Start Up No.1218: Bluetooth promises to improve, the .org battle, killing coal saves lives (and crops), the fake ladies of dating, and more


Samsung has finally begun sharing figures about how many Galaxy Folds it has sold. CC-licensed photo by Aaron Yoo on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Bluetooth will support hearing aids, sharing, and a better audio codec • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Now that most smartphones don’t have headphone jacks, there’s no shortage of complaints about Bluetooth. This year at CES, the industry group in charge of defining the standard, the Bluetooth SIG, is introducing new features that should address some of them. Later this year, it will finalize new support for Bluetooth LE Audio, which is an umbrella term for a bunch of new features for Bluetooth devices.

The new features include higher-quality audio, hearing aid support, broadcasting to many people, and working better with wireless earbuds. Unfortunately, as is the way with all industry specs, it will take some time for these features to make their way into consumer products. The old joke that “Bluetooth will be better next year” still holds true.

The feature that will likely affect the most people is the new “Low Complexity Communication Codec,” or LC3. LC3 simultaneously reduces power consumption while increasing audio quality. Right now, the lowest common denominator for Bluetooth audio is the relatively old and relatively bad SBC codec, though many phones support Qualcomm’s proprietary codec, AptX.

In order to get SBC to sound good, you have to increase the bitrate, which increases power consumption. The Bluetooth SIG claims that, in its testing, users preferred the new LC3 codec, even at significantly lower bitrates.

The group is also finally beefing up official support for Bluetooth hearing aids. It has worked in conjunction with a European hearing instrument association to ensure broad support in the coming years, including working with TVs and other devices.

Hearing aid support is also possible because Bluetooth LE Audio includes a suite of other features that haven’t been possible before. For example, a new “broadcast” feature will theoretically allow an entire movie theater audience to use their Bluetooth headphones to tune in to the movie. I asked how, exactly, pairing would work in cases like these, and the answer seems to be “TBD.”

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It’s only taken 20 years, but it’s finally becoming properly useful.
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At CES, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are preaching privacy. Don’t believe the hype • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:

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It’s a big deal that techies are even talking about privacy; CES has long been the epicenter of cheerleading for connecting everything to the Internet. But this isn’t the solution we need. Call it privacy-washing: when tech companies market control and transparency over data but continue gobbling it up.

Apple may, in fact, be one of the lesser offenders. Facebook’s privacy chief Erin Egan was also on that CES panel and said, with a straight face, “I think privacy is protected today for people on Facebook.” A few months ago, the social networking giant agreed to pay a $5 billion fine to the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations.

As part of its privacy-champion marketing, Facebook introduced in time for CES a new version of its “privacy checkup” page, which simplifies some of its many privacy knobs and controls but doesn’t give us new powers to stop the social network from surveilling us.

Elsewhere at CES, Google pitched its always-listening voice Assistant as designed for privacy because you can now tell it, “Hey, Google, that wasn’t for you,” when you notice it randomly recording your family’s intimate conversations. Cool, thanks.

And Amazon’s Ring video doorbell company introduced a privacy and security dashboard that also doesn’t change most of its (insufficient) default privacy and security settings. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.)

Fortunately, one other panelist at Tuesday’s CES privacy panel — FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter — was there for a reality check. Shortly after Facebook’s Egan made her pronouncement, Slaughter said: “I don’t want to talk about specific services or products, but as a general matter, no, I don’t think privacy is generally protected.” (Slaughter began her remarks by clarifying she was speaking only for herself and not the FTC.)

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Twitter will put options to limit replies directly on the compose screen • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Speaking today at a CES event in Las Vegas, Twitter’s director of product management, Suzanne Xie, unveiled some new changes that are coming to the platform this year, focusing specifically on conversations.

Xie says Twitter is adding a new setting for “conversation participants” right on the compose screen. It has four options: “Global, Group, Panel, and Statement.” Global lets anybody reply, Group is for people you follow and mention, Panel is people you specifically mention in the tweet, and Statement simply allows you to post a tweet and receive no replies. (No word on whether Statement also automatically formats your tweet as a classic iPhone Notes app apology, but it should.)

Xie says that Twitter is “in the process of doing research on the feature” and that “the mock ups are going to be part of an experiment we’re going to run” in the first quarter. It will take learnings from that experiment and use them to launch the feature globally later this year.

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I wonder if that distinction will be rolled out (or enforced on) third-party apps. Presently, they can’t show polls (not much of a loss), but will Twitter’s API offer these? It ought to – but if it doesn’t show polls, will it show these correctly?
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Dating apps need women. Advertisers need diversity. AI companies offer a solution: fake people • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell:

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One firm is offering to sell diverse photos for marketing brochures and has already signed up clients, including a dating app that intends to use the images in a chatbot. Another company says it’s moving past AI-generated headshots and into the generation of full, fake human bodies as early as this month.

The AI software used to create such faces is freely available and improving rapidly, allowing small start-ups to easily create fakes that are so convincing they can fool the human eye. The systems train on massive databases of actual faces, then attempt to replicate their features in new designs.

But AI experts worry that the fakes will empower a new generation of scammers, bots and spies, who could use the photos to build imaginary online personas, mask bias in hiring and damage efforts to bring diversity to industries. The fact that such software now has a business model could also fuel a greater erosion of trust across an Internet already under assault by disinformation campaigns, “deepfake” videos and other deceptive techniques.

Elana Zeide, a fellow in artificial intelligence, law and policy at the University of California at Los Angeles’s law school, said the technology “showcases how little power and knowledge users have in terms of the reality of what they see online.”

“There’s no objective reality to compare these photos against,” she said. “We’re used to physical worlds with sensory input … but with this, we don’t have any instinctive or taught responses on how to detect what’s real and what isn’t. It’s exhausting.”

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Logical endpoint is that you get bots going on to the apps, and bots responding to them. Then you don’t need humans to take part, and they leave the bots talking to the bots and go and meet people in real life.
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(CES 2020) Samsung sold at least 400,000 Galaxy Fold smartphones in 2019: exec • Yonhap News Agency

Joo Kyung-don:

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Samsung Electronics Co., sold at least 400,000 Galaxy Fold smartphones last year, the company’s mobile business chief said Tuesday, denying earlier media reports that it sold one million foldable handsets.

“I think we’ve sold 400,000 to 500,000 Galaxy Fold smartphones,” Koh Dong-jin, President and CEO of Samsung’s IT & Mobile Communication division, told reporters at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020 in Las Vegas.

Koh’s comment confirms Samsung’s earlier answer refuting media reports that the company sold 1 million Galaxy Folds in 2019.

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The Galaxy Fold first went on sale on September 6 in South Korea, and then in the US later that month; then Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Australia in October, followed by India, and China in mid-December; all told, markets totalling over 2 billion people.

The “1 million” number was the original sales target – though whether that was if the originally planned April launch had gone ahead isn’t clear.

I think it was the venerable analyst Michael Gartenberg who once said “any fool can sell 100,000 of anything. The talent comes in selling a million.” I think for Samsung you can replace his “100,000” with half a million. The question now is whether there’s a wider market prepared to stump up the extra for this.
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FBI seeks Apple’s help unlocking phones of suspected Pensacola naval station gunman • NBC News

Pete Williams:

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In a letter sent late Monday to Apple’s general counsel, the FBI said that although it has court permission to search the contents of the phones, both are password-protected. “Investigators are actively engaging in efforts to ‘guess’ the relevant passcodes but so far have been unsuccessful,” it said.

The letter, from FBI General Counsel Dana Boente, said officials have sought help from other federal agencies, as well as from experts in foreign countries and “familiar contacts in the third-party vendor community.” That may be a reference to the undisclosed vendor that helped the FBI open the locked phone of Syed Farook, the gunman who attacked a city meeting in San Bernardino, California, in 2015. The Justice Department took Apple to court in an effort to get the company to help the FBI open that phone.

“We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and have always worked cooperatively to help in their investigations,” Apple said in a statement. “When the FBI requested information from us relating to this case a month ago, we gave them all of the data in our possession and we will continue to support them with the data we have available.”

A law enforcement official said there’s an additional problem with one of the iPhones thought to belong to Alshamrani, who was killed by a deputy during the attack: he apparently fired a round into the phone, further complicating efforts to unlock it.

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That certainly is an “additional problem”. The FBI no doubt wants to get into the messaging apps on the phone (WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Viber..) which don’t get backed up to iCloud (from which Apple will have handed over the relevant data). The passcode doesn’t get backed up, of course, which leaves the FBI on its own again – unless it can find a “security” company with a hack. They’ll have put their prices up on hearing about this, for sure.
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Bitcoin’s threat to the global financial system is probably at an end • The Conversation

Gavin Brown and Richard Whittle:

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so-called bitcoin maximalists foresee a day when their currency of choice rises into the top league. They point to the bitcoin “halvening” expected in May – the moment every four years when the number of new coins being added to the network is halved – as the next event that will drive prices up.

Yet the long-term prospect for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is stasis on the peripheries of the financial system. The chances of a new bitcoin look increasingly slim: it’s several years since ethereum rose to become the prime challenger, before falling back to a fraction of the bitcoin price. [Bitcoin valuation in orange, ethereum in blue.]

More importantly, a much bigger threat to the current system is afoot – as evidenced by Facebook’s attempts to get its libra digital currency off the ground. JP Morgan has already launched a JPM coin for major institutional clients, while numerous other major banks are set to follow suit. Other tech giants like Amazon, Google and Apple are rumoured to be looking at launching rival currencies as well.

Their model is what are known as stablecoins – a sort of crypto hybrid that lives on blockchains but is pegged to mainstream currencies. But aside from this connection to the status quo, these multinationals would be challenging sovereign money. They want to opt out of the clunky system that they have been forced to operate in, with its transaction fees and international payment delays, to present customers with an alluring alternative instead.

The reason these companies are not throwing their weight behind bitcoin et al is because today’s cryptocurrencies have at least as many drawbacks as the mainstream system. Their prices are too volatile to act as a serious store of value, for instance, while their ability to process financial transactions is not yet particularly impressive.

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As was pointed out last year, bitcoin cannot become the prime cryptocoin, because it’s so easy to create infinitely many other ones; there will always be rivals. Bank- or company-backed “stablecoins” will always be a preferable alternative for anyone but crypto buffs. So it goes.
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Ditching coal in the US is saving lives, helping crops • Ars Technica

John Timmer:

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Working with data from the decade 2005-2016, Burney identified when [power] plants (almost entirely coal) shut down and when new ones (both coal and natural gas) came online. She then tracked changes to the measures of human and agricultural well-being from the surrounding area. While there are undoubtedly other factors that influenced these measures in each area, these should largely average out over the hundreds of plants that changed status over this period. It’s also not clear how widespread to expect the effects to be relative to the location of the plant. Burney did both a conservative measure, checking for impacts within 25km of the power plant, and a more expansive one that examined a 200km radius.

One of the interesting things she found was that the opening of new plants wasn’t correlated with any statistically significant changes. She suggests that this is likely the result of the fact that the newer plants adopt the latest pollution-control technology and therefore have a lower impact on the surrounding communities. This might indicate that, in the decades to come, we’ll see diminishing returns as coal plants close.

But for the plants that closed in the decade she examined, the results were dramatic. The decommissioning of coal plants was associated with drops in ozone and aerosols formed by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. For the latter two chemicals, the decrease faded as a simple matter of distance from the closed plant. (Ozone dynamics were a bit more complicated.)

Burney found that “these lower aerosol and ozone concentrations conferred near-immediate benefits to health and crop productivity.” All cause mortality in the counties closest to the closed plant dropped by 1%, with the elderly being the largest beneficiaries. All told, the data suggests that about 27,000 premature deaths were avoided between 2005 and 2016. The confidence intervals are wide, ranging from 2,700 to 50,000, but the numbers go up if a wider radius around the plant is used. The effects on crops were even more dramatic. Nearby corn and soybean yields went up by over 5%; wheat yields rose by 4%.

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As ever, bad choices often boil down to the difficulty of measuring negative externalities.
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How to lose a monopoly: Microsoft, IBM and anti-trust • Benedict Evans

Evans is pondering whether antitrust actions (against IBM, against Microsoft, against…?) work:

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The tech industry loves to talk about ‘moats’ around a business – some mechanic of the product or market that forms a fundamental structural barrier to competition, so that just having a better product isn‘t enough to break in. But there are several ways that a moat can stop working. Sometimes the King orders you to fill in the moat and knock down the walls. This is the deus ex machina of state intervention – of anti-trust investigations and trials. But sometimes the river changes course, or the harbour silts up, or someone opens a new pass over the mountains, or the trade routes move, and the castle is still there and still impregnable but slowly stops being important. This is what happened to IBM and Microsoft. The competition isn’t another mainframe company or another PC operating system – it’s something that solves the same underlying user needs in very different ways, or creates new ones that matter more. The web didn’t bridge Microsoft’s moat – it went around, and made it irrelevant. Of course, this isn’t limited to tech – railway and ocean liner companies didn’t make the jump into airlines either. But those companies had a run of a century – IBM and Microsoft each only got 20 years.

None of this is an argument against regulation per se of any specific issue in tech. If a company is abusing dominance today, it is not an argument against intervention to point out that it will lose that dominance in a decade or two – as Keynes says, ‘in the long term we’re all dead’. The same applies to regulation of issues that have little or nothing to do with market dominance, such as privacy (though people sometime fail to understand this distinction). Rather, the problem comes when people claim that somehow these companies are immortal – to say that is to reject all past evidence, and to claim that somehow there will never be another generational change in tech, which seems unwise.

On the other hand, it’s also worth asking whether or which of the mechanisms of anti-trust intervention are effective – to my metaphor, is it actually possible to fill in the moat and knock down the walls? If one suggests that that the anti-trust attention paid to Microsoft was mostly ineffective and that the company’s loss of dominance was mostly coincidental, that might just be an execution failure, but it might also suggest more general problems with applying traditional anti-trust thinking to software platforms.

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“Traditional” antitrust thinking was created early in the 20th century. It didn’t have to contend with network effects. A proper rethink is overdue; the obvious way to silt the moats and knock down the walls is to block the network effect when one network tries to acquire another.
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Inside the billion-dollar battle over .org • The New York Times

Steve Lohr:

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When ICANN renewed the 10-year contract with the Public Interest Registry last year, it removed a price cap that limited price increases to 10% a year at most. That move was part of a broader ICANN policy to ease price controls across all internet domains.

Ethos Capital [the private equity firm that wants to buy the .org registry] has pledged to adhere to the 10% cap, though it would have no contractual obligation to do so. In blog posts, the private equity firm said it planned to invest in new services and clamp down on spam, security attacks and other abuse launched from some illicit dot-org domains.

Some nonprofits worry that any cleanup effort could result in censorship, even if inadvertently. As the owner of the registry for dot-org, Ethos Capital would manage the acceptable business practices and conduct for dot-org domains. The same freedoms that open the door to extremist groups on some dot-org sites, nonprofit leaders say, also help protect free speech on public-interest dot-org sites in developing countries with authoritarian governments.

Ethos Capital said it would never facilitate censorship. It has also vowed to set up an independent “stewardship council” to monitor its management of the dot-org network.

Since the deal was announced, Mr. Brooks and top executives of the Internet Society and the Public Interest Registry have spoken with skeptics in person, in web sessions and on conference calls, seeking to reassure them that dot-org would be in safe hands. And on Tuesday, they submitted a detailed response to the questions raised by the four members of Congress [including Elizabeth Warren].

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There’s now a rival group looking to buy .org for much cheaper but offering clearer safeguards. Question is, can Ethos really guarantee that it will cut the spam and security attacks? The problem is in the structure of the deal: if ICANN can’t revert it for non-compliance on promises it makes, you can promise anything.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1218: Bluetooth promises to improve, the .org battle, killing coal saves lives (and crops), the fake ladies of dating, and more

  1. Monopolies: We can’t forever wait for brand new platforms to solve the issues, especially if new network effects keep making it a Charybdis-to-Scylla repeating issue. MS got complacent and inwards-focused about Mobile, that’s in a way lucky and in a way not so much (MS vs Google ? At the time, Google was more user-friendly. Nowadays probably not then again if MS hadn’t lost Mobile they wouldn’t have changed).

    I keep thinking we need to go a bit meta and focus not on individual corps, but on the underlying data, starting with logins. Legislation still hasn’t quite caught up with the transnational and individuals-as-corps tax issues, so I’m not holding my breath about that next one.

  2. Bots chatting with bots. Let’s leave humans out of this. Imagine if all personal info on Facebook was bot generated. We’d have privacy and the only losers would be advertisers.

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