Start Up No.1330: smartphones v American police, more on ARM Macs, AI that can really write, Beijing locks down again, ‘Potemkin journalism’, and more


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A selection of 11 links for you. Alohomora! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

They used smartphone cameras to record police brutality—and change history • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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In 2008, Steve Jobs had an assignment for a small team of engineers in Cupertino: Make the iPhone record video. After seeing that people liked taking photos with the first iPhones, he wanted to add moving pictures. A year later, Apple released the iPhone 3GS, the first iPhone to record video.

About 10 years and 10 iPhone models later, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier found herself standing on a sidewalk in Minneapolis, swiping on her purple iPhone 11 lock screen to launch the video camera as fast as possible.

She hit the red circle and for the next 10 minutes and 9 seconds she held her phone as steady as she could, capturing George Floyd, a black man crying for his mother as his face was smashed into the pavement by white police officer Derek Chauvin.

“I opened my phone and I started recording because I knew if I didn’t, no one would believe me,” Ms. Frazier said in a statement provided by her lawyer, Seth Cobin.

A day later, May 26, she opened up the Facebook app, and tapped the video of Mr. Floyd to upload it. The world now knows his name.

Over the last decade, while tech companies were focused on marketing megapixels and multiple lenses to better record pastries and puppies, smartphone cameras found a greater purpose.

“This is our only tool we have right now. It is the most effective way to get us justice,” Feidin Santana told me. Mr. Santana used his smartphone in 2015 to film a police officer killing Walter Scott in South Carolina.

…For this column, I looked back at a decade of incriminating cellphone video, and tracked down many people who bravely used their phones to capture brutality and tragedy on American streets.

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The most effective defensive object for a black person encountering the police in the US at present seems to be a smartphone camera.
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Osborning the Mac. Or not • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée:

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we can think through some of the consequences of a switch to Apple-designed ARM processors inside 2021 Macs.

The first notable change will stem from the lower power dissipation associated with ARM derivatives. For several years now, benchmarks have pointed to iPhone processors that offer “desktop-class” computing power. And yet, an iPhone doesn’t feel as warm as a MacBookPro. Besides being more comfortable on our laps, lower power dissipation will mean smaller batteries, longer battery life, and lighter and somewhat slimmer MacBooks for the same screen size.

On a desktop machine, there’s no benefit in lower power dissipation and slimmer bodies. This leads one to speculate that the ARM transition will prioritize laptops while iMacs continue to run on Intel-based hardware.

Looking at macOS and Apple-written apps, there’s every reason to believe that the transition will be as graceful and smooth as it was in 2005–2006. Chances are we’ll see a few demos of Apple software running on an ARM prototype at next week’s WWDC.

Third-party apps are a different story. Such transitions never go completely smoothly for software developers who must scramble to find the engineering resources — and the money — to port their apps to a new platform. To forestall the inevitable grumbling, we expect that Apple will provide plenty of software tools and, for its most important third party developers, hardware test beds — just as the company did in 2005. At next week’s WWDC sessions, we can expect a substantial amount of airtime dedicated to demos of ARM emulation software and transition tools, and explanations of best practices.

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Looking back via MacTracker at 2005/2006, Apple was still selling PPC-based G4 PowerBooks up to April 2006, while the PPC-based desktop Power Mac G5 was still on sale until August 2006.

However Apple brought out Intel-based laptop and desktop machines in January 2006. Unsurprising, since Intel was known for making desktop chips. Apple’s current impatience with Intel is about slow progress on laptop chips, not the desktop, because laptops are 80% or more of sales.

I expect the ARM ones will have a different paint job – ultra matt black would look good. But will the first one be the MacBook Air, a revamped MacBook, or a MacBook Pro? I can find convincing arguments for each.
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The obligatory GPT-3 post • Slate Star Codex

Scott Alexander:

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OpenAI has released a new paper, Language Models Are Few-Shot Learners, introducing GPT-3, the successor to the wildly-successful language-processing AI GPT-2.

GPT-3 doesn’t have any revolutionary new advances over its predecessor. It’s just much bigger. GPT-2 had 1.5 billion parameters. GPT-3 has 175 billion. The researchers involved are very open about how it’s the same thing but bigger. Their research goal was to test how GPT-like neural networks scale.

…Here’s GPT-3 writing a news article from a sentence prompt: UNITED METHODISTS AGREE TO HISTORIC SPLIT – THOSE WHO OPPOSE GAY MARRIAGE WILL FORM THEIR OWN DENOMINATION

“After two days of intense debate, the United Methodist Church has agreed to a historic split – one that is expected to end in the creation of a new denomination, one that will be “theologically and socially conservative,” according to the Washington Post. The majority of delegates attending the church’s annual General Conference in May voted to strengthen a ban on the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and to write new rules that will “discipline” clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings. But those who opposed these measures have a new plan: They say they will form a separate denomination by 2020, calling their church the Christian Methodist denomination…”

«

There’s plenty more, and it’s just working off that original sentence. Though as he points out, in winging it a key detail is wrong – just as humans might do. As Alexander says, “GPT-3 is doing what I used to do on essay questions – throw out a bunch of half-remembered names and dates and hope nobody looks too closely at the exact relations.”

Pretty scarily good, though.
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Beijing reimposes lockdown measures after new Covid-19 outbreak • The Guardian

Emma Graham-Harrison and Lily Kuo:

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Beijing had previously gone 55 days in which the only new infections were citizens returning from other countries. The city had largely returned to normal life, with restaurants and shops opening and daily rush-hour traffic resuming.

As it became clear there were dozens of cases, mostly linked to the Xinfadi food market, there was an abrupt reversal. Southern Fengtai district, where the market is located, has more than 2 million residents, and 11 residential compounds and several schools near the market have been closed.

Movement restrictions were also brought back across the capital, sports events were suspended, tourism from other parts of the country barred and plans to reopen primary schools put on hold.

The new infections sparked a panic about salmon, which was pulled from supermarkets around the country after cutting boards used to prepare imported salmon were among surfaces that tested positive for the virus. Fish cannot be infected by coronavirus.

Six new domestic infections were reported on Saturday, three workers at the Xinfadi market, two people who had visited and a work colleague of one of the visitors.

Mass testing of hundreds of people working at the market uncovered a further 45 asymptomatic cases. The market claims to be the largest wholesale agricultural market in Asia, and Beijing News reported that it supplies nearly 90% of the city’s fruit and vegetables.

«

Uh-oh.
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Google countersues Sonos for patent infringement • The Verge

Zoe Schiffer and Nilay Patel:

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Google has countersued Sonos for patent infringement, following Sonos originally filing a patent lawsuit against Google in January. The lawsuit alleges that Sonos is infringing five Google patents covering mesh networking, echo cancellation, DRM, content notifications, and personalized search.

Google’s suit seems to serve a few purposes. One is obviously to countersue Sonos with its own patents. Another is for Google to show how it has been aggrieved after what it sees as helpful support for Sonos’ product development efforts.

“While Google rarely sues other companies for patent infringement, it must assert its intellectual property rights here,” the company says in its lawsuit. It characterizes the work it’s done to provide Google’s music services and Assistant voice assistant technology on Sonos products as “significant assistance in designing, implementing, and testing.”

The Sonos lawsuit filed in January alleged that Google had infringed five patents covering the setup, control, and synchronization of multiroom network speaker systems. Sonos claimed Google had stolen the technology after working with Sonos to integrate Google Play Music and had further insisted on harsh terms for Sonos to include the Google Assistant on its products, including sharing the full Sonos product roadmap for six months, even as Google was developing competing speaker products.

«

Shorter Google: “You’re so UNGRATEFUL!”
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The conspiracy theorists masquerading as journalists • The Atlantic

Helen Lewis on Nigel Farage’s “journalism” claiming to discover that people come over in boats illegally from France:

»

Of course, the BBC has reported on the migrant boats—at least seven times in the past month. Far from being a story that “isn’t to be told,” a parliamentary committee recently heard evidence on the issue, with testimony from a former head of Britain’s Border Force. The right-wing Telegraph and Daily Mail have both covered the story, as has the left-wing Guardian. The mainstream media’s treatment of the story does, in fairness, differ from Farage’s, largely by putting the actions into context: The French navy has a duty under maritime law to help boats in distress, and many migrants threaten to jump into the water if the vessel is boarded. The navy is then left with no option but to shadow the boats. (Also, although Channel crossings have risen, asylum applications in the U.K. have fallen since the start of the pandemic.)

None of this suits Farage’s simple, clean story of French treachery and immigrant invasion. The “migrant boats” are best thought of as what movie fans call a MacGuffin—a story element that drives the narrative, but whose actual nature is irrelevant, like Avatar’s unobtainium or the holy grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Here, the broader narrative is about British sovereignty, border security, and the alleged threat of immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Farage’s videos show him literally chasing after a boat—a classic use of a MacGuffin—but he doesn’t interview the migrants on board, attempt to tell their stories or uncover their motivations, or find out what happens after the Border Force intercepts them.

We could call this Potemkin journalism, after the villages consisting only of external facades designed to deceive outsiders. It looks like an investigation, but the conclusion is already determined, and any inconvenient facts are quickly airbrushed. And yet it gains gravitas and authority by copying the grammar of news reporting.

«

I love the phrase “Potemkin journalism”, and another that Lewis came up with – red string journalism”, which she explains at her Substack newsletter, which is free, weekly and excellent. You should sign up.
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Deepfakes aren’t very good—nor are the tools to detect them • Ars Technica

Will Knight:

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Facebook’s Deepfake Detection Challenge, in collaboration with Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, and the Partnership on AI, was run through Kaggle, a platform for coding contests that is owned by Google. It provided a vast collection of face-swap videos: 100,000 deepfake clips, created by Facebook using paid actors, on which entrants tested their detection algorithms. The project attracted more than 2,000 participants from industry and academia, and it generated more than 35,000 deepfake detection models.

The best model to emerge from the contest detected deepfakes from Facebook’s collection just over 82% of the time. But when that algorithm was tested against a set of previously unseen deepfakes, its performance dropped to a little over 65%.

“It’s all fine and good for helping human moderators, but it’s obviously not even close to the level of accuracy that you need,” says Hany Farid, a professor at UC Berkeley and an authority on digital forensics, who is familiar with the Facebook-led project. “You need to make mistakes on the order of one in a billion, something like that.”

… Farid questions the value of such a project when Facebook seems reluctant to police the content that users upload. “When Mark Zuckerberg says we are not the arbiters of truth, why are we doing this?” he asks.

Even if Facebook’s policy were to change, Farid says the social media company has more pressing misinformation challenges. “While deepfakes are an emerging threat, I would encourage us not to get too distracted by them,” says Farid. “We don’t need them yet. The simple stuff works.”

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GitHub to replace “master” with alternative term to avoid slavery references • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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GitHub is working on replacing the term “master” on its service with a neutral term like “main” to avoid any unnecessary references to slavery, its CEO said on Friday.

The code-hosting portal is just the latest in a long line of tech companies and open source projects that have expressed support for removing terms that may be offensive to developers in the black community.

This includes dropping terms like “master” and “slave” for alternatives like “main/default/primary” and “secondary;” but also terms like “blacklist” and “whitelist” for “allow list” and “deny/exclude list.”

The concern is that continued use of these racially-loaded terms could prolong racial stereotypes.

“Such terminology not only reflects racist culture, but also serves to reinforce, legitimize, and perpetuate it,” wrote academics in a 2018 journal.

«

What, and places like Github only just noticed this?
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Anyone for Ukrainian table tennis? The shady sport that feeds online gambling • Forbes

Barry Collins:

»

The reader has seen my earlier article on how bookmakers are pumping virtual sports to make up for the lack of actual sports during the pandemic and he’s spotted something else that’s troubling.

On British gambling sites, he’s noticed “curious table tennis tournaments” in which “the same players seem to play continuously around the clock without sleep, food or rest”. Tournaments that seemingly originate from the Ukraine and Russia “that never existed before Covid-19 and seem only to be orchestrated to give the bookies something to offer punters”. OK, now he’s got me.

And he’s right. Or, at least, mostly right. Many of Britain’s biggest bookmakers are offering odds on tournaments such as the Sekta Cup or the Russian Liga Pro – tournaments that aren’t officially recognized, have brutally punishing schedules, don’t have any notable history and barely seem to exist outside the orbit of bookmakers’ websites. Oh, and the rules of one of them insists disputes are settled with a lie-detector test. Something is definitely not quite right here.

…The players are alone in the arena, save for an umpire sat behind a lectern with an electronic scoreboard that’s near impossible to read, even on my 27in computer screen. It’s hard to work out which player is which.

I can bet on almost anything in the game: the match winner, each individual point, the winning margin of each game, whether ‘extra points’ will be required. Everything, that is, except the outcome of the tournament itself, which is revealing. Imagine watching matches in the Super Bowl, the Premier League or the Australian Open but not being able to bet on the tournament winner? Wouldn’t that strike you as odd for a genuine sporting competition?

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Among those offering odds on this 🤔 competition: Bet365 and William Hill. I detest online gambling (impossible to regulate, designed to draw in the vulnerable, almost always tax-averse), but this is off in bizarro world.
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Will the banks collapse? • The Atlantic

Frank Partnoy is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and points to the risks posed to the US (only? I hope) banking sector by “collateralised loan obligations” (CLOs) – which are very like the “collateralised debt obligations” (CDOs) that brought it crashing down in 2008, except those were house loans, and these are loans to businesses so financially stretched they can’t issue bonds.

CLOs have all the same assumptions as CDOs: that there will never be a “black swan” event that will make their businesses decline dramatically at the same time. Such as, say, a pandemic that shuts down businesses for extended periods:

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What I’m about to describe is necessarily speculative, but it is rooted in the experience of the previous crash and in what we know about current bank holdings. The purpose of laying out this worst-case scenario isn’t to say that it will necessarily come to pass. The purpose is to show that it could. That alone should scare us all—and inform the way we think about the next year and beyond.

Later this summer, leveraged-loan defaults will increase significantly as the economic effects of the pandemic fully register. Bankruptcy courts will very likely buckle under the weight of new filings. (During a two-week period in May, J.Crew, Neiman Marcus, and J. C. Penney all filed for bankruptcy.) We already know that a significant majority of the loans in CLOs have weak covenants that offer investors only minimal legal protection; in industry parlance, they are “cov lite.” The holders of leveraged loans will thus be fortunate to get pennies on the dollar as companies default—nothing close to the 70 cents that has been standard in the past.

As the banks begin to feel the pain of these defaults, the public will learn that they were hardly the only institutions to bet big on CLOs. The insurance giant AIG—which had massive investments in CDOs in 2008—is now exposed to more than $9 billion in CLOs. U.S. life-insurance companies as a group in 2018 had an estimated one-fifth of their capital tied up in these same instruments. Pension funds, mutual funds, and exchange-traded funds (popular among retail investors) are also heavily invested in leveraged loans and CLOs.

The banks themselves may reveal that their CLO investments are larger than was previously understood. In fact, we’re already seeing this happen. On May 5, Wells Fargo disclosed $7.7bn worth of CLOs in a different corner of its balance sheet than the $29.7bn I’d found in its annual report. As defaults pile up, the Mnuchin-Powell view that leveraged loans can’t harm the financial system will be exposed as wishful thinking.

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Maybe someone is figuring out The Second Big Short. (Via John Naughton.)
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Book excerpt: how Melania Trump, the first lady, blocked Ivanka Trump from encroaching on her domain • The Washington Post

Mary Jordan, from her new book on the “untold story” of Melania Trump:

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The election night win came as a surprise even to Trump, according to many on his campaign, and little preparation had been done for what came next. Trump had even talked about going to one of his golf courses in Scotland immediately after the election so he didn’t have to watch Hillary Clinton bask in her success. One campaign aide recalled that candidate Trump had “told the pilot [of his private jet], ‘Fuel up the plane.’ ”

He didn’t receive as many votes as Hillary, but he won key states and the electoral college tally that made him president. Trump and his team scrambled to write an acceptance speech and begin a White House transition.

Melania wasn’t prepared to move to Washington, either. It did not help that the campaign revelations of Trump’s alleged serial infidelities still stung. She learned many of the reported details along with the entire nation. While she very much wanted Barron to finish his academic year in New York and not be yanked from his friends, staying in New York also bought time to prepare for her new role as first lady. She needed her own staff. Trump’s staff had already pushed back on her desire to focus on online bullying, and there was huge interest in what she might do.

And, according to several people close to the Trumps, she was in the midst of negotiations to amend her financial arrangement with Trump — what Melania referred to as “taking care of Barron.”

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Melania comes across as very wily and a quietly influential person on Trump. Though one can imagine that as an author (a) you’re not going to write a book saying she’s a dullard who sits in her room (b) the likely sources for the book might have an interest in upping her importance. But the above extract shows that she knows her value, and how to use leverage. She’s probably underestimated. The manoeuvring described in the piece to keep Ivanka out suggests someone who brooks no interlopers.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1330: smartphones v American police, more on ARM Macs, AI that can really write, Beijing locks down again, ‘Potemkin journalism’, and more

  1. You cannot imagine, Charles, how that GPT-3 article makes me feel. Writing crap like that was literally what I was paid to do for a couple of years and so much of “news reporting” is simply rearranging wire service sentences like that, which tell no one who’s interested anything they don’t know, and no one who’s ignorant anything that might possibly interest them.

    It’s the kids I worry about, etc.

    • I did that plenty of times too! Though does it make you feel good that nobody will have to do that salt-mine work, or bad that nobody will get the opportunity to? It’s not as though we weep for the people who miss out on the chance to scythe hay, after all. (Well, apart from the people who think compulsory two-year military service for all those between the ages of 16 and 45 – the latter not a misprint, 45 – is what This Country Needs.)

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