Start Up No.1216: YouTube tries to get kid-friendly, the trouble with Goodreads, ToTok’s spying scheme, and more

This isn’t quite what Carlos Ghosn would have looked like – if his flight case had been X-rayed. CC-licensed photo by keepps on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. And there you are. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

YouTube officially rolls out changes to children’s content following FTC settlement • The Verge

Julia Alexander:


YouTube still can’t describe what content is “made for kids” and what isn’t, because ultimately it’s up to the FTC to enforce the rules. The FTC defines the category as being intended for kids, taking into factor what the subject matter of a video is, including if it emphasizes kids’ characters, themes, toys, games, and more. Whether that includes Minecraft videos or other games content remains a major open question. YouTube has recommended creators team up with their own legal counsel outside of YouTube if they’re concerned.

“We also use machine learning to help us identify this content, and creators can update a designation made by our systems if they believe it is incorrect,” the blog post reads, noting that YouTube may label a video as made for kids if a creator doesn’t. “We will only override a creator designation if abuse or error is detected.”

YouTube’s lack of guidance over the changes has creators concerned. Toy channels, for example, have a large adult audience and are ostensibly targeted at collectors, not just kids who want to play with them. These creators have already discussed changing their channels, and preparing for major monetization problems, in the coming weeks and months.


Of course YouTube isn’t going to help creators. It knows that if one lot vanishes, then another group will come along in their place.
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Lax security and moderation at Goodreads allows trolls to spoof people, harass authors • Patreon

Jason Sanford:


The coordinated attacks on Tomlinson arose out of his work helping to shut down a controversial Reddit community (see interview with Tomlinson below for more details). Since being banned by Reddit the attackers now coordinate through a website in Russia. Messages on this new site show they are using Goodreads for their harassment campaign because of the book review site’s lax security and moderation policies.

“The only policy (Goodreads) might change, and I say might is email verification and even that is a stretch,” said one poster on this site. “Thst (sic) would slow the trolls down by maybe.”

 This poster was talking about the fact that Goodreads doesn’t currently use true email verification prior to users setting up a new account. While Goodreads requires new accounts to provide an email address and sends a “verification” email to that account, new users are immediately able to review books and have their reviews and ratings appear on the site without actually verifying the email Goodreads sends them.

Goodreads also allows multiple accounts to be set up under already existing member and user names, as happened with many of the authors mentioned here. And while Goodreads allows authors and users to flag suspicious reviews, the site has no way for users and authors to report or flag individual user accounts. This allows a fake user to repeatedly post fake reviews before their account is shut down.


Will this be the decade – even the year – when sites which allow people to create accounts and leave reviews actually start doing this right? It’s comparatively simple to force email authorisation, and to limit which sites can be used to create accounts.
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Our neophobic, conservative AI overlords want everything to stay the same • Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books

Cory Doctorow:


of all these wonderful, smart, sharp analyses, none has left as enduring an impression as Molly Sauter’s odd and lyrical 2017 essay “Instant Recall,” published in the online magazine Real Life.

Sauter’s insight in that essay: machine learning is fundamentally conservative, and it hates change. If you start a text message to your partner with “Hey darling,” the next time you start typing a message to them, “Hey” will beget an autosuggestion of “darling” as the next word, even if this time you are announcing a break-up. If you type a word or phrase you’ve never typed before, autosuggest will prompt you with the statistically most common next phrase from all users (I made a small internet storm in July 2018 when I documented autocomplete’s suggestion in my message to the family babysitter, which paired “Can you sit” with “on my face and”).

This conservativeness permeates every system of algorithmic inference: search for a refrigerator or a pair of shoes and they will follow you around the web as machine learning systems “re-target” you while you move from place to place, even after you’ve bought the fridge or the shoes. Spend some time researching white nationalism or flat earth conspiracies and all your YouTube recommendations will try to reinforce your “interest.” Follow a person on Twitter and you will be inundated with similar people to follow. Machine learning can produce very good accounts of correlation (“this person has that person’s address in their address-book and most of the time that means these people are friends”) but not causation (which is why Facebook constantly suggests that survivors of stalking follow their tormentors who, naturally, have their targets’ addresses in their address books).


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In Carlos Ghosn’s escape, plotters exploited an airport security hole • WSJ

Nick Kostov, Mark Maremont and Rory Jones:


About three months before former auto titan Carlos Ghosn’s escape last week from Japan to Lebanon, an operative helping plan his extraction visited Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, and realized there was a huge security hole, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The terminal for private jets was quieter than those at most other airports and essentially empty, unless there was a flight coming in, this person said. What’s more, oversize luggage was too big to fit in the airport scanners.

The security hole proved crucial in Mr. Ghosn’s cinema-worthy escape from Japan, where he was out on bail facing charges of financial crimes. He has denied the charges and has previously said he would fight them in court.

The escape involved a 300-mile sprint across Japan, from Mr. Ghosn’s court-monitored home in Tokyo to the Osaka airport. He was then smuggled inside a large black box, generally used for concert equipment, with breathing holes drilled in the bottom, into a waiting private jet, as previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.

…work on a detailed plan to extract Mr. Ghosn started months beforehand, according to people familiar with the matter. The planning involved a team of between 10 and 15 people of different nationalities, one of these people said.

In all, the team took more than 20 trips to Japan and visited at least 10 Japanese airports before selecting the Osaka airport as a weak link, this person said.

A spokesman for the airport’s operator said its security is no different from other airports in Japan. He said all luggage too large for X-ray scanning is supposed to be opened by security staff, but an airport-security expert said they don’t necessarily do so for private-jet travelers as they are considered a lower terrorism risk.


Surely going to be a great film.
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China tech start-ups go bust in 2019 ‘capital winter’ • Financial Times

Ryan McMorrow:


Hundreds of Chinese tech start-ups — including several unicorns — failed in 2019, with many more limping into the new year, as companies burned through cash in the face of growing financial headwinds.

According to new data from business information provider ITjuzi, 336 start-ups in the country were forced to cease operations over the course of last year, having collectively raised Rmb17.4bn ($2.5bn) from investors. Among them were companies valued individually at more than $1bn.

Of the 20 costliest failures of “new economy” start-ups — those that have sprung up alongside the internet and private industry over the past two decades — about half occurred in 2019.

The closures come as tech companies in China face an advancing “capital winter”, a funding shortage that began last year as investors grappled with a slowing economy and the end of a venture capital boom. Meanwhile, tech start-ups’ penchant for employing expensive and risky strategies such as large subsidies intended to woo new customers has added to their problems. 

…Analysts say customer acquisition costs in the country are also some of the highest in the world, with William Bao Bean, a partner at SOSV Investments in Shanghai, estimating a single user app download cost $10 to $100.


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It seemed like a popular chat app. It’s secretly a spy tool • The New York Times

Mark Mazzetti, Nicole Perlroth and Ronen Bergman:


It is billed as an easy and secure way to chat by video or text message with friends and family, even in a country that has restricted popular messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype.

But the service, ToTok, is actually a spying tool, according to American officials familiar with a classified intelligence assessment and a New York Times investigation into the app and its developers. It is used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.

ToTok, introduced only months ago, was downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. While the majority of its users are in the Emirates, ToTok surged to become one of the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week, according to app rankings and App Annie, a research firm.

ToTok amounts to the latest escalation in a digital arms race among wealthy authoritarian governments, interviews with current and former American foreign officials and a forensic investigation showed. The governments are pursuing more effective and convenient methods to spy on foreign adversaries, criminal and terrorist networks, journalists and critics — efforts that have ensnared people all over the world in their surveillance nets.


Apple and Google both banned ToTok from their app stores – and then Google reinstated it on Monday. ToTok meanwhile has been trying to encourage “influencers” to say nice things about it.
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Remembering the robotics companies we lost in 2019 • The Robot Report

Steve Crowe:


There are many reasons robotics companies fail. From an ill-conceived idea to burn rate and poor execution, building and running a sustainable robotics company is challenging. Robotics development requires a combination of technology expertise, team building and business acumen. And managing customer expectations might be the toughest task of all.

If you think 2018 was a tough year for robotics companies, 2019 wasn’t any better. And that’s especially true for consumer robotics companies, which have the misfortune of dominating the following list. Here are robotics companies we’ll remember losing, and in one case potentially re-gaining, in 2019.


This list implies that pretty much all the failures were in the consumer space – though I wonder if that’s just because they’re the ones we hear the most about. The “robots for consumers” space seems to be as cramped as the “drones for consumers” space – there’s only room for a couple of successful players (iRobot and maybe Dyson?).
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HP refreshes Spectre x360 15, announces Elite Dragonfly G2 at CES 2020 • Android Authority

Adamya Sharma:


…HP calls out the new Elite Dragonfly G2 as the world’s first business convertible with 5G connectivity. It gets a Qualcomm X55 4G/5G modem to support the next-gen network technology. It also comes with smart signal technology to boost antenna performance.

HP has updated the specs on the laptop to feature up to a 10th Gen Intel Core i7 processor (up from 8th-gen last year). Other specs include a 13.3in display with 4K and Full-HD options, up to 16GB RAM, and up to 2TB PCIe Gen3 NVMe SSD storage.

The highlight of the Elite Dragonfly G2 is Tile support. It is the first laptop in the world to come with Tile’s built-in location tracking service. You’ll be able to tap into Tile’s network of connected trackers to, hopefully, locate your lost laptop.


The Tile tracker is a neat deal for Tile. Maybe you’re asking: why doesn’t Apple do it? Because it quietly introduced its own “find lost devices” system last year. But that relies on an ecosystem of Apple devices, especially handheld ones. HP once had aspirations there – but they died nearly a decade ago, and HP lost a lot of money on that. So while its PCs are widely used, there isn’t the ecosystem to help them find themselves.
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Samsung ships over 6.7 million Galaxy 5G devices in 2019 • Digitimes

Rodney Chan:


Samsung Electronics has disclosed that in 2019 it shipped more than 6.7 million Galaxy 5G smartphones globally. As of November 2019, Samsung accounted for 53.9% of the global 5G smartphone market and offered five Galaxy 5G devices, according to the vendor.

…”5G smartphones contributed to 1% of global smartphone sales in 2019. However, 2020 will be the breakout year, with 5G smartphones poised to grow 1,687% with contribution rising to 18% of the total global smartphone sales volumes,” said, Neil Shah, VP of research at Counterpoint Research.


That 6.7m (sorry, “over” 6.7m) doesn’t sound like a big number to me. Perhaps unsurprising, though, because what’s the use case? 5G isn’t really going to be transformative for a few years yet. This really is just like the 3G-4G transition.
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GoPro Karma drones grounded worldwide, apparently due to GPS glitch • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:


Owners of the GoPro Karma have been unable to fly their drones since the new year began, according to dozens of forum posts and tweets. The problem is affecting owners all around the globe, and it seems to be related to the recent so-called clock “rollovers” in the GPS and GLONASS satellite systems. While most tech companies tried to avert problems with the rollovers by issuing software updates over the last few months, GoPro has not updated the Karma since September 2018, nine months after it discontinued the drone.

Multiple owners say their Karma controllers are flashing errors about not receiving a GPS signal, and that they can’t calibrate the compass. They’re not able to fly the drones at all, even after disabling GPS, though one claims to have sidestepped the issue by factory resetting the controller and turning GPS off. A GoPro spokesperson tells The Verge that the company’s engineering team is “actively troubleshooting” the issue, but didn’t offer any more information.


They haven’t been on sale since January 2018, but some drones last. Quite the new year headache for GoPro’s support department: what’s the betting all their drone people departed some time ago?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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1 thought on “Start Up No.1216: YouTube tries to get kid-friendly, the trouble with Goodreads, ToTok’s spying scheme, and more

  1. Lenovo announced a bunch of fun stuff at CES… some of it weird for weirdness’ sake ? Lenovo regularly aunches offbeat stuff. Can’t find it all in one article w/ pics so here goes:
    1- A flexible laptop whose 13″ screen bends in the middle for a smaller form factor; the keyboard fits on the bottom half. Overpriced, but handy to have a device both usable in an airplane and comfy at the hotel.
    2- A ChromeOS + Android 10″ tablet w/ pen and keyboard (included) below $300. Seems a very fair price, specs are low mid-range but it has enough RAM and A7x cores and an SD slot. Might be my next purchase, I do need some hands-on with ChromeOS, and one of my cheap Androids has become flaky – I need to put my full hand on the screen to get the display started. Not push, just touch… weird.
    3- a laptop with an e-ink screen on the screen’s back. For note taking ? Tablets do that, but don’t run a legacy OS/apps and probably end up more expensive/cumbersome than a single device ? Like Asus’ 2nd-screen-above-the-keyboard laptop, might be loved in narrow niches ?
    4- a 5G laptop because why not. 5 yrs from now buyers might be glad for it.
    5- A Windows-on-Arm laptop (I think the 5G one ?). 5 yrs from now buyers might be sad for it. I think I’d recommend ChromeOS over WOA.. but really, not recommend either ;-p
    6- a standalone laptop keyboard with their legendary TrackPoint nub. I’d have killed for that a few years back. A lot of years back actually. I’m tired of mice… I used to rock a Logitech TrackMouse (? the base is fixed, you roll the ball w/ your fingers). Not sure if I should go back to that, a trackpad, a trackpoint… certainly not touch.
    7- a cheap tablet that also does Google’s “Ambient” assistant thing when docked. Severely underpowered though, only A5x cores and those suck. Apple has got much better low-power cores, hopefully ARM/Qualcomm will wake up.
    8- No new Yoga Android tablet still only just the core A5x from earlier this year. That’s sad. Not sure if Android’s recent optimizations make it bearable., my mom’s old high-end Yoga is dying and she loves the fat-bottom format.

    I don’t expect most of it to stick, but at least attempts at innovating are being made.

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