Start Up No.1217: Sonos sues Google, Facebook’s internal 2020 memo, firefighting disinformation about Australia, Travelex held to ransom, and more


Monitor cutting out? These could be to blame. Honestly. CC-licensed photo by Daniel Foster on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Not still out of office? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Lord of the Rings, 2020 and stuffed Oreos: read the Andrew Bosworth memo • The New York Times

Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac got their hands on an internal Facebook memo written by Andrew Bosworth, effectively the alternative mind of Zuckerberg:

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The focus on filter bubbles causes people to miss the real disaster which is polarization. What happens when you see 26% more content from people you don’t agree with? Does it help you empathize with them as everyone has been suggesting? Nope. It makes you dislike them even more. This is also easy to prove with a thought experiment: whatever your political leaning, think of a publication from the other side that you despise. When you read an article from that outlet, perhaps shared by an uncle or nephew, does it make you rethink your values? Or does it make you retreat further into the conviction of your own correctness? If you answered the former, congratulations you are a better person than I am. Every time I read something from Breitbart I get 10% more liberal.

What does all of this say about the nature of the algorithmic rewards? Everyone points to top 0.1% content as being acutely polarized but how steep are the curves? What does the top 1% or 5% look like? And what is the real reach across those curves when compared to other content? I think the call for algorithmic transparency can sometimes be overblown but being more transparent about this type of data would likely be healthy.

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There’s lots to chew on here: he says that Cambridge Analytica was complete nonsense, and blames the media (somewhat) for getting Facebook’s intentions wrong, but then admits that’s not surprising given how little Facebook reveals.

The US presidential election is going to be uglier than ever, one feels.
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Twitter bots and trolls promote conspiracy theories about Australian bushfires • ZDNet

Stilgherrian :

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As Australia continues to battle bushfires of unprecedented size and ferocity, a social media disinformation campaign is pushing false conspiracy theories about their cause.

Tweets with the hashtag #ArsonEmergency are coming from a “much higher” proportion of bot-like or troll-like accounts than those with more general bushfire-related hashtags such as #BushfireAustralia or #AustraliaFire, according to initial analysis by Dr Timothy Graham from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Graham came to look at #ArsonEmergency because it was being used by some of the more suspicious-looking individual Twitter accounts he’d been tracking.

“They were really focused in particular on climate denial, and The Greens being responsible for the bushfires, and arson attacks being responsible for the bushfires as well,” he told ZDNet on Tuesday.

Those last two are conspiracy theories, he said.

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As the journalist Jason Wilson observed, “When we say Australia now is a vision of the planetary future it means this, also: the use of disinformation to scapegoat and misdirect, and further delay action on climate change.”

(By the way, the bloke’s name really does appear to be “Stilgherrian”.)
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Display intermittently blanking, flickering or losing video signal • DisplayLink Support

:

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If you find one or more of the DisplayLink connected screens are going blank for about one second, then coming back on, and the windows on the DisplayLink display have not moved to another display, it is probably caused by the monitor losing sync with the video output from the DisplayLink video output. This can be caused by long, or poor quality video cables. Video cables are no different to any other cables in terms of quality. Poor quality cables can cause:
• Signal degradation
• Video flicker
• Video distortion

If you are seeing such an issue please check if swapping your video cable for another resolves the issue. 

Surprisingly, we have also seen this issue connected to gas lift office chairs. When people stand or sit on gas lift chairs, they can generate an EMI [electromagnetic interference] spike which is picked up on the video cables, causing a loss of sync.

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Don’t believe it? There’s a white paper dating from 1993 about it. And a Twitter video.
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Travelex being held to ransom by hackers • BBC News

Joe Tidy:

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Hackers are holding foreign exchange company Travelex to ransom after a cyber-attack forced the firm to turn off all computer systems and resort to using pen and paper.
On New Year’s Eve, hackers launched their attack on the Travelex network.

As a result, the company took down its websites across 30 countries to contain “the virus and protect data”.

A ransomware gang called Sodinokibi has told the BBC it is behind the hack and wants Travelex to pay $6m (£4.6m). The gang, also known as REvil, claims to have gained access to the company’s computer network six months ago and to have downloaded 5GB of sensitive customer data.

Dates of birth, credit card information and national insurance numbers are all in their possession, they say. The hackers said: “In the case of payment, we will delete and will not use that [data]base and restore them the entire network.

“The deadline for doubling the payment is two days. Then another seven days and the sale of the entire base.”

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There is a certain karma about this. Travelex’s extortionate exchange rates and its use of captive markets – it’s all over airports – mean it effectively holds travellers to ransom all the time.
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Sonos, squeezed by the tech giants, sues Google • The New York Times

Jack Nicas and Daisuke Wakabayashi:

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In 2013, Sonos scored a coup when Google agreed to design its music service to work easily with Sonos’s home speakers. For the project, Sonos handed over the effective blueprints to its speakers.

It felt like a harmless move, Sonos executives said. Google was an internet company and didn’t make speakers.

The executives now say they were naïve.

On Tuesday, Sonos sued Google in two federal court systems, seeking financial damages and a ban on the sale of Google’s speakers, smartphones and laptops in the United States. Sonos accused Google of infringing on five of its patents, including technology that lets wireless speakers connect and synchronize with one another.

Sonos’s complaints go beyond patents and Google. Its legal action is the culmination of years of growing dependence on both Google and Amazon, which then used their leverage to squeeze the smaller company, Sonos executives said.

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Google is “disappointed” that Sonos isn’t “continuing negotiations in good faith”. It disputes the claims. Sonos might sue Amazon next over the Echo line. New year, new lawsuits.
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How Trump’s trade war is making lobbyists rich and slamming small businesses • ProPublica

Lydia DePillis:

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Mike Elrod voted for Donald Trump in 2016, hoping for a break from tight government oversight that his business had endured for years, which he often found unreasonable.

“There was a time when every day I dreaded opening the mail,” said Elrod, who founded a small firm in South Carolina called Eccotemp that makes energy-efficient, tankless water heaters. “The Department of Energy would put in an arbitrary rule and then come back the next day and say, ‘You’re not in compliance.’ We had no input into what was changing and when the change was taking place.”

Elrod also thought that big businesses had long been able to buy their way out of problems, either by spending lots of money on compliance or on lobbyists to look for loopholes and apply political pressure. Trump, of course, had promised to address that — to “drain the swamp.”

Elrod is in his mid-60s, tall with a white beard and deliberative drawl. He trusted the president even as Trump started a trade war with China, where Elrod manufactures his heaters. The administration said US companies that could prove they had no other source for their imports and whose business would be gravely injured could be spared the punishing tariffs that Trump was imposing. They would simply have to file for an exemption.

“I had every reason to believe they were talking about us,” Elrod said. Eccotemp had spent 15 years developing different models of tankless heaters with manufacturers in China. Simply finding new factories in other countries seemed impossible.

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Guess what: Mike was totally wrong about the exemption. Now see if you can figure out whether he’s going to vote for Trump again.
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It’s 2020 and PCs are alive and kicking • TechSpot

Bob O’Donnell:

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It’s getting to be a familiar theme. Some of the most interesting announcements from CES 2020 in Las Vegas are focused around PCs. In fact, this year, there are probably more PC developments from a wider variety of vendors than we’ve seen in quite some time. From foldable displays, to 5G, to AI silicon, to sustainable manufacturing, the latest crop of PCs highlights that the category isn’t just far from dead, it’s actually at the cutting edge of everything that’s expected to be a hot topic for this new decade.

On top of that, some of the most important advancements in PC-focused CPUs in a long time have also been announced at the show, promising big leaps in bread-and-butter performance metrics for the coming year as well. In short, it’s a real PC renaissance.

Probably the flashiest new PC from CES is technically one that’s already been hinted at before, but whose final details were just released at the show: Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold. Leveraging a plastic OLED display from LG Display (similar in concept to what’s used on foldable phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Motorola Razr), the X1 Fold shrinks a 13.3” screen down to a small leather-wrapped portfolio size when it’s folded in half. Unlike the phone displays, however, the X1 Fold supports pen input from the included active stylus.

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*Narrator’s voice* “There was no PC renaissance; in the following years they sold just as before.”

The Lenovo foldable looks horrible; is the idea that it’s a portable monitor that folds out? In which case you need a stand. As a laptop, it doesn’t make sense. Lenovo keeps throwing stuff against the wall, and it keeps sliding off. And even if this stuff did work, the sales would be tiny, and then you’d have the joy of no support when something went wrong.
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Bible lobbyist: we can’t print Bibles in America anymore • Substack

Matt Stoller, in his BIG newsletter:

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These publishers wanted to avoid bibles being subjected to tariffs [imposed by Trump’s administration on imports from China]. Here’s Jantz:

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Chinese printers have developed the technology and the artistry to produce the kinds of bibles people want which is why over 50% of the bibles published by ECPA members are printed in China. In fact, more bibles are printed in China than any other country on earth.

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This isn’t some high tech industry, it’s printing books. It is literally the oldest mass production industry in history, with bible printing dating from the 15th century. And yet, here’s more of what Jantz had to say:

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While there are some domestic printing options available, the U.S. printers, as has been remarked already, that are comparable to China on price and quality do not have the capacity to meet current demand….

The people who buy and read the bible would potentially have to pay a much higher price, perhaps higher than they could justify. Christians depend on the bible for their daily input of spiritual nourishment… Some publishers believe such a tariff would place a practical limitation on religious freedom.

A dramatic increase in the price of the bible, not to mention books that help people better understand the bible, would deter average Americans from getting the guidance and spiritual connectivity they depend on.

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Now of course, the Chinese government is cracking down on the 60 million Christians inside China, with party plans of “retranslating and annotating” the Bible to establish a “correct understanding” of the text. It’s not as well-known as the concentration camps set up for Muslim Uighurs, but it’s quite likely that Chinese Christians are not getting what Jantz calls their “daily input of spiritual nourishment.”

But the point here is not about religious freedom, but about whether we as a society value the ability to produce things. We certainly used to. We could make fantastic airplanes and invent a host of wonderful technologically sophisticated products to improve our lives. And yet today, our book distributors tell us we can’t even print books. There are a lot of reason for that, but the main one is that we have elevated the rights of financiers over the rights of workers, engineers, farmers, artists and businesspeople.

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The 100 worst ed-tech (education technology) debacles of the decade • Hack Education

Audrey Watters:

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For the past ten years, I have written a lengthy year-end series, documenting some of the dominant narratives and trends in education technology. I think it is worthwhile, as the decade draws to a close, to review those stories and to see how much (or how little) things have changed.

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There are ever so many (well, 100 actually..) so I thought I’d just pick one at random:

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93. 3D Printing
3D printing, The Economist pronounced in 2012, was poised to bring about the third industrial revolution. (I know, I know. It’s hard to tell if we’re on the third, the fourth, or the eighteenth industrial revolution at this stage.) And like so many products on this list, 3D printing was hailed as a revolution in education, and schools were encouraged to reorient libraries and shop classes towards “maker spaces” which would give students opportunities to print their plastic designs. In 2013, 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot launchedits MakerBot Academy with a goal “to put a MakerBot Desktop 3D Printer in every school in America.” But, as Wired noted just a few years later, 3D printing was already another revolution that wasn’t. Despite all sorts of wild promises, plastic gizmos failed to revolutionize either education or manufacturing (and they’re not necessarily so great for the environment either). Go figure.

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High performance government, ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor, and ‘Seeing Rooms’

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Fields make huge progress when they move from stories (e.g Icarus)  and authority (e.g ‘witch doctor’) to evidence/experiment (e.g physics, wind tunnels) and quantitative models (e.g design of modern aircraft).

Political ‘debate’ and the processes of government are largely what they have always been — largely conflict over stories and authorities where almost nobody even tries to keep track of the facts/arguments/models they’re supposedly arguing about, or tries to learn from evidence, or tries to infer useful principles from examples of extreme success/failure. We can see much better than people could in the past how to shift towards processes of government being ‘partially rational discussion over facts and models and learning from the best examples of organisational success‘. But one of the most fundamental and striking aspects of government is that practically nobody involved in it has the faintest interest in or knowledge of how to create high performance teams to make decisions amid uncertainty and complexity.

This blindness is connected to another fundamental fact: critical institutions (including the senior civil service and the parties) are programmed to fight to stay dysfunctional, they fight to stay closed and avoid learning about high performance, they fight to exclude the most able people.

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I’ve intentionally left off the name of the person and their blog; I think this deserves to be considered on its face. I can’t see anything to disagree with in the whole post, but a lot of people have a reflexive reaction that it must be wrong because of who wrote it. (You’ll be able to figure it out.) Try reading it with an open mind.
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Front-end web development on iPad (2019) • Medium

Craig Morey returns to a question he examined in 2018 – can you do FEWD on an iPad, and why would you if there are Windows/Mac/Chromebooks around, or Surfaces:

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with all these alternative options already available, the question remains. Why bother trying to stretch the envelope of iOS to do web development when even Apple seem to be actively discouraging it?

It’s not an easy one to logically explain away. But I find it a pleasure to use an iPad. It’s genuinely light, connected and increasingly capable of most tasks, plus Windows and ChromeOS (and their app ecosystems) suck at being tablets. So if the iPad is my preferred device to grab and go – whether to the Coffee shop or Columbia – why would I want to also take another computer on the off-chance I need to fix a bug and re-deploy, or even build that project from scratch that I’ve been itching to try? My iPad is definitely powerful enough, so why not?

The truth is that most good ideas in tech were just fanboys playing around with what were considered “bad” ideas, until they reached a tipping point and suddenly everyone was doing it. So who’s to say we don’t discover a “new norm” here? God knows we could do with rethinking web-dev tooling and abstracting some of it away. That’s exactly what play.js has done.

This could still be an evolutionary dead-end – but we don’t know that until we push and see how far we get.

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Personally I’ll always pick up an iPad rather than my heavier MacBook Pro if I’m going somewhere. My workflows are duplicated, or mirrored; it’s lighter, and it’s just the screen is smaller.
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3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1217: Sonos sues Google, Facebook’s internal 2020 memo, firefighting disinformation about Australia, Travelex held to ransom, and more

  1. I tried to read the post in question with an open mind, in part because I was amused at the author’s most recent “recruiting” post. Between the specific references (I’m an American and don’t know who Heywood is), and many evangelistic aspects, what I could manage to plough through gave me an irritating sense of smoke and mirrors. I don’t think it’s wrong because of who wrote it, as I barely know the name (I’ve heard it vaguely, but I couldn’t tell you who it was if asked directly). I think it’s wrong because it sets off my BS detector about hypesters who are trying to pull a con job on me.

    His analysis of climate change policy is laughable. It’s endless blather about tools and models wrapped up in pseudo-scientific populism. The issue isn’t that we don’t have good tools and models to educate citizens. IT’S THAT THERE’S A HUGE AMOUNT OF MONEY DEVOTED TO INCESSANT, SHAMELESS, RELENTLESS, LYING ABOUT IT! The end result of this sort of con is to lecture the scientists about how they must do better, to wag a finger at their supposed failings to properly engage, on and on, and to exonerate by omission the paid liars.

    That’s just one of its items, and it’s already taken me too much time. The whole post reminded me of the adage “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”.

  2. “The Lenovo foldable looks horrible; is the idea that it’s a portable monitor that folds out? In which case you need a stand. As a laptop, it doesn’t make sense. ”

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a) I don’t care about looks this is a tool not a fashion accessory nor social marker b) it doesn’t look either ugly or dysfunctional, Lenovo’s tombstone black is a classic.
    The idea is that it’s a 13″ laptop that can fold in half when space is scarce (airplane…) or you need to use it in your actual lap.
    Folded it doesn’t need a stand, unfolded it has one included in the box + one in the case.
    It it weren’t that expensive it’d make a whole lot of sense to me: it is both small when you don’t have much space, and comfy when you do. That’s always my main dilemma when buying a laptop: usability in transit vs comfort once arrived.

    That’s pending reviews about perfomance, batteyr life, ruggedness… at least the keyboard will be reliable and cheap to change – *that* is superior design.

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