, but two-thirds of it will be because the workforce is less productive on average.


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The Trump campaign holds a lot of contests. Does anyone win? •

Judd Legum:


Most contests run by the Trump campaign follow a pattern — messages over email and Facebook, promoting a meal with Trump at a location that Trump will be visiting soon. 

But for several weeks in August and September of 2018, the Trump campaign bought hundreds of Facebook ads about a contest for a dinner with Trump with no designated location. This contest, unlike the others, does not appear to be promoted over email. 

But like all the other contests, there was no announced winner.

Is it a scam? Are these contests, which promise a meal with Trump, a scam? Is the Trump campaign swindling its own supporters? We don’t know. 

In one respect, failing to go through with the meals makes little sense. The estimated value of each meal, including transportation and accommodations, is $3,000. For a campaign that is raising tens of millions of dollars every quarter, this is a pittance. 

But this is a campaign that has been willing to scam its supporters before. As Popular Information documented in May, the Trump campaign held a campaign to give away “the 1 millionth MAGA hat,” signed by Trump. On May 23, the Trump campaign ran a Facebook ad claiming that the deadline to enter was midnight. 

It ran that same ad, claiming a midnight deadline, for 12 days: May 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, June 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Here, the Trump campaign is telling an obvious lie to its supporters about a midnight deadline to gain a small advantage. Falsely claiming a deadline was midnight likely encouraged people to enter at a higher rate.


I’m not a lawyer, and all that, but isn’t this what the legal eagles call “fraud”?
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Exxon climate ads aren’t “political,” according to Twitter •

Emily Atkins, in her newsletter about climate:


in recent days, it’s become clear that there are some problems with Twitter’s new policy. For example: It’s easy to determine which ads are about specific candidates. But what is Twitter’s definition of a political “issue ad,” exactly? How does Twitter plan to enforce what is one, and isn’t one?

These questions have serious implications for the climate fight. For example, a HEATED investigation identified more than a dozen tweets from ExxonMobil related to climate change that are not currently labelled by Twitter as political “issue” ads. Under the new policy, these ads will be permitted to run after November 22, while environmental groups’ climate-related ads will be banned.

Asked to explain why Exxon’s climate-related ads are not political, Twitter declined to comment. A Harvard researcher who studies Exxon for a living, however, did not hold back.

“Mobil and ExxonMobil have pioneered issue advertising for decades,” said Geoffery Supran, who co-authored a peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications. “I’ve studied this historical record in detail, and it couldn’t be clearer to me that Twitter ads like these are its twenty-first century extension.

“These Twitter ads aren’t just any political issue ads—they epitomize the art.”


This has already been cited by Elizabeth Warren, and Jack Dorsey says he’s going to look again at Twitter’s policy on “issue” ads.
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AirPods Pro vs. Powerbeats Pro vs. WF-1000XM3 (Bonus: vs. WH-1000XM3) : Reddit

“frumpy_cat” decided to do an actual head-to-head (or maybe ear-to-ear) comparison of some noise-cancelling headphones:


I know a lot of people have been wondering how the AirPods Pro stack up against some other competitors. Now that I have the 3 mentioned in the title and have been able to compare, I thought I would do so. Throwing in the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM3’s just for comparison on the ANC, since they’re in a completely different category.


This is all fine, except the APPs have a third function, besides “no ANC” and “ANC”, called “Transparency”, which provides pass-through for certain frequencies and sound spikes. That isn’t dealt with here, but people really seem to like it.
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RIP OG Pixel: Google ends support after just three years • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


The Pixel 1 launched in 2016 with a promised two years of major update support and three years of security updates. It was Google’s first self-branded smartphone, ending the cheap, value-oriented Nexus line and ushering in an era of expensive—probably too-expensive—Google phones. Major OS support was eventually extended to three years, which is now standard across the Pixel line, and the original device was updated to Android 10 in September.

Three years of support is pretty weak compared to the manufacturer Google has most modeled the Pixel line after: Apple. iPhones typically get five years of major OS updates, which Apple can do partly thanks to its end-to-end control over the hardware and software. Google, if it even wanted to support the Pixel line for that long, would need to drag along Qualcomm and other chip partners to make it work. The longer update support is a major reason why iPhones hold their value much better than Pixel phones in the phone resale market, even if you go by Google’s own trade-in program.


Gotta juice that market somehow.
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Internet Wayback Machine adds historical textdiff • SEO Book

Aaron Wall:


The Wayback Machine has a cool new feature for looking at the historical changes of a web page.

The color scale shows how much a page has changed since it was last cached & you can select between any two documents to see how a page has changed over time.

You can then select between any two documents to see a side-by-side comparison of the documents.

That quickly gives you an at-a-glance view of how they’ve changed their:
• web design
• on-page SEO strategy
• marketing copy & sales strategy


Even more useful. And of course it means you can see when someone has erased the embarrassing contents of a page they wish they could forget.
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Twitter hates me. The Des Moines Register fired me. Here’s what really happened • Columbia Journalism Review

Aaron Calvin:


As I began writing [a profile of “Des Moines local hero” Carson King], an editor requested that I run a background check on King. This is standard practice at the Register, as it is for many newspapers, when reporting on public figures. I looked at King’s court records as well as his public social media, and found a few racist jokes he’d tweeted in high school. In context, I could see that these had been references to sketches by the comedian Daniel Tosh. I told my editor about the tweets and was asked to reach out to King for comment.

I believe this was the right thing to do. Performing background checks on public figures is part of a journalist’s responsibility. If I had found the tweets, others would, too. I approached King with an understanding that what you tweet in high school is not necessarily representative of your beliefs as an adult, and he duly apologized.

I included a brief mention of the offensive tweets and King’s apology toward the end of my profile. It was a small moment placed in context at the end of a positive story. The tweets were part of a narrative of growth, maturity, and compassion—not an accusatory, “gotcha” moment.

When I asked King about his tweets, I tried to communicate that I was not trying to bring him harm. It’s clear to me now, though, that he was worried about personal blowback. As is common in the world of celebrity PR, he moved to get ahead of the details that would be revealed in the profile.

The evening before the profile was scheduled to be published, King held a press conference to confess to the existence of his tweets and to make a public apology.


Incredibly, Calvin suffered the blowback from the unimportant tweets in King’s past. It’s a bizarre story of the ourouboros of the American blame game.
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Fifty years ago, I helped invent the internet. How did it go so wrong? • Los Angeles Times

Leonard Kleinrock:


We could try to push the internet back toward its ethical roots. However, it would be a complex challenge requiring a joint effort by interested parties — which means pretty much everyone.

We should pressure government officials and entities to more zealously monitor and adjudicate such internet abuses as cyberattacks, data breaches and piracy. Governments also should provide a forum to bring interested parties together to problem-solve.

Citizen-users need to hold websites more accountable. When was the last time a website asked what privacy policy you would like applied to you? My guess is never. You should be able to clearly articulate your preferred privacy policy and reject websites that don’t meet your standards. This means websites should provide a privacy policy customized to you, something they should be able to do since they already customize the ads you see. Websites should also be required to take responsibility for any violations and abuses of privacy that result from their services.

Scientists need to create more advanced methods of encryption to protect individual privacy by preventing perpetrators from using stolen databases. We are working on technologies that would hide the origin and destination of data moving around the network, thereby diminishing the value of captured network traffic.


I think the answer to the headline’s question is “we let humans use it”.
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Why didn’t Google and Fitbit think of this before? • CIRP


CIRP analysis indicates 35% of US iPhone buyers have a smartwatch, compared to only 16% of US Android buyers. Among iPhone buyers, 19% have an Apple Watch, while 10% own a Fitbit. Among Android buyers, 4% own a Samsung watch, while 5% own a Fitbit.

“Among the relatively small share of all smartphone buyers that have any kind of smartwatch, iPhone buyers are twice as likely to own one than Android buyers,” said Josh Lowitz, CIRP Partner and Co-Founder. “Not surprisingly, Apple Watch is the leading smartwatch for iPhone buyers, while about half as many own a Fitbit. Until now, Fitbit was a neutral brand, but now becomes part of the Google-Android-Pixel-Nest universe. This creates an interesting new Android entry point into the Apple ecosystem, with a decent percentage of iPhone owners now using a wearable that becomes a more Android-friendly device. Also, among the small percentage of Android owners that have a smartwatch, Samsung and Fitbit have roughly equal shares.”


I’m surprised that the figure for US iPhone owners is so high. I’m amazed if 7% of US Android phone owners actually use a Wear OS watch, which seems to be the implication.
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Back to Windows after 20 years • Signal v. Noise

David Hansson:


What this experiment [buying a Surface Laptop 3 and trying to run the Linux tools now provided in Windows] taught me, though, was just how much I actually like OSX. How much satisfaction I derive from its font rendering. How lovely my code looks in TextMate 2. How easy it is to live that *nix developer life, while still using a computer where everything (well, except that fucking keyboard!) mostly just works.

So the Surface Laptop 3 is going back to Microsoft. Kudos to them for the 30-day no questions return policy, and double kudos for making it so easy to wipe the machine for return (again, another area where Apple could learn!).

Windows still clearly isn’t for me. And I wouldn’t recommend it to any of our developers at Basecamp. But I kinda do wish that more people actually do make the switch. Apple needs the competition. We need to feel like there are real alternatives that not only are technically possible, but a joy to use. We need Microsoft to keep improving, and having more frustrated Apple users cross over, point out the flaws, and iron out the kinks, well, that’s only going to help.

I would absolutely give Windows another try in a few years, but for now, I’m just feeling #blessed that 90% of my work happens on an iMac with that lovely scissor-keyed Magic Keyboard 2. It’s not a real solution for lots of people who work on the go, but if you do most of your development at a desk, I’d check it out. Or be brave, go with Windows, make it better, you pioneer, you. You’ll have my utter admiration!

Also, Apple, please just fix those fucking keyboards. Provide proper restitution for the people who bought your broken shit. Stop gaslighting us all with your nonsense that this is only affecting extremely few people. It’s not. The situation is an unmitigated disaster.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,181: YouTube accused on Hong Kong video, spiders and insects decline, Fitbit’s forced finale, a Valve-Apple headset?, Polish troll farming, and more

Now using them an average of 4.5 hours per day for “digital entertainment”. CC-licensed photo by Esther Vargas on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Don’t mention the health! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Did YouTube help China’s anti-Hong Kong propaganda go viral? • Quartz

O Goldhill:


A Chinese-made propaganda video about the Hong Kong protests went viral, apparently thanks to YouTube’s algorithm. The video—called “Who’s behind Hong Kong protests?”—argues that US agents are stirring protests in Hong Kong, and has more than half a million views on YouTube. It was created by China’s state broadcaster, China Global Television Network.

On August 24th, YouTube recommended it six times more than the average video when users searched for “Hong Kong protestors,” according to AlgoTransparency, making it one of the most-recommended videos on that subject.  The most-viewed video on Hong Kong protests by the Wall Street Journal, BBC, and New York Times all had fewer views as of October 31st 2019.

The Chinese government has repeatedly claimed that the US is behind protestors, though it has failed to present any evidence. Attempts to present Hong Kong protests as an American uprising often involve outright falsehoods, such as Chinese media reports that a toy weapon was a US army grenade launcher.

AlgoTransparency, created by former YouTube engineer Guillaume Chaslot, analyzes videos recommended on thousands of channels daily. The data is based on blank profiles; as YouTube recommends videos based on users’ history, different individuals may have different recommendations. Overall, YouTube’s algorithm was created to optimize for watch time which, Chaslot has shown, often leads to YouTube recommending more extreme videos in a bid to capture attention. “You can go from more radical video to more radical video,” says Chaslot. “There’s a rabbit-hole effect.”

YouTube said it disagreed with Algotransparency’s methodology, data, and conclusions, and was unable to reproduce Algotransparency’s results.


How surprising, given that you can just look at the number of times the video has been watched, and note that it’s not available inside China.
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‘Alarming’ loss of insects and spiders recorded • BBC News

Helen Briggs:


Insects and spiders are declining in forests and grasslands across Germany, according to new research.

Scientists have described the findings as “alarming”, saying the losses are driven by intensive agriculture.

They are calling for a “paradigm shift” in land-use policy to preserve habitat for the likes of butterflies, bugs and flying insects.

Recent studies have reported widespread declines in insect populations around the world.

The latest analysis, published in the journal, Nature, confirms that some insect species are being pushed down the path to extinction. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the drivers of insect decline are related to farming practices, said Dr Sebastian Seibold of the Technical University of Munich in Freising, Germany.

“Our study confirms that insect decline is real – it might be even more widespread then previously thought considering, for example, that also forests are experiencing declines in insect populations,” he told BBC News.


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Consumers spend 4.5 hours per day on digital entertainment • Midia Research


The average consumer now spends an estimated 30.73 hours per week on digital entertainment. This works out to approximately 4.5 hours per day.

Allocating eight hours of work and seven hours of sleep, consumers then have about 4.5 hours per day left to do things like eat, commute, socialise, run errands, and conduct general life admin.

Watching TV/ streaming is the most prevalent activity among consumers, followed by ‘doing nothing’ and then ‘listening to music’.

With every minute of spare attention competing brands and interests are fighting for, consumers with the available spend are choosing to use it to enable their own choice and control over when and what they see, do, and listen to.

There is nowhere else to grow, engagement-wise, other than fighting for digital attention share amongst existing propositions.


A data point; they’re holding a conference to discuss how best to do this on November 20 in London.
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Apple Watch forced Fitbit to sell itself • Above Avalon

Neil Cybart:


Apple didn’t just steal customers away from Fitbit. In such a scenario, Fitbit may actually have had a chance to survive as the company could have had a means to respond competitively. Apple ended up doing something that ultimately proved far worse for Fitbit. The Apple Watch altered the fundamentals underpinning the wrist wearables industry. This left Fitbit unable to remain relevant in a rapidly-changing marketplace.

Apple placed a bet that wrist real estate was being undervalued. The Swiss had dropped the ball and were primarily selling the wrist as a place for intangibles with high-end mechanical watches. Instead of following Fitbit and selling a $99 dedicated fitness tracker, Apple looked at the wrist as being a great place for additional utility beyond just telling time or tracking one’s fitness and health. Apple turned health and fitness tracking from a business into a feature. The Apple Watch redefined utility on the wrist.

This change led to consumers wanting more from wrist wearables. Apple Watch established a stronghold at the premium end of the market. Taking a page from its product strategy playbook, Apple then methodically began to lower entry-level Apple Watch pricing, which had the impact of removing oxygen from increasingly lower price segments. Fitbit was squeezed as the company had no viable way to compete directly with Apple Watch.


The point about the Swiss essentially selling intangibles – “you’ll be able to pass it to your kids!” – is a good one. And turning someone’s USP into just another feature is, yes, a great way to kill them. (Dropbox has so far managed to avoid that, but it’s close.)
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Apple said to partner with Valve to make AR headset • Apple Insider

William Gallagher:


Citing supply chain reports, Digitimes claims that Apple has partnered with the game developer, Valve, in order to produce an Augmented Reality headset. As well as developing the headset with Steam, Apple is said to be using familiar suppliers Pegatron and Quanta Computer to assemble the device. It’s not expected to be released before the second half of 2020 at the earliest.

Valve wouldn’t be providing the VR experiences itself, but could use the Steam distribution system to distribute them. Back in 2017, Valve leveraged Apple’s macOS High Sierra’s eGPU and virtual reality support to bring a beta version of its SteamVR to the Mac.

Then for macOS Mojave, Apple worked with both Valve and HTC to support their HTC Vive Pro headset for VR.

This timescale reported by Digitimes is later than previously predicted by analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.


Or as 9to5 Mac calls it, “the ever-questionable Digitimes”. This sounds like supply chain noise, but – to mix metaphors – probably not smoke without some fire in there. The timing sounds about right too. The big question remains whether there’s anything compelling there. I’m not sure games quite cut it.
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Samsung is shutting down its custom CPU division • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:


Samsung filed a Worker Adjustment and Retraining (WARN) letter in Texas, according to The Statesman, notifying the state that 290 employees will be laid off as part of its CPU unit being shut down. The layoffs reportedly go into effect from December 31.

The Korean manufacturer confirmed the news to Android Authority, while also explaining the reasoning behind the decision.

“Based upon a thorough assessment of our System LSI [large scale integration – ed] business and the need to stay competitive in the global market, Samsung has decided to transition part of our US-based R&D teams in Austin and San Jose,” the company told us in a statement, adding that it remained committed to its US workforce.

It’s unclear what exactly this means for Samsung’s custom CPU plans for 2020 and beyond. Samsung’s Mongoose CPU cores were mostly used in its flagship Exynos processors, starting with 2016’s Exynos 8890 in the Galaxy S7. But our own testing with the Galaxy S10 series revealed that while the Exynos chipset offered better single core performance than the Snapdragon variant, the Snapdragon version beat it in most other key areas.

If Samsung is indeed abandoning its custom CPU cores for flagship phones, then it’s likely that the firm will adopt Arm CPUs or semi-custom versions of these CPUs for future devices. Huawei currently uses Arm CPUs in its flagships, while Qualcomm uses tweaked versions of these cores in its Snapdragon 800-series of high-end processors. Qualcomm in particular previously used fully custom CPU designs for several years before transitioning to a semi-custom model instead.


Surprising: this means that Apple and Huawei would be the only companies designing their own CPU cores rather than using the ARM basics. Samsung is doing a fair bit of retrenching lately, though. Perhaps it decided it could never get ahead of Qualcomm.

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Releasing Spleeter: Deezer Research source separation engine • Deezer

Manuel Moussallam:


While not a broadly known topic, the problem of source separation has interested a large community of music signal researchers for a couple of decades now. It starts from a simple observation: music recordings are usually a mix of several individual instrument tracks (lead vocal, drums, bass, piano etc..). The task of music source separation is: given a mix can we recover these separate tracks (sometimes called stems)? This has many potential applications: think remixes, upmixing, active listening, educational purposes, but also pre-processing for other tasks such as transcription.

From a Mix of many instruments, a source separation engine like Spleeter outputs a set of individual tracks or stems.

Interestingly, our brain is very good at isolating instruments. Just focus on one of the instrument of this track [the Rolling Stones’s ‘Angie’] (say the lead vocal for instance) and you will be able to hear it quite distinctively from the others. Yet that’s not really separation, you still hear all the other parts. In many cases, it may not be possible to exactly recover the individual tracks that have been mixed together. The challenge is thus to approximate them the best we can, that is to say as close as possible to the originals without creating too much distortions.


Open source and fast. Look forward to more remixes!
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Undercover reporter reveals life in a Polish troll farm • The Guardian

Christian Davies:


It is as common an occurrence on Polish Twitter as you are likely to get: a pair of conservative activists pouring scorn on the country’s divided liberal opposition.

“I burst out laughing!” writes Girl from Żoliborz, a self-described “traditionalist” commenting on a newspaper story about a former campaign adviser to Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron coming to Warsaw to address a group of liberal activists.

“The opposition has nothing to offer. That’s why they use nonsense to pull the wool over people’s eyes,” replies Magda Rostocka, whose profile tells her almost 4,400 followers she is “left-handed with her heart on the right”.

In reality, neither woman existed. Both accounts were run by the paid employees of a small marketing company based in the city of Wrocław in southwest Poland.

But what the employee pretending to be Magda Rostocka did not know is that the colleague pretending to be Girl from Żoliborz was an undercover reporter who had infiltrated the company, giving rare insight into the means by which fake social media accounts are being used by private firms to influence unsuspecting voters and consumers…

…The accounts produced both leftwing and rightwing content, attracting attention, credibility and support from other social media users, who could then be rallied in support of the company’s clients.

“The aim is to build credibility with people from both sides of the political divide. Once you have won someone’s trust by reflecting their own views back at them, you are in a position to influence them,” said Wojciech Cieśla, who oversaw the investigation in collaboration with Investigate Europe, a consortium of European investigative reporters.

“Reading these communications, you can see how the leftwing and rightwing accounts would receive their daily instructions, how they would be marshalled and directed like two flanks of the same army on a battlefield.”


Which sort of explains why Twitter doesn’t need to turn down political ads: they’re already there, earning it money from fake accounts run by real people which attract other ad money. But here’s a neat twist to this story: “A majority of Cat@Net’s employees are understood to be disabled, allowing the company to derive substantial public subsidies from Poland’s National Disabled Rehabilitation Fund.”
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Did Bitcoin price manipulation fuel 2017 surge? Study says yes • Bloomberg

Matthew Leising and Matt Robinson:


A Texas academic created a stir last year by alleging that Bitcoin’s astronomical surge in 2017 was probably triggered by manipulation. He’s now doubling down with a striking new claim: a single market whale was likely behind the misconduct, seemingly with the power to move prices at will.

One entity on the cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex appears capable of sending the price of Bitcoin higher when it falls below certain thresholds, according to University of Texas Professor John Griffin and Ohio State University’s Amin Shams. Griffin and Shams, who have updated a paper they first published in 2018, say the transactions rely on Tether, a widely used digital token that is meant to hold its value at $1.

“Our results suggest instead of thousands of investors moving the price of Bitcoin, it’s just one large one,” Griffin said in an interview. “Years from now, people will be surprised to learn investors handed over billions to people they didn’t know and who faced little oversight.”

Tether rejected the claims, with General Counsel Stuart Hoegner arguing in a statement that the paper is “foundationally flawed” because it is based on an insufficient data set. The research was probably published to back a “parasitic lawsuit,” the general counsel added…

…The authors examined Tether and Bitcoin transactions from March 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018, concluding that Bitcoin purchases on Bitfinex increased whenever Bitcoin’s value fell by certain increments. Griffin and Shams didn’t name the entity on Bitfinex that they think was responsible. They shared their updated research with Bloomberg News.

“This pattern is only present in periods following printing of Tether, driven by a single large account holder, and not observed by other exchanges,” they wrote in their new peer-reviewed paper, set to be published in a forthcoming Journal of Finance. “Simulations show that these patterns are highly unlikely to be due to chance. This one large player or entity either exhibited clairvoyant market timing or exerted an extremely large price impact on Bitcoin that is not observed in aggregate flows from other smaller traders.”


In other words: lots of people got really, really suckered. And those who cling to it are still being suckered due to the lack of transparency in those exchanges.
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The trillion dollar lawsuit, part one • (Two Truths and a Take) Substack

Alex Danco:


In terms of monetary evaporation, the accusations here are ten times the size of WeWork, and at least ten times as interesting.

In my opinion, this is the most interesting story in tech this year and nothing else comes close. 

In this and next week’s newsletter, I’m going to walk you through the accusations being made in this complaint, along with context from others in the community who’ve been paying attention, so you can understand how truly shocking this all is. It’s a complex story, so I’ve broken down the allegations into three parts. The first two we’ll talk about today, and the third next week:

Allegation #1: The 2017 Bitcoin Bubble was market manipulation, and Tether was how they did it

Allegation #2: Tether became a systemically important, money laundering conduit for the crypto ecosystem

Allegation #3: They might’ve gotten away with it, too, if they hadn’t gotten robbed while busy scamming

To be clear: everything I’m about to talk about in the next two weeks are allegations.


The mechanism he explains for how it works is simple, and persuasive.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,180: Amazon’s devices problem, a new CF drug?, a search in a million, the Netflix sinkhole, what does Trump see?, and more

Fitbit: no longer left on the shelf. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. Just over a month. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A stranger’s TV went on spending spree with my Amazon account – and web giant did nothing about it for months • The Register

Shaun Nichols:


A fraudster exploited a bizarre weakness in Amazon’s handling of customer devices to hijack a netizen’s account and go on multiple spending sprees with their bank cards, we’re told.

If you have weird fraudulent activity on your Amazon account, this may be why.

In short, it is possible to add a non-Amazon device to your Amazon customer account and it won’t show up in the list of gadgets associated with the profile. This device can quietly use the account even if the password is changed, or two-factor authentication is enabled.

Thus if someone can get into your account, and add their own gizmo to your profile, they can potentially persistently retain this access and continue ordering stuff using your payment cards, even if you seemingly remove all devices from your account, and change your login credentials.

Redditor fidelisoris this week shared their experience of this security hole, and how it appeared to be exploited by a crook to buy gift cards using their account’s payment information. The Reg got in touch with the netizen and Amazon to dig into the fraud.

Rewind a few months, and our protagonist discovered unauthorized purchases on their account. They swiftly protected the profile: removed computers and other devices from the account, changed passwords, refreshed the multi-factor login, and so on. They also got the charges on their card reversed.

“I immediately did what any professional IT/IS guy does: I began the lockdown. All associated devices get removed from the account,” fidelisoris, who asked us to use their internet handle, recounted.


Didn’t help. It’s quite scary.
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Million Short – What haven’t you found in search?


Million Short started out as an experimental web search engine that allows you to filter and refine your search results set. The thinking was that web searches yield the same popular sites. Million Short makes it easy to discover sites that just don’t make it to the top of the search engine results for whatever reason – whether it be poor SEO, new site, small marketing budget, or competitive keywords. The Million Short technology gives users access to the wealth of untapped information on the web.


The tour page gives a bit more detail – you can include or exclude sites based on their popularity, on being in e-commerce, whether they have paid ads, and so on. Could be good for some deep research, or finding serendipitous content.
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Cystic fibrosis drug could make disease a manageable condition • Irish Times

Paul Cullen:


The drug, Trikafta, significantly improves lung function in most patients with the disease, according to newly published clinical studies. As a result, cystic fibrosis (CF) could change from a disease that can be life-threatening to a manageable condition for patients who can be treated with this therapy.

Last week the US Food and Drug Administration approved Trikafta for 90% of CF patients who have the most common gene mutation and are 12 or older. The manufacturer, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, has now submitted a marketing authorisation application to the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

“These findings indicate that it may soon be possible to offer safe and effective molecularly targeted therapies to 90% of persons with cystic fibrosis,” said the director of the US National Institutes of Health, Dr Francis Collins, who led the team that identified the gene that causes the disease in 1989.

“This should be a cause for major celebration,” he wrote in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr Collins described the improvement in lung function of patients treated with the triple-combination therapy in the Vertex-funded trial as “striking”.


CF has been the disease that’s always just out of reach of gene therapy trials and treatments. If this sorts it out, that’s a huge breakthough.

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WhatsApp confirms Israeli spyware was used to snoop on Indian journalists, activists • India News, The Indian Express

Seema Chishti:


Facebook-owned platform WhatsApp, in a startling revelation, has said journalists and human rights activists in India have been targets of surveillance by operators using Israeli spyware Pegasus.

The disclosure follows a lawsuit filed Tuesday in a US federal court in San Francisco in which WhatsApp alleged that the Israeli NSO Group targeted some 1,400 WhatsApp users with Pegasus.
While WhatsApp declined to reveal the identities and “exact number” of those targeted for surveillance in India, its spokesperson told The Indian Express that WhatsApp was aware of those targeted and had contacted each one of them.

“Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

It is learnt that at least two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists and journalists in India were contacted and alerted by WhatsApp that their phones had been under state-of-the-art surveillance for a two-week period until May 2019.


More fun: the Indian government said it wasn’t told about this; WhatsApp pointed out that it had been, twice – in May and September – at which the government said it was too vague.

One gets a strange feeling the Indian government isn’t entirely shocked by the news.
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The real reason Facebook won’t fact-check political ads • The New York Times

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia:


Might Facebook ban political ads altogether, like Twitter has? Mr. Zuckerberg could concede that it’s not an easy task. What’s not political? If an ad calling for a carbon tax is political, is an ad promoting the reputation of an oil company political? In an effort to provide transparency to political ads in the United States, Facebook has already shown how bad it is at distinguishing between political accounts and apolitical accounts, often mislabeling news outlets, think tanks and university departments as political entities. Those are the false positives we know of. We have no idea how many false negatives Facebook has let slip through.

Twitter, as the communication scholars Shannon McGregor, Daniel Kreiss and Bridget Barret have shown, is also bad at segregating the political from the apolitical. They found Twitter ads funded by foreign governments were not included in Twitter’s political ad archive. So there is a good chance that Twitter will fail at its declared task.

Facebook could also defend political ads by conceding that it must continue the practice to maintain its status and markets. Besides Mr. Trump, who spent $70m on Facebook ads in 2016 (far more than his main rival, Hillary Clinton), the pro-Brexit Conservative Party in Britain, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in India, President Jair Bolsonaro’s party in Brazil and President Rodrigo Duterte’s party in the Philippines all relied on Facebook and Facebook-owned WhatsApp to achieve and maintain power. All of those countries are major Facebook markets, and they all could threaten Facebook with regulatory backlash if the company disappointed their leaders.

Over all, Facebook has no incentive to stop carrying political ads. Its revenue keeps growing despite a flurry of scandals and mistakes. So its leaders would lose little by being straight with the public about its limitations and motives. But they won’t. They will continue to defend their practices in disingenuous ways until we force them to change their ways…

…The key is to limit data collection and the use of personal data to ferry ads and other content to discrete segments of Facebook users — the very core of the Facebook business model.


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Enjoy Netflix while it lasts. It can’t keep going like this forever • The Washington Post

Sonny Bunch:


Unprofitable businesses are currently offering up great deals to urbanites who otherwise would be unable to afford their fancy city-living in large part because of losses incurred as the cost of buying up market share.

“If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year,” [Derek] Thompson wrote of the “Millennial Lifestyle Sponsorship” [in The Atlantic this month]. “If you use Lime scooters to bop around the city, download Wag to walk your dog, and sign up for Blue Apron to make a meal, that’s three more brands that have never recorded a dime in earnings, or have seen their valuations fall by more than 50 percent.”

He doesn’t mention it, but there’s another key player in the MLS field: Netflix. As Richard Rushfield has noted in his excellent newsletter on Hollywood business, The Ankler, Netflix is in a tricky position. The vast majority of Netflix’s viewers (upwards of 80%, according to him) watch licensed content (“Friends” and the like) and in order to create a library of programming audiences will pay for, they’ve gone massively in debt: “Netflix is currently in the hole for about $20 billion in debt and obligations and still operating at a loss.”


This certainly seems on the face of it as though billionaires (or billionaires’ funds) are subsidising peoples’ lifestyles, which would be welcome. But it obscures that the aim is to push out of business the nominally profitable companies which employ people on a sustainable (one hopes) basis, rather than by throwing money into a furnace, and thus leave the billionaires (‘s funds) free to raise prices much higher to recoup their losses. Would Schumpeter think it was just right, or would he think it was just pedalling in place?
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Google’s new anti-smartphone apps, ranked • Gizmodo

David Nield:


We know that we’re all spending too much time glued to our phones, rather than looking at the person we’re talking to, the movie we’re watching, the sunset we’re missing, or the children we’re ignoring, and Google and Apple know it too. Google has pushed out six ‘experimental’ apps to try and curb our collective smartphone addiction—and here’s what we think of them.

1) Paper Phone
Paper Phone is a fantastic idea and the experimental app we enjoyed using the most. It challenges you to print out a customized ‘paper phone’ every day, and leave your actual phone at home—it sounds a little weird, but it actually works.

Your paper phone can include your tasks for the day, a weather report, items from your calendar, and even directions to a particular place. Google has thrown in some fun extras too, like puzzles and origami instructions you can use to fold up your paper phone when the day is over. We were actually amazed at how useful the paper phone idea was.

Sure, it’s not really practical or environmentally friendly—we’re not going to go to the effort of printing out a new paper phone every day, and on top of that, the app has a couple of annoying bugs. But it’s an intriguing and diverting experiment, and if you only try one of these experimental apps, we’d encourage you to try this one.


Riiight. Google has invented the diary, the newspaper and the Rolodex. *golf clap* (Thanks stormyparis for the link.)
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How Trump reshaped the presidency in over 11,000 tweets • The New York Times

Michael Shear, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Confessore, Karen Yourish, Larry Buchanan and Keith Collins:


It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty how many of Mr. Trump’s more than 66 million followers are fake. Some studies of his followers have estimated that a high proportion are likely to be automated bots, fake accounts or inactive. But even a conservative analysis by The Times found that nearly a third of them, about 22 million, included no biographical information and used the service’s default profile image — two signs the accounts may be rarely used or inactive. Fourteen% have automatically generated user names, another indication that an account may not belong to a real person.

Even if Mr. Trump is not shouting into the void on Twitter, he is often preaching to the converted. Data from Stirista, an analytics firm, shows that his followers tend to be the kind of users who are most likely to be his supporters — disproportionately older, white and male compared with Twitter users over all.

And they constitute just a fraction of the electorate. According to the Times analysis of Pew data, only about four% of American adults, or about 11 million people, follow him on Twitter. Those followers represent less that one-fifth of his total, the analysis shows.

According to data from YouGov, which polls about most of the president’s tweets, some of the topics on which Mr. Trump got the most likes and retweets — jabs at the N.F.L., posts about the special counsel’s investigation, unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud — poll poorly with the general public.

But people close to Mr. Trump said there was no dissuading him that the “likes” a tweet got were evidence that a decision or policy proposal was well received.


Gosh, a narcissist wouldn’t believe that a metric that seems to show applause wasn’t real? Shocked, I tell you, shocked. (Data point: 2,026 praising himself – more than praising anyone else.) The only real thing this tells us is that Twitter has whiffed on the chance to take a stand, because advertising dollars are far more important than having a platform that isn’t used as the biggest bully pulpit in the world. There is another fun element in this story, about Trump’s vanity over his failing eyesight, but that was originally done elsewhere…
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August 2019: what if Donald Trump is just blind? • Slate

Ashley Feinberg:


The question of Trump’s ocular health isn’t an entirely new one. In July of 2016, an ophthalmologist told Vice that Trump’s constant squinting could be him “trying to compensate for some blurry vision,” or, perhaps, chronic dry eye. And as someone who’s been told I can never wear contacts due to insufficiently productive tear ducts, I sympathize with both.

Based on the available evidence, and by Donald Trump’s own admission, it’s safe to assume that, like me, our president also walks around in a world made almost entirely of blurs and soft-edged shapes. And in fact, it would explain quite a lot.

Consider the teleprompter question again. Here’s Barack Obama’s prompter from 2009:

A teleprompter used by Barack Obama shows thinner, slightly smaller text than that used by Donald Trump. Paul J. Richards/Getty Images

And here’s Trump’s:

A teleprompter shows the speech being delivered by Trump during the swearing-in ceremony of Brett Kavanaugh. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The screen itself is significantly larger, and the font appears to be a few notches bigger, too. It’s the sort of adjustment a White House might make for a president with poor eyesight. But if that president also refuses to wear corrective lenses, there’s only so much a teleprompter can do…

…This, too, would explain Trump’s aggressively large signature. And his insistence that all information fed to him include as many pictures and as few words as humanly possible. It also might explain one of the most chilling lines ever published about Melania Trump:


According to a pool report, President Trump responded by pointing to a window in the White House residence, and said: “She’s doing great. She’s looking at us right there.”


Reporters turned to look at the spot he indicated, but there was no sign of the first lady.

Sure, it wouldn’t be out of character for the president to tell a brazen, immediately disprovable lie. But when your family only exists to you as a series of vague, oval-like shapes in varying shades of beige, anything could be Melania. Even an empty window.

If you spent your days unable to see, constantly unsure of what you were doing and to whom you were speaking, wouldn’t you be agitated too? Wouldn’t you also probably resent being asked about details? And wouldn’t all of this result in a general state of surliness and short-temperedness?

There’s no question that our president’s brain is broken, and that his mental acuity isn’t anywhere near what it once was. But perhaps it all isn’t quite as bad as we thought. Perhaps Donald Trump just needs to wear his goddamn glasses.


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Labour calls for halt to Google’s acquisition of Fitbit • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


The Labour Party has written to the UK competition regulator calling for Google’s reported acquisition of Fitbit to be halted, at least until a wider inquiry into anticompetitive practices in the technology sector is completed.

Google made an offer to purchase the fitness tracking company on Monday for an undisclosed price, according to Reuters.

Tom Watson, the shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, has written to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to request it halt the acquisition pending a full investigation of its effect on the competitive landscape.

“I have long been concerned about the data monopolies that dominate our tech market, including Google,” Watson writes. “These companies hold and gather an unprecedented amount of data on users which is then monetised through micro-targeting and advertising to amass huge profits and power. Meanwhile, the digital giants themselves remain unaccountable, unregulated, and see themselves as above the law. They have run rings around regulation for far too long.

“This is not just a business deal, it’s a data grab – and that should worry us all. Any such proposal must be subjected to the most rigorous possible scrutiny and must be fully investigated by the CMA.”


Not sure whether the UK, post-Brexit, objecting to the merger would make any difference – what happens? Do the companies have to remain separate in a territory that objects? – but it gives Labour a slight lever of difference as the general election plays out.
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Facebook held talks to buy Fitbit before Google struck deal • The Information

Alex Heath says Facebook offered about $1bn for Fitbit, which to me implies the talks took place in the summer when Fitbit’s share price made its market value about that – ie below $3 (it’s over twice that now):


Facebook’s growing investments in hardware are driven by CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to own the next computing platform after smartphones eventually become less relevant, people familiar with his thinking have told The Information. Inside Facebook, Fitbit’s team would have reported to Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s executive leading its hardware efforts.

Facebook recently announced that it had acquired CTRL-labs, a startup developing technology that can interpret human brain signals through an armband, in a deal that people familiar with the matter said was worth roughly $750m. Facebook first signaled its interest in hardware with its 2012 purchase of Oculus, the virtual reality headset-maker, for roughly $2bn. 

Since the Oculus purchase, Facebook has also begun making a line of video calling devices for the home called Portal. And the company is currently developing more far-flung augmented reality glasses that will be capable of overlaying virtual objects into the physical world. In addition, Facebook recently struck a deal with the eyewear firm Luxottica to develop camera-equipped glasses with Rayban that will function similarly to Snapchat’s Spectacles glasses


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Pixel Watch or not, Fitbit can’t save Google’s failing Wear OS • Android Police

David Ruddock:


hardware is what Google is after: the company has gone on the record stating its acquisition of Fitbit is about future Wear OS devices, meaning you can probably kiss Fitbit’s unloved smartwatch OS goodbye.

So, that means we can count on Google leveraging Fitbit’s renowned hardware to finally give Wear OS the horsepower and capabilities it needs to compete with Apple, right? Well, no. Fitbit’s smartwatches have been most lauded for their long battery life, battery life which has historically been enabled by extremely slow but highly power-efficient processors. The latest Versa 2 allegedly has brought significant performance improvements, but as a smartwatch, it just isn’t very… smart.

As Michael Fisher points out in his review, the Versa 2’s near week-long life on a single charge is only impressive when context is removed from that number. The Versa 2 doesn’t have GPS, the battery only lasts that long when not using the always-on display (with AoD, it’s closer to 3 days), the watch itself doesn’t work for almost anything but fitness tracking on its own, and most of your interactions with it end up happening on your smartphone anyway. And I can tell you from experience that the Apple Watch Series 5 lasts about two days on a charge with always-on display enabled (and Samsung’s watches last even longer), so Fitbit managing a day more isn’t exactly a game-changing technology.

In short, Fitbit’s products are not ones Google should be excited about buying.


In the immortal words of Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story 2, confronted with crossing a road teeming with traffic: “oh well, we tried.”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,179: politics v Twitter v Facebook, California’s next century, Rudy Guiliani – too cybersecure!, the WhatsApp hack, and more

“Exclusive detached property, close to park and amenities.” What if your AirBnB rental turns out to be a scam? CC-licensed photo by Carl Campbell on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Soviet-style, including the gulags. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I accidentally uncovered a nationwide scam on Airbnb • VICE

Allie Conti:


The call came about 10 minutes before we were set to check into the Airbnb. I was sitting at a brewery just around the corner from the rental on North Wood Street in Chicago when the man on the other end of the line said that our planned visit wouldn’t be possible. A previous guest had flushed something down the toilet, which had left the unit flooded with water, he explained. Apologetic, he promised to let us stay in another property he managed until he could call a plumber.

I had flown with two friends to the city in hopes of a relaxing end-of-summer getaway. We had purchased tickets to attend the September music festival Riot Fest, where Blink-182 and Taking Back Sunday were scheduled to perform. The trip had gotten off to a rough start even before the call. Around a month before, a first Airbnb host had already canceled, leaving us with little time to figure out alternative housing. While scrambling to find something else, I stumbled upon a local Airbnb rental listed by a couple, Becky and Andrew. Sure, the house looked a little basic in the photos online, but it was nice enough, especially considering the time crunch—light-filled, spacious, and close to the Blue Line.

Now, we were facing our second potential disaster in 30 days, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly suspicious of the man on the phone, who had called me from a number with a Los Angeles area code. Hoping to talk in person, I asked him if he was in the area. He said that he was at work and didn’t really have time to chat. Then he added that I needed to decide immediately if I was willing to change my reservation.


It’s just that tiny detail – demanding that you act immediately – which is the clue that it’s a scam. And AirBnB doesn’t know who to believe, of course, but it has fewer people looking for lodging than it does people offering lodgings, so it’s probably going to side with the lodging owners.

Meet the new boss…
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Unpopular decisions • BuzzMachine

Jeff Jarvis:


Mark Zuckerberg has said definitively that Facebook will not fact-check political ads. That, I agree with, but not for the reason you might assume. Truth is the wrong standard. If truth were so easy then we wouldn’t need countless journalists to find it. No one will trust Facebook to decide truth. But I do think that Facebook should set and uphold standards of dignity, decency, and responsibility in the public conversation and hold everyone — politicians and citizens, users and advertisers — accountable. If Facebook wants to leave up noxious speech by pols so we can see and judge it, OK, but it should add a disclaimer disapproving of the behavior. (Twitter has said that will be its policy, but I’ve yet to see it in action.) If a politician uses a racial slur in political ad — say, calling Mexicans rapists and murderers — Facebook must condemn that behavior, or its Oversight Board likely will. If Facebook accepts such words without comment or caveat, then it must be presumed to condone them. I’d find that unacceptable.

In the end, both Facebook and Twitter — and let’s throw Google and all the other platforms in now — refuse to make judgments. They cannot get away with that anymore. They are hosts to conversation and communities. They have an impact on that conversation and thus on democracies and nations. They are private companies. They are going to have to make judgments according to public principles, no matter how allergic they are to that idea.


I like Jeff, but I think he’s unaware of how hand-flapping this stuff actually is in the face of people who are very determined to do what they want. He’d find it “unacceptable” if Dan Scavino or Dominic Cummings were to buy ads which used racial slurs? Oh mercy me. But what would you DO about it? What would that CHANGE? It’s the same pusillanimous approach that bedevils almost all of American media: an unwillingness to prevent, and to let harms happen first, and then tut afterwards. That lets bad actors act, and get away with things that should be stopped first.
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It’s the end of California as we know it • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo:


lately my affinity for my home state has soured. Maybe it’s the smoke and the blackouts, but a very un-Californian nihilism has been creeping into my thinking. I’m starting to suspect we’re over. It’s the end of California as we know it. I don’t feel fine.

It isn’t just the fires — although, my God, the fires. Is this what life in America’s most populous, most prosperous state is going to be like from now on? Every year, hundreds of thousands evacuating, millions losing power, hundreds losing property and lives? Last year, the air near where I live in Northern California — within driving distance of some of the largest and most powerful and advanced corporations in the history of the world — was more hazardous than the air in Beijing and New Delhi. There’s a good chance that will happen again this month, and that it will keep happening every year from now on. Is this really the best America can do?

Probably, because it’s only going to get worse. The fires and the blackouts aren’t like the earthquakes, a natural threat we’ve all chosen to ignore. They are more like California’s other problems, like housing affordability and homelessness and traffic — human-made catastrophes we’ve all chosen to ignore, connected to the larger dysfunction at the heart of our state’s rot: a failure to live sustainably.

Now choking under the smoke of a changing climate, California feels stuck. We are BlackBerry after the iPhone, Blockbuster after Netflix: We’ve got the wrong design, we bet on the wrong technologies, we’ve got the wrong incentives, and we’re saddled with the wrong culture. The founding idea of this place is infinitude — mile after endless mile of cute houses connected by freeways and uninsulated power lines stretching out far into the forested hills. Our whole way of life is built on a series of myths — the myth of endless space, endless fuel, endless water, endless optimism, endless outward reach and endless free parking.


This is a terrific piece: a recognition that what has worked for the past 100 years isn’t going to work for the next. There’s a response from Alissa Walker, essentially saying “but muh climate action!”. But I think she misses, and Manjoo hits, the point.
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Obama on call-out culture: ‘that’s not activism’ • The New York Times

Emily Rueb and Derrick Taylor:


“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Mr. Obama said [during an hour-long interview about youth activism]. “You should get over that quickly.”

“The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he continued. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

Mr. Obama spoke repeatedly of the role of social media in activism specifically, including the idea of what’s become known as “cancel culture,” which is much remarked upon, but still nebulously defined. It tends to refer to behavior that mostly plays out on the internet when someone has said or done something to which others object. That person is then condemned in a flurry of social media posts. Such people are often referred to as “canceled,” a way of saying that many others (and perhaps the places at which they work) are fed up with them and will have no more to do with them.

Mr. Obama talked about conversations he’s had with his daughter Malia, who is a student at Harvard with Ms. Shahidi.

“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’” he said, “and that’s enough.”

“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb,” he said, “then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”

Then he pretended to sit back and press the remote to turn on a television.

“That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”


In the same way, breaking news: changing your Twitter avatar to include [topic of current concern] has zero effect.
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Black Salve is a dangerous fake cancer cure, but Facebook Groups allow it to flourish • Buzzfeed News

Katie Notopoulos:


Even as Facebook has cracked down on anti-vaxxers and peddlers of snake oil cure-alls, a particularly grotesque form of fake cancer treatment has flourished in private groups on Facebook. Black salve, a caustic black paste that eats through flesh, is enthusiastically recommended in dedicated groups as a cure for skin and breast cancer — and for other types of cancer when ingested in pill form. There’s even a group dedicated to applying the paste to pets.

A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that these groups don’t violate its community guidelines. This summer, it launched an initiative to address “exaggerated or sensational health claims” and will downrank that content in the News Feed, similar to how it handles clickbait. But it’s not clear how it defines what a “sensational” health claim is. Citing user privacy, Facebook would not say whether or not it had downranked the black salve groups in the News Feed.

Other platforms have taken a different approach. When BuzzFeed News asked YouTube about several videos where people discussed using black salve, YouTube said the videos were in violation and removed them. Amazon, which does not sell the salve itself, removed a book about black salve when BuzzFeed News asked about it.

Doctors and medical literature are clear that black salve is not a safe or effective cure for cancer. The FDA does not allow the sale of the product in the US. But tech platforms are not in sync about how to handle it. And in the meantime, people are getting disfigured or dying.


On the plus side, the tech companies can say they’re not colluding.
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Rudy Giuliani needed Apple genius help to unlock his iPhone after being named Trump cybersecurity adviser • NBC News

Rich Schapiro:


Less than a month after he was named President Donald Trump’s cybersecurity adviser in 2017, Rudy Giuliani walked into an Apple store in downtown San Francisco.

He wasn’t looking for a new gadget. Giuliani was looking for help.

He was locked out of his iPhone because he had forgotten the passcode and entered the wrong one at least 10 times, according to two people familiar with the matter and a photo of an internal Apple store memo obtained by NBC News.

“Very sloppy,” said one of the people, a former Apple store employee who was there on the day that Giuliani stopped by in February 2017.

“Trump had just named him as an informal adviser on cybersecurity and here, he couldn’t even master the fundamentals of securing your own device.”


That “entered the wrong passcode 10 times” detail is strange. Usually when that’s turned on, the phone wipes – but it takes ages to enter it wrong that many times, because the pause in between entry attempts gets longer and longer. Which implies that he didn’t have “wipe after 10 failed attempts” turned on. Quite the cyber czar. And phone czar – he has repeatedly butt-dialled Schapiro and accidentally left voicemails about financial topics.

Though as Farhad Manjoo (him again!) points out, it’s a bad security failing by Apple that a customer of any sort had personal details leaked. In Europe, it would face a big GDPR fine. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Why ‘Medicare for All’ could both raise taxes and lower costs • The New York Times

Margot Sanger-Katz and Josh Katz:


The charts above compare two leading sets of health care proposals advocated by Democrats running for president. The first, a “public option” plan, is similar to proposals from Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and other candidates. It would allow most Americans to buy insurance from the government and make other changes that would enable fewer people to go without coverage, but it would preserve much of the existing health insurance system.

The second, a “Medicare for all” plan introduced by Bernie Sanders and endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, would replace most Americans’ current health insurance with a generous government-run plan that covers more benefits. (Kamala Harris wants to replace the existing system with a mix of new public and private options, but there are not yet rigorous cost estimates for such a plan.)

When critics say that a single-payer system will be expensive, they are usually talking about the increase in federal spending — the size of the red box above. When Medicare for all enthusiasts say it would not increase spending much, they are talking about the size of the entire chart.

[Interactive: the size of the entire chart doesn’t change, no matter which option you go for.]

That’s why it could be true both that Medicare for all would require substantial tax increases and that it would leave many or most American families better off financially.


I’m constantly amazed that Americans can’t grasp this. If the government pays for your health care, then you cut out the insurance companies and all the other middlemen who are happily taking a profit. Presently it’s a “distorted market that involves larger transfers from taxpayers to insurers”, to quote the White House in 2018. Health insurance companies made $47bn of profit on $545bn of revenues in just the second quarter of 2018. They benefit from people not getting the best service, or from maximising their charges. That’s not aligned with what people, or government, wants.
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Exclusive: WhatsApp hacked to spy on top government officials at US allies • Reuters

Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter:


Senior government officials in multiple US-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook’s WhatsApp to take over users’ phones, according to people familiar with the messaging company’s investigation.

Sources familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation into the breach said a “significant” portion of the known victims are high-profile government and military officials spread across at least 20 countries on five continents.

The hacking of a wider group of top government officials’ smartphones than previously reported suggests the WhatsApp cyber intrusion could have broad political and diplomatic consequences.

WhatsApp filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Israeli hacking tool developer NSO Group. The Facebook-owned software giant alleges that NSO Group built and sold a hacking platform that exploited a flaw in WhatsApp-owned servers to help clients hack into the cellphones of at least 1,400 users…

…Some victims are in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan and India, said people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether victims from these countries included government officials.


Principal suspects of doing the hacking: China, Russia, Israel. The US might have, but hasn’t had much motive lately.
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Editorial: Apple isn’t revamping its HomeKit team, but maybe it should • Apple Insider

William Gallagher disputes Bloomberg’s report that Apple is “revamping” its HomeKit team:


Bloomberg is right that HomeKit devices lag far behind Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home ones. We might wish that both of those companies were more privacy and security conscious as Apple is, but if you pick up a smart device, it’s certainly going to work with them.

And whatever the smart device is that you want, there will be an Amazon and a Google one, there may well not be an Apple HomeKit one. That’s particularly true internationally, but even within the US, your range of products is quite limited.

Apple has made a move that could be designed to help this. It’s announced HomeKit Secure Video as part of iOS 13, which will store your security footage on Apple’s servers. That will unquestionably make HomeKit cameras more appealing to buyers because it will doubtlessly be convenient, plus it’s easier to trust Apple with your footage than it is an unknown third-party.

Yet although firms such as Logitech have said that they will support HomeKit Secure Video, it’s not likely to see a rush of vendors. That’s because home security firms don’t just rely on selling you a camera, they need you to buy services such as footage storage and retrieval.

If Apple made a camera, you’d call HomeKit Security Video a killer feature, especially as a certain amount of the storage will be free if you already pay for extra iCloud storage.

What it needs is HomeKit evangelism, like how it sold Macs back in the day.

Where Apple could make a killer feature that made HomeKit more appealing and yet didn’t drive away other vendors, is in its existing products.

The Apple TV and HomePod, for instance, are already able to act as a HomeKit hub in your house. It’s there, it’s plugged in, it’s working with HomeKit. What would it take for Apple to embed a mesh Wi-Fi system into that same hardware.


Either Apple has some 3D-chess strategy here, or it’s got nothing. But it’s making it impossible to tell which. Soon though it won’t be able to catch up; people will have plumped for one of the rival ecosystems. (Thanks Clive H for the link.)
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Google Pixel 4 XL review: not quite ready for primetime • The Guardian

Samuel Gibbs:


for every feature that’s good, there’s a problem that needs fixing. The screen’s great, but not always at 90Hz and not always bright enough, and the battery life just isn’t long enough for a top-end phone in 2019.

The fact that the new Assistant doesn’t work when you have a G Suite account on your phone – a product made and sold to companies by Google – is frankly embarrassing. As is the oversight that some may want to make sure they’re actually looking at their phone with their eyes before it unlocks – Apple knew this and has had it in Face ID for three years.

The biggest issue for me, however, is that the Android app ecosystem just isn’t ready for a phone that has dumped the fingerprint sensor. Face Unlock is genuinely great. A transformational leap just as Face ID was three years ago on the iPhone X, but only when it works. And it doesn’t work in my banking apps, my security apps or Evernote. Only one app I routinely use a fingerprint with supports Face Unlock.

That situation will change once all the apps have been updated, but I’m not holding my breath for the very slow-moving banks to support Face Unlock any time soon, and that’s a real problem.

The Pixel 4 XL is therefore a very hard phone to grade. Once Google fixes the problems and apps have been updated, the only thing really holding the phone back is below-average battery life. If that’s something you can live with, and you trust Google to fix things, then by all means buy the Pixel 4 XL.


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Huawei Mate 30 set to be launched in Europe in mid-November • Techgarage

Pascal Landolt:


According to our own well-informed sources based in China, Huawei seems to be gearing up to launch the Mate 30 and Mate 30 pro in Europe starting mid-November, possibly on November 15th.

A complete list of included countries hasn’t been released yet but according to our contact we can expect “the usual suspects” – meaning countries often involved in the first wave of Huawei launches. Which would mean that the Mate 30 Series will launch mid-November in the following countries: Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain and Switzerland.

Could it even be possible that Huawei‘s own foldable phone, the Mate X, might be launched around the same time? Both models are already available in China’s domestic market and the Mate X especially is overdue in Europe by now, especially seeing that competitor Samsung has already launched its foldable Galaxy Fold a few weeks ago on the old continent.

What else do we know about the Mate 30 Series from Huawei? For one, it is confirmed that the devices will be shipping with Android 10 as OS and a preloaded HMS (Huawei Mobile Services) Suite instead of the more traditional GMS (Google Mobile Services). Which means you’re not getting Google Maps, the Chrome Browser or other Google Apps straight out of the box.


Can’t see how this will possibly be anything other than a huge burden for any carrier that sells it because of the customer support (“no, there isn’t Google Maps..”). And it’s not cheap – €799 to €1,199.
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