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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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All aboard for late-stage capitalism, I guess.
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3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,183: Saudi moles inside Twitter, Facebook docs show data plan, Uber ignored jaywalkers (fatally), Xerox + HP = ?, and more

  1. Re Xiaomi’s watch. Since my longpost isn’t coming through:

    Yes, Ron hates a watch he hasn’t seen, nor used, nor tested. And you love that he hates it sight unseen.

    Seriously ? Both of you ?

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