Start Up No.1205: ave atque vale Larry and Sergey, Russia leaking NHS papers?, Nato stress-tests social platforms, Thailand’s e-waste problem, and more


Hard to believe, but sales of Magic Leap’s $2,300 headset have been slow – estimated at 6,000 in its first six months. CC-licensed photo by Collision Conf on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Reset, restart. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Magic Leap Two headset reportedly ‘years away from launch’ • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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Magic Leap’s sales numbers reportedly haven’t matched CEO Rony Abovitz’s high expectations — and a second-generation headset could be years away from release. The Information has published a sobering update on the much-hyped augmented reality company, which released its first product last year. According to former employees and people close to the company, Magic Leap had sold around 6,000 Magic Leap One headsets six months after release, compared to a goal of 100,000.

The company is apparently prototyping a Magic Leap Two headset with 5G connectivity, a wider field of view, and smaller and lighter hardware with multiple color options. But the project is reportedly hampered by “fundamental technology constraints,” and Magic Leap is more likely to release a near-term update with only slight changes.

…But Magic Leap has also reportedly laid off dozens of employees in the past weeks. Last month, Business Insider reported that two executives, CFO Scott Henry and SVP of creative strategy John Gaeta, had left the company. Documents revealed that the company signed over nearly 2,000 patents as collateral to JPMorgan Chase earlier this year. This isn’t an inherently bad sign, and Magic Leap has said it’s in the middle of raising a significant new funding round. But the deal could cause problems if Magic Leap hits financial trouble down the road.

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The original goal was reportedly a million. To me, 6,000 sounds reasonable, given that there’s pretty much no point in owning them – they’re only of interest to pre-early adopters trying to figure out what is needed to make better stuff.

Magic Leap is going to flame out if it can’t pivot to business uses pretty quickly. Even then its burn rate might be too large. Back in August 2018 Palmer Luckey estimated they’d sold about 2,000 units (priced $2,300) in the first 48 hours, about 3,000 after a week. If that’s right, it’s essentially dead. Yet we’ve been hearing stories of how fabulous it is since February 2015. Good grief.
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Larry and Sergey: a valediction • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:

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Larry and Sergey may well have been the last truly happy human beings on the planet. They were doing what they loved, and they were convinced that what they loved would redeem the world. That kind of happiness requires a combination of idealism and confidence that isn’t possible anymore. When, in 1965, an interviewer from Cahiers du Cinema pointed out to Jean-Luc Godard that “there is a good deal of blood” in his movie Pierrot le Fou, Godard replied, “Not blood, red.” What the cinema did to blood, the internet has done to happiness. It turned it into an image that is repeated endlessly on screens but no longer refers to anything real.

They were prophets, Larry and Sergey. When, in their famous 1998 grad-school paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” they introduced Google to the world, they warned that if the search engine were ever to leave the “academic realm” and become a business, it would inevitably be corrupted. It would become “a black art” and “be advertising oriented.” That’s exactly what happened — not just to Google but to the internet as a whole. The white-robed wizards of Silicon Valley now ply the black arts of algorithmic witchcraft for power and money. They wanted most of all to be Gandalf, but they became Saruman.

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I love how Carr is able to see things from an angle that nobody else can. Not blood; red. Not happiness; its simulacrum.
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Russia involved in leak of papers saying NHS is for sale, says Reddit • The Guardian

Kevin Rawlinson and Aamna Mohdin:

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An anonymous online poster who disseminated documents later brandished by Jeremy Corbyn as evidence the Conservatives would put the NHS “on the table” in US trade talks was part of a campaign directed by Moscow, the site hosting the papers has said.

On Friday evening, Reddit confirmed it has banned 61 accounts, including that of a user called Gregoriator, who it believes was part of a Russian information operation known as Secondary Infektion.

The anonymous user posted copies of the leaked official documents on the site in late October. Corbyn presented the same documents at a news conference last week, saying they “leave Boris Johnson’s denials [that the NHS would be for sale] in absolute tatters” and touting them as “evidence that, under Boris Johnson, the NHS is on the table and will be up for sale”.

Reddit insisted the post garnered minimal interest at the time and Labour has declined to reveal where it obtained the documents. The government has said it believes they are genuine.

However, questions will now be asked about whether Russia had a hand in introducing the papers into the UK’s public discourse and, if so, what its motivations were for doing so.

Nicky Morgan, the culture secretary, said it was “extremely serious” that the leaked documents could be linked to a Russian disinformation campaign. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday, Morgan said: “I understand from what was being put on that website, those who seem to know about these things say that it seems to have all the hallmarks of some form of interference.”

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None of which takes away from the key point: that the documents are genuine. Why might the Russians want to leak them? Because they like causing trouble. The next question is where they found them. Another version of the documents was published on Reddit in the summer, I thought – and the Daily Telegraph, a right-wing paper, wrote about them.
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Facebook, Twitter and Google failing to tackle manipulation on their platforms, NATO StratCom finds • Buzzfeed News

Alberto Nardelli:

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A year ahead of the US presidential election, the world’s biggest social media companies are still failing to tackle manipulation on their platforms, an exercise by NATO StratCom has found.

To test the ability of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram to detect potentially malicious activity, researchers at the NATO Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence ran a four-month experiment starting in May.

They purchased social media engagement on 105 different posts across the four social media platforms from manipulation service providers (MSPs), a type of company that allow clients to buy clicks and inflate their social media presence.

At a cost of just €300 (about $333), NATO StratCom bought 3,530 comments, 25,750 likes, 20,000 views and 5,100 followers across the four platforms.

Researchers were able to identify the accounts — 18,739 in total — that were being used to deliver the purchased interactions. This in turn allowed them to assess what other pages these inauthentic accounts were interacting with on behalf of other clients.

The results of the experiment are startling: Four weeks after the purchase, 4 in 5 of the purchased engagements were still online, and three weeks after a sample of fake accounts was reported to the companies, 95% of the accounts were still active.

The findings, which are contained in a report released today shared with a small number of media outlets including BuzzFeed News, suggest that malicious and inauthentic activity enabled by MSPs will often go unnoticed, considerably increasing the risk that attempts by ill-intentioned state and nongovernmental actors that seek to interfere in democratic processes will not be effectively detected and tackled.

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Apple’s Activation Lock will make it very difficult to refurbish Macs • iFixit

Craig Lloyd:

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Every month, thousands of perfectly good iPhones are shredded instead of being put into the hands of people who could really use them. Why? Two words: Activation Lock. And Macs are its next victim.

“We receive four to six thousand locked iPhones per month,” laments Peter Schindler, founder and owner of The Wireless Alliance, a Colorado-based electronics recycler and refurbisher. Those iPhones, which could easily be refurbished and put back into circulation, “have to get parted out or scrapped,” all because of this anti-theft feature.

With the release of macOS Catalina earlier this fall, any Mac that’s equipped with Apple’s new T2 security chip now comes with Activation Lock—meaning we’re about to see a lot of otherwise usable Macs heading to shredders, too.

Activation Lock was designed to prevent anyone else from using your device if it’s ever lost or stolen, and it’s built into the “Find My” service on iPhones, iPads, and other Apple devices. When you’re getting rid of an old phone, you want to use Apple’s Reset feature to wipe the phone clean, which also removes it from Find My iPhone and gets rid of the Activation Lock. But if you forget, and sell your old iPhone to a friend before you properly wipe it, the phone will just keep asking them for your Apple ID before they can set it up as a new phone. In other words, they won’t be able to do much with it besides scrap it for parts.

That seems like a nice way to thwart tech thieves, but it also causes unnecessary chaos for recyclers and refurbishers who are wading through piles of locked devices they can’t reuse.

«

So what’s needed is for Apple to have an equivalent to its “Migration Assistant” (where you move your files and settings from an old Mac to a new one) that makes sure you’re completely signed out of your old one. It could even be an option at the end of Migration Assistant.

And for iPhones, you just need to be told about Factory Reset (which makes you turn off Find My iPhone).
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The price of recycling old laptops: toxic fumes in Thailand’s lungs • The New York Times

Hannah Beech and Ryn Jirenuwat:

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As they toiled, smoke spewed over nearby villages and farms. Residents have no idea what is in the smoke: plastic, metal, who knows? All they know is that it stinks and they feel sick.

The factory, New Sky Metal, is part of a thriving e-waste industry across Southeast Asia, born of China’s decision to stop accepting the world’s electronic refuse, which was poisoning its land and people. Thailand in particular has become a center of the industry even as activists push back and its government wrestles to balance competing interests of public safety with the profits to be made from the lucrative trade.

Last year, Thailand banned the import of foreign e-waste. Yet new factories are opening across the country, and tons of e-waste are being processed, environmental monitors and industry experts say.

“E-waste has to go somewhere,” said Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, which campaigns against trash dumping in poor countries, “and the Chinese are simply moving their entire operations to Southeast Asia.”

…If some types of electronic waste aren’t incinerated at a high enough temperature, dioxins, which can cause cancer and developmental problems, infiltrate the food supply. Without proper safeguarding, toxic heavy metals seep into the soil and groundwater.
Locals who fought against the deluge of trash have been attacked.

“Why don’t you in the West recycle your own waste?” said Phayao Jaroonwong, a farmer east of Bangkok, who said her crops had withered after an electronic waste factory moved in next door.

“Thailand can’t take it anymore,” she said. “We shouldn’t be the world’s dumping ground.”

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What do we do with our old laptops, then?

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China survey shows high concern over facial recognition abuse • Financial Times

Yuan Yang and Nian Liu:

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while 60-70% of people believe the technology makes life safer and more convenient in those settings, users are concerned about their personal information being leaked and want more control over their data, according to results released on Thursday by the Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Centre in Beijing. 

The survey highlights how the proliferation of facial recognition in China has created widespread concern and even resistance. The survey found that 74% of respondents want the option to choose traditional ID methods over facial recognition.

In October, China’s courts received their first challenge to the commercial use of face scans, and last week China’s education ministry was forced to respond to an outcry over the use of cameras in classrooms to track behaviour. 

According to the Nandu survey, the top concern was the possibility that operators of facial-recognition systems might be lax at data security and thus leak personal information, with 80% of respondents identifying this among a list of concerns.

In addition, 57% of respondents were concerned about their movements being tracked, while 84% of respondents wanted to have the opportunity to review the facial-recognition data collected from them, or request that they be deleted.

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Faint surprise that the survey results could be published. Though I guess it makes no difference; they won’t be listened to.
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TWTR: enough already • No Mercy / No Malice

Scott Galloway owns a lot of Twitter stock (as well as being a professor of marketing) and he says it’s time to get rid of Jack Dorsey:

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Fake accounts, GRU-sponsored trolls, algorithms that promote conspiracies and junk science, and inconsistent application of your terms of service have resulted in a firm that not only underperforms, but is dangerous. 

The poor citizenship of Twitter is bad. What’s worse is Twitter’s malfeasance coupled with scant benefit to stakeholders. The platform is all the calories of big tech (poor citizenship, divisiveness, hate) without the great taste (stakeholder returns). At least tobacco stocks performed well.

This decline in value, however, presents an opportunity. As Twitter has shrunk to a fraction of the value of its once-peers, there is an opportunity to fill an unserved niche — a platform healthy for users and the commonwealth. A platform that brings out the best, and not the worst, in its users. The firm desperately needs to turn the page.

It’s not Mr. Dorsey’s plans to move to Africa [in 2020] that constrain stakeholder value, but his plans to move back. Mr. Dorsey demonstrates a lack of self-awareness, indifference, and yogababble that have hamstrung stakeholder value.

This is not Mr. Dorsey’s fault. After serving on seven consumer, media, and technology public company boards, my experience is that if you tell a thirty- or forty-something person, who regularly wears black turtlenecks, that they are Steve Jobs, they are inclined to believe you. The real culprit is directors who enable this reckless behavior and render themselves flaccid fiduciaries for shareholders. 

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His list of “things that Dorsey should take note of” is very long, too. But: surely they’ve tried replacing Dorsey? They did that in 2008, and Ev Williams replaced him, and then Dick Costolo. Who would do it this time round?
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Adding a new teller • John D Cook Consulting

John Cook:

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Suppose a small bank has only one teller. Customers take an average of 10 minutes to serve and they arrive at the rate of 5.8 per hour. What will the expected waiting time be? What happens if you add another teller?

We assume customer arrivals and customer service times are random (details later). With only one teller, customers will have to wait nearly five hours on average before they are served. But if you add a second teller, the average waiting time is not just cut in half; it goes down to about 3 minutes. The waiting time is reduced by a factor of 93x.

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But why so much? Why was it so long? You’ll need to read the the rest of the post. Lots of fun posts if you’re into maths and similar. (And the finding about tellers has lots of applications beyond banks.)
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Nancy Pelosi pushes to remove legal protections for online content in trade pact • WSJ

John McKinnon and Brody Mullins:

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pushing to strip out sweeping legal protections for online content in the new trade pact with Mexico and Canada, in what would be a blow for big technology companies.

Internet firms lobbied hard to include the immunity language in the trade agreement, seeing it as a way to extend to Mexico and Canada the broad umbrella of legal protection they enjoy in the U.S.

But the trade-pact language also could make it harder for Congress to withdraw the current federal online protections for internet firms in the future, some lawmakers fear. That is causing second thoughts about including the legal shield—regarded by tech firms as a pillar of the internet—in a trade pact.

“There are concerns in the House about enshrining the increasingly controversial…liability shield in our trade agreements, particularly at a time when Congress is considering whether changes need to be made in US law,” a spokesman for Mrs. Pelosi (D., Calif.) said.

The internet content dispute is one of several issues clouding passage of the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, or USMCA, that would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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The protection they’re referring to is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – essentially the one that says it doesn’t matter what your platform publishes, as long as you take it down infringing content when notified.

Readers of that piece are also invited to “SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Should online content immunity protections of American companies be limited to the U.S. or extended to Mexico and Canada? Why? Join the conversation below.”

I have to say I’d be OK with online content immunity protections of American companies being limited to the US. Isn’t there an implicit imperialism in just forcing your views on the world?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1205: ave atque vale Larry and Sergey, Russia leaking NHS papers?, Nato stress-tests social platforms, Thailand’s e-waste problem, and more

  1. re the Brin/Page piece.
    I’m always puzzled by the search for heroes and vilains. Need for simplifying Idols ? Would Altavista or AskJeeves or Yahoo have turned out better than Google ? For being (eventually) owned by & accountable to the Saudis ? Would the long-term results have been that different if IBM had gone with CP/M instead of DOS, if Palm hadn’t flubbed their transition to smartphone + scale-up to better HW… Does any of it really matter and is there any difference with crap on paper vs doing it with a computer ?
    Maybe I read Foundation too young.

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