Start Up No.1,190: ex-Apple chip execs aim at servers, track Twitter hoaxes, costing Labour’s broadband plan, Amazon’s externalities, and more


Ships rely on GPS – but someone in China has figured out how to spoof it reliably. CC-licensed photo by Travis on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. It’s the time of year. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: a GPS mystery in Shanghai • MIT Technology Review

Mark Harris:

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As the crew carefully maneuvered the 700-foot ship through the world’s busiest port, its captain watched his navigation screens closely. By international law, all but the smallest commercial ships have to install automatic identification system (AIS) transponders. Every few seconds, these devices broadcast their identity, position, course, and speed and display AIS data from other ships in the area, helping to keep crowded waterways safe. The position data for those transponders comes from GPS satellites.

According to the Manukai’s screens, another ship was steaming up the same channel at about seven knots (eight miles per hour). Suddenly, the other ship disappeared from the AIS display. A few minutes later, the screen showed the other ship back at the dock. Then it was in the channel and moving again, then back at the dock, then gone once more.

Eventually, mystified, the captain picked up his binoculars and scanned the dockside. The other ship had been stationary at the dock the entire time.

When it came time for the Manukai to head for its own berth, the bridge began echoing to multiple alarms. Both of the ship’s GPS units—it carried two for redundancy—had lost their signals, and its AIS transponder had failed. Even a last-ditch emergency distress system that also relied on GPS could not get a fix.

Now, new research and previously unseen data show that the Manukai, and thousands of other vessels in Shanghai over the last year, are falling victim to a mysterious new weapon that is able to spoof GPS systems in a way never seen before.

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Long talked about, it looks like aggressive GPS spoofing is now a real thing.
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Gifaanisqatsi

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Koyaanisqatsi is a 1983 wordless documentary primarily made up of slow motion and time-lapse footage. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the trailer.

I wondered how easy it would be to make an internet version using random Giphy ‘gifs’ which have been tagged as slow motion or time-lapse, playing them along with the Philip Glass soundtrack.

(As with any random thing, there is a chance some dodgy content may get through. I have used Giphy’s PG-13 setting and it seems okay, but click on a video and it will tell you an id – send me this and I’ll block anything iffy. Also note that this may not work on phones, especially iPhones, as they can be weird about multiple videos, and it’s quite heavy on your processor and bandwidth.)

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This is good fun, and the soundtrack works with pretty much anything.
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Former Apple chip executives found company to take on Intel, AMD • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

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Three of Apple former top semiconductor executives in charge of iPhone chips have founded a startup to design processors for data centers, aiming to take on current industry leaders Intel Corp and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

NUVIA Inc was founded by Gerard Williams III, Manu Gulati and John Bruno in early 2019 and is developing a processor code-named Phoenix. The company on Friday said it raised $53m from Dell Technologies Capital and several Silicon Valley firms, which will help it expand from 60 employees to about 100 by the end of this year.

The company’s founders, backers and plans have not been previously reported.

Williams left Apple this spring after more than nine years as chief architect for all Apple central processors and systems-on-a-chip. Gulati spent eight years at Apple working on mobile systems-on-a-chip, and Bruno spent five years in Apple’s platform architecture group. Gulati and Bruno also worked for Alphabet Inc’s Google before coming to NUVIA.

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That’s some high-powered execs there. Apple bought PA Semi in 2008, and hired Williams in 2010 from ARM. But it seems like the chip group is always seeing change.

You’d have to guess that these are going to be ARM-based servers, which is a slice of the market that hasn’t seen much action yet.
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Hoaxy® : FAQ

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What is Hoaxy?

Hoaxy is a tool that visualizes the spread of articles online. Articles can be found on Twitter, or in a corpus of claims and related fact checking.

What is the difference between Hoaxy search and Twitter search?

There are two search modes. Hoaxy search finds claims and related fact checking in a limited corpus of articles from low-credibility and fact-checking sources, dating back to 2016. This mode leverages the Hoaxy API to retrieve relevant articles, accounts, and tweets. Twitter search lets users track articles from any sources posted on Twitter, but only within the last 7 days. Twitter mode uses the Twitter Search API to retrieve relevant, popular, or mixedtweets matching your search query. It is compatible with all advanced search operators. At most, Hoaxy is capable of visualizing the top 1000 accounts and in the case of a Twitter search, this will be the most recently active 1000 accounts if sorted by Recent.

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Fun! Worth adding to your bookmarks.
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How feasible is Labour’s free broadband plan and part-nationalisation of BT? • The Guardian

Mark Sweney and Patrick Collinson:

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Could the government and BT shareholders agree a fair price for Openreach?
There is likely to be significant difficulty valuing British Broadband, which is what Labour would call a nationalised Openreach. Bloomberg has valued it at £15bn.

The Labour party has said parliament would decide what to pay but it would have to be a fair price to get the backing of employee shareholders, pension fund investors, small shareholders and big overseas investors. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, which has 12% of the business, is likely to be a tough negotiator, for instance.

But it would likely cost less than it would have done a few years ago. BT’s share price was 500p in 2015 but is now only 191p. Labour has said that BT shareholders would get government bonds in return for their shares, which pay a lower dividend than BT investors currently receive.

Would nationalising broadband work?
Australia has tried to do this with its National Broadband Network and it has been branded one of the biggest infrastructure failures in its history. Set up in 2006, the government’s plan was to roll out full fibre to 93% of all premises, although over the years this was watered down to a “multi-technology mix” using different technologies offering varying levels of speed and service to consumers. “Only one other country in the world has come close to going down this route, Australia,” says Matthew Howett, the principal analyst at telecoms research firm Assembly. “And for a good reason – it’s hard, expensive and fraught with difficulty. Australia’s NBN is years late, massively overbudget and offering speeds and technology a fraction of the original political intention.”

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The problem with the Australia program was that it got watered down to stick with copper. Nationalising BT Openreach would be a radical move – but so was selling the public BT into the private sector in 1984. Now it’s just using Openreach as a cash cow. Infrastructure shouldn’t be that.
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Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales launches Twitter and Facebook rival • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:

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Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has quietly launched a rival to Facebook and Twitter that he hopes will combat “clickbait” and misleading headlines. 

WT:Social, his new social-networking site, allows users to share links to articles and discuss them in a Facebook-style news feed. Topics range from politics and technology to heavy metal and beekeeping. 

While the company is completely separate to Wikipedia, Mr Wales is borrowing the online encyclopedia’s business model. WT:Social will rely on donations from a small subset of users to allow the network to operate without the advertising that he blames for encouraging the wrong kind of engagement on social media.

“The business model of social media companies, of pure advertising, is problematic,” Mr Wales said. “It turns out the huge winner is low-quality content.” 

While Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms ensure that the posts with the most comments or likes rise to the top, WT:Social puts the newest links first. However, WT:Social hopes to add an “upvote” button that will allow users to recommend quality stories.

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Have to say that this would have been perfect about 15 years ago. Hard to see it really making an impact now, though he’s right about the problems.
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Most Americans think they’re being constantly tracked—and that there’s nothing they can do • MIT Technology Review

Angela Chen:

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More than 60% of Americans think it’s impossible to go through daily life without being tracked by companies or the government, according to a new Pew Research study. The results provide important context on the long-running question of how much Americans really care about privacy. 

It’s not just that Americans (correctly) think companies are collecting their data. They don’t like it. About 69% of Americans are skeptical that companies will use their private information in a way they’re comfortable with, while 79% don’t believe that companies will come clean if they misuse the information. 

When it comes to who they trust, there are differences by race. About 73% of black Americans, for instance, are at least a little worried about what law enforcement knows about them, compared with 56% of white Americans. But among all respondents, more than 80% were concerned about what social-media sites and advertisers might know. 

Despite these concerns, more than 80% of Americans feel they have no control over how their information is collected. 

Very few people read privacy policies, the survey shows. That’s understandable. A review of 150 policies from major websites found that the average one takes about 18 minutes to read and requires at least a college-level reading ability. Few people have time for that—and even if they did, most people are forced to agree anyway if they really need the service.

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Brand hijacking and Amazon’s China strategy • The Margins

Ranjan Roy:

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For decades, we’ve vilified the “middleman” as an inefficiency; an unnecessary tax paid by the consumer which technology finally solved for. But, we ignored the layers of accountability and positive value that many of these conduits provided.

Think about it: If you bought a child’s toy from Sears, you would assume that it didn’t contain 400x the amount of lead legally allowed. But that’s no longer the case:

»

Another musical-instrument set failing the Journal’s tests, made by a company calling itself Innocheer and listed as in China, likely contributed to a New York City child’s lead poisoning, according to city health officials. The city in May 2018 began tracking down contaminated products including the set bought on Amazon, a New York health-department spokesman says.

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If you went to a store and bought a motorcycle helmet that was listed as DOT compliant, but it in fact, was not and your son died in an accident where it did not act as expected, you’d expect proper recourse, but you’d be wrong:

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The coroner declared Mr. Stokes dead at the scene, a day before he and his girlfriend planned to find out their unborn baby’s gender. His mother sued Amazon, claiming the helmet was flawed. Amazon in court argued it didn’t sell the helmet but merely listed it on the seller’s behalf. It settled for $5,000 without admitting liability. It declined to comment on the case.

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The examples go on and on, but you get the point. What was long decried as inefficiency, in fact, imbued some semblance of accountability. When Jeff Bezos says “your margin is my opportunity” he seems to gloss over whether there was a modicum of value being delivered within that margin.

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In short: problems that used to be contained within the system have become externalities.
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Microsoft is killing off its Cortana app for iOS and Android in January • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft has revealed that it’s planning to kill off its Cortana app for iOS and Android in January. The software maker has posted a new support article for Cortana users in the UK, Canada, and Australia that reveals Cortana for iOS and Android is disappearing in at least those markets. Microsoft has also confirmed to The Verge that the Cortana app will disappear in the UK, Australia, Germany, Mexico, China, Spain, Canada, and India on January 31st.

“Cortana is an integral part of our broader vision to bring the power of conversational computing and productivity to all our platforms and devices,” says a Microsoft spokesperson in a statement to The Verge. “To make Cortana as helpful as possible, we’re integrating Cortana deeper into your Microsoft 365 productivity apps, and part of this evolution involves ending support for the Cortana mobile app on Android and iOS.”

It’s not clear how much longer the Cortana for iOS and Android app will continue to operate in the US after January 31st.

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Come on, they say they’re integrating it into Office, but the truth is it’s dead. A brief history: development started in 2009, and it was introduced in April 2014. Amazon’s Alexa: introduced in November 2014. Surprising how one has survived and the other hasn’t.
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Google Pixel 4 review: overpriced, uncompetitive, and out of touch • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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When the original Google Pixel first came out, there was an abundance of things you could give Google’s new smartphone division the benefit of the doubt on. The design was a year or two behind the competition, with thicker bezels and a less appealing design. Availability was very poor, as the phone was only sold in a handful of countries compared to the world-dominating distribution networks of Apple and Samsung. At a whopping $650, the original Pixel phone was shockingly expensive compared to the awesome value previously provided by the Nexus line. The fabled integration of hardware and software hadn’t shown many benefits yet, but that was easy to excuse since the original Pixel was rushed out the door. “This will all get better,” we all thought. Google was just getting started!

We’re on generation 4 of the Pixel line now, and nothing has really gotten better. The Pixel 4 design is still dated compared to the competition, sporting a sizable bezel when most of the smartphone world has moved on to minimal cameral blemishes or completely hidden cameras. Distribution is still very bad. The Pixel 4 is only for sale in 12 countries, a laughable number compared to the 70 countries that Apple does iPhone business in and the 100+ countries that can buy the Galaxy S10. The pricing problem has gotten even worse, as the Pixel 4’s entry point is now higher than the iPhone 11. Yet, the iPhone 11 has a bigger screen, a bigger battery, and a longer support window.

We’re not seeing any benefits from the supposed “deeper” integration of hardware and software, either. In four generations, Google has yet to do anything special with its hardware. It mostly just produces cookie-cutter smartphones at a very high price, doing the same thing as other companies often a year or two behind the competition.

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Tough crowd, the Android reviewer for a big tech site.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,190: ex-Apple chip execs aim at servers, track Twitter hoaxes, costing Labour’s broadband plan, Amazon’s externalities, and more

    • Also, I’m not on board with tech and non-tech sites’ intense coverage on the Pixel. It’s a marginal phone from a marginal OEM; if you’re not to cover everything, I think covering the most popular devices is more useful.

      I’ve got the same issue with most every topic (cars, hi-fi, even appliances). Companies want to push high-end stuff, and journalist have to work with what they’re given + get a vanity boost from getting all embroiled in high-end stuff; but that content is mostly useless, 90% of people buy reasonable, not vanity, stuff.

      Plus the action these days is in low and mid range smartphones. Those are seeing the most progress, going from crap to delightful and now possibly excellent in a few short years, while flagships added… AR and blurred backgrounds ? Tracking what one can do on a $150 device is vastly more exciting than that. As is the question of whether one should spend more, or less.

    • Anandtech’s review boiled down to one of their own sentences: “Overall, the Pixel 4 frankly feels more like a device that would have been extremely successful if it had been released in 2018.”

      In general, it’s damning with faint praise. I’d say it’s exactly the same as Amadeo’s.

      • The conclusion is fairly the same. But where Amadeo goes on long rants about tangential stuff and really REALLY insists on semi-random stuff, Anandtech mentions the good, the bad and moves on quickly. I’d rather have Anandtech’s review of video-taking than Amadeo’s three-too-many rants.

  1. This looks smart: https://www.androidheadlines.com/2019/11/lg-patents-handset-with-extendable-display-that-doubles-screen-surface.html

    Extra screen is protected rolled up in the sides, should be reasonably rigid and sturdy (I was thinking of a papryrus-scroll like unroll, but that’s flimsy). Doubling the screen size is obvious, I’m fairly sure you can go up to 3x (assuming the screen rolls up tight enough), that gives you a 10″ tablet with something close to a 3:2 format (x2 gives you a square 8-incher),when starting from a Galaxy Note 10+ size (6.8″ 19:9)

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