Start Up No.1197: Google fires activist staff, India’s coal sputters, IPv4 all gone, Bose’s headphone row, Brexit gets worse, and more


Lots of Americans believe they’ve already got 5G – including iPhone users, who definitely haven’t. CC-licensed photo by Rob Pegoraro on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not a king? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google fires four workers active in labor organizing • The New York Times

Kate Conger and Daisuke Wakabayashi:

»

Google on Monday fired four employees who had been active in labor organizing at the company, according to a memo that was seen by The New York Times.

The memo, sent by Google’s security and investigations team, told employees that the company had dismissed four employees “for clear and repeated violations of our data security policies.” Jenn Kaiser, a Google spokeswoman, confirmed the firings but declined to elaborate.

The dismissals are expected to exacerbate rocky relations between Google’s management and a vocal contingent of workers who have protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment, its treatment of contract employees, and its work with the Defense Department, federal border agencies and the Chinese government.

Tensions have increased as Google has cracked down on what had long been a freewheeling work culture that encouraged employees to speak out. Google recently canceled a regular series of companywide meetings that allowed workers to pose questions to senior executives and began working with a consulting firm that has helped companies quell unionization efforts…

…In the memo, Google said the fired employees had repeatedly searched for, looked through and distributed information “outside the scope of their jobs.” One of the workers set up notifications to receive emails detailing the work and whereabouts of other employees without their knowledge or consent, the memo said.

“This is not how Google’s open culture works or was ever intended to work,” the memo said.

When asked last week by The Times, Google could not point to a specific rule that forbade setting up these notifications but said it was investigating to determine if this and other behavior violated the company’s code of conduct.

«

Lots of questions here. If getting notifications is not how the culture “works or was ever intended to work”, how was it possible? There seems to be an unstated understanding that though the tools to do this existed, the staff would never find need to use them – an assumption that is now breaking down.

Second, those data security policies seem very weighted towards higher-ups. It’s OK for the higher-ups to spy on the staff (which a browser extension effectively does), but not vice-versa. And I don’t recall anyone at Google getting fired when the company collects too much data about people outside Google (Wi-Fi network details, Safari cookie exploits for ads).

But the long and short is that Google is hitting an inflexion point. It’s either going to rediscover its early, freewheeling character, or it is going down the road of a locked-down business that will become another Microsoft, sclerotically stuck in its trajectory. Profitable, but a creative husk.
link to this extract


Consumers are confused by 5G, survey finds • Strategy Analytics Online Newsroom

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Surveying consumers in the US via web-survey, key report findings include:

• Nearly two thirds of consumers surveyed claimed ‘Basic Familiarity’ or to be ‘Very Familiar’ with 5G, but of this nearly one fifth of consumers already thought they had 5G.
• While one in four consumers in the US listed 5G as an important feature, one in five didn’t yet see a need for 5G, or wanted to wait until the benefits of 5G were proven before purchasing this technology.
• Apple fans in the US believe they are 5G leaders despite market reality. But when asked which brand they would buy for 5G capabilities, overall consumers ranked Samsung neck and neck with Apple as the most preferred.

Christopher Dodge, Associate Director, UXS and report author commented, “Outside of Apple and Samsung, the battle for 5G will largely be in the mid-tier – smartphones with a retail price of $600 and below. A wave of new entrants for 5G from China, as well as new Nokia devices, could be also be damaging to brands such as LG and Motorola, who are most at risk given their low repeat purchase intentions in the 5G era.”

«

I expect that the Apple users were looking at the “5G” logo in the top of their phone, put there by AT&T in its network signal to fool people that it’s ahead of the game. In reality, it’s going to have it in a few cities by February 2020.
link to this extract


Health concerns mount as more old sewer pipes are lined with plastic • Scientific American

Robin Lloyd:

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Earlier this year Nicole Davis arrived at one of the San Antonio, Tex., offices of the audiology practice she co-owns, ready to see the day’s patients. But upon entering her office, Davis says she quickly noticed a noxious odor that smelled like paint thinner. Her eyes started burning. By noon, she felt nauseated and dizzy, with the burning sensation spreading to her nose and throat. Her mouth went numb. Co-workers in the building told Davis that they felt ill, too. By the evening, she says, she was vomiting.

Two days later, Davis received an e-mail from an employee for a construction firm that was doing work that week on municipal pipes below street-level near the building. The employee apologized in the e-mail for Davis’s “recent experience” and attached a technical document describing the hazards and health risks associated with materials used to make plastic in the pipe project. The e-mail and attachment do not state that the work caused the odor or Davis’s reaction.

The company was renovating an underground sewer pipe with a widely and increasingly used technique called cured-in-place pipes. A felt or composite sleeve is saturated, typically with a polyester or vinyl ester resin. Workers thread the sleeve through an underground pipe and then inflate and heat it, often with steam or hot water. The sleeve hardens to form a continuous plastic liner along the old pipe’s inner walls. The technique is less expensive and takes less time than fully replacing old sewer-system pipes and stormwater culverts.

Davis has recovered from most of what she says her doctor told her were neurological effects from a chemical exposure.

«

Clever technique but seems like they need to work the bugs out. And admit that it’s going to generate lots of toxic chemicals in the short term.
link to this extract


India’s electricity-sector transformation is happening now • Institute for Energy Economics + Financial Analysis

Tim Buckley:

»

The Indian energy market transformation is accelerating under Energy Minister Piyush Goyal’s leadership.

The most recent and most persuasive evidence is the collapsing cost of solar electricity—a collapse that has gone beyond anyone’s expectations, and the results are in: solar has won.

The global energy market implications are profound.

Recent events have given manifest life to Mark Carney’s landmark 2015 speech in which Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned of stranded-asset risks across the coal industry. This month alone has seen the cancellation of 13.7 gigawatts (GW) of proposed coal-fired power plants across India and an admission that US$9bn (8.6GW) of already operating import-coal-fired power plants are potentially no longer viable.

To put an Australian and a global seaborne thermal coal-trade perspective on it, these development strike at the very viability of the Carmichael export thermal coal proposal. They speak as well to a worldwide transition in progress.

India solar tariffs have been in freefall for months. A new 250MW solar tender in Rajasthan at the Bhadla Phase IV solar park this month was won at a record low Rs2.62/kWh, 12% below the previous record low tariff awarded across 750MW of solar just three months ago at Rs2.97/kWh.

«

Coal-fired thermal plants make up about 55% of installed generation capacity in India (it’s the world’s third-largest producer and importer) but they’re increasingly unsustainable – because of water shortages, apart from anything else – and working at about 50% of their 196GW (196,000 MW) capacity. Renewables + nuclear were 35% by September 2018.
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The RIPE NCC has run out of IPv4 addresses • RIPE

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This event [the awarding of the last IPv4 internet address] is another step on the path towards global exhaustion of the remaining IPv4 addressing space. In recent years, we have seen the emergence of an IPv4 transfer market and greater use of Carrier Grade Network Address Translation (CGNAT) in our region. There are costs and trade-offs with both approaches and neither one solves the underlying problem, which is that there are not enough IPv4 addresses for everyone.

Without wide-scale IPv6 deployment, we risk heading into a future where the growth of our Internet is unnecessarily limited – not by a lack of skilled network engineers, technical equipment or investment – but by a shortage of unique network identifiers. There is still a long way to go, and we call on all stakeholders to play their role in supporting the IPv6 roll-out.

«

In case you don’t follow it: IPv4 is “old” internet addressing, a bit like a 32-bit processor: it can only address a specific number of points. (We actually passed that number ages ago, but various network tricks have made it feasible to keep using IPv4.)

The 64-bit version is IPv6, but people are reluctant to shift there because they’d like everyone else to have made the switch first. I still don’t have a clear idea of how many routers, for example, function on IPv6.
link to this extract


Big Tech’s big defector • New Yorker

Brian Barth:

»

[longtime venture capitalist Roger] McNamee saw the tech industry as an experiment in creative and profitable problem-solving. He grew unnerved by its ethical failures only in 2012, when Uber came to him for investment capital. He decided that Silicon Valley had changed. “These guys all wanted to be monopolists,” he said recently. “They all want to be billionaires.”

McNamee was convinced that Facebook was different. Then, in February, 2016, shortly after he retired from full-time investing, he noticed posts in his Facebook feed that purported to support Bernie Sanders but struck him as fishy. That spring, the social-media-fuelled vitriol of the Brexit campaign seemed like further proof that Facebook was being exploited to sow division among voters—and that company executives had turned a blind eye. The more McNamee listened to Silicon Valley critics, the more alarmed he became: he learned that Facebook allowed facial-recognition software to identify users without their consent, and let advertisers discriminate against viewers. (Real-estate companies, for example, could exclude people of certain races from seeing their ads.)

Ten days before the Presidential election, McNamee sent an e-mail to Zuckerberg and Sandberg. “I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed,” he wrote. “Recently, Facebook has done some things that are truly horrible and I can no longer excuse its behavior. . . . Facebook is enabling people to do harm. It has the power to stop the harm. What it currently lacks is an incentive to do so.”

Within hours, both Zuckerberg and Sandberg sent McNamee cordial replies, assuring him that they were already working to address some of the issues he’d raised, and dispatched a Facebook executive, Dan Rose, to talk to him. Rose told McNamee that Facebook was a platform, not a publisher, and couldn’t control all user behavior. Since leaving the investment world, McNamee had been looking forward to being a full-time musician. But Rose’s dismissiveness rattled him. “They were my friends. I wanted to give them a chance to do the right thing. I wasn’t expecting them to go, ‘Oh, my God, stop everything,’ but I was expecting them to take it seriously,” he said. “It was obvious they thought it was a P.R. problem, not a business problem, and they thought the P.R. problem was me.”

«

The lesson: don’t spurn the VC. (Also well worth it for the line “He and Nancy Pelosi, now the Speaker of the House, had been introduced some twenty years earlier, by the Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart…”)
link to this extract


How a chance meeting with Twitter bosses landed a Nigerian developer his dream job • CNN

Aisha Salaudeen:

»

Dara Oladosu met Jack Dorsey, who was on a “listening and learning tour” in Africa with other Twitter executives and met with members of Nigeria’s tech community and business executives.

One of their first stops was a meeting with tech publishers where Oladosu’s app, Quoted Replies, a Twitter-based bot that helps users collate quoted replies to tweets was discussed.
Oladosu was not on the initial invite list for the event held at TechpointNG but a last minute invitation ensured he got to meet the Twitter bosses.

“Titi…the person that interviewed me for the Techpoint articles got me a pass to the event Jack was at. She asked if I could make it there and coincidentally I was on leave at work at the time so I made it before the event ended,” Oladosu told CNN.

Impressed by his work, Dorsey and his team including Kayvon Beykpour, Product Lead and co-founder of Periscope, Parag Agrawal, Chief Technology Officer, and Mike Montano, Engineering Team Lead invited him to join them.

“Someone from the audience was talking about the bot when I got to the event. So, when the person finished, Titi introduced me as the developer who built it. I got the microphone and explained what Quoted Replies was about and how I built it,” Oladosu said.
In a video from the event, Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s Product Lead said the team is willing to implement Quoted Replies on Twitter as a feature and would like Oladosu to join the team to work on it.

«

link to this extract


Hidden cam above Bluetooth pump skimmer • Krebs On Security

Brian Krebs:

»

“I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a camera on a gas pump with a Bluetooth card skimmer,” said Detective Matt Jogodka of the Las Vegas Police Department, referring to the compromised fuel pump pictured below.

The fake panel (horizontal) above the “This Sale” display obscures a tiny hidden camera angled toward the gas pump’s PIN pad.
It may be difficult to tell from the angle of the photograph above, but the horizontal bar across the top of the machine (just above the “This Sale $” indicator) contains a hidden pinhole camera angled so as to record debit card users entering their PIN.

Jogodka said although this pump’s PIN pad is encrypted, the hidden camera sidesteps that security feature.

“The PIN pad is encrypted, so this is a NEW way to capture the PIN,” Jogodka wrote in a message to a mailing list about skimming devices found on Arizona fuel pumps. “The camera was set on Motion, [to] save memory space and battery life. Sad for the suspect, it was recovered 2 hours after it was installed.”

Whoever hacked this fuel pump was able to get inside the machine and install a Bluetooth-based circuit board that connects to the power and can transmit stolen card data wirelessly. This allows the thieves to drive by at any time and download the card data remotely from a mobile device or laptop.

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So they were able to get a long way into the machine. Inside job? Even if they did it in the dead of night you’d expect there would be CCTV.
link to this extract


Bose customers beg for firmware ceasefire after headphones fall victim to another crap update • The Register

John Oates:

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Owners of Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones are still trying to get the company to either fix or roll back a firmware update that removed noise-cancelling functions from their over-ear gear.

The problems date back to July and some owners seem to have managed to get Bose to exchange their cans for the company’s shiny new 700 headphones.

We were contacted by a reader who was first given a set of version II headphones when his V1 set were borked. When the updated firmware borked them as well, he declined the offer of a replacement set and was given a pair of 700s. Firmware version 4.5.2 was fingered as the main culprit.

Like all Bose gear, the cans don’t come cheap – they’ll set you back £259.95 to be precise, or £349.95 for a pair of limited edition white 700s.

Pissed-off punters have filled a deafening 182 pages of Bose’s support forums with complaints.

One has even set up a Change.org petition to beg for a pause on firmware updates until a fix is found.

The main complaint is that Bose seems to be deaf to the problem and the easiest solution – to roll everyone back to the previous firmware and restore noise cancelling.

As of Thursday, Bose was claiming that new firmware is coming soon to solve the problem, a long five-month wait for angry customers.

We’ve contacted Bose’s UK PR again but don’t expect to hear back. The company kept very quiet when firmware updates stopped their TV soundbars making any sound.

«

That’s incredible. Screwed it up with two different types of devices? QC clearly not standing for “quality control”.
link to this extract


Ivan Rogers on Brexit: the worst is yet to come • Prospect Magazine

Ivan Rogers, formerly the UK’s ambassador to the EU, in a speech made recently:

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The publicly avowed [Boris] Johnson intention is to be much more distant from the EU, and to adopt a model on both goods and services which is substantially more divergent from EU rules and standards.

He DOES NOT WANT a so-called “high alignment” model.

That is, after all, the whole basis of the appeal his redraft of the Political Declaration accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement had to the Conservative Right that Mrs May’s deal did not.

Hers kept us in their view too closely regulatorily aligned with the EU. They viewed that as wholly unacceptable. His liberates us to diverge much more radically.

For many, that was, after all, the whole point of exiting. Essentially, I think, because they believe that the main benefits of Brexit are the greater capacity to deregulate. Not that they wish to say that during an election campaign, which currently seems to be about both main Parties making lavish promises to spend money we haven’t got.

That does not suggest to me huge faith that a deregulatory model actually has any real appeal to the great British public.

But that deregulatory purpose is now central—from food hygiene to financial services, from environmental to social regulation to state aids—to the EU perception of what Brexit is all about. Which is a further reason why the next phase will be more difficult, not less.

It has always been true that if Brexit turned out to mean diverging much more substantially than say, Norway, and leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union, the exit process will take longer and be more difficult than Ministers are still professing to believe is achievable.

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Excoriating about pretty much everyone, but this point about deregulation is the one that is being glossed over in the election campaigning.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: In yesterday’s article about pigs, the disease is African swine fever, not Asian swine flu. Thanks, Tom.

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1197: Google fires activist staff, India’s coal sputters, IPv4 all gone, Bose’s headphone row, Brexit gets worse, and more

  1. Google seems to be having a couple of culture problems (one with follow-through, one with internal openness). I wouldn’t read too much into the firing of 4 people though:
    1- it’s entirely possible that out of the 100k of Google employees, 4 are assholes. That’d make it 5 with sexist memo guy.
    2- It’s likely in fact for employees to use threat of unionization for personal gain. Granted, US firms have an allergy to unions that’s weird to us Europeans. But anecdote time, back when I was working for a US OEM, one gal got a union started specifically to get fired with a huge payoff.

    As often, the devil is in the details. I’ll wait for the reddit AMA and TV appearances to form an opinion, that.. helped a lot last time around.

    Also, I’m unsure where I stand about politics within work. The 2 extremes are Apple (not a peep from anyone) and Google (the crew is revolting half the time). Same as for policing speech, I tend to think that’s better done at the ballot box and via laws, not corp-by-corp, ie abolish ICE, don’t blacklist it; also apps should at least be able to be sideloaded even if they fail curation. All corps are only motivated by money, if not now then in the long term. Entrusting them to do anything else if bound to fail hard.

  2. Re. Apple users and 5G. Nope, not linked to ATT’s 5G icon: I get that in France too. Apple users are in a weird place where they can’t conceive their device doesn’t have every feature and isn’t the best of the best of the best on everything. And are generally fairly tech-incompetent (as all users, maybe slightly worse? I’m getting asked if 4G phones will work with 5G).
    I once got told that Macs are better because Apple has a deal with Intel and they get the CPUs from the middle of the wafer, and those are better. Like with cheese, I guess ;-p
    And that’s fed by the whole Apple PR apparatus. Where’s the intelligent discourse about single-thread performance being just one metric, and Web-based tests testing the browser more than the OS and HW ? Apple users never get told “yes, we had to compromise on that one”.

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