Start Up No.1224: AR contact lenses!, Pelosi slams Facebook, retail privacy policies, WhatsApp NoAds, and more


Want to go to the Bose store? Not any more in the US or Europe or Japan or Australia. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. You call that perfect? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Augmented reality in a contact lens: it’s the real deal • IEEE Spectrum

Tekla Perry:

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Augmented reality in a contact lens? Science fiction writers envisioned the technology decades ago, and startups have been working on developing an actual product for at least 10 years.

Today, Mojo Vision announced that it has done just that—put 14K pixels-per-inch microdisplays, wireless radios, image sensors, and motion sensors into contact lenses that fit comfortably in the eyes. The first generation of Mojo Lenses are being powered wirelessly, though future generations will have batteries on board. A small external pack, besides providing power, handles sensor data and sends information to the display. The company is calling the technology Invisible Computing, and company representatives say it will get people’s eyes off their phones and back onto the world around them.

The first application, says Steve Sinclair, senior vice president of product and marketing, will likely be for people with low vision—providing real-time edge detection and dropping crisp lines around objects. In a demonstration last week at CES 2020, I used a working prototype (albeit by squinting through the lens rather than putting it into my eyes), and the device highlighted shapes in bright green as I looked around a dimly lit room.

The effect was impressive and it was easy to see how useful this could be.

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And when you close your eyes, says an exec, you still see content displayed. It was all sounding so good until then. Wonder if it will actually come to fruition, unlike Google’s (and before that Microsoft’s) “contact lenses that take your blood sugar”.
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Pelosi says Facebook execs ‘schmooze’ the Trump admin to avoid taxes • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., slammed Facebook during her weekly press briefing Thursday, accusing the company of only caring about profits and saying executives “schmooze” the Trump administration to avoid taxes and antitrust action.

“The Facebook business model is strictly to make money. They don’t care about the impact on children, they don’t care about truth, they don’t care about where this is all coming from, and they have said, even if they know it’s not true, they will print it,” Pelosi said in what appeared to be a reference to the company’s policy not to remove or fact-check political ads. “I think they have been very abusive of the great opportunity that technology has given them.”

Pelosi, whose constituency includes the tech-heavy district of San Francisco, said Facebook’s behavior has been “shameful.”

“All they want are their tax cuts and no antitrust action against them,” Pelosi said. “And they schmooze this administration in that regard because so far that’s what they have received. But I think that what they have said very blatantly, very clearly, that they intend to be accomplices for misleading the American people with money from God knows where, they didn’t even check on the money from Russia in the last election, they never even thought they should. So they have been very irresponsible.”

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Bose is closing all of its retail stores in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Bose plans to close its entire retail store footprint in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia. The company announced the decision earlier today and pointed to the fact that its headphones, speakers, and other products “are increasingly purchased through e-commerce” as the reasoning. Hundreds of employees will be laid off as a result.

Bose opened its first physical retail store in 1993 and currently has locations in many shopping centers and the remaining malls scattered across the US. The stores are used to showcase the company’s product lineup, which has grown beyond Bose’s signature noise-canceling headphones in recent years to include smart speakers and sunglasses that double as earbuds. There are often similar demo areas at retailers like Best Buy, though Bose has plenty of competition to worry about in that environment.

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Wow. That’s 119 stores. Yet keeping open 130 stores in China, UAE, India, SE Asia and South Korea. Are they seriously trying to suggest that e-commerce isn’t big in any of those?
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Now stores must tell you how they’re tracking your every move • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

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To anyone with eyes in their kneecaps, the notice outside gadget retailer B8ta’s glossy store next to San Francisco’s new NBA arena is obvious. “We care about your privacy,” the small plaque proclaims, offering a web address and QR code.

Anyone curious and limber enough to bend down and follow these pointers is taken to the retailer’s online privacy policy, which discloses that stepping inside the store puts you in range of technology that automatically collects personal information. That includes “smartphone detectors” and Wi-Fi routers that note the location and unique identifiers of your phone, and cameras equipped with software that estimates your age and gender.

B8ta added the signage to its six California stores and expanded its online privacy policy late last year as it prepared to comply with a new state law that took effect this month called the California Consumer Privacy Act. The law requires businesses to disclose what personal information they collect from consumers at or before the time it is collected. It gives state residents the right to request data collected about them be deleted and to forbid a business from selling it.

CCPA’s most visible effect has been a plague of website popups on California residents. But the law also applies to offline data collection.

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The annoyance is felt directly, and lawmakers get the blame – because the surveillance is silent, but pervasive.
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Study confirms climate models are getting future warming projections right • Nasa Climate Change

Alan Buis, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

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For decades, people have legitimately wondered how well climate models perform in predicting future climate conditions. Based on solid physics and the best understanding of the Earth system available, they skillfully reproduce observed data. Nevertheless, they have a wide response to increasing carbon dioxide levels, and many uncertainties remain in the details. The hallmark of good science, however, is the ability to make testable predictions, and climate models have been making predictions since the 1970s. How reliable have they been?

Now a new evaluation of global climate models used to project Earth’s future global average surface temperatures over the past half-century answers that question: most of the models have been quite accurate.

In a study accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a research team led by Zeke Hausfather of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a systematic evaluation of the performance of past climate models. The team compared 17 increasingly sophisticated model projections of global average temperature developed between 1970 and 2007, including some originally developed by NASA, with actual changes in global temperature observed through the end of 2017.

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And those are temperatures in Fahrenheit – if it were in Celsius, the accuracy would look a lot better.
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Carriers ignore studies that show they suck at preventing SIM-swap attacks • Boing Boing

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The study – conducted by Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy – details how researchers were able to bypass carrier security measures such as requiring people to give date of birth and billing ZIP codes by stating that they had been careless during the signup period and couldn’t recall what answers they’d given previously. What’s more, the researchers found it simple to bypass the carriers’ requirement that the subscriber dial two phone numbers to confirm the swap – they just sent fraudulent texts to the real customers telling them they’d won a prize and asking them to dial a certain number to collect it, then followed up by saying they had sent the wrong number originally and asking the victim to dial the second number instead.

Four out of the five carriers whose security was bypassed in this manner took no steps to fix it.

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That’s sneaky stuff with the texts. Give the fraudsters this: they’re imaginative, in way that the companies aren’t.
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EU to consider mandatory common charger for smartphones, paving the way for USB-C domination • Android Police

Cody English:

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The European Union will soon hold a vote to decide if it will enforce a mandatory, universal charging connector for all smartphones and other similar, small electronic devices. Arguments in favor of the new legislation include a reduction of e-waste and easy, interoperable charging for end-users. The introduction of USB Type-C has energized standardization talks as it incorporates many of the advantages (reversibility of connection, data transmission rates, and charging speeds) used to justify the existence of proprietary charging connectors.

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Let’s look at what the Euro Parliament says:

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To reduce electronic waste and make consumers’ life easier, MEPs want binding measures for chargers to fit all mobile phones and other portable devices.

In the 2014 Radio Equipment Directive, EU lawmakers called for a common charger to be developed and gave the Commission powers to pursue this via a delegated act.

The Commission’s approach of “encouraging” industry to develop common chargers fell short of the co-legislators’ objectives. The voluntary agreements between different industry players have not yielded the desired results.

A common charger should fit all mobile phones, tablets, e-book readers and other portable devices, MEPs will insist.

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Chargers are the things that plug into the wall. They’re not the plugs that go into the devices. Apple has already moved its chargers to USB-C – all its current laptop line, its iPads, its iPhones. So the companies that will be affected like this are other companies. But of course everyone thinks this is about Apple.
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WhatsApp backs off controversial plan to sell ads • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Kirsten Grind:

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Facebook Inc. is backing away from efforts to sell ads in WhatsApp, marking a retreat from a controversial plan that drove the creators of the popular messaging service to resign more than 18 months ago, according to people familiar with the matter.

WhatsApp in recent months disbanded a team that had been established to find the best ways to integrate ads into the service, according to people familiar with the matter. The team’s work was then deleted from WhatsApp’s code, the people said.

The shift marks a setback in the social-media giant’s quest to monetize WhatsApp, which it bought in a blockbuster $22bn acquisition in 2014 that has yet to pay financial dividends despite the service being used by more than 1.5 billion people globally.

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This sci-fi-inspired device could replace bulky, expensive X-ray machines • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

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Current X-ray machinery is bulky, requiring arrays of rotating tubes with superheated filaments that produce electron clouds. When moved near a metal anode, the filament produces the X-rays needed for imaging. These giant analog contraptions require heavy shielding to keep patients safe, and they use a lot of power. There’s also a substantial upfront cost that can run $2-3m. The Nanox.Arc, on the other hand, uses silicon micro-electromechanical systems (MEMs) in the form of more than 100 million molybdenum nano-cones that generate electrons. 

Nanox says its field emission X-ray technology is the product of 15 years of research, and no other company on Earth has done something similar. The upshot of all this is that the Nanox.Arc takes up very little space and uses less power than traditional machines. The company also has a plan to address the low global availability of X-ray machines. Instead of selling the Nanox.Arc for millions of dollars, it will lease the devices to hospitals and medical centers and charge per scan.

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But it’s not enough to do that; it has to add a “cloud-based AI platform” to analyse the images.
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The FBI got data from a locked iPhone 11 Pro Max—so why is it demanding Apple unlock older phones? • Forbes

Thomas Brewster:

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Questions are being asked about the FBI’s motivations over demanding Apple help it unlock the iPhones of the Pensacola shooting suspect, after Forbes uncovered a search warrant that strongly indicates the feds have access to a tool that can grab data on the latest, and most secure, iPhones.

Last year, FBI investigators in Ohio used a hacking device called a GrayKey to draw data from the latest Apple model, the iPhone 11 Pro Max. The phone belonged to Baris Ali Koch, who was accused of helping his convicted brother flee the country by providing him with his own ID documents and lying to the police. He has now entered a plea agreement and is awaiting sentencing.

Forbes confirmed with Koch’s lawyer, Ameer Mabjish, that the device was locked. Mabjish also said he was unaware of any way the investigators could’ve acquired the passcode; Koch had not given it to them nor did they force the defendant to use his face to unlock the phone via Face ID, as far as the lawyer was aware. The search warrant document obtained by Forbes, dated October 16, 2019, also showed the phone in a locked state, giving the strongest indication yet that the FBI has access to a device that can acquire data from the latest iPhone.

Given the models in the Pensacola shooting case are iPhones 5 and 7, it’s unclear why a GrayKey hasn’t proven useful in that investigation. Forbes has previously revealed a GrayKey brochure that showed it worked on older devices, too.

Senator Wyden’s office told Forbes it has asked the Department of Justice to explain why it is making public demands for backdoors if it has already used the tool to access the newest iPhones.

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So that answers my question from earlier this week: could the FBI get into the Pensacola phones? It seems yes, it could. (Link via @benthompson’s Stratechery newsletter.)
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Start Up No.1223: Mozilla lays off 70, Apple buys another AI company, could the FBI hack those iPhones?, what bystanders really do, and more


Google’s new neural network can forecast weather from photos like this – really quickly. CC-licensed photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Mozilla lays off 70 as it waits for new products to generate revenue • TechCrunch

Frederic Lardinois:

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Mozilla laid off about 70 employees today, TechCrunch has learned.

In an internal memo, Mozilla chairwoman and interim CEO Mitchell Baker specifically mentions the slow rollout of the organization’s new revenue-generating products as the reason for why it needed to take this decision. The overall number may still be higher, though, as Mozilla is still looking into how this decision will affect workers in the UK and France. In 2018, Mozilla Corporation (as opposed to the much smaller Mozilla Foundation) said it had about 1,000 employees worldwide.

“You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen,” Baker writes in her memo. “Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.”

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Wants to offer a VPN, which would be a break from its reliance on search: 91% of its revenue comes from search. (Google pays, a lot, to be Firefox’s default search engine.)
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Climate threats now dominate long-term risks, survey of global leaders finds • Reuters

Laurie Goering:

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Climate-change-related threats such as extreme weather, large-scale biodiversity losses and a failure of political leaders to slow planetary heating are now the top long-term risks facing the globe, business and other leaders said on Wednesday.

An annual risk survey published ahead of the World Economic Forum next week put climate threats ahead of risks ranging from cyberattacks and pandemics to geopolitical conflict and weapons of mass destruction for the first time.

“That’s new. Last year we didn’t have it,” said Mirek Dusek, deputy head of the Centre for Geopolitical and Regional Affairs and an executive committee member of the World Economic Forum, of the rise of environmental issues up the list.

The shift comes as climate-changing emissions continue to rise strongly globally, despite government and business commitments to reduce them, and as the potential impact of runaway climate change becomes clearer.

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2020 update on my global warming “traffic light” bet with Bryan Caplan and Alex Tabarrok • Stand-Up Economist

Yoram Bauman:

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Back in 2014 I made a global warming bet with fellow economists Bryan Caplan and Alex Tabarrok about global temperatures over the following 15 years (2015-2029) compared with the previous 15 years (2000-2014). The bet can be illustrated with this graphic, so I’m calling it our “traffic light” bet:

The short version is that the red line at 0.92°C represents average temperatures during the first 5 years of our 15-year betting period; the yellow line at 0.67°C shows the finish line for the bet: if the red line is above the yellow line after another 10 years then I win the bet, and otherwise they win the bet; and the green line at 0.55°C shows how high average temperatures can be over the next 10 years for Bryan and Alex to win the bet.

The good news for Bryan and Alex is that they can still win our global warming bet if average temperatures for the next 10 years are about 0.4°C lower than the average for the past 5 years! (The bad news is that the green line is moving down: last year it was at 0.58°C.)

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I hope the bet is for two trillion dollars, via some sort of leveraged derivative, so we can sort this stuff out.
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Equal Rights Amendment: Virginia General Assembly passes resolution • CNNPolitics

Veronica Stracqualursi:

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Virginia’s General Assembly on Wednesday approved resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a century-long dream of progressives and feminists that would ban discrimination on the basis of sex and guarantee equality for women under the Constitution…

…Congress passed the ERA in 1972, sending the amendment to the states to ratify within a seven-year window. That deadline was later extended by three years to 1982. By the 1982 deadline, only 35 states had ratified the amendment – three-fourths of state legislatures, or 38 out of 50, are needed to amend the Constitution – though five that had earlier passed it had by then rescinded their support. In subsequent years, two more states – Nevada in 2017 and Illinois in 2018 -have ratified the ERA.

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said in a legal opinion made public last week that the deadline to ratify the ERA has expired and is no longer pending before the states. The opinion effectively prevents the archivist of the United States from verifying the ERA as Virginia is on the cusp of becoming the 38th state to ratify the amendment.

But the archivist’s authority doesn’t prevent states from acting on their own to ratify the amendment – or preclude them from legally challenging the Justice Department’s opinion in court.

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The point about the ratification and the challenges is miles down the story, but it matters a bit.
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Apple buys Xnor.ai, an edge-centric AI2 spin-out, for price in $200M range • GeekWire

Alan Boyle, Taylor Soper and Todd Bishop:

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The arrangement suggests that Xnor’s AI-enabled image recognition tools could well become standard features in future iPhones and webcams.

Xnor.ai’s acquisition marks a big win for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to boost AI research. It was the second spin-out from AI2’s startup incubator, following Kitt.ai, which was acquired by the Chinese search engine powerhouse Baidu in 2017 for an undisclosed sum.

The deal is a big win as well for the startup’s early investors, including Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group; and for the University of Washington, which serves as a major source of Xnor.ai’s talent pool.

The three-year-old startup’s secret sauce has to do with AI on the edge — machine learning and image recognition tools that can be executed on low-power devices rather than relying on the cloud. “We’ve been able to scale AI out of the cloud to every device out there,” co-founder Ali Farhadi, who is the venture’s CXO (chief Xnor officer) as well as a UW professor, told GeekWire in 2018…

…The company notched several notable advances in 2019, including the development of a standalone AI chip capable of running for years on solar power or a coin-sized battery, the debut of an AI-enabled gizmo that can autonomously monitor grocery shelves; and a deal to have its edge-based person recognition technology built into Wyze Labs’ low-cost security cameras.

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September 2019: developer of Checkm8 explains why iDevice jailbreak exploit is a game changer • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin in September 2019:

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Checkm8 was developed by a hacker who uses the handle axi0mX. He’s the developer of another jailbreak-enabling exploit called alloc8 that was released in 2017. Because it was the first known iOS bootrom exploit in seven years, it was of intense interest to researchers, but it worked only on the iPhone 3GS, which was seven years old by the time alloc8 went public. The limitation gave the exploit little practical application.

Checkm8 is different. It works on 11 generations of iPhones, from the 4S to the X. While it doesn’t work on newer devices, Checkm8 can jailbreak hundreds of millions of devices in use today. And because the bootrom can’t be updated after the device is manufactured, Checkm8 will be able to jailbreak in perpetuity.

I wanted to learn how Checkm8 will shape the iPhone experience—particularly as it relates to security—so I spoke at length with axi0mX on Friday. Thomas Reed, director of Mac offerings at security firm Malwarebytes, joined me. The takeaways from the long-ranging interview are:

• Checkm8 requires physical access to the phone. It can’t be remotely executed, even if combined with other exploits
• The exploit allows only tethered jailbreaks, meaning it lacks persistence. The exploit must be run each time an iDevice boots.
• Checkm8 doesn’t bypass the protections offered by the Secure Enclave and Touch ID.

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Sounds like the FBI (or a third party) could use this at least to bypass security on the iPhone 5. If that isn’t the one that the guy shot with a bullet. The iPhone 7 Plus will be more of a problem: it has the Secure Enclave, and as the hacker says “for pretty much all current phones, from iPhone 6 to iPhone 8, there is a Secure Enclave that protects your data if you don’t have the PIN.”

So you need a method to find the PIN – which could be a password. Tricky.
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Why Japan is so successful at returning lost property • BBC Future

William Park and Johanna Airth:

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“Handing in a lost or forgotten item is something that is taught at a young age,” says Tamura. “Children are encouraged to deliver lost items to the kōban, even if it’s 10 yen (7p). A child can deliver this coin to the kōban, the police officer will treat it formally as any lost item. A report is made up, and the coin is taken into police custody. Yet, knowing that no one would report [it], the police then gives the coin back as a reward. Therefore, although it is the same monetary amount, the process of handing it into the police is different from outright taking the money – that is, one is theft, the other is a reward.”

In a study comparing dropped phones and wallets in New York and Tokyo, 88% of phones “lost” by the researchers were handed into the police by Tokyo residents, compared to 6% of the ones “lost” in New York. Likewise, 80% of Tokyo wallets were handed in compared to 10% in New York. The abundance of police stations must make it easier, but is there something else going on.

Lost umbrellas, on the other hand, are rarely retrieved by their owners. Of the 338,000 handed in to Lost Property in Tokyo in 2018, only 1% found their way back to their owner. The vast majority – about 81% – were claimed by the finder, which is a peculiarity in itself. In fact, the profligacy of umbrellas can work the other way. Knowing that many people would forget to claim their umbrella, Satoshi, a former resident of Suginami-ku, Tokyo, says he would trick Lost Property into handing one over if he was caught out in the rain.

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Umbrellas v iPhones. Very weird.
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The FBI can unlock Florida terrorist’s IPhones without Apple • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

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The FBI is pressing Apple to help it break into a terrorist’s iPhones, but the government can hack into the devices without the technology giant, according to experts in cybersecurity and digital forensics.

Investigators can exploit a range of security vulnerabilities – available directly or through providers such as Cellebrite and Grayshift – to break into the phones, the security experts said.

Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the perpetrator of a Dec. 6 terrorist attack at a Navy base in Florida, had an iPhone 5 and iPhone 7, models that were first released in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Alshamrani died and the handsets were locked, leaving the FBI looking for ways to hack into the devices.

“A 5 and a 7? You can absolutely get into that,” said Will Strafach, a well-known iPhone hacker who now runs the security company Guardian Firewall. “I wouldn’t call it child’s play, but it’s not super difficult.”

That counters the U.S. government’s stance. Attorney General William Barr slammed Apple on Monday, saying the company hasn’t done enough to help the FBI break into the iPhones…

…Strafach and other security experts said Apple wouldn’t need to create a backdoor for the FBI to access the iPhones that belonged to Alshamrani.

Neil Broom, who works with law enforcement agencies to unlock devices, warned that the software version running on the iPhone 5 and iPhone 7 could make it more difficult to break into the handsets. But it would still be possible.

“If the particular phones were at a particular iOS version, it might be as easy as an hour and boom, they are in. But they could be at an iOS version that doesn’t have a vulnerability,” he said.

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Using machine learning to “Nowcast” precipitation in high resolution • Google AI Blog

Jason Hickey is a senior software engineer:

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the availability of computational resources limits the power of numerical weather prediction in several ways. For example, computational demands limit the spatial resolution to about 5 kilometers, which is not sufficient for resolving weather patterns within urban areas and agricultural land. Numerical methods also take multiple hours to run. If it takes 6 hours to compute a forecast, that allows only 3-4 runs per day and resulting in forecasts based on 6+ hour old data, which limits our knowledge of what is happening right now. By contrast, nowcasting is especially useful for immediate decisions from traffic routing and logistics to evacuation planning.

As a typical example of the type of predictions our system can generate, consider the radar-to-radar forecasting problem: given a sequence of radar images for the past hour, predict what the radar image will be N hours from now, where N typically ranges from 0-6 hours. Since radar data is organized into images, we can pose this prediction as a computer vision problem, inferring the meteorological evolution from the sequence of input images. At these short timescales, the evolution is dominated by two physical processes: advection for the cloud motion, and convection for cloud formation, both of which are significantly affected by local terrain and geography.

We use a data-driven physics-free approach, meaning that the neural network will learn to approximate the atmospheric physics from the training examples alone, not by incorporating a priori knowledge of how the atmosphere actually works. We treat weather prediction as an image-to-image translation problem, and leverage the current state-of-the-art in image analysis: convolutional neural networks (CNNs).

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The “physics-free” emphasis is Google’s, and it’s a good point: it’s basically looking at past weather maps and estimating how the cloud maps will look, and hence the rain maps. It’s entirely image-based – it doesn’t know (or ask for) anything about barometric pressure, temperature or anything. Probably doesn’t even care about night and day.

I came across an Alex Stamos (ex-Facebook) commentary from 2019 recently where he said the best machine learning we have right now is like a humungous number of preschoolers: you can teach them how to do simple stuff, but not really complex stuff. Seems like they’re growing up a little, though.
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5G security • Schneier on Security

Bruce Schneier:

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keeping untrusted companies like Huawei out of Western infrastructure isn’t enough to secure 5G. Neither is banning Chinese microchips, software, or programmers. Security vulnerabilities in the standards , the protocols and software for 5G ensure that vulnerabilities will remain, regardless of who provides the hardware and software. These insecurities are a result of market forces that prioritize costs over security and of governments, including the United States, that want to preserve the option of surveillance in 5G networks. If the United States is serious about tackling the national security threats related to an insecure 5G network, it needs to rethink the extent to which it values corporate profits and government espionage over security.

To be sure, there are significant security improvements in 5G over 4G in encryption, authentication, integrity protection, privacy, and network availability. But the enhancements aren’t enough.

The 5G security problems are threefold. First, the standards are simply too complex to implement securely. This is true for all software, but the 5G protocols offer particular difficulties. Because of how it is designed, the system blurs the wireless portion of the network connecting phones with base stations and the core portion that routes data around the world. Additionally, much of the network is virtualized, meaning that it will rely on software running on dynamically configurable hardware. This design dramatically increases the points vulnerable to attack, as does the expected massive increase in both things connected to the network and the data flying about it.

Second, there’s so much backward compatibility built into the 5G network that older vulnerabilities remain…

…Third, the 5G standards committees missed many opportunities to improve security. Many of the new security features in 5G are optional, and network operators can choose not to implement them.

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Researchers find 17 Google Play apps that bombard users with battery-draining ads • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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Developers employed a variety of tricks to populate Google Play with more than a dozen apps that bombard users with ads, even when the apps weren’t being used, researchers have found.

Among the tactics used to lower the chances of being caught by Google or peeved users: the apps wait 48 hours before hiding their presence on devices, hold off displaying ads for four hours, display the ads at random intervals, and split their code into multiple files, researchers with antivirus provider Bitdefender reported. The apps also contain working code that does the things promised in the Google Play descriptions, giving them the appearance of legitimacy. In all, Bitdefender found 17 such apps with a combined 550,000 installations.

One of the apps Bitdefender analyzed was a racing simulator that also charged in-app fees for extra features. While it worked as advertised, it also aggressively displayed ads that drained batteries and sometimes prevented people from playing the game. After a four-hour waiting period, ad displays are generated using a random number (less than three) that was checked against a value. If the random number was equal to the value, an ad would appear.

The result: when a user unlocks an infected phone, there’s a one-in-three chance it will display an ad. The ad-showing mechanisms are also scattered within multiple activities and use modified adware developer kits. The randomness of the ad occurrences and display-time intervals further make it hard to notice patterns that might help identify the source. The app uses other tricks to make the displays unpredictable.

“Users see multiple ads either in-game when pressing different buttons or even if not in the app,” the report said.

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Subtle point made in the comments: relies on an Android capability (background apps can Draw Over foreground ones) to do the ad thing. Can’t be done on iOS. Google is removing the apps, but removing Draw Over would be a lot better.
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You will be helped! Research using real-world situations fails to replicate the “bystander effect” • Boing Boing

Cory Doctorow:

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an international team of psych researchers have created an empirical account of the bystander effect that punctures the received wisdom [that people don’t get involved], finding that in 9 out of 10 times, bystanders do step up to help; and the more bystanders there are, the greater the likelihood is that you will receive help.

The researchers used police CCTV video footage of “conflict between at least two individuals” and analyzed whether bystanders intervened to help. The footage came from central districts Cape Town, Amsterdam, and Lancaster, providing data on cities with very different public perceptions of the likelihood and severity of violent crime.

The researchers concluded that not only did one or more people intervene in 90% of conflicts, but also that the likelihood of intervention went up with the number of bystanders present.

The researchers say that earlier work on the bystander effect focused on “responsibility diffusion” (the feeling that someone else was likely to step in so you didn’t have to), but not enough of “mechanical helping potential” (the pervasive tendency to want to help). They caution that they were only able to survey conflicts in cities’ central business districts, and that these conclusions don’t necessarily carry over to “conflicts at music and sporting events, or sexual aggression on campuses.”

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Here’s the paper. CCTV is turning out to be useful for all sorts of things, including dispelling old wives’ (and psychologists’) tales.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1222: US considers anti-Huawei subsidies, will finance strangle coal?, sayonara Windows 7 – hello PC sales!, Norway sues apps, and more


Prices on old John Deere tractors are rocketing – because they’re comparatively easy to maintain. No software! CC-licensed photo by Ted Ladue on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink: climate crisis will reshape finance • The New York Times

Andrew Sorkin:

»

The firm, he wrote, would also introduce new funds that shun fossil fuel-oriented stocks, move more aggressively to vote against management teams that are not making progress on sustainability, and press companies to disclose plans “for operating under a scenario where the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees is fully realized.”

Mr. Fink has not always been the first to address social issues, but his annual letter — such as his dictum two years ago that companies needed to have a purpose beyond profits — has the influence to change the conversations inside boardrooms around the globe.

And now Mr. Fink is sounding an alarm on a crisis that he believes is the most profound in his 40 years in finance. “Even if only a fraction of the science is right today, this is a much more structural, long-term crisis,” he wrote.

A longtime Democrat, Mr. Fink insisted in an interview that the decision was strictly business. “We are fiduciaries,” he said. “Politics isn’t part of this.”

BlackRock itself has come under criticism from both industry and environmental groups for being behind on pushing these issues. Just last month, a British hedge fund manager, Christopher Hohn, said that it was “appalling” of BlackRock not to require companies to disclose their sustainability efforts, and that the firm’s previous efforts had been “full of greenwash.”…

…Had Mr. Fink moved a decade ago to pull BlackRock’s funds out of companies that contribute to climate change, his clients would have been well served. In the past 10 years, through Friday, companies in the S&P 500 energy sector had gained just 2% in total. In the same period, the broader S&P 500 nearly tripled.

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Once finance starts getting out of coal in favour of renewables, there will be a domino effect: the next most polluting product will get starved in turn. Finance can make this a “gradually, then suddenly” change.
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Senators propose over $1bn for 5G alternatives to China’s Huawei • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:

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A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Tuesday that would pump more than $1bn into developing Western 5G equipment alternatives to China’s Huawei.

Reasoning that Huawei has been “heavily subsidized by the Chinese government,” the Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act would help Western firms compete and become a robust player in next generation communication technology, according to a press release sent by the office of Sen. Mark Warker, D-Va., a co-sponsor of the bill.

The U.S. has long held national security concerns and suspicions about Huawei’s ties to the country’s Communist Party leadership. Last year, it placed the company on a blacklist prohibiting U.S. companies from doing business with the firm without a special license.

The bill proposes that the Federal Communications Commission direct at least $750m or up to 5% of annual auction proceeds from new auctioned spectrum licenses to create an open-architecture model (O-RAN) research and development fund.

«

Makes sense: you need to have some sort of competition to Huawei. However it’s going to mean funding non-American companies – Nokia and Ericsson are the only notable players there.
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Microsoft bids farewell to Windows 7 and the millions of PCs that still run it • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft has been notifying Windows 7 users throughout 2019 about today’s end of support, so people still stuck on the OS can’t say they haven’t been warned. A full-screen notification will appear for Windows 7 users on Wednesday, warning that systems are now out of support. Microsoft is trying to convince existing users to upgrade to machines running Windows 10, a trend that caused the global PC market to have its first year of growth since 2011.

Despite the end of support, Windows 7 looks like it has some life left in it yet. It could take another year or two to get Windows 7 firmly below 10% market share, especially when Google is committing to support Chrome on Windows 7 until at least the middle of 2021. That presents Microsoft with some headaches for ongoing support. We’ve already seen the software giant break with tradition multiple times for Windows XP, issuing public patches for the operating system after its end of support date. Given the increases in ransomware attacks in recent years and their devastating effects, it’s likely we’ll see public Windows 7 security patches in the future.

The vast majority of these support headaches will come from businesses that don’t always upgrade to the very latest Windows releases. Windows Vista and Windows 8 weren’t exactly solid in-between releases to which you could reliably upgrade, and that left most businesses running Windows XP or Windows 7 to avoid software issues and incompatibilities. Windows 8 won’t have the same issues when its support ends in 2023, as it’s only running on less than 5% of all PCs.

«

Still on 26% of PCs. That’s over 250 million of them.
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Traditional PC volumes close out an impressive 2019 with fourth quarter growth of 4.8% • IDC

:

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The worldwide market for traditional PCs, inclusive of desktops, notebooks, and workstations, finished an impressive 2019 with fourth quarter growth of 4.8% year over year, according to preliminary results from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. Global shipments during the quarter beat forecast expectations at just under 71.8 million units, the highest single quarter shipment volume in four years (4Q15). Overall, global shipments grew 2.7% year over year in 2019, the first full year of PC growth since the market grew 1.7% in 2011.

“This past year was a wild one in the PC world, which resulted in impressive market growth that ultimately ended seven consecutive years of market contraction,” said Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC’s Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers. “The market will still have its challenges ahead, but this year was a clear sign that PC demand is still there despite the continued insurgence of emerging form factors and the demand for mobile computing.”

The holiday quarter capped an impressive run for PCs in 2019, where three out of four quarters delivered year-over-year growth.

«

That’s because businesses were upgrading their old Windows 7 PCs to newer ones. As Reith admits, the next 12-18 months are going to be pretty thin.
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US government to restrict sale of AI for satellite image analysis • Defense One

Patrick Tucker:

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The federal rule change, published on Monday, affects software “‘specially designed’” to train deep learning neural networks “on the analysis of geospatial imagery.” The software would be classified as a dual-use technology under the Wassenaar Arrangement, subject to many of the same restrictions for exporting arms.

The rule affects software that would “provide a graphical user interface that enables the user to identify objects (e.g., vehicles, houses, etc.) from within geospatial imagery” and that “Trains a Deep Convolutional Neural Network to detect the object of interest from the positive and negative samples; and identifies objects in geospatial imagery using the trained Deep Convolutional Neural Network.” 

Applying machine learning to the identification of objects in satellite imagery is a big U.S. military concern. Military leaders frequently talk about the wide disconnect between the amount of video and satellite footage that the United States collects and scarcity of analysts to look through the footage and see what’s relevant to operations. They’ve invested heavily in software tools that can monitor or scan that footage, including satellite footage, and then tip a human analyst to pay attention to something of relevance. Perhaps the best example is Project Maven, a military AI project to identify objects of interest or detect changes in scenery to help analysts and operators cut through lots of imagery and footage very quickly. 

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New study: the advertising industry is systematically breaking the law • Forbrukerrådet

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The online advertising industry is behind comprehensive illegal collection and indiscriminate use of personal data, research from the Norwegian Consumer Council shows.
Based on the findings, more than 20 consumer and civil society organisations in Europe and from different parts of the world are urging their authorities to investigate the practices of the online advertising industry.

The report uncovers how every time we use apps, hundreds of shadowy entities are receiving personal data about our interests, habits, and behaviour. This information is used to profile consumers, which can be used for targeted advertising, but may also lead to discrimination, manipulation and exploitation.

These practices are out of control and in breach of European data protection legislation. The extent of tracking makes it impossible for us to make informed choices about how our personal data is collected, shared and used, says Finn Myrstad, director of digital policy in the Norwegian Consumer Council.

The Norwegian Consumer Council is now filing formal complaints against Grindr, a dating app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people and companies that were receiving personal data through the app;  Twitter`s MoPub, AT&T’s AppNexus, OpenX, AdColony and Smaato. The complaints are directed to the Norwegian Data Protection Authority for breaches of the General Data Protection Regulation.

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Could be some fun fines if the complaints are upheld.
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Seven reasons why video gaming will take over • Matthew Ball

(Ball is a venture capitalist):

»

TV isn’t going away. But regardless of how effectively the major TV companies transition to digital, it’s hard to imagine it will maintain current levels (at least until autonomous vehicles free up another two hours per day). It’s not new that human attention is finite, but the “attention economy” is so talked about today because there’s finally competition for leisure time. That doesn’t mean video time will ever fall below three hours per day, but the historical 5+ level is likely inflated by the fact real substitutes didn’t exist. Now there’s TikTok, Snapchat and Fortnite. And they continue to take generational share away from the category with the most to give.

This is why I once tweeted that Fortnite was Netflix’s most threatening competitor (which CEO Reed Hastings said in his investor letter a month later). This is most plainly understood as the idea that everyone is competing for finite attention and there are more applications for this attention than ever before. But the real challenge for Hollywood is that for decades, whenever “leisure” won over “work”, TV was the primary beneficiary. In recent years, the leisure decision has changed or “moved up” a level. It used to be “what to watch” and now it’s “whether to watch” – and the answer is increasingly “no, I’m going to play a game”. Neither Netflix nor Hollywood has a good solution for this problem. And no one chooses not to game because there’s a branching narrative available instead.

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Yeeaah, but they may choose to go on social media rather than play a game. And the cultural flow is in general still from film (sometimes TV) to games: the Star Wars game, etc. Games that get made into films tend not to thrive.
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For tech-weary Midwest farmers, 40-year-old tractors now a hot commodity • StarTribune.com

Adam Belz:

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Kris Folland grows corn, wheat and soybeans and raises cattle on 2,000 acres near Halma in the northwest corner of Minnesota, so his operation is far from small. But when he last bought a new tractor, he opted for an old one — a 1979 John Deere 4440.

He retrofitted it with automatic steering guided by satellite, and he and his kids can use the tractor to feed cows, plant fields and run a grain auger. The best thing? The tractor cost $18,000, compared to upward of $150,000 for a new tractor. And Folland doesn’t need a computer to repair it.

“This is still a really good tractor,” said Folland, who owns two other tractors built before 1982. “They cost a fraction of the price, and then the operating costs are much less because they’re so much easier to fix.”

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques. Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“It’s a trend that’s been building. It’s been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate,” said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show.

“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

«

If they’ve lasted 40 years, that says a lot about their durability and repairability in itself. Less fuel-efficient (biodiesel makes up for that), but the offset against the cost of a new one is substantial. Of course, all John Deere needs to do is wait. The old tractors will eventually die.
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Low Power Mode for Mac laptops: making the case again • Marco.org

Marco Arment:

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Modern hardware constantly pushes thermal and power limits, trying to strike a balance that minimizes noise and heat while maximizing performance and battery life.

Software also plays a role, trying to keep everything background-updated, content-indexed, and photo-analyzed so it’s ready for us when we want it, but not so aggressively that we notice any cost to performance or battery life.

Apple’s customers don’t usually have control over these balances, and they’re usually fixed at design time with little opportunity to adapt to changing circumstances or customer priorities.

The sole exception, Low Power Mode on iOS, seems to be a huge hit: by offering a single toggle that chooses a different balance, people are able to greatly extend their battery life when they know they’ll need it.

Mac laptops need Low Power Mode, too. I believe so strongly in its potential because I’ve been using it on my laptops (in a way) for years, and it’s fantastic.

I’ve been disabling Intel Turbo Boost on my laptops with Turbo Boost Switcher Pro most of the time since 2015.

In 2018, I first argued for Low Power Mode on macOS with a list of possible tweaks, concluding that disabling Turbo Boost was still the best bang-for-the-buck tweak to improve battery life without a noticeable performance cost in most tasks.

«

Arment’s comments follow reports that Apple might offer a “Pro Mode” (basically, burn up your battery!) in an upcoming update to the present OS version, Catalina. As he points out, people seem to prefer longer battery life to faster processing, at least on phones; why should laptops generally be any different? My kids often spend the entire day with their phones on Low Power mode.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1221: the next big thing in content, spies face the recognition age, iPhone v Apple v US government (again), kill the Android bloatware!, and more


Cory Doctorow’s “Reflectacles” bamboozle CCTV – to evade surveillance. CC-licensed photo by Cory Doctorow on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. None Oscar-nominated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

From context collapse to content collapse • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:

»

The recent history of social media isn’t a story of context collapse. It’s a story of its opposite: context restoration. Young people led the way, moving much of their online conversation from the public platform of Facebook, where parents and teachers lurked, to the more intimate platform of Snapchat, where they could restrict their audience and where messages disappeared quickly. Private accounts became popular on other social networks as well. Group chats and group texts proliferated. On Instagram, people established pseudonymous accounts — fake Instagrams, or finstas — limited to their closest friends. Responding to the trend, Facebook itself introduced tools that allow members to restrict who can see a post and to specify how long the post stays visible. (Apparently, Zuckerberg has decided he’s comfortable undermining the integrity of the public.)

Context collapse remains an important conceptual lens, but what’s becoming clear now is that a very different kind of collapse — content collapse — will be the more consequential legacy of social media. Content collapse, as I define it, is the tendency of social media to blur traditional distinctions among once distinct types of information — distinctions of form, register, sense, and importance. As social media becomes the main conduit for information of all sorts — personal correspondence, news and opinion, entertainment, art, instruction, and on and on — it homogenizes that information as well as our responses to it.

Content began collapsing the moment it began to be delivered through computers.

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‘Shattered’: inside the secret battle to save America’s undercover spies in the digital age • Yahoo News

Jenna McLaughlin and Zach Dorfman:

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The familiar trope of Jason Bourne movies and John le Carré novels where spies open secret safes filled with false passports and interchangeable identities is already a relic, say former officials — swept away by technological changes so profound that they’re forcing the CIA to reconsider everything from how and where it recruits officers to where it trains potential agency personnel. Instead, the spread of new tools like facial recognition at border crossings and airports and widespread internet-connected surveillance cameras in major cities is wiping away in a matter of years carefully honed tradecraft that took intelligence experts decades to perfect. 

Though U.S. technical capabilities can collect reams of data, human intelligence remains critical. In 2016, for example, a high-level Russian asset recruited by the CIA confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered plans to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. After fleeing to the United States, that same covert source was forced to relocate because of his digital trail. Without the ability to send undercover intelligence officers overseas to recruit or meet sources face to face, this type of intelligence might all but disappear, creating a blind spot for U.S. policymakers. 

During a summit of Western intelligence agencies in early 2019, officials wrestled with the challenges of protecting their employees’ identities in the digital age, concluding that there was no silver bullet. “We still haven’t figured out this problem,” says a Western intelligence chief who attended the meeting. Such conversations have left intelligence leaders weighing an uncomfortable question: is spying as we know it over?

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Another example of that issue of facial recognition and identification being Bellingcat’s identification of the Russian agents behind the Skripal poisoning. Identifying spies cuts in every direction.
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How digital sleuths unravelled the mystery of Iran’s plane crash • WIRED UK

Chris Stokel-Walker:

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in the days after the Ukraine Airlines plane crashed into the ground outside Tehran, Bellingcat and The New York Times have blown a hole in the supposition that the downing of the aircraft was an engine failure. The pressure – and the weight of public evidence – compelled Iranian officials to admit overnight on January 10 that the country had shot down the plane “in error”.

So how do they do it? “You can think of OSINT [open source intelligence] as a puzzle. To get the complete picture, you need to find the missing pieces and put everything together,” says Loránd Bodó, an OSINT analyst at Tech versus Terrorism, a campaign group. The team at Bellingcat and other open-source investigators pore over publicly available material. Thanks to our propensity to reach for our cameraphones at the sight of any newsworthy incident, video and photos are often available, posted to social media in the immediate aftermath of events. (The person who shot and uploaded the second video in this incident, of the missile appearing to hit the Boeing plane was a perfect example: they grabbed their phone after they heard “some sort of shot fired”.) “Open source investigations essentially involve the collection, preservation, verification, and analysis of evidence that is available in the public domain to build a picture of what happened,” says Yvonne McDermott Rees, a lecturer at Swansea University.

Some of the clips in this incident surfaced on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app popular in the Middle East, while others were sent directly to Bellingcat. “Because Bellingcat is known for our open source work on MH17, people immediately thought of us. People started sending us links they’d found,” says Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat. “It was involuntary crowdsourcing.”

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Special sunglasses, license-plate dresses, Juggalo face paint: how to be anonymous in the age of surveillance • The Seattle Times

Melissa Hellmann:

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Daniel Castro, the vice president of nonprofit think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, believes the error rates could be reduced by comparing images to a wider range of databases that are more diverse.

Facial recognition systems have proved effective in pursuing criminal investigation leads, he said, and are more accurate than humans at verifying people’s identities at border crossings. The development of policies and practices around the retention and usage of data could avoid government misuse, he said.

“The general use of this technology in the United States is very reasonable,” said Castro. “They’re being undertaken by police agencies that are trying to balance communities’ public safety interests with individual privacy.”

Still, in Doctorow’s eyes, the glasses serve as a conversation starter about the perils of granting governments and companies unbridled access to our personal data.

The motivation to seek out antidotes to an over-powerful force has political and symbolic significance for Doctorow, an L.A.-based science-fiction author and privacy advocate. His father’s family fled the Soviet Union, which used surveillance to control the masses.

“We are entirely too sanguine about the idea that surveillance technologies will be built by people we agree with for goals we are happy to support,” he said. “For this technology to be developed and for there to be no countermeasures is a road map to tyranny.”

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Barr asks Apple to unlock iPhones of Pensacola gunman • The New York Times

Katie Benner:

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Justice Department officials said that they need access to Mr. Alshamrani’s phones to see messages from encrypted apps like Signal or WhatsApp to determine whether he had discussed his plans with others at the base and whether he was acting alone or with help.

“The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology,” Mr. Barr said, citing a message that Mr. Alshamrani posted on last year’s anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks warning that “the countdown has begun.” He also visited the 9/11 memorial in New York over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Mr. Alshamrani also posted anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadist messages on social media, including just two hours before he attacked the base, Mr. Barr said.

Mr. Barr turned up the pressure on Apple a week after the F.B.I.’s top lawyer, Dana Boente, asked the company for help searching Mr. Alshamrani’s iPhones. Apple said that it would turn over only the data it had, implying that it would not work to unlock the phones and hand over the private data on them.

Apple’s stance set the company on a collision course with a Justice Department that has grown increasingly critical of encryption that makes it impossible for law enforcement to search devices or wiretap phone calls.

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As I said before: here we go again. The question is, could Apple break into these phones if it wanted to? It’s still unclear. No doubt Trump will be prepared to rage on Twitter about it in a way the Obama administration didn’t.
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Apple’s new privacy features have further rattled the location-based ad market • Digiday

Seb Joseph:

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Right now opt-in rates to share [location] data with apps when they’re not in use are often below 50%, said Benoit Grouchko, who runs the ad tech business Teemo that creates software for apps to collect location data. Three years ago those opt-in rates were closer to 100%, he said. Higher opt-in rates prevailed when people weren’t aware that they even had a choice. Once installed on a phone, many apps would automatically start sharing a person’s location data.

Apple’s latest privacy protection move, however, is making people more aware that they do have a choice about which data is shared. Seven in 10 of the iPhone users tracked by location-verification business Location Sciences downloaded iOS 13 in the six weeks after it first became available, and 80% of those users stopped all background tracking across their devices.

“People have decided to stop their phones’ sharing location data at a universal level,” said Jason Smith, chief business officer at Location Sciences.

All the background location data that previously had been made available for targeted advertising is lost to marketers when people decide they don’t want their apps to share it with other companies.

“This also impacts the ability to tie users that research online and purchase in store or driving, and measuring footfall for clients becomes far more opaque,” said Paul Kasamias, managing partner at Publicis Media agency Starcom. “The drop in spend is also likely to come via small- to medium-sized advertisers, where cost efficiency is paramount and there is a physical footprint, as targeting the right user at the right time will become more difficult.”

Other media buyers say they are starting to feel the ripple effects of Apple’s move when they work with certain ad tech vendors.

“We have seen a drop in sales pitches from providers on location-data solutions, and there is a rise in ensuring that the data-exchange piece is addressed transparently up front as part of bigger deals,” said Sargi Mann, evp of digital strategy at Havas Media.

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“Once installed, many apps would automatically start sharing.” Essentially we had cars without seatbelts, and the hospitals recommended not using them.
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More than 50 organisations ask Google to take a stance against Android bloatware • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

In an open letter published on Wednesday, more than 50 organizations have asked Google to take action against Android smartphone vendors who ship devices with unremovable pre-installed apps, also known as bloatware.

The letter, signed by 53 organizations, was addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Signees say Android bloatware has a detrimental effect on user privacy. They say many bloatware apps cannot be deleted and leave users exposed to having their data collected by unscrupulous phone vendors and app makers without their knowledge or consent.

“These pre-installed apps can have privileged custom permissions that let them operate outside the Android security model,” the open letter reads.

“This means permissions can be defined by the app – including access to the microphone, camera and location – without triggering the standard Android security prompts. Users are therefore completely in the dark about these serious intrusions.”

«

And 91% of those bloatware apps aren’t on Google Play, so don’t get scanned. This came before the revelation about phones under a US government scheme with, yes, Chinese malware.

What could Google do? It could perhaps tweak its device agreement to ban certain apps, or classes of apps. Might be troublesome in Europe if it was seen as anticompetitive. But there’s a page where you can add your name to the lobbying.
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EU competition chief struggles to tame ‘dark side’ of big tech despite record fines • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe:

»

although she said she had been able to stop companies breaking European competition law, and punish past misconduct, [Margrethe Vestager] acknowledged that “recovery of the markets” was a “work in progress”.

This included two major cases against Google, the firm which has drawn the toughest actions from Ms Vestager (Google has appealed both judgments and the Android verdict).

In 2016, Ms Vestager warned Google to stop restricting third-party rivals on its AdSense search advertising platform, subsequently fining the firm €1.49bn (£1.28bn) in March 2019 for illegal actions “over 10 years”.

Yet although she said Google had stopped restricting rivals, Ms Vestager acknowledged that commercially “nothing has changed”, with Google still dominating the market in search advertising.

“That is a really sad example,” she said, saying it showed that even if a firm allowed competition it “doesn’t necessarily change anything in the marketplace because [it has] already won the market”.

Also in 2016, Ms Vestager fined Google a record-breaking €2.42bn (£2.1bn) for promoting its product advertising system Google Shopping ahead of rivals and downgrading their websites in search results.

Three years on, she said the changes she had required Google to make had “given more rivals visibility and more clicks to merchants that work with rivals, but very little traffic to the rivals themselves”.

She added: “We will keep monitoring this to see what should happen next.”

«

Admitting that fines on their own don’t work is an important step; the next step is realising that you need to shape the market before it gets filled (or won). But you can’t know what markets will next be thriving; so you need to act quickly. Possibly as tricky a time as when antitrust was first emerging as a legal theory towards the end of the 19th century.
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Why the foundations of physics have not progressed for 40 years • IAI TV

Sabine Hossenfelder is a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies and author of the blog Backreaction:

»

what we have here in the foundation of physics is a plain failure of the scientific method. All these wrong predictions should have taught physicists that just because they can write down equations for something does not mean this math is a scientifically promising hypothesis. String theory, supersymmetry, multiverses. There’s math for it, alright. Pretty math, even. But that doesn’t mean this math describes reality.

Physicists need new methods. Better methods. Methods that are appropriate to the present century.

And please spare me the complaints that I supposedly do not have anything better to suggest, because that is a false accusation. I have said many times that looking at the history of physics teaches us that resolving inconsistencies has been a reliable path to breakthroughs, so that’s what we should focus on. I may be on the wrong track with this, of course. But for all I can tell at this moment in history I am the only physicist who has at least come up with an idea for what to do.

Why don’t physicists have a hard look at their history and learn from their failure? Because the existing scientific system does not encourage learning. Physicists today can happily make career by writing papers about things no one has ever observed, and never will observe. This continues to go on because there is nothing and no one that can stop it.

You may want to put this down as a minor worry because – $40 billion dollar collider aside – who really cares about the foundations of physics? Maybe all these string theorists have been wasting tax-money for decades, alright, but in the large scheme of things it’s not all that much money. I grant you that much. Theorists are not expensive.

But even if you don’t care what’s up with strings and multiverses, you should worry about what is happening here. The foundations of physics are the canary in the coal mine. It’s an old discipline and the first to run into this problem.

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Maybe it’s because there’s a civilisatoin from a three-body system observing us. (Sci-fi in-joke.)
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ICANN extracts $20m signing fee for $1bn dot-com price increases – and guess who’s going to pay for it? • The Register

Kieren McCarthy:

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Operator of the dot-com registry, Verisign, has decided to pay DNS overseer ICANN $4m a year for the next five years in order to “educate the wider ICANN community about security threats.”

Even though the generous $20m donation has nothing to do with ICANN signing off on an extension of the dot-com contract until 2024, the “binding letter of intent” [PDF] stating the exact amount of funding will be appended to the registry agreement that Verisign has with ICANN to run the dot-com registry.

That extension lifts a price freeze put in place several years ago and will allow Verisign to increase prices by 7% a year.

It’s an increase that we calculated was worth $993m and which the stock market appeared to agree with when it raised the company’s share price by 16% when the agreement was first flagged in November 2018.

No doubt ICANN’s lawyers are concerned that extracting $20m to sign a piece of paper worth $1bn to its recipient could be viewed negatively, perhaps by the cynical as a sign that it is a corrupt organization that is using its control of a critical market to feather its own nest. But that’s clearly not the case because, as ICANN makes plain, it would have approved the agreement anyway.

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ICANN is the worst and continues to be the worst. The fact that such a terrible organisation is in charge of a key element of infrastructure is a depressing comment on our ability to organise anything.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1220: is AI facing winter?, Huawei’s huge subsidies, mispricing renewables, LG’s big promise, and more


Facial recognition is in more and more places (like this airport gate). Maybe it’s the next big thing? CC-licensed photo by Delta News Hub on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. So let’s get started. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facial recognition creeps into everything at CES 2020 • CNET

Alfred Ng:

»

Konami Gaming, a slot machine maker, wants to weave facial recognition into its one-armed bandits. During a visit to its Las Vegas headquarters to hear more about its plans, I quickly discovered what the world would be like if facial recognition is everywhere. 

“Hello, Alfred,” said a measured, robotic voice, startling me. It came from a kiosk called “Biometrics Welcome Console” positioned right next to the door of the conference room where my meeting was held. The kiosk knew who I was because Konami had set up a profile for me, using a public photo from my CNET bio without telling me. The facial recognition tagged me before I’d even said hello to the Konami team members in the room. 

I looked at the screen showing the photo the kiosk took of me when I walked in. The camera had caught just my eyes and nose. Still, the facial recognition software calculated it detected me with 60.5% accuracy.

“Any picture you use online can be used to identify you already,” Sina Miri, Konami’s vice president of innovation and strategic research and design, told me. Konami had also set up profiles of my colleagues at the visit, again without telling them.

«

I think Ng is correct about what’s happening here: facial recognition is going to be in everything, and everywhere. Our homes and cars will recognise us, things in the street will recognise us. It will be the scene from Minority Report. The next big thing isn’t a positive thing like augmented reality spectacles that inform you about the world; it’s facial recognition everywhere, and we might not be in control of it as we are our smartphones. (Though even those leak data like mad.)
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Why does the IEA keep getting renewables wrong? • Unearthed

Lauri Myllyvirta:

»

The IEA [International Energy Agency] argues that the New Policies Scenarios are not predictions or forecasts, simply assessments of ‘where today’s policy ambitions are likely to take the energy sector’. However, global policy ambition on solar did not increase ten-fold from 2005 to 2010, the ability of the technology to deliver did. Providing information on how much solar capacity current and expected policies are likely to deliver is exactly the job of these scenarios and, so far, they have been worse than useless in that job.

Forecasting the future is very hard, while picking faults in the work of an agency that puts out detailed scenarios every year is easy. However, the blatant underestimation of renewables goes well beyond normal shifts, surprises and misjudgments that are to be expected in any attempt to assess the future. If you keep making the exact same assessment for 15 years and are wildly wrong every time, you go back and assess the premises for your assessments. If something is happening in the real world that your models fail to capture, you improve your models. Anything else is not a good-faith effort to look at energy sector trends.

«

This is from 2017. Guess what? The IEA (no relation to the right-wing shadily funded Institute of Economic Affairs) has continued getting it wrong. On its own that wouldn’t be a problem, but big banks and investment companies use the IEA’s forecasts to decide where to put their money. That keeps open the coal plants that should be shut down because they’ll be uneconomic, and prevents the investment in renewables that we need.
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State support helped fuel Huawei’s global rise • WSJ

Chuin-Wei Yap:

»

Tax deductions and exemptions helped Huawei save up to $25 billion in income, value-added and other taxes in at least the past decade, the Journal estimated. Responding to the estimate, a Huawei spokesman said the company is globally tax-compliant.

In his remarks at the conference, Mr. Li said local officials began waiving or reducing levies on Huawei, including income and value-added taxes, in the early 1990s.

Financial support helped the company undercut rivals. In 2010, the European Commission found that Chinese modem exporters including Huawei had benefited from subsidies, according to a confidential report reviewed by the Journal. The commission cut short its probe after the complainant prompting it reached a “cooperation agreement” with the company. Huawei denied receiving such subsidies.

Besides subsidies, Huawei since 1998 has received an estimated $16 billion in loans, export credits, and other forms of financing from Chinese banks for itself or its customers, the Journal found.

China’s state-controlled banking system underpins cheap loans that lower costs for Huawei and its customers to buy its products on credit. State lending facilities for Huawei were among the largest in history.

«

The WSJ puts the total subsidies at $75bn over its life. Not surprising that it has been able to undercut Nokia, Alcatel and the other network equipment companies in bids over the years; and that has a flywheel effect – you get more contracts, and your rivals aren’t getting them.

But is it really unfair, when China wanted to be able to control its destiny in the telecoms market?
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Researchers: Are we on the cusp of an ‘AI winter’? • BBC News

Sam Shead:

»

Robot Wars judge Noel Sharkey, who is also a professor of AI and robotics at Sheffield University, told the BBC that he likes the term “AI autumn” – and several others agree.

…In 2014, Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, went one step further with his book Superintelligence. It predicts a world where machines are firmly in control. But those conversations were taken less and less seriously as the decade went on. At the end of 2019, the smartest computers could still only excel at a “narrow” selection of tasks.

Gary Marcus, an AI researcher at New York University, said: “By the end of the decade there was a growing realisation that current techniques can only carry us so far.”

He thinks the industry needs some “real innovation” to go further. “There is a general feeling of plateau,” said Verena Rieser, a professor in conversational AI at Edinburgh’s Herriot Watt University. One AI researcher who wishes to remain anonymous said we’re entering a period where we are especially sceptical about AGI.

“The public perception of AI is increasingly dark: the public believes AI is a sinister technology,” they said.

For its part, DeepMind has a more optimistic view of AI’s potential, suggesting that as yet “we’re only just scratching the surface of what might be possible”.

“As the community solves and discovers more, further challenging problems open up,” explained Koray Kavukcuoglu, its vice president of research. “This is why AI is a long-term scientific research journey.

“We believe AI will be one of the most powerful enabling technologies ever created – a single invention that could unlock solutions to thousands of problems. The next decade will see renewed efforts to generalise the capabilities of AI systems to help achieve that potential – both building on methods that have already been successful and researching how to build general-purpose AI that can tackle a wide range of tasks.”

«

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Two states. Eight textbooks. Two American stories • The New York Times

Dana Goldstein:

»

The books The Times analyzed were published in 2016 or later and have been widely adopted for eighth and 11th graders, though publishers declined to share sales figures. Each text has editions for Texas and California, among other states, customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.

“At the end of the day, it’s a political process,” said Jesús F. de la Teja, an emeritus professor of history at Texas State University who has worked for the state of Texas and for publishers in reviewing standards and textbooks.

The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.

Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.

A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.

All the members of the California panel were educators selected by the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Texas panel, appointed by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education, was made up of educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician.

«

You might think: America’s a big place, it’s as big as Europe, there are going to be differences. But where you have divergent pictures of a history of a single nation, you’re going to create differences in how people view the country. That will then count when it comes to picking politicians and voting on laws.
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India’s top court says indefinite Kashmir internet shutdown is illegal • Reuters

Sankalp Phartiyal and Fayaz Bukhari:

»

India’s Supreme Court said on Friday that an indefinite shutdown of the internet in Kashmir was illegal, rebuking the government for the communications lockdown imposed after it withdrew the Muslim majority region’s autonomy in August.

Internet suspensions can be imposed only for “temporary duration” and an indefinite suspension violated India’s telecoms rules, the court said in an order published on its website.

It also ordered authorities to review all such curbs in Kashmir immediately.

Authorities must consider immediately allowing the functioning of essential internet services such as for hospitals and limited e-banking in regions where internet cannot be restored right away, the court added.

“Freedom of Internet access is a fundamental right,” Supreme Court justice N. V. Ramana said.

«

New fundamental right? The Indian government has been quietly turning into a very authoritarian one, though.
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LG aims to turn around mobile unit • Korea Times

Baek Byung-yeul:

»

A senior LG Electronics executive said Thursday that the company’s long-time money-losing smartphone division will turn a profit by the end of 2021; however, he didn’t elaborate how.

“LG Electronics mobile business is going to be profitable by 2021. I can say we can make that happen as LG Electronics will expand our mobile lineup and steadily release new ones attached with some wow factors to woo consumers,” the company’s chief executive Kwon Bong-seok told reporters in a press conference on the sidelines of this year’s technology exhibition, here.

Regarding the specifics on how, the CEO didn’t delve into more but only reiterated LG Electronics’ plan to expand the phone lineup, which he believes is possibly a plus factor to improve LG’s competitiveness in the already saturated smartphone market.

«

LG’s mobile division has lost money for more than three straight years now. So when the new CEO says it’s going to become profitable, I say

via GIPHY

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Facebook’s PR feels broken • The Margins

Ranjan Roy:

»

to summarize, Andrew Bosworth, longtime Facebook exec, wrote a long, reflective internal post on Facebook’s role in the 2020 election:

So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.

In a section that got a lot of attention, he continued:

»

I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.

«

I’m not a big LOTR person, and will let Gizmodo cover the accuracy of his reference, but how does Facebook possibly let this enter the national conversation? One of their most longtime, loyal leaders is directly saying they have the power to sway national elections. It is their decision, and their decision alone, to resist the temptation to “change the outcome”!

This is the very definition of a need for regulation. By its own admission, the company is acknowledging its unnatural power. In the memo, Boz clarifies he’s liberal in his politics, but the issue is not Facebook and its purported ties to the right. The issue is simply its size. An individual, for-profit corporation should not get to decide whether democracy will work.

To continue on the communications breakdown, Boz posted an explanation on Facebook, where he advertises the post as an organizational, internal call-to-debate. But while it’s great to have a safe space for internal, organizational debates, it’s still hugely concerning when that internal debate is whether we should all have a free and fair election in the U.S.

«

Roy and Manjan produce a consistently good newsletter (and it’s free). This dissects the whole Facebook debacle particularly well.
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A lazy fix 20 years ago means the Y2K bug is taking down computers now • New Scientist

Chris Stokel-Walker:

»

Parking meters, cash registers and a professional wrestling video game have fallen foul of a computer glitch related to the Y2K bug.

The Y2020 bug, which has taken many payment and computer systems offline, is a long-lingering side effect of attempts to fix the Y2K, or millennium bug.

Both stem from the way computers store dates. Many older systems express years using two numbers – 98, for instance, for 1998 – in an effort to save memory. The Y2K bug was a fear that computers would treat 00 as 1900, rather than 2000.

Programmers wanting to avoid the Y2K bug had two broad options: entirely rewrite their code, or adopt a quick fix called “windowing”, which would treat all dates from 00 to 20, as from the 2000s, rather than the 1900s. An estimated 80% of computers fixed in 1999 used the quicker, cheaper option.

“Windowing, even during Y2K, was the worst of all possible solutions because it kicked the problem down the road,” says Dylan Mulvin at the London School of Economics.

Coders chose 1920 to 2020 as the standard window because of the significance of the midpoint, 1970. “Many programming languages and systems handle dates and times as seconds from 1970/01/01, also called Unix time,” says Tatsuhiko Miyagawa, an engineer at cloud platform provider Fastly.

Unix is a widely used operating system in a variety of industries, and this “epoch time” is seen as a standard.

The theory was that these windowed systems would be outmoded by the time 2020 arrived, but many are still hanging on and in some cases the issue had been forgotten.

«

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Bing loses out to DuckDuckGo in Google’s new Android search engine ballot • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

EU citizens setting up Android devices from March 1 will be given a choice of four search engines to use as their default, including Google. Whichever provider they chose will become the default for searches made in Chrome and through Android’s home screen search box. A dedicated app for that provider will also be installed on their device.

The “choice screen” is being introduced by Google following an antitrust ruling from the European Union last March. Google was fined a record $5bn by EU regulators, who said the company had to stop “illegally tying” its search engine and browser to its mobile OS.

The search engines shown to new users will vary for each EU country, with the selection decided based on a “fourth-price” auction system. Each provider tells Google how much it’s willing to pay the company every time a user selects their product as the default. The three highest bidders are then shown to users, with the chosen provider paying Google the amount offered by the fourth-highest bid. This process is repeated every four months.

All this means that the choices Google will show to users don’t necessarily reflect a search engine’s popularity in that country. Rather, it shows how much the provider is willing to pay for users. This might explain why Microsoft’s Bing only appears as an option in the UK — a country where the revenue from search ads is likely to be higher than lower-GDP nations.

When Google announced the auction system last August, rival search providers were not happy. Eric Leandri, CEO of privacy-focused search engine Qwant, said it was a “total abuse of [Google’s] dominant position” to “ask for cash just for showing a proposal of alternatives.” Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo, said the auction system was a “pay-to-play auction” that meant “Google will profit at the expense of the competition.”

«

As one of the commenters points out, the money from the auction shouldn’t go to Google – it ought to go to a charity. Or it could go to the EC, or to rival search providers. Whichever; it doesn’t make sense for Google to be rewarded for abusing its position, which the EC decision clearly says it was doing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1219: Facebook decides on political ads, Ring fires staff over video snooping, Amazon isn’t Honey, Lime squeezed, and more


The Venetian Resort hotel in Las Vegas: its owner disparaged Iran in 2013. Its hacking response cost him over $40m. CC-licensed photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Used the first week well? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook says it won’t back down from allowing lies in political ads • The New York Times

Mike Isaac and Cecilia Kang:

»

The stance put Facebook, the most important digital platform for political ads, at odds with some of the other large tech companies, which have begun to put new limits on political ads.

Facebook’s decision, telegraphed in recent months by executives, is likely to harden criticism of the company heading into this year’s presidential election.

Political advertising cuts to the heart of Facebook’s outsize role in society, and the company has found itself squeezed between liberal critics, who want it to do a better job of policing its various social media platforms, and conservatives, who say their views are being unfairly muzzled.
The issue has raised important questions regarding how heavy a hand technology companies like Facebook — which also owns Instagram and the messaging app WhatsApp — and Google should exert when deciding what types of political content they will and will not permit.

By maintaining a status quo, Facebook executives are essentially saying they are doing the best they can without government guidance and see little benefit to the company or the public in changing.

In a blog post, a company official echoed Facebook’s earlier calls for lawmakers to set firm rules.

“In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management overseeing the advertising integrity division, said in the post.

«

Facebook had a choice: leave things as they were and thus paint a big target on its back, or do something else and paint a big target on its back. The question, though, is which approach is the better one. Political ads just cause Facebook pain. Why not just ban them?
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Ring fired employees for watching customer videos • VICE

Joseph Cox:

»

Amazon-owned home security camera company Ring has fired employees for improperly accessing Ring users’ video data, according to a letter the company wrote to Senators and obtained by Motherboard.

The news highlights a risk across many different tech companies: employees may abuse access granted as part of their jobs to look at customer data or information. In Ring’s case this data can be particularly sensitive though, as customers often put the cameras inside their home.

“We are aware of incidents discussed below where employees violated our policies,” the letter from Ring, dated January 6, reads. “Over the last four years, Ring has received four complaints or inquiries regarding a team member’s access to Ring video data,” it continues. Ring explains that although each of these people were authorized to view video data, their attempted access went beyond what they needed to access for their job.

“In each instance, once Ring was made aware of the alleged conduct, Ring promptly investigated the incident, and after determining that the individual violated company policy, terminated the individual,” the letter adds.

«

“Once Ring was made aware” is suitably vague. Someone told on the staff? And there’s still the problem that it uses a simple email/password combination to log in to something intentionally accessible across the whole internet.
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Meghan and Harry’s story is quite the drama, but it’s no abdication crisis • The Guardian

Marina Hyde:

»

this is not the abdication. Whatever the vicissitudes of Harry and Meghan’s new path, it’s probably going to be better than ending up in a Bois de Boulogne house, paying social calls on Adolf Hitler. On the downside, the jewellery collection is likely to be comparatively sparse.

So people may currently claim Harry and Meghan’s move is seismic. But, long-term, it will be most dangerous insofar as it feeds into what we might call the monarchy’s Charles III problem. The UK is in a time of huge national flux and turmoil, and the Queen, the last link with the postwar consensus, is 93. Waiting in the wings is a rather unloved and not especially admirable man. For all today’s sound and fury, the real looming crisis for the royal family is not the sixth in line to the throne – but the first.

«

In the past three months Prince Andrew has “stepped back”, and now Harry and Meghan. That “postwar consensus” is looking very frayed; the succession will be a disjoint that might be on a par with Brexit for the discomfort it causes society.
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Amazon takes a swipe at Paypal’s $4bn acquisition • WIRED

Louise Matsakis:

»

“[The browser extension] Honey tracks your private shopping behavior, collects data like your order history and items saved, and can read or change any of your data on any website you visit,” the message [on Amazon’s site] read. “To keep your data private and secure, uninstall this extension immediately.” It was followed by hyperlink where users could learn how to do so. Screenshots of the warning were posted to forums and social media by Honey users, like Ryan Hutchins, an editor at Politico.

Honey isn’t some obscure browser extension from an unknown developer. Founded in 2012, the Los Angeles-based startup now boasts over 17 million users. It finds discount codes to save shoppers money at tens of thousands of online retailers, including Amazon. In November, PayPal agreed to purchase Honey for an eye-popping $4 billion, its largest deal ever. The acquisition was completed this week.

Amazon’s warning, which began appearing on December 20, confused and angered many of Honey’s users, some of whom complained on its official social media channels. The browser extension has been compatible with Amazon since it was founded, and is a significant part of Honey’s appeal. Amazon is one of the most popular retailers in the world and the place where most Americans begin when looking for a product online.

Amazon declined to explain why it decided to label Honey a security risk so suddenly last month. “Our goal is to warn customers about browser extensions that collect personal shopping data without their knowledge or consent,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. They declined to answer follow-up questions about the basis for that claim.

When people install the Honey extension in their browser, they consent to the company’s Terms of Use and Privacy and Security Policy. While these kinds of agreements can be dense and difficult for the average person to interpret, Honey doesn’t appear to be collecting consumer information without asking, as Amazon implied to WIRED. Its privacy policy states that it doesn’t “track your search engine history, emails, or your browsing on any site that is not a retail website.”

«

I’d guess that Amazon started doing this particularly over the Christmas period because that’s its biggest quarter, but also margins get squeezed.
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E-scooter startup Lime shuts in 12 markets, lays off around 100 • Axios

Kia Kokalitcheva:

»

Scooter company Lime is laying off about 14% of its workforce (roughly 100 employees) and shuttering operations in 12 markets as it seeks to become profitable this year, the company tells Axios.

After two years of explosive growth, scooter companies have entered a new phase—survival of the fittest in a capital-intensive, money-losing industry.

Lime is not the first or only scooter company to make cuts.

Bird, Scoot, Lyft, and Skip have all held layoffs or retreated from certain markets over the past year. Lime too has made small cuts, as when it suspended operations and laid off workers in St. Louis in late 2018, though it emphasizes to Axios that it will continue to expand to new markets this year.

The companies have generated headlines for huge losses as they attempt to manage vehicle attrition, labor costs, and regulatory battles.

“We’re very confident that in 2020, Lime will be the first next-generation mobility company to be profitable,” Lime president Joe Kraus tells Axios.

«

The odd thing is that 11 of the 12 cities have warm weather, and thus scooters could work year-round.
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U.S. funds free Android phones for the poor — but with permanent Chinese malware • Forbes

Thomas Brewster:

»

It all sounds ideal for those who don’t have the money to splash on fancy Apple or Google phones. But according to security researchers, there’s a catch: the Android phones come with preinstalled Chinese malware, which effectively opens up a backdoor onto the device and endangers their private data. One of the malware types is impossible to remove, according to the researchers.

Researchers at cybersecurity company MalwareBytes said that they had tried to warn Assurance Wireless, a Virgin Mobile company, they had received no response. So the devices likely remain vulnerable today. Forbes was also unable to get a response from the company. The FCC, which runs Lifeline Assurance, also hadn’t responded to requests for comment.

Senator Ron Wyden is now asking the FCC why such phones are being shipped under the program. “It is outrageous that taxpayer money may be going to companies providing insecure, malware-ridden phones to low-income families. I’ll be asking the FCC to ensure Americans that depend on Lifeline Assistance aren’t paying the price with their privacy and security.”

The affected device is a UMX phone shipped by Assurance Wireless and one of the preinstalled malware, according to MalwareBytes senior analyst Nathan Collier, is the creation of a Chinese entity known as Adups. Though the tool looks and operates as a Wireless Update program, it’s capable of auto-installing apps without any user consent, which it starts doing immediately, according to a MalwareBytes analysis of a device, shared with Forbes ahead of publication. Adups hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

«

Wyden is now asking the FCC to make sure the devices aren’t malware-riddled. Seems like a small request, doesn’t it?
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August 2008: Why Apple doesn’t do “concept products” « counternotions

“Counternotions”:

»

Why would a commercial entity like Apple produce a concept product? Apple is likely generating more concept products and visions than any other technology company for internal use. When Apple wanted to get into retail stores, for example, Jobs had Ron Johson build a fully-functioning, real-size prototype and tore it down at the last minute to rebuild a new one. Why didn’t Apple release the “concept store” to the then-deeply-skeptical press in order to “demonstrate visionary leadership”? In a similar situation Microsoft likely would have.

Product design, above all, is a bet. Apple understands this better than any other company. In iPhone: The bet Steve Jobs didn’t decline, I explained just what a huge bet the iPhone project was to Apple in 2005. It was a bet-the-company kind of bet. One that Nokia, which has sold hundreds of millions of phones over many years, never took. Neither did Microsoft. They would just as well release annual concept products to the public in order not to go through the pain of taking a bet.

Apple bet the company to single handedly change the industrial design of mobile devices, how we interact with them, the balance between carriers and manufacturers, mobile application vending, etc. Indeed, it simply redefined what a mobile device is to become.

«

This was linked from John Gruber’s meditation on the “Concept Electronics Show”, which is also worth reading, but this is a great piece in its own right.
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Guide to using reverse image search for investigations • bellingcat

Aric Toler:

»

Yandex is by far the best reverse image search engine, with a scary-powerful ability to recognize faces, landscapes, and objects. This Russian site draws heavily upon user-generated content, such as tourist review sites (e.g. FourSquare and TripAdvisor) and social networks (e.g. dating sites), for remarkably accurate results with facial and landscape recognition queries.

Its strengths lie in photographs taken in a European or former-Soviet context. While photographs from North America, Africa, and other places may still return useful results on Yandex, you may find yourself frustrated by scrolling through results mostly from Russia, Ukraine, and eastern Europe rather than the country of your target images.

To use Yandex, go to images.yandex.com, then choose the camera icon on the right.

From there, you can either upload a saved image or type in the URL of one hosted online.

If you get stuck with the Russian user interface, look out for Выберите файл (Choose file), Введите адрес картинки (Enter image address), and Найти (Search). After searching, look out for Похожие картинки (Similar images), and Ещё похожие (More similar).

The facial recognition algorithms used by Yandex are shockingly good. Not only will Yandex look for photographs that look similar to the one that has a face in it, but it will also look for other photographs of the same person (determined through matching facial similarities) with completely different lighting, background colors, and positions. While Google and Bing may just look for other photographs showing a person with similar clothes and general facial features, Yandex will search for those matches, and also other photographs of a facial match.

«

Useful primer (and probably a good one to bookmark for those times when you’re primed to repost/retweet something that looks remarkable, or you want to hunt down an FSB officer). There’s also a little “try this at home” series at the end.
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Iran’s cyberattack on billionaire Adelson provides lesson on strategy • Yahoo

Alyza Sebenius, Kartikay Mehrotra and William Turton:

»

In October 2013, Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and prominent supporter of conservative politicians and Israel, appeared on a panel in New York in which he suggested that the US could send a message to Iran, regarding its nuclear ambitions, by detonating an American warhead in the middle of the Iranian desert.

“You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position,” said Adelson, who later became a major supporter of President Donald Trump. His comments infuriated Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who two weeks later said America “should slap these prating people in the mouth.”

Months later, in February 2014, hackers inserted malware into the computer networks of Adelson’s Las Vegas casino. The withering cyberattack laid waste to about three quarters of the company’s Las Vegas servers; the cost of recovering data and building new systems cost $40m or more.

A year after the attack, the top US intelligence official confirmed that Iran was behind it.

Now, as Iran vows revenge for the airstrike, the US faces an aggressive adversary in which digital warfare may be among its best options to strike directly at the American population. In the years since the Sands incident, Iranian hackers have continued their attacks, targeting a US presidential campaign, universities, journalists, and even a dam in suburban New York.

“I’m sure the Iranians are asking their hackers for a list of options,” said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who oversees the policy research group’s cybersecurity program. “Cyberattacks can be tempting if they can find the right American target.”

«

This time around, Adelson didn’t want to comment. Funny, that. And there will be plenty of American targets. Iran can take its time and select its targets to cause maximum disruption, or the minimum visibility with maximum effect. (The JCPOA – aka the Iran nuclear deal – was signed in July 2015. I wonder if Adelson might want it back in effect after all.)
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Grubhub considers strategic options including possible sale • WSJ

Maureen Farrell and Cara Lombardo:

»

Grubhub, which went public nearly six years ago, has a market value of roughly $5bn. That is down from its peak of more than $13bn just over a year ago, before competition from other delivery startups heated up and eroded the company’s market-share lead and results.

Grubhub shares rose as much as 19% on Wednesday after The Wall Street Journal reported on the review. They closed at $54.75, up nearly 13%.

Competition in the nascent food-delivery industry, which ferries takeout orders from restaurants to homes and businesses, has intensified as newcomers try to lure customers and grab market share with discounts and promotions. At the same time, restaurants are pushing back against the fees delivery companies charge, squeezing Grubhub and its competitors. Investors and analysts have said the industry needs consolidation, with many seeing room for little more than two major players.

Grubhub on Oct. 28 cut its revenue and profit forecasts amid slowing customer growth, sending the shares down 43% the following day and helping prompt the review. Its third-quarter adjusted per-share earnings dropped 40% from the year-earlier period. The stock had gained back most of that ground after Wednesday’s rise.

«

Proof if it were needed that just having a big tech backend doesn’t guarantee long-term success. Amazon had to work for it, and still does; people often forget that it saw off a lot of well-funded rivals.

Related: John Colley of Warwich Business School at The Conversation on Just Eat getting bought by Takeaway.com: “Take a closer look at the the business of online food delivery and it’s easy to wonder if anyone will ever make long-term significant returns.”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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

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.

«

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.

«

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:

»

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.

«

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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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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…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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Start Up No.1215: Google’s culture change, ChromeOS is stuck, you are HERE in history, TikTok to infinity, and more


Put it in “Recycle” mode, and it’s good for nothing except, well, recycling. Is that really good? CC-licensed photo by BestAI Assistant on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Yes, we’re back! And so are you! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google veterans: the company has become ‘unrecognizable’ • CNBC

Jennifer Elias:

»

Nine-year veteran Colin McMillen told CNBC that he left Google early this year without another job because he felt couldn’t be a part of the organization anymore, citing Dragonfly, transparency and Google leadership’s “poor handling” of crises over the last year.

Employees last month staged a rally amid the suspension of employees who were later fired. That rally’s purpose was to “save Google’s open culture,” according to the event details. Protesters demanded transparency on policies that Google said led to their decision to fire four employees. In December, the National Labor Relations Board began investigating the company for the firings.

“Google is built on trust,” said Zora Tung, an engineer at Google who spoke at the rally. “If the company wants to succeed, it needs to regain that trust through transparency and accountability.”

Long-tenured Google employees also said the company culture changed as it scaled to more than 100,000 workers, many of whom are contractors instead of full-time employees.

Graham Neray is CEO of a New York start-up called Oso. He told CNBC that longtime Googlers who interviewed for roles at Oso said the company had become “too big” and bureaucratic to make a difference for workers. Major organizational changes and uncertainty in some divisions like the Google Cloud Platform were also mentioned by candidates, he said.

Bureaucracy was the reason for a former engineering director who left the company in August after seven years. This engineer, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to talk about his time there, said upper management began placing extra emphasis on head count in recent years. Because of that, the company has become reluctant to eliminate weaker team members, which affected his and others’ organizations, he said.

Some employees said they were recruited on the notion they’d be able to change the world with a free and open-thinking channel to management and products. But over the last year, those ideals no longer seem tenable, workers said.

«

It certainly feels like something has changed at Google over the past five years particularly. Page and Brin becoming disengaged but not handing over control; the tension, visible from outside, between Ruth Porat on finance and the spending of the “moonshot” groups. So over the next ten years, does it decline into sclerosis or somehow rediscover its vision?
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Chrome OS has stalled out • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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Getting Android apps to run on Chrome OS was simultaneously one of the Chrome team’s greatest achievements and one of its worst mistakes. In 2019, two things are more obvious than ever about the Android app situation on Chrome. The first is that the “build it and they will come” mantra never panned out. Developers never created an appreciable number of Android app experiences designed for Chrome (just as they never did for Android tablets). The second is that, quite frankly, Android apps are very bad on Chrome OS. Performance is highly variable, and interface bugs are basically unending because most of those apps were never designed for a point-and-click operating system. Sure, they crash less often than they did in the early days, but anyone saying that Android apps on Chrome OS are a good experience is delusional.

Those apps are also a crutch that Chrome leans on to this day. Chrome OS doesn’t have a robust photo editor? Don’t worry, you can download an [Android] app! Chrome doesn’t have native integration with cloud file services like Box, Dropbox, or OneDrive? Just download the [Android] app! Chrome doesn’t have Microsoft Office? App! But this “solution” has basically become an insult to Chrome’s users, forcing them to live inside a half-baked Android environment using apps that were almost exclusively designed for 6″ touchscreens, and which exist in a containerized state that effectively firewalls them from much of the Chrome operating system.

As a result, file handling is a nightmare, with only a very limited number of folders accessible to those applications, and the task of finding them from inside those apps a labyrinthine exercise no one should have to endure in 2019. This isn’t a tenable state of affairs—it’s computing barbarism as far as I’m concerned.

«

I always thought the point of ChromeOS was to be a low-end disruptor – cheaper and simpler than Windows/macOS, so it could do simpler tasks (in call centres?) that could run through a browser.
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It’s 2020 and you’re in the future • Wait But Why

Tim Urban:

»

We’re now in charge of making this a cool decade so when people 100 years from now are thinking about how incredibly old-timey the 2020s were, it’s old-timey in a cool appealing way and not a boring shitty way.

It’s also weird that to us, the 2020s sounds like such a rad futuristic decade—and that’s how the 1920s seemed to people 100 years ago today. They were all used to the 19-teens, and suddenly they were like, “whoa cool we’re in the twenties!” Then they got upset thinking about how much farther along in life their 1910 self thought they’d be by 1920.

In any case, it’s a perfect time for one of those “shit we’re old” posts.

So here are some New Years 2020 time facts:

When World War 2 started, the Civil War felt as far away to Americans as WW2 feels to us now.

Speaking of World War 2, the world wars were pretty close together. If World War 2 were starting today, World War 1 would feel about as far back to us as 9/11.

The Soviet Union break up is now as distant a memory as JFK’s assassination was when the Soviet Union broke up.

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The post is a few days old, so that “If World War 2 were starting today” comment has more bite now than it did when written.
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Sonos in bricked speaker ‘recycling’ row • BBC News

»

Sonos is facing a backlash for encouraging customers to get rid of their old speakers when there may be nothing wrong with them.

The US speaker giant offers customers a 30% discount on new products if they follow steps to recycle their old ones. Following these puts the device in Recycle Mode, which means it will then be permanently deactivated.

Sonos said it wanted to encourage responsible disposal of electrical equipment. But many took to Twitter saying it would be far better to allow people to resell them.

“Sonos’s ‘recycle mode’ intentionally bricks good devices so they can’t be reused,” wrote Twitter user AtomicThumbs. He posted photos of five Sonos speakers which had been recycled through his company, Renew Computers. “Someone recycled five of these Sonos Play:5 speakers. They’re worth $250 each, used, and these are in good condition. They could easily be reused.”

A Sonos spokeswoman told the BBC: “To participate in the Trade Up program and receive the 30% discount, a customer has to tell us in the app that they plan to recycle their old device.

Customers can then redeem their discount at sonos.com or at a participating dealer. Once they have their new device, the customer will then be able to wipe their old device and deactivate it. Then it’s up to them either to recycle it locally, or they can return it to Sonos and we’ll recycle it.

«

It’s a really bad scheme: if the speakers could be reused, that could potentially increase the number of Sonos users. Sure, some people might resell them and take advantage of the 30% discount and in effect get a speaker for free. But Sonos would have a new user – which it needs, badly.
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TikTok and the coming of infinite media • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:

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Infinite media sucks in all media, from news to entertainment to communication. Witness what’s going on in pop. Each TikTok has a soundtrack, a looping clip spinning on a wee turntable in the corner of the screen. The music business, seeing TikTok’s ability to turn songs into memes, has already developed a craving for the app’s yee yee juice. As Jia Tolentini explains in the New Yorker:

»

Certain musical elements serve as TikTok catnip: bass-heavy transitions that can be used as punch lines; rap songs that are easy to lip-synch or include a narrative-friendly call and response. A twenty-six-year-old Australian producer named Adam Friedman, half of the duo Cookie Cutters, told me that he was now concentrating on lyrics that you could act out with your hands. “I write hooks, and I try it in the mirror—how many hand movements can I fit into fifteen seconds?” he said. “You know, goodbye, call me back, peace out, F you.”

«

The aural hooks amplify the visual hooks, and vice versa, to saturate the sensorium. When it comes to the infinite, more is always better.

Boomers may struggle to make sense of TikTok, but they’ll appreciate its most obvious antecedent: the Ed Sullivan Show. Squeeze old Ed through a wormhole and give him a spin in a Vitamix, and you get TikTok. There’s Liza Minnelli singing “MacArthur Park,” then there’s a guy spinning plates on the ends of sticks, then there’s Señor Wences ventriloquizing through a hand puppet. Except it’s all us. We’re Liza, we’re the plate-spinning guy, we’re Señor Wences, we’re the puppet. We’re even Ed, flicking acts on and off the stage with the capriciousness of a pagan god.

Every Sunday night during the sixties the nation found itself glued to the set, engrossed in a variety show. It was an omen.

«

It’s great that Carr is blogging regularly again. (Implies to me he’s between book projects.) Impressed that he managed to resist “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 seconds”. I couldn’t. Speaking of TikTok…
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Hype House and the Los Angeles TikTok mansion gold rush • The New York Times

Taylor Lorenz:

»

Alex, Thomas, Daisy Keech, 20, and Kouvr Annon, 19, live at the house full time. As the oldest, Thomas acts as a default den mother. Though Chase helped put money down for the house, Thomas manages schedules, handles the house issues and resolves the inevitable conflicts. Unlike Team 10 and other groups, Hype House doesn’t take a cut of anyone’s revenue.

The house does have strict rules, however. Creators can have friends over, but it is not a party house. If you break something, you have 15 days to replace it. And if you want to be a part of the group, you need to churn out content daily.

“If someone slips up constantly, they’ll not be a part of this team anymore,” Thomas said. “You can’t come and stay with us for a week and not make any videos, it’s not going to work. This whole house is designed for productivity. If you want to party, there’s hundreds of houses that throw parties in L.A. every weekend. We don’t want to be that. It’s not in line with anyone in this house’s brand. This house is about creating something big, and you can’t do that if you’re going out on the weekends.”

In order to make a splash on the internet, you need the right people and so Chase acts as Hype House’s unofficial talent scout and a behind-the-scenes operator. He has a knack for spotting influencers early and knows what qualities it takes to get big online.

You have to be young, you have to “have a lot of energy and personality and honestly a little weird. The weird people get the furthest on the internet,” Chase said. “You either have to be talented at something, or a weird funny mix, or extremely good looking.”

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Cities struggle to boost ridership with ‘Uber for transit’ schemes • WIRED

Flavie Halais:

»

According to the tech companies pushing this solution, making on-demand busing work is a matter of crunching vast amounts of transit data, now made available by location tracking, and using algorithms to create custom shared routes. Data will help agencies reroute buses in real time based on factors like user demand and congestion, says Amos Haggiag, CEO of Optibus, whose software helps cities plan and manage bus routes, both on-demand and fixed. “I do see mass transit, even the large buses, as much more dynamic.” Many of those companies, including Uber, think all buses, not just those in low-ridership areas, should run on demand.

Reality, though, adds complications. Not everyone who needs to get around has access to an app. Smartphone ownership remains vastly unequal among countries, and between income and age groups. The cost of data is still cited as a major barrier to smartphone use around the world. And even those who do have phones may not want to rely on them to get to work. When I point out that my smartphone shuts down when the weather gets too cold in winter, Haggiag says my situation is “extreme.” I live in Montreal, along with 1.75 million other people.

Tech companies and planners often make decisions without considering the needs of people who are not like them. A pilot project in St. Petersburg, Florida, that let residents use Uber to connect to bus stops faced low adoption rates. The local transit authority realized residents, many of whom were low-income, didn’t know how to use Uber. They needed help on how to use the app, a planner told WIRED in 2017.

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Fixing things that don’t need fixing; what’s really needed is just regular buses, which can be funded by a mix of fares and tax incentives.
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Trade war dents China’s attendance at world’s biggest electronics show • WSJ

Raffaele Huang and Stu Woo:

»

The expanding U.S.-China rivalry in the world of technology is set to be put on full display this week, with a smaller Chinese presence expected in Las Vegas for CES, the world’s biggest consumer-electronics exhibition.

Chinese exhibit space at the annual show is projected to be down 5% to 6% compared with last year, event organizers said. The event on Jan. 7 to Jan. 10 could also see a downtick in overall Chinese exhibitors, since 1,120 attended last year, but only 1,097 Chinese companies were listed on the 2020 directory as of Saturday.

One of those companies listed on the directory said it wouldn’t show up. A spokesman for Suning, a major Chinese electronics and appliance retailer akin to Best Buy Co. , said neither its Chinese nor its U.S. team would attend, even if it had already booked the space. Suning last year had a big booth that showcased shopping technology. The spokesman declined to elaborate on why the company is skipping the event.

The drop-off in Chinese participation at CES is a reversal from years past. In 2018, the exhibition had 15,383 attendees from China, the country’s highest reported attendance ever. At the time, some attendees jokingly referred to CES, formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, as the “Chinese Electronics Show.” But attendance from China dropped to 12,839 in 2019, according to the official show audit.

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Analyst, analyze yourself • Asymco

Horace Dediu points out that we can – and so we should – examine sell-side analyst (ie share price forecaster) predictions, especially about the present from the past:

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The green line in the graph represents the closing share price at weekly intervals (from about October 2016 until last week.) The blue dots represent various estimates. Note that they are 12 months since their issuance and that since estimates can come at any time the are not easily clustered.

That is except last year and the “big reset” when the estimates all were issued on the same day. I highlighted the range with a vertical line. Note that the closing price last week was well above the highest estimate and that the lowest estimate ($140 is less than 50% of the current price).

This is quite a big fail. Errors of 50 for a 12 month time frame are egregious.

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The graph is a little hard to read, but essentially it says: they’re often wrong. For completeness I guess you’d want a random walk generator to compare them against for the same period.
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