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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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

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