Start Up No.1212: how Finns beat fake news, Apple’s decade in retrospect, Google’s cloud deadline, and more


DeepMind’s AlphaZero has found that changing a single rule in chess can make games more interesting – and reduce draws. CC-licensed photo by Megan Wong on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Well-decorated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Kramnik and AlphaZero: how to rethink chess • Chess.com

Vladimir Kramnik is a former world chess champion who asked DeepMind to get AlphaZero to test new variations – because it can run through millennia of games in a few days:

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My aim was to find a chess variant that would not only have the potential to bring the excitement and decisive victories back to chess, but is also aesthetically pleasing. The goal was to reignite interest and introduce players and audiences to the immense complexity and creativity of the original game of chess.

To begin, we tasked AlphaZero with exploring a variant that prevented either side from castling, trying different opening moves from both sides. The outcome was beyond our expectations!

We let AlphaZero learn how to play “no-castling chess” from scratch, allowing the program to incrementally learn how to master the game through a process of trial and error, similar to how it taught itself to play classical chess. After playing millions of games, AlphaZero became a no-castling expert, allowing us to analyze how it plays and assess the overall game balance.

The win/loss percentages for both White and Black are similar to classical chess, suggesting that the no-castling variant should be quite playable without favoring a particular player. Preventing the king from retreating to a safe distance means that all of the pieces have to engage in the melee, making the play more dynamic and entertaining, with a number of original patterns.

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Certainly much simpler, and easy to test. (He considered, and rejected, FischerRandom – where you place the back row pieces randomly but mirror-image before the game. Too difficult for amateurs, and too variable.)
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Finland is winning the war on fake news. Other nations want the blueprint

Eliza Mackintosh:

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Finland has faced down Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns ever since it declared independence from Russia 101 years ago. But in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it became obvious that the battlefield had shifted: information warfare was moving online.

Toivanen, the chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office, said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of misinformation operations to have targeted the country in recent years, but most play on issues like immigration, the European Union, or whether Finland should become a full member of NATO (Russia is not a fan).

As the trolling ramped up in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information. A year later, Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was also reformed to emphasize critical thinking.

Although it’s difficult to measure the results in real-time, the approach appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.

“It’s not just a government problem, the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” Toivanen said, before adding: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”

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Government-funded, which seems wise.
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Exclusive: Facebook funding Reuters deepfakes course for newsrooms • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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The free e-learning course, called “Identifying and Tackling Manipulated Media,” seeks to help journalists globally learn how to identify photos or videos that have been altered to present inaccurate information.

It’s available online only, and takes about 45 minutes to complete. Reuters and Facebook will do events and panels in 2020 together around the course.

Much of the course isn’t focused on deepfakes specifically, but rather on the way manipulated media can be used to distort the facts. Deepfakes involve the use of artificial intelligence to create media that is doctored to look real; they are a subset of the much broader category of manipulated media, which is any media altered to change the factual record.

What they’re saying: Hazel Baker, Reuters’ head of user-generated content news-gathering, who created the course, says that the goal was to help newsrooms understand what they should be looking for.

“Ninety per cent of manipulated media we see online is real video taken out of context used to feed a different narrative,” says Baker, whose unit of 13 at Reuters specializes in verifying visual media. “Sometimes it’s edited, but often it’s not. I think that’s quite an important starting point.”

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So is Facebook going to take down content like this? *Hilarious laughter* Ok then.
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Facebook’s unhealthy obsession with growth persists after years of scandal • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz:

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Facebook’s growth at any cost mentality has birthed innumerable scandals over the past decade — election meddling, political discord, privacy invasion. Yet today, after repeated apologies and promises to do better, that mentality remains largely unchanged. BuzzFeed News has learned the company continues to evaluate and compensate product managers based mostly on their ability to grow its products, with little regard to the impact of those products on the world. In fact, for Facebook, the very word “impact” is often defined by internal growth rather than external consequences and it uses growth metrics as a key criteria for evaluating performance and determining compensation changes.

This emphasis on growth, particularly as it’s tied to performance evaluation, encourages Facebook’s employees to focus on growth above all else, sources close to the company told BuzzFeed News.

“Working at Facebook made me aware of how you can reprogram humans,” one ex–product manager who recently left the company said. “It’s hard to believe that you could get humans to override all of their values that they came in with. But with a system like this, you can. I found that a bit terrifying.”

“When you’re building something at this scale, solutions take a good amount of time” 
The system this product manager described — a source of concern among others who have worked for the company — has two main components: Facebook’s data science team and its performance evaluation system. The company’s data science team has years of data at its disposal, which it uses to pinpoint how much a team should grow a product it’s working on. Facebook’s product teams use that information to set goals every six months as part of a “roadmap planning” process. The criterion is typically growth, though there are sometimes other goals as well, like reducing harmful behavior on its service.

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A microcosm of ourselves.
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Introducing MusicBot: the all-in-one Apple Music assistant, powered by Shortcuts • MacStories

Federico Viticci:

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For the past several months, I’ve been working on a shortcut designed to be the ultimate assistant for Apple Music. Called MusicBot, the shortcut encompasses dozens of different features and aims to be an all-in-one assistant that helps you listen to music more quickly, generate intelligent mixes based on your tastes, rediscover music from your library, control playback on AirPlay 2 speakers, and much more. I poured hundreds of hours of work into MusicBot, which has gained a permanent spot on my Home screen. Best of all, MusicBot is available to everyone for free.

I’m a happy Apple Music subscriber, and I love the direction Apple has taken with the service: fewer exclusive deals, more human curation, artist spotlights, and playlists updated daily. However, I believe the Music app for iPhone and iPad leaves much to be desired in terms of navigation and fast access to your favorite music. While Music gets the job done as a gateway to a streaming catalog, I find its interactions somewhat slow when it comes to playing my favorite playlists on shuffle or getting to albums I frequently listen to. Some of Music’s most interesting mixes are only available by asking Siri; additionally, getting to certain sections of the app or tweaking specific settings often takes far too many taps for my taste.

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That it’s written in Shortcuts is, in its own right, incredible: the interface for working in Shortcuts is terrible, and this has more than 750 Shortcut actions in it. Proof, of a sort, that you can program on an iPad. But unless Viticci was able to use a second screen (which he might have, with an iPad), this was the sort of masochism that would have left the Marquis De Sade raising his eyebrows and asking if that wasn’t a bit much.
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Walt Mossberg: Tim Cook’s Apple had a great decade but no new blockbusters • The Verge

Mossberg came out of retirement to write about Apple’s decade:

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Cook does bear the responsibility for a series of actions that screwed up the Macintosh for years. The beloved mainstream MacBook Air was ignored for five years. At the other end of the scale, the Mac Pro, the mainstay of professional audio, graphics, and video producers, was first neglected then reissued in 2013 in a way that put form so far ahead of function that it enraged its customer base.

Some insiders think Cook allowed Ive’s design team far too much power and that the balance Jobs was able to strike between the designers and the engineers was gone, at least until Ive left the company earlier this year.

The design-first culture that took root under Cook struck again with the MacBook Pro, yielding new laptops so thin their keyboards were awful and featuring USB-C ports that required sleek Macs to be used with ugly dongles. Apple has only recently retreated back to decent keyboards on the latest MacBook Pro, and it issued a much more promising Mac Pro. But dongles are still a part of the Apple experience across its product lines.

Cook’s other success this decade was to nurture the iPhone along as smartphone sales first plateaued and then began to decline. The biggest change he made came in 2014, before the dip, when Apple introduced two new iPhone 6 models, which belatedly adopted big screens that Android phones had pioneered. Sales took off like a rocket, and there’s been a big iPhone option every year since.

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I’d definitely agree with the “some insiders”. USB-C perhaps could have waited a year or two, or three, but dongles are hardly the end of the world. The keyboards, though, and the overemphasis on “thin” and “featureless” over functional, are points that maybe were impossible to hear above the noise of everything else happening inside the company – particularly with the shift to services and TV.
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Google brass set 2023 as deadline to beat Amazon, Microsoft in cloud • The Information

Nick Bastone, Kevin McLaughlin and Amir Efrati:

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The clock is ticking for Google Cloud.

The Google unit, which sells computing services to big companies, is under pressure from top management to pass Microsoft or Amazon—currently first and second, respectively, in cloud market share—or risk losing funding. While the company has invested heavily in the business since last year, Google wants its cloud group to outrank those of one or both of its two main rivals by 2023, said people with knowledge of the matter.

That timeline was devised early last year, after an intense monthslong debate among senior leaders at Google and its parent company Alphabet over the future of the cloud business, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told The Information. The group, which included Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Alphabet chief financial officer Ruth Porat and then-CEO of Alphabet Larry Page, discussed whether Google could “win” in the business, who would be best to lead the effort and the difficulties of competing on things other than technology, such as sales and marketing. The group even talked about—and eventually dismissed—the idea of leaving the market entirely, this person said.

…Becoming No. 1 or 2 in the cloud market will be a stretch for Google. In the third quarter, Amazon Web Services accounted for almost 33% of global cloud spending, while Microsoft had nearly 17% and Google had just under 7%, according to research firm Canalys.

At the same time, there are some signs of progress. On Alphabet’s fiscal second quarter earnings call in July, Pichai revealed that Google Cloud generated $2bn in revenue during the quarter, giving it an $8bn annualized sales rate—double the $1bn a quarter in cloud revenue it disclosed for the last quarter of 2017

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But Google’s ad business is about 20 times bigger. Business Insider also mentioned 2023. This is the sort of revelation that won’t help Google’s Cloud business at all.

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Match the classic book to its not-so-classic sequel • Mental Floss

Personally I didn’t even know there was a sequel to Forrest Gump. Or quite a few of the others. Difficult!
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List of best-selling mobile phones • Wikipedia

Everyone on the internet:

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With over 4 decades on the market, mobile phones have become the most used electronic device in the world. Below is a list of best-selling mobile phones, released between 1992 and 2018. The best-selling mobile devices are the Nokia 1100 and 1110, two bar phones released in 2003 and 2005, respectively. Both have sold over 250 million units.

The best-selling touchscreen phones are the Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, both released in 2014. Together, they have sold over 220 million units. The best-selling flip phone is the Motorola RAZR V3, released in 2004. It sold over 130 million units. The best-selling slider phone is the Samsung E250, released in 2006. It has sold over 30 million units.

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Some amazing stats in here, and surprises too. Apple leads on the individual best-selling phones because its portfolio was, for so long, so small: rather than releasing a different phone every day of the week (as Samsung sometimes seems to), its focus until recently on one or two helps bump it up.

Even so, the numbers for this year may surprise you. (Thanks stormyparis for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1212: how Finns beat fake news, Apple’s decade in retrospect, Google’s cloud deadline, and more

  1. Tech as an amoral tool, from amoral corps: Samsung is delivering high-perf AI chips to “Baidu”, ie someone in China.
    https://www.anandtech.com/show/15247/samsung-kicks-off-mass-production-of-ai-chip-for-baidu-260-tops-at-150-w

    That’s a specialized part, advanced AI architecture but not latest fab process. So 260 TOPS @ 150 W. For comparison, Qualcomm announces the SnapDragon 865 at 15 TOPS and it sucks up to 4.5W, on a 50% as large process. I’m not sure what the SD865 figure for pure AI workloads is, how sustainable it is, there’s a lot of non-AI overhead, that 15 is very much best-case not for all workloads… So, fairly Apples-to-Oranges, but still.

    Anyhow. Cool capabilities and cool device. Frightening applications. Like black powder, but for social ?

  2. We have to get our OS version stats from where we can… this time, Pr0nhub. 9to5google has the SFW version: https://9to5google.com/2019/12/18/google-android-distribution-dashboard-pornhub/

    What’s surprising:
    – iOS 13 only at 70%. Not sure if the rest don’t want to or can’t update, but the penalty for not upgrading iOS is very high since iOS updates also include 1st-party apps ie browser/mail/maps/music…, cloud services, OS tools, security…
    – Really stale Android versions are at 15%, and the latest 4 at 85%

    Makes me wonder if, apps- and functionality-wise, Android handsets are not in the end more up-to-date. The 93% of Android handsets w/ M or above can get all the apps/services/ecosystem features, and L can get most of them. Xiaomi has been pushing a major OS update (MIUI 11 instead of 10) to several devices I’ve had acquaintances buy over the last 2 years and the users have been… indifferent. First reluctant to install (shadows of Windows upgrade trauma I’m sure), then nonplussed: nothing much changes, especially the apps don’t change since they’re updated separately… Notifications and Settings do change a bit, and that’s about it for the visible stuff. It’s a far cry from all the goodies iOS users get when they upgrade – or lose when they don’t. Two very different experiences really. If only people finally grokked that “OS update” means 2 different things in those 2 ecosystems…

    • One caveat: the source data is very rich-world heavy: no China, very little India, no Indonesia… Top 7 are USA + Western Europe + Japan. Not proportionate to population, nor to smartphone users.

      So the newest stuff is certainly overrepresented. Not sure if equally for both ecosystems.

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