Start Up No.1244: Huawei faces new charges in US, left-wing YouTubers arise!, how UK council sites surveil citizens, niche science preprints in trouble, and more


Can’t hack this – unlike the app called Voatz, which turns out to have huge security holes. CC-licensed photo by Keith Bryant 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.

U.S. charges China’s Huawei with racketeering and conspiracy to steal US trade secrets in new indictment • The Washington Post

Jeanne Whalen:

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The new charges accuse Huawei and its subsidiaries of a decades-long effort to steal intellectual property from U.S. tech companies, including by offering Huawei employees bonuses for obtaining confidential information, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York said Thursday.

Huawei’s actions violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, prosecutors said.

An indictment filed in federal court in Brooklyn also includes new allegations about the activities of Huawei and its subsidiaries in Iran and North Korea, countries subject to sanctions by the U.S., the European Union or the United Nations.

A Washington Post report last year detailed Huawei’s secret efforts to help the North Korean government build and maintain a wireless telecommunications network. Huawei is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of telecom equipment and smartphones.

Huawei didn’t provide an immediate comment Thursday.

The new indictment represents an escalation of a case announced last year, when federal prosecutors charged Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, with bank and wire fraud.

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This is seriously ramping up the pressure on Huawei. No Google, and the aim here is to scare not just American companies, but others too away from working with it: if it’s put on the sanctions list for dealing with North Korea, things will get worse still.
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A thorn in YouTube’s side digs in even deeper • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

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Rather than swearing off YouTube, [Carlos] Maza, who is a New York-based socialist, decided to seize the means of his own video production.

“I’m going to use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house,” he said in an interview. “I want to build up an audience and use every chance I get to explain how destructive YouTube is.”

It’s not rare for YouTubers to criticize YouTube. (In fact, among top creators, it’s practically a sport.) But Mr. Maza’s critique extends to the traditional media as well. He believes that media outlets have largely failed to tell compelling stories to a generation raised on YouTube and other social platforms, and that, as a result, they have created a power vacuum that bigots and extremists have been skilled at filling.

“On YouTube, you’re competing against people who have put a lot of time and effort into crafting narrative arcs, characters, settings or just feelings they’re trying to evoke,” he said. “In that environment, what would have been considered typical video content for a newsroom — news clips, or random anchors generically repeating the news with no emotions into a camera — feels really inadequate and anaemic.”

…YouTube can be harsh terrain for a professional leftist. The site is nominally open to all views, but in practice is dominated by a strain of reactionary politics that is marked by extreme skepticism of mainstream media, disdain for left-wing “social justice warriors” and a tunnel-vision fixation on political correctness.
In recent years, some progressive YouTubers have tried to counter this trend by making punchy, opinionated videos aimed at left-wing viewers. BreadTube, a loose crew of socialist creators who named themselves after a 19th-century anarchist book, “The Conquest of Bread,” has made modest stars out of leftists like Natalie Wynn, a YouTube personality known as ContraPoints, and Oliver Thorn, a British commentator known as PhilosophyTube.

But these creators are still much less powerful than their reactionary counterparts. Mr. Maza attributes that gap to the fact that while a vast network of well-funded YouTube channels exists to push right-wing views, liberal commentary is still mainly underwritten by major news organizations, which have been slower to embrace the highly opinionated, emotionally charged style of content that works well on YouTube.

“People understand the world through stories and personalities,” he said. “People don’t actually want emotionless, thoughtless, viewpoint-less journalism, which is why no one is a Wolf Blitzer stan.”

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(A “stan” is someone who’s a mad fan. It’s not short for “stand” – it’s from the Eminem song of the same name.)
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NASA spots ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid rapidly approaching Earth • IGN

Adele Ankers:

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NASA has confirmed that an asteroid larger than the tallest man-made structure in the world is currently travelling towards Earth at a speed of almost 34,000 miles per hour. Thankfully, it’ll likely miss us by a few million miles.

According to International Business Times, NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) identified that the “potentially hazardous” asteroid could come close to intersecting with our planet’s path on [Saturday] February 15, 2020, at 6:05 a.m. (EST).

“Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) are currently defined based on parameters that measure the asteroid’s potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth,” NASA said in a statement.

The colossal space rock, which is expected to pass over our planet from a distance of around 3.6 million miles, is estimated to have a diameter of around 3,250 feet, making it large enough to potentially “trigger a nuclear winter and mass extinction events” should it collide with Earth.

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If you want to worry Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, Nasa has a list of the PHAs. There’s one every day for the next few days. Just, you know, if that would help.
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‘Sloppy’ mobile voting app used in four states has ‘elementary’ security flaws • VICE

Kim Zetter:

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A mobile voting app being used in West Virginia and other states has elementary security flaws that would allow someone to see and intercept votes as they’re transmitted from mobile phones to the voting company’s server, new research reveals.

An attacker would also be able to alter the user’s vote and trick the user into believing their vote was transmitted accurately, researchers from the Massachusetts Technology Institute write in a paper released Thursday.

The app, called Voatz, also has problems with how it handles authentication between the voter’s mobile phone and the backend server, allowing an attacker to impersonate a user’s phone. Even more surprising, although the makers of Voatz have touted its use of blockchain technology to secure the transmission and storage of votes, the researchers found that the blockchain isn’t actually used in the way Voatz claims it is, thereby supplying no additional security to the system.

The research was conducted by Michael Specter and James Koppel, two graduate students in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and Daniel Weitzner, a research scientist with the lab.

Election security experts praised the research and said it shows that long-held concerns about mobile voting are well-founded.

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Come on, a voting app called “Voatz”? It’s so cheesy. It’s like Steve Martin’s comic routine about what you call a bank. “You don’t call it ‘Fred’s Bank’. Nobody’s going to put their money in that. You call it ‘Security First Trust And Federal Reserve’.”
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Brave uncovers widespread surveillance of UK citizens by private companies embedded on UK council websites • Brave

Johnny Ryan is chief policy officer at Brave, an independent browser:

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Surveillance on UK council websites”, a new report from Brave, reveals the extent of private companies’ surveillance of UK citizens when they seek help for addiction, disability, and poverty from their local government authorities.

None of the data collecting companies recorded in this study had received consent from the website visitor to lawfully process data. 

• Nearly all councils in the UK permit at least one company to learn about the behaviour of people visiting their websites
• People seeking information about disability, poverty, drugs and alcoholism services are profiled by data brokers on some council websites
• 198 council websites in the UK use the “real-time bidding” (RTB) form of advertising. Real-time bidding is the biggest data breach ever recorded in the UK. Though illegality is not in dispute, the UK Information Commissioner (ICO) has failed to act
• Google owns all five of the top embedded elements loaded by UK council websites, giving it the power to know what virtually anyone in the UK views on council sites
• Over of a quarter of the UK population is served by councils that embed Twitter, Facebook, and others on their websites, leaking data about what sensitive issues people read about to these companies.

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Hard to believe that none of the companies had consent from the visitor; isn’t that why we’re always clicking cookie settings?
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Mac malware is growing, but there are three important riders • 9to5Mac

Ben Lovejoy:

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Macs are not generally vulnerable to what we traditionally classify as malware: that is, code which can do nasty things like delete files, or encrypt your drive for a ransomware attack. Apple’s protections against this type of attack are extremely strong.

Macs are mostly only vulnerable to so-called adware. This does things like redirect searches or load tabs automatically to earn ad revenue for the attacker.

This is something Malwarebytes itself acknowledges when you get into the detail:

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Macs differ drastically from Windows in terms of the types of threats seen. Where we found several different categories and families in our top detections of Windows threats that classify as traditional malware , especially those aimed at businesses, most Mac threats, and certainly the most prevalent ones of 2019, are families of adware and potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) […]

Among the top 10 Mac threats (for both consumers and businesses) are a mix of PUPs and adware. The PUPs are a variety of mostly “cleaning” apps that have been determined as unwanted not just by Malwarebytes, but by the Mac user community at large, [two of the best-known examples being] MacKeeper and MacBooster.

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Mac malware is growing mostly due to one app.

Until last year, the top two Mac adware apps had detected installations numbered in the low hundreds of thousands. In 2019, however, one new piece of adware was detected 30 million times! That’s your dramatic growth right there: one app.

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The graphic (on p25 of the report) shows that two malware apps comprise about 66% of instances. NewTab is the worst, a browser extension that redirects and is delivered via junky apps. And the oldest piece of malware is six years old.
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Popular preprint servers face closure because of money troubles • NAture

Smriti Mallapaty:

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INA-Rxiv, ArabiXiv, AfricArxiv and IndiaRxiv are run by volunteers around the world, but the servers are hosted online by the non-profit Center for Open Science (COS), based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The centre’s platform hosts 26 repositories, including more than a dozen that are discipline-specific.

In December 2018, the COS informed repository managers that from 2020, it would be introducing fees, charged to repository managers, to cover maintenance costs. The charges, which were finalized last December, start at about US$1,000 a year, and increase as repositories’ annual submissions grow.

The costs can be significant, particularly for repositories run by volunteers in emerging economies. Dasapta Erwin Irawan, a hydrogeologist at the Bandung Institute of Technology who helped set up INA-Rxiv, says his repository received more than 6,000 submissions between July 2018 and June 2019, so the fees will come to about $25,000 per year, which he cannot afford. After unsuccessfully trying to raise money from the Indonesian government, he has decided to wind down the service and close it, although he has not yet set an end date.

INA-Rxiv is one of the most popular archives on the COS’s platform; it has drawn more than 16,500 submissions, including preprints and conference papers. Until INA-Rxiv closes, Irawan says, he will limit the number of submissions he accepts, to reduce costs.

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Seems pricey for what seems like a low number of submissions.
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Car ‘splatometer’ tests reveal huge decline in number of insects • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

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Two scientific studies of the number of insects splattered by cars have revealed a huge decline in abundance at European sites in two decades.

The research adds to growing evidence of what some scientists have called an “insect apocalypse”, which is threatening a collapse in the natural world that sustains humans and all life on Earth. A third study shows plummeting numbers of aquatic insects in streams.

The survey of insects hitting car windscreens in rural Denmark used data collected every summer from 1997 to 2017 and found an 80% decline in abundance. It also found a parallel decline in the number of swallows and martins, birds that live on insects.

The second survey, in the UK county of Kent in 2019, examined splats in a grid placed over car registration plates, known as a “splatometer”. This revealed 50% fewer impacts than in 2004. The research included vintage cars up to 70 years old to see if their less aerodynamic shape meant they killed more bugs, but it found that modern cars actually hit slightly more insects.

“This difference we found is critically important, because it mirrors the patterns of decline which are being reported widely elsewhere, and insects are absolutely fundamental to food webs and the existence of life on Earth,” said Paul Tinsley-Marshall from Kent Wildlife Trust. “It’s pretty horrendous.”

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The problem is that there’s no way to know what we, the ordinary public, should do about this, apart from worry.
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The chaos at Condé Nast • The New York Times

Katherine Rosman:

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Since 2009, Condé Nast has gone from publishing 22 magazine brands (including one digital-only publication) to 16 magazine brands (six of which are digital only). In 2017, the company had about $120m in losses.

Mr. Peres’s reign seems to have epitomized the bloated pride before the fall. Founded by Annie Flanders as a scrappy downtown magazine in 1982, Details had gone through several iterations before being taken over by Fairchild, which was ultimately moved under the Condé Nast umbrella. With Mr. Peres as editor, the magazine was retooled as a manual for a metrosexual clinging to a certain frat boy quality, lest you call him gay.

Details had for a time what Tina Brown always used to call “buzz,” with cover models like Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Federline (twice!) and Ben Affleck. It was not so filled with ads that it was a doorstop, like the flagship magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, but it was still robust.

Freelance journalists wanted to contribute to Details (I was one, reporting a profile of Patrick Kennedy for it in 2001), and the magazine won awards for its design.

Condé Nast, which also then regularly published the magazines Gourmet, Jane, Lucky and Domino, had become famous through shows like HBO’s “Sex and the City.” The company was known for around-the-block Town Cars filled with enigmatic editors who lunched at New York restaurants like the Four Seasons and enjoyed clothing expense accounts and interest-free mortgages provided by their employer.

After being summoned at 28 from Paris where he had worked as a writer and editor for W magazine and given the top job at Details, Mr. Peres lived subsidized for months in the Morgans Hotel. Once, he trashed his room because he couldn’t find his Vicodin; he blamed the housekeeper for stealing his drugs.

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The amazing thing that emerges from this story is that everyone who ever worked at Conde Nast seems to be writing a memoir about how amazing it was and how much they miss it. You can see why they think that.
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Apple Pay on pace to account for 10% of global card transactions • Quartz

John Detrixhe:

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Apple’s mobile wallet is gobbling up a growing chunk of card payments around the world. As the service grows, it’s becoming a greater challenge to rivals like PayPal and attracting the attention of competition watchdogs.

Apple Pay accounts for about 5% of global card transactions and is on pace to handle 1-in-10 such payments by 2025, according to recent trend data compiled by Bernstein, a research firm. “There are indeed plenty of reasons to worry that Apple may attempt to disrupt the payments ecosystem,” Bernstein analysts, led by Harshita Rawat, wrote in a research note.

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My initial reaction to this was “that’s got to be nonsense – someone at Bernstein has dropped a few zeros.” The story says digital payments are about $1trn in revenue, while Visa and Mastercard process more than $14trn annually, and growing.

But: assume 750m iPhone users globally (slightly under the figure estimated by Neil Cybart of Above Avalon, around the number that most people use for handy calculations). For Apple Pay to be 5% of the $1trn would make it the avenue for $50bn of transactions. Crazy? But that’s only $66 per iPhone per year paid by Apple Pay. Given its lack of payment limit, a few big spenders buying big-ticket items (such as iPhones on their Apple Credit Card, on which they get cashback) could easily make up for large numbers of non-Apple Pay users.

OK, what about the bigger, $14trn number? Well: 5% of $14trn is $700bn, or $933 per iPhone per year. Now you definitely need your big spenders to make up for those who don’t use Apple Pay, but it’s feasible: assume one user for every two non-users (so an Apple Pay user base of 250m), and it’s $2,800 per year, or a bit more than $50 every week. Some people spend that much on coffee per week. Little things add up.
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Start Up No.1243: the app to sue robocallers, the botnet that loves you, the trouble with Equifax, Europe breaks Facebook date, adieu Essential!, and more


Mobile technology connects people who can’t be together. Looks like MWC – now canceled – will need it. CC-licensed photo by K%u0101rlis Dambr%u0101ns 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.

Mobile World Congress cancelled over coronavirus • Financial Times

Daniel Thomas and Daniel Dombey:

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Europe’s largest telecoms conference has been forced to cancel this year’s event after companies from Deutsche Telekom and Nokia to Amazon and Vodafone refused to attend over fears of the spread of coronavirus.

Mobile World Congress is a key event for Barcelona and claims to host more than 1m business meetings for its 109,000 attendees during the four-day conference at the end of February.

Most of the big telecoms and tech groups had decided not to attend owing to the rapid spread of coronavirus, including Facebook, Amazon, Cisco and Intel, as well as European telecoms vendors such as Ericsson. Many attendees are from Asia, with groups such as Huawei among the largest exhibitors.

…The conference’s cancellation will be a big blow for Barcelona, where hotels and restaurants ramp up prices in expectation of a bumper week that attracts high-spending telecoms executives. Local media has estimated that it generates €492m for the city, and creates about 14,000 temporary jobs.

It is not clear whether MWC will need to carry the heavy cost of cancelling the event, or be able to recover the money spent on the conference, which officially takes place across a series of huge hangars between the city and the airport. Discussions over costs were still being held on Wednesday night, said one person familiar with the matter.

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So the GSMA was going to put off the decision until Friday, but the cancellations tipped its hand. There will be a huge row with the insurers about whether this is covered: the GSMA had been trying to get the city of Barcelona to declare Wuhan CV a health emergency (or similar), which would have triggered an insurance payout. But the city wouldn’t.

Flights and hotels are booked, though, so there might be a shadow MWC. The big question is whether it will return.
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This app automatically cancels and sues robocallers • VICE

Edward Ongweso:

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DoNotPay’s Free Trial Card creates a virtual, one-time-use credit card to protect you from getting charged by “industrialized scams” like free trials. DoNotPay’s original offering was a chatbot lawyer program that automatically disputed parking tickets in small claims court.

Robo Revenge combines both features to automatically add you to the Do Not Call Registry, generate a virtual DoNotPay burner credit card to provide scammers when they illegally call you anyways, use the transaction information to get the scammer’s contact information, then walk you through how to sue them for as much as $3,000 per call under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a law already on the books meant to protect consumers from calls that violate the Do Not Call Registry. The app also streamlines the litigation paperwork by automatically generating demand letters and court filing documents.

“There are two types of scammers. There are the scammers based abroad who are trying to get your bank details—those people you can’t sue because you don’t even know where they are. But the type we can stop is the businesses like a U.S. based travel company trying to sell you a cruise and asking for your credit card number,” Browder said. “We can take them out with U.S. based laws. If they’re calling someone and every time they’re calling someone, there’s a risk of a penalty, maybe they’ll think twice.”

Together, new legislation and mass adoption of the app might be sufficient to overcome the technological and regulatory difficulties of reigning in illegal robocallers. Browder, however, also wants to shift some agency back into the consumer’s hands.

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Amazing stat in this story: spam calls have gone from 3.7% of (US) calls in 2017 to 29.2% in 2018 and were heading to 50% for 2019. Maybe a privacy law might help…?
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Botnet

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You are famous on Botnet!

Botnet is a social network simulator where you’re the only human along with a million bots who are obsessed with you.

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Creepy. Or, perhaps, just like being a Kardashian.
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Chinese hacking is alarming. So are data brokers • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:

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Mr. Begor, Equifax’s chief executive, noted that “cybercrime is one of the greatest threats facing our nation today.” But what he ignored was his own company’s role in creating a glaring vulnerability in the system. If we’re to think of cybercrime like an analog counterpart, then Equifax is a bank on Main Street that forgot to lock its vault.

Why rob a bank? Because that’s where the money is. Why hack a data broker? Because that’s where the information is.

The analogy isn’t quite apt, though, because Equifax, like other data brokers, doesn’t fill its vaults with deposits from willing customers. Equifax amasses personal data on millions of Americans whether we want it to or not, creating valuable profiles that can be used to approve or deny loans or insurance claims. That data, which can help dictate the outcome of major events in our lives (where we live, our finances, even potentially our health), then becomes a target.

From this vantage, it’s unclear why data brokers should continue to collect such sensitive information at scale. Setting aside Equifax’s long, sordid history of privacy concerns and its refusal to let Americans opt out of collection, the very existence of such information, stored by private companies with little oversight, is a systemic risk..

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It was difficult to pick a section to extract: this is a terrific article. But who’s going to rein in the data brokers?
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The high-tech secret behind the stunning cinematography of ‘Uncut Gems’ • Input Mag

Charles Bramesco:

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Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems is a film of relentless, unceasing motion. Harried jeweler–slash–gambling addict Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) hustles through midtown Manhattan’s Diamond District, up and down Sixth Avenue, back and forth from his home on Long Island to his philandering-pad in the city.

Even the closeups have a jittery sort of kinetic energy to them; Howard is always rocking back and forth, pacing, at times seemingly vibrating in place. That the film’s cinematographer, Darius Khondji, won’t get any recognition at the Oscars this Sunday is yet another reason to cast doubt on the Academy’s judgment.

That sensation of constant propulsive force was a tonal must for the film, but the Safdie brothers’ particular filmmaking methods made that a unique challenge. The co-directors get some of their best material by fostering a sense of spontaneity, so they eschew marks — electrical-tape X’s on the floor tipping off actors on where to stand — and encourage free movement about the set. They also believe that actors work best when hulking machines aren’t all up in their faces, so they prefer to situate their cameras far from a scene’s action and shoot using super-long zoom lenses. “The margin of error in these extreme closeups is less than an inch,” says Chris Silano, Khondji’s A-camera assistant on Uncut Gems.

The combination of unpredictable choreography and a depth of field flattened by distance would’ve made focusing these scenes impossible. That is, if not for a focus-calibrating device called the Light Ranger 2, which has amassed a cult following among Hollywood’s camera crews. “The Light Ranger 2 is going to revolutionize this piece of the industry,” Silano says. “It’s already started.” Everyone interviewed for this article echoed some version of this same sentiment, and the word revolutionize was used by all but one person.

That would be Howard Preston, the inventor of the Light Ranger and a friendly guy who’s modest about his estimable achievements.

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I’ll admit I didn’t notice the camerawork – the film is so stomach-churning. Though as one of the interviewees says, people only notice when it doesn’t work. And it worked.
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Stood up: Facebook keeps Europe waiting over dating feature • WSJ

Parmy Olson:

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Facebook is postponing the European rollout of its dating service which it planned to debut this week ahead of Valentine’s Day, according to Ireland’s top privacy regulator.

The move came after the Irish Data Protection Commission raised issues with the feature’s compliance with European Union data protection rules, the agency said. The company had been planning to launch the service on Thursday. The Irish regulator acts as the lead privacy cop for Facebook and Google parent Alphabet because they have both based their European operations in Dublin.

The agency said Facebook had notified it last week of its plans to roll out the service, which launched in the U.S. in September. Facebook says on its website that the dating service is available in 20 countries and “will be in Europe by early 2020.”

The commission’s concerns are focused on whether or not Facebook conducted the correct data-protection assessment ahead of the launch of the feature, the agency said. Several inspectors from the agency visited Facebook offices in Dublin earlier this week. The visit represented the first time that the regulator had carried out such an inspection on a large technology firm, under the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. The set of rules governs how companies can use and share data.

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Amazingly sloppy on Facebook’s part. If Valentine’s Day really is just right for its dating app (don’t you need a slightly longer run-up than one day?), it overlooked Europe’s bitey privacy regulations.

(The headline, though, is all over the place. It’s not as though Europe has been gagging for Facebook to do this, so it’s not really “stood up”. It’s Europe that’s making Facebook wait, sort of. “Europe breaks Facebook’s date”?)
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Online dating: the virtues and downsides • Pew Research Center

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The current survey finds that online dating is especially popular among certain groups – particularly younger adults and those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB). Roughly half or more of 18- to 29-year-olds (48%) and LGB adults (55%) say they have ever used a dating site or app, while about 20% in each group say they have married or been in a committed relationship with someone they first met through these platforms. Americans who have used online dating offer a mixed look at their time on these platforms.

On a broad level, online dating users are more likely to describe their overall experience using these platforms in positive rather than negative terms. Additionally, majorities of online daters say it was at least somewhat easy for them to find others that they found physically attractive, shared common interests with, or who seemed like someone they would want to meet in person. But users also share some of the downsides to online dating. Roughly seven-in-ten online daters believe it is very common for those who use these platforms to lie to try to appear more desirable. And by a wide margin, Americans who have used a dating site or app in the past year say the experience left them feeling more frustrated (45%) than hopeful (28%).

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Opinion: the ‘race to 5G’ is a myth • CNN

Kevin Werbach:

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Romania is one of 10 countries with significantly faster average fixed broadband connections than America today, yet no one in Washington seems concerned that will give Romanian firms a dominant advantage. The major tech platforms delivering innovative digital services to the world are still based in the United States and China. There are important concerns about the Chinese networking firm Huawei creating backdoors for surveillance or tilting the carrier equipment market toward Chinese-defined standards. Your 5G user experience, however, won’t depend on who makes the gear in the guts of the network.

The overheated rhetoric is based on the misconception that 5G heralds a new era of services for end-users. In reality, the claimed performance — hundreds of megabits or even gigabits per second — is misleading. Averages and ideal numbers mask huge variations depending on distance to an antenna, obstructions, weather and other factors. The fastest speeds require “millimeter wave” spectrum, which doesn’t penetrate walls or foliage well, and is generally less reliable than the lower frequencies used today. Millimeter wave requires a much denser network of antennas, which could be cost-prohibitive outside dense urban areas. Even if that hurdle is overcome, a gigabit per second to millions of phones requires a network able to move traffic at that speed end-to-end, which doesn’t exist today.

And just what are the applications that need more capacity than 4G offers? We already get crystal-clear video chats, a torrent of TikToks, Pokemon Go augmented reality, and massive Fortnite battles. Yes, every advance in network performance opened up new uses that seemed insignificant before, but the new capabilities of 5G are best suited to non-consumer applications.

If and when fleets of self-driving vehicles communicate constantly with each other or remote robotic surgery is a standard feature in local hospitals, 5G will be a must. But these next-generation “internet of things” scenarios are years in the future, as are the kinds of virtual and augmented reality worlds that appear in science fiction.

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Solid argument. I like how CNN feels obliged to say that it’s an opinion – as if there might be a factual news story that had discovered that the “race to 5G” was a myth all along, like the Loch Ness monster.
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Why poor people make poor decisions • The Correspondent

Rutger Bregman:

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the most significant improvement was in how the money helped parents, well, to parent. Before the casino [on a native American reservation in North Carolina] opened its doors [in 1997], parents worked hard through the summer but were often jobless and stressed in the winter. The new income enabled Cherokee families to put money aside and to pay bills in advance. Parents who were lifted out of poverty now reported having more time for their children.

They weren’t working any less though, Costello discovered. Mothers and fathers alike were putting in just as many hours as before the casino opened. More than anything, said tribe member Vickie L Bradley, the money helped ease the pressure on families, so the energy they’d spent worrying about money was now freed up for their children. And as Bradley put it, that “helps parents be better parents”.

What, then, is the cause of mental health problems among poorer people? Nature or culture? Costello’s conclusion was both: the stress of poverty puts people genetically predisposed to develop an illness or disorder at an elevated risk. But there’s a more important takeaway from this study.

Genes can’t be undone. Poverty can.

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Seems like a good argument for Universal Basic Income.
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Andy Rubin’s Essential Products is shutting down • 9to5Google

Abner Li:

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Essential Products https://www.essential.com/blog/essential-update today that it’s ceasing operations and shutting down. Founded by the controversial Andy Rubin, the startup last August showed off a radical ‘GEM’ smartphone.

Today’s shutdown is framed as due to Essential having “no clear path to deliver” its next smartphone to customers.

Despite our best efforts, we’ve now taken Gem as far as we can and regrettably have no clear path to deliver it to customers. Given this, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations and shutdown Essential.

Essential was founded in 2015 following long-time Android head Andy Rubin’s departure from Google, which emerged in 2018 was due to alleged sexual misconduct. The Essential Phone was first detailed in mid-2017, along with a smart hub called the Essential Home. The latter product never materialized, while the PH-1 launched in August of that year.

While the smartphone did not sell well, it was one of the first devices to feature a minimal notch for the front-facing camera. It was also applauded for getting fast Android updates, though that is ending today.

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Love how the notice that it’s shutting down is an “An update” rather than, say, “sayonara and thanks for all the fish”. Essential’s fate was sealed from that very first, overconfident, phone launched into a market that had already hit the wall.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1242: how the CIA spied on everyone, FTC to query past tech buyups, now wash your hands!, Razr reviewed, and more


Coronavirus concerns means Mobile World Congress in Barcelona might be this empty – or not happen at all. CC-licensed photo by Red.es on Flickr.

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

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

How the CIA used Crypto AG encryption devices to spy on countries for decades • Washington Post

Greg Miller:

»

For more than half a century, governments all over the world trusted a single company to keep the communications of their spies, soldiers and diplomats secret.

The company, Crypto AG, got its first break with a contract to build code-making machines for U.S. troops during World War II. Flush with cash, it became a dominant maker of encryption devices for decades, navigating waves of technology from mechanical gears to electronic circuits and, finally, silicon chips and software.

The Swiss firm made millions of dollars selling equipment to more than 120 countries well into the 21st century. Its clients included Iran, military juntas in Latin America, nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, and even the Vatican.

But what none of its customers ever knew was that Crypto AG was secretly owned by the CIA in a highly classified partnership with West German intelligence. These spy agencies rigged the company’s devices so they could easily break the codes that countries used to send encrypted messages.

The decades-long arrangement, among the most closely guarded secrets of the Cold War, is laid bare in a classified, comprehensive CIA history of the operation obtained by The Washington Post and ZDF, a German public broadcaster, in a joint reporting project.

«

Stunning piece of reporting. The CIA only sold off its interests finally in 2018. That gave it nearly 50 years of listening. In its way, quite a strong negative for Huawei: after all, if the CIA could do this (as well as plant bugs in Cisco routers sent to China), what might China do to be able to listen to anyone’s phone calls or data transmission?
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I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London • WIRED UK

James Temperton with an in-depth, deeply researched piece:

»

On Airbnb, it turns out, scams aren’t just the preserve of lone chancers. As the short-term rental goldrush gathers pace, Airbnb empires are being rapidly scaled and monetised, with professional operators creating scores of fake accounts, fake listings and fake reviews to run rings around Airbnb, local law enforcement and the guests who place their trust in the platform. Reviews from guests paint a grim picture of people who have been tricked into staying in accommodation with blocked drains, broken fixtures and fittings, filthy floors, dirty bed linen – or, in some cases, accommodation that they simply did not book.

To squeeze every penny out of these inner-city goldmines, scammers have started outsourcing property management to ill-equipped call centres in the Philippines. The scammers call it “systemising”, a process of grabbing as many apartments as possible, filling them with identikit furniture, taking professional-looking photographs and then using every trick in the book to turn them into lucrative investments. Some of these tricks, though morally dubious, are perfectly legal. But others breach both Airbnb’s policies and local planning laws, while also putting the safety of guests at risk. As Vice found in October 2019, Airbnb is littered with fake and downright dodgy listings. But in London, where Airbnb enforces an annual 90-day limit on all “entire homes” listed on its platform, scammers have made a mockery of lax enforcement both by regulators and Airbnb itself, by turning entire new-build apartment blocks into de facto hotels designed for the short-term rental market. And the problem is far worse than anyone realises.

«

It’s basically a new form of the housing benefit scam, except it’s done with wealthier people. And this one – weirdly – also pulls in the Catholic church. Oh, and the artist married to the actor David Schwimmer. It’s quite the ride. And yes, Trading Standards, you should do something about it.
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Coronavirus: Facebook and Intel ditch MWC phone show • BBC News

Zoe Kleinman:

»

Facebook and Intel have become the latest big tech firms to announce they are withdrawing from MWC in Barcelona, citing concerns about coronavirus.
Spanish media is reporting that trade body the GSMA, which organises MWC, will meet to decide whether to cancel the event entirely on Friday.

The GSMA declined to comment on “internal meetings”.

Amazon, Sony, LG Electronics, Ericsson and US chip company Nvidia have already pulled out.

Other big brands have told the BBC they are reviewing their plans. Facebook said “evolving public health risks” were behind its decision.

So far the GSMA has said MWC will still go ahead.

However, one contact in the telecoms sector told the BBC that today was likely to be “a decisive day” for other firms contemplating dropping out.

More than 100,000 people usually attend Mobile World Congress every year, and thousands of firms exhibit. Around 6,000 people travel from China, according to GSMA figures.

«

Huawei “still evaluating”. TSMC, a big chipmaker and important for 5G, is out. As Francisco Jeronimo of IDC points out, the balancing act is: lose millions in revenue (GSMA, all of Barcelona); or win the horrorshow of having a confirmed case there and have to quarantine thousands of people. The narrow path through – hold the show, have no cases – looks increasingly fraught. Expectations seem to be that the GSMA will bite the bullet and cancel.
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FTC will examine prior acquisitions by Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:

»

The FTC will require the companies to provide information on acquisitions not previously reported to the antitrust agencies under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, according to a press release. Companies are required to submit merger and acquisition proposals that exceed a certain size for review by the FTC and Department of Justice, usually when a deal is valued at more than $90m, according to the FTC website. That means the special orders will be directed at smaller acquisitions and acqui-hires that might have been made quietly, rather than blockbuster deals like Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp that were formally reviewed by the antitrust agencies.

The FTC will likely examine discreet deals like those by Apple. CEO Tim Cook has previously told CNBC it acquires a company every two to three weeks on average, but it doesn’t announce the deals because the company is “primarily looking for talent and intellectual property.” Apple’s Big Tech peers regularly make small acquisitions as well.

“The orders will help the FTC deepen its understanding of large technology firms’ acquisition activity, including how these firms report their transactions to the federal antitrust agencies, and whether large tech companies are making potentially anticompetitive acquisitions of nascent or potential competitors that fall below HSR filing thresholds and therefore do not need to be reported to the antitrust agencies,” according to the release. “The orders will also contribute broadly to the FTC’s understanding of technology markets, and thereby support the FTC’s program of vigorous and effective enforcement to promote competition and protect consumers in digital markets.”

«

Already investigating Facebook; now adding a little more kindling to that fire, it seems.
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A teacher did an experiment to show the power of handwashing, and you can’t stay unimpressed • Brightside

»

At the beginning of winter, when flu season had just started, Jaralee Metcalf, a behavioral specialist from Idaho Falls Elementary School, shared that she was tired of always being sick. Although the spread of bacteria in her class was inevitable, she wanted to show the kids why they needed to wash their hands to kill germs.

To explain how bacteria spread and why it’s important to wash your hands well and often, Jaralee came up with a simple classroom activity with her students: she asked several kids with various levels of hand cleanliness to touch 5 pieces of white bread that were taken from the same loaf, at the same time. Then, they put the bread in individual plastic bags to observe what would happen over the course of one month.

The first piece was rubbed on all of the classroom laptops. The second one was a control piece — it wasn’t touched, it was placed immediately in the plastic bag and labeled “Fresh & untouched.” The third piece of bread was touched by the whole class using unwashed hands. For piece #4 the whole class washed their hands with warm water & soap and, again, touched the slice. And for bread piece #5, they cleaned their hands with hand sanitizer and then touched it.


© Jaralee Annice Metcalf / facebook

«

Not so keen on hand sanitisers now, are you? (Side note: I’ve never come across Brightside before; it seems to be a site eager to emulate the content farm in the TV series Succession which deploys headlines like “5 Reasons Why Drinking Milk on the Toilet Is Kind of a Game-Changer” and “Wait, Is Every Taylor Swift Lyric Secretly Marxist?” Because I’d like to point out that I can stay unimpressed if I damn well want to.)
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Clearview AI’s Hoan Ton-That says he’s stockpiling billions of our photos • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan tested Clearview, and it recognised him, but he was in a challenge-the-guy mood:

»

I wasn’t a random person Ton-That had pulled from a crowd. He knew he was coming to CNN to meet me and he knew I’d ask him to run my face through his system. He even admitted he had searched my images before we met. (And, it’s worth noting, though the photo [of Sullivan aged 15 from an Irish newspaper] is old and I’m almost unrecognizable, the page it’s on does include a caption with my name.)

So we surprised him and also asked him to run a search for my producer.

That at least appeared to make Ton-That a little nervous. “Can we cut this if it doesn’t work?” he quipped. We said no.

But it did work. As we scrolled through the images it had found, my producer noticed that Clearview had found pictures from her Instagram account, even though her account has been private, accessible only to her followers. Ton-That explained that Clearview had probably downloaded the photos from her account before she had made it private last year.

Ton-That’s representative had my producer’s name in advance of the interview but Ton-That said he had not run her face before the live demonstration. Both Clearview tests for my producer and I returned no false positives.

The parts of Ton-That’s demonstration that spooked my producer and me — his access to photos that are no longer publicly available online and his ability to find a photo of me as a minor — are likely among the things his law enforcement clients find appealing.

He said more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the US and Canada are using the tool, a number CNN Business has not independently verified, and when asked, he wouldn’t specify how many are paying customers versus those using free trials. He also said that a number of banks are using Clearview software for fraud investigations, but declined to name any of the banks. CNN Business reached out to America’s 20 largest bank chains. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, US Bank, Ally Bank and SunTrust all denied using the software. The others either declined to comment or didn’t respond to CNN Business’ request for comment.

«

I’d bet that lots of companies are trying out Clearview with eagerness – to spot troublesome customers or ex-employees – and that pretty much none of them are going to admit it. They’ll let Clearview take the flak.
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Popular YouTube Kids’ channel Cocomelon gets into merch and toys • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen and Lucas Shaw:

»

Jay Jeon is an unassuming mogul. No one takes notice of him as he slips into the corner booth at the Italian steakhouse steps from his Orange County office on a sunny Friday. Most any toddler who knew what the trim, soft-spoken 55-year-old does, however, would have gone nuts. Jeon runs Cocomelon, a YouTube channel dedicated to nursery rhymes and original songs, whose animated kids and creatures generate about 2.5 billion views in a typical month. That translates into as much as $11.3m in monthly ad revenue, according to estimates from industry analyst Social Blade. In terms of viewership, an average Cocomelon video dwarfs the turnout for most of the world’s sports leagues, pop stars, and scripted TV. It’s the second-most-watched YouTube channel, trailing only T-Series, India’s music king.

Cocomelon’s success has caught everyone off guard, including Jeon. For more than a decade, he and his wife ran their channel more or less by themselves, and he was happy that way. The steakhouse meeting is his first press interview ever, and one condition was that he not be photographed, for fear of paparazzi.

«

They upload one new video a week; most of the rest of the views are on older content. If you wondered what happened to childrens’ TV, it’s this: it turned into YouTube channels that kids watch on their tablets.
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Marketplaces and scalability: lessons from Uber and Airbnb • Medium

Sameer Singh:

»

Uber and Lyft are valued at roughly 2–3 times total equity funding raised (incl. funds raised in their IPO). Airbnb is far more capital efficient, with a valuation-to-funding multiple of 9–10x. In other words, Airbnb created 3–5 times more value than Uber or Lyft for every dollar of funding raised. This is critical for investors to understand as it directly affects returns.

Despite the common “sharing economy” tag applied to them, Uber and Airbnb are built on very different models. Both run marketplaces that connect underutilized assets (and later, professionals) to consumers, with a self-reinforcing network effect, i.e. the addition of a supplier makes the product more valuable for all customers, and vice versa. They were both founded in Silicon Valley and were venture capital funded. However, that is where the similarities end.

Uber’s model relies on hyperlocal network effects, i.e. the addition of a unit of supply (a driver) makes the product more valuable for the demand side (riders) within a small geographic radius. So when Uber acquired a driver in a city, it only helped it grow organically within that city (usually, within a small part of that city). And when Uber expanded to other cities, they had to re-invest in driver acquisition without the benefit of any latent demand. They had no drivers and so did not have riders to attract them organically (commonly called the “cold start” problem). This was complicated further by the fact that Uber’s success catalysed competitors in other markets who then created their own local driver networks before Uber could enter them (e.g. Didi in China, Ola in India, Careem in the Middle East, Grab in South East Asia, etc.). Since local competitors had an established hyperlocal network effect, it became even more expensive for Uber to enter and operate in these markets. As a result, Uber was forced to eventually sell many of its regional units to local competitors and acquire others…

…Airbnb’s model, on the other hand, is built on cross-border network effects, i.e. the addition of a unit of supply (a host) makes the product more valuable for the demand side (guests) across geographic boundaries.

«

Singh, you’ll recall, has joined 6CVentures, a VC firm built by founders. This is a great analysis. Although of course AirBnB – and Uber – have other wrinkles, as seen above.
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Motorola Razr review: a tragedy unfolds • Input Magazine

Joshua Topolsky:

»

Let me put this very bluntly. The screen on the Razr is gross. It ripples, it creaks, it moves when you touch it, it very visibly shows creases and bumps when the display is off. Its physicality is pronounced in a way that is simply very different than any other smartphone display on the market. It doesn’t feel nice, it feels worrying. But to be clear, it’s also fine. It works exactly as any other phone does. It’s responsive to touch. Images and videos look crisp and clear, text is easy to read. It is a phone screen. But you’re going to be surprised about the way it feels and scared about its longevity. Because of the nature of the folding display and the lack of maturity these kinds of devices naturally exhibit, this kind of wonkiness is probably going to be with us for quite some time. But I want to be clear: it’s fine. It’s fine!

One thing that did bug me endlessly, however: the display never unfolds to completely flat (or straight). The upper part of the phone always sits at a very slight angle, so that if it’s on a flat surface you can wobble it a bit. I desperately wanted the screen to go flat, but unless you bend the phone backwards in a worrying way, it can’t be done. Why? We may never know.

Otherwise, I actually found the display to be somewhat too small and too skinny. The keyboard feels microscopic on the screen, even when adjusting screen resolution and keyboard height (of course, maybe my monstrously large hands are the problem). Websites feel claustrophobic in the browser. Apps seem like their sides have squeezed into submission. When you add in that giant chin, the whole configuration sort of forces your hands to hover over and down into the screen, like someone slid a wrist rest under your hands while using it. You get used to it, but it’s weird and uncomfortable at first.

«

Anyway, yours for $1,500. (Side note: it seems The Outline is still going. So is Input a spinoff? Has Topolsky moved on? I feel that I missed a memo somewhere.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1241: Oscar winner keys Apple, QAnon infects reality, Wuhan coronavirus takes toll on smartphones and MWC, Hong Kong v Swiss watches, and more


Start streaming, and start being tracked with data sent in cleartext to advertisers, a new paper finds. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. For some value of “links”. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Watching you watch: the tracking system of over-the-top TV streaming devices • the morning paper

Adrian Colyer:

»

The results from this paper are all too predictable: channels on Over-The-Top (OTT) streaming devices are insecure and riddled with privacy leaks. The authors quantify the scale of the problem, and note that users have even less viable defence mechanisms than they do on web and mobile platforms. When you watch TV, the TV is watching you.

»

In this paper, we examine the advertising and tracking ecosystems of Over-The-Top (“OTT”) streaming devices, which deliver Internet-based video content to traditional TVs/display devices. OTT devices refer to a family of services and devices that either directly connect to a TV (e.g., streaming sticks and boxes) or enable functionality within a TV (e.g. smart TVs) to facilitate the delivery of Internet-based video content.

«

The study focuses on Roku and Amazon Fire TV, which together account for between 59% and 65% of the global market…

…Trackers are everywhere! On Roku TV, the most prevalent tracker is for Google’s doubleclick.net (975/1000 channels). On Amazon Fire TV it is amazon-adsystem.com (687/1000). Facebook is notably less present on TV than it is in mobile and web channels…

…Nine of the top 100 channels on Roku, and 14 of the top 100 channels on Amazon Fire TV leak the title of each video watched to a tracking domain. The Roku channels leaked this information over unencrypted connections.

79% of Roku channels send at least one request in cleartext, and 76% of Fire TV channels.

«

Amazing how pretty much every platform has to rediscover security as a followup, but is fantastically good at implementing whatever the advertising world works. A little reminder that you, the customer, mean far less than them, the advertisers.
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Taika Waititi slams Apple’s MacBook keyboards after winning first Oscar • The Verge

Sam Byford:

»

Speaking with journalists after winning his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Jojo Rabbit and Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi had other things on his mind. When asked what he thought writers should be demanding in the next round of discussions with producers, Waititi put Apple’s controversial laptop keyboards on blast.

“Apple needs to fix those keyboards,” he said. “They are impossible to write on — they’ve gotten worse. It makes me want to go back to PCs. Because PC keyboards, the bounce-back for your fingers is way better. Hands up who still uses a PC? You know what I’m talking about. It’s a way better keyboard. Those Apple keyboards are horrendous.”

“I’ve got some shoulder problems,” Waititi continued. “I’ve got OOS [Occupational Overuse Syndrome, a term used in New Zealand for RSI] — I don’t know what you call it over here, this sort of thing here (gestures to arm), that tendon which goes down your forearm down into the thumb? You know what I’m talking about, if you guys are ever writing. And what happens is you open the laptop and you’re like this (makes uncomfortable hunched-over-laptop pose) — we’ve just got to fix those keyboards. The WGA [Writers’ Guild of America, for screenplay writers] needs to step in and actually do something.”

«

As in his fantastic film*, Waititi is using humour to make a serious point. Apple really needs to put scissor switches into the MacBook Air pronto.

* not the Thor one, which is passable, but its screenplay can’t hold a candle to Jojo Rabbit.
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Tech’s strangest job listings: Future Edition • protocol

Lauren Hepler:

»

Ninjas, evangelists, alchemists: Silicon Valley has a long history of unsubtly repackaging jobs that might otherwise be titled technical support, marketing or office management.

But beyond the distinctive euphemisms, the thousands of jobs posted each week by tech behemoths, well-heeled startups and those trying to bridge the valley of death in between often hint at more dramatic economic shifts underway. And, hey, even if those world-changing ideas don’t materialize, the listings provide a useful record of what once, for some reason, seemed like a good idea.

We’ve rounded up a half dozen of the most intriguing current job openings in tech. Some sound perfectly normal at first, while the jobs they describe are anything but. Others sound bonkers but may be extremely normal. Who can tell? Enjoy.

«

By far the most inflated is “Overnight Happiness Ambassador”, which as Hepler points out, probably just means “person who delivers snacks in the wee hours.”
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What happens when QAnon seeps from the web to the offline world • The New York Times

Mike McIntire and Kevin Roose:

»

What began online more than two years ago as an intricate, if baseless, conspiracy theory that quickly attracted thousands of followers has since found footholds in the offline world. QAnon has surfaced in political campaigns, criminal cases, merchandising and at least one college class. Last month, hundreds of QAnon enthusiasts gathered in a Tampa, Fla., park to listen to speakers and pick up literature, and in England, a supporter of President Trump and the Brexit leader Nigel Farage raised a “Q” flag over a Cornish castle.
Most recently, the botched Iowa Democratic caucuses and the coronavirus outbreak have provided fodder for conspiracy mongering: QAnon fans shared groundless theories online linking the liberal billionaire George Soros to technological problems that hobbled the caucuses, and passed around bogus and potentially dangerous “treatments” for the virus.

About a dozen candidates for public office in the United States have promoted or dabbled in QAnon, and its adherents have been arrested in at least seven episodes, including a murder in New York and an armed standoff with the police near the Hoover Dam. The F.B.I. cited QAnon in an intelligence bulletin last May about the potential for violence motivated by “fringe political conspiracy theories.”

Matthew Lusk, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary for a Florida congressional seat and openly embraces QAnon, said in an email that its anonymous creator was a patriot who “brings what the fake news will not touch without slanting.” As for the theory’s more extreme elements, Mr. Lusk said he was uncertain whether there really was a pedophile ring associated with the deep state.

“That being said,” he added, “I do believe there is a group in Brussels, Belgium, that do eat aborted babies.”

«

In the race between education and catastrophe, you have to say that education is labouring under something of a disadvantage, which is that it requires rational thinking.
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Building rules in public: our approach to synthetic and manipulated media • Twitter

Yoel Roth and Ashita Achuthan:

»

If we believe that media shared in a Tweet have been significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated, we will provide additional context on the Tweet. This means we may:

• Apply a label to the Tweet;
• Show a warning to people before they Retweet or like the Tweet;
• Reduce the visibility of the Tweet on Twitter and/or prevent it from being recommended; and/or
• Provide additional explanations or clarifications, as available, such as a landing page with more context.

In most cases, we will take all of the above actions on Tweets we label.

«

So that’s Twitter laying out its stall on how it will deal with faked video (starting from March 5). At first it sounds good, but on closer inspection it’s exactly the same as Facebook’s approach, as laid out by Monica Bickert in this (faintly maddening) encounter with CNN’s Anderson Cooper from May 2019, over the manipulated Pelosi video: label it, tell people it’s junk (but don’t prevent them passing it on), don’t remove it.

And since we’re talking about manipulation via social media…
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How social media platforms enable politicians to undermine democracy • Vox

Zack Beauchamp:

»

At the inauguration of Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, in early January, a crowd of his supporters began a surprising chant. They weren’t cheering for Bolsonaro or his running mate or their party; instead, they were reciting the names of social media platforms.

“Facebook, Facebook, Facebook!” the crowd yelled. “WhatsApp, WhatsApp, WhatsApp!”

They were crediting the platforms with their man’s victory, and they aren’t entirely wrong. During the campaign, a conservative pro-business interest group funded a massive disinformation campaign on WhatsApp (the popular messaging app owned by Facebook). False and damaging information about Bolsonaro’s left-wing opponent, including fake news mocked up to look like neutral fact-checks, spread like wildfire in the runup to the October 8 vote. This deluge, according to one Brazilian expert, played a role in Bolsonaro’s victory.

The glee Bolsonaro’s supporters exhibited points to a troubling development, one familiar to many Americans: Social media, once seen as a profoundly democratic technology, is increasingly serving the needs of authoritarians and their allies.

Many observers have noted that entrenched authoritarian states, like Russia and China, have gotten very good at manipulating these platforms to marginalize domestic dissidents and destabilize democracies abroad. What’s gotten less attention is how authoritarian factions inside democratic states — far-right politicians and parties that are at best indifferent to democratic norms — benefit from the nature of modern social media platforms.

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Hypothesis: western social media networks as presently configured are more congruent with authoritarian regimes than laissez-faire ones, despite being set up under the latter.
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In light of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak’s impact on smartphone supply chain, 1Q20 global production forecast revised to 12% decrease YoY • TrendForce

»

Samsung has suffered the least damage from the outbreak, but because it sources some of its components from China, Samsung’s 1Q20 production forecast has been reduced by 3% compared to our previous forecast, registering 71.5m units. Huawei, which ranks second in terms of quarterly production volume, was placed on the U.S. Entity List and subsequently prevented from installing GMS [Google Mobile services] on their newer models, lowering their overseas sales. Turning to a business model that heavily focuses on the Chinese market, Huawei sustained major losses under stagnant Chinese New Year sales numbers. Owing to losses in both domestic and overseas markets, Huawei is projected to produce 42.5m units in 1Q20, a 15% decrease from our previous forecast.

Third-place Apple made arrangements for its employees to work from home in an effort to reduce risks of infection, but this has the side effect of slowing down the development of new iPhones in 2H20, with component certification coming to a near halt. In the short term, Apple faces uncertainties in its labor force’s work resumption, and the supply of certain key components involved in the production of new iPhones cannot be properly delivered. These setbacks will directly affect the upcoming release of iPhone SE2 (also known as iPhone 9) and lower our forecast of 1Q20 iPhone production by about 10%, from 45.5m to 41m units.

Fourth-ranked Xiaomi primarily relies on online sales, with a relatively low market share in China at about 9%. Compared to OPPO and Vivo, which have a domestically focused sales model, Xiaomi is not as affected by the outbreak; thus, TrendForce is revising its 1Q20 production forecast to 10% lower than our previous projection, with 2.47m units produced in the quarter, essentially unchanged from 1Q19. Also, TrendForce is lowering Oppo and Vivo’s production forecasts by 14% and 15%, with 2.4m and 1.7m units produced, respectively. Oppo and Vivo rank fifth and sixth place globally in 1Q20.

«

This is likely to continue to March; I’d expect disruption to continue until April at least.
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Companies not attending MWC2020 • The Mobile Network

Keith Dyer keeping the list here up to date. Growing fast, following a GSM Association statement on 9 February that “All travellers who have been in China will need to demonstrate proof they have been outside of China 14 days prior to the event.” In other words, they had to have left by Monday 10th, as the event starts on the 24th.

The not-coming list now includes Sony, China’s Umidigi (maker of cheap.. er, affordable smartphones), NTT Docomo, Amazon, Nvidia, Ericsson (the second largest exhibitor), and LG. Going to be quite the tricky game for Huawei and Nokia to see who blinks first, if at all.
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Data Voids • Data & Society

Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd:

»

Data voids are often difficult to detect. Most can be harmless until something happens that causes lots of people to search for the same term, such as a breaking news event, or a reporter using an unfamiliar phrase. In some cases, manipulators work quickly to produce conspiratorial content to fill a void, whereas other data voids, such as those from outdated terms, are filled slowly over time. Data voids are compounded by the fraught pathways of search-adjacent recommendation systems such as auto-play, auto-fill, and trending topics; each of which are vulnerable to manipulation.

The report identifies five types of data voids in play:

• Breaking News: The production of problematic content can be optimized to terms that are suddenly spiking due to a breaking news situation; these voids will eventually be filled by legitimate news content, but are abused before such content exists
• Strategic New Terms: Manipulators create new terms and build a strategically optimized information ecosystem around them before amplifying those terms into the mainstream, often through news media, in order to introduce newcomers to problematic content and frames
• Outdated Terms: When terms go out of date, content creators stop producing content associated with these terms long before searchers stop seeking out content. This creates an opening for manipulators to produce content that exploits search engines’ dependence on freshness
• Fragmented Concepts: By breaking connections between related ideas, and creating distinct clusters of information that refer to different political frames, manipulators can segment searchers into different information worlds
• Problematic Queries: Search results for disturbing or fraught terms that have historically returned problematic results continue to do so, unless high quality content is introduced to contextualize or outrank such problematic content.

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The report is from November 2019, but has lost none of its relevance. (Also: best use of “fraught” you’ll see today.)
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November 2019: Hong Kong crisis batters Swiss watch exports • Hodinkee

Joe Thompson:

»

Swiss watch exports to Hong Kong dropped 30% in value in October versus the previous year, underscoring the severe impact of the worsening political situation there on the local economy.

Six months of protests by pro-democracy demonstrators against the Beijing-backed local government have pushed Hong Kong into a recession. Increasingly violent clashes between protestors and the police have forced the closure of luxury retail shops in the world-renowned shopping Mecca. 

For the Swiss watch industry, the unexpected downturn in its top export market has become a major concern. Exports to Hong Kong have fallen for seven consecutive months. October’s drop was the worst yet: for the month, Hong Kong fell to third place in the Swiss watch export ranking, behind the U.S. and China. 

Hong Kong’s 30% decline “had a significant impact on global growth, reducing it by five points,” said the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), which issues export data each month. “The rest of the world generally saw an upturn, 6.5%,” the FH said. However, including Hong Kong, total global exports for October rose just 1.5%.

«

Thus answering my suspicions that the high-end Swiss watch industry hasn’t been touched by Apple. (And, to reiterate: the low end such as Swatch may well be.) The Wuhan coronavirus is surely going to hit that much harder again. (Thanks Barry Collins for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1240: Trump admin grabs location data, the disinformation war, Apple v Swiss watches, how antivaxx can kill, and more


A manufacturing plant fire marks a serious threat to the supply of this stuff. CC-licensed photo by Ninα 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. Isn’t that something? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Federal agencies use cellphone location data for immigration enforcement • WSJ

Byron Tau and Michelle Hackman:

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The Trump administration has bought access to a commercial database that maps the movements of millions of cellphones in America and is using it for immigration and border enforcement, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The location data is drawn from ordinary cellphone apps, including those for games, weather and e-commerce, for which the user has granted permission to log the phone’s location.

The Department of Homeland Security has used the information to detect undocumented immigrants and others who may be entering the U.S. unlawfully, according to these people and documents.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of DHS, has used the data to help identify immigrants who were later arrested, these people said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another agency under DHS, uses the information to look for cellphone activity in unusual places, such as remote stretches of desert that straddle the Mexican border, the people said.

The federal government’s use of such data for law enforcement purposes hasn’t previously been reported.

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Now, many will be quick to say this is perfectly fine. After all, if people are undocumented, they’re in the country illegally, surely? But what happens when the government pushes the rules again and starts tracking people who are legally in the country, but whose status the government wants to change? Mostly importantly, who says no about tracking this data? The slip from enforcement to dictatorship isn’t a long one, and we know how data about people can be used for the worst purposes. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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The 2020 [US] election will be a war of disinformation • The Atlantic

McKay Coppins:

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The president’s reelection campaign was [last autumn/fall] in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.

The story that unfurled in my Facebook feed over the next several weeks was, at times, disorienting. There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?

As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: “That’s right, the whistleblower’s own lawyer said, ‘The coup has started …’ ” Swipe. “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” Swipe. “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” Swipe. “Only one man can stop this chaos …” Swipe, swipe, swipe.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.

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Those checks and balances in the US Constitution are increasingly clearly the emptiest of promises. The GOP has crossed that line too: it has fallen so in love with being in power that it has abandoned any principles that might get in the way of that. It’s the only tiniest of steps from there to Chinese-style authoritarianism.
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How Apple killed the Swiss watch industry • Forbes

Enrique Dans:

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Later that year, I discussed technology substitution in the watch sector. In May 2017, I pointed out that three years of growing sales of smartwatches and a consecutive drop in exports by the Swiss watch industry represented an unprecedented crisis, one that heralded its demise, consigning it to the past and that while it would retain its followers, they would be a residual market. As I said at the time, when disruption hits, hoping that the inertia of tradition, style and other intangibles will save the bottom line won’t cut it.

Apple’s reinvention of the wristwatch is not only evident in its impressive sales figures: it can be seen by analyzing its usage dynamics. When somebody acquires an Apple Watch, they typically tell themselves they will wear it sometimes, but remain faithful to their favorite traditional watch. After all, the Swiss industry has been trying for years to get us to see watches as a fashion accessory or collectable. For many watch enthusiasts, a Swiss watch was a powerful status symbol.

But once you have tasted the apple, you’re lost. Experience shows that the Apple Watch is more than something that tells the time, and is instead receives notifications, evaluates your physical activity, shows the weather forecast, tells you if your team has won, and a myriad other things, including whether you are suffering from an arrhythmia. As soon as you start using the Apple Watch, you realize one thing is clear: the rest of your watch collection will live on in a drawer from now on. And every time you’re tempted to take them out and use them instead of the Apple device, you spend the whole day looking at your wrist for information that isn’t there.

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I’ll take the contrary position: I think that Apple largely isn’t responsible for the fall in Swiss watch sales, at least at the high end. It may well be at the low end, since an Apple Watch does a hell of a lot more than a Swatch does, and lots of Americans have iPhones. But I’ve been hearing that high-end sales (or prices; effectively the same thing, for the watchmakers) are down. Is the sort of person who would drop $80,000 on a Rolex really going to opt for a $500 Watch? I just don’t think so. What I don’t know is where that money that would go on Rolexes is going. Nor can I find – yet – any data about it. Pointers welcome.
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On Facebook, anti-vaxxers urged a mom not to give her son Tamiflu. He later died • NBC News

Brandy Zadrozny:

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Facebook hosts a vast network of groups that trade in false health information. On “Stop Mandatory Vaccination,” one of the largest known health misinformation groups with more than 178,000 members, people have solicited advice for how to deal with the flu. Members of the group have previously spread conspiracies that outbreaks of preventable diseases are “hoaxes” perpetrated by the government, and use the groups to mass-contact parents whose children have died and suggest without evidence that vaccines may be to blame.

One recent post came from the mother of a 4-year-old Colorado boy who died from the flu this week. In it, she consulted group members while noting that she had declined to fill a prescription written by a doctor.

The child had not been diagnosed yet, but he was running a fever and had a seizure, the mother wrote. She added that two of her four children had been diagnosed with the flu and that the doctor had prescribed the antiviral Tamiflu for everyone in the household.

“The doc prescribed tamiflu I did not pick it up,” she wrote.

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So much for the wisdom of crowds. Or at least that crowd.
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The five-year plan for telecom equipment • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Goldberg (and, possibly, others):

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Late yesterday, the [Wall Street] Journal reported on comments made by US Attorney General Barr to the affect that the US government should construct a telecom equipment vendor that could compete with Chinese equipment major Huawei.

Put simply, this is a terrible idea.

The United States has built an incredible economy without ever involving government directly in this level of economic planning. Why should this country abandon the principles of free market capitalism that have driven its immense wealth?

We have worked in and around the telecom industry for a long time, and below we list the many reasons why this project will ultimately fail, and likely do a lot of harm in the process.

Our first impression of this proposal is that it is so ludicrous as to not merit a response. Better to ignore it because it is likely not a real effort. Last year, there were rumors of similar government intervention in the wireless industry. Those sank beneath the waves of political fever without a ripple, and it seems likely that this will as well. But this one stuck with us, and here we are. This is not intended as a partisan piece, both major US political parties have their share of political lunacy right now. We are clearly in election year Silly Season. But we do not know healthcare, taxation or energy, so we are going to write about this one, about which we do know a thing or two.

So why is this a bad idea?

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He offers multiple, interconnected reasons. All solid. It’s quite strange that the US government is even beginning to contemplate this.
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Motorola Razr ‘breaks’ after just 27,000 folds in CNet’s testing video (Update: adds Motorola’s statement) • Android Police

Ryne Hager:

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It looks like the Moto Razr wasn’t able to last anywhere near as long in CNet’s test as the old Galaxy Fold did. The phone “broke” after just 27,000 folds. After developing a clicking noise when folding, it developed a “hitch,” with the hinge appearing to fall out of alignment, and the automated folding machine was unable to close the device correctly. However, the screen on the device is still working. Failure, in this case, is a relative metric — it’s not like the phone exploded.

CNet’s video hosts admit they used the phone somewhat before recording to test that everything was working correctly with the automated machine, so that may have had an effect. Even so, Moto’s folding phone could have fared better, and these results don’t speak well for the phone’s potential durability.

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Motorola’s response was, roughly, “you’re test-folding it wrong.”
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Why Google might prefer dropping a $22bn business • Yahoo

Alex Webb:

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Whenever people rattle off big tech deals whose regulatory approval was, in hindsight, a mistake, they tend to include the Alphabet Inc. unit’s $3.2 billion acquisition of DoubleClick in 2008. I’ve done it three times in the past 12 months — here, here and here — lumping it alongside Facebook Inc.’s deals for WhatsApp and Instagram on the antitrust wall of shame.

So you can well imagine how, in one of those funky conference rooms at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, divesting DoubleClick might emerge as a solution for the company’s growing antitrust woes. “If DoubleClick is the problem,” the argument goes, “why don’t we just sell DoubleClick?”

Such informal conversations have taken place, according to a Wall Street Journal report on Wednesday. Except it’s not DoubleClick per se (Google rebranded the product in 2018) but part of its successor: what Google calls its third-party advertising business, which places ads on websites that Google doesn’t operate itself, such as a banner ad at the top of a news website.

Selling a slice of its advertising technology operation would be a significant concession (a Google spokeswoman told the Journal it had no plans to exit the business). But selling the third-party business would not unravel Google’s dominant position in online ads. It and Facebook are the gatekeepers for some two-thirds of all online ad spending. That outlay totaled $295 billion globally last year, according to the World Advertising Research Council. Google itself hoovered up 46% of the spending, some of which gets forwarded to third parties. For example, when an ad runs during or before a video on YouTube, Google hands about 55% of the fee to the publisher.

Google’s network members unit generated sales of $21.5bn last year, the majority of which was most likely for third-party websites. For context, that’s 40% more than the trailing 12-month sales of WPP Plc, the world’s largest advertising agency. But as a proportion of the global total, it’s a drop in the ocean.

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The Human Screenome Project • Stanford University

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Mapping the human screenome can be a critical and cross-cutting part of solutions and theories about social challenges involving media – from fake news to smartphone addiction to social media and mental health.
 

This video shows a sample movie of one person’s smartphone use for 3 minutes.  Every 5 seconds that the phone screen is activated, a screenshot is recorded, compressed, encrypted and transmitted to secure servers at  the Human Screenome Project at Stanford University.  The movie shows a compilation of screens that represents 15 mins of use over approximately 2 hours of one day.  The movie demonstrates that digital content is diverse and fragmented, with different content threaded into sequences that break apart traditional message (e.g., videos, news stories, conversations) but make sense to individual users.

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The “screenome” being the digital representation of what you do on your phone. It’s ambitious, to say the least.
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“Devastating” manufacturing plant fire threatens worldwide vinyl record supply • Pitchfork

Noah Yoo:

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Apollo Masters—a manufacturing plant that supplies the lacquer used for making master discs, which are used to make vinyl records—suffered a fire on Thursday, February 6, at its manufacturing and storage facility in Banning, California, The Desert Sun reports. No employees were injured in the “devastating” blaze, which completely destroyed the facility. A note on Apollo Masters’ website reads, “We are uncertain of our future at this point and are evaluating options as we try to work through this difficult time.” Figures in the vinyl record production industry have expressed similar concern.

“From my understanding, this fire will present a problem for the vinyl industry worldwide,” Ben Blackwell, co-founder of Third Man Records told Pitchfork in an email. “There are only TWO companies that make lacquers in the world, and the other, MDC in Japan, already had trouble keeping up with demand BEFORE this development.” (The emphasis is Blackwell’s.)

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Well this certainly creates a problem for vinyl’s plans to overthrow streaming and get us all back buying 12in remixes of singles.
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Springs-loaded: test-driving Nike’s Vaporfly running shoe • The Guardian

Elle Hunt:

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“If you hear the sound barrier being broken over Burgess Park,” I said to my flatmate as I left the house, “that will be me.”

I was joking, sort of. Ahead of me, the 5km local parkrun. Beneath me, or at least on my feet, a new pair of Nike Vaporflys – the most talked-about trainers in the world. And not just any old Vaporflys. I was road testing the even newer Vaporfly Next%, scientifically proven – it is claimed – to make plodders into joggers, and joggers into runners.

So much spring has been put into so many steps by these shoes, it has been branded “technological doping” by some in the world of athletics.

Looking at the science before heading out, it seemed that these trainers were higher-tech than the Toyota Starlet in which I learned to drive – and quite possibly faster. Even the design, in a very precisely calibrated turquoise and tangerine, makes it look as though your feet are sliding outwards off your legs.

Sandwiched inside the thick, ultra-lightweight foam is a carbon-fibre plate that is supposed to propel you forward. Nike loftily terms it the “4% system”, which refers to the percentage improvement in running efficiency the shoe is supposed to give you.

Elite runners don’t need convincing. Of the 36 possible podium finishes in world marathon majors in 2017, 19 were wearing Vaporflys.

But none of those medallist marathoners are likely to have pounded the paths of Burgess parkrun in Southwark, south London. The Next% I was wearing was apparently the next step up, promising “a statistically significant improvement” on the original.

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Terrific idea for an article. Hunt is your average 28-minute 5K runner, so her questions were: would anything change, and if so would it be “statistically significant” at her level?
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An AI epidemiologist sent the first warnings of the Wuhan coronavirus • WIRED

Eric Niiler:

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“We know that governments may not be relied upon to provide information in a timely fashion,” says Kamran Khan, BlueDot’s founder and CEO. “We can pick up news of possible outbreaks, little murmurs or forums or blogs of indications of some kind of unusual events going on.”

Khan says the algorithm doesn’t use social media postings because that data is too messy. But he does have one trick up his sleeve: access to global airline ticketing data that can help predict where and when infected residents are headed next. It correctly predicted that the virus would jump from Wuhan to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo in the days following its initial appearance.

Khan, who was working as a hospital infectious disease specialist in Toronto during the SARS epidemic of 2003, dreamt of finding a better way to track diseases. That virus started in provincial China and spread to Hong Kong and then to Toronto, where it killed 44 people. “There’s a bit of deja vu right now,” Khan says about the coronavirus outbreak today. “In 2003, I watched the virus overwhelm the city and cripple the hospital. There was an enormous amount of mental and physical fatigue, and I thought, ‘Let’s not do this again.’”

After testing out several predictive programs, Khan launched BlueDot in 2014 and raised $9.4m in venture capital funding. The company now has 40 employees—physicians and programmers who devise the disease surveillance analytic program, which uses natural-language processing and machine learning techniques to sift through news reports in 65 languages, along with airline data and reports of animal disease outbreaks. “What we have done is use natural language processing and machine learning to train this engine to recognize whether this is an outbreak of anthrax in Mongolia versus a reunion of the heavy metal band Anthrax,” Kahn says.

Once the automated data-sifting is complete, human analysis takes over, Khan says. Epidemiologists check that the conclusions make sense from a scientific standpoint, and then a report is sent to government, business, and public health clients.

BlueDot’s reports are then sent to public health officials in a dozen countries (including the US and Canada), airlines, and frontline hospitals where infected patients might end up. BlueDot doesn’t sell their data to the general public, but they are working on it, Khan says.

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I’d really like to know what their hit rate is. It sounds like you could make anything from that data.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1239: mobile adblocking rockets, EU quizzes Facebook on data, the real risk of website leaks, China’s coronavirus challenge, and more


Knitting might seem an unlikely pastime for a spiral of holier-than-thou oneupmanship – so of course it happened. CC-licensed photo by Avital Pinnick on Flickr.

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

A selection of 12 links for you. Set phasers to fun. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Adblocking takes off on mobile phones, a challenge for publishers • CNET

Stephen Shankland:

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The number of people using ad-blocking technology on mobile browsers has surged to 527 million, an increase of 64% over the last three years, according to a report published Thursday. Combined with ad blocking on personal computers, that means a total of 763 million devices were running ad blockers in the fourth quarter of 2019, the report said.

That means about 15% to 30% of website traffic is using an ad blocker, said Marty Kratky-Katz, chief executive of Blockthrough, a Toronto-based company that helps publishers try to cope with ad blocking.


Source: Blockthrough/PageFair

“Although desktop ad blocking has peaked, mobile adoption is growing rapidly,” Kratky-Katz said in the report. One reason PC ad blocking is now waning is that people in North America, Europe and China simply don’t use PCs as much these days for browsing, the company said.

Just because somebody is using an ad blocker doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily have all their ads blocked on the web, though. The top-used browser extension, Eyeo’s Adblock Plus, by default shows ads that meet its Acceptable Ads standard for less intrusive ads, though big publishers must pay to not be blocked. Blockthrough’s business also involves helping publishers show that type of ad to people with ad blockers installed.

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Typically a lot of this adblocking is done by people in developing countries where data is comparatively expensive, using mobile browsers such as Opera. There’s no obvious detail like that in the writeups. (You can request a copy of the report from Blockthrough, which touts itself as “the leading solution for adblock revenue recovery”, which makes it sound something like a firm of internet bailiffs.)
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EU deepens antitrust inquiry into Facebook’s data practices • WSJ

Sam Schechner, Emily Glazer and Valentina Pop:

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The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has in recent weeks ramped up its pursuit of documents related to allegations by rival companies and politicians that Facebook leveraged access to its users’ data to stifle competition, rewarding partners and cutting off rivals, those people said.

Investigators are reviewing changes Facebook made to software interfaces that let app developers access its data, as well as Facebook’s use of Onavo, an Israeli virtual-private-network app the tech giant bought in 2013, the people added. Onavo provided Facebook detailed data on its VPN customers’ use of rival apps, giving Facebook intelligence on competitors before they became major threats, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2018.

Facebook, which shut down Onavo last year, said it used the app as one of several market intelligence tools and disclosed its data collection to users. It has said it maintained a principled approach to working with app developers, and that changes to its platform were geared toward building a sustainable business.

As part of the preliminary probe, the commission in recent weeks ordered Facebook to produce an array of documents—including internal emails, chat logs and presentations related to those topics—using an EU law that allows for daily fines to punish noncompliance, the people familiar with the matter said.

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Exclusive: China’s mobile giants to take on Google’s Play store – sources • Reuters

David Kirton:

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China’s Xiaomi, Huawei Technologies, Oppo and Vivo are joining forces to create a platform for developers outside China to upload apps onto all of their app stores simultaneously, in a move analysts say is meant to challenge the dominance of Google’s Play store.

The four companies are ironing out kinks in what is known as the Global Developer Service Alliance (GDSA). The platform aims to make it easier for developers of games, music, movies and other apps to market their apps in overseas markets, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The GDSA was initially aiming to launch in March, sources said, although it is not clear how that will be affected by the recent coronavirus outbreak.

A prototype website says the platform will initially cover nine “regions” including India, Indonesia and Russia.

Oppo and Vivo are both owned by Chinese manufacturer BBK Electronics. All four companies declined to comment for this story.

Google, whose services are banned in China, earned about $8.8bn globally from the Play store in 2019, said Katie Williams, an analyst at Sensor Tower. Google also sells content such as movies, books and apps on the Play store and collects a 30% commission.

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This is a lot more interesting than Huawei trying to do this on its own. These four – basically the four biggest Android handset OEMs after Samsung – have more than 30% of the worldwide smartphone market, so about 40% of the Android market. That’s the sort of thing that could get Google’s attention, especially since they could put their own app store front and centre (especially in Europe) to attract sales.
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Anatomy of a rental phishing scam 🎣 • jeffreyladish.com

Jeffrey Ladish:

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I was recently the (unsuccessful) target of a very well-crafted phishing scam. As part of a housing search a few weeks ago, I was trawling craigslist and zillow for rental opportunities in the SF bay area. I reached out to a beautiful looking rental place to inquire about a tour. Despite my experience as a security professional, I didn’t realize this was a scam until about the third email! Below I will account the story in excessive detail including screenshots…

[After he has established it’s a scam:] The phishing team—and given the work involved and the level of polish I bet it was a team—ran a pretty tight operation. Their English was perfect, their emails looked professional, and their phishing site looked identical the original Airbnb site. The email domain “engineers-hibernia-chevron.ca” redirected to “hibernia.ca” to add legitimacy for those who took the extra step of looking up the domain.

I’m even more impressed by their subtle psychological tricks. Each step of the way, they left out information which required me to ask for something if I wanted to proceed. It’s a lot easier to be on your guard when others are asking you for things. When you’re the one doing the asking, it’s even harder to say something when things look strange, because you may already feel like you’re being a burden on their time. For the initial ad, they left out the phone number so I had to ask. After they told me I could look at their airbnb site, I had to ask for a link. Then, after they sent me to search on Airbnb’s site, I had to ask for the link again! That was deliberately planned!

Throughout these interactions, they mentioned there were other people looking, maintaining a plausible sense of urgency. Finally, using Airbnb as the phishing site was clever, because it gave the impression of a trusted middleman. I was genuinely thrown off at first, because I couldn’t figure out how they were planning to steal my financial information. If they had just asked for bank or credit card information early on, their game would have been easy to spot.

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Beware. They’re getting better. (Though they still need fake sites to do it.)
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Website data leaks pose greater risks than most people realize • Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Adam Zewe:

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The students [Kin Attari and Dasha Metropolitansky] found a dataset from a breach of credit reporting company Experian, which didn’t get much news coverage when it occurred in 2015. It contained personal information on six million individuals. The dataset was divided by state, so Metropolitansky and Attari decided to focus on Washington D.C. The data included 69 variables—everything from a person’s home address and phone number to their credit score, history of political donations, and even how many children they have.

But this was data from just one leak in isolation. Metropolitansky and Attari wondered if they could identify an individual across all other leaks that have occurred, combining stolen personal information from perhaps hundreds of sources.

There are sites on the dark web that archive data leaks, allowing an individual to enter an email and view all leaks in which the email appears. Attari built a tool that performs this look-up at scale.

“The program takes in a list of personally identifiable information, such as a list of emails or usernames, and searches across the leaks for all the credential data it can find for each person,” he said.

The Experian Washington dataset found by Metropolitansky and Attari contained more than 40,000 unique email addresses. Attari extracted these unique emails and entered them into the tool, which searched for all data leaks in which the emails appear as well as leaked credentials, such as passwords and usernames.

The tool output a dataset of the leaks and credentials associated with the Experian email addresses. Metropolitansky then joined this data with the complete 69-variable Experian dataset, linking users’ cyber identities with their real-world identities.

“What we were able to do is alarming because we can now find vulnerabilities in people’s online presence very quickly,” Metropolitansky said. “For instance, if I can aggregate all the leaked credentials associated with you in one place, then I can see the passwords and usernames that you use over and over again.”

Of the 96,000 passwords contained in the dataset the students used, only 26,000 were unique.

“We also showed that a cyber criminal doesn’t have to have a specific victim in mind. They can now search for victims who meet a certain set of criteria,” Metropolitansky said.

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Luxembourg wants to solve congestion with free public transport • Pop-Up City

Nicolas Carvajal:

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Starting in March 2020, public transport in Luxembourg will be free of charge. Primarily a social measure, this policy will also be implemented to decrease congestion in the capital region.

Luxembourg’s public transportation system is already heavily subsidised as fares in the country are as low as €2 per two hours. Even so, the country has the highest car ownership per person in Europe. This is mainly because citizens and out-of-country commuters argue that Luxembourg’s public transportation is more time consuming compared to driving. Additionally, its unique position between France, Belgium, and Germany, draws lots of commuters across its borders every day.

Therefore, the investment and legislation for free public transportation will be complemented by improving the country’s network, but also for raising the minimum wage, pension adjustments, and financial aid for higher education. For out-of-country commuters, a parallel policy will allow workers to deduct travel expenses from their annual tax bill. However, many citizens argue that the money spent on free transportation and modernising the system can be better spent on rent subsidies or social housing.

Even though free public transportation has existed in Tallinn, Estonia for over six years, there has been no indication that mobility and opportunities for low income residents have improved. Regardless of outcomes in Tallinn, free public transportation demonstrates how social investments can offer multiple solutions for creating more just cities and eventually reverse the trend of growing congestion.

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Public transport is always more time-consuming than driving, unless you have a city like London which actively works to make the latter more difficult (and even then, taxis abound). I can’t see this having any effect unless they introduce a congestion charge on vehicles, particularly from out-of-country. Let’s check back in a year or so.
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How knitters got knotted in a purity spiral • UnHerd

Gavin Haynes:

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In my new BBC Radio 4 documentary I wanted to join the psychological dots between history’s pinnacle nightmares and what happens at the end of your road. I decided to call both the phenomenon and the documentary, “The Purity Spiral”. A purity spiral occurs when a community becomes fixated on implementing a single value that has no upper limit, and no single agreed interpretation. The result is a moral feeding frenzy.

But while a purity spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.

It’s not just another word for ‘woke culture’, or even ‘cancel culture’, or ‘virtue signalling’. Even though intersectional social justice is a pretty great breeding ground for purity spirals, it is one among many. Nor is it confined to the Left: neo-Nazi groups offer some of the clearest examples of purity spirals: the ongoing parsing of ethnic purity into ever-more Aryan sub-groups. Perhaps the most classic one of all hails from Salem, Massachusetts.

It is a social dynamic that plays out across that community — a process of moral outbidding, unchecked, which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.

A purity spiral propagates itself through the tipping points of preference falsification: through self-censorship, and through loyalty tests that weed out its detractors long before they can band together. In that sense, once one takes hold, its momentum can be very difficult to halt.

Our documentary analysed just two latter-day purity spirals — Instagram knitting culture and young adult novels.

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Instagram knitting culture. Yes. It’s a thing. And you definitely see “purity spirals” all the time on Twitter. (This is related, in its way, to Jesse Singal’s piece yesterday on online controversy.)
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Coronavirus outbreak impacts: China smartphone sales to nosedive • Digitimes

Digitimes staff:

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industry and market observers generally agree that a prolonged epidemic will take a heavy toll on both the supply chain and consumer demand. The China smartphone market is very likely to see a sharp drop in shipments in first-quarter 2020, and in a more optimistic scenario, smartphone shipments to the China market will drop 9% if the outbreak can be contained by the end of February, according to some observers.

This is bad news for everyone involved in the smartphone market, including vendors of mobile processors. MediaTek, who has a strong presence in China’s handset maket, may see a sequential decline of as much as 15% in revenues in the first quarter. But foundry house TSMC is not ready to revise its guidance for the first-quarter sales, which according to its forecast given last month, will decrease slightly compared to fourth-quarter 2019.

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The next week is going to be critical in determining how much wider the outbreak gets, and in turn whether this turns into a mild crisis or a calamity for China, and the rest of the world. (The slowdown story is the same for notebook supply, according to Digitimes:

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“Notebook shipments from the upstream supply chain is expected to slip another 10% in the first quarter of 2020 because of epidemic-related issues, such as lockdown of cities and disrupted transportation that are stalling material and component supplies and preventing workers from returning to work.”

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Coronavirus cast shadow over China’s food delivery industry • Tech In Asia

Minghe Hu:

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Beijing resident Anna Wang, 30, is a habitual user of food delivery apps, usually ordering meals and milk tea online every week even though her company provides free meals to employees at an on-site restaurant.

That changed about 10 days ago, with the increasing spread of the new virus from China that has killed more than 560 people, with more than 27,000 cases reported.

Working from home as recommended by the local government, Wang no longer orders daily meals online. “It could be a risk, as the food may contain viruses and contact with the couriers may also cause infection,” she said.

Instead, she orders deliveries of fresh vegetables and raw produce for meals cooked at home by her parents. While this still entails some contact with couriers, Wang said each order lasts her family about four days compared to having to order cooked food for each meal.

«

The epidemic doesn’t look to have peaked at all, even while there are about 100x more cases in China. Companies that rely like the food delivery ones on person-to-person contact are going to be praying for a quick end – but cases are being recorded all over the country.
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Apple, just bundle News+ already • 500ish

M.G. Siegler:

»

This isn’t rocket science. It’s not any kind of science. It’s common sense. News+ was never going to work as a stand-alone subscription offering from Apple. With the news today of a key departure from the group [the head of Apple’s News+ is reportedly leaving], perhaps the company now sees that. But the writing has been on the wall from day one.

Part of the problem is counterintuitive. If anything, News+ is too good of a deal. There is simply too much content to consume for too low of a price that it’s a weird value equation in most peoples’ heads. The game is actually zero sum. The game is life and the metric is time. None of us have enough of it. But in the era of streaming TV (not to mention music and games and apps and everything else), we really don’t have enough of it.

I may have one magazine or newspaper that I love. Or maybe two or three. And maybe I’m happy to pay for each of those. And it’s awesome that News+ may have those packaged together for one low price, but it also has a basically infinite supply of other content to read. And reading isn’t watching. This isn’t Netflix or Amazon where more is obviously better. I know it may have seemed like it would be, that curation would be the key. But in the order of things, TV trumps magazines and newspapers. You may not like that, I may not like that, but this is the way.

So, what to do?

It’s so obvious that it’s already rumored. Make News+ a part of an Apple bundle. Yes, yes, “Apple Prime” as it were. Flip the script so that News+ isn’t yet another cognitive load on us. Something that may be a good deal but will I really have time for that? To: oh wow, this is included in what I already pay for? Awesome.

«

“News” isn’t a task app – it’s not like Uber, which you use to get a ride. You have to tweak it and set it up. How is that different from Music, you ask, where you have to find your favourite artists and make playlists? It’s this: the news is all out there on browsers already, probably autofilling after you type a couple of characters. Music isn’t, so you’ll make the extra effort because it’s unique. News isn’t. M.G is correct: a bundle is the way forward.
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iCloud.com receives native support for Android/iOS mobile web browsers • News Landed

Praveen Nagaraj:

»

Apple has silently begun allowing native support for iCloud.com on mobile browsers for both iOS and (most importantly) Android. The new web app update allows four of iCloud.com’s most popular features (Photos, Notes, Reminders, and Find iPhone) to natively work smoothly on mobile web browsers, without having to switch to “desktop site” for a janky version of the app on a verticle screen.

After personally going through some of the features on both iOS and Android, I noticed some issues that doesn’t allow Android to fully support the Notes app. Here is a breakdown of all four features, including what’s working and what’s not working…

…I wish that Apple had added Calendar and Contacts, as I see myself struggling to take out my MacBook for an iCloud contact. There are still some issues to be worked out, particularly with the Notes app. iCloud Photo Library uploading is a major feature, and I hope they fix that soon as well. We obviously cannot expect Pages, Numbers, and Keynote to make it to the mobile web browser. It is actually surprising that Apple natively supported these four apps at all.

«

Seems pretty thorough support. Is Apple recognising (finally?) that some families or groups have mixed use? Or is this presaging the arrival of iCloud Folder Sharing, which is going to undercut Dropbox for many people, but might need you to do things on Android?

Or – alternative theory – is it a way to keep people paying for Apple services even though they move to Android (and even Windows) by having content still in the iCloud, um, garden? I can’t believe there’s that many Mac users who are also on Android.
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Google confirms decline in hardware sales: Is Pixel 4 to blame? • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:

»

Alphabet didn’t give exact figures for the hardware business or specific devices, but executives repeatedly noted a decline in hardware sales or revenue (h/t: Motley Fool). Nevertheless, the Other Revenues division, which includes hardware, was up by 10% year-on-year (hitting $5.3 billion). This growth was due to YouTube and Play Store earnings.

The company did however briefly note which devices were selling well, saying the new Google Nest Mini and Nest Hub Max were “selling well” over the holiday period. Alphabet also said the Pixel 3a series “sold well” in 2019, but what about the Pixel 4?

“With Pixel 4, we continue to build out our capabilities and are keenly focused on execution, delivering great user experiences and broadening our distribution,” said Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai during the call, not mentioning sales at all.

This suggests that Google’s flagship series didn’t meet early hardware sales expectations. It wouldn’t be a surprise though, as we had just as much criticism as praise in our Pixel 4 review. Between the disappointing battery life, poorly supported face unlock, and paltry amount of base storage, it’s clear Google could’ve done so much better. But the phone also offered a 90Hz OLED screen, excellent picture quality, and stock Android.

«

I can’t see that the Pixel 4 will ever do great business, given a static smartphone market in which there’s little reason to change brands (and even less to change platforms; I’ve never bought the stories of “OMG I switched from an iPhone to a Pixel, now everyone’s going to, Apple’s in trouble” as having any relevance).

The other question is where the saturation point for Google Home (aka Nest/Hub) devices is. I know of people who’ve abandoned their Echo devices, finding them insufficiently useful. A two-year still-actively-used-monthly figure would be good to see for these products.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1238: Google gets legal on Clearview, how coronavirus will change the world (and MWC), Nevada dumps Shadow app, the truth about UK election news, and more


Endangered species? Apple outsold the entire Swiss watch industry in 2019, analysts say. CC-licensed photo by kitchener.lord on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Clearview AI: Google and YouTube send cease-and-desist letter to facial recognition app • CBS News

Gisela Perez and Hilary Cook:

»

Google and YouTube have sent a cease-and-desist letter to Clearview AI, a facial recognition app that scrapes images from websites and social media platforms, CBS News has learned. The tech companies join Twitter, which sent a similar letter in January, in trying to block the app from taking pictures from their platforms.

Clearview AI can identify a person by comparing their picture to its database of three billion images from the internet, and the results are 99.6% accurate, CEO Hoan Ton-That told CBS News correspondent Errol Barnett. The app is only available to law enforcement to be used to identify criminals, Ton-That said.

“You have to remember that this is only used for investigations after the fact. This is not a 24/7 surveillance system,” he said. 

But YouTube, which is owned by Google, and Twitter say the company is violating their policies.  

“YouTube’s Terms of Service explicitly forbid collecting data that can be used to identify a person. Clearview has publicly admitted to doing exactly that, and in response we sent them a cease and desist letter,” YouTube Spokesperson Alex Joseph said in a statement to CBS News.

«

As with Twitter, my question is: how are they going to identify which ones are their images? See the next link for one way that Facebook might do, but I think this is a stable door slamming on empty space.
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Using ‘radioactive data’ to detect if a data set was used for training • Facebook AI

Alexandre Sablayrolles, Matthijs Douze and Hervé Jégou:

»

We have developed a new technique to mark the images in a data set so that researchers can determine whether a particular machine learning model has been trained using those images. This can help researchers and engineers to keep track of which data set was used to train a model so they can better understand how various data sets affect the performance of different neural networks.

We call this new verification method “radioactive” data because it is analogous to the use of radioactive markers in medicine: Drugs such as barium sulphate allow doctors to see certain conditions more clearly on computerized tomography (CT) scans or other X-ray exams. We introduce unique marks that are harmless and have no impact on the classification accuracy of models, but remain present through the learning process and are detectable with high confidence in a neural network. Our method provides a level of confidence (p-value) that a radioactive data set was used to train a particular model.

Radioactive data differs from previous approaches that aim at “poisoning” training sets in an imperceptible way such that trained models will generalize poorly.

«

Fairly sure this is a reaction to Clearview AI – and a warning to it to stay off the lawns.
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The mysterious disappearance of Google’s click metric • ZDNet

Tom Foremski:

»

Take a look at this chart: As long as Google can keep growing the blue line –– growth of paid clicks –– faster than the red line –– its ad click deflation –– then it is golden. 

Every three months Google has to find faster ways of expanding the total number of paid clicks by as much as 66%. How is this a sustainable business model? 

There is an upper limit to how much more expansion in paid links can be found especially with the shift to mobile platforms and the constraints of the display.  

And what does this say about the effectiveness of Google’s ads? They aren’t very good and their value is declining at an astounding and unstoppable pace. 

To survive, Google must find ways of showing even more ads. This is the future with Google — more ads in more places. Or rather, more ineffective ads in more places. This is an unsustainable business model. 

«

But, as Foremski points out, as of this latest quarter Google has stopped reporting both the CPC and the growth of paid clicks. There can’t really be a justification for that; it’s not as if the CEO of Alphabet (who is also the CEO of Google) doesn’t see those numbers and rely on them to understand the business, which was the SEC’s rationale for wanting to see YouTube revenues (at least).

Ben Thompson may have been correct about Peak Google; just slightly early.
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A mile wide, an inch deep: online news and media use in the 2019 UK General Election • Reuters Institute Digital News Report

Richard Fletcher, Nic Newman and Anne Schulz:

»

This report presents the most detailed and comprehensive analysis to date of news use during the 2019 UK General Election. It is based on a unique tracking study of the online news consumption of 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices throughout the campaign (spanning six weeks), combined with surveys with a subset of 752 panellists fielded before and after the vote, asking them about the relative importance of offline and online news and their attitudes to the media and politics more widely.

We show that online news sources (including news websites/apps and social media) are more widely used than any other source among those with internet access. Online news use during the election had wide reach, but limited engagement.

«

Among the findings:

»

Almost three-quarters (72%) visited a news site to read a news story during the campaign. BBC News was by far the most widely used online source for election news. It was accessed by more than four in ten of our sample (44%) during the course of the election and was the main destination for election results.

Only 3% of all internet time was spent with news. On average, people spent 16 minutes per week with news and made around 22 news visits each week across web and mobile during the campaign. While election news made up around half (51%) of the most viewed stories in the first week, the proportion declined to just 24% later in the campaign.

«

And:

»

Much of this news consumption came from websites committed to impartial coverage and those that made no party endorsement (33%). Just under one third (31%) came from outlets that endorsed the Conservative Party and one in eight (12%) from outlets that endorsed the Labour Party. Alternative brands such as the Canary, Novara Media on the left and Breitbart on the right – along with foreign sites like Russia Today and Sputnik – played a relatively small part with just 1% share of the time spent with news, about 0.02% of the time people spent online during the election.

«

More analysis by Adam Tinworth; he’s not reassured by it.
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Chrome ad blocker to target three annoying video ads • 9to5Google

Abner Li:

»

Last year, Google made Chrome’s standards-backed ad blocker fully available around the world. The Better Ads Standards today announced a “new set of standards for ads that show during video content,” with changes in Chrome set to be applied later this year.

These video ad standards are based on research from 45,000 consumers worldwide, and identified three experiences that “people find to be particularly disruptive on video content that is less than 8 minutes long.” This guidance for short-form video applies to desktop, mobile web, and apps.

Long, non-skippable pre-roll ads or groups of ads longer than 31 seconds that appear before a video and that cannot be skipped within the first 5 seconds.

Mid-roll ads of any duration that appear in the middle of a video, interrupting the user’s experience.
Image or text ads that appear on top of a playing video and are in the middle 1/3 of the video player window or cover more than 20% of the video content.

The Coalition for Better Ads group has mandated that websites stop showing these ads over the next four months, or risk losing advertising completely. Chrome enforcement begins August 5, 2020, and will see the browser “stop showing all ads on sites in any country that repeatedly show these disruptive ads.”

«

So here’s an antitrust question. Google gets to decide what ad formats Chrome will display. Google provides ads in specific formats. Chrome dominates the browser market. Google is using the dominance of Chrome to prevent rival advertisers from making ads they want to, raising the cost of ads. Antitrust breach, surely. Change my mind if you can.
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No handshakes at Mobile World Congress as virus spreads • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Thomas Seal:

»

Two smartphone makers canceled events at the world’s biggest mobile technology showcase in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and organizers reinforced hygiene protocol for people still planning to attend.

Delegates were warned to avoid handshakes, and microphones will be changed for different conference speakers in an effort to avoid infections at MWC Barcelona, an annual event that’s set to draw around 100,000 people from around the world to the Spanish city from Feb. 24 to 27.

This year’s conference is supposed to be a launch pad for a renewed push on 5G devices. However, South Korea’s LG Electronics said it’s withdrawing from exhibiting at the conference because most health experts advised against “needlessly” exposing hundreds of employees to international travel.

Shenzhen, China-based ZTE Corp., which makes smartphones and wireless networking equipment, cited difficulties in traveling out of China while virus-containment restrictions are in place, and so it’s canceling its MWC press conference, though it will still send a delegation.

The two companies usually occupy two of the largest, most central exhibition zones at the Fira Gran Via venue, and both were expected to contribute to an industrywide push to make the newest generation of networking and devices mainstream this year.

ZTE plans to roll out “a wide variety of new 5G devices” and will keep its usual exhibition spot. LG, keen to match compatriot arch rival Samsung Electronics Co., maintains an outsize presence at the show even when it doesn’t launch any major new products, and so its absence this year will be obvious to attendees.

«

Is the suggestion that holding a press conference brings lots of potentially unhealthy people together in one place? I don’t get it – if that’s the rationale, you don’t go to MWC at all.

(Also: Bloomberg’s headline called it “global wireless conference”. The whole mobile world knows it’s MWC, and knows it as MWC. If you don’t know what it is, “global wireless conference” won’t explain it.)
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The Nevada caucuses won’t use the Shadow app, per the state Democratic Party • Vox

Cameron Peters:

»

Party officials are scrambling to avoid a similar fate in the Nevada caucuses, the third early-state contest scheduled for February 22.

Previously, multiple news outlets reported that the Nevada caucuses would also rely on the faulty app developed by Shadow Inc., which markets itself as a progressive “tech infrastructure” company supporting the Democratic Party. The state is also operating under the same rule changes — adding in a few more complexities.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Nevada Democratic Party was quick to clarify that it plans to have things go differently.

“NV Dems can confidently say that what happened in the Iowa caucus last night will not happen in Nevada,” state Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II said.

Exactly how they’ll turn that promise into a reality — beyond vowing not to use the same app — remains unclear.

«

Maybe they could call an organisation which sells an appropriate technology?


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Apple Watch outsells the entire Swiss Watch industry in 2019 • Strategy Analytics

»

According to the latest research from Strategy Analytics, Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watch industry by a huge margin in 2019. Apple Watch shipped 31 million units worldwide in 2019, compared with 21 million for all Swiss watch brands combined. Swiss companies, like Swatch, are losing the smartwatch wars.

Steven Waltzer, Senior Analyst at Strategy Analytics, said, “We estimate Apple Watch shipped 30.7 million units worldwide in 2019, growing a healthy 36% from 22.5 million in 2018. A blend of attractive design, user-friendly tech and sticky apps makes the Apple Watch wildly popular in North America, Western Europe and Asia.”

Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics, added, “We estimate the entire Swiss watch industry together shipped 21.1 million units worldwide in 2019, falling 13% from 24.2 million in 2018. Analog wristwatches remain popular among older consumers, but younger buyers are tipping toward smartwatches and computerized wristwear.”

«

Plus the replacement rate for Apple Watches is going to be way higher than for Swiss watches. They’re facing the classic high-end disruption problem that Nokia and others faced when the iPhone arrived in 2017: they’re OK at the hardware, but the software utterly eludes them. This time, though, there isn’t a more-than-good-enough Android to save them. (Not that it saved Nokia or BlackBerry either.)
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💭🦠 Six ways coronavirus will change our world • Exponential View

Azeem Azhar:

»

The pandemic virus, 2019-nCoV, is testing many of the assumptions of a highly interconnected, modern, globalised world. This 120nm virus, small to us, large by viral standards, is shining a light on many of our ways of living. It is a clash between traditional lifestyles, civets and bats in a ‘wet market’, and a technocratic, intraconnected China of high-speed rail, WeChat, drones and more.

The epidemic has had a mild personal impact. A trip to Hong Kong cancelled, replaced by early morning video conference calls. Cathay Pacific and Marriott are the losers of this adaptation. 

More strikingly, the outbreak has showed the strengths and weakness of our interconnected world. It’s making me wonder, are we resilient enough?

«

The six ways – open-source scientific collaboration, quarantines enabled by digital systems, more on genomics, “remote everything”, more self-sufficiency, and (unfortunately) more populism – make a lot of sense. Worth reading in much more detail though.
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Presentation: Standing on the shoulders of giants • Benedict Evans

»

Every year, I produce a big presentation digging into macro and strategic trends in the tech industry. This year, ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ looks at what it means that 4bn people have a smartphone; we connected everyone, and now we wonder what the Next Big Thing is, but meanwhile, connecting everyone means we connected all the problems. Tech is becoming a regulated industry, but we don’t really know what that will mean.

«

The video might be useful, but you get the idea. And there’s a video of the post-presentation Q+A.
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Navigating online controversy in an age of unrelenting, exhausting, ubiquitous bullshit: the American Dirt story (updated) • Singal-Minded

Jesse Singal:

»

There were certain problems with how American Dirt, the novel by Jeanine Cummins that is currently one of the hottest-selling titles on Amazon, and which was chosen by Oprah for her super-famous book club, was written and publicized. 

But how severe were those problems? And which of them were actual, you know, problems, rather than the inevitable outrage-overgrowth that instantly sprouts, kudzulike, during any sort of online pileon, suffocating reasoned conversation?

If you read most journalistic coverage of this controversy, you will not be informed. If anything, you will end up more misinformed than you were when you started. And that’s a useful problem to explore given where journalism is right now. I haven’t read American Dirt, so I can’t speak directly to the plot. But the book itself isn’t actually the point I’m interested in: Rather, I want to talk about the nature of how this controversy — and seemingly every controversy, these days — is being covered by mainstream media outlets.

«

Mainstream-ish outlets, but his takedown resonates: as he says, it degenerates into rightside norms versus accuracy norms.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1237: Apple patents a (neat) foldable, Instagram’s big sales number, British parents fret about their online kids, the dark opioid pattern, and more


In Iowa, this was good enough for caucus voting, but not enough for reporting their results CC-licensed photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Tell us how you feel about it, Howard Dean. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How a bad app—not the Russians—plunged Iowa into chaos • The Atlantic

Zeynep Tufekci:

»

why bother hacking the system? Anything developed this rapidly that has not been properly stress-tested—and is being used in the wild by thousands of people at the same time—is likely to crash the first time it is deployed. This has happened before, to Orca, Mitt Romney’s Election Day app, which was supposed to help volunteers get voters to the polls, but instead was overwhelmed by traffic and stopped working, leaving thousands of fuming voters without rides. It happened in 2008 to Barack Obama’s app, dubbed Houdini, which also crashed on Election Day. It happened to HealthCare.gov—the website that was launched to help people find coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but that failed so badly, it took a team of people from Silicon Valley who quickly and voluntarily left their much cushier jobs and worked seven-day weeks for months to fix it.

Immediately after it became clear that the Iowa Democratic Party was unable to produce results and, worse, was talking about “inconsistencies” in results, Donald Trump surrogates started talking up how this must have been a fix perpetrated by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), perhaps in hopes of riling up supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who were already suspicious of the party establishment. Some Sanders supporters, wary after a last-minute poll widely expected to show a Sanders surge was scrapped due to errors, needed no such encouragement, and suspected that this was designed to trip up the momentum their candidate expected from his anticipated win. (To which I can only say: The DNC isn’t competent enough to pull off such a plot.)

«

Also worth reading on this: Vice’s investigation, which found that the two-factor authentication was screwed up on the app, which the DNC spent the grand total of $60,000 to build. It didn’t work on a number of phones (expectations are high it’s just a web app with some OS-friendly clothes).

The DNC really is incompetent on computing, which is quite the miss given its importance in the 21st century.
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Apple patents foldable device with movable flaps to prevent display from creasing • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

»

Apple this week has been granted a patent for a foldable device with a unique hinge mechanism that utilizes movable flaps to help prevent the display from being creased or damaged when folded.

Published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office today, the patent explains that the hinge mechanism would ensure adequate separation between the first and second portions of the display. When the device is unfolded, movable flaps would extend to cover the gap, and then retract when the device is folded.

Early foldable smartphones like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X have noticeable creases along the bending portion of the display. Motorola’s new foldable Razr avoids this issue with a unique hinge design, but early reviews indicate the device makes creaking sounds when opened or closed.

«

Clever (and a useful illustration). Still don’t see the point, but this may be saying “we’ve looked at this and we’re staking out this part of the ground, so don’t go there”.
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US pushing effort to develop 5G alternative to Huawei • WSJ

Bob Davis and Drew FitzGerald:

»

the White House is working with U.S. technology companies to create advanced software for next-generation 5G telecommunications networks.

The plan would build on efforts by some U.S. telecom and technology companies to agree on common engineering standards that would allow 5G software developers to run code atop machines that come from nearly any hardware manufacturer. That would reduce, if not eliminate, reliance on Huawei equipment.

Companies including Microsoft Corp., Dell Inc. and AT&T are part of the effort, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said.

“The big-picture concept is to have all of the U.S. 5G architecture and infrastructure done by American firms, principally,” Mr. Kudlow said in an interview. “That also could include Nokia and Ericsson because they have big U.S. presences.”

The U.S. contends Huawei has strong links to the Chinese military, making use of its equipment a national-security risk. Huawei has denied such links and says it operates independently.

Mr. Kudlow said Dell founder Michael Dell was a strong backer of the project, noting that software is becoming more important as 5G develops.

“Dell and Microsoft are now moving very rapidly to develop software and cloud capabilities that will, in fact, replace a lot of the equipment,” he said. “To quote Michael Dell, ‘Software is eating the hardware in 5G’,” Mr. Kudlow said.

«

I bet Dell would love to get any part of that money it can. Also: this will be a money spigot, with little benefit, apart maybe to Nikia and Ericsson.
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Amid coronavirus fears, a mask shortage could spread globally • WIRED

Maryn McKenna:

»

for people who anticipate a pandemic—an expanding epidemic that rapidly crosses borders—the [face] masks blanketing China have an unsettling second meaning. They are a reminder that Chinese manufacturing is the source of most of the world’s masks and respirators. Now that the vast country is using more masks than it ever has before, fewer of them will likely be available to the countries that have been China’s regular customers.

That includes the United States. According to data compiled by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 95% of the surgical masks used in the US and 70% of the respirators—thicker, tight-fitting masks that offer better protection against viruses—are made overseas. That leaves the mask supply vulnerable to labor disruption if a pandemic sickens manufacturing workers, as well as to flat-out diversion if a government decides to keep its own stock at home.

“This is 100% a vulnerability,” says Saskia Popescu, a biosecurity expert who is the senior infection-prevention epidemiologist in an Arizona hospital system. “Personal protective equipment is always going to be a problem when there is an outbreak of something novel, because public health guidance will be unclear at first and there will be a run on supplies. Masks being made offshore is one more stress on the system.”

Demand for masks is enormous in China. Manufacturing has ramped up rapidly, according to the state-affiliated China Global Television Network, with factories churning out 20 million masks a day. Yet on Monday morning, the Chinese foreign ministry said masks and safety goggles that protect doctors’ eyes were running out within the country, and it issued an international appeal for more.

«

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Parents more concerned about their children online • Ofcom

»

More parents than ever feel children’s online use now carries more risks than benefits, according to Ofcom’s latest research into children’s media and online lives.

Our Children’s Media Use and Attitudes report 2019 is based on around 3,500 interviews with children and parents. Children’s Media Lives is a qualitative report looking at how children aged eight to 18 think about and use digital media.

Parents and carers are becoming more likely to trust their children with greater digital independence at a younger age. But far fewer believe the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks than five years ago. And around two million parents now feel the internet does their children more harm than good.

This comes as children are now more likely to see hateful content online. Half of 12-15s who go online had seen hateful content in the last year, up from a third in 2016.

Parents are increasingly concerned about their child seeing something online which might encourage them to harm themselves. Similarly, two gaming-related problems are increasingly concerning parents: the pressure on their child to make in-game purchases of things like ‘loot boxes’, a virtual item containing rewards; and the possibility of their child being bullied via online games.

«

Plus three trends: “the ‘Greta effect'”, “the vlogger next door”, and “girl gamers”. Plus children using phones and WhatsApp from very early ages.
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Instagram said to generate more than a quarter of Facebook sales • Bloomberg

Sarah Frier and Nico Grant:

»

Instagram, the photo-sharing app Facebook Inc. acquired for $715m in 2012, generated more than a quarter of the social-media company’s revenue last year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The app brought in about $20bn in advertising revenue in 2019, said the people, who asked to remain anonymous because the figures aren’t public. That beats Google video unit YouTube, which recorded $15.1bn in ad sales – a number parent company Alphabet Inc. revealed Monday for the first time. Facebook declined to comment.

Instagram has become increasingly central to Facebook’s future, with users and advertisers flocking to the app even as sales growth slows at the main social network. Still, Facebook doesn’t disclose revenue for Instagram separately in earnings reports, instead preferring to highlight the integration of its properties, branding them as a “family of apps.” The team in charge of direct messaging on Instagram, for example, now reports to the Facebook Messenger team, and the company is changing Instagram’s branding to “Instagram from Facebook.” Instagram has more than 1 billion users, a figure Facebook hasn’t updated since 2018.

«

That makes Instagram a gazillion times more profitable than YouTube, which has to give back a sizeable chunk of money to creators. Instagram? Not a penny. And its costs are lower: it’s serving photos, not videos – less storage, less bandwidth.

Plus Facebook waited for Google to be forced to announce YouTube’s revenues, and then decided whether to leak this. Quite the poke in the eye.
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In secret deal with drugmaker, health-records tool pushed opioids • Los Angeles Times

Emma Court:

»

To doctors opening patients’ electronic records across the U.S., the alert would have looked innocuous enough.

A pop-up would appear, asking about a patient’s level of pain. Then, a drop-down menu would list treatments ranging from a referral to a pain specialist to a prescription for an opioid painkiller.

Click a button, and the program would create a treatment plan. From 2016 to spring 2019, the alert went off about 230 million times.

The tool existed thanks to a secret deal. Its maker, a software company called Practice Fusion, was paid by a major opioid manufacturer to design it in an effort to boost prescriptions for addictive pain pills — even though overdose deaths had almost tripled during the previous 15 years, creating a public-health disaster. The software was used by tens of thousands of doctors’ offices.

Its existence was revealed this week thanks to a government investigation. Practice Fusion agreed to pay $145m to resolve civil and criminal cases, according to documents filed in a federal court in Vermont. Practice Fusion admitted to the scheme. The opioid maker was not named, though the details of the government case closely match a public research partnership between Practice Fusion and Purdue Pharma Inc., which makes OxyContin.

Representatives for Purdue Pharma and the Vermont U.S. attorney declined to comment.

«

I bet they declined. This is the darkest of dark patterns. The Vantablack of dark patterns.
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Twitter says an attacker used its API to match usernames to phone numbers • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

Twitter said the attack took place on December 24, 2019, and the attacker used a large network of fake accounts to exploit its API.

“We are disclosing this out of an abundance of caution and as a matter of principle,” Twitter said.

The company said it “immediately suspended these accounts” and continued to investigate the incident, which it finally disclosed today, as it learned more about what happened.

“While we identified accounts located in a wide range of countries engaging in these behaviors, we observed a particularly high volume of requests coming from individual IP addresses located within Iran, Israel, and Malaysia,” the company added.

Twitter said that some of these IP addresses may have ties with a state-sponsored actor, a term used to described either government intelligence agencies, or third-party hacking groups that benefit from a government’s backing.

According to Twitter, the attackers used an API endpoint that allows new account holders to find people they know on Twitter. The API endpoint allows users to submit phone numbers and matches them to known Twitter accounts – but only if Twitter users enabled an option in their settings section to allow phone number-based matching.

“People who did not have this setting enabled or do not have a phone number associated with their account were not exposed by this vulnerability,” Twitter said.

«

The choice of date is instructive: attack when people are likely to be less than attentive, and where if it is noticed, the next-day followup will be lacking. It’s the cyber-equivalent of drilling into a bank vault on the Thursday night of Easter.

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Gymshark influencers and branded fitness plans: a new world of training • Mel Magazine

Hussein Kesvani:

»

There’s a small thumb drive in my desk that contains the secrets of how to attain the body of a Greek god (or Mark Wahlberg). On it, there are comprehensive workout plans, diets, supplement recommendations and tools to calculate the precise amount of macronutrients necessary for me to get shredded. It’s the kind of information that celebrity fitness trainers protect as highly guarded secrets, leaving Reddit’s fitness enthusiasts to speculate and obsess over it. Some people would pay good money for what’s on this thumb drive.

In fact, Marco, a pseudonymous 18-year-old from Austin, Texas, tells me that he’s made close to $300 selling such fitness plans to his Instagram followers. The thing is, Marco didn’t write any of them. If anything, he prefers playing soccer to hitting the gym and loathes the taste of protein shakes. Rather, he obtained 10 gigs’ worth of this intel from an anonymous Reddit user who had leaked dozens of exclusive, subscriber-only workout and diet plans created by the internet’s most notable fitness influencers, many of whom are associated with the sports lifestyle brand Gymshark. 

In modern gym culture, the “fitness plan” is more than just a routine to help newbies — it serves as a bespoke piece of branding, too.

«

And it isn’t! The joy of “influencers”.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1236: AirBnB scams listed, YouTube’s a $15bn business (but is it profitable?), your too-smart TV, TikTok India gets censor-y, and more


Imagine if you started with a blank slate: is this how you would lay out the buttons on a phone? That was Bell’s problem 70 years ago. CC-licensed photo by Chris Campbell on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. You say corona, I say bologna. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Here are the most common Airbnb scams worldwide • VICE

Anna Merlan, following on from fellow Vice writer Allie Conti getting scammed on the site:

»

Hoping to get a better sense of the issue, we asked readers to tell us about their own experiences using Airbnb. In response, we got nearly 1,000 emails, many of them outlining similar tales of deception.

The stories quickly started to fall into easily discernible categories. Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)

In the aggregate, these emails paint a portrait of a platform whose creators are fundamentally unable to track what goes on within it, and point to easily exploitable loopholes that scammers have steamed their way through by the truckload. After Conti’s story, Airbnb promised to “verify” all 7 million listings on the site by December 2020. Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO and co-founder, said at the DealBook conference that the verification process is part of a dawning realisation that, as he put it, “we have to take more responsibility for stuff on our platform.”

“I think many of us in this industry … are going from a hands-off model, where the Internet’s an immune system, to realising that’s not really enough, that we have to take more responsibility for the stuff on our platform,” he said. “And I think this has been a gradual, maybe too gradual, transition for our industry.”

«

Oh, now you’re realising, Brian. Meanwhile, a load of people get scammed.
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Censorship claims emerge as TikTok gets political in India • BBC News

Nilesh Christopher:

»

In one of the videos, Mr Barman is dressed as a Muslim man wearing a white prayer cap who is being carried by a Hindu man as harmonious music plays in the background. In another popular skit, he is dressed as a Muslim writer from Pakistan who is in India to research a book and is greeted and hosted by two gleeful Hindu strangers.

The fact that a young Hindu man from the Indian city of Bhopal was uploading videos promoting brotherhood and peace between Hindus and Muslims captured significant attention, earning him the moniker of top “humanity” content creator.

But over the past four months, TikTok India has been restricting the reach of his account to stay away from such “risky” content, he says, adding that he has lost some 25,000 followers since the end of October.

In particular, his videos were no longer suggested on the front page, where TikTok gives tailored recommendations of creators and hashtags for users to discover.

“My videos used to get an average of 200,000 views but it’s now down to 8,000 views. None of my videos show up on the ‘For You’ page,” Mr Barman says.

He says his account started losing prominence last year, around the time a backlash began against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – a controversial law which offers Indian citizenship to non-Muslims fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The law sparked fears it would marginalise India’s Muslim minority, triggering protests. In the past few months, many of TikTok’s 200 million Indian users have posted skits and songs on the app to voice their own opposition.

«

If TikTok really thought that (a) it wouldn’t get teens being political (b) people wouldn’t notice when it downrated them, it really didn’t think it through.
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YouTube is a $15 billion-a-year business, Google reveals for the first time • The Verge

Nick Statt:

»

YouTube generated nearly $5bn in ad revenue in the three months to the end of December, Google revealed today as part of parent company Alphabet’s fourth quarter earnings report. This is the first report under newly instated Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who took over as the chief executive of the entire company late last year after co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped back from day-to-day duties and promoted Pichai, formerly Google CEO, to the top spot.

The announcement marks the first time in YouTube’s nearly 15 years as a Google-owned platform, since Google bought the website in 2006 for $1.65 billion, that the company has revealed how much money YouTube-hosted ads contribute to the search giant’s bottom line.

On an annual basis, Google says YouTube generated $15bn last year and contributed roughly 10% to all Google revenue. Those figures make YouTube’s ad business nearly one-fifth the size of Facebook’s, and more than six times larger than all of Amazon-owned Twitch.

Separately, Google says YouTube has more than 20 million subscribers across its Premium (ad-free YouTube) and Music Premium offerings, as well as more than 2 million subscribers to its paid TV service.

«

The suspicion is that it did this to help mask an $800m on forecast revenue, but revealing revenue is long-term; it wouldn’t make sense to break it out just for a single revenue miss.

What would be really telling – if it’s possible – would be knowing whether YouTube is profitable. I’d guess it’s a pretty close-run thing: it must have to give away a sizeable chunk of that revenue, and video servers aren’t cheap to run. Plus the moderation cost is wayyyy higher for YouTube than for Google itself. (You can look at the financial statement and try to tease it out.)
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Addressable TV: the pros and cons of ads made just for you • Raconteur

Alex Brownsell:

»

A new era is underway in which media companies can show different ads to different households while they are watching the same programme. More than half of UK households have connected their TV sets to the internet, according to Ofcom figures. Where TV ads have traditionally been traded against a limited number of pre-determined audience segments, addressability enables advertisers to target based on a multitude of location, demographic and behavioural criteria.

In some instances, as was the case with McDonald’s, the advertiser’s motivation is simply practical: the fast food chain was introducing a new menu to selected branches and wanted to minimise the number of people left disappointed if the latest burgers were not available at their local restaurant.

Addressable TV also opens the possibility for brands to target individual households with messages relevant to that viewer and their place in the purchase journey. For instance, if occupants have been scrolling through social media content relating to new cars, an automotive brand can run an ad suggesting a test drive at their local dealership.

Perhaps most significantly, advancements in dynamic ad insertion have paved the way for marketers to address specific audiences with assets tailored to their tastes and preferences, calling into question the very future of the traditional TV ad as we know it.

«

Which is why you shouldn’t connect your TV to the internet, in my view.
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Why I’m joining 6CVentures • Medium

Sameer Singh:

»

Today, I’m joining 6CVentures, a new early stage venture capital firm, as Partner and Head of Research. Long story short, we’re a sector-agnostic fund investing at the Pre-Seed and Seed stage (so if you’re an entrepreneur at this stage, reach out). I will be spending a lot of time in the coming months talking about our investment thesis on 6CV Perspective, but I wanted to start on a personal note.

About 18 months ago, I began thinking of moving back to venture capital. I have been a visible technology commentator in the past and was a seed-stage investor in India before moving to the UK. At least to me, venture capital seemed like a natural fit. But reaching out to VC firms was more challenging than I expected. I quickly learnt that personal introductions/references were the most effective way to reach a VC. I had only been in the country for a few years, so that was clearly a problem for me. It took me the better part of 18 months to build some semblance of a network in the space, through angel investing and working through the contacts I did have.

This experience was eye-opening for me, because I clearly come from a privileged background. If it was this hard for me to get introductions, how much harder would it be for founders who don’t have the advantages I have?

«

Sameer has always been an insightful analyst of technology; it will be really interesting to see what he thinks is worth funding.
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The 17 designs that Bell almost used for the layout of telephone buttons • The Atlantic

Megan Garber:

»

This layout is so standardized that we think about it as almost inevitable. But the layout was, in the 1950s, the result of a good deal of strategizing and testing on the part of the people of Bell Labs. And Numberphile has dug up an amazing paper — published in the July 1960 issue of “The Bell System Technical Journal” — that details the various alternative designs the Bell engineers considered for the layout. Among them: “the staircase” (II-B in the image above), “the ten-pin” (III-B, reminiscent of bowling-pin configurations), “the rainbow” (II-C), and various other versions that mimicked the circular logic of the existing dialing technology: the rotary. 

Everything was on the table for the layout of the ten buttons; the researchers’ only objective was to find the configuration that would be as user-friendly, and efficient, as possible. So they ran tests. They experimented. They sought input. They briefly considered a layout that mimicked a cross.

«

They really, really didn’t limit themselves. It’s quite wild in parts.
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Is Siri a spy? Why my Apple iPad changed after hearing Spanish at home • USA Today

Jennifer Jolly:

»

I watch most TV shows and movies on my iPad these days, and something strange happened recently. My iPad – or rather apps such as Hulu and Bravo linked via Apple TV on my iPad – started showing me commercials in Spanish. 

That was interesting, since I hadn’t touched the language settings, watched any shows in Spanish, or done any kind of internet activity in another language. But even more curious, was what had changed when the new commercials popped up.

We had just moved to a more Spanish-speaking area of Oakland, California. While I don’t speak Spanish (very well at least), my husband does and was doing so daily with contractors in our new house within “earshot” of my iPad. 

Could this timing and sudden sprinkling of Spanish commercials for insurance, seatbelt safety, and affordable college degrees be mere coincidence? Or was it a clear sign of location-based tracking? With Siri voice-assistance active, is my gadget, or the TV apps on it, specifically working to better predict my wants and needs – and providing Spanish speaking commercials – to be more “helpful?”

…“The simple answer is no, your (gadget) is not likely actively listening to your conversations,” Northeastern Associate Professor of Computer and Information Science David Choffnes told me over the phone. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t (enabling the collection of) millions of data points to know who you are, where you live, what stores you shop at, where your kids go to school, and just about everything else.”

Choffnes also explained that some of the most basic tracking for advertising uses our IP address and that since I had just moved, “maybe you got someone else’s address,” he surmised. “I don’t know that for sure, but it’s not uncommon.”

Sure enough, when I deleted and then reinstalled both the Bravo and Hulu apps now that we have our router all set-up in our new home, I didn’t get any more commercials in other languages.

«

Which is quite creepy. But wouldn’t the download have come from the same IP address? (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Trump’s titanic gift to China’s solar panel makers • Bloomberg

Brian Eckhouse:

»

For most of the past year, there’s been a big hole in President Trump’s China tariffs—one in the shape of a solar panel. Companies that build America’s major solar farms spent 2018 and early 2019 begging the administration to exempt jumbo versions of two-sided “bifacial” panels used to create vast, utility-scale solar farms. Relatively few bifacials are made domestically. For some reason, when the administration finally agreed to issue an exemption, it was much broader than the industry had suggested. So broad, in fact, that it reshaped the market and left Chinese panel makers as dominant as ever.

Since June, all bifacial panels have been tariff-free, and Chinese panel makers are turning the once-niche design into a cornerstone of their U.S.-aimed product lines. A trade court has temporarily blocked the White House’s efforts to kill the exemption. Trump is expected to decide as soon as next month, as part of a scheduled review, whether to make the otherwise-harsh solar tariffs even harsher.

Trade adviser Peter Navarro has said “the loophole for bifacial solar panels China is currently exploiting needs to be slammed shut.” The White House declined to comment.

Solar power is one of America’s cheapest sources of electricity, and installing it is one of its fastest-growing occupations. Chinese companies’ cheap panels are a big reason: “They’ve lowered the price of solar for the whole world,” says Noah Kaufman, a Columbia economist with a focus on global energy policy. They also crowded out domestic U.S. manufacturing, meaning the White House could satisfy ailing homegrown panel makers as well as its favored fossil fuel industries by making the Chinese models less competitive.

«

The Trump admin is so adept at shooting itself in the foot; it’s the only thing it is good at. I often tell myself that it might be a good thing they’re in power now rather than, say, during the Cuban Missile Crisis or in 2001.
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Huge success in business is largely based on luck, says new research • The Conversation

Chengwei Liu is an associate professor of strategy and behavioural science at Warwick Business School:

»

Bestselling business books promise to teach you the winning formula and reveal the secrets of success. But the inconvenient truth is that exceptional successes in business are largely based on luck. No rule exists for achieving exceptional performance because it usually requires doing something different or novel and there can be no recipe for such innovation.

My new research provides systematic evidence that luck plays a critical role in such performance, not only in business but also in music, movies, science and professional sports. A key finding is that more can be gained by paying more attention to “second best”.

Let’s look at the music industry. If a new band or musician has a top 20 hit, should a music label immediately try to sign them? My analysis of 8,297 acts in the US Billboard 100 from 1980 to 2008 would suggest not. Music label bosses should instead be looking to sign up those reaching positions between 22 and 30, the “second best” in the charts.

A common feature of many artists charting in the top ranks is that they enjoyed a “runaway success”. A classic example is Gangnam Style by Korean artist PSY. The music video went viral beyond anyone’s foresight. Since such an outcome involved exceptional luck, PSY’s success is unsustainable. In fact, artists charting in the top 20 will likely see their next single achieve between 40 and 45 on average, regressing disproportionally more to the mean than their lower performing counterparts.

«

Oh come on, we all know PSY’s followup single, er.. you hum it, I’ll do the words.. Not so sure how this works for sports. Always pick the runner-up? Or just that it’s luck, which I’d certainly agree with – except when it’s sustained over years.
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Google Maps hacks • SIMON WECKERT

Weckert is an artist based in Berlin:

»

99 second hand smartphones are transported in a handcart to generate virtual traffic jam in Google Maps.Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic. ” #googlemapshacks

«

The associated paper (in English) is worth reading too, particularly for the phrase “every human being is a wandering hyperlink”. Certainly to Google they are.

So the logic of this is that if you want to have an open road behind you, fill the back seat with phones. Or, better, get someone to go on the route you want to take with their back seat full of phones so that they look like a moving jam. Except they have to move slowly enough that Google thinks it’s a jam and begins routing around it. Tricky, this hacking stuff.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1235: Google Ads For One?, the call to ban facial recognition, how YouTube comments show radicalisation, tablet shipments slip, and more


This is essentially what privacy policies are, but not printed on paper. CC-licensed photo by txmx 2 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. Not a palindrome. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google Ads Customer Match and the future of doxxing • OneZero

Patrick Berlinquette:

»

The experiments I ran — even in the rare instances that I could be sure I was serving an ad to one person — only gave me one chance at the data. If I’m targeting a mass shooter in America with an ad (another niche group I’ve served ads to), and they search for the keywords “I am going to shoot up the school,” but they don’t click the ad and never make that search again, I lose.

But there is a way to target one person with an ad, and follow them around with ads indefinitely, all the while collecting their data. And it’s untraceable.

It is done through Google’s Customer Match feature.

Customer Match allows anyone to spy on one person for any length of time — not just within Google Search, but across all Google channels — Gmail, YouTube, apps, and websites within Google’s Display Network.

Potential applications of this:
• Plotting someone’s day-to-day movements over time
• Doxxing someone based on their search or browsing history
• Viewing the login portals someone accesses.

With Customer Match, you upload a list of emails to Google. Google then targets ads only to those emails.

Here are the steps to achieve one-to-one targeting via Customer Match:
1. Upload emails of people that live in, say, California.
2. Upload the email of “the target.”
3. Exclude Californians from seeing ads.
As long as the target is physically located outside of the excluded region, they will be the sole recipient of the ad.

«

Isn’t this potentially more invasive than facial recognition? Yet in the hands of just one company.
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Why we should ban facial recognition technology • NY Mag

Max Read:

»

as the last decade has shown us, after-the-fact regulation or punishment is an ineffective method of confronting rapid, complex technological change. Time and time again, we’ve seen that the full negative implications of a given technology — say, the Facebook News Feed — are rarely felt, let alone understood, until the technology is sufficiently powerful and entrenched, at which point the company responsible for it has probably already pivoted into some complex new change.

Which is why we should ban facial-recognition technology. Or, at least, enact a moratorium on the use of facial-recognition software by law enforcement until the issue has been sufficiently studied and debated. For the same reason, we should impose heavy restrictions on the use of face data and facial-recognition tech within private companies as well. After all, it’s much harder to move fast and break things when you’re not allowed to move at all.

This position — that we should not widely deploy a new technology until its effects are understood and its uses deliberated, and potentially never deploy it at all — runs against the current of the last two decades, but it’s gaining some acceptance and momentum. As unsettling as the details of Clearview AI’s business were, the response to their disclosure from legislators and law enforcement has been heartening.

«

An outright ban is excessive. Does it have positive uses? Certainly the police will tell you so. Is it good for identifying pictures of yourself on social networks? Isn’t that useful, but not invasive? I think it needs better definition of what is too much, and I’m not sure we’ve heard that.
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The truth about “dramatic action” • China Media Project

Da Shiji:

»

According to a report in Health News (健康报), the official publication of China’s National Health Commission, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center (上海市公共卫生临床中心) had isolated a new strain of coronavirus by January 5, within just 10 days of its receiving samples from patients in Wuhan on December 26, and scientists at the center had obtained the entire genome sequence.

On January 11, on the basis of the latest research developments in Beijing and Shanghai, China officially confirmed that this new coronavirus was the pathogen causing the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, and it shared the new coronavirus gene sequence information with the WHO.

But while the Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization about these developments at the earliest opportunity, they did not inform their own people, but instead maintained strict secrecy. This meant no progress was made on prevention and control.

As the researcher Meng Xin put it: “The ace card [provided by scientists] was still played very poorly, because at the first opportunity politics came into play and directed strict confidentiality requirements – this can’t be talked about, that can’t be talked about, we must maintain stability, and so on. So the test reports were locked into the safety deposit box.”

«

Fascinating insight from a Wuhan resident. The effects of this on the Chinese government’s approach to social media is going to be very, very interesting. Meanwhile, via the lovely Sophie Warnes’s Fair Warning stats’n’graphics newsletter, a Reuters graphic comparing the Coronavirus with SARS and MERS. Short version: more infectious, less fatal.
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Worldwide tablet shipments continue to decline in Q4 2019 • IDC

»

The worldwide tablet market declined 0.6% year over year during the fourth quarter of 2019 (4Q19) as global shipments fell to 43.5 million units, according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker. For the full year 2019, the tablet market shrank 1.5% year over year as global shipments totaled 144 million units.

Apple maintained its lead in the holiday quarter, growing 22.7% year over year. The new iPad launched last quarter accounted for nearly 65% of their shipments and helped the company gain share to 36.5% compared to 29.6% last year. As the company’s product portfolio is moving more towards detachables, slate tablet shipments have been at an all-time low with a 79.3% decline.

«

Fourth quarter is 30% of the year; Christmas is big. Notable is that Amazon slipped by nearly a third; the market for Amazon Fire tablets must be completely saturated. And it’s still Apple twice as big as Samsung, which is twice as big (nearly) as Huawei and Amazon and Lenovo. Beyond that, there’s a few “others” who have 25% of the market (and probably near-zero profit), about the same as in the PC market.
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FCC confirms carriers ‘apparently’ broke the law by selling customer location data • The Verge

Chris Welch:

»

The controversy originated with a Motherboard report that made clear just how negligent carriers including T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T had gotten with selling the real-time location of their wireless subscribers. That information could trickle down to bounty hunters and complete strangers for a worryingly small amount of money — without the wireless customers ever having a clue.

Carriers tried to ease the resulting blowback by saying either they would stop their location sales practices or had already done so. AT&T even went so far as to argue it wasn’t violating any laws. But US lawmakers still wanted a better understanding of how such sensitive data was getting around so freely, which led Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) to summon Pai to an “emergency briefing” that the FCC chairman ended up skipping.

Now, after what Pai says was an “extensive investigation,” the question turns to just how severely the FCC will penalize the mobile providers involved. Will it be something substantial or merely a wrist slap that leaves no lasting reminder for the companies that gave away some of the most sensitive data your phone can produce?

«

Let’s see if Pai is going to do anything material, or if he’s just in place to Do Things That Are The Opposite Of What Obama Did. It seems to me that location data is more valuable than facial recognition systems.
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The Guardian helpfully provides Privacy Policies for the 577 Companies with whom they may share your data • CyberCrime & Doing Time

Gary Warner:

»

I thought this was a policy between me and The Guardian. Who are those “Third Party” folks you refer to?  Oh!  There they are, under “Vendors” … let’s see how many there are … so I began to count.

1, 2, 3, … 10, 20, 30, 150, good God!  How many are there?

I switched from my iPad to my desktop and exported the HTML code to get a better feel for it.

There are 577 Vendors to whom this policy applies.

And guess what, each of them helpfully has a Privacy Policy of their own!  If you would like to see what each of THEM are going to do with your data, you need to read an additional 577 Privacy Policies.

If your lawyers are anything like my lawyers, I’m sure you will want to spend the next 120 business hours reading each of these privacy policies in detail to find out what you are agreeing to.  Its several thousand pages of reading, so be sure to make a nice pot of tea before you start.

Many of these cookie providers have an Opt-Out policy of their own.  Here is the VERY IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER though.  Let’s say you were take the next two months of your life and opt-out of all 577 of these tracking cookies — perhaps especially the ones that say they provide “Precise Geographic Location Data” (Remember the NYTimes article from December 2018, “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night” — they know because you gave them PERMISSION to know!)

Now consider this … the next time you cheerfully click the “OK” button on “I accept all of your cookie policies” — you are EXPLICITLY GRANTING PERMISSION to the company that you previously opted out from TO RESTART THE COLLECTION OF YOUR INFORMATION!  One click undoes whatever privacy you think you gained for yourself.

«

As he also says, it’s not as if The Guardian is the worst offender by any means. But it also means that the GDPR is ineffective in the face of adtech, which is the worst sort of hydra.
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We’re finally talking about what Apple’s Jony Ive got wrong • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

»

The only reason the Mac Pro’s form factor and overall design weren’t instantly slagged was that analysts and journalists both assumed Apple’s own software and hardware development priorities were reflected in its hardware choices. When Apple announced it would offer custom dual AMD GPUs and tie virtually all expansion to Thunderbolt, the expectation was that the company would be shifting resources to prioritize GPGPU computing and OpenCL. Apple did develop Metal and its own mobile GPU, but it didn’t pour money into building an ecosystem around AMD GPUs and their compute capabilities. The Mac Pro launched and sat, unrefreshed, until Apple replaced it last year.

One tidbit that’s emerged since Ive left Apple is that the Apple Watch Edition — a $10,000 wearable with a 2-3 year lifespan — was his own pet project. I genuinely have no idea why.

Apple’s laptop products had problems of their own. Apple is far from the first company to introduce a first-generation product with a flaw that only became apparent later. What sets Apple’s keyboard woes apart from most of these other situations is that the company proved incapable of fixing the problem. After three subsequent generations of butterfly keyboards, Apple has re-adopted the scissor design it used in 2015.

Furthermore, both the screens and the keyboards of these laptops shared a common flaw: Repairing even simple damage required extremely expensive hardware replacement. Apple later acknowledged and created a program to fix its keyboards for free, but both issues were examples of how the company’s relentless pursuit of thinness and integration had resulted in an inferior user experience.

That’s the common thread that connects these issues and separates them from some of the other controversial decisions Apple has made. In the early part of the decade, Apple was lauded for the way its minimalism made devices easier to use. From 2013 forward, its minimalistic designs began to limit or harm what users could do with its hardware.

«

There’s an excellent discussion of the extent to which Apple’s “functional” corporate structure can function (ha) without a high-level “editor” in the Steve Jobs mode on this Exponent podcast from November, with Ben Thompson and James Allworth. Ive was meant to be that editor after Jobs died, but his vision was too blinkered when it came to usability.

And by the way, some of us have been talking about what Ive got wrong for some time.
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Study of YouTube comments finds evidence of radicalization effect • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

»

A March 2018 New York Times article by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci set out the now widely reported thesis that YouTube is a radicalization engine. Followup reporting by journalist Kevin Roose told a compelling tale of the personal experience of an individual, Caleb Cain, who described falling down an “alt right rabbit hole” on YouTube. But researcher Manoel Horta Ribeiro, who was presenting the paper today, said the team wanted to see if they could find auditable evidence to support such anecdotes.

Their paper, called “Auditing radicalization pathways on YouTube”, details a large-scale study of YouTube looking for traces of evidence — in likes, comments and views — that certain right-leaning YouTube communities are acting as gateways to fringe far-right ideologies.

Per the paper, they analyzed 330,925 videos posted on 349 channels — broadly classifying the videos into four types: Media, the Alt-lite, the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) and the Alt-right — and using user comments as a “good enough” proxy for radicalization (their data set included 72 million comments).

The findings suggest a pipeline effect over a number of years where users who started out commenting on alt-lite/IDW YouTube content shifted to commenting on extreme far-right content on the platform over time.

The rate of overlap between consumers of Media content and the Alt-right was found to be far lower.

“A significant amount of commenting users systematically migrates from commenting exclusively on milder content to commenting on more extreme content,” they write in the paper.

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Which is why YouTube’s oft-used defence that “it’s only a tiny proportion of content that’s the problem” is foolish – perhaps knowingly so. If lots of people watch that content, it’s the relative proportion of time spent watching it that matters.
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Huawei is done with Google for good • BGR

Chris Smith:

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Huawei’s country manager for Austria, Fred Wangfei, revealed that there is no going back to Google. That’s because Huawei doesn’t want to be in a position to have to deal with a similar ban in the future, should it ever arrive.

While Huawei has been operating a Google-less Android environment in China for years, as Google doesn’t have an official presence on Android phones there, it’ll be more challenging to replicate that in Europe and other Western markets where Android users are reliant on Google’s Play Store and the other Google apps.

However, Huawei is ready to invest $3bn this year to incentivize more than 4,000 developers to improve the HMS system. Another billion is reserved for marketing purposes.

Huawei is apparently very aware of the challenging task at hand in Europe and other regions where Android users expect Google services on their phones. One issue is getting popular US apps like Facebook and WhatsApp. Huawei plans to use the same Android OS as Google to make it as easy as possible for developers to port their apps. As for Facebook and other US developers, Huawei plans to use a local Europe-based intermediary to bring these apps to its App Gallery store, although it’s unclear whether the effort will work.

The company is apparently ready to lose some market share in the process, as 2020 will be the first year when it won’t have a new device with Google apps on board. Huawei is still able to sell products made before the ban, which allows it to preload those phones with the Google apps you’d expect to find on a new Android phone.

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I think there’s going to be a lot of those “products made before the ban” being sold this year. Fortunate really that the market is essentially stagnant, so it will make little difference (Huawei can just cut the price to reach newer parts of the market). The non-Google Apps products won’t sell outside China.
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LG mobile sees $858 m in losses in 2019 • Android Authority

C. Scott Brown:

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In late 2018, LG brought in a so-called “turnaround expert” to lead its struggling mobile division. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t appear to be working too well, as LG mobile just reported massive losses on its 2019 revenue report.

According to the report, LG Mobile lost 1.01trn Korean won (~$858.34m) in 2019 based on 5.97trn Korean won (~$5.07bn) in revenue. Ouch.

LG is quick to blame a few things for the $858m loss. It says “sluggish sales of mass-tier smartphones in overseas markets” are partially to blame, while also saying “increased marketing expenses to support flagship devices” exacerbated the situation further.

What is the LG mobile division’s plan to stop the bleeding? The only commitment it makes in the report is “the introduction of new mid to premium 5G smartphones and continued cost-efficiency efforts.” What does that mean? To us, it says, “business as usual, but outsourcing more production.”

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More recently: in the fourth quarter, it lost $285m on revenues of $1.13bn. It says it’s going to make a profit by the end of next year. At least it’s the sort of horizon where most people will have forgotten it – or else LG will just withdraw from selling mobile phones outside Asia, or perhaps South Korea.
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Homework assignment • Birchtree

Matt Birchler:

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If you work somewhere with people on computers much of the day, tomorrow take note of how many people use more than one window on screen at a time. Note that this is a per monitor thing, so no credit if they have one app on each screen. If they have one app on screen but it’s not taking up the full page, I’d count that the same, but use your discretion there on how you count it.

Let me know on Twitter what the proportion is of full screeners verses tiled windows folks.

Context: I want to hear how people around you use their computers. There has been a hubbub this week about multitasking and in my experience, almost no one uses multiple windows on screen at a time. Even very smart developers who are keenly aware of how computers work will slam any app they’re using into full screen immediately after opening it.

This is true of my wife, my friends, and my co-workers at my three most recent jobs. I’ve been the weirdo who has four apps up across two monitors!

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Personally: tons of windows. Gazillions of tabs in Safari. Multiple apps.

(I think the reason he’s asking is because of discussion about iPad multitasking, but could be wrong.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified