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.

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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

1 thought on “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

  1. I’ve been trying to find the right adjective for Trump. I don’t think it’s a good idea because that’s going down to his level, but it’s fun for itself, and it feels good to step on his toes.
    I’m now leaning towards banana Trump even though it feels a bit too innocuous:
    – he’s bananas,
    – he’s given the US a distinct whiff of banana republic
    – according to some, his mother was an ape and he got his hair from her
    – Bananas are long overdue for a spot as a symbol of something. They’re suitably ubiquitous and phallic, smell usefully bad when overripe, nicely throwable; already emoji’ed

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