Start Up No.1254: Reddit CEO slaps at TikTok, coronavirus roundup, a trackpad iPad?, why entering numbers on a webpage is so hard, and more

A 3D print of the coronavirus Covid-19. Try to avoid making your own. CC-licensed photo by NIAID on Flickr.

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

Reddit CEO: TikTok is ‘fundamentally parasitic’ • TechCrunch

Lucas Matney:


The comments from Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman were some of the more controversial offered up during a panel discussion with former public policy exec Elliot Schrage and former Facebook VP of Product Sam Lessin. During a brief conversation about the feature innovations of TikTok, Huffman pushed back hard on the notion that Silicon Valley startups had something to learn from the app.

“Maybe I’m going to regret this, but I can’t even get to that level of thinking with them,” Huffman said. “Because I look at that app as so fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.”

“I actively tell people, ‘Don’t install that spyware on your phone,'” he later added.

A TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch: “These are baseless accusations made without a shred of evidence.”

…Huffman’s comments critiqued how TikTok tracks the actions of its users. The social media app was a hot topic of discussion throughout the event, and while Lessin asserted that the app had made a number of notable innovations, Huffman was one of the few at the event to offer deep criticisms of the app.


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Coronavirus’s genetics reveal its global travels • The Scientist Magazine®

Ashley Yeager spoke to Richard Neher, an evolutionary biologist who sequences viruses – and has applied this to the viral lineage (or heritage) of Covid-19:


AY: Can you estimate the number of infections from the tree?

RN: Yes, if you look at the viral tree you see different sequences. And the tree will have different shapes depending on if the outbreak it’s staying the same size or growing. If it’s growing, you see many, many lineages coming together very deep in the tree, and that’s what we have here. That implies there was rapid expansion at the base of the tree that drove all of the lineages apart. You can estimate the rate of that expansion and if you know how old the outbreak is, you can estimate the number of infections.

AY: What kind of estimates do you get using this technique? 

RN: It’s a little difficult to interpret the numbers from China right now. The dynamics are changing; the cases are plateauing. We expect this to be a result of these draconian containment measures or quarantine measures that they imposed on half a billion people. There are 70,000 reported cases so the number of infections could be 200,000. It could be 500,000. We don’t know because people may be sick at home and stay home because the hospitals are overcrowded and that’s where you could get infected. I don’t think we have a good handle on how many cases there were that simply don’t show up in any statistic. I would [estimate] some three-fold underreporting at least.

AY: What can the data tell you about the virus’s origins?

RN: The first takeaway is that all these sequences are very, very similar, about eight mutations different than the root. That’s eight mutations in a 30,000-base sequence. What this tells us is that the virus came from one source, not too long ago, somewhere between mid-November and early December.


(Thanks Nic for the link.)
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COVID-19 outbreak means 1Q20 notebook computer shipment expected to decline about 26% yoy • TrendForce


Under the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, the notebook supply chain is facing many challenges in work resumption delays, labor shortages, material shortages, and logistic/transportation restrictions. TrendForce is hereby lowering its February notebook shipment forecast from 10.8m units previously to 5.7m units, a 47.6% decrease YoY.

During the 1Q20 period, notebook shipment is expected to take the brunt of the impact in February. Assuming that the spread of COVID-19 can be contained, notebook production volume is expected to gradually recover in March, but this may not be enough to offset significant losses in February. TrendForce is therefore further revising its 1Q20 notebook shipment forecast from the previous figure of 35 million units down to 27.5m units, a 35% decrease QoQ and 26% decrease YoY. If the COVID outbreak were to further affect Chinese notebook manufacturers and related industries, 1Q20 shipment may decrease more than current projections.

According to TrendForce, China is the main supplier of many complex parts involved in notebook manufacturing, such as PCB, batteries, hinges, polarizers, passive components, metal components, etc. In the short run, these parts cannot be easily supplied by other manufacturing regions outside of China.


Wonder if demand will be down too, or just delayed – or perhaps lost? People and businesses put off buying by a few months, and so does everyone else, and the sales are just… lost.
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Slouching towards dystopia: the rise of surveillance capitalism and the death of privacy • New Statesman

John Naughton:


We would really miss these services [Google, Skype, Facetime, etc] if they were one day to disappear, and this may be one reason why many politicians tip-toe round tech companies’ monopoly power. That the services are free at the point of use has undermined anti-trust thinking for decades: how do you prosecute a monopoly that is not price-gouging its users? (The answer, in the case of social media, is that users are not customers; the monopoly may well be extorting its actual customers – advertisers – but nobody seems to have inquired too deeply into that until recently.)

Another possible explanation is what one might call imaginative failure – most people simply cannot imagine the nature of the surveillance society that we are constructing, or the implications it might have for them and their grandchildren. There are only two cures for this failure: one is an existential crisis that brings home to people the catastrophic damage that technology could wreak. Imagine, for example, a more deadly strain of the coronavirus that rapidly causes a pandemic – but governments struggle to control it because official edicts are drowned out by malicious disinformation on social media. Would that make people think again about the legal immunity that social media companies enjoy from prosecution for content that they host on their servers?


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Undiscoverable UI madness • Birchtree

Matt Birchler works in an office; he went around asking various people there using Macs if they knew how to do various tasks (preview a file in the Finder, change the associated app, right-click, enable Do Not Disturb):


I stopped there because we had to get back to work, but without even leaving the Finder and Desktop I was able to find a bunch of things that long-time Mac users had never known about because they never discovered them in their daily use.

None of this is meant to say macOS is garbage or anything like that. It’s just interesting to see when people who love the Mac and are so critical of “discoverability” on the iPad. I’m not even saying the iPad is better than the Mac here, I’m just saying that “discoverability” is one of the big things that has people in a tizzy right now about the iPad, but I think some are laying into the iPad harder than is warranted.

Another thing I can’t get out of my head is the idea that we can be power users on one platform, and casual users on another. The fact that someone is amazing with the Mac does not mean they are automatically a power user on the iPad, Windows, or Android. So when you use something casually and expect yourself to know its ins and outs as well as someone who is more invested, then you get frustrated. I sympathize with this every time I use Android; “is this bad, absent, or do I just not know my way around here as well as I do my iPhone?”


There are tons and tons and tons of things that are effectively “hidden” on any OS. Whether you know where they’re hidden is down to how much time you’ve spent playing on them.
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Apple planning iPad keyboard with trackpad • The Information

Wayne Ma:


Apple is planning to release an iPad keyboard accessory later this year that will include a built-in trackpad, the latest step in its effort to position the tablet device as an alternative to laptop computers, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

Apple is preparing the keyboard for mass production, and one of its main manufacturers is Foxconn Technology, the Taiwanese contractor that makes most of the world’s iPhones, the person said. The company will likely release the accessory alongside the next version of the iPad Pro expected later this year, the person added…

…There are signs that consumer demand for an iPad keyboard with a trackpad is growing. Some such third-party products have been released or announced in the past six months that have limited support for the iPad Pro. In January, iPad accessory maker Brydge announced it would be releasing a similar keyboard with trackpad later this year. Brydge’s product announcement came after it filed a patent-infringement lawsuit in New York against another company, OGadget, which launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for a trackpad-equipped iPad keyboard in 2019.

A second person familiar with the matter said Apple has been experimenting with trackpads for the iPad for a number of years. Some prototypes had capacitive keys, which mimic the response of mechanical keys but with sensors, though it isn’t clear whether this feature is in the planned product.


Needs to get the OS sorted out, then.

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Testing a new conversational format for LinkedIn: Stories • LinkedIn

Pete Davies:


As the head of content products at LinkedIn, my job is to make sure we’re giving professionals every format and feedback opportunity they need to make these conversations as productive as possible. Over the last few years, that’s led us to launch features including Newsletters, Live Video, Trending News, and Reactions. There are more conversations taking place in the LinkedIn feed than ever before, with a 25% year-over-year increase in engagement. We see more and more ways in which our members come together to have a conversation — from sharing and discussing the lessons learned in a job, to helping with ideas for a new purchase to a community outpouring of love following a tragedy.

We’re never done meeting our members where their voices are. Last year, we started asking ourselves what Stories might look like in a professional context. Stories first appeared on Snapchat, with other platforms like Instagram and Facebook adopting them soon after. They spread for a good reason: they offer a lightweight, fun way to share an update without it having to be perfect or attached to your profile forever…

…we’re currently testing LinkedIn Stories internally, and we can’t wait to test it with our members in the coming months. We’ve learned so much already about the unique possibilities of Stories in a professional context. For example, the sequencing of the Stories format is great for sharing key moments from work events, the full-screen narrative style makes it easy to share tips and tricks that help us work smarter, and the way Stories opens up new messaging threads makes it easier for someone to say, “and by the way… I noticed you know Linda, could you introduce me?”


LinkedIn: doing all the rubbish things, but years after everyone else decided they were rubbish, and in an even more cringeworthy way.
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Google’s abandoned Android Authenticator app • Terence Eden’s Blog

Terence Eden (for it is he):


The news has just broken that Google’s Authenticator App can have its codes stolen by malware. I doubt Google will ever release a fix for this issue – their 2FA app hasn’t been updated since September 2017.

For two-and-a-half years, Google hasn’t touched their 2FA app’s code. Perhaps it is perfect? Perhaps there are no more UI improvements or security enhancements that can be done? Or, more likely, it joins a long graveyard of Android apps – launched optimistically and then abandoned.

I get it, not every product you release is a winner. And some have to be shuttered gracefully. But Google Authenticator is special. It is trusted to protect users’ accounts. Not just Google accounts – thousands of providers specifically recommend it.

Sure, you and I know that any OTP app will work. But Google spend a lot of money on branding – and organisations use that to signal trust to their users.

Frankly, Android Authenticator is too important to be neglected like this.


I stopped using Authenticator a while back, when I discovered that Authy will do the same job and also sync across multiple devices (password-protected). That guards against the perennial Catch-22 of having to set up your 2FA-protected account when the device that has Authenticator on it is stolen or broken.

The ZDNet story linked is about a new version of the Cerberus Android banking Trojan (which only appeared last summer) which claims to be able to steal Authenticator data.

More interestingly, Eden points to a list – pretty long – of Google apps that haven’t been updated in more than 12 months. A good way to evaluate where its interest don’t lie.
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Why the GOV.UK Design System team changed the input type for numbers • Technology in government

Hanna Laakso:


It’s reasonable to assume that <input type="number"> can be used for collecting any numeric data: it contains the word “number”, after all. A note in the HTML specification states that <input type="number"> is “not appropriate for input that happens to only consist of numbers but isn’t strictly speaking a number”.

This means that <input type="number"> can only be used for incrementable numbers, such as dates or the number of people in a household. Using <input type="number"> for collecting numbers that are not incrementable can cause problems with browsers validating them in that way.

For example, browsers attempt to round large numbers when incrementing or decrementing (pressing up or down key), and in the case of very large numbers they are converted to exponential notation.

Chrome 79.0: type=number displays large numbers in exponential format if user presses the up or down arrows on their keyboard.

Once the number is parsed by the browser as an exponent, as shown above, and possibly by mistake, the action cannot be reversed by the user. This could confuse users. 

If users access your site using older versions of Safari, <input type="number"> can also be problematic when collecting values of 16 or more digits. In Safari 6, the browser rounds the number when a user leaves the field, so no mistake with up or down keys is required.

Safari 6 rounds the last digit on blur

Safari 5.1 attempts to make values with at least 16 digits more readable by inserting commas.

3. Letters 
The HTML spec states that when using <input type="number">, “user agents must not allow the user to set the value to a non-empty string that is not a valid floating-point number”. The web and Android versions of Chrome implement this by silently discarding all letter input except the letter ‘e’.


There are so many gotchas for what you would think was a simple thing: put some numbers into a space on a browser.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1253: Facebook blocks coronavirus “urgency” ads, Gmail v Democrats, NTSB slams Tesla for Autopilot death, streaming passes 50% in UK, and more

It probably won’t catch fire – but the retardant chemicals that stop that aren’t great news either. CC-licensed photo by Scott Ogle 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. Rest your weary head. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Toxic sofas are a secret scandal – and an ‘EU red tape’ bonfire will make it worse • The Guardian

George Monbiot:


Until 2016, when he blew the whistle on spectacular malpractice within government, Terry Edge was the lead civil servant working on fire safety regulations for furniture. His research shows that, owing to decades of industry lobbying, homes in the UK have the world’s highest levels of dangerous flame retardants. It took until last year for mattresses and furniture containing the highly toxic retardant deca-BDE to be banned, under European law, from sale. Instead of prohibiting all such dangerous, persistent organic chemicals in furniture, the UK government has allowed one hazardous pollutant to be replaced by others (TCEP, TCPP and TDCP).

Even when such furnishings are removed from our homes, the hazard persists, as – in defiance of the Stockholm convention the UK has signed – they are still dumped in landfill or burned in incinerators at temperatures too low to destroy the toxic chemicals they release. Scarcely monitored, with unknown effects, these poisons steadily seep across the nation.

To make matters worse, far from saving us from fires, flame retardants appear to increase the risk. This is because the furniture containing them produces poisonous byproducts when it smoulders, including hydrogen cyanide, dioxins and furans. Since the 1990s, most of the deaths and injuries inflicted by fires in the UK have been caused not from burns but by inhaling toxic smoke. Edge contends that many of the deaths at Grenfell Tower were likely to have been caused by toxic emissions from furnishings but, as a result of the influence of industrial lobbyists, this cause has not been properly considered in the inquiry. A paper in the journal Chemosphere shows that furniture made from tightly woven natural fabrics is no more flammable than furniture treated with flame retardants, and produces far less toxic gas.

But using flame retardants is cheaper.


“Cheaper” almost always means “worse” in safety circles. Yet another example.
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Facebook cracks down on ads about coronavirus • Business Insider

Rob Price:


Facebook is tightening up its rules on ads that reference the novel coronavirus, in an attempt to curtail misinformation and fearmongering about the outbreak.

The social network will now ban ads that mention it if they promise to cure or prevent the virus, or attempt to “create a sense of urgency” about it.

In a statement, a spokesperson told Business Insider: “We recently implemented a policy to prohibit ads that refer to the coronavirus and create a sense of urgency, like implying a limited supply, or guaranteeing a cure or prevention. We also have policies for surfaces like Marketplace that prohibit similar behavior.”

Facebook, like other tech platforms, is currently grappling with a surge of panicked conversation and sometimes outright misinformation about COVID-19, which has sickened more than 79,000 people globally and killed more than 2,600 over the last few months.

Facebook utilises fact-checkers to check dubious claims and subsequently suppress them in its newsfeed, and in late January announced it was taking the additional step of outright removing false information about the outbreak “that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them.”


Unclear: will Facebook allow politicians – say, impeached presidents – to put ads on social media saying they’re in control of the outbreak and will have a vaccine in days?
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The End of Civilization and the Real Donald Trump • The Health Care Blog

Art Caplan, writing in March 2016 (before Trump was even the Republican candidate):


The pandemic started quietly. In the spring of 2017 A few hundred dead chickens appeared in markets in Hong Kong and a few other cities in China…

…The CDC issued advisories nearly everyday. There was no vaccine available but efforts were underway to make one since the genome of the mutated virus had been sequenced. People were urged to stay home, wear masks, cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing and to get the annual flu shot since that might confer some protection.   Then President Trump decided to act.

He issued an Executive Order declaring that the border with Canada and Mexico be semi-sealed—essential commerce only. Passengers on all international flights were to be subjected to screening and temperature measurement. Many pointed out that these measures did not work and that the mutated virus was already in the U.S. Trump dismissed those concerns, noted that immigrants often brought disease along with them, that no one could be sure whether the outbreak was part of a conspiracy and that screening was the smartest thing to do.

As other Americans sickened and died Trump moved to quarantine those who were ill and their families. He said ‘the cowards did not do it for Ebola or zika and the thing is not gonna go out of control on my watch’. Americans did not take kindly to quarantine especially when no provision had been made for getting them food or removing garbage.

Soon people began to break quarantine—heading to supermarkets, hardware stores, and to visit relatives who themselves were homebound. Trump told every governor to get the state police involved to enforce quarantine but the numbers involved simply overwhelmed. Trump declared martial law and called out the military to enforce it supplemented by National Guard troops dispatched by cooperative governors.


You’ve got to say that Caplan saw it pretty well, though not how Trump would first fire people essential to disease evaluation and epidemic control.
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Swinging the vote? • The Markup

Adrianne Jeffries, Leon Yin, and Surya Mattu:


Pete Buttigieg is leading at 63%. Andrew Yang came in second at 46%. And Elizabeth Warren looks like she’s in trouble with 0%.

These aren’t poll numbers for the US 2020 Democratic presidential contest. Instead, they reflect which candidates were able to consistently land in Gmail’s primary inbox in a simple test. 

The Markup set up a new Gmail account to find out how the company filters political email from candidates, think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofits. 

We found that few of the emails we’d signed up to receive —11%—made it to the primary inbox, the first one a user sees when opening Gmail and the one the company says is “for the mail you really, really want.” 

Half of all emails landed in a tab called “promotions,” which Gmail says is for “deals, offers, and other marketing emails.” Gmail sent another 40% to spam. 

For political causes and candidates, who get a significant amount of their donations through email, having their messages diverted into less-visible tabs or spam can have profound effects.

“The fact that Gmail has so much control over our democracy and what happens and who raises money is frightening,” said Kenneth Pennington, a consultant who worked on Beto O’Rourke’s digital campaign.

“It’s scary that if Gmail changes their algorithms,” he added, “they’d have the power to impact our election.”


Smart idea (though also: isn’t it a little worrying if we think that emails will make a difference to an election?) The Markup itself is an interesting new publication, which side-by-side shows its working – the code, the results, so you can replicate them.
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Federal safety official slams Tesla, regulators for Autopilot tech misuse • Los Angeles Times

Russ Mitchell:


The nation’s top safety investigator slammed Tesla on Tuesday for failing to take adequate measures to prevent “foreseeable abuse” of its Autopilot driver-assistance technology, in a hearing into the fatal 2018 crash of a Tesla Model X SUV in Mountain View, Calif.

The National Transportation Safety Board said 38-year-old Walter Huang, an Apple software engineer, had Autopilot engaged in his 2018 Tesla Model X and was playing a video game on his iPhone when the car crashed into a defective safety barrier on U.S. Highway 101.

The board also blamed the highway safety arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation for failing to properly regulate rapidly evolving robot-car technology.

“Government regulators have provided scant oversight” of Autopilot and self-drive systems from other manufacturers, said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt at a safety board meeting in Washington, D.C. The board adopted a long list of measures meant to reduce such accidents as “partially automated driving” technologies become more popular in new vehicles.

Sumwalt pointed out that in 2017, the NTSB recommended automakers design driver-assist systems to prevent driver inattention and misuse. Automakers including Volkswagen, Nissan and BMW reported on their attempts to meet the recommendations, but Tesla never got back to the NTSB.


There’s also criticism of Apple for not making “Do Not Disturb while driving” the default setting. Which strikes me as weird: it would have made absolutely no difference. This guy was disturbing – well, distracting – himself completely intentionally. Unfortunately he paid for price for putting too much trust in machines whose limits aren’t yet clear.

(And yes, we can discuss the difference between this unintentional death and that of rocketman Mike Hughes. I’d say it’s that Hughes knew what he was doing would be fatal unless everything went right. For Huang, it would only be fatal if everything went wrong.)
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British SVOD penetration at 50.5% • Digital TV Europe

Jonathan Easton:


According to a new report from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB), the number of UK homes with a subscription to at least one of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Now TV – the three leaders in the country – was at 14.27 million by the end of Q4 2019. This figure represents 50.5% of UK homes and is a quarterly increase of 4%, or almost 600,000.

Netflix is clearly the favourite amongst Brits, being subscribed to by 12.35 million households. The streamer’s continued growth has likely been fueled by a series of distribution agreements with major operators such as Sky. Netflix saw a year-over-year increase of 20%.

In second place is Amazon Prime Video, which grew by over 35% from Q4 2018 to 7.14 million homes.

Now TV, the OTT business of Comcast’s Sky, saw a year-over-year increase of 8% to 1.69 million households. The streamer however has seen two consecutive quarters of decline, with subscriber numbers peaking in Q2 2019 at 1.93 million, before dropping to 1.84 million in Q3.


Plus 21% of households subscribed to two or more SVOD services.

Sky TV (the satellite provider) is in just under 8.5m, or 30% of households, according to BARB. I’d like to see the overlap between SVOD users and Sky users and then the breakdown in household income – and that would be quite a useful piece of data to feed into the BBC licence fee debate.
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The billion-dollar cryptocurrency scams you’ve never heard about • OZY

Godfrey Olukya:


The suicide note cited “personal reasons.” But Ashraf Nusubuga, a radiology student at Kampala’s Makerere University — Uganda’s leading higher education institution — didn’t hang himself over a love affair gone wrong or because of academic pressure. The 22-year-old killed himself after losing money he had invested in a bogus cryptocurrency firm.

He had put all of his money — and some he had borrowed — into what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, lured by the promise of high returns, according to Luke Oweyesigire, deputy spokesperson for Kampala Metropolitan Police. But Nusubuga isn’t the only one to have fallen victim.

A series of large cryptocurrency scams is rocking Uganda, turning the East African nation into an unlikely hub for fraudulent firms claiming to offer digital currencies, while preying on weak governance and low financial literacy. Other major cryptocurrency scams in 2019 involved developed economies — Japan’s BITPoint exchange lost $28 million, and con men in the U.K. and the Netherlands stole $27 million from Bitcoin users. Globally, cybercriminals stole $4.3 billion from users and exchanges last year. But Uganda is the worst hit — by far.  

At least five cryptocurrency firms have closed shop and walked away with a total of more than $26 million of their clients’ money in the past six months. From students and churchgoers to army officers and government officials, the victims span Ugandan society. Robert Bakalikwira, a criminal investigations officer probing these cases, estimates that in all, 200,000 Ugandans have lost about $1 billion, or almost 4% of the country’s GDP of $28 billion, over the past two years.

These scams are different from those in the West, where hackers have stolen from exchanges or robbed from people. In Uganda, fake firms claiming to offer cryptocurrencies are luring people to buy in, before walking away with their money.


In fairness, there have been quite a few Western dupes who have been scammed in exactly the same way. (*Looks meaningfully at the scores of Initial Coin Offerings in the past three years*)
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GoodRx shares data with Google, Facebook and others • Consumer Reports

Thomas Germain:


A few weeks ago, a woman named Marie received a prescription for a new medication, but the drug wasn’t covered by her insurance. “It was way too expensive for me to get on my own,” says Marie, a Philadelphia resident. (Like other consumers we spoke to, she asked us to withhold her last name to preserve her privacy.) “So I reached back out to my doctor. She directed me to GoodRx, and said I’d be able to afford the medicine with one of their coupons.” 

Marie’s doctor was right. “The discount was about $500,” she says. “I was excited to go fill the prescription and not have to worry about it anymore.”

Millions of people like Marie have downloaded the GoodRx app. The price comparisons and coupons it provides can save money on prescription drugs that otherwise would be out of reach for many patients. That’s why Consumer Reports and other organizations have recommended GoodRx in the past.

However, there is a tradeoff involved. While people like Marie are saving money with GoodRx, the company’s digital products are sending personal details about them to more than 20 other internet-based companies. Google, Facebook, and a marketing company called Braze all receive the names of medications people are researching, along with other details that could let them pinpoint whose phone or laptop is being used.

That worries patients like Marie, along with doctors and healthcare advocates we interviewed.

“It’s becoming a situation where privacy is for the privileged,” says Dena Mendelsohn, a senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports.


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Facebook’s latest ‘transparency’ tool doesn’t offer much — so we went digging • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:


I set out to contact each of the six companies [listed as sending her data to Facebook] directly with questions — asking what data of mine they had transferred to Facebook and what legal basis they thought they had for processing my information.

(On a practical level six names looked like a sample size I could at least try to follow up manually — but remember I was the TechCrunch exception; imagine trying to request data from 1,117 companies, or 450 or even 57, which were the lengths of lists of some of my colleagues.)

This process took about a month and a lot of back and forth/chasing up. It likely only yielded as much info as it did because I was asking as a journalist; an average Internet user may have had a tougher time getting attention on their questions — though, under EU law, citizens have a right to request a copy of personal data held on them.

Eventually, I was able to obtain confirmation that tracking pixels and Facebook share buttons had been involved in my data being passed to Facebook in certain instances. Even so I remain in the dark on many things. Such as exactly what personal data Facebook received.

In one case I was told by a listed company that it doesn’t know itself what data was shared — only Facebook knows because it’s implemented the company’s “proprietary code”. (Insert your own ‘WTAF’ there.)

The legal side of these transfers also remains highly opaque. From my point of view I would not intentionally consent to any of this tracking — but in some instances the entities involved claim that (my) consent was (somehow) obtained (or implied).


Is there a court case brewing on this? If there is, it would have to happen in the EU. What the UK’s status would be, who knows?
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Instagram CEO says iPad app hasn’t been made yet because ‘we only have so many people, and lots to do’ • MacRumors

Mitchel Broussard:


Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri took to the platform over the weekend to answer a few user questions on his story, shared by The Verge’s Chris Welch. Among the many things asked, the topic of an official iPad app for Instagram was brought up, and Mosseri explained why we haven’t seen one yet.

According to Mosseri, the company “would like to build an iPad app” for Instagram, “But we only have so many people, and lots to do, and it hasn’t bubbled up as the next best thing to do yet.”

Instagram is technically viewable on iPad in a number of ways, but the company has never released a first-party iPad app that’s been optimized for the tablet.

Instagram users have been asking for an official iPad app nearly since the social network launched in 2010, the same year that the first iPad was released.


It may have been true back until Facebook bought Instagram, and for a while afterward, that there weren’t the resources (eg they were building in the advertising system). Now, there’s zero advantage for Facebook in letting people escape from the phone, where the ads are impossible to ignore. An Instagram iPad app would be lovely, but people would spend too much time looking at user photos, not the advertising. And advertisers would have to create new versions of their ads optimised for the new iPad size(s). Potentially more money there for Instagram, but probably not outweighing the cost of development.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1252: the auto insurance algorithm that soaked big spenders, coronavirus could threaten Olympics, Amazon’s spooky grocery, and more

It’s a fake – but how easily could you tell if it was being sold on Amazon? CC-licensed photo by Indi Samarajiva 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 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Suckers’ list: how Allstate’s secret auto insurance algorithm squeezes big spenders • The Markup

Maddy Varner and Aaron Sankin:


Seven years ago, Allstate Corporation told Maryland regulators it was time to update its auto insurance rates. The insurer said its new, sophisticated risk analysis showed it was charging nearly all of its 93,000 Maryland customers outdated premiums. Some of the old rates were off by miles. One 36-year-old man from Prince George’s County, Md., who Allstate said in public records should have been paying $3,750 every six months, was instead being charged twice that, more than $7,500. Other customers were paying hundreds or thousands of dollars less than they should have been, based on Allstate’s new calculation of the risk that they would file a claim.

Rather than apply the new rates all at once, Allstate asked the Maryland Insurance Administration for permission to run each policy through an advanced algorithm containing dozens of variables that would adjust it in the general direction of the new risk model. Allstate said the goal of this new customer “retention model,” which it was rolling out across the country, was to limit policy cancellations from sticker shock. After questions from regulators, the insurer submitted thousands of pages of documentation on the price changes—including data showing how they would affect each individual customer, a rare public window into details of its auto insurance pricing that have otherwise been kept behind a wall of privacy, labeled a trade secret.

When The Markup and Consumer Reports conducted a statistical analysis of the Maryland documents, we found that, despite the purported complexity of Allstate’s price-adjustment algorithm, it was actually simple: it resulted in a suckers list of Maryland customers who were big spenders and would squeeze more money out of them than others.


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Big tech is testing you • The New Yorker

Professor Hannah Fry:


As “The Power of Experiments” makes clear, there are times when this happens in irritating but relatively harmless ways—a company making a small tweak to a Web site that elevates profits over customer experience, for instance. Consider an experiment that StubHub, the ticket-resale company, ran to determine where best to notify users about its ticketing costs. Should it be up front about them from the moment you land on the page? Or surprise you at checkout? StubHub discovered, after experimenting, that hiding the fees until the last minute led to thirteen% more sales, plus tickets that were 5.73% more expensive on average. As Luca and Bazerman explain, “People were buying better, higher-priced tickets when the fees were hidden.” The technique did make people less likely to return to the Web site in the following months, but that falloff was not enough to counter the increase in ticket sales and prices.

There are also times when manipulation leaves people feeling cheated. For instance, in 2018 the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon had been inserting sponsored products in its consumers’ baby registries. “The ads look identical to the rest of the listed products in the registry, except for a small gray ‘Sponsored’ tag,” the Journal revealed. “Unsuspecting friends and family clicked on the ads and purchased the items,” assuming they’d been chosen by the expectant parents. Amazon’s explanation when confronted? “We’re constantly experimenting,” a spokesperson said. (The company has since ended the practice.)…

…There’s untold good that can be done by experimentation in the digital age. It can help us to understand the impact of screen time or the Like button on our well-being; to find and fix discriminatory practices; to identify ways of promoting healthier life styles. But where these experiments are being done away from public scrutiny, the ethos of science is compromised.


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Facebook would have to pay $3.50 per month to US users for sharing contact info: study • Reuters

Nandita Bose:


German Facebook users would want the social media platform to pay them about $8 per month for sharing their contact information, while US users would only seek $3.50, according to a study of how people in various countries value their private information.

The study by US-based think tank the Technology Policy Institute (TPI) is the first that attempts to quantify the value of online privacy and data. It assessed how much privacy is worth in six countries by looking at the habits of people in the United States, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia and Argentina.

It addresses growing concern about how companies from technology platforms to retailers have been collecting and monetizing personal data. US regulators have imposed hefty fines on Facebook Inc and Alphabet-owned Google’s YouTube unit for privacy violations.

“Differences in how much people value privacy of different data types across countries suggests that people in some places may prefer weaker rules while people in other places might prefer stronger rules,” Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow at TPI told Reuters.


Or it suggests that they’re conditioned one way or another, perhaps by surrounding commercial and political interests?
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Inside ‘Amazon Go Grocery’: tech giant opens first full-sized store without cashiers or checkout lines • GeekWire

Kurt Schlosser:


Amazon Go is going full grocery.

Two years after launching a chain of convenience stores without cashiers or checkout lines, Amazon is opening its first “Amazon Go Grocery” store in Seattle on Tuesday morning, enlarging the footprint for surveillance-style shopping and signaling a larger challenge to the broader world of brick-and-mortar retail.

The debut is also the answer to a longstanding mystery about the 7,700-square-foot space, at 610 E. Pike Street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Amazon’s plans for the property have long been under wraps. Last fall the company confirmed that its Amazon Go team was “running internal tests” at the location, but declined to say more until now.

GeekWire got a sneak peek at the store during a recent media preview, entering by scanning a smartphone app and strolling the aisles of the completely stocked store. The banks of cameras and sensors overhead track everything put into a shopping cart, with the help of artificial intelligence — rendering unnecessary the old-fashioned ritual of scanning and paying at a checkout stand. Items are charged to a shopper’s Amazon account shortly after they walk through the exit.


This feels like something out of a William Gibson book. The implicit surveillance is very spooky.
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China bans human consumption and trade of wild animals • CTV News


China on Monday declared an immediate and “comprehensive” ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, a practice believed responsible for the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

The country’s top legislative committee approved a proposal “prohibiting the illegal wildlife trade, abolishing the bad habit of overconsumption of wildlife, and effectively protecting the lives and health of the people,” state television reported.

Previous temporary bans have been put in place, including after the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus killed hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong in 2002-03 and was also traced to wild animal consumption.

That prohibition was short-lived, however, and conservationists have long accused China of tolerating a cruel trade in wild animals as exotic menu items or for use in traditional medicines whose efficacy is not confirmed by science.

The decision was made by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), which oversees the country’s rubber-stamp legislature.


If Covid-19 has one good effect, it might be to stop China killing animals unnecessarily.
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Tokyo Olympics could be cancelled due to Coronavirus, IOC official says • CNBC



A senior member of the International Olympic Committee said Tuesday that if it proves too dangerous to hold the Olympics in Tokyo this summer because of the coronavirus outbreak, organizers are more likely to cancel it altogether than to postpone or move it.

Dick Pound, a former Canadian swimming champion who has been on the IOC since 1978, making him its longest-serving member, estimated there is a three-month window — perhaps a two-month one — to decide the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, meaning a decision could be put off until late May.

“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’” he said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

As the games draw near, he said, “a lot of things have to start happening. You’ve got to start ramping up your security, your food, the Olympic Village, the hotels. The media folks will be in there building their studios.”

If the IOC decides the games cannot go forward as scheduled in Tokyo, “you’re probably looking at a cancellation,” he said.


A few numbers: the current flu epidemic has a mortality rate of 0.14% (or less; that’s the worst on the CDC estimates). The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 had an estimated mortality rate of 10%-20%. Covid-19 has a mortality rate of about 2%.

Japan has had one of the worst outbreaks, and it’s not clear how long the virus can survive or how many asymptomatic carriers there might be. This would be the first Olympics cancelled due to a pandemic.
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Here’s how China is hunting down coronavirus critics • VICE

David Gilbert:


Joshua Left, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who runs a self-driving car startup in Wuhan, China, arrived in San Francisco in mid-January for a vacation, just as the first reports of a new “SARS-like” virus outbreak in China reached the U.S.

He almost immediately began worrying about his family back in his hometown of Wuhan, where the disease appeared to originate, and where panic was starting to set in. Concerned that his family might not be getting information on the scale of the burgeoning epidemic, he posted messages on his WeChat account sharing information he was afraid were not available inside China.

“But then things started to get weird,” he told VICE News.

Left, who asked not to be identified by his full Chinese name, said he first received a warning message from WeChat administrators. Then he began receiving strangely specific messages that appeared to come from four of his friends on WeChat, all asking him for his location, what hotel he was staying at in San Francisco, what his room number was, and what his U.S. phone number was.

Then his cell phone received a warning message that someone in Shanghai was trying to log into his account.

Finally, when he wouldn’t tell them where he was staying, the same accounts all simultaneously began urging him to return to China as soon as possible.


China’s government isn’t going to let a little thing like a near-pandemic (or maybe it’s there now..) get in its way.
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Firefox turns controversial new encryption on by default in the US • The Verge

Jon Porter:


Starting today, Mozilla will turn on by default DNS over HTTPS (DoH) for Firefox users in the US, the company has announced. DoH is a new standard that encrypts a part of your internet traffic that’s typically sent over an unencrypted plain text connection, and which could allow others to see what websites you’re visiting, even when your communication with the website itself is encrypted using HTTPS. Mozilla says it is the first browser to support the new standard by default, and will be rolling it out gradually over the coming weeks in order to address any unforeseen issues.

Whenever you type a website into your address bar, your browser needs to go through a process to convert it into an IP address using a DNS lookup. However, this traffic is normally not encrypted, meaning that it’s possible for others to see what websites you’re visiting. DoH is an attempt to encrypt this information to protect your privacy. Here’s a more in-depth explanation from Mozilla that explains it in detail.

Mozilla is motivated in part by ISPs who monitor customers’ web usage. US carriers like Verizon and AT&T are building massive ad-tracking networks. DoH won’t stop the data collection but it’ll likely make it more difficult.


Not coming by default to the UK, though it doesn’t explain why not. (Though UK users can turn it on manually.)
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Why do corporations speak the way they do? • Vulture

Molly Young:


[“Uncanny Valley” author Anna] Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.”

I know that man, except he didn’t ride a scooter and was actually a woman named Megan at yet another of my former jobs. What did Megan do? Mostly she set meetings, or “syncs,” as she called them. They were the worst kind of meeting — the kind where attendees circle the concept of work without wading into the substance of it. Megan’s syncs were filled with discussions of cadences and connectivity and upleveling as well as the necessity to refine and iterate moving forward. The primary unit of meaning was the abstract metaphor. I don’t think anyone knew what anyone was saying, but I also think we were all convinced that we were the only ones who didn’t know while everyone else was on the same page. (A common reference, this elusive page.)

In Megan’s syncs, I found myself becoming almost psychedelically disembodied, floating above the conference room and gazing at the dozen or so people within as we slumped, bit and chewed extremities, furtively manipulated phones, cracked knuckles, examined split ends, scratched elbows, jiggled feet, palpated stomach rolls, disemboweled pens, and gnawed on shirt collars. The sheer volume of apathy formed an energy of its own, like a mudslide. At the half-hour mark of each hour-long meeting, our bodies began to list perceptibly toward the door. It was like the whole room had to pee.


Wiener calls it “garbage language”. But as Young points out, the words that are used are always borrowed from whichever sector is in the ascendant at the time. (Presently: new-age crystals.)
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Can you tell which of these Amazon Prime purchases are counterfeit? • Wirecutter

Ganda Suthivarakom:


Although Amazon has taken many measures to prevent counterfeits and unsafe products from showing up on its site, plenty of fakes still slip through. Over the past several months, we’ve purchased counterfeits and knockoffs making fraudulent safety claims and encountered a few instances in which a seller switched in an authentic product but from a discontinued or lesser-quality line—all delivered through Amazon Prime. We also obtained authentic items, either directly from the manufacturer or with confirmation from the brand. While the fakes and knockoffs may look like the real products at first glance, they’re often lower in quality, sometimes hiding potential health or safety issues.

Many people think that counterfeits and knockoffs are so obviously inferior—visually and otherwise—that it’s easy to spot the difference between a fake and the real thing. But increasingly, that’s not the case with counterfeits purchased online. Test yourself: Can you spot the real thing in the photos below?

…Although knockoffs are also present on separate Amazon listings, counterfeit ‘Ove’ Gloves often pop up on the product page for the real ‘Ove’ Glove, according to Michael Hirsch, vice president of Joseph Enterprises. To combat them, the company buys the fakes and then informs Amazon of the copyright infringement. Getting the fake gloves removed from Amazon can be a long process, Hirsch said, taking weeks or even months of playing whack-a-mole with counterfeit sellers: “Once they’re off, they come back under a different brand and name.”

It’s easy to see why the fakes persist. We found counterfeit ‘Ove’ Gloves for sale for about $2 a piece in bulk on Alibaba, the photograph clearly showing a knockoff version with black stitching instead of white around the wrist.


This is now an endless story: fakes selling for less because Amazon doesn’t have responsibility. That could be dangerous. There’s an obvious solution: make Amazon responsible for the authenticity of the products. One of the fakes is a child car seat: that’s inherently dangerous (and the seat doesn’t comply with federal regulations). It’s amazing, given the American attitude to tort law, that Amazon hasn’t been sued into the ground yet. Or do the court cases get settled quietly?
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These unknown Chinese audio brands might just be the best • WSJ

Matthew Kronsberg:


audiophiles have been known to spend more than $1,000 for earphones from Campfire Audio, more than $10,000 for amps from Shindo Labs or upward of $20,000 for speakers by Bowers & Wilkins.

Unsurprisingly, much of the hi-fi gear designed and sold by such U.S., Japanese and European brands—the sort that now dominates the market—is built in China. But in the past few years, a wave of inscrutably named Chinese companies have begun to design and market their own audiophile-grade equipment that can often outperform their better known, better marketed rivals, usually doing so at a fraction of the price.

If there’s a poster child for “Chi-Fi”—a moniker for this constellation of equipment that’s largely made up of earphones, headphone amps and high resolution digital-to-analog audio converters known as DACs—it’s the ATE model in-ear monitors, or IEMs, from a nearly anonymous brand known as KZ ( IEMs are essentially earphones that extend slightly into the canal, like a hearing aid. John Darko, who runs, an audiophile website out of Berlin, declared that the KZ ATEs offered an “immensely spacious and dynamically charged listening experience,” not the kind of praise you typically hear about gear that sells for around $15.

What’s the catch? That path to the audiophile Promised Land is still a confusing, poorly signposted one. The Chinese audio gear market is overflowing with confusingly named startups like BQEYZ, GGMM, UiiSi or FAAEAL, none of which likely resonate with the average U.S. consumer the way established brands like Sony, Beats and Yamaha do. And since very little of this alphabet-soup of gear makes it to traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers where you can listen before you buy, experts like Mr. Darko, and tightly curated e-commerce sites like, are essential tools for aspiring audiophiles. This is especially true when the product in question is a $250 DAC rather than a $15 IEM.


I linked to an article about “Chi-fi” back in November, but this at least gives you a site to check where you can see what they say. (“Sort by price” would be a great thing, Mr Darko.) The counterpoint to all the junky counterfeits on Amazon.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1251: Apple ARM computer in 2021?, how coronavirus escaped China, an AR implosion, swim mousey swim!, and more

A man died in a rocket trying to disprove the Earth’s curvature. He could have seen it from sea level. CC-licensed photo by Martin Cathrae on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Mac with Apple-designed Arm processor coming in first half of 2021 • MacRumors

Juli Clover:


[Ming Chi] Kuo’s note indicates a new Mac with an Apple-designed chip won’t be released this year.

Apple is said to be moving to Arm-based chips in an effort to make Macs, iPhones, and iPads work together and run the same apps. Apple’s iPhones and iPads already use Arm-based chip technology, and there are custom Apple-created T2 chips in the iMac Pro and recent MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac mini, and Mac Pro models.

Kuo’s detail about an upcoming Mac with an Apple-designed chip is a tidbit mentioned briefly in a note that suggests 5-nanometer chip architecture will be the “core technology” in Apple’s new products in the next 12 to 18 months:


We expect that Apple’s new products in 12-18 months will adopt processors made by 5nm process, including the new 2H20 5G iPhone, new 2H20 iPad equipped with mini LED, and new 1H21 Mac equipped with the own-design processor. We think that iPhone 5G support, iPad ‘s adoption of innovative mid-size panel technology, and Mac’s first adoption of the own-design processor are all Apple’s critical product and technology strategies. Given that the processor is the core component of new products, we believe that Apple had increased 5nm-related investments after the epidemic outbreak. Further, Apple occupying more resources of related suppliers will hinder competitors’ developments.


The new Mac with Apple-designed chip, the 2020 5G iPhone , and a high-end iPad with a mini LED display rumored for the second half of 2020 are said to use 5-nanometer chips. Chips built on a 5-nanometer node will be faster and more efficient than the A13 chips used in the most recent iPhones that are built on a 7-nanometer+ process.


1) Do we guess it’s just going to be laptops?
2) Scissor-switch keyboard, right?
3) Wonder how the app emulation will work.
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Not selling the computer I want • Birchtree

Matt Birchler:


I love my iPad Pro, and it’s what I use to get basically everything done in my personal life. That said, I like having a traditional desktop around because, well, I’m a nerd and there are some advanced things that I just can’t do on an iPad yet.

Up until this week, a 2012 Mac Mini was filling that role, and for a $600 computer it’s held up quite nicely in the following 8 years. But for the past year I’ve been thinking about replacing it because it’s just not cutting it for some tasks anymore. Yes, it can handle the large Photoshop files I throw at it, and it technically can edit and export 4k video, but it’s not particularly good at it either. It was time to upgrade, but I wasn’t sure to what, exactly.

To get an idea of my thinking, here are Apple’s line of Macs:

MacBook Air; MacBook Pro; Mac Mini; iMac; iMac Pro; Mac Pro.

The two MacBooks are immediately eliminated because I don’t want a laptop…I have an iPad. The iMac Pro and Mac Pro are also eliminated for cost reasons, so that left the iMac and Mac Mini.

The Mini was the direct upgrade, but frankly I wasn’t that excited about what I could get in my $1,000-ish price range. An 8th gen Intel chip with 8GB RAM and integrated graphics are pretty anaemic, and while I know I can upgrade to get some more power, that’s a lot of money, and I’m still buying two-generation-old Intel chips.

The iMac was another option, but the pricing just didn’t work for me. I could spend north of $2,000 and get something pretty beefy, but that wasn’t the budget (and even if I did put up the cash, the GPU options are rough). My budget allowed for the 21 inch 7th gen Intel chips, which was just not something I had any interest in.

This all brought me to an interesting realization: Apple doesn’t make a Mac for me anymore.


This post ought to worry whoever is in charge of the Mac mini at Apple: that’s clearly where this sale was lost. (But probably wouldn’t come back with ARM chips. His iPad has that.)
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Snap acquires Daqri’s assets: inside a $300m startup flop • Protocol

Janko Roettgers:


Everything went wrong for Daqri. The startup rode a wave of augmented reality hype and about $300m in funding to a series of half-baked products before failing spectacularly and shutting down last year.

One of Daqri’s last remnants was recently acquired by Snap: The company confirmed to Protocol that late last year it took on certain Daqri assets and about two-dozen employees, who now work in the company’s newly opened Vienna office under the leadership of former Daqri CTO Daniel Wagner. Snap didn’t disclose the purchase price, but the timing lines up with a $34 million acquisition disclosed in its annual report to shareholders.

In interviews, more than 10 former employees detailed Daqri’s demise. In its decade of existence, the company built a retro-futuristic augmented reality helmet with a hefty $15,000 price tag, used fancy videos to sell the world on visual computing, and acquired a series of other startups in offices around the globe, only to see it all slip away when its glossy AR dreams collided with reality. It’s a story that anyone working in the AR and VR space should take to heart, if only to avoid a similar downfall.


I wonder if the folks at Magic Leap will pay attention. Daqri was a ten-year slow-motion crash. (Protocol, by the way, is a new online magazine. Roettgers is an impressive recruit.)
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EU Commission to staff: switch to Signal messaging app • POLITICO

Laurens Cerulus:


Commission officials are already required to use encrypted emails to exchange sensitive, non-classified information, an official said. Classified documents fall under tighter security rules.

The use of Signal was mainly recommended for communications between staff and people outside the institution. The move to use the application shows that the Commission is working on improving its security policies.

Promoting the app, however, could antagonize the law enforcement community.

Officials in Brussels, Washington and other capitals have been putting strong pressure on Facebook and Apple to allow government agencies to access to encrypted messages; if these agencies refuse, legal requirements could be introduced that force firms to do just that.

American, British and Australian officials have published an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in October, asking that he call off plans to encrypt the company’s messaging service. Dutch Minister for Justice and Security Ferd Grappehaus told POLITICO last April that the EU needs to look into legislation allowing governments to access encrypted data.


Same encryption protocol as WhatsApp, but open source (and not owned by Facebook). The Conservative party has also switched to Signal, allegedly because you can get more than 255 people into a single group.
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Korea’s coronavirus spread puts an export hub at risk • WSJ

Mike Bird:


The rapid spread of coronavirus in South Korea is bleak news for global manufacturers. China-style industrial shutdowns look increasingly likely in a country that punches above its weight—perhaps more than any other—in global supply chains.

On Sunday South Korean president Moon Jae-in raised the country’s virus alert to red after a surge in cases in the city of Daegu. A Samsung Electronics facility near the city has already closed after an employee was diagnosed with the disease. The Kospi stock index dropped nearly 4% Monday and the Korean won was down more than 1% against the U.S. dollar.

South Korea is a medium-size country, but a mammoth in trade. The country’s exports are equivalent to 44% of its GDP, second only to Germany among major advanced economies.

But even that understates its importance. Few of the country’s exported goods are finished products. Its overwhelming specialty is intermediate goods required by other manufacturers. Such goods make up around 55% of Germany’s exports, 62% of China’s—but 90% of South Korea’s. The country has a commanding position in electronics, dominating some categories of semiconductors and displays…

… So any industrial shutdowns designed to slow the spread of coronavirus will be felt immediately elsewhere. Companies that have spent the past three weeks scrambling to find alternatives to Chinese-made goods may now find themselves facing the same conundrum for South Korean parts.


The domino effect is starting to kick in. South Korea has the largest number of cases outside China – and high population density.
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How one Singapore sales conference spread coronavirus around the world • WSJ

Niharika Mandhana and Feliz Solomon in Singapore and Eun-Young Jeong in Seoul:


Last month, 109 people gathered in a Singapore hotel for an international sales conference held by a U.K.-based company that makes products to analyze gas.

When the attendees flew home, some unwittingly took the coronavirus with them.

The virus had a 10-day head start on health authorities who, after belatedly learning a 41-year-old Malaysian participant was infected, began a desperate effort to track the infection through countries including South Korea, England and France. Health investigators have found at least 20 people in six Asian and European countries who were sickened, some who attended the conference and others who came in contact with participants.

A globalized economy, one that’s far more integrated than in the early 2000s when the SARS virus broke out, is complicating the task of responding to epidemics.

After this one conference alone, 94 participants left Singapore, authorities determined. Some joined Lunar New Year dinners. Others went on vacation, one to an Alpine ski town. They had eaten, taken car rides and shared a roof with others who then boarded more planes to places the virus hadn’t yet reached.


Cancelling MWC now looks like a really wise move. Fascinating detective piece. Is this how Italy became infected?
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Man wanting to prove Earth is flat dies in homemade rocket crash • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska, in absolutely brutal form:


Mad Mike wanted to build a steam-powered rocket to loft him high enough into the air to prove the Earth was flat, discounting the fact that, well, it isn’t, based on the combined scientific observations of everyone from Eratosthenes (276 BC – 195/194 BC) to the eyes-on observation of astronauts today. That’s not a problem for Flat-Earthers, because they generally either don’t believe in outer space or don’t believe we’ve traveled to it. The reason they don’t believe this is because the data coming back from NASA, the ESA, Russia, and any other nation capable of putting a satellite in orbit doesn’t support their theory that the Earth is flat.

When you explain that this is the literal definition of confirmation bias, you’ll get a lot of ranting about conspiracies and the importance of doing the science for yourself. While the idea of confirming the opinion of learned people over the past 2,000 years is appealing on some levels, the concept presupposes that the person doing the proving has a basic grasp of geometry, logic, and the scientific method. The fact that there are a handful of Flat-Earthers with a significant level of achieved education says more about how humans can be quite intelligent and still fall prey to remarkably stupid theories than it does about the accuracy of the flat Earth model.

Some people may feel I’m being a bit harsh. They are correct. I won’t even pretend otherwise. When you climb aboard a homemade rocket because you intend to prove long-established and objectively proven facts aren’t true, you are, at best, a moron. When you do it repeatedly and in complete rejection of observation and research conducted by thousands of people over millennia you are an arrogant moron who believes his own failure to understand the reasons why he’s wrong means those reasons are false. People have a right to be morons. They don’t have a right to be remembered as heroic or respected figures who defied the scientific status quo.

“‘I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes back in 2017. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.'”

In science fiction, Asgard beaming technology, Star Trek transporters, the Force, an Iron Man suit, a passing Voltron Lion, Moya, or the inexplicable appearance of Gully Foyle may save the day. In science, not having a parachute attached to a rocket means ballistic reentry, which means death..


The failure was not so much going up in a rocket as not having a failsafe method of return. But given that the reason for going up was unutterably stupid (aided by the Science Channel wanting to film him), Darwin and Newton took their revenge.
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Depression researchers rethink popular mouse swim tests • Nature

Sara Reardon:


Nearly every scientist who has used mice or rats to study depression is familiar with the forced-swim test. The animal is dropped into a tank of water while researchers watch to see how long it tries to stay afloat. In theory, a depressed rodent will give up more quickly than a happy one — an assumption that has guided decades of research on antidepressants and genetic modifications intended to induce depression in lab mice.

But mental-health researchers have become increasingly sceptical in recent years about whether the forced-swim test is a good model for depression in people. It is not clear whether mice stop swimming because they are despondent or because they have learnt that a lab technician will scoop them out of the tank when they stop moving. Factors such as water temperature also seem to affect the results.

“We don’t know what depression looks like in a mouse,” says Eric Nestler, a neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.


I came across this article (from July 2019) quite by chance, and was astonished. Apparently it’s a technique that was developed in the 1950s, and is still used, though not in the UK. (I tweeted about it, which then went viral. Some scientists did respond. They’re equivocal about it.) Replacements include functional MRI and examination of dead donors’ brain tissue, and also still doing it with mice but looking at their preferences around sugar.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1250: a drug dealer’s lost bitcoin fortune, AI finds new antibiotic, on being cancelled, Germany’s wonky renewable incentives, and more

Hold on to your hats: we’ve figured out how coronavirus will (indirectly) affect the weather. Honest. CC-licensed photo by Dimitrio Lewis 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Drug dealer loses codes for €53.6m bitcoin accounts • Irish Times

Conor Lally:


Clifton Collins (49), originally from Crumlin, Dublin, bought most of the bitcoin in late 2011 and early 2012 using cash he made growing crops of cannabis. The crypto currency has soared in value since then. Collins spent some of his money buying a two-seater gyro plane and learning how to fly it.

In early 2017 he had just over 6,000 bitcoin in one account but he feared it may be too easy for a hacker to access. He decided to spread his wealth across 12 new accounts and transferred exactly 500 bitcoin, worth almost €4.5 million, into each of them.

Collins then printed out the codes for the 12 accounts onto an A4 piece of paper. He hid the paper inside the aluminium cap of his case containing his rod which he kept at his rented home in Farnaught, Cornamona, Co Galway.

But when he was arrested with cannabis herb in 2017 in Co Wicklow and jailed for five years, there was a break-in at the house and it was also cleared on behalf of the landlord with many of Collins’s items being taken to a dump in Co Galway.

Workers at the dump told gardaí they remembered seeing discarded fishing gear. However, waste from the dump is sent to Germany and China to be incinerated and the fishing rod case has never been found.

Collins told gardaí he has had time to come to terms with the loss of the money and regarded it as punishment for his own stupidity.


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Defeated chess champ Garry Kasparov has made peace with AI • WIRED

Will Knight:


Kasparov: I always say I was the first knowledge worker whose job was threatened by a machine. But that helps me to communicate a message back to the public. Because, you know, nobody can suspect me of being pro-computers.

Will Knight: What message do you want to give people about the impact of AI?

Kasparov: I think it’s important that people recognize the element of inevitability. When I hear outcry that AI is rushing in and destroying our lives, that it’s so fast, I say no, no, it’s too slow.

Every technology destroys jobs before creating jobs. When you look at the statistics, only 4% of jobs in the US require human creativity. That means 96% of jobs, I call them zombie jobs. They’re dead, they just don’t know it.

For several decades we have been training people to act like computers, and now we are complaining that these jobs are in danger. Of course they are. We have to look for opportunities to create jobs that will emphasize our strengths. Technology is the main reason why so many of us are still alive to complain about technology. It’s a coin with two sides. I think it’s important that, instead of complaining, we look at how we can move forward faster.

When these jobs start disappearing, we need new industries, we need to build foundations that will help. Maybe it’s universal basic income, but we need to create a financial cushion for those who are left behind. Right now it’s a very defensive reaction, whether it comes from the general public or from big CEOs who are looking at AI and saying it can improve the bottom line but it’s a black box. I think it’s we still struggling to understand how AI will fit in.


Hmm. Does hairdressing require creativity? Yet there are plenty of jobs in it. I’m not so sure there are that many zombie jobs in reality.
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Artificial intelligence yields new antibiotic •

Anne Trafton:


Using a machine-learning algorithm, MIT researchers have identified a powerful new antibiotic compound. In laboratory tests, the drug killed many of the world’s most problematic disease-causing bacteria, including some strains that are resistant to all known antibiotics. It also cleared infections in two different mouse models.

The computer model, which can screen more than a hundred million chemical compounds in a matter of days, is designed to pick out potential antibiotics that kill bacteria using different mechanisms than those of existing drugs.

“We wanted to develop a platform that would allow us to harness the power of artificial intelligence to usher in a new age of antibiotic drug discovery,” says James Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering. “Our approach revealed this amazing molecule which is arguably one of the more powerful antibiotics that has been discovered.”

In their new study, the researchers also identified several other promising antibiotic candidates, which they plan to test further. They believe the model could also be used to design new drugs, based on what it has learned about chemical structures that enable drugs to kill bacteria.

“The machine learning model can explore, in silico, large chemical spaces that can be prohibitively expensive for traditional experimental approaches,” says Regina Barzilay, the Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).


A reminder that pharmaceutical companies haven’t invested in antibiotics for years, not particularly because they couldn’t, but because they’re not sufficiently profitable.
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What happens after you’re cancelled • emptywheel

Quinn Norton, who was hired and then rapidly fired by the New York Times to be its lead opinion writer on technology back in February 2018:


I’ve spent a lot of my career weaving in elements of satirical bait-and-switch into my commentary and articles, and plenty of the bait without the switch was on display that day. I realized I couldn’t counter it, not all of it, and really not even a bit of it. No one was listening.

Online crowd stomping someone is like a sealioning of mythic proportions, where the crowd tempts you to think if you could just explain it would be OK, but it’s not true, it’s a lie that fucks with your head, a crowd screaming why are you hitting yourself while also telling you to kill yourself.

It’s not that the crowd used my weaknesses against me, it’s that they used my strengths. My pacifism, my work with weird and marginalized communities, my love of flawed people, my humor, my long thoughts and hopes about complicated moral topics, these were all used to reduce me to nazi sympathizer, a homophobe, a white supremacist.

So many of the things people brought up and threw at me weren’t my mistakes at all, but things I’m proud of, like trying to argue an anon out of making rape jokes at a feminist on Twitter.

And then my colleagues in American journalism did me dirty. They ran with the crowd, releasing fast articles without any more context than Twitter and Facebook, without talking to me or trying to understand what was happening. Not all, but most. Enough that I knew I wouldn’t get work again, that anyone who googled me would not speak to me again.


“Cancel culture” really is vicious. Norton wrote about the experience soon after her firing, but this one has a much different tenor.
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Why won’t Germans heat their homes even with free electricity? • Kaikenhuipun blogi

Riku Merikoski on how Germany’s renewables incentives are all out of kilter:


It is a well-known fact that we need to electrify our use of energy, or in other words, replace burning of fuels with clean electricity, if we are to decarbonize our energy systems. And here lies the final problem. Germany taxes natural gas very lightly. Natural gas costs a household in Berlin about 62 €/MWh (6.2 c/kWh), as Household Energy Price Index tells us. This deserves another deep contemplation:

Even if a German household had a heat-pump installed with a COP of 3 (meaning one kWh of electricity is used to create 3 kWh of heat), and even if the market cost of electricity was free, the German household would be economically better off burning natural gas for heating.

And this dynamic can clearly be seen from image 2 below on how German houses are heated. Half of households are heated with natural gas and a quarter with fuel oil (Heizöl). Around 14 % are heated with district heating (Fernwärme), while electricity and heat pumps have a share of less than 5 %. And this is not due to old houses being heated with oil and gas. In 2019, the most popular heating method in new houses was still natural gas, and its popularity is still growing.

Image 2. Heating sources of German houses. Source: BDEW.

It is now the year 2020, and Germany has not even started to decarbonize their building heating. What is worse, as we learned above, the German tax-policy not only does not support this decarbonization of heating, but actively discourages it. Even “free” electricity is much too expensive for Germans to use for space heating because how electricity is taxed. If Germany wants to decarbonize its heating sector, this needs to change.

A first step would be to fix electricity taxation so that “free” electricity would be much lower cost for households than it is today, as when this happens, there is usually an oversupply of wind or solar and the electricity grid is somewhat clean (although Germany’s coal-plants often keep operating as it is too expensive to ramp them down just for a couple hours). This would also create additional demand for those low-cost periods which would increase the prices a bit and fix the broken market a little bit.


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Analysis: coronavirus has temporarily reduced China’s CO2 emissions by a quarter • Carbon Brief

Lauri Myllyvirta:


Electricity demand and industrial output remain far below their usual levels across a range of indicators, many of which are at their lowest two-week average in several years. These include:

• Coal use at power stations reporting daily data at a four-year low
• Oil refinery operating rates in Shandong province at the lowest level since 2015
• Output of key steel product lines at the lowest level for five years
• Levels of NO2 air pollution over China down 36% on the same period last year
• Domestic flights are down up to 70% compared to last month.

All told, the measures to contain coronavirus have resulted in reductions of 15% to 40% in output across key industrial sectors. This is likely to have wiped out a quarter or more of the country’s CO2 emissions over the past two weeks, the period when activity would normally have resumed after the Chinese new-year holiday. (See methodology below.)

Over the same period in 2019, China released around 400m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2), meaning the virus could have cut global emissions by 100MtCO2 to date. The key question is whether the impacts are sustained, or if they will be offset – or even reversed – by the government response to the crisis.


Via Paul Kedrosky’s excellent (if occasional) newsletter, in which he also points to a paper which suggests that the reduction in airplane flights will probably mean less cloud cover and so greater temperature variation and thus more extreme weather on the US west coast. (And you didn’t think there was any way to connect the climate crisis and coronavirus.)
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Some of the world’s biggest economies are on the brink of recession • CNN

Julia Horowitz:


Take Japan: The world’s third-largest economy shrank 1.6% in the fourth quarter of 2019 as the country absorbed the effects of a sales tax hike and a powerful typhoon. It was biggest contraction compared to the previous quarter since 2014.

Then there’s Germany. The biggest economy in Europe ground to a halt right before the coronavirus outbreak set in, dragged down by the country’s struggling factories. The closely-watched ZEW Indicator of Economic Sentiment in Germany decreased sharply for February, reflecting fears that the virus could hit world trade.

Bank of America economist Ethan Harris points to the number of smaller economies that are hurting, too. Hong Kong is in recession and Singapore could soon suffer a similar fate. Fourth quarter GDP data from Indonesia hit a three-year low, while Malaysia had its worst reading in a decade, he noted to clients on Friday.

Meanwhile, engines of growth like China and India slowed in 2019. Fourth quarter GDP data for the latter comes out this week.

All of this brings to the fore concerns about the global economy’s ability to withstand a shock from the coronavirus. Harris says the weak quarter was likely a result of lingering damage from the trade war between China and the United States. The coronavirus is poised to make matters worse.

“Global equities have rebounded as the US and China have converged to a ceasefire, but companies with global supply chains remain deeply uncertain,” he said.

Even the United States may not be in as strong a position as previously thought. IHS Markit said Friday that US services sector contracted in February, with the reading hitting a 76-month low. It’s the first time the sector has contracted in four years.


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Google Maps Borders • SIMON WECKERT

Weckert is the artist who created a traffic jam by pulling 99 Android phones around in a handcart; this is another of his projects, which looks at how a number of countries’ borders vary, depending on which country you’re viewing them from:


Maps have always been used to push influences or represent interests. With maps it is possible to enforce truth claims of knowledge under specific conditions, which are closely interwoven with power. They are a substitute for political and military power that is under the control of territories of state borders. Through the advent of online services such as GoogleMap, a production method has been developed, which allows to update and react in real-time without high financial effort. As a result, geographic atlases flipping side by side have been replaced by maps that look like a seemingly invisible skin over the surface of the earth and can be accessed by smartphones from anywhere in the world.

In these services, it can be noted that the national boundaries are represented differently by some countries, depending on which “google” the respective country is observed.This shows how the company “Google” supports the view of the respective regional government in order not to lose the local market for online map services. This raises the question of the influence of the map producer on the one hand. And on the other hand, that maps can create reality and thus reflect authoritarian images without us being aware of it. Thus, maps are not only projections of spatial knowledge, but also images of the world and, above all, intentions that we follow with mapping.


He says that this now doesn’t work (he created it in 2019), possibly due to a change in Google’s API. (It might be the difference in borders is still there though.) There’s a fascinating interview with him over at Android Authority by Tristan Rayner.
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Google is letting people find invites to some private WhatsApp groups • VICE

Joseph Cox:


App reverse-engineer Jane Wong added in a tweet that Google has around 470,000 results for a simple search of “,” part of the URL that makes up invites to WhatsApp groups.

Motherboard used a number of specific Google searches to find invite links to WhatsApp groups. Some of the groups appear to not be overly sensitive or for a particular audience. Many of the links on Google lead to groups for sharing porn.

But others appear to be catered to specific groups. Motherboard entered one WhatsApp group chat that described itself as being for NGOs accredited by the United Nations. After joining, Motherboard was able to see a list of all 48 participants and their phone numbers.

Danny Sullivan, Google’s public search liaison, tweeted “Search engines like Google & others list pages from the open web. That’s what’s happening here. It’s no different than any case where a site allows URLs to be publicly listed. We do offer tools allowing sites to block content being listed in our results.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement, “Group admins in WhatsApp groups are able to invite any WhatsApp user to join that group by sharing a link that they have generated. Like all content that is shared in searchable, public channels, invite links that are posted publicly on the internet can be found by other WhatsApp users. Links that users wish to share privately with people they know and trust should not be posted on a publicly accessible website.”


So more a case of pilot error than Google in any way being malicious, but still a problem: there are fewer and fewer “private” channels in which to share things.
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Goodbye, operator • Econ Focus, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

David Price:


An operator [of a telephone exchange] did more than simply connect a customer to his or her desired number, however. In the early decades of the industry, telephone companies regarded their business less as a utility and more as a personal service. The telephone operator was central to this idea, acting as an early version of an intelligent assistant with voice recognition capabilities. She got to know her 50 to 100 assigned customers by name and knew their needs. If a party didn’t answer, she would try to find him or her around town. If that didn’t succeed, she took a message and called the party again later to pass the message along. She made wake-up calls and gave the time, weather, and sports scores. During crimes in progress or medical emergencies, a subscriber needed only to pick up the handset and the operator would summon the police or doctors.

While operators were not highly paid, the need to attract and retain capable women from the middle classes led telephone companies to be benevolent employers by the standards of the day — and in some respects, of any day. Around the turn of the century, the companies catered to their operators with libraries, athletic clubs, free lunches, and disability plans. Operators took their breaks in tastefully appointed, parlor-like break rooms, some with armchairs, couches, magazines, and newspapers. At some exchanges, the companies provided the operators with a community garden in which they could grow flowers or vegetables. In large cities, company-owned dormitories were offered to night-shift operators…

…As the Bell System made its slow transition to an automated network, women operators kept making connections — not only for phone company customers but for themselves. Laura Smith, an employee of AT&T, reported in the system’s magazine, the Bell Telephone Quarterly, in 1932 that operators had been moving up through the ranks, not only into higher-level positions as chief operators, but also into roles in other parts of the company, such as the “employment department,” the accounting and financial departments, and engineering.

Growing demand for telephone service led the number of operators to increase for a while, from around 178,000 in 1920 to about 342,000 in the middle of the century — then it declined to less than 250,000 in 1960. Surveying the landscape in 1964, Barnard economist Elizabeth Faulkner Baker felt optimistic that the profession might have finally stabilized. “It is possible that the decline in the relative importance of telephone operators may be nearing an end,” she wrote. She suggested that “in the foreseeable future no machines will be devised” that could handle the array of different types of calls handled by operators, from credit card calls to directory information calls to conference calls to telephone-booth long-distance calls.


Don’t bet against technology in the long term.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1249: will iOS 14 let you change defaults?, killing killer asteroids, Google bans ad-riddled apps, how Pinterest lost its mojo, and more

Confused about speed? A Tesla autopilot was bamboozled by something even simpler. CC-licensed photo by Joe Richards 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 11 links for you. Après nous, le weekend. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Hackers can trick a Tesla into accelerating by 50 miles per hour • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:


Hackers have manipulated multiple Tesla cars into speeding up by 50 miles per hour. The researchers fooled the car’s Mobileye EyeQ3 camera system by subtly altering a speed limit sign on the side of a road in a way that a person driving by would almost never notice.

This demonstration from the cybersecurity firm McAfee is the latest indication that adversarial machine learning can potentially wreck autonomous driving systems, presenting a security challenge to those hoping to commercialize the technology.

Mobileye EyeQ3 camera systems read speed limit signs and feed that information into autonomous driving features like Tesla’s automatic cruise control, said Steve Povolny and Shivangee Trivedi from McAfee’s Advanced Threat Research team.

The researchers stuck a tiny and nearly imperceptible sticker on a speed limit sign. The camera read the sign as 85 instead of 35, and in testing, both the 2016 Tesla Model X and that year’s Model S sped up 50 miles per hour.


Been done with Stop signs too, a year or two ago, also targeting self-driving cars (though not specifically Tesla). You’ll never be able to relax in one of them.
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Behind the McClatchy bankruptcy • A Life of Fiction

Peter Winter:


From the start, not one online newspaper performed well enough to make the top 20 in digital share — in its own market.

Many say one of the reasons for the catastrophic collapse of newspapers is that, in their desperation for audience, they handed over their content to digital distributors. But the bigger reason was their willingness to hand over the customer relationship as well. It guaranteed they would thereafter be blind to what kind of news products and digital services their former subscriber-customers were craving.

Google won search. Facebook won social. Newspapers won nothing. The failure to build new digital media products, born on the web, is the singular failing of newspapers. It has led to the same financial horror story everywhere you look. Zombie newspapers staggering around without a plan, the death-throes of an industry going down.

By 2005, revenue growth was slowing quickly across the industry. Circulation declines were happening across the subscriber base now, and the loss of younger readers had picked up speed. Digital results offered no compensating relief, in audience or in revenue. Still [Tony] Ridder didn’t see it. At a private meeting in Dallas to discuss the formation of a national digital news network owned by newspapers, someone noticed that no company present owned a newspaper in Boston. “That’s not a problem,” said Ridder, ever the monopolist. “We’ll just flip a coin for it.” That’s all it would take. Thanks to the flip of a coin, someone in the room would own the digital future of Boston.


And what a future it wasn’t.
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Apple might finally let you pick Chrome over Safari in iOS 14 • Macworld

Michael Simon:


According to well-connected leakster Mark Gurman, Apple is “considering” whether to let users change the default apps on iOS devices. That’s hardly a sure thing, but even the possibility is a huge change of heart. Since the earliest days of the iPhone, links and email addresses have opened in Safari and the default Mail app, respectively. Even if you delete Mail, it merely asks you to redownload it when you tap an email address, without providing an option to use another app like Gmail or Outlook.

Presumably, this would be an iOS feature available to all devices compatible with iOS 14, and not tied to Apple’s new iPhone. On Android, Google has long let users pick default apps over Google’s own services and apps.

Additionally, the report says Apple is mulling over whether to allow Spotify to stream directly on its HomePod smart speaker. While users can stream Spotify songs to their HomePod using AirPlay on the iPhone, asking the speaker to play something using Siri will default to Apple Music, with no way to change it.

In recent years, Apple has slowly been loosening its grip on iOS, allowing things like third-party keyboards and giving developers more access to Siri, but it’s drawn a hard line at default apps. That stance has drawn the ire of users and developers and has led to an antitrust lawsuit against the company’s App Store practices.


So it would make the HomePod more like something useful, and iOS and Android would grow even more like each other. There’s got to be a point in the future where none of the devices and none of the OSs can be distinguished from each other except when you look at the “about” screen.
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Some Staples stores in Boston are getting podcast studios • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Even Staples, the office supply store, can’t resist the lure of podcasts. The retailer is teaming up with iHeartRadio to build podcast studios at six of its stores in the Boston area.

The studios will be soundproof, have enough space for four people to record, and will sync with another company called Spreaker’s technology so people can get discounted access to its hosting and distribution services. A recording specialist will be on hand to help, too, and a 60-minute session costs $60. Although that fee only covers the actual recording time, Staples will give people discounts on editing services from We Edit Podcasts if they need help.

The studios are part of broader store renovations for what the company calls Staples Connect, which are stores designed to be co-working and community spaces for professionals, teachers, and students. The redesign speaks to the larger retail brand movement of making retail spaces more like community meeting spots.


Clever idea. Not sure how big the audience might be but it could be a clever way to breathe life into stores that would otherwise be empty. Add a cafe, pretty soon you’re a destination.
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MIT shows how to deflect killer asteroids • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:


there are two points at which we could attempt to stop an asteroid destined to hit Earth, one of which would be much easier but requires additional planning. We could try to deflect an asteroid as it hurtled toward us, but that would require much more force. Alternatively, we could nudge a space rock aside as it passed through a gravitational “keyhole.” That’s simply a location in Earth’s gravity field that pushes an asteroid into a collision course on its next orbit. 

Lead author Sung Wook Paek notes that a “last-minute” deflection is where most research has focused. However, intercepting an object before it passed through a keyhole could be much smarter. The main drawback here is that we need more data about the asteroid and its orbit. The study used two near-Earth asteroids about which we know a great deal: 99942 Apophis and 101955 Bennu. Apophis will pass near a keyhole in 2029, but it’s not currently predicted to hit us. Bennu is even less likely to find its way into a keyhole, but we have good data on this object as it’s the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. 

Paek and his team considered three basic mission profiles to deflect asteroids from a keyhole. The simplest is a single kinetic impactor, which we would fire into the object shortly before it reaches a keyhole to push it off course. Another option is to send a scout to inspect the asteroid to zero in on how a second spacecraft could knock it off course. The third consists of two halves: a scout and small impactor to potentially deflect the asteroid in the first phase, and then a second larger impactor to make completely sure the asteroid is no threat. 

Based on the test cases, the team determined five years is enough time to go for the most elaborate mission profile.


So they have confidence we could get a mission together and launched and in place for five years before? That’s a lot of confidence given the ignorance and wilful disbelief of so many in power.
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Google has banned almost 600 Android apps for pushing “disruptive” ads • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:


Google has removed close to 600 Android apps and banned their developers from the Play store and its ad networks as part of a massive crackdown on ad fraud and “disruptive” mobile ads.

One of the biggest developers banned from the Play store and Google’s ad networks was Cheetah Mobile, a publicly traded Chinese company that BuzzFeed News revealed in November 2018 had been engaging in ad fraud. The following December, Google removed one of the offending apps but allowed Cheetah to continue offering other apps in the Play store. As of this morning, Cheetah’s entire suite of roughly 45 apps in the Play store was removed, and the apps no longer offer advertising inventory for sale in Google’s ad networks.

Per Bjorke, Google’s senior product manager for ad traffic quality, told BuzzFeed News the removed apps, which had been installed more than 4.5 billion times, primarily targeted English-speaking users and were mainly from developers based in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and India. He declined to name specific apps or developers but said many of the banned apps were utilities or games. Google published a blog post today with details about the removals.

Last year, Google banned another publicly traded Chinese developer, CooTek. This took place after BuzzFeed News and a security company provided evidence that CooTek had bombarded users with disruptive ads even after telling Google it had stopped.

The tech giant’s disruptive ads policy forbids developers from displaying ads when their app is not in use, and from displaying ads in a way that “results in inadvertent clicks.” Bjorke said one example is an app that shows a full-screen ad when a user is trying to make a phone call.


That’s a lot of installs – a rough average of two per Android phone.
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Pinterest: an inspiring social media app ruined by ads • Android Authority

Suzana Dalul:


Advertisements were first introduced in 2013. They took the form of Promoted Pins and weren’t too aggressive. However, they are almost indistinguishable from normal content, and the only indication that a post is an ad is a small “Promoted” text under the image.

But ads ramped up significantly in 2015. It was a pivotal year for Pinterest, in which it made its first steps towards becoming a social e-commerce platform. The first addition was the (seemingly reasonable) buy button. When opening a pin uploaded directly by a retailer, you could see the price of the product and purchase it directly through Pinterest via a small blue “Buy it” button located next to the Pin it button. Many retailers partnered with the social media platform to upload their entire catalogs, flooding the website with more and more products.

Yet it was another feature introduced in 2015 that riled users up the most: Picked for you Pins. Under the guise of making your home feed more personalized, it basically erased what little social aspects Pinterest had left. The home feed was now populated with whatever the algorithm deemed relevant, based on Pins you clicked, stuff you pinned, and even your browsing history. The results were far from stellar, however. The algorithm was overly aggressive in recommending the same content over and over, often from brands, while displacing pins from those you follow. It’s a problem that persists to this day unless you tune your feed significantly — an option that was finally introduced in 2019.


All bow down before the mightly Algorithm, which keeps the lights on – or at least, keeps the advertisers (if not necessarily the users) happy.
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OkCupid data shows caring about climate can help you get laid • Gizmodo

Dharna Noor:


OKCupid’s algorithm matches you with people who seem to share your interests and beliefs. And how you answer questions about climate change could have an effect on who you match with, even if you don’t have the denier filter on.

“Since your match percentage with someone shows how compatible you two are, if you are a climate change activist and they think climate change is fake news, your match percentage is going to decrease,” Michael Kaye, OKCupid’s Global Communication Manager, told Earther in an email. Since most people on the platform aren’t climate deniers, that means vocally caring about the climate crisis is helping people get laid.

On some level, it makes sense that people feel a sense of connection over shared interests. But it’s telling that climate change is becoming one of those things in addition to the standard walks on the beach and all that.

“In my experience, people are finding that it’s really difficult to have an intimate relationship unless there’s a really deep alignment on how we’re relating to the issue,” Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who specializes in the melancholic psychological responses to environmental crises, told Earther. “That doesn’t mean you have to feel exactly the same way or engage on exactly the same level, but what really matters is that how you feel about it is actually okay with your partner.”


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Facebook faces tax court trial over Ireland offshore deal • Reuters

Katie Paul:


The US Internal Revenue Service argues that Facebook understated the value of the intellectual property it sold to an Irish subsidiary in 2010 while building out global operations, a move common among US multinationals. Ireland has lower corporate tax rates than the United States, so the move reduced the company’s tax bill.

Under the arrangement, Facebook’s subsidiaries pay royalties to the US-based parent for access to its trademark, users and platform technologies. From 2010 to 2016, Facebook Ireland paid Facebook US more than $14bn in royalties and cost-sharing payments, according to the court filing.

The company said the low valuation reflected the risks associated with Facebook’s international expansion, which took place in 2010 before its IPO and the development of its most lucrative digital advertising products.

“Facebook Ireland and Facebook’s other foreign affiliates – not Facebook US – led the high-risk, and ultimately successful, international effort to sell Facebook ads,” the company said in a pre-trial memorandum.


Going to guess that Facebook will edge through this one.
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China smartphone sales to dramatically fall in Q1 2020 under the shadow of Covid-19 epidemic • Counterpoint Research


Commenting on impacts of Covid-19 on the overall Chinese smartphone market, Brady Wang, associate director at Counterpoint Research, said, “Demand-wise, we see the market impacted severely. We estimate more than a 50% YoY decline in offline smartphone sales during the lock-down period. Therefore, we have lowered our sales forecast 20% for Q1. The situation may worsen and we may lower our forecast even more depending on the February sales. The plummet in Q1 is likely to generate a surge in channel inventories and further influence shipments and new products launches through Q2.”

Commenting on influence on sales of smartphone OEMs, Flora Tang, Research Analyst at Counterpoint Research, said, “Huawei group is likely to suffer as China has accounted for over 60% of its total smartphones sales. OPPO and Vivo will also be impacted because of their greater reliance on offline sales channels. The influence on sales of Xiaomi, OnePlus and Realme will likely be less severe as they are more online-centric and overseas-focused.”

Mengmeng Zhang, Research Analyst at Counterpoint Research, added, “Apple has announced a shutdown of its offline stores across China until 15th February. We estimate that this will bring a sales loss of about one million units of iPhones. Apple’s new product development plans will also be affected as engineers from the USA and Taiwan cannot travel to China. The iPhone SE2 set for a late March launch is likely to have troubles in ramping up volume due to the insufficient labour force in Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory.”


First the US sanctions mean Huawei effectively can’t sell phones that people want outside China; now Covid-19 means it can’t sell inside China. That really is the doubliest of whammys. Samsung, which manufactures outside China (though it relies on some Chinese components), is going to make hay on this one.
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PC brands cutting back IC, component orders • Digitimes

Cage Chao and Steve Shen:


Global shipments of PC products (desktops and notebooks) are expected to retreat to a sliding path in the first quarter of 2020 as PC brands have slowed down their orders for ICs and related components due to the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, according to sources from Taiwan-based IC-design houses.

Some downstream component suppliers have experienced setbacks in orders from their notebook clients in North America, said the sources, adding that the reduced component shipments will also reflect in shipment reductions for ICs products in February and March.

In addition, some analog IC vendors said that they have seen related orders from clients weaken recently, clouding their order visibility for the first and second quarters.

Barely recovering from a prolonged slump for years, global shipments of desktop PCs and notebooks hit a five-year quarterly high of 70 million units in the fourth quarter of 2019, driven by upgrade demand for business models, noted the sources.


Looks like we can expect slumps in both PC and smartphone shipments.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1248: Google shifts UK data out of Europe, how the Saudis infiltrated Twitter, Facebook’s minimalist fact check team, and more

An endangered species? That’s the warning from campaigners. CC-licensed photo by Rob Jewitt 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: Google users in UK to lose EU data protection – sources • Reuters

Joseph Menn:


Google is planning to move its British users’ accounts out of the control of European Union privacy regulators, placing them under US jurisdiction instead, sources said.

The shift, prompted by Britain’s exit from the EU, will leave the sensitive personal information of tens of millions with less protection and within easier reach of British law enforcement.

The change was described to Reuters by three people familiar with its plans. Google intends to require its British users to acknowledge new terms of service including the new jurisdiction.

Ireland, where Google and other US tech companies have their European headquarters, is staying in the EU, which has one of the world’s most aggressive data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation.

Google has decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data, the people said.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.


That it’s Joseph Menn reporting it suggests that (a) it’s true (b) the source is probably in the US rather than the EU. It’s not great news.
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Big tech to face more requirements in Europe on data sharing, AI • WSJ

Valentina Pop:


American tech companies will soon need to meet new requirements in the European Union regarding artificial intelligence and sharing data with smaller rivals, as the bloc seeks to assert its “technological sovereignty” from the US and China.

EU regulators unveiled plans Wednesday aimed at placing more restrictions on machine learning-enabled technologies in fields ranging from public surveillance cameras to cancer scans and self-driving cars.

The legislation, to be drafted by the end of 2020, is also likely to home in on what the EU has learned from antitrust cases against Alphabet’s Google and ongoing probes into and Facebook: how these platforms allegedly use data to quash smaller rivals. These technology giants—which some US politicians such as Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren want to regulate as public utilities—are in the firing line of the coming EU legislation.

One remedy under consideration is to oblige platforms to share data with smaller rivals, especially when it comes to consumer behavior regarding the products sold by those competitors.


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Facebook pays third parties to fact check its posts. Here’s how many there are in Australia • Buzzfeed News

Cameron Wilson:


Some of the biggest news stories in 2020 — Australia’s bushfires, Trump’s impeachment trial, the spread of the coronavirus — have been in part defined by the viral hoaxes, rumours and fake news spread widely on Facebook’s platforms.

The social media giant, which recently boasted of having 2.5 billion monthly active users worldwide who post a billion pieces of content a day, is locked in a constant battle against its users over misinformation. And it acknowledges it has a problem.

One of the company’s major tools in this fight is its third-party fact checking program.

Facebook doesn’t fact check anything itself. Instead, it uses independent companies to review claims made on its platforms. In a program launched in late 2016, the company has 55 partners certified by the International Fact-Checking Network. Facebook does pay companies for the fact checks, although some companies have refused the money.

When a post is found to contain false information by a fact checker, the company labels the post as false, prompts users if they go to share it and claims that it limits the posts’ reach by more than 80%.

Considering nearly a third of Australians get their news from Facebook, these fact checkers play an outsized role in determining what gets seen, and in what context, for the country’s 17 million users.

So just how many people are working on figuring out what’s real or not on Facebook in Australia? Seven.

Between them, they’ve completed 220 fact checks since April 2019 — about one check every one and a half days on average.


Seven for a continent? It has more than 600 for Germany alone – because Germany passed laws about fake news. Making Facebook act responsibly can be done, but it takes political will.
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How Saudi Arabia Infiltrated Twitter • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz, building on the US government filing about last year’s case:


Abouammo’s seduction by the Saudi government began innocuously: with a verification request. In April 2014, according to the FBI complaint, a public relations firm representing the Saudi Embassy asked Abouammo to verify an account belonging to a Saudi news personality, whom the FBI complaint did not name. This request for a blue checkmark opened the door to a working relationship with the country’s government.

“All evil begins with a verification request,” one of Abouammo’s former colleagues at Twitter joked. After the initial exchange, a representative from a US Saudi Arabian business council in Virginia asked Abouammo to set up a tour at Twitter headquarters. The tour, supposedly for entrepreneurs, reportedly included Bader al-Asaker, an official working for Crown Prince Mohammed, who was then in the middle of a fast ascent to power.

Abouammo and al-Asaker met in London a few months later, according to the complaint. At the meeting, al-Asaker gave Abouammo a Hublot Unico Big Bang King Gold ceramic watch. The watch was expensive. In January 2015, Abouammo tried to sell it on Craigslist, claiming it was worth $35,000, but that he’d take $20,000.

Abouammo was eager to please and had a taste for money, a counterpart at a rival company who knew him told BuzzFeed News. “I think it was an extremely cash-based relationship,” he said.

A week after returning to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, Abouammo logged into the system he used to verify users, according to the complaint. That system, sources who’ve accessed it told BuzzFeed News, stores information including email addresses, telephone numbers, and last log-in time — sufficient personal data to track down a user in real life.


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Twitter is real life • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:


the notion that Twitter isn’t real life is untrue. There’s the obvious literal sense. Twitter is a real-world platform and is used by very real humans. Then there’s the notion of tangible impact. Donald Trump’s use of the platform for campaigning and governing and acting as assignment editor to the media is the sterling example, but it goes well beyond that. Ask a journalist who has been fired for an old, dredged-up tweet or a woman or person of color who has been doxxed, swatted or harassed and driven from his or her home if Twitter is real life. They’ll say yes.
Editors’ Picks

There’s also something ineffable about Twitter’s influence, especially as it pertains to politics, around movement building and fandoms. Honest, sustained social media momentum behind candidates does seem to translate into something, even if it’s not clear how much to trust it. Take Andrew Yang. Though his campaign sputtered out last week, he outlasted multiple high-profile governors and senators. His staying power was linked in part to a movement he built across platforms like Twitter. Establishment pundits and politicos shocked by his longevity might have felt different had they engaged with or even observed #YangGang faithful on Twitter.

A better example might be Senator Bernie Sanders, arguably now the Democratic front-runner. The Sanders movement has been criticized for its intensity on Twitter, which infrequently but occasionally veers into toxic territory. And while analysts dissect the particulars of the Sanders online movement, what’s unquestionable is that it exists and is a stand-in for something very real: enthusiasm.

As we’ve seen so far in the Democratic primary, enthusiasm matters.


This might be the first Charlie Warzel piece that I disagree with. Doing politics on Twitter requires zero effort; it’s a use of cognitive surplus. Getting involved in politics on the ground involves actually getting physically involved.
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A long and windy road • Makani Blog

Fort Felker:


Makani was founded in 2006 by a group of kitesurfers who were curious about the potential for kites to unlock wind energy in more places around the globe. We started by asking questions: could we make wind energy cheaper and more accessible?

…Makani spent the past seven years at Alphabet, during which time our technology advanced from a 20kW demonstrator kite, to a utility-scale kite capable of generating 600kW. Last year, after leaving X to become an independent business, our focus shifted to becoming commercially viable and with the support of Shell, we were able to demonstrate the first flights of a utility-scale energy kite system from a floating platform off the coast of Norway.

Creating an entirely new kind of wind energy technology means facing business challenges as well as engineering challenges. Despite strong technical progress, the road to commercialization is longer and riskier than hoped, so from today Makani’s time at Alphabet is coming to an end. This doesn’t mean the end of the road for the technology Makani developed, but it does mean that Makani will no longer be an Alphabet company. Shell is exploring options to continue developing Makani’s technology.


So Google’s out, though the idea seems promising. Feels like they’re running out of moonshots to fire.
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UK cash economy close to collapse, campaigners tell chancellor • The Guardian

Kalyeena Makortoff:


Authors of the Access to Cash Review are calling for extra safeguards to support the UK’s cash infrastructure, which has come under severe strain in the 12 months since the original report was published last March.

The review warned then that more than 8 million UK adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society, with a significant number still relying on cash for day-to-day transactions.

The group, which is led by the former Financial Ombudsman Service boss Natalie Ceeney, wants parliament to hand extra powers to regulators and introduce rules forcing banks to provide suitable access to cash for customers.

“The UK is fast becoming a cashless society – without knowing what this really means for consumers or for the UK economy,” Ceeney said. “Many people may want a completely digital future, but we need to make sure that this shift doesn’t leave millions behind or put our economy at risk.”

In the past year, 13% of all free-to-use ATMs in the UK have closed and the number of charging ATMs has jumped from 7% to 25%, costing consumers £29m more in fees.

More and more shops are going cashless, as bank branch closures make it harder for retailers to deposit their cash. Major retailers such as Tesco are piloting stores that only accept cards and digital payments, while British Gas announced last year that customers would no longer be able to pay their bills in cash at PayPoint terminals in shops.

“This is already starting to exclude people,” the Access to Cash panel said.


Quite weird to consider that cash might be vanishing in some places.
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Tesla’s screen saga shows why automotive grade matters • The Drive

Edward Niedermeyer:


One of the most dramatic illustrations of both the benefits and downsides of Tesla’s approach to automaking comes from its decision to use 17-inch touch screens in its Model S and X. No automaker had ever used a screen even close to as large as the model Tesla used, and it instantly became a symbol of its entire approach to building cars like mobile devices. In the brutally competitive premium car market, the gigantic display became a rare example of a feature that totally differentiates Tesla’s product from even its far newer competitors.

But rarely is the question asked: why haven’t other automakers kept up with Tesla’s competition and installed a similarly massive screen in their cars? After all, if Tesla can buy such a screen from a supplier why can’t Mercedes or Lexus?

…Tesla’s decision to use a large display that wasn’t tested to higher automotive grade standards had fairly predictable results. First the Model S and X screens were plagued by a bizarre problem that was clearly caused by thermal issues: bubbles would form on the sides of the displays and eventually leak a gooey adhesive material into the car’s interior. Tesla appeared to mostly fix this problem with its “cabin overheat protection” feature (which it sold as being to protect dogs and children, despite the fact that it held the temperature at +40C which is about the temperature where a child’s organs will start shutting down) as well as revisions to the Innolux panel. Intriguingly, a blog post at Mentor Graphics suggests that Innolux was struggling with thermal management on a screen for an unspecified “high end automobile,” ultimately concluding that “defining the boundary conditions for Innolux’s system is the responsibility of their customer, not Innolux.”


This is from May 2019, but still relevant.
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Flywheel will shut down its virtual classes after admitting it illegally copied Peloton • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Peloton sued Flywheel in September 2018 over claims that Flywheel copied its tech-infused exercise bike and the concept of at-home streamed classes. Peloton specifically took issue with the way workout metrics were displayed on Flywheel bikes and the fact that live riders could compete against one another, like on Peloton’s platform.

Peloton also claimed a Flywheel investor misrepresented himself to Peloton CEO John Foley at a private conference by posing as a potential investor who was curious about the company’s business plans. Three months after that meeting, Flywheel launched its Fly Anywhere bike. At the time, Flywheel denied the accusation, claiming it had been working on a leaderboard-style competitive class structure years before Peloton’s signature exercise bike launched. However, Flywheel later admitted to infringing on Peloton’s patents. We don’t know the details of the settlement.


Peloton has patents?
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Donald Trump ‘offered Julian Assange a pardon if he denied Russia link to hack’ • The Guardian

Owen Bowcott:


Donald Trump offered Julian Assange a pardon if he would say Russia was not involved in leaking Democratic party emails, a court in London has been told.

The extraordinary claim was made at Westminster magistrates court before the opening next week of Assange’s legal battle to block attempts to extradite him to the US.

Assange’s barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, referred to evidence alleging that the former US Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher had been to see Assange, now 48, while he was still in the Ecuadorian embassy in August 2017.

Assange appeared in court on Wednesday by videolink from Belmarsh prison, wearing dark tracksuit bottoms and a brown jumper over a white shirt.

A statement from Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson shows “Mr Rohrabacher going to see Mr Assange and saying, on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out, if Mr Assange … said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] leaks”, Fitzgerald told Westminster magistrates court.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is hearing the case at Westminster, said the evidence is admissible.

White House spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, told reporters: “The president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman. He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject.”


Of course dozens of tweets and meetings between Trump and Rohrabacher were then provided as evidence by the internet. Completely believable that Trump would do that. Assange would be an idiot to accept it, though.
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Start Up No.1247: India’s election gets deepfake-friendly, the 101-year-old bug, decoupling arguments, Razr folds (oops), and more

Voting in Wisconsin might look quaint, but yesterday it tested a new system that lets voters check their ballot was counted. CC-licensed photo by GPA Photo Archive 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 there. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

We’ve just seen the first use of deepfakes in an Indian election campaign • VICE

Nilesh Christopher:


On February 7, a day ahead of the Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi, two videos of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Manoj Tiwari criticising the incumbent Delhi government of Arvind Kejriwal went viral on WhatsApp. While one video had Tiwari speak in English, the other was him speaking in the Hindi dialect of Haryanvi. “[Kejriwal] cheated us on the basis of promises. But now Delhi has a chance to change it all. Press the lotus button on February 8 to form the Modi-led government,” he said.

One may think that this 44-second monologue might be a part of standard political outreach, but there is one thing that’s not standard: these videos were not real. This is what the original video was.

It’s 2020, and deepfakes have become a powerful and concerning, tool that allows humans to manipulate or fabricate visual and audio content on the internet to make it seem very real. They are like the face animations in Hollywood films, though not nearly as expensive, and with a dark side. Since its introduction in 2017, A-list celebrities have seen their faces pushed onto existing pornographic videos, making deepfakes an infamous tool for misuse.

When the Delhi BJP IT Cell partnered with political communications firm The Ideaz Factory to create “positive campaigns” using deepfakes to reach different linguistic voter bases, it marked the debut of deepfakes in election campaigns in India. “Deepfake technology has helped us scale campaign efforts like never before,” Neelkant Bakshi, co-incharge of social media and IT for BJP Delhi, tells VICE.


This seems like a legitimate use – it’s not deceptive, apart perhaps from the question of whether the politician speaks the language. But good dubbing could do the same. (Thanks Nilesh for the link! And yes, writers are allowed to suggest links to their own stories. Don’t be shy. My DMs are open on Twitter.)
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Home Office tells man, 101, his parents must confirm ID • The Guardian

Lisa O’Carroll:


A 101-year-old Italian man who has been in London since 1966 was asked to get his parents to confirm his identity by the Home Office after he applied to stay in the country post-Brexit.

In what appears to be a computer glitch the Home Office thought he was a one-year-old child.

Giovanni Palmiero was told that he needed the presence of his mother and father when he made his application for the EU settlement scheme at an advice centre in Islington, north London.

When the volunteer who helped Palmiero, a great-grandfather, scanned his passport into the EU settled status app to share the biometric data with the Home Office, the system misinterpreted his birth year as 2019 instead of 1919.

“I immediately noticed that something was wrong because when I scanned in his passport, it imported his biometric data not as 1919 but as 2019. It then skipped the face recognition section which is what it does with under-12s,” said Dimitri Scarlato, an activist with the campaign group the3million who also works for Inca Cgil, an organisation that helps those of Italian descent.

He was then asked whether he wanted to put in the residence details of Palmiero’s parents or proceed independently of them. “I was surprised. I phoned the Home Office and it took two calls and a half an hour for them to understand it was the app’s fault not mine,” Scarlato said.


Ah yes, the Y1919 bug. (Though it’s an almost perfect version of the old joke from pub signs saying “free drinks for all pensioners accompanied by their parents”. Though these days, that’s almost possible.)
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Coronavirus: largest study suggests elderly and sick are most at risk • BBC News


Health officials in China have published the first details of more than 44,000 cases of Covid-19, in the biggest study since the outbreak began.

Data from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) finds that more than 80% of the cases have been mild, with the sick and elderly most at risk.

The research also points to the high risk to medical staff.

A hospital director in the city of Wuhan died from the virus on Tuesday.

Liu Zhiming, 51, was the director of the Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan – one of the leading hospitals in the virus epicentre. He is one of the most senior health officials to die so far.

Hubei, whose capital is Wuhan, is the worst affected province in the country. The report by the CCDC shows the province’s death rate is 2.9% compared with 0.4% in the rest of the country.

The findings put the overall death rate of the Covid-19 virus at 2.3%.


A fabulous piece of untrue news that’s being spread around is that Covid-19 is like the 1918 Spanish flu, having the worst effects on the young and fit. Nope – like normal flu, it’s worse for the elderly (and, I’d imagine, immunocompromised).
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Qanon deploys ‘information warfare’ to influence the 2020 election • WIRED

Elise Thomas:


The number of Qanon adherents is unknown, but believed to be small. But Qanon followers wield outsized influence because of their presence on other social media, particularly Twitter. According to Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University, there were 22,232,285 tweets using #Qanon and related hashtags such as #Q, #Qpatriot, and #TheGreatAwakening in 2019—an average of 60,910 per day. The total exceeded other popular hashtags such as #MeToo (5,231,928 tweets in 2019) or #climatechange (7,510,311 tweets).

The movement also is important because of its influence on Trump and his allies. “I doubt that President Trump believes that there’s someone in his inner circle leaking stories as ‘Q-Clearance Patriot’”, says Ethan Zuckerman, Director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, who has previously written about the impact of Qanon on politics and society. “But anyone who’s worked with Trump—in his business as well as presidential contexts—knows that Trump needs constant praise and soothing, and I suspect many Q-related memes make it to the president’s attention as his aides try to stroke his ego.”

“I don’t see this as an intentional or instrumental relationship, but it’s easy to see how it could benefit both sides,” Zuckerman says.

The confluence of interests enables Qanon conspiracists to launder ideas into the mainstream in potentially dangerous ways. Like many other social movements born on the chan boards, the Qanon movement has had undertones of violence.


And overtones of stupid. The question of how many people are involved does seem important; the question of whether they could have any real influence on how people (other than themselves) vote follows on from that.
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Wisconsin partners with Microsoft and VotingWorks for pilot test of new voting technology • Wisconsin Elections Commission


The Wisconsin Elections Commission, Rock County and the Town of Fulton are partnering with Microsoft and VotingWorks to test new voting technology at the Spring Primary on Tuesday, February 18.

Voters in the Town of Fulton will test a voting system that uses Microsoft’s new ElectionGuard software that allows voters to verify that their ballot was counted.  And because this is a test, local election officials will be hand counting all paper ballots voters cast to verify the winners. 

“Wisconsin is a leader in developing technology for election administration and security, so we’re eager to see this new technology in a polling place being used by real voters,” said Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. “We hope this pilot test will give us further insights into how the system works and whether voters like it. We can use this data as we try to make elections in Wisconsin even more secure, usable and accessible.”

Microsoft’s ElectionGuard is open-source software which any voting equipment maker is free to use in its existing products.  ElectionGuard generates a ballot tracking code which voters can use to verify their vote counted in the final tally.  Each vote is recorded and encrypted on a touchscreen ballot marking device as well as printed on a paper ballot.  Anyone may download the software and test its security. Technical information about ElectionGuard is available on Microsoft’s website.


So, yesterday. Wonder how many excited voters there will be checking that their vote was counted, and whether the system for checking will crash under the load. Note – since you might hear it elsewhere – this is *not* online voting.
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‘Eugenics is possible’ is not the same as ‘eugenics is good’ • UnHerd

Tom Chivers:


The analyst John Nerst, who writes a fascinating blog called “Everything Studies”, is very interested in how and why we disagree. And one thing he says is that for a certain kind of nerdy, “rational” thinker, there is a magic ritual you can perform. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y.”

Having performed that ritual, you ward off the evil spirits. You isolate the thing you’re talking about from all the concepts attached to it. So you can say things like “if we accept that IQ is heritable, then”, and so on, following the implications of the hypothetical without endorsing them. Nerst uses the term “decoupling”, and says that some people are “high-decouplers”, who are comfortable separating and isolating ideas like that.

Other people are low-decouplers, who see ideas as inextricable from their contexts. For them, the ritual lacks magic power. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y,” but when you say X, they will still hear Y. The context in which Nerst was discussing it was a big row that broke out a year or two ago between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris after Harris interviewed Charles Murray about race and IQ.

As a high-decoupler, Harris thought that it was OK to talk about what-ifs; if there are genetic components to racial differences, then we still need to treat everyone with equal dignity, etc: “I’m not saying there are, but if there are…” He thought he’d performed the ritual.

But for Klein, the editor of Vox, the ritual was not strong enough.


This is a fabulous piece, which goes over the high/low decoupling concept and then goes into the Andrew Sabisky row, which emerges from it: Sabisky’s complaint about being misquoted arises, in part (but only in part) from the media’s (intentional?) failure to decouple.
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The messy, secretive reality behind OpenAI’s bid to save the world • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:


There are two prevailing technical theories about what it will take to reach AGI [artificial general intelligence]. In one, all the necessary techniques already exist; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to scale and assemble them. In the other, there needs to be an entirely new paradigm; deep learning, the current dominant technique in AI, won’t be enough.

Most researchers fall somewhere between these extremes, but OpenAI has consistently sat almost exclusively on the scale-and-assemble end of the spectrum. Most of its breakthroughs have been the product of sinking dramatically greater computational resources into technical innovations developed in other labs.

Brockman and Sutskever deny that this is their sole strategy, but the lab’s tightly guarded research suggests otherwise. A team called “Foresight” runs experiments to test how far they can push AI capabilities forward by training existing algorithms with increasingly large amounts of data and computing power. For the leadership, the results of these experiments have confirmed its instincts that the lab’s all-in, compute-driven strategy is the best approach.

For roughly six months, these results were hidden from the public because OpenAI sees this knowledge as its primary competitive advantage. Employees and interns were explicitly instructed not to reveal them, and those who left signed nondisclosure agreements. It was only in January that the team, without the usual fanfare, quietly posted a paper on one of the primary open-source databases for AI research. People who experienced the intense secrecy around the effort didn’t know what to make of this change. Notably, another paper with similar results from different researchers had been posted a month earlier.

In the beginning, this level of secrecy was never the intention, but it has since become habitual. Over time, the leadership has moved away from its original belief that openness is the best way to build beneficial AGI.


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Can you solve the “Hanging Cable” problem, used as an Amazon interview question? • Boing Boing

Mark Frauenfelder:


A cable of 80 meters is hanging from the top of two poles that are both 50 meters off the ground. What is the distance between the two poles (to one decimal point) if the center cable is (a) 20 meters off the ground and (b) 10 meters off the ground?

Presh Talwalker of Mind Your Decisions says the above riddle was used as an Amazon interview question. His video has the answer.


Talwalker points out that it’s the second of these two questions which was asked in the Amazon interview, not the first. That turns out to be important.
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Our Motorola Razr’s display is already breaking and peeling at the fold • Input Mag

Raymond Wong:


The Motorola Razr nightmare continues. A week after we purchased and reviewed the foldable phone, the plastic OLED display on our $1,500 device is now peeling apart… at the fold. We always try our best to not be alarmist, but when a giant horizontal air bubble appears literally out of nowhere and starts separating the top lamination and the display panel, we have to wonder why anyone would be optimistic about foldable phones.

Let’s recap what happened. My boss, Input editor-in-chief Josh, got the Razr a little over a week ago and has been using it on and off since. I picked up the phone yesterday afternoon and only used it to take 23 photos yesterday evening. I brought it home, set up my own Google accounts, and took a few pics of the phone’s retro mode.

As far as I could tell, the Razr’s display was in perfect condition this morning and afternoon. I even took a photo of the Razr for a friend at 12:18 p.m. ET and there was no damage at the fold.

And then I saw it…

…The screen’s damage isn’t just cosmetic. The touchscreen is semi-broken; the warped surface makes touches and taps virtually unresponsive, especially when tapping things in a list like inside the Settings app.


Gotta know when to hold ’em, gotta know when to fold ’em, gotta know when not to buy ’em.
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US weighs new move to limit China’s access to chip technology • WSJ

Asa Fitch and Bob Davis:


The Trump administration is weighing new trade restrictions on China that would limit the use of American chip-making equipment, as it seeks to cut off Chinese access to key semiconductor technology, according to people familiar with the plan.

The Commerce Department is drafting changes to the so-called foreign direct product rule, which restricts foreign companies’ use of U.S. technology for military or national-security products. The changes could allow the agency to require chip factories worldwide to get licenses if they intend to use American equipment to produce chips for Huawei Technologies Co., according to the people familiar with the discussions. Chinese companies are bound to see the action as a threat to them too, which is a goal of the proposed rule, said the people briefed on the effort.

The move is aimed at slowing China’s technological advancement but could risk disrupting the global supply chain for semiconductors and dent growth for many U.S. companies, U.S. industry participants said.

The changes have been under discussion for weeks, according to the people, but were only recently proposed, and would come in addition to a separate rule that would limit the ability of U.S. companies to supply Huawei from their overseas facilities.

Not everyone within the administration supports the idea, and the changes haven’t been reviewed by President Trump, several of the people said.


The requirement on chip foundries sounds bizarre; it’s like telling someone where they can drive in the car you sold them. It’s extraterritorial, and would surely come under judicial review in whichever country (TSMC, which operates in China, is the obvious target). And if the US government stopped exports of that equipment, China would surely step into the breach and make it itself – if it isn’t already.
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Start Up No.1246: Apple warns on revenues, how cars make you fat (proven!), police say don’t Ring us, a Tesla teardown, the edgiest coronavirus cash-in, and more

Huawei couldn’t develop Face ID – so the Chinese government helped it out with a database of faces, a former Apple director says CC-licensed photo by jmarello 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The age of cooptation: the high cost of doing business in Xi’s China • SupChina

Doug Guthrie is a former Apple senior director who was based in Shanghai:


Huawei is often first in line for taking advantage of what these suppliers have learned from Apple. Sometime around 2015, there were rumors in the Chinese smartphone manufacturing community of something called FaceID (leading up to the launch of the iPhone X). There were also rumors of a hardware module, which would make FaceID possible. The rumors were that this would be a significant leap in innovation for Apple, and it would likely create a significant gap between Apple and its competitors. There were also rumors that Huawei was attempting to entice Chinese suppliers to reveal some of the secrets behind the new hardware module. This is the story I wanted Ken Hu and Madame Chen to confirm for me.

Huawei realized it would be a serious setback for the company if it didn’t have something similar to Apple’s FaceID, and Huawei went to the government for help. Initially, Huawei hoped the government would put some heat on Apple and force the suppliers to loosen up a little bit. Surprisingly, the government said the following (I am paraphrasing here, based on my conversation with Madame Chen):

Government: Forget about Apple suppliers on this issue.

Huawei: We can’t ignore this. It will be a serious competitive advantage for Apple iPhones if we don’t have something comparable.

Government: We did not say forget about FaceID, just forget about following Apple on hardware. What if we gave you access to a database of 1.4 billion faces and you used that database to develop an AI algorithm to recognize faces? Could you develop an AI solution rather than a hardware solution?

And that’s what Huawei did. The Chinese Government, which has probably been more aggressive (and intrusive) in collecting data through facial recognition than any government in the world, was offering to turn over a database of faces to a private company to build an AI algorithm for facial recognition.

Think about this: The Chinese Government was offering to make all of its facial recognition data available to a private company to help this company compete with an international, publicly-traded competitor. This type of coordination between the Chinese Government and the private sector would have been unthinkable six years ago. But what did Huawei owe the Chinese government as a result?


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How China’s coronavirus incompetence endangered the world • Foreign Policy

Laurie Garrett:


This is much more than inside-baseball Chinese politics. It matters deeply for businesses wondering how long the pain of China’s shutdown will last and for public health leaders worried about how they might handle the coronavirus should it spread inside their countries, states, or cities. It has spilled over onto WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has faced sharp criticism—even a recall petition—for his meetings with Xi and other Chinese leaders and his apparent reluctance to declare the outbreak a global health emergency.

For his part, Xi disappeared from public view the day after his January 27 meeting the WHO’s Ghebreyesus, not to be seen again for twelve days, when he briefly strolled through the Chaoyang district of Beijing, wearing a medical mask.

The political crisis in China is prompting global concern about the reliability of epidemic data released by the Chinese government, the usefulness of Chinese guidance regarding how the virus is spread and who is at risk for death, and the measures best taken to protect health care workers from falling victim to the disease they are trying to treat. Since the first Dec. 30 announcement of a new disease in Wuhan, the CCP has woven a tapestry of narratives, primarily for domestic political purposes, aligning official case and death numbers with the storylines. Meanwhile, the international health community, from WHO all the way down to academic statisticians and infectious diseases analysts, has tried to infer from the dubious official daily tallies just how dangerous the coronavirus disease may be for the rest of the world.

The bottom line is trust, which appears to be waning inside China and is increasingly unraveling across the public health world.


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Coronavirus: Apple warns on revenue guidance due to iPhone delays in China • CNBC

Amelia Lucas:


The company initially said that it expected to report net sales between $63bn to $67bn in its fiscal second quarter. Apple did not provide a new forecast for its fiscal second-quarter revenue on Monday.

The company said it provided a wider range than usual in late January, citing the uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak.

“As you can see from the range, anticipates some level of issue there. Otherwise, we would not have a $4 billion range,” CEO Tim Cook said at the time.

Apple makes most iPhones and other products in China. The Coronavirus has caused it to temporarily halt production and close retail stores in China. Some Apple retail stores reopened in China with reduced schedules last week.

The company said Monday it is “experiencing a slower return to normal conditions than we had anticipated” after the extended Lunar New Year holiday. All iPhone manufacturing facilities in China have reopened, but Apple said it still expects supply shortages of the phone globally.


There’s a feeling that the revenue will come in below the lower end of that number. Or possibly Apple doesn’t quite know itself, given the uncertainty, and the fact that its quarter runs to the end of March – so much depends on how quickly things return to normal. It’s not clear whether the epidemic has peaked yet.
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Does owning a car hurt your health? • The Globe and Mail

Alex Hutshinson:


To really establish that driving hurts your health, in other words, you need a randomized trial. But who’s going to assign long-term car ownership on the basis of a coin flip?

The city of Beijing, it turns out. Because of mounting congestion, Beijing has limited the number of new car permits it issues to 240,000 a year since 2011. Those permits are issued in a monthly lottery with more than 50 losers for every winner – and that, as researchers from the University of California Berkeley, Renmin University in China and the Beijing Transport Institute recently reported in the British Medical Journal, provides an elegant natural experiment on the health effects of car ownership.

Led by Berkeley economist Michael Anderson, the researchers followed 180 permit winners and 757 losers for roughly five years, and looked for differences caused by the acquisition of a car.

“The randomization of the lottery is what gives us confidence,” Anderson explained in a statement. “We know that the winners should be comparable to the losers on all attributes other than car ownership.”

Not surprisingly, the winners took 2.9 fewer rides a week on Beijing’s dense public-transit network, representing a 45% drop in usage. They also spent 24.2 fewer minutes each day day walking or biking than the non-winners, a 54% drop.

You’d expect these behaviour changes to have health impacts. Over all, the winners gained an average of just more than two kilograms, a difference that was not statistically significant. But the effects were more obvious when looking only at winners aged 50 or older: They gained an average of 10.3kg, a statistically significant and worrisome increase.


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Boris Johnson adviser quits over race and eugenics controversy • The Guardian

Rowena Mason:


Andrew Sabisky, who was brought into Downing Street by Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings as part of his appeal for “misfits and weirdos”, became the subject of intense media scrutiny after details emerged of his views on subjects ranging from black people’s IQs to whether benefits claimants should be encouraged to have fewer children.

But amid mounting criticism within the Conservative party after No 10 stood by the appointment, Sabisky said that he would be stepping down as a “contractor” to No 10.

He tweeted: “The media hysteria about my old stuff online is mad but I wanted to help [the government] not be a distraction. Accordingly I’ve decided to resign as a contractor. I hope No 10 hires more [people with] good geopolitical forecasting track records and that media learn to stop selective quoting.”

The news of Sabisky’s exit came despite the government’s apparent determination to ride out the controversy, with a Downing Street spokesman refusing to answer more than 30 questions from reporters on whether Boris Johnson agreed with Sabisky’s views.

His resignation represents a defeat for Cummings, Johnson’s most powerful aide, whose abrasive approach to government is causing consternation among some Tories and is thought to be partly behind Sajid Javid’s departure as chancellor.

Sabisky, a 27-year-old who describes himself as a “superforecaster”, had been contracted to work on special projects for Cummings, who had said in a job ad that he was seeking a team “to find and exploit, without worrying about media noise… ‘very high leverage ideas’ [that] these will almost inevitably seem bad to most.”


This was a car crash waiting to happen as soon as Sabisky’s past postings hove into view. As some Cabinet members said, did nobody think to use a search engine on these candidates? There’s going to be some frantic deleting of posts by everyone else who’s just been hired. So there are more problems to come; it’s just delayed. Give it a few months.

Got to admit, I thought Cummings’s recruitment scheme would be better organised.
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Tesla teardown finds electronics six years ahead of Toyota and VW • Nikkei Asian Review

Hideyoshi Kume:


Toyota Motor and Volkswagen each sell 10 million cars, give or take, every year. Tesla delivered about 367,500 in 2019. But when it comes to electronics technology, Elon Musk’s scrappy company is far ahead of the industry giants.

This is the takeaway from Nikkei Business Publications’ teardown of the Model 3, the most affordable car in the U.S. automaker’s all-electric lineup, starting at about $33,000.

What stands out most is Tesla’s integrated central control unit, or “full self-driving computer.” Also known as Hardware 3, this little piece of tech is the company’s biggest weapon in the burgeoning EV market. It could end the auto industry supply chain as we know it.

One stunned engineer from a major Japanese automaker examined the computer and declared, “We cannot do it.”

The module — released last spring and found in all new Model 3, Model S and Model X vehicles — includes two custom, 260-sq.-millimeter AI chips. Tesla developed the chips on its own, along with special software designed to complement the hardware. The computer powers the cars’ self-driving capabilities as well as their advanced in-car “infotainment” system.

This kind of electronic platform, with a powerful computer at its core, holds the key to handling heavy data loads in tomorrow’s smarter, more autonomous cars. Industry insiders expect such technology to take hold around 2025 at the earliest.

That means Tesla beat its rivals by six years. The implications for the broader auto industry are huge and — for some — frightening.


Interesting if true. It would mirror the reaction at BlackBerry when they first got their hands on an iPhone and couldn’t believe that the demonstration hadn’t been faked.
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How a Chinese movie studio upturned its business model due to coronavirus • The Conversation

Mark Greeven:


due to the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus, most movie theatres were empty and nearly 70,000 had to close their doors for fear of spreading the disease.

Huanxi stood to lose millions on its New Year-themed movie Lost in Russia. The company had committed to a theatrical minimum guarantee deal and expected billions of renminbi (RMB) in gross box office revenues. But now the theatres were closed, what should they do?

Studies have shown how Chinese businesses typically respond quickly to crises and with innovative solutions and agility. Agility is about linking hyper-awareness with decision-making and decision-making with action – all at speed.

In a clear demonstration of agility, Huanxi decided to fundamentally change its distribution approach and turned to an unlikely partner: ByteDance. ByteDance is the Chinese company behind the blockbuster app TikTok along with a number of native Chinese apps like Douyin, Jinri Toutiao, Xigua Video and Huoshan Video.

Despite the fact that ByteDance boasted hundreds of millions of daily active users, it was not an obvious partner. The company’s video streaming sites tend to focus on short form, user-generated content. TikTok, for instance, caps videos at 15 seconds. Lost In Russia, by contrast, was over two hours long. Chinese digital giants Alibaba or Tencent might have been more obvious partners, except that both owned competing movie studios.


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Google ends its free Wi-Fi program Station • TechCrunch

Manish Singh:


Caesar Sengupta, VP of Payments and Next Billion Users at Google, said the program, launched in 2015, helped millions of users surf the internet — a first for many — and not worry about the amount of data they consumed. But as mobile data prices got cheaper in many markets, including India, Google Station was no longer as necessary, he said. The company plans to discontinue the program this year.

Additionally, it had become difficult for Google to find a sustainable business model to scale the program, the company said, which in recent years expanded Station to Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand, Nigeria, Philippines, Brazil and Vietnam. The company launched the program in South Africa just three months ago.

Over the years, Google also explored ways to monetize the Google Station program. The company, for instance, began showing an ad when a user signed in to connect to its internet service.

In an interview early last year, Gulzar Azad, who spearheads connectivity efforts for Google in India, told me that the company was thinking about ways to scale Station to more markets, but noted that as far as deployment at Indian railway stations was concerned, Google had reached its goal (to serve 400 railway stations).


Must have cost a pretty penny, but achieved what it wanted: force others to push mobile data.
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Cute videos, but little evidence: police say Amazon Ring isn’t much of a crime fighter • NBC News

Cyrus Farivar:


Ring promises to “make neighbourhoods safer” by deterring and helping to solve crimes, citing its own research that says an installation of its doorbell cameras reduces burglaries by more than 50 percent. But an NBC News Investigation has found — after interviews with 40 law enforcement agencies in eight states that have partnered with Ring for at least three months — that there is little concrete evidence to support the claim.

Three agencies said the ease with which the public can share Ring videos means officers spend time reviewing clips of non-criminal issues such as racoons and petty disagreements between neighbors. Others noted that the flood of footage generated by Ring cameras rarely led to positive identifications of suspects, let alone arrests.

Thirteen of the 40 jurisdictions reached, including Winter Park, said they had made zero arrests as a result of Ring footage. Thirteen were able to confirm arrests made after reviewing Ring footage, while two offered estimates. The rest, including large cities like Phoenix, Miami, and Kansas City, Missouri, said that they don’t know how many arrests had been made as a result of their relationship with Ring — and therefore could not evaluate its effectiveness — even though they had been working with the company for well over a year.

Ring’s rise also comes at a time when reports of property crimes, including package theft and burglaries, are already in steep decline across the United States.


A year feels like too short a time to be certain, but you’d hope they’d have an inkling by now.
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Facial ID Respirator Masks


We make N95 respiratory masks that work with facial recognition software.
Our masks are custom printed with your face making phone access easy during viral epidemics.


This may mark some sort of ultimate “got lemons, make lemonade” move. Pandemic making it hard to unlock your phone? Capitalism has the answer! Although – small mercy – they’re not in production yet because of, oh, a shortage of available face masks. Surely will be a line in a comedy some day.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1245: HQTrivia asks its last, how to beat job-hire software, coronavirus scares and shows, looking back at LG’s Prada, and more

After the iPlayer, the BBC had an ambitious plan to disrupt TV – but regulators killed it CC-licensed photo by Dan Taylor-Watt 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

HQ Trivia, the once-popular mobile game, is shutting down • CNN

Kerry Flynn:


The company behind the once-popular live mobile trivia game is shutting down, CNN Business has learned. HQ will part ways with 25 full-time employees.

When HQ launched in 2017, its first game HQ Trivia quickly attracted millions of people across the world who stopped whatever they were doing twice a day to play the game on their smartphones. The company was profiled by The New York Times and its original host Scott Rogowsky became a household name, appearing on programs like NBC’s “Today” show.

But over the next year, the game’s popularity faded and its parent company was hit with a series of setbacks. The company grappled with internal turmoil, including the death of HQ cofounder Colin Kroll, who died in December 2018 from a drug overdose.

CEO Rus Yusupov said in a company-wide email on Friday that “lead investors are no longer willing to fund the company, and so effective today, HQ will cease operations and move to dissolution.”

In the email, which was obtained by CNN Business, Yusupov also disclosed that the company had hired a banker “to help find additional investors and partners to support the expansion of the company.” He said the company had “received an offer from an established business” and was expected to close the deal on Saturday, but the potential acquisition fell through.

In recent months, HQ tried to expand its audience by launching new products, including a photo challenge game in December called HQX.


They wanted to be the future of TV; and maybe a successor will be. It seems inevitable that at some point a mobile app like this – appointment “TV” – will get big enough to become embedded and self-sustaining on mobile. But this company was too screwed up.

You can bet the folk at Epic Games, makers of Fortnite, are feeling a little itchy though.
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Cost-cutting algorithms are making your job search a living hell • VICE

Nick Keppler:


Manoeuvering around algorithmic gatekeepers to reach an actual person with a say in hiring has become a crucial skill, even if the tasks involved feel duplicitous and absurd. ATS [Applicant Tracking System] software can also enable a company to discriminate, possibly unwittingly, based on bias-informed data and culling of certain psychological traits.

Lynne Williams, a Philadelphia-area career advisor, holds a seminar called “Beating the Applicant Tracking System.” Every time, she braces for a wave of anger from the audience. “I can feel their blood pressure rise when I tell them what they are doing wrong,” she said.

Their most important task, she tells crowds of jobseekers, is to parrot keywords from job descriptions. The most basic elimination function of most ATS software is searching résumés and cover letters for keywords. Many systems can’t—or don’t bother to—distinguish synonyms, like “manager” and “supervisor,” so she says to rewrite résumés with each application, mindlessly copying words from the job description. Countless online guides for “beating the bots” recommend the same.

People find this task frustrating and are indignant over its irrelevance to their fitness for the job, Williams said. Others fume about all the time spent carefully crafting applications that were probably never seen by a human.

Jack Wei, a director of product marketing for the job site SmartRecruiters, said that “the moment a candidate applies [for a posted job], a ‘smart profile’ scrapes résumé info into a digital portfolio by extracting keywords.” The employer then sees an automatically generated score, from 1 to 5, of their apparent fitness for the job.


But is the software more, less or just as biased as the humans who used to do all that? But it has brought some old tricks back to life:


ATS technology encourages applicants to find ways to cut in line, said Anjunwa. She has heard stories of people inserting common keywords in small white font on their PDF résumés, visible only to bots, to sneak into the next tier of candidates.


Just as used to happen to search before Google.
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How the BBC’s Netflix-killing plan was snuffed by myopic regulation • WIRED UK

Chris Stokel-Walker:


It all started in 2007, in a Shepherd’s Bush pub where Ashley Highfield was having a pint and mulling over a bold plan. As the director of technology and new media at the BBC, Highfield had just overseen the launch of the iPlayer – BBC’s online catch-up service. Now he wanted to try and build a commercial equivalent that would earn more. For that reason that he was meeting over drinks with Ben McOwen-Wilson, then head of strategy at ITV.

Scribbling on the back of a coaster, the two mapped out the plan for a British digital television streaming service which would feature selected Hollywood films alongside content from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. That service would be named Kangaroo.

The premise was simple: it would be the best of British television, co-owned by the three broadcasters, fully committed to the project. It was a prototypical Britbox, the streaming service that the British networks finally set up in 2017, but according to Highfield it would have packed a heavier punch thanks to a broader range of content, including rights to American films.

“I think the difference [with Britbox is] that each of the players realises this is too little, too late, and will therefore hedge their bets,” says Highfield, who now works outside the TV industry, in a yacht-making business. Back then, he says, there was impetus to act as the battle was not yet lost.

“Each of the big players was desperate to not be wrong-footed by the emergence of players like Hulu and Sky’s growing dominance in this area.” There were also rumours swirling of other streaming platforms that could come in and steal audience share. “The stars aligned in a way that took ten years to even partially align again.”

The birth of the iPlayer itself had been difficult, according to a source present at the time in the BBC, who asked not to be named because they still work for the organisation. “It faced huge resistance internally from TV,” they say. Digital was considered the “weird sibling” of television and radio before the internet content boom, and commissioners in traditional broadcast were worried digital services would cannibalise their audiences. Some were still stuck in a 20th century mentality, and couldn’t understand the appeal of on-demand viewing.


Terrific article, and so timely as idiots in the government try to tear apart the BBC because they can’t bear journalistic inquiry.
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YouTube has been cracking down on coronavirus hoaxes, but they are still going viral • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Broderick:


If you search “coronavirus” or “Wuhan” on YouTube — even in incognito mode, which removes customization from the search results — you’ll see high-quality content from verified news providers. But that doesn’t mean that hoaxes about the virus aren’t being watched on the platform in huge numbers.

BuzzFeed News viewed a list on Monday of 500 of the most-watched YouTube videos featuring the keyword “coronavirus”, according to the social metrics dashboard BuzzSumo. Many of the top videos are from news agencies like Britain’s Channel 4 News, the South China Morning Post, and BBC News. But that list also contains dozens of popular videos that feature unconfirmed or false information about the virus. In some cases, videos have earned millions of views with claims that the virus is an engineered bioweapon, that it originated from Chinese people eating “bat soup,” or that the death count is actually 10 times higher than reported. As of Wednesday, there were more than 45,210 reported cases of the virus, with 99% in China, and 1,118 deaths.

YouTube has waged a well-documented battle over the last year against the conga line of conspiracy theories that dance below the surface of the platform. Last February, the company demonetized anti-vax content. Last March, it announced it would be showing “information panels” — text widgets that offer debunks from the site’s fact-checking partners — on searches for topics “prone to misinformation”.


Love the phrase “conga line of conspiracy theories”.
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Facebook canceled a 5,000-person conference in San Francisco because of coronavirus • Vox

Shirin Ghaffary:


Facebook is canceling an annual marketing conference it was planning to host in San Francisco next month over concerns about the new coronavirus — now officially known as Covid-19.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we canceled our Global Marketing Summit due to evolving public health risks related to coronavirus,” Facebook spokesman Anthony Harrison said in a statement to Recode.

The social media giant confirmed that it has scratched its plan to hold the event for 5,000 international attendees at the Moscone Center on March 9-12, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s the latest sign of how the outbreak, which has taken the lives of nearly 1,400 people as of Friday, is impacting business in the tech industry. Earlier this week, the world’s biggest phone show, Mobile World Conference, canceled its event in Barcelona after major tech companies like Amazon pulled out of the event.

But the Facebook marketing summit is the first publicly reported example of an event in the San Francisco Bay Area being canceled due to the virus. While there are four cases of novel coronavirus in Silicon Valley, public health officials say that the handful of cases are contained to those who either recently traveled to Hubei, where the virus started, or had close contact with family members who did.

That hasn’t stopped Silicon Valley from worrying — particularly because of the high level of travel between the area and China.


“Coronavirus” in the headline, Covid-19 in the story: so you can see that the name recognition isn’t quite there. Let’s hope that the recognition stays that low.
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IBM pulls out of RSA over coronavirus fears • Protocol

Adam Janofsky:


Just days after MWC organizers canceled its Barcelona trade show, another major tech conference is in flux over coronavirus fears.

IBM on Friday said that it is pulling out of RSA, one of the cybersecurity industry’s largest events that’s set to take place in San Francisco from Feb. 24 to 28.

“The health of IBMers continues to be our primary concern as we monitor upcoming events and travel relative to Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19),” an IBM spokesperson said in an email to Protocol. “As a result, we are canceling our participation in this year’s RSA conference.”

IBM is one of the biggest sponsors at RSA, which hosts more than 40,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors. RSA organizers said that the conference planned to proceed as scheduled at the George R. Moscone Convention Center. In a public statement issued late Friday, they added, “We understand and respect [IBM’s] decision.”

Seven other exhibitors — six of them from China — have dropped out, according to the statement, and less than 1% of attendees have cancelled their registration. Conference organizers at Moscone have added health and safety measures, such as offering disinfectant wipes at all check-in counters.


COVID-19 is just on the edge of becoming a pandemic – defined as a disease that is causing new infections on every continent. Hence all the fretting.
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Google has released a tool to spot faked and doctored images • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:


Jigsaw, a technology incubator at Google, has released an experimental platform called Assembler to help journalists and front-line fact-checkers quickly verify images.

How it works: Assembler combines several existing techniques in academia for detecting common manipulation techniques, including changing image brightness and pasting copied pixels elsewhere to cover up something while retaining the same visual texture. It also includes a detector that spots deepfakes of the type created using StyleGAN, an algorithm that can generate realistic imaginary faces. These detection techniques feed into a master model that tells users how likely it is that an image has been manipulated. 

Why it matters: Fake images are among the harder things to verify, especially with the rise of manipulation by artificial intelligence. The window of opportunity for journalists and fact-checkers to react is also rapidly shrinking, as disinformation spreads at speed and scale.

Not a panacea: Assembler is a good step in fighting manipulated media—but it doesn’t cover many other existing manipulation techniques, including those used for video, which the team will need to add and update as the ecosystem keeps evolving. It also still exists as a separate platform from the channels where doctored images are usually distributed.


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Data brokers are cruising for a bruising • WIRED

Anouk Ruhaak:


Data brokers should be held accountable for the negative externalities they inflict on society. There will always be criminals online, and new regulations will never fully deter them. But governments can deter the complicit middlemen — the data brokers with little security and fewer scruples. While data brokers are often sued for damages if data is breached when it’s in the possession of those they sell to (e.g., Equifax in 2017 and Exactis in 2018), they are not held accountable for data breached by those they sell to, nor are their executives tried for fraud. What if instead they had to answer for the consequent fraud and abuse? What if authorities like the Federal Communications Commission had a strong mandate to punish data brokers for their role in leaks and breaches?

To make companies responsible for the actions of buyers or sellers up or down the supply chain is not a new idea. The UK Modern Slavery Act was specifically designed to hold large UK manufacturers responsible for human rights violations by their contractors or subsidiaries down the chain. Similarly, anyone importing goods into the EU is responsible for the use of toxic chemicals anywhere in the production cycle, even if that part of the chain is not directly controlled by the importing company. It’s a tried and tested methodology to prevent corporations from passing the buck down the supply chain.

In a similar vein, we could hold data brokers responsible for any breaches involving data sold by them. What could such regulations look like?


Good suggestions, and it’s totally true that data brokers bring negative externalities. They’re a sort of radioactive waste repository, but with data.
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Labour urges Johnson adviser sacking after eugenics support • Financial Times

Laura Hughes:


Boris Johnson is facing calls from Labour to sack a 27-year-old adviser who praised the merits of eugenics and reportedly called for “universal contraception” to prevent a “permanent underclass”.

Andrew Sabisky, a researcher who describes himself as a “super-forecaster”, was appointed after Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, invited maverick freethinkers and “assorted weirdos” to apply for Downing Street jobs.

Speaking to Schools Week in 2016, Mr Sabisky said: “Eugenics are about selecting ‘for’ good things. Intelligence is largely inherited and correlates with better outcomes: physical health, income, lower mental illness.”

In the same interview he suggested that the widespread prescription of modafinil, an anti-narcolepsy drug, would be worth the death of a child a year. “From a societal perspective the benefits of giving everyone modafinil once a week are probably worth a dead kid once a year,” he said.

In a 2014 post on a website run by Mr Cummings, the Mail on Sunday reported Mr Sabisky called for “universal contraception” to prevent a “permanent underclass”.


As some Tories have been asking, did nobody think to use Google before hiring him? If this is the quality of Cummings’s “weirdos”, then they’re living up to that part of their name.

Governments can come unstuck remarkably fast as this stuff builds up. We’re barely three months into this one.
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The 2006 LG Prada was the first capacitive touchscreen phone. But… • Android Authority

C Scott Brown roamed eBay to find an original LG Prada, launched 13 years ago (and thus coming before the iPhone in terms of availability, if not widely recognised demonstration). It’s lacking in pretty much every way, and then there’s this:


The first Android smartphone wouldn’t land until 2008 as the HTC Dream (or the T-Mobile G1 in some areas). As such, the LG Prada does not run on Android. Instead, it runs on a proprietary operating system built on Flash that we’re just going to call Prada UI.

Remember that prior to the KE850, there were no capacitive touchscreen smartphones. You either had buttons, a trackball, or a stylus for interfacing with your smartphone display. So LG couldn’t just use the touchscreen OS of choice on the Prada because there wasn’t a touchscreen OS of choice.

This, ultimately, is where LG massively drops the ball. This was an opportunity for the company to set the groundwork on an operating system built with human touch distinctly in mind. Instead, what did LG do? It essentially transferred the operating system of a feature phone and made it touch-capable and called it a day.

As an example of what I mean, the LG Prada does not have a software keyboard. If you want to compose a text message you are presented with an on-screen numeric keypad and need to use T9 entry. For those of you too young to know what that is, that’s when you tap a number a certain number of times to pick a letter and then move on to the next letter.

The iPhone, meanwhile, had a full QWERTY keyboard that would appear on the screen, instantly making T9 seem like it came from the stone age.


But LG was a phone maker, whereas Apple was a computer maker. Of course you’d have a QWERTY keyboard on a computer. Of course you’d have T9 on a phone. That’s why the iPhone was low-end disruption for PCs, not high-end disruption for phones – though it turned out to do that too.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified