Start Up No.1402: Facebook’s populist ‘advantage’, deepfake blood detection, do smartphones think?, moving buildings, and more

A tokomak: a more advanced version of this could become the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear fusion reactor. CC-licensed photo by David Chase 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. Not up for debate. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Compact nuclear fusion reactor is ‘very likely to work,’ studies suggest • The New York Times

Henry Fountain:


Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.

Construction of a reactor, called Sparc, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, the researchers and company officials said.

Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.

This ambitious timetable is far faster than that of the world’s largest fusion-power project, a multinational effort in Southern France called ITER, for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. That reactor has been under construction since 2013 and, although it is not designed to generate electricity, is expected to produce a fusion reaction by 2035.
Bob Mumgaard, Commonwealth Fusion’s chief executive and one of the company’s founders, said a goal of the Sparc project was to develop fusion in time for it to play a role in mitigating global warming. “We’re really focused on how you can get to fusion power as quickly as possible,” he said.

…Sparc would be far smaller than ITER — about the size of a tennis court, compared with a soccer field, Dr. Mumgaard said — and far less expensive than the international effort, which is officially estimated to cost about $22bn but may end up being far costlier. Commonwealth Fusion, which was founded in 2018 and has about 100 employees, has raised $200m so far, the company said.


Come on, come on… Fusion is always just out of reach. But maybe, maybe this time, it will change? If the papers are published, could anyone try?
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The subtle effects of blood circulation can be used to detect deep fakes • IEEE Spectrum

David Schneider:


This work, done by two researchers at Binghamton University (Umur Aybars Ciftci and Lijun Yin) and one at Intel (Ilke Demir), was published in IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Learning this past July. In an article titled, “FakeCatcher: Detection of Synthetic Portrait Videos using Biological Signals”, the authors describe software they created that takes advantage of the fact that real videos of people contain physiological signals that are not visible to the eye.

In particular, video of a person’s face contains subtle shifts in color that result from pulses in blood circulation. You might imagine that these changes would be too minute to detect merely from a video, but viewing videos that have been enhanced to exaggerate these color shifts will quickly disabuse you of that notion. This phenomenon forms the basis of a technique called photoplethysmography, or PPG for short, which can be used, for example, to monitor newborns without having to attach anything to a their very sensitive skin.

Deep fakes don’t lack such circulation-induced shifts in color, but they don’t recreate them with high fidelity.


So we win the war! Until the next update.
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Why the right wing has a massive advantage on Facebook • POLITICO

Alex Thompson:


Throughout 2020, Democrats have denounced Facebook with growing ferocity as a “right wing echo chamber” with a “conservative bias” that’s giving an edge to Donald Trump in November.

But Facebook says there’s a reason why right-wing figures are driving more engagement. It’s not that its algorithm favors conservatives — the company has long maintained that its platform is neutral. Instead, the right is better at connecting with people on a visceral level, the company says.

“Right-wing populism is always more engaging,” a Facebook executive said in a recent interview with POLITICO reporters, when pressed why the pages of conservatives drive such high interactions. The person said the content speaks to “an incredibly strong, primitive emotion” by touching on such topics as “nation, protection, the other, anger, fear.”

“That was there in the [19]30’s. That’s not invented by social media — you just see those reflexes mirrored in social media, they’re not created by social media,” the executive added. “It’s why tabloids do better than the [Financial Times], and it’s also a human thing. People respond to engaging emotion much more than they do to, you know, dry coverage. …This wasn’t invented 15 years ago when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook.”


“Hitler would have done great on Facebook” isn’t quite the ringing endorsement that the executive seems to think it is. Populism might be “engaging” but it’s not generally how the human race has thrived. Quite the opposite.
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What is it like to be a smartphone? • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:


You would not be able to know what it’s like to be an AI by examining the 1s and 0s of its machine code any more than you’d be able to understand your own being by examining the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts of your genetic code. A conscious computer would likely be unaware of the routines of its software — just as we’re unaware of how our DNA shapes our body and being or even of the myriad signals that zip through our nervous system every moment. An intelligent computer may perform all sorts of practical functions, including taking our inputs and supplying us with outputs, without having any awareness that it is performing those functions. Its being may lie entirely elsewhere.

The Turing test, in all its variations, would also be useless in identifying an AI. It merely tests for a machine’s ability to feign likeness with ourselves. It provides no insight into the AI’s being, which, again, could be entirely separate from its ability to trick us into sensing it is like us. The Turing test tells us about our own skills; it says nothing about the character of the artificial being.

All of this raises another possibility. It may be that we are already surrounded by AIs but have no idea that they exist. Their beingness is invisible to us, just us ours is to them. We are both objects in the same place, but as beings we inhabit different universes. Our smartphones may right now be having, to borrow Nagel’s words, “experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own.”

Look at your phone. You see a mere tool, there to do your bidding, and perhaps that’s the way your phone sees you, the dutiful but otherwise unremarkable robot that from time to time plugs it into an electrical socket.


Always a treat when Nick puts finger to keyboard. (“Is your smartphone conscious?” should be in an Oxbridge philosophy exam at some point in the near future.)
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Financial Conduct Authority Perimeter Report 2019/20

Under section 3.20, “Mass marketing of high risk investments to retail consumers”:


Online platforms, such as search engines and social media platforms, play an increasingly significant role in communicating financial promotions to consumers. As a result, consumers are being more readily exposed to adverts, ranging from scams and promotions of high-risk investments to false or misleading adverts (falling either side of the regulatory perimeter) which, directly or indirectly, lead consumers onto paths resulting in harm. As the digital world continues to develop, the potential harms to consumers change in both nature and severity.

We think that it is important that online platform operators, like Google, bear clear legal liability for the financial promotions they pass on – at least to the same extent as traditional publishers of financial promotions; that would mean that an online publisher would have to ensure that any financial promotion which they communicate has first been approved by an authorised person or otherwise falls within the scope of an exemption in the Financial Promotions Order. We are currently considering with the Treasury the application of the financial promotions regime to these platform operators and whether we need any new powers over them. This work is relevant not just to the promotion of high risk investments but to our work to address online harms – including scams – more generally.


Emphasis added. This is the subject of a campaign offline, and the challenge is to get the Treasury to listen. Given that it will “just” mean that Google has to take a bit more time about checking adverts, you’d think the Treasury would be happy to listen to the FCA.
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Introducing Amazon One—a new innovation to make everyday activities effortless • Amazon


Why did you create Amazon One?
As with everything Amazon does, we started with the customer experience and worked backwards. We solved for things that are durable and have stood the test of time but often cause friction or wasted time for customers. We wondered whether we could help improve experiences like paying at checkout, presenting a loyalty card, entering a location like a stadium, or even badging into work. So, we built Amazon One to offer just that—a quick, reliable, and secure way for people to identify themselves or authorize a transaction while moving seamlessly through their day.

Why did you pick palm recognition?
We selected palm recognition for a few important reasons. One reason was that palm recognition is considered more private than some biometric alternatives because you can’t determine a person’s identity by looking at an image of their palm. It also requires someone to make an intentional gesture by holding their palm over the device to use. And it’s contactless, which we think customers will appreciate, especially in current times. Ultimately, using a palm as a biometric identifier puts customers in control of when and where they use the service.


You can’t determine a person’s identity by looking at an image of their iris, either. But that doesn’t mean you’d want even a hashed version of your iris sitting on Amazon’s EC2. I don’t see the advantage over using a normal contactless payment system, except that with this one Amazon gets to tie your transactions to you, perfect you (and your credit card and mobile phone, required for signup).
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Media’s failed attempt to take on the Facebook-Google “duopoly” • Axios

Sara Fischer:


Disney on Monday sold ad tech provider TrueX, per the Wall Street Journal, an asset it’s been looking to divest since it acquired the property through its acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox. Disney was never trying to develop a major ad tech business the same way some of its streaming rivals once were, although it does have ad tech businesses that help power its ESPN and Hulu streaming platforms, as well as its digital assets.

AT&T is exploring the potential sale of its ad-buying unit Xandr, per the Journal. Xandr was created through the acquisitions of the ad tech firm AppNexus and the merger with Time Warner. During the trial to buy Time Warner, executives argued that the deal made sense because it would help AT&T compete with Google and Facebook for ad dollars.

Verizon has written down half of its investment in its mostly ad-supported media arm, and reports suggest it is looking to offload HuffPost, which was once considered a traffic goldmine for an ad-supported business. Verizon is still investing in its advertising technology, but its business has taken a hit due to the coronavirus.

Google and Facebook still control an overwhelming percentage of the U.S. digital ad market, even though they are losing some ground to Amazon. 

Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, the trade group representing premium publishers, tweeted in July that he still expects Facebook and Google to bring in 88% of all new digital ad dollar growth this year.


Not far to go before it’s past 90%, then 95%.
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Pandemic is far from over, experts say, despite Trump allies’ claims • The New York Times

Donald McNeil Jr:


In the last week, leading epidemiologists from respected institutions have, through different methods, reached the same conclusion: About 85% to 90% of the American population is still susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the current pandemic.

The number is important because it means that “herd immunity” — the point at which a disease stops spreading because nearly everyone in a population has contracted it — is still very far off.

The evidence came from antibody testing and from epidemiological modeling. At the request of The New York Times, three epidemiological teams last week calculated the percentage of the country that is infected. What they found runs strongly counter to a theory being promoted in influential circles that the United States has either already achieved herd immunity or is close to doing so, and that the pandemic is all but over. That conclusion would imply that businesses, schools and restaurants could safely reopen, and that masks and other distancing measures could be abandoned.

“The idea that herd immunity will happen at 10 or 20% is just nonsense,” said Dr. Christopher J.L. Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which produced the epidemic model frequently cited during White House news briefings as the epidemic hit hard in the spring.

…More than 200,000 Americans have already died, and models estimate that if people return to old habits, such as gathering indoors without masks, more than 300,000 and possibly 400,000 could die before a vaccine is widely available.

…The immunity conferred by a common cold coronavirus appears to last a year or two, immunologists say, and then a person can catch the same cold again. Antibodies against it fade away; primed T-cells remain.

Primed T-cells may lower the odds of dying from the new, dangerous coronavirus, Dr. Crotty said, but that has not been proven. There is no evidence that they protect against becoming infected with it.
The experts who promote the theory that primed T-cells even stop infections typically are not immunologists.


“Typically not immunologists” is a neat way of saying “people who score highly on Dunning-Kruger”.
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Swiss company moves 6,200 tonne building 60 metres • BBC News


A 122-year-old, 6,200 tonne building in Zurich is being moved 60 metres westward to make way for the expansion of a nearby railway.

The ambitious project, two years in the making, has involved freeing the foundations of the Machine Factory Oerlikon building before loading it onto a dedicated rail track.


There’s an accompanying video, which shows how remarkable this is. I’m constantly astonished at the process of moving a building because I keep wondering: how do you separate the walls from the foundations? (Cut through them, I guess.) Having done that, how do you lift all of the building at the same time so that you don’t destroy it through uneven stresses – which, given the size of this one, would quickly be catastrophic? Once that’s done, how do you unite it to the new foundations?

And in case you hadn’t noticed, it is somehow Infrastructure Week. Suggestions and links of absurd building deployment welcome. (Thanks Giuseppe for today’s.)
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Start Up No.1401: Google cracks down on app payments, the TikTok failure, how Iranians stay in touch, no herd immunity in Brazil, and more

Scottish MSPs want to investigate Trump’s purchase of golf courses under money-laundering laws. CC-licensed photo by Ric Lander 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. Not in the rough. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google demands 30% cut from app developers in its Play Store • The New York Times

Daisuke Wakabayashi:


Google said it would no longer allow any apps to circumvent its payment system within the Google Play store that provides the company a cut of in-app purchases.

Google said in a blog post on Monday that it was providing “clarity” on billing policies because there was confusion among some developers about what types of transactions require use of its app store’s billing system.

Google has had a policy of taking a 30% cut of payments made within apps offered by the Google Play store, but some developers including Netflix and Spotify have bypassed the requirement by prompting users for a credit card to pay them directly. Google said companies had until Sept. 30, 2021, to integrate its billing systems.

The way the Google and Apple app stores collect fees has become an especially contentious issue in recent months after Epic Games, maker of the popular game Fortnite, sued Apple and Google, claiming they violated antitrust rules with the commissions they charge.

On Monday, a federal judge in California’s Northern District Court in Oakland heard testimony from Epic Games and Apple to determine whether Apple can continue to ban Fortnite, Epic’s popular game, from its app store. The hearing, in which each side debated the size of the app distribution market and Apple’s power over it, offered a preview of the antitrust case before it goes to trial sometime next year.


Poor headline; doesn’t do the work that the intro (lede to Americans) does. There doesn’t seem to have been an outraged response from either Netflix or Spotify to this. Meanwhile, Google says Android 12 will let companies set up “alternative app stores”. Exciting, but will only be available to a tiny proportion of Android users for a long time.
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The biggest Trump financial mystery? Where he came up with the cash for his Scottish resort purchases • Mother Jones

Russ Choma:


His large expenditures in Scotland were notable because they came during a rocky financial stretch for Trump. The year before purchasing the Aberdeenshire estate, he was ousted as CEO of his thrice-bankrupted casino business; in 2008, he defaulted on a large Deutsche Bank loan tied to a development in Chicago.

Like other Trump wagers, his Scottish gamble has so far not worked out. Both resorts are bleeding millions annually. Meanwhile, he and his company have spent years viciously skirmishing with various locals and government agencies that resisted Trump’s plans to build luxury housing on the fringes of the resorts, which the Trump Organization seems to view as vital to profitability.

If business was lackluster before, it’s dismal now that the coronavirus pandemic has all but halted the Scottish golf season, at least as far as international travelers are concerned. To make matters worse, as Trump’s hospitality empire grapples with the fallout of COVID-19, it also faces a series of maturing debts, loans amounting to nearly a half-billion dollars, which need to be paid down or refinanced over the next four years.

Recently, a new—and perhaps bigger—threat to Trump has emerged in Scotland. Scottish lawmakers are pushing to peer into Trump’s finances using an anti-money- laundering statute typically employed against kleptocrats, oligarchs, and crime kingpins. Their question: where did the hundreds of millions Trump poured into his Scottish courses actually come from?


I like how the penultimate sentence there uses “typically” rather than “usually”. Trump’s all three, after all. And it certainly is very, very suspicious that he paid cash for these rather than raising debt (his preferred method for purchasing) and that they lose money hand over fist. He likes golf, but it’s hard to believe he likes golf that much.

Proving that they’re money laundering conduits is going to be much harder, though. At least this quote is a keeper: “Of all the people in the world that aren’t going to put up with a fool, it’s the Scots,” [Rick Reilly] says. “They’re just such a no-nonsense people and they see him for what he is: He’s a big blowhard con man who is trying to tell them what they know isn’t true.”
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Cockamamie TikTok deal fails on every measure • Financial Times

John Thornhill:


Like all Chinese companies, TikTok’s parent ByteDance operates at the whims of the Communist party. The flip side of any Chinese censorship is propaganda. Should it so wish, TikTok could target users in electoral swing states in the US to push — or undermine — a particular agenda or candidate.

If the overriding concern about TikTok is national security then it would make more sense to ban it outright, just as India has done. If we are living in a world of informational warfare then it matters who controls the platforms.

The deal’s details have yet to be clarified, but, as it stands, it skirts many of those national security concerns. True, TikTok’s data will be held on US servers and Oracle will have an oversight role. But ByteDance will retain control of the all-important algorithms that serve up content to its users and the Chinese government has signalled it does not want to share such important technology. ByteDance says it will also retain an 80% stake in TikTok Global. 

Moreover, as Sinan Aral, co-leader of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, argues, US-owned tech platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are themselves still open to manipulation by malign foreign powers. 

As he describes in his book The Hype Machine, Russian disinformation reached at least 126m people on Facebook in the 2016 presidential election and is still rampant today. This is a systemic failing that needs to be tackled, not a national security threat that can be expunged by one executive order.

The broader problem with the TikTok deal is the damaging politicisation of business. “To step in to decide winners and losers on the level of individual companies and individual deals is next to unprecedented in the US and sets a very dangerous precedent,” Prof Aral says.


Of course Facebook and Twitter are being manipulated in favour of Trump, so he’s not going to object to them. TikTok’s threat is only theoretical, but of course Trump was angered by them making fun of him, and the natsec argument is a figleaf. Modi’s excuse in India is just as thin, but at least he didn’t arse about with fake “deals” for his friends.
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How Iran’s diaspora are using old-school tech to fight censorship at home • Rest Of World

Mehr Nadeem:


On November 15, as Iranian authorities first moved to induce the digital blackout, 44-year-old Yahyanejad raced against the clock in Los Angeles to make sure that people back home had downloaded his satellite file-casting application Toosheh. “It was a very small window,” says Yahyanejad. “Once they were fully disconnected, I wasn’t sure they’d be able to download the software.” 

Launched by Yahyanejad in 2016, the technology aggregates uncensored content, like news articles, YouTube videos, and podcasts, and sends it to Iranian homes directly via satellite TV. When Yahyanejad first began developing Toosheh in 2013, an estimated 70% of Iranian households owned a satellite dish, while around 20% had access to the internet. Even as internet access has grown, state censorship means Toosheh’s satellite technology is a much more reliable source for uncensored content. Iranians can install Toosheh’s satellite channel and receive a daily dispatch in the form of a file package of up to 8 gigabytes. Once a user downloads the app, the satellite transfers circumvent the internet entirely. 

Yahyanejad says Toosheh gained nearly 100,000 new Iranians users in November 2019. In the absence of an internet connection, it became the only way for many users to access news from the outside world. The voice on Toosheh’s voicemail belonged to one such user, a 34-year-old high school principal in Tehran who downloaded emergency VPN and proxy tools delivered to him through the satellite service. 

Having navigated extensive cyber censorship for over a decade, Iranians are tech savvy and adept at nimbly crossing firewalls, using proxies and foreign circumvention tools. “It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game,” says Fereidoon Bashar, executive director of ASL19, a Canadian organization working to help Iranians bypass internet censorship.


Toosheh is a clever idea: you can get quite a download speed from a satellite. The problem, of course, is the uplink. Rest Of World is highly recommended: a focus on all those technology stories that aren’t happening in the Anglocentric world. (Thanks Ravi for the link.)
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In Brazil’s Amazon, a COVID-19 resurgence dashes herd immunity hopes • Reuters

Anthony Boadle:


In April and May, so many Manaus residents were dying from COVID-19 that its hospitals collapsed and cemeteries could not dig graves fast enough. The city never imposed a full lockdown. Non-essential businesses were closed but many simply ignored social distancing guidelines.

Then in June, deaths unexpectedly plummeted. Public health experts wondered whether so many residents had caught the virus that it had run out of new people to infect.

Research posted last week to medRxiv, a website distributing unpublished papers on health science, estimated that 44% to 66% of the Manaus population was infected between the peak in mid-May and August.

The study by the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Tropical Medicine tested newly donated banked blood for antibodies to the virus and used a mathematical model to estimate contagion levels. The high infection rate suggested that herd immunity led to the dramatic drop in cases and deaths, the study said.

Scientists estimate that up to 70% of the population may need to be protected against coronavirus to reach herd immunity.

…The Sao Paulo University study said coronavirus antibodies appeared to wane after just a few months, which could explain the resurgence in Manaus.

“Something that became evident in our study – and that is also being shown by other groups – is that antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 decay quickly, a few months after infection,” one of its authors, Lewis Buss, said in a statement by the São Paulo research foundation FAPESP that accompanied the paper.

“This is clearly occurring in Manaus,” Buss said.


What does this mean for a vaccine, though, if antibodies go after a few months? Also – a question I haven’t seen anywhere – does that mean that all of the body’s response to this fades in the same period?
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Poland goes nuclear with plan to build six reactors by 2040 • Global Construction Review

David Rogers:


The government of Poland plans to invest $40bn in building six nuclear reactors over the next 20 years. It currently has none.

The announcement was made on Tuesday 8 September by Michał Kurtyka, the country’s climate minister (pictured).

Poland wants to cut its dependence on coal, which currently fuels about 75% of its electricity generation, and generate half its electricity from zero-emission sources by 2040. 

The reactors are intended to provide a baseload supply, and to cover the nine or 10 days in the year when there is not enough wind or solar energy to meet demand. 

Work on the first reactor will begin in 2026 with the aim of it entering service in 2033. 

Altogether, the new units will generate about 9GW by 2040, according to the plan.


Classic problem of coal (or gas) providing the baseline. Even with the UK it’s still a struggle not to use coal despite the breadth of renewable use.
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Some Google search rivals lose footing on Android system • WSJ

Sam Schechner:


Since March, Alphabet-owned Google has been showing people in Europe who set up new mobile devices running the company’s Android operating system what it calls a “choice screen,” a list of rival search engines that they can select as the device’s default. The system is part of Google’s compliance with a 2018 decision that found the company used Android’s dominance to strong-arm phone makers into pre-installing its search engine.

But some small search engines that are relatively popular in Europe failed to win spots in large European countries in the latest round of auctions to appear on the choice screen, according to people familiar with the results. The results, which cover the fourth quarter of the year, are set to be announced on Monday.

DuckDuckGo, maker of a US-based search engine that doesn’t collect data about its users, lost the auction in all but four small European countries, the people said. Berlin-based Ecosia, which donates most of its profit to planting trees, also didn’t win a slot in any large European country, the people added.

The major winners of the auctions—which offer three spots in each of 31 countries to outside search engines—include Microsoft Corp.’s Bing, as well as a handful of other small search engines, the people said. Google doesn’t participate in the auctions but is offered automatically as a choice in every country along with the auction winners.

…Google has defended its use of auctions saying that “an auction is a fair and objective method to determine which search providers are included.”

The elimination of some smaller search engines gives fodder to Google rivals who have complained that the company has crafted its compliance with the EU’s antitrust decisions in ways that don’t fundamentally change the competitive landscape. DuckDuckGo and Ecosia are the most popular small search engines in Europe, with 0.5% and 0.3% market share as of August, respectively, according to Statcounter.


OK. So they’re not big. At all. (The choice screen hadn’t been updated when I looked on Monday night in the UK.) Who gets the money from the auction? I don’t quite get why it should be an auction at all: if the EC says that Google shouldn’t force itself on OEMs, shouldn’t there just be a list?
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Withings ScanWatch review: measuring your sleep still needs work • The Verge

Nicole Wetsman:


smartwatches can still only tell you so much. They’re good at calculating the total amount of time healthy people spend asleep. They’re usually just measuring time at rest, though. If someone has insomnia and spends hours lying very still and trying to sleep, a smartwatch might think that they’re actually asleep, says Chris Depner, who studies sleep at the University of Utah.

The charts that show how much time you spend in deep sleep versus light sleep also don’t tend to be reliable for most people. The stages of sleep as measured by smartwatches are only accurate about half of the time. “It’s just like a flip of a coin. It could be accurate for you, or it could actually be horribly inaccurate,” Depner says.

It’s not clear what counts as deep sleep for the different devices. There’s a fine line between the different stages of sleep, and there are different ways to calculate them. Even among experts, people use deep sleep to mean different things, says Seema Khosla, medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep. Some might lump non-REM and REM sleep together, for example, while others would differentiate between them.

At a high level, the sleep stage feature might help give a general idea of how someone is sleeping. But they can also be misleading. “I tend to trust when the devices might tell me someone is awake, verses when someone is asleep,” Patil says. “But I don’t put a lot of emphasis on the differentiation between light sleep and deep sleep.”


The implicit claim of these sleep monitoring apps (via smartwatches) has never stacked up to me. If they can’t monitor REM v non-REM sleep, and they can’t, then about all they can tell you is your pulse rate and struggle to infer something from that. As Wetsman says, nobody goes around bragging about their sleep score.
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Seattle underground • Wikipedia

Following on from yesterday’s by-the-way about Chicago being lifted up six feet to get it above sea/lake level:


After the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, new construction was required to be of masonry, and the town’s streets were regraded one to two stories higher. Pioneer Square had originally been built mostly on filled-in tidelands and often flooded. The new street level also kept sewers draining into Elliott Bay from backing up at high tide.

For the regrade, the streets were lined with concrete walls that formed narrow alleyways between the walls and the buildings on both sides of the street, with a wide “alley” where the street was. The naturally steep hillsides were used and, through a series of sluices, material was washed into the wide “alleys,” raising the streets to the desired new level, generally 12 feet (3.7 m) higher than before, in some places nearly 30 feet (9.1 m).

At first, pedestrians climbed ladders to go between street level and the sidewalks in front of the building entrances.


These incredible feats of civil engineering are all completely overlooked now – well, apart from Wikipedia, of course. Though it does make me feel that the plotline in the film “Us” could almost be, you know, true. (Thanks Ravi for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1400: how to raise a city by six feet, iOS 14’s biggest hit, people back social media election blackout, solar’s wild prices, and more

What if you could replace the sugar in this with.. sugar? CC-licensed photo by Andrei! on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not saccharin. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The race to redesign sugar • The New Yorker

Nicola Twilley:


In 1800, an average American would have lived and died never having encountered a single manufactured candy, let alone the array of sugar-sweetened yogurts, snacks, sauces, dressings, cereals, and drinks that now line supermarket shelves. Today, that average American ingests more than nineteen teaspoons of added sugar every day. Not only does most of that never come into contact with our taste buds; our sweet receptors are also less effective than those for other tastes. Our tongues can detect bitterness at concentrations as low as a few parts per million, but, for a glass of water to taste sweet, we have to add nearly a teaspoon of sugar.

…DouxMatok’s [new formulation of sugar called] Incredo, being 99% sucrose, is not subject to regulatory constraints, but any food that uses it still requires reformulation. If you remove the 57 teaspoons of sugar in a jar of Nutella and replace them with 35 teaspoons of Incredo, the jar will be noticeably under-filled. And although the product would taste sweet enough, everything else would be off. “The mouthfeel, the balance, the color—everything goes,” Baniel said. Similar problems arise with the Petit Beurre cookie. “When you just reduce the sugar with Incredo and leave everything else the same, the salt gets a presence you don’t want it to have,” he said. “And the vanilla, on the other hand, goes hysterical.”

Estella Belfer, a pastry chef who is a judge on the TV show “Bake-Off Israel,” hopes to use Incredo exclusively one day, but, recently, she told me about some of the challenges of cooking with it. “To make chocolate, it’s easy. I just substitute the sugar with a smaller amount. In shortbread cookies, it is an improvement—it makes them crispier,” she said. “But in the cupcakes and the sponge cakes—this is where there is an art to using Incredo sugar.” Sugar is responsible for much of the tender, springy texture of a good cake; Incredo sugar behaves exactly the same way, but there’s a lot less of it, which creates a problem.


Sugar turns out to be really ingrained into our culture. Absorbed, you could say.
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‘The Social Dilemma’ and the last fucking thing i’ll ever write about Facebook • The Pull Request

Antonio Garcia-Martinez (who used, of course, to work at Facebook, where he helped develop its ad system):


As is clear from the first minutes [of the Netflix documentary], the entire point of this cinematic pageant is to keep the focus constantly, irrevocably, and fatiguingly on Trist-AHN [ex-Googler Tristan Harris], the anti-prophet of the social media religion.

As might be expected from someone who oozes as much self-righteousness as narcissistic self-importance, he faceplants in due course. “No one got upset when the bicycle showed up,” he proclaims, invoking the ill-advised example of bicycles as historical foil to the Internet and social media.

That’s of course hilariously and incontrovertibly wrong: There was a wave of anti-bicycle activism (much of it fanned by those in the horse trade) when the first two-wheeled conveyances came out in the late 19th century. And that’s been true of every technology—bicycles, cars, radios, TV, movies, video games, smartphones, and indeed even vaccines—since the mythic Prometheus gave humans fire. The supreme irony is that Harris, who always talks up his former techie credentials, is falling prey to the same historical myopia and cluelessness for which many techies (rightly I should add) are routinely criticized. It’s always Day One in the Eternal Present of the Internet, no different for its detractors than its fans.


Garcia-Martinez is, to put it mildly, sceptical about the bona fides of those interviewed in The Social Dilemma (a program that I think is generally right about causes, but doesn’t look enough at effects).

I do think his description of how you’d describe WhatsApp to someone in the Middle Ages is neat (as telepathy). You’d get burned as a witch, of course.
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Melting Antarctic ice will raise sea level by 2.5 metres – even if Paris climate goals are met, study finds • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey:


Melting of the Antarctic ice sheet will cause sea level rises of about two and a half metres around the world, even if the goals of the Paris agreement are met, research has shown.

The melting is likely to take place over a long period, beyond the end of this century, but is almost certain to be irreversible, because of the way in which the ice cap is likely to melt, the new model reveals.

Even if temperatures were to fall again after rising by 2C (3.6F), the temperature limit set out in the Paris agreement, the ice would not regrow to its initial state, because of self-reinforcing mechanisms that destabilise the ice, according to the paper published in the journal Nature.

“The more we learn about Antarctica, the direr the predictions become,” said Anders Levermann, co-author of the paper from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “We get enormous sea level rise [from Antarctic melting] even if we keep to the Paris agreement, and catastrophic amounts if we don’t.”

The Antarctic ice sheet has existed in roughly its current form for about 34m years, but its future form will be decided in our lifetimes, according to Levermann. “We will be renowned in future as the people who flooded New York City,” he told the Guardian.


There’s a video too. It’s also depressing. It seems to me that decarbonisation – as in, not putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – isn’t going to be enough. We need a huge carbon capture and storage program. Trees would be a start. New York in the future might appreciate it.
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Twitter is bringing its ‘read before you retweet’ prompt to all users • The Verge

James Vincent:


Twitter says it’s working on bringing its “read the article before you retweet it” prompt to all users “soon.” The company began testing the prompt in June, which shows up when people go to retweet a story they haven’t clicked through to actually read.

Twitter says its motivation is to “help promote informed discussion.” Headlines often don’t tell the whole story and can even be actively misleading. Encouraging people to at least read the article they’re sharing seems like a smart way to promote media literacy and stop some of the knee-jerk reactions that can make misinformation viral.


Twitter says the prompt gets people to open the link 40% more often, and that the number who open before retweeting is up by 33%. And some people don’t retweet or pass it on.

Getting people to pause and even read before they pass content on is a good move.
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Custom iOS 14 widgets have become a TikTok flex • The Verge

Julia Alexander:


The most exciting part of iOS 14 isn’t picture-in-picture video display or the app library — it’s widgets.

Instead of once-boring app icons for your calendar or clock that might get placed in a utilities folder, the new wave of widgets let you spice up your homepage with anything from custom notes to astronomy and weather reports. Those options have existed on Android devices for years, but their sudden arrival on the iPhone has created a kind of gold rush, with users combining them into custom layouts that can be tweaked, shared, and even sold.

The new options have also turned a small utility called Widgetsmith into a surprise success, garnering more than 2 million downloads since it launched on September 16th, according to CNBC. Widgetsmith isn’t necessary for layouts, but its wide-ranging custom widget options give users more control. Most importantly, it’s become the preferred tool for most layout tutorial videos, which has put it at the center of the growing scene. Even with Widgetsmith, designing the perfect layout can take several hours — but it’s worth it for users who are trying to make a splash on Instagram or TikTok.


David Smith, the maker of Widgetsmith, was at first counting the number of support emails per minute, and then per second. And then a copycat app ripping off the name turned up above it in App Store search. Apple really needs to work on.
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Exclusive: majority polled back a social-media blackout for election • Axios

Ashley Gold:


Fifty-two% of voters support shutting down social media platforms altogether for the week of the presidential election, according to a poll from GQR research shared exclusively with Axios.

Tech companies have aggressively rolled out new guardrails around misinformation related to the election and taken down numerous foreign-led meddling campaigns this year, but critics continue to fear that social media is a vector for domestic and foreign deceit.

In the run-up to the election, Twitter has banned political advertising altogether, Facebook is banning new political ads a week before election day and YouTube announced a crackdown on deceptive ads this summer.

The survey, commissioned by Accountable Tech, questioned 1,000 registered voters in early September. Some notable results:

• 52% support shutting down social media platforms for the week of the election (54% Democrats and 51% Republicans)
• 79% say social media companies should “do more to protect democracy”
• Facebook is the most used social platform (65%), but 52% hold unfavorable views of it, and it is the least trusted news source compared to other social media and traditional media
• 62% say they are not confident social media companies can prevent election-related misinformation, and 91% think social media companies should do more to prevent its spread
• 82% support placing warning labels on accounts spreading false information about voting and 85% support blocking posts calling for violence or spreading election misinformation altogether.


I may have mentioned it before, but a study in 2018 paid people money to stay off Facebook in the four weeks before and after the 2018 US midterm elections. They reported being happier as a result; a significant number then stayed off it when the experiment came to an end.

The people in the poll seem to have an inkling of that.
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Solar’s future is insanely cheap (2020) • Ramez Naam

Naam has analysed energy price trends going back some decades, and now he looks forward:


This incredible pace of solar cost decline, with average prices in sunny parts of the world down to a penny or two by 2030 or 2035, is just remarkable. Building new solar would routinely be cheaper than operating already built fossil fuel plants, even in the world of ultra-cheap natural gas we live in now. This is what I’ve called the third phase of clean energy, where building new clean energy is cheaper than keeping fossil fuel plants running. Even in places like Northern Europe, by the later 2030s we’d see solar costs below the operating cost of fossil fuels, providing cheap electricity in summer months with their very long days in the high latitudes. These prices would be disruptive to a large fraction of already operating fossil fuel power plants – particularly coal power plants, that are far less able to ramp their power flexibly to follow solar’s day-night cycle.

In a purely open market, these incredibly low prices would drive the world’s remaining coal plants into bankruptcy, and steal some of the most profitable operating hours even from cheap natural gas plants.

Solar, if it keeps dropping at this pace, could well be by far the cheapest electricity over the vast majority of areas where people live. Nothing would ever be quite the same in the world of energy.


Then we need methods of energy storage for the night. Or, perhaps, lots of wind energy? Lots of hydro? The reality is that we need nuclear as a baseline.
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Pasta, wine and inflatable pools: how Amazon conquered Italy in the pandemic • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Emma Bubola:


Amazon was hampered in Italy by a lack of widespread broadband and poor roads for delivering packages, especially in the south. Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and many people are also wary of providing their financial details online. E-commerce accounts for only 8% of retail spending in the country.

“There were some structural issues that we had to face,” said Mariangela Marseglia, Amazon’s country manager for Italy. “Unfortunately, our country was and still is one of those where technological understanding and tech culture is low.”

The turning point was the pandemic. Mr. Parma said 75% of Italians shopped online during the lockdown. Total online sales are estimated to grow 26% to a record €22.7bn this year, according to researchers from Polytechnic University of Milan. Netcomm, an Italian retail consortium, called it a “10-year evolutionary leap,” with more than two million Italians trying e-commerce for the first time between January and May.

Hurdles remain for Amazon. Small and midsize businesses are an integral part of Italian society. They make up roughly 67% of the economy, excluding finance, and about 78% of employment, which are higher than EU averages, according to E.U. statistics.

In Gragnano, a hilltop town near the Amalfi Coast with a 500-year history of pasta manufacturing, Ciro Moccia, the owner of La Fabbrica della Pasta, said Amazon was a “dangerous” monopoly that could destroy businesses like his that rely on conveying the quality of a product.

But during the lockdown, his company had no choice but to sell on Amazon after many stores shut. Standing above the family’s factory recently, where semolina flour was mixed with spring water and pressed into 140 different pasta shapes, Mr. Moccia said, “I am very worried.”


Amazon as a platform for existing sellers is going to make complete sense. It would be possible for companies to do better by using it, even, as Moccia discovered.
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The big national news providers need threat modeling teams • PressThink

Jay Rosen argues that the media in the US needs to adopt “threat modelling” against the onslaught of misinformation that will come their way over the coming weeks and months from the Trump side as they try to an “autocratic attempt” (explained earlier in his post; the other two stages are “autocratic breakthrough” and “autocratic consolidation”):


If threat modelling is defensive, what is it that journalists should be trying to defend? 

To me this is one reason to do it. In order to deploy a threat modeling, or threat “ideation” team you have to know what you are trying to protect against. You have to own that responsibility. Which is a lot different from reporting whatever comes down the pike.

Earlier in the campagn, I wrote a post about this problem: You cannot keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But what should that agenda be? I think it has to be some kind of defense of American democracy and its central ritual: free and fair elections that engender trust in the outcome, and thereby make the peaceful transfer of power possible.

Earlier in the modern era, journalists covering election campaigns had been able to assume the existence of a stable system, and therefore focus on the contest itself. That doesn’t work for 2020. For it is by no means guaranteed that we will have a free and fair vote. Journalists have to plant their flag on the sacred ground of legitimate elections, and help defend it against all threats. Threat modeling can assist with that project. And that is my argument for its adoption by the big national news providers.


There’s a lot of concern that the US is going to become Belarus-on-the-Potomac.
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Weighing in • All this

Dr Drang (who is a structural engineer):


In October 2018, Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett were in Chicago for a Relay FM event that I attended. During the event, they recorded this episode of Ungeniused, their podcast about weird articles on Wikipedia. In honour of the city they were in, the article they chose was “Raising of Chicago”, which describes how, in the 1850s and 1860s, the roadways and buildings of the city were elevated as much as six feet to get them up out of the muck and allow decent drainage of both stormwater and wastewater.

The roadways were easy because you don’t really lift a street; you just add a bunch of fill and build a new road on top of that. But substantial buildings had to be jacked up to keep their ground floors from becoming basements. Here’s an image from the article of a large team of men doing just that.

One of the advantages of blogging over podcasting is you get to include cool pictures like this.

As they were describing the process, Myke and Stephen mentioned the weights of some of the buildings that were lifted, and Stephen asked, “How do you estimate the weight of a building?” After the recording, I told him that the weights of significant buildings are always known by the people who build them. I further said that I would write a post about it. And to prove that I’m a man of my word, here I am… two years later.


First you marvel at how you estimate the weight of a building, and then at the fact that Chicago simply got on and hefted them higher. The incentive was a cholera outbreak in 1854 because Chicago was basically at sea level beside a lake. And: people were allowed to keep shopping even in the buildings that were being raised.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1399: Facebook lets misleading political ads through, Cambridge Analytica boss dinged, Big Bang black holes?, and more

What if tobacco companies had had the same exemptions over consequences as social media companies enjoy today? CC-licensed photo by Jamie Anderson on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Another one down. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook allowed hundreds of misleading super PAC ads, activist group finds • CNN

Brian Fung:


Facebook (FB) has allowed political advertisers to target hundreds of misleading ads about Joe Biden and the US Postal Service to swing-state voters ranging from Florida to Wisconsin in recent weeks, in an apparent failure to enforce its own platform rules less than two months before Election Day.

The ads containing false or misleading information, primarily by a pro-Republican super PAC led by former Trump administration officials, have collectively been viewed more than 10 million times and some of the ads remain active on the service, according to an analysis of Facebook’s ad transparency data by the activist group Avaaz.

Two super PACs emerged as the worst offenders in Avaaz’s analysis: the pro-Trump group America First Action, and the pro-Democratic group Stop Republicans. But the report found that AFA’s activities far exceeded those of Stop Republicans, both in terms of money spent and impressions received.

While Facebook allows politicians to make false claims in their ads — arguing that voters deserve an unfiltered view of what candidates and elected officials say — advertisements by super PACs and other independent groups are subject to the company’s policies on misinformation.


The crucial point here is that the misinformation tends to be “dark” – it’s hard to find what going on because you have to dig into Facebook’s Ad Library, unlike monitoring TV stations or newspaper output.

But are we surprised by Facebook failing to enforce its own rules? Of course we aren’t. The point to bear in mind now about Facebook is that Facebook has lost control of Facebook. The network is metastasizing, and things that happen on it are completely beyond the ability of the people who moderate it to stop.
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Seven-year disqualification for Cambridge Analytica boss • GOV.UK


Effective from 5 October 2020, Alexander Nix is disqualified for seven years from acting as a director or directly or indirectly becoming involved, without the permission of the court, in the promotion, formation or management of a company.

Alexander Nix was a director of SCL Elections Ltd, a company that provided data analytics, marketing and communication services to political and commercial customers. He was also a director of five other connected UK companies: SCL Group Ltd, SCL Social Ltd, SCL Analytics Ltd, SCL Commercial Ltd, and Cambridge Analytica (UK) Ltd.

Investigators’ enquiries confirmed that Alexander Nix had caused or permitted SCL Elections or associated companies to act with a lack of commercial probity.

The unethical services offered by the companies included bribery or honey trap stings, voter disengagement campaigns, obtaining information to discredit political opponents and spreading information anonymously in political campaigns.

Mark Bruce, Chief Investigator for the Insolvency Service, said: “Following an extensive investigation, our conclusions were clear that SCL Elections had repeatedly offered shady political services to potential clients over a number of years.

“Company directors should act with commercial probity and this means acting honestly and correctly. Alexander Nix’s actions did not meet the appropriate standard for a company director and his disqualification from managing limited companies for a significant amount of time is justified in the public interest.”


Wow. I cannot recall any occasion when anything like this has happened without outright fraud on the part of the director. Absolutely astonishing. And yet: the UK government, which has signed off on this decision, thinks there’s absolutely nothing to consider around the 2016 referendum even though Cambridge Analytica played a key part in it.
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Black holes from the Big Bang could be the dark matter • Quanta Magazine

Joshua Sokol:


We know that dying stars can make black holes. But perhaps black holes were also born during the Big Bang itself. A hidden population of such “primordial” black holes could conceivably constitute dark matter, a hidden thumb on the cosmic scale. After all, no dark matter particle has shown itself, despite decades of searching. What if the ingredients we really needed — black holes — were under our noses the whole time?

“Yes, it was a crazy idea,” said Marc Kamionkowski, a cosmologist at Johns Hopkins University whose group came out with one of the many eye-catching papers that explored the possibility in 2016. “But it wasn’t necessarily crazier than anything else.”

Alas, the flirtation with primordial black holes soured in 2017, after a paper by Yacine Ali-Haïmoud, an astrophysicist at New York University who had previously been on the optimistic Kamionkowski team, examined how this type of black hole should affect LIGO’s detection rate. He calculated that if the baby universe spawned enough black holes to account for dark matter, then over time, these black holes would settle into binary pairs, orbit each other closer and closer, and merge at rates thousands of times higher than what LIGO observes. He urged other researchers to continue to investigate the idea using alternate approaches. But many lost hope. The argument was so damning that Kamionkowski said it quenched his own interest in the hypothesis.

Now, however, following a flurry of recent papers, the primordial black hole idea appears to have come back to life. In one of the latest, published last week in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, Karsten Jedamzik, a cosmologist at the University of Montpellier, showed how a large population of primordial black holes could result in collisions that perfectly match what LIGO observes.


Must admit, it would be bloody good if we could sort the black matter question out, so we could move on to something new.
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Leak reveals $2tn of possibly corrupt US financial activity • The Guardian

David Pegg:


The documents were provided to BuzzFeed News, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The documents are said to suggest major banks provided financial services to high-risk individuals from around the world, in some cases even after they had been placed under sanctions by the US government.

According to the ICIJ the documents relate to more than $2tn of transactions dating from between 1999 and 2017.

One of those named in the SARs is Paul Manafort, a political strategist who led Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign for several months.

He stepped down from the role after his consultancy work for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was exposed, and he was later convicted of fraud and tax evasion.

According to the ICIJ, banks began flagging activity linked to Manafort as suspicious beginning in 2012. In 2017 JP Morgan Chase filed a report on wire transfers worth over $300m involving shell companies in Cyprus that had done business with Manafort.


Isn’t it just amazing how pretty much everyone that Donald Trump comes in to any sort of close business contact with is revealed to have lied or otherwise been corrupt.
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To fight Apple and Google, smaller app rivals organize a coalition • The New York Times

Erin Griffith:


At the heart of the new alliance’s effort is opposition to Apple’s and Google’s tight grip on their app stores and the fortunes of the apps in them. The two companies control virtually all of the world’s smartphones through their software and the distribution of apps via their stores. Both also charge a 30% fee for payments made inside apps in their systems.

App makers have increasingly taken issue with the payment rules, arguing that a 30% fee is a tax that hobbles their ability to compete. In some cases, they have said, they are competing with Apple’s and Google’s own apps and their unfair advantages.

Apple has argued that its fee is standard across online marketplaces.

On Thursday, the coalition published a list of 10 principles, outlined on its website, for what it said were fairer app practices. They include a more transparent process for getting apps approved and the right to communicate directly with their users. The top principle states that developers should not be forced to exclusively use the payments systems of the app store publishers.

Each of the alliance’s members has agreed to contribute an undisclosed membership fee to the effort.

“Apple leverages its platform to give its own services an unfair advantage over competitors,” said Kirsten Daru, vice president and general counsel of Tile, a start-up that makes Bluetooth tracking devices and is part of the new nonprofit. “That’s bad for consumers, competition and innovation.”

Ms. Daru testified to lawmakers this year that Apple had begun making the permissions around Tile’s app more difficult for people to use after it developed a competing feature.


(Though of course subsequent to that Apple changed things so that Tile’s app can work competitively.) This is an interesting move: if it has any effect, it will probably occur well before any legislative action can.
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This $1 hearing aid could treat millions with hearing loss • AAAS

Christa Lesté-Lasserre:


Inspired by his grandparents and a hearing-impaired colleague—who is first author on the new paper—Bhamla and his team set out to develop a cheap hearing aid built with off-the-shelf parts. They soldered a microphone onto a small circuit board to capture nearby sound and added an amplifier and a frequency filter to specifically increase the volume of high-pitch sounds above 1000 hertz. Then they added a volume control, an on/off switch, and an audio jack for plugging in standard earphones, as well as a battery holder. The device, dubbed LoCHAid, is the size of a matchbox and can be worn like a necklace. At bulk rates, Bhamla says, it would cost just under $1 to make. But anyone with the freely available blueprints and a soldering iron can make their own for not much more—maybe $15 or $20, Bhamla says. The parts are easy to source, he says, and putting them together takes less than 30 minutes.

Next, Bhamla and his colleagues tested the device. They found that it boosted the volume of high-pitch sounds by 15 decibels while preserving volumes at lower pitches. It also filtered out interference and sudden, loud sounds like dog barks and car horns. Finally, tests with an artificial ear revealed that LoCHAid might improve speech recognition, by bringing conversations closer to the quality heard by healthy individuals. It complied with five out of six of the World Health Organization’s preferred product recommendations for hearing aids, the researchers report today in PLOS ONE.


This is the sort of technology that can really change the world.
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Authoritative voting information on YouTube • YouTube blog

Leslie Miller is VP of government affairs and public policy at YouTube:


YouTube’s Community Guidelines protect the community from harmful content and we enforce these policies consistently, regardless of who expresses it. Our policies prohibit claims that mislead voters on how to vote or encourage interference in the democratic process. Additionally, we demonetize content with claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.
Alongside the consistent enforcement of our policies, we’re continuing to raise up authoritative voices and reduce harmful misinformation. One of the ways we do this is through our information panels, which provide relevant context alongside content. For example, in 2018, we started to show information panels linking to third-party sources around a small number of well-established topics that are subject to misinformation, such as the moon landing or COVID-19. We’re expanding this list of topics to include voting by mail. This means that under videos that discuss voting by mail, you’ll see an information panel directing you to authoritative information from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a bipartisan think tank.


“Demonetise” claims that could significantly undermine participation? Such half measures. What if the people who put such claims up aren’t interested in monetisation, just spread? What if YouTube is part of the problem, rather than (as it’s trying to pretend here) the solution?

Related: YouTube labelling (with AI) more age-restricted, ie over-18s, content. And: “former YouTube content moderator sues the company after developing symptoms of PTSD“.
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Ring’s latest security camera is a drone that flies around inside your house • The Verge

Dan Seifert:


Ring latest home security camera is taking flight — literally. The new Always Home Cam is an autonomous drone that can fly around inside your home to give you a perspective of any room you want when you’re not home. Once it’s done flying, the Always Home Cam returns to its dock to charge its battery. It is expected to cost $249.99 when it starts shipping next year.

Jamie Siminoff, Ring’s founder and “chief inventor,” says the idea behind the Always Home Cam is to provide multiple viewpoints throughout the home without requiring the use of multiple cameras. In an interview ahead of the announcement, he said the company has spent the past two years on focused development of the device, and that it is an “obvious product that is very hard to build.” Thanks to advancements in drone technology, the company is able to make a product like this and have it work as desired.

The Always Home Cam is fully autonomous, but owners can tell it what path it can take and where it can go. When you first get the device, you build a map of your home for it to follow, which allows you to ask it for specific viewpoints such as the kitchen or bedroom. The drone can be commanded to fly on demand or programmed to fly when a disturbance is detected by a linked Ring Alarm system.

The charging dock blocks the camera’s view, and the camera only records when it is in flight. Ring says the drone makes an audible noise when flying so it is obvious when footage is being recorded.


Clever. Where’s the place you don’t need permission to fly a drone? Your home. Where might you want random footage from? Your home. As with Alexa, Amazon has thought one step ahead. Whether this is really going to make a difference is harder to say. Ring probably has, Alexa (as a standalone) probably not. This seems to sit between those two. But it’s also a surveillance system.
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Written testimony to the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce

Tim Kendall:


When I started working in technology, my hope was to build products that brought people together in new and productive ways. I wanted to improve the world we all lived in.

Instead, the social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity. At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding – at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.

I feel ashamed by this outcome. And I am deeply concerned. And to that end, I am compelled to talk to you about what we can do to limit further damage—and maybe even undo some of it.

My path in technology started at Facebook where I was the first Director of Monetization. I thought my job was to figure out the business model for the company, and presumably one that sought to balance the needs of its stakeholders – its advertisers, its users and its employees. Instead, we sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible and turn into historically unprecedented profits.

To do this, we didn’t simply create something useful and fun. We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset.

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent. But eventually that wasn’t enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods. At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.


No punches pulled. He was at Facebook from 2006 to 2010. You can’t argue that things have improved since then. He extends the tobacco metaphor too: what if they’d had some version of Section 230? One to ponder.
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Facebook Oversight Board plans to launch ahead of US election • CNBC

Sam Shead:


Facebook’s much-anticipated Oversight Board has confirmed that it is planning to launch ahead of the US election on Nov. 3 after being criticized for a perceived lack of action. 

The board will rule on appeals from Facebook and Instagram users and questions from Facebook itself, although it will have to pick and choose which content moderation cases to take due to the sheer volume of them.

Following a report from The Financial Times, a spokesperson for the independent Oversight Board told CNBC that it expects to start in mid to late October. 

“We are currently testing the newly deployed technical systems that will allow users to appeal and the Board to review cases. Assuming those tests go to plan, we expect to open user appeals in mid to late October.”

They added: “Building a process that is thorough, principled and globally effective takes time and our members have been working aggressively to launch as soon as possible.”

The Oversight Board said it expects to decide on a case, and for Facebook to have acted on this decision, within a maximum of 90 days.


Good grief. Could we replace them with a machine learning system? It would be much faster and the results would be just as debatable.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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Start Up No.1398: Twitter blamed for Indian and South African violence, the acediac world of Covid, Zuck caught on tape, and more

Will QR codes be the bug in the NHS’s new Test & Trace app launching today? CC-licensed photo by Steven Severinghaus 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. Seasonal. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The NHS Test and Trace app’s biggest flaw? Botched QR codes • WIRED UK

Nicole Kobie on the T&T system, where you scan a QR code using the app on entering a commercial location such as a shop or gym:


Newham residents [who have been beta testing the UK app being launched on September 24 – today!] told WIRED that they’ve barely seen any of the official NHS QR codes in shops or restaurants. Others say they’re confused as to whether a QR code on the door is the right one to scan or not, as existing contact-tracing systems also use the codes – just wait until these codes are ubiquitous and scammers start putting up false ones. And some residents reported that the QR code throws up an error message in the app or simply takes too long to scan, causing queues to enter a shop — hardly ideal in these times of social distancing. “Although the app looks good, if I can’t use the QR scanner, it defeats the object of the app’s purpose,” wrote one app reviewer on Google Play.

The other challenge is downloading the app. Residents were sent out a detailed, four-page letter with instructions on how to install the app and use one-time codes to activate it for the trial, which residents said was off-putting – especially so for those who don’t speak English as a first language. The council has pushed for the app and online advice for it to be available in several languages, including Polish, Gujarati, Urdu and more, but as Fiaz notes, Newham has more than 100 languages and dialects spoken locally.

The residents who did head to the App Store or Google Play to download the app faced another hurdle: it only works on recent smartphones, running Android 6.0 or iOS 13.5 later; that’s iPhone 6S and newer. However, that risks leaving out people with older phones, in particular those without the money to buy a newer one. A story in the Newham Recorder quotes an 82-year-old resident of Manor Park as saying he couldn’t download the app because his smartphone was too old, with Age UK warning this could leave those most at risk of Covid being treated as “second-class citizens.”


It’s going to be so much fun. The code is available, by the way.
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Twitter let dozens of tweets doxing Indian interfaith couples stay up for months • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit:


For nearly two months, tweets by far-right Hindu nationalists in India doxing dozens of young interfaith couples — usually Muslim men marrying Hindu women — circulated on Twitter.

“This is going to be a long thread,” one of the accounts involved in the doxing said, following it up with 17 more tweets. Each tweet contained pictures of government documents including names, ages, occupations, addresses, and photographs of Hindu-Muslim couples in India. “Look at these pictures,” another tweet from the same account said. “Who instigates these couples to get together? It can’t be that they just ‘fall in love.’”

On Monday, as outrage mounted in India, Twitter finally took down some of the largest threads, even though people had been reporting them for weeks.

But more than half a dozen other tweets doxing interfaith couples remained after the first takedowns. One of them included a tweet from a politician from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, who tweeted the address of an Indian actor who allegedly converted to Islam. Twitter took down these posts after BuzzFeed News asked about them.

None of the accounts whose tweets were taken down were suspended.


The latter part is bad. Accounts which publish personal information like that are suspended as a matter of course. Once more there’s a suspicion that these companies are somehow beholden to, or scared of, the Indian government.
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Xenophobic Twitter campaigns orchestrated by a former South African soldier • Daily Maverick

Jean le Roux for DFRLab:


A South African Twitter account at the centre of a network of xenophobic hashtags and inciting statements has been linked to a former member of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). 

Sifiso Jeffrey Gwala, a former lance corporal with the 121st SA Infantry Battalion in Mtubatuba in coastal KwaZulu-Natal, has been identified as the person behind the “anonymous” Twitter account previously known as @uLerato_pillay, which has been accused of inciting xenophobic tensions in South Africa. In recent weeks, these narratives have bubbled to the surface of mainstream media outlets as public officials from fringe political parties echoed these nationalist sentiments in what appears to be reckless political opportunism.

South Africa has a fatal history of violence against foreign nationals, particularly other Africans. In May 2008, 62 people died as a result of nationwide xenophobic riots that started near Johannesburg, and in April 2015, seven people were killed in similar protests in Durban. South Africa’s high unemployment rate and lacklustre service delivery are often blamed on the nearly four million foreign nationals staying in South Africa, and unfounded claims that foreign nationals are disproportionately responsible for crime are frequently used to justify these attacks. 


This is a long, long read but that’s the takeaway: taking advantage of Twitter’s algorithms to create discord.
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Facebook denies it will pull service in Europe over data transfer ban • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:


“We of course won’t [shut down in Europe] — and the reason we won’t of course is precisely because we want to continue to serve customers and small and medium sized businesses in Europe,” said Facebook VP Nick Clegg during a livestreamed EU policy debate yesterday.

However he also warned of “profound effects” on scores of digital businesses if a way is not found by lawmakers on both sides of the pond to resolve the legal uncertainty around US data transfers — making a pitch to politicians to come up with a new legal ‘sticking plaster’ for EU-US data transfers now that a flagship arrangement, called Privacy Shield, is dead.

“We have a major issue — which is that for various complex, legal, political and other reasons question marks are being raised about the current legal basis under which data transfers occur. If those legal means of data transfer are removed — not by us, but by regulators — then of course that will have a profound effect on how, not just our services, but countless other companies operate. We’re trying to avoid that.”


So if the legal means of transfer are removed then Facebook will have to shut down in Europe. Because he certainly doesn’t seem to be saying that Facebook is going to alter its behaviour.
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The unrelenting horizonlessness of the Covid world • CNN

Nick Couldry and Bruce Schneier:


Acedia was a malady that apparently plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

…Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. Covid has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.


(Couldry is a professor of media, communications and social theory. Bruce Schneier you should know as a security expert.)

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Casey Newton on leaving ‘The Verge’ for Substack and the future of tech journalism • OneZero

Sarah Jeong:


asey Newton, The Verge’s longtime Silicon Valley editor and the creator of The Interface newsletter, is leaving the publication to start a newsletter on Substack called Platformer.

Newton, who started at The Verge in 2013, has published more than 570 issues of The Interface since it launched in October 2017. The newsletter currently boasts more than 20,000 subscribers. The Interface usually follows the themes of content moderation, disinformation, and the negative effects of social media on society. The focus is frequently on the omnipresent and ever-controversial Facebook, but the newsletter also covers companies like TikTok, Apple, Google, Amazon, and more.

…Q: What does this deal look like?

Newton: When you look at the economics of newsletters, there are opportunities that are bigger for some writers than any media company can match. If you can find 10,000 people to pay you $100 a year, you’re making $1 million a year. No one in media is going to pay you that unless you’re the anchor of a popular news show or something.

I’m not going to get to 10,000 subscribers anytime soon, but if I can work toward that over time, not only will I be in a position where I’m doing well for myself, but I’ll be in a position where I can create media jobs. I can hire someone to go out and do more reporting. I can hire an editor. I can hire a graphics person. I can start to — in this tiny, tiny way — rebuild a little of what has been lost and figure some things out for the future. That just seemed like a really cool bet to make. Maybe I can actually start a tiny media company out of this and do some really cool stuff.


Speaking of Casey Newton…
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Facebook leaks show Mark Zuckerberg defending his decisions to angry employees • The Verge

Casey Newton:


On June 18th, Facebook employees asked Zuckerberg if they could hear from Kaplan directly:

Many people feel that Joel Kaplan has too much power over our decisions. Can we get him on a Q&A to learn more about his role, influence, and beliefs?

Zuckerberg said the company would work to provide more information about the operations of its policy team. But he dismissed the idea that Kaplan has undue influence at the company, saying that Monika Bickert, the company’s head of policy management, plays a stronger day-to-day role in policy development. And Zuckerberg bristled at the implication that Kaplan’s party affiliation should disqualify him from the job.

“I’ve seen a bunch of comments internally that — that I have to say bothered me a bit,” Zuckerberg said.  “That basically asked whether Joel can be in this role, or can be doing this role, on the basis of the fact that he is a Republican, or has beliefs that are more conservative than the average employee at the company. And I have to say that I find that line of questioning to be very troubling. In my work with Joel, I’ve found him to be … very rigorous and principled in his thinking.”

The controversy over Kaplan highlighted a growing and seemingly intractable gap within Facebook — between the values of its more progressive workforce and those of its user base at large.


There’s audio of Zuckerberg’s replies, if you wanted to hear his Kermit-like speaking voice. The fact that all this got leaked demonstrates that the internal consensus inside Facebook is breaking down. The problem with Kaplan isn’t so much his political bias, but the fact that he uses that political bias to help people he agrees with, as has been documented again and again.
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Video and education drive demand for bigger tablets as global sales increase for first time since 2014 • Strategy Analytics


Households are more crowded than ever at all times of the day with work, learning, and entertainment all occurring in the home as a result of COVID-19 counter-measures. To meet these needs consumers have been buying tablets at the fastest rate in six years, and as a result global sales are expected to increase…


Yes? YES?


…by 1% year-on-year to 160.8 million units in 2020, according to Strategy Analytics’ latest report. The analysis also shows that consumers are switching to larger displays, with a majority now larger than 10” for the first time.


OK, so there’s a replacement surge happening. But that’s hardly what you’d call dramatic, is it.
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Why Magic Leap failed: AR hype exceeded product’s capabilities • Bloomberg

Joshua Brustein and Ian King:


After Magic Leap’s $2,300 headset bombed, the startup narrowed its focus to professional applications, tried unsuccessfully to sell the company and fired more than half of its staff. Investors wrote down their stakes by an average of about 94% over a 12-month period ending in June, a steeper decline than WeWork, according to data collected by Zanbato, a research firm that tracks institutional investors.

The new CEO, Johnson, is trying to revive the business through partnerships. Magic Leap is engaged in discussions with Inc. about packaging the headsets with Amazon’s cloud services, according to three people familiar with the talks. The conversations are at an early stage and may not result in a deal. A spokeswoman for Magic Leap declined to comment, and Amazon didn’t respond to request for comment. 

Abovitz responded to an interview request with a message consisting entirely of link to a research report, which estimates long-term growth in the augmented reality market. His spokesman later clarified that there would be no interview and referred subsequent questions to Magic Leap, which declined to comment. People familiar with Abovitz’s next project said it centers on building entertainment content for smartphones and augmented reality devices, including Magic Leap.

The co-founder’s departure came as little surprise to those who worked with him. Interviews with over two dozen people familiar with Magic Leap’s operations, including current and former employees, investors and business partners, suggest Abovitz’s world-building aspirations had become increasingly disconnected from the company’s reality. When employees found they would be unable to deliver on Abovitz’s vision, Magic Leap went from being one of the most intriguing tech startups outside of Silicon Valley to a parable about believing one’s own hype.


There’s a lovely quote from one ex-employee who says Abovitz “wasn’t equipped to run a company the size of Magic Leap.” It was a zero-billion dollar company, for god’s sake. Its size was his own fault.
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Internet: old TV caused village broadband outages for 18 months • BBC News


The mystery of why an entire village lost its broadband every morning at 7am was solved when engineers discovered an old television was to blame.

An unnamed householder in Aberhosan, Powys, was unaware the old set would emit a signal which would interfere with the entire village’s broadband.

After 18 months engineers began an investigation after a cable replacement programme failed to fix the issue.

The embarrassed householder promised not to use the television again. The village now has a stable broadband signal.

Openreach engineers were baffled by the continuous problem and it wasn’t until they used a monitoring device that they found the fault.

The householder would switch their TV set on at 7am every morning – and electrical interference emitted by their second-hand television was affecting the broadband signal.

The owner, who does not want to be identified, was “mortified” to find out their old TV was causing the problem, according to Openreach.


What I learn from this is that Openreach hasn’t installed fibre in Aberhosan. The village’s broadband would be a lot faster and uninterrupted if it were.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1397: Facebook’s strategy on US election chaos (and threat to Europe), is Twitter’s photo algorithm secretly racist?, and more

How many people would be needed to run a dogwalking app for the entire world? Probably fewer than you think. CC-licensed photo by Staffan Cederborg 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. Not locked down. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

YouTube reverts to human moderators in fight against misinformation • Financial Times

Alex Barker and Hannah Murphy:


Google’s YouTube has reverted to using more human moderators to vet harmful content after the machines it relied on during lockdown proved to be overzealous censors of its video platform.

When some of YouTube’s 10,000-strong team filtering content were “put offline” by the pandemic, YouTube gave its machine systems greater autonomy to stop users seeing hate speech, violence or other forms of harmful content or misinformation.

But Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, told the Financial Times that one of the results of reducing human oversight was a jump in the number of videos removed, including a significant proportion that broke no rules.

Almost 11m were taken down in the second quarter between April and June, double the usual rate. “Even 11m is a very, very small, tiny fraction of the overall videos on YouTube . . . but it was a larger number than in the past,” he said.

“One of the decisions we made [at the beginning of the pandemic] when it came to machines who couldn’t be as precise as humans, we were going to err on the side of making sure that our users were protected, even though that might have resulted in s slightly higher number of videos coming down.”


The implicit assumption there is that there’s a correct number of videos to be taken down – that it doesn’t vary, even in a situation where you have loads of people spreading conspiracy videos about 5G, bats, Chinese bioweapons, vaccines, and so on. That seems like an assumption that needs closer examination.
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I scanned the websites i visit with Blacklight, and it’s horrifying. Now what? • The Markup

Aaron Sankin:


Internet browsers have a “do not track” feature, which is a browser setting that signals to websites and third-party tracking companies that the user would prefer they refrain from collecting the person’s data.

But The Future of Privacy Forum says it has little effect: “Most sites do not currently change their practices when they receive a … [Do Not Track] signal.”

The Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry trade group, offers a tool allowing internet users to opt out of having their browsing history used to serve them targeted ads. Since the group is a consortium representing hundreds of companies, users can opt out of being targeted by all of them with a few clicks.

However, to even get the tool to work in the first place, users have to allow themselves to be tracked by third-party cookies, since those cookies are how the ad-tech companies are able to identify who has opted out. In addition, opting out like this isn’t guaranteed to stop companies from collecting your data; they only promise they won’t use that data to try to sell you stuff.


It’s a very, very, very, very detailed look at browser tracking and how to avoid it (you can’t entirely). Blacklight is a tool developed by The Markup which shows you what trackers are operating on what site.

This blog (as it’s run by WordPress) has a Facebook tracker – I’ve looked, and can’t seem to turn it off as it’s embedded somewhere in the code. If you know how I can, please let me know.
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No matter what the CDC says, here’s why many scientists think the coronavirus is airborne • The Washington Post

Ben Guarino, Chris Mooney and Tim Elfrink:


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday removed language from its website that said the novel coronavirus spreads via airborne transmission, the latest example of the agency backtracking from its own guidance.

The agency said the guidance, which went up on Friday and largely went without notice until late Sunday, should not have been posted because it was an early draft.

“Unfortunately an early draft of a revision went up without any technical review,” said Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases. “We are returning to the earlier version and revisiting that process. It was a failure of process at CDC.”

Evidence that the virus floats in the air has mounted for months, with an increasingly loud chorus of aerosol biologists pointing to superspreading events in choirs, buses, bars and other poorly ventilated spaces. They cheered when the CDC seemed to join them in agreeing the coronavirus can be airborne.

Experts who reviewed the CDC’s Friday post had said the language change had the power to shift policy and drive a major rethinking on the need to better ventilate indoor air.

…If airborne spread was the main route, Butler said he would have expected the disease to travel even faster around the globe than it did. “The epidemiology seems pretty clear that the highest risk is in household contexts,” he said, meaning through the proximity of one family member or roommate to another.

Sudden flip-flops on public guidance is antithetical to the CDC’s own rules for crisis management. After disastrous communications during the 2001 anthrax attacks — when white powder in envelopes sparked widespread panic — the agency created a 450-page manual outlining how US leaders should talk to the public during crises.


I’m sure that manual is doing really great work propping up a table somewhere, given how much notice the current administration takes of such advice.
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Facebook vows to restrict users if US election descends into chaos • Financial Times

Hannah Murphy:


Facebook has said it will take aggressive and exceptional measures to “restrict the circulation of content” on its platform if November’s presidential election descends into chaos or violent civic unrest.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Nick Clegg, the company’s head of global affairs, said it had drawn up plans for how to handle a range of outcomes, including widespread civic unrest or “the political dilemmas” of having in-person votes counted more rapidly than mail-in ballots, which will play a larger role in this election due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are some break-glass options available to us if there really is an extremely chaotic and, worse still, violent set of circumstances,” Mr Clegg said, though he stopped short of elaborating further on what measures were on the table.

The proposed actions, which would probably go further than any previously taken by a US platform, come as the social media group is under increasing pressure to lay out how it plans to combat election-related misinformation, voter suppression and the incitement of violence on the November 3 election day and during the post-election period. 

It also comes as concerns mount that even US president Donald Trump himself could take to social media to contest the result or call for violent protest, potentially triggering a constitutional crisis.


I’m wary of believing Clegg’s talking up of “what Facebook would do” because Facebook always talks a lot bigger than it ever does; even when it wants to do something, the company’s own scale overwhelms it. (See yesterday’s item about trying and failing to rein in QAnon nonsense.) But ex-engineers at Facebook say there is an option to remove all news links from the News Feed. That would be a start, though just shutting the whole thing down for a few days might be a better option.
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Facebook says it will stop operating in Europe if regulators don’t back down • Vice

David Gilbert:


In a court filing in Dublin, Facebook said that a decision by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) would force the company to pull up stakes and leave the 410 million people who use Facebook and photo-sharing service Instagram in the lurch.

If the decision is upheld, “it is not clear to [Facebook] how, in those circumstances, it could continue to provide the Facebook and Instagram services in the EU,” Yvonne Cunnane, who is Facebook Ireland’s head of data protection and associate general counsel, wrote in a sworn affidavit.

The decision Facebook’s referring to is a preliminary order handed down last month to stop the transfer of data about European customers to servers in the US, over concerns about US government surveillance of the data.

Facebook hit back by filing a lawsuit challenging the Irish DPC’s ban, and in a sworn affidavit filed this week, the company leveled some very serious accusations about the Irish data-protection commissioner, including a lack of fairness and apparent bias in singling out Facebook.

Cunnane points out that Facebook was given only three weeks to respond to the decision, a period that is “manifestly inadequate,” adding that Facebook wasn’t contacted about the inquiry prior to judgment being handed down.

She also raises concerns about the decision being made “solely” by Helen Dixon, Ireland’s data protection commissioner.


This would be remarkable if it came to pass, though I think we all suspect that they will find some fuged middle path in which Facebook will promise not to transfer the data (but will) and Ireland will accept its white lie. After all, that’s what’s happened before.
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What to expect from Google’s 2020 Hardware event • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


Google’s big yearly hardware event is scheduled for September 30, and as usual, we’re expecting a big pile of products to be announced. Google has a hard time keeping anything under wraps before the event, so we’re doing a roundup of all the leaks so far. We’re expecting four products: the Pixel 5 (and Pixel 4a 5G), the “Nest Audio” smart speaker, a new Chromecast with a remote and Android TV, and maybe even a new Nest thermostat.


Fine thanks goodbye. Basically all the details have been leaked, so why turn up?
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Google is shutting down paid Chrome extensions • The Verge

Jay Peters:


Google is shutting down paid Chrome extensions offered on the Chrome Web Store, the company announced today. That means that developers who are trying to monetize their extensions will have to do so with other payment-handling systems.

As of Monday, developers can no longer make new paid extensions, according to Google — though that’s cementing a policy that has already been in place since March. And that policy follows a temporary suspension of publishing paid extensions in January after Google noticed an uptick in fraudulent transactions that “aim[ed] to exploit users.”


Though in its blogpost, Google effectively says “it’s because there are lots of other ways to pay for extensions”, implying that it’s fine with you being ripped off as long as the ripoff doesn’t go through its payment systems. Possibly, though, that’s what it’s about: it doesn’t like having to deal with refund demands, rather than that it doesn’t like people being ripped off.
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Twitter investigating after users spot mobile app prefers White faces • CNBC

Sam Shead:


Twitter says it’s investigating why its picture-cropping algorithm sometimes prefers White faces to Black ones.

The investigation comes after Twitter users noticed Black faces were less likely to be shown than White ones in image previews on mobile when the image contains a Black face and a White face.

The micro-blogging platform said it didn’t find any evidence of racial and gender bias when it tested the algorithm but conceded it had more analysis to do.

Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s chief technology officer, said Twitter analyzed the model when it shipped it, but said that it needs continuous improvement.

“Love this public, open, and rigorous test — and eager to learn from this,” he said on the platform.

The issue came to light after Colin Madland, a university manager in Vancouver, noticed that his Black colleague’s head kept disappearing when using the video conferencing app Zoom. It appeared as though Zoom’s software thought the Black man’s head was part of the background and removed it as a result. Zoom did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. 

After tweeting about the issue to see if anyone knew what was going on, Madland then realized that Twitter was also guilty of hiding Black faces. Specifically, he noticed Twitter was choosing to preview his own White face over his colleague’s Black face on mobile.


I saw the original thread by Madland, and didn’t see the problems other people did; I was viewing it in a third-party app (Tweetbot) on both mobile and desktop. Clearly, it’s Twitter’s system at fault here.
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Just how many people do we need doing that job, anyway? • Rachel By The Bay

Rachel Kroll:


Think of your favorite “web 2.0” service or app. Maybe it’s something that sends dog walkers around to your house regularly. Perhaps it can be used to deliver your favorite kind of pizza or beer. It could even be something that lets you chat with other people. We’ll go with dog walking as the example here.

Now think about the entirety of humanity. At the moment, there seem to be about 7.8 billion people running around on this planet (plus a handful in orbit). For the sake of this thought experiment, assume all of them have Internet access and actually have some use for dog walking services.

Consider this: just how many really good people do you suppose it would take to saturate the market and provide service to the entirety of humanity for that dog walking dispatch?

Me? I think it’s about 100 people, tops. Granted, I’m talking about the top 100 people in the population for solving this specific problem: running apps that dispatch dog walkers to dogs… for all ~8 billion of us.

They need not work at the same company. For the sake of some realism, imagine them split up somehow. It could be 20 companies with 5 people each, 5 companies with 20 people each, or 10 companies with 10 people each. Whatever.

Now let’s say you looked at the actual marketplace and determined there were closer to 100,000 people actually working on these dog-walking apps. What do you suppose that means? What could possibly be going on there?


Kroll is widely admired in the web engineering community; what she describes in the rest of her post is probably much of what’s really happening. The classic cases of “a few people running a world-spanning service” are Instagram and WhatsApp, of course. Kroll presently works at Facebook.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1396: how to price app subscriptions, Facebook’s QAnon failure, TouchID for new iPhones?, Quibi maybe for sale, and more

The TikTok algorithm is watching you all the time. What does that presage about future apps? CC-licensed photo by Solen Feyissa on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Not growing exponentially. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Seeing like an algorithm • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei with a very smart explanation of what TikTok is doing – which presages how we will probably see many following systems work. As he points out, TikTok shows you one video at a time, and notices your responses to determine what to show next. By contrast:


The default UI of our largest social networks today is the infinite vertically scrolling feed (I could have easily used a screenshot of Facebook [rather than Twitter, as in the post], for example). Instead of serving you one story at a time, these apps display multiple items on screen at once. As you scroll up and past many stories, the algorithm can’t “see” which story your eyes rest on. Even if it could, if the user doesn’t press any of the feedback buttons like the Like button, is their sentiment towards that story positive or negative? The signal of user sentiment isn’t clean.

If you subscribe to the idea that UIs should remove friction, the infinite scrolling feed is ideal. It offers a sense of uninhibited control of the pace of consumption. The simulated physics that result from flicking a feed with your thumb and seeing it scroll up like the drum of the Big Wheel from the Price is Right Showcase Showdown with the exact rotational velocity implied by the speed of your initial gesture, seeing that software wheel gradually slow down exactly as it would if encountering constant physical friction, is one of the most delightful user interactions of the touchscreen era. You can scroll past a half dozen tweets or Facebook feed items in no time. Wheeeeeeee!

A paginated design, in which you could only see one story at a time, where each flick of the finger would only advance the feed one item at a time, would be a literal and metaphoric drag.

On the other hand, maybe you wouldn’t mind reading one tweet at a time if they were better targeted, and maybe they would be better targeted if Twitter knew more about which types of tweets really interest you.


In 2016 Mark Zuckerberg said “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.” He couldn’t imagine TikTok, but that’s pretty much what’s happening there.

Next question we should ask: what potential drawbacks will this have?
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Nikola founder Trevor Milton steps down after fraud allegations • Financial Times

Peter Campbell, Harry Dempsey and Claire Bushey:


Nikola founder Trevor Milton is stepping down as executive chairman of the US electric truck maker, capping a tumultuous 10 days for the company after a short-seller alleged it was an “intricate fraud”.

Stephen Girsky, a former vice-chairman of General Motors and a Nikola board member, will take over as chairman, the company said on Monday.

Mr Milton’s exit follows a bruising period for Nikola after a report from short-seller Hindenburg Research claimed to have “extensive evidence” that the group’s proprietary technology was purchased from another company.

Shares in Nikola, already down heavily over the past week, fell almost 30% in early trading on Wall Street on Monday. Mr Milton remains Nikola’s largest shareholder, owning roughly a quarter of its stock.

…Nikola, which in June went public through a special purpose acquisition vehicle that avoids some of the scrutiny of a traditional initial public offering, has promised to “revolutionise” trucking and battery technology.

…The report from Hindenburg also raised questions about past businesses run by Mr Milton, several of which were mired by lawsuits or had collapsed.


Has battery technology finally found its very own Theranos?
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Why you should charge more for your app subscriptions • Matt Ronge


The reality is most people won’t sign up for your subscription even at a low price. Most people dislike subscriptions, and many won’t subscribe at any cost. The recurring nature of subscriptions provides a major mental hurdle and makes them hard to commit to.

However, you likely have a smaller set of users who get the most value out of your app and are willing to subscribe. These are your most devoted and die-hard users. When designing your subscription plan you want to focus on these users, they are the ones who will pay and stick around (see my post on churn for why this is critical). By going subscription, you are choosing to focus on fewer customers but your most dedicated customers. Given that this is a much smaller customer base, you need to charge a higher price.

There is such a mental barrier with subscriptions that once someone is willing to purchase, they are likely less price sensitive. If someone is willing to buy at $1.99/month, they are very likely to buy at $4.99/month or even $7.99/month. Our surveys conducted before launching Astropad Studio show this as well:

Price $50 One-time $20 Yearly $50 Yearly $100 Yearly
Conversion % 45% 38% 21% 15%
Revenue per 10k visitors $223,549 $75,524 $106,007 $147,887

This is real data from a test on potential pricing schemes for a new app. The first thing you’ll notice is that people are much more willing to make a one-time purchase.


Much more revenue from the smaller number of people. Significant.
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Facebook tried to limit QAnon. It failed • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel and Tiffany Hsu:


Last month, Facebook said it was cracking down on activity tied to QAnon, a vast conspiracy theory that falsely claims that a satanic cabal runs the world, as well as other potentially violent extremist movements.

Since then, a militia movement on Facebook that called for armed conflict on the streets of U.S. cities has gained thousands of new followers. A QAnon Facebook group has also added hundreds of new followers while questioning common-sense pandemic medical practices, like wearing a mask in public and staying at home while sick. And a campaign that claimed to raise awareness of human trafficking has steered hundreds of thousands of people to conspiracy theory groups and pages on the social network.

Perhaps the most jarring part? At times, Facebook’s own recommendation engine — the algorithm that surfaces content for people on the site — has pushed users toward the very groups that were discussing QAnon conspiracies, according to research conducted by The New York Times, despite assurances from the company that that would not happen.

None of this was supposed to take place under new Facebook rules targeting QAnon and other extremist movements. The Silicon Valley company’s inability to quash extremist content, despite frequent flags from concerned users, is now renewing questions about the limits of its policing and whether it will be locked in an endless fight with QAnon…


Facebook can’t control Facebook. That’s what this is saying. The reason why: Facebook.
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Apple’s new iPad Air fingerprint sensor would be ideal for the iPhone 12 • The Verge

Tom Warren:


Android device makers have already embedded fingerprint sensors in displays and power buttons. The in-screen variants have been hit and miss, though, with reliability issues that could have held back Apple from adopting similar technology over the past couple of years. Early in-screen sensors were slow to authenticate, but newer devices seem to have caught up. All but the newest of button sensors have had issues, too. Apple’s reputation is to only introduce new tech once it’s ready, so I’m willing to assume the iPad’s sensor is just as fast and reliable as the company claims.

Even if a new form of Touch ID doesn’t appear on the iPhone 12, there are also other parts of Apple’s new iPad Air that I’d like to see on the new iPhones. Apple’s new A14 Bionic, a 5nm chip with a six-core CPU, had a starring role at the iPad Air announcement and will undoubtedly make an appearance on the iPhone 12. Apple is promising a 40% performance improvement over the previous iPad Air, labeling the chip its most advanced yet.

Apple has also switched to USB-C on the iPad Air, which is a move I’m sure many of us would love to see happen on the iPhone 12. It seems increasingly unlikely that USB-C will appear on the iPhone 12, though.


I think it’s at least 50-50 on Apple including Touch ID on the new iPhones. The situations where touch to unlock is more convenient than face to unlock are multiplying, and Apple will have noticed that in the past three years.

USB-C, though – not a chance. The mess of charging and data and all the other nonsense surrounding it is too awful.
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GE is getting out of the coal power business • CNN

Matt Egan:


General Electric is one of the world’s largest makers of coal-fired power plants. But now it plans to say goodbye to coal.

Struggling GE announced Monday it won’t build new coal-fuelled power plants, making it the latest major company to dump coal in an exit that may include asset sales, site closures and layoffs.

The move marks a dramatic reversal for GE. Just five years ago, the company doubled down on coal by acquiring Alstom’s power business, which makes coal-fuelled turbines.

That $10.6bn deal – GE’s biggest-ever industrial purchase – proved to be a disaster. Coal has been crushed by the rise of natural gas and a shift toward solar, wind and renewable energy. Since then, GE has laid off thousands of power workers, slashed its dividend to a penny, fired two CEOs and sharply written down the value of its power business.

“With the continued transformation of GE, we are focused on power generation businesses that have attractive economics and a growth trajectory,” GE Power CEO Russell Stokes said in a statement.
GE shares tumbled 6% Monday, leaving them down a whopping 42% on the year. The pandemic has dealt a damaging blow to GE’s jet engine business, which is reeling from a plunge in orders.


The Alstom power acquisition wasn’t just coal-powered turbines – there was a lot else – but there were already signs that the whole power market was oversupplied at the time of the acquisition. (Not quite in China, but that’s a tougher market.) Now that huge buy into fossil fuels is going wrong. Terrible forecasting gets its comeuppance.

By the way, Trump’s promise to get coal jobs back hasn’t panned out. There are fewer now than in 2016.
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Quibi explores strategic options including possible sale • WSJ

Amol Sharma, Benjamin Mullin and Cara Lombardo:


Streaming service Quibi is exploring several strategic options including a possible sale, according to people familiar with the situation, as the company founded by Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg struggles to sign up subscribers in a competitive online-video marketplace.

Quibi, which launched its short-form, mobile-focused video service in April, is also considering raising more money or going public through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC—essentially a blank-check company that helps fund deals, the people said. Quibi is working with advisers to review its options.

The review process is a sign of strain.


Sooooo… it’s very short, and now it’s mobile? Anyone who puts money into it would be properly bonkers.
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In 2005, Helios flight 522 crashed into a Greek hillside. Was it because one man forgot to flip a switch? • The Guardian

Sally Williams:


After the disaster, Greek air investigators determined that flight 522 had crashed because it had failed to pressurise properly. As it climbed, the air in the cabin had become too thin to breathe, causing most people to lose consciousness. The investigation quickly focused on the theory that the pressurisation selector switch had been left in “manual” rather than “auto”, and attributed this to human error – principally that of Irwin who, they said, had not returned the switch to its correct position after a safety check; and of incompetent pilots who had failed to spot the error.

This narrative was soon leaked to the press. “Alan Irwin… is at the centre of the inquiry after reports that a knob used to control cabin pressure was left in the wrong position after a safety check,” stated the Times.

Meanwhile, Boeing was also attributing the crash to human error. “Helios’s ground engineers did not follow Boeing’s correct procedure,” said Stephen Preston, a lawyer hired by the manufacturer, in a private deposition to the Greek courts seen by the Guardian. “At least 16 separate mistakes were made by the ground staff, the flight deck crew and the passenger cabin crew. If any one of these mistakes had not been made, the accident would not have happened.”

But the causes of the crash were more complicated.


Long but fascinating piece which revolves around what constitutes good and bad user interface design. If you’re a pilot in an ascending plane and you hear a warning horn go off, what does it mean? In the Boeing 737, it could mean at least two very different things.
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Low- to mid-range smartphones dominate worldwide smartphone forecast with the fastest growth expected in $400-600 price band • IDC


Economic uncertainties have increased the downward pressure on smartphone prices globally with 73% of shipments in 2020 expected to be priced below $400, according to a new price band forecast from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. Worldwide smartphone value is expected to decline 7.9% in 2020 to $422.4 billion, down from $458.5 billion in 2019. The downward trend is intensified by consumers turning to devices priced in the low-to-mid range as they prioritize spending on essentials.

Overall, the low-to-mid end segment ($100 to less than $400) dominated global smartphone shipments with 60% market share in the second quarter of 2020 (2Q20) and is expected to grow in the short term to 63% by next year. The mid-to-high end segment ($400 to less than $600) grew its share of the market by almost 4 points to 11.6% in 2Q20. Devices from Samsung, Huawei, and other Chinese vendors like Xiaomi, OPPO, and vivo are the main vendors driving these segments. Apple also recently entered the mid segment with its new iPhone SE device, which has performed well, further validating the trend toward more budget-friendly devices.


Not surprising, but given that there are a billion-plus of these gizmos sold every year, there’s still plenty of room at the top. The question is how you make a profit on the cheap ones.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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Start Up No.1395: how YouTube fought its algorithm, the scam of the TikTok deal, Apple buys all TSMC’s 5nm output, and more

Yes yes, but what are their views on big tech? CC-licensed photo by duncan c 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. Also available left-handed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

YouTube’s plot to silence conspiracy theories • WIRED

Clive Thompson:


After the Las Vegas shooting, executives began focusing more on the challenge [of preventing conspiracy content going being excessively recommended]. Google’s content moderators grew to 10,000, and YouTube created an “intelligence desk” of people who hunt for new trends in disinformation and other “inappropriate content.” YouTube’s definition of hate speech was expanded to include Alex Jones’ claim that the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School never occurred. The site had already created a “breaking-news shelf” that would run on the homepage and showcase links to content from news sources that Google News had previously vetted. The goal, as Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, noted, was not just to delete the obviously bad stuff but to boost reliable, mainstream sources. Internally, they began to refer to this strategy as a set of R’s: “remove” violating material and “raise up” quality stuff.

But what about content that wasn’t quite bad enough to be deleted? Like alleged conspiracies or dubious information that doesn’t advocate violence or promote “dangerous remedies or cures” or otherwise explicitly violate policies? Those videos wouldn’t be removed by moderators or the content-blocking AI. And yet, some executives wondered if they were complicit by promoting them at all. “We noticed that some people were watching things that we weren’t happy with them watching,” says Johanna Wright, one of YouTube’s vice presidents of product management, “like flat-earth videos.” This was what executives began calling “borderline” content. “It’s near the policy but not against our policies,” as Wright said.

By early 2018, YouTube executives decided they wanted to tackle the borderline material too. It would require adding a third R to their strategy—“reduce.” They’d need to engineer a new AI system that would recognize conspiracy content and misinformation and down-rank it.


Which means, if you think about it, that there were now multiple AI systems chasing each other around the system: one doing the recommendations, and others trying to identify and categorise conspiracy content. One’s always going to be ahead of the other. Fascinating piece, though.
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Six people indicted in Amazon Marketplace bribery scheme to help third-party sellers • The Verge

Kim Lyons:


Six people have been indicted by a grand jury in Washington state on charges they bribed Amazon employees to manipulate third-party seller listings on the e-commerce site, including listings for defective or dangerous products, authorities said.

Starting in 2017, the people, including two former Amazon employees, paid more than $100,000 to have listings of products and accounts that Amazon had blocked or suspended from its Marketplace, which allows third-party sellers to promote and sell their products, the Department of Justice said. The former employees also provided internal Amazon information that allowed attacks on other third-party sellers and their accounts, including flooding the sellers’ product listings with fake negative reviews, authorities said.

The defendants accessed contact information for Amazon employees and customers, which they shared widely, according to authorities. Three of the people were based in New York, one in Georgia, one in California, and one was in India,

“Realizing they could not compete on a level playing field, the subjects turned to bribery and fraud in order to gain the upper hand. What’s equally concerning, not only did they attempt to increase sales of their own products, but sought to damage and discredit their competitors,” Raymond Duda, FBI Seattle Special agent in charge, said in a statement.


All these companies, too big to handle what goes on inside them.
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Trump celebrates TikTok deal that falls short of his key demands • Bloomberg via MSN

Nick Wadhams and Shelly Banjo:


Linking TikTok to Beijing’s handling of the raging coronavirus outbreak, Trump in July threatened to ban the app used by 100 million Americans unless China handed over control of the company, its algorithms and data to the U.S. Hearkening back to his New York real estate days, he also insisted the US government get compensated in the process.

The deal Trump signed off on Saturday, hours before a Sept. 20 deadline, does almost none of that.

Trump said he wanted the US part of the business owned by an American company. But China’s ByteDance remains the majority shareholder in a new US company that will include fresh investments by Oracle and Walmart in a future fundraising round.

Trump said he wanted the data to stay in American hands, for national security reasons. But the algorithm itself – the thing that makes TikTok TikTok – will still belong to ByteDance, so national security concerns remain, experts said.

And the government payout? That turned into a vaguely worded promise of $5bn in new tax dollars to the US Treasury. The company also said it would create a new “education initiative” to teach kids reading and math online. Still, Trump said he was satisfied.

“They’re going to be setting up a very large fund,” Trump said Saturday. “That’s their contribution that I’ve been asking for.”


As Banjo pointed out in a tweet, this is essentially a scam to funnel a big cloud contract to two Trump supporters.
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Gangster capitalism and the American theft of Chinese innovation • TechCrunch

Danny Crichton:


It used to be “easy” to tell the American and Chinese economies apart. One was innovative, one made clones. One was a free market while the other demanded payments to a political party and its leadership, a corrupt wealth generating scam that by some estimates has netted top leaders billions of dollars. One kept the talent borders porous acting as a magnet for the world’s top brains while the other interviewed you in a backroom at the airport before imprisoning you on sedition charges (okay, that might have been both).

…much as China protected its industry from overseas competitors like Google and Amazon through market-entry barriers, America is now protecting its entrenched incumbents from overseas competitors like TikTok. We’re demanding joint ventures and local cloud data sovereignty just as the Communist Party has demanded for years.

Hell, we’re apparently demanding a $5bn tax payment from ByteDance, which the president says will fund patriotic education for youth. The president says a lot of things of course, but at least the $5 billion price point has been confirmed by Oracle in its press release over night (what the tax revenue will actually be used for is anyone’s guess). If you followed the recent Hong Kong protests for a long time, you will remember that patriotic youth education was some of the original tinder for those demonstrations back in 2012. What comes around, goes around, I guess.


This is true, though Crichton doesn’t mention that the principal reason why this is now the case is that the US presently has the most corrupt administration in its entire history. Change the administration for one that respects the rule of law, and suddenly a lot of these things go away.
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Apple books TSMC’s entire 5-nanometre production capability • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:


TSMC won’t have to worry about finding additional customers for its 5nm line any time soon. If reports are true, Apple bought the entire production capacity for the iPhone, iPad, and other refreshed devices it has recently launched or will launch in the coming weeks. Apple hasn’t refreshed the iPhone yet this year, but it’s expected to do so in October, and the company has had a lock on TSMC’s 5nm production for months.

TSMC will build 5nm chips for the iPhone 12, iPad Air, 5G iPad Pro, and any future MacBook or iMac systems Apple launches with its own custom ARM silicon. In 2019, Apple is thought to have accounted for about 20% of TSMC’s monthly revenue, making it one of TSMC’s largest customers.

This sort of single-customer focus is unusual for a pure-play foundry, but it also makes sense given longstanding trends in the semiconductor market. Ten years ago, companies such as AMD, Nvidia, and Intel were typically the first manufacturers to deploy on leading-edge nodes. These firms used their high-end designs to function as “pipe-cleaners” for the node. More recently, however, that trend has shifted. Now, it’s the mobile manufacturers like Apple and Qualcomm that typically take the first launches.

…Apple is expected to produce between 74m and 80m iPhone 12’s this year. The biggest near-term impact of this is Qualcomm reportedly partnering with Samsung to build the Snapdragon 875 on that company’s 5nm, with a formal announcement expected in December.


Ambitious. About 5m per quarter will be going into the Apple Silicon machines. Compared to the iPhone plus iPad, not much – but they’re going to have heftier GPUs and CPUs, so the yields will be lower.
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Google and Facebook under pressure to ban children’s ads • BBC News


Tech firms have been urged to stop advertising to under-18s in an open letter signed by MPs, academics and children’s-rights advocates.

Behavioural advertising not only undermines privacy but puts “susceptible” youngsters under unfair marketing pressure, the letter says.

It is addressed to Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

In a separate move Google-owned YouTube is accused of unlawfully mining data from five million under-13s in the UK. European data protection laws forbid the mining of data of young children.

“The fact that ad-tech companies hold 72 million data points on a child by the time they turn 13 shows the extent of disregard for these laws, and the extraordinary surveillance to which children are subjected,” the letter reads. “There is no justification for targeting teenagers with personalised ads any more than there is for targeting 12-year-olds. You, the most powerful companies on the internet, have a responsibility to protect your users.”

Among the 23 signatories are MP Caroline Lucas and clinical psychologist Dr Elly Hanson. Friends of the Earth is also named on the letter.

…Separately, privacy advocate Duncan McCann is suing Google on behalf of five million British children, claiming it broke privacy laws by tracking children online, in breach of both UK and European data-protection laws.

The case, lodged with the UK High Court in July, will be strongly contested by YouTube which will argue its platform is not for children aged under 13.


No, that would be YouTube Kids, which, hmm, “has faced criticism from advocacy groups, particularly the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, for concerns surrounding the app’s use of commercial advertising”.
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Nikola outsourced batteries on truck prototype • Financial Times

Claire Bushey and Peter Campbell:


Nikola is relying on Californian manufacturer Romeo Power Technology for batteries for one of its prototype electric trucks, according to documents seen by the Financial Times and a person familiar with the work.

The use of an established industry supplier is the second example of the start-up outsourcing a key technology, months after it touted its own “game-changing” battery, which it said it would demonstrate this year.

Earlier this month, Nikola agreed to purchase General Motors’ Ultium battery for its Badger pick-up truck, as part of a $2bn deal in which GM is taking an 11% stake in the company.

Excitement for Nikola’s technology has helped propel its shares this year, to the point that it was briefly more valuable than Ford, but it is now fighting allegations that it repeatedly misrepresented its progress and does not have the proprietary technology it claimed.


This looks like a lawsuit in the making.
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The ad industry extends an olive branch to Apple

Andrew Blustein and Ronan Shields:


media buyers are still confused by what the impending policy change means for ad targeting, and many are unclear as to the exact date of the change. The eventual ambition of PRAM [Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media] is for Apple to engage more proactively with some of its working groups, Tucker told Adweek.

Stu Ingis, a partner at law firm Venable LLP, told Adweek that ad-tech companies “have nothing to hide” and that Apple commercials celebrating its privacy credentials depict data discrepancies that are not widely practiced in the industry.

“The idea is that we’re not trying to hide anything here,” he added. “It’s an olive branch to say, ‘If these are your concerns … then let’s sit down and identify what privacy concerns there are, and what solutions might work.’”

Apple has not formally responded to PRAM’s overture and declined to comment on record to Adweek, although it has made clear through its years-long efforts to minimize third-party ad targeting, tracking and data brokerage that it deems these practices invasive.

Apple has existing advertising offerings, and made its own failed play with iAd 10 years ago, but it characteristically makes unilateral policy decisions. While Apple employees are active in web standards bodies such as W3C, it hasn’t participated in trade orgs such as the IAB recently (Apple was a member of the IAB from 2007 until 2014). Although Apple was at one point a member of the ANA, a trade org that represents brand-side marketers, it canceled its 15-year membership in February, according to sources.

However, some state that Apple has changed its tack when it comes to cooperating with the rest of the industry. DigiDay reported that it is striking “a more conciliatory tone” with the industry, noting that Apple had agreed to meet with representatives of IAB Europe and the Tech Lab in early September.

This followed the trade group’s open letter urging Apple to consider interoperability with GDPR standards dating back to July.


Love how the online ad industry, responsible for continual invasion of privacy, is now terrified that Apple is going to clamp down on its practices. The line of “if these are your concerns…” is better translated as “we’re worried as hell about this”.
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Scientists may know where coronavirus originated, study says • Fox News

Amy McGorry:


The group of scientists from the United States, China, and Europe compared mutation patterns of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to other viruses, and created an evolutionary history of the related viruses. They discovered the lineage responsible for producing the virus that created the COVID-19 pandemic has been present in bats, according to the study.

“Collectively our analyses point to bats being the primary reservoir for the SARS-CoV-2 lineage. While it is possible that pangolins, or another hitherto undiscovered species, may have acted as an intermediate host facilitating transmission to humans, current evidence is consistent with the virus having evolved in bats resulting in bat sarbecoviruses that can replicate in the upper respiratory tract of both humans and pangolins,” the study authors said in the published report.

The novel coronavirus evolved from other bat viruses from 40-70 years ago, the team of researchers said. “The lineage giving rise to SARS-CoV-2 has been circulating unnoticed in bats for decades,” the authors wrote.

In a news release provided to Fox News, the researchers said that SARS-CoV-2 is similar genetically (about 96%) to the RaTG13 coronavirus found in a sample of the Rhinolophus affinis horseshoe bat in 2013 in Yunnan province, China, but it diverged from RaTG13 back in 1969.

“The ability to estimate divergence times after disentangling recombination histories, which is something we developed in this collaboration, may lead to insights into the origins of many different viral pathogens,” principal investigator, Philippe Lemey, with the Department of Evolutionary and Computational Virology, KE Leuven, said in the release.


Yes, reported at Fox News, on its website. Meanwhile the TV station was running a wild conspiracy theory segment on Tucker Carlson’s show with a Hong Kong scientist who insists that SARS-Cov-2 is a Chinese bioweapon. (But if it’s a Chinese bioweapon, why did China make so much noise about it? Damn details screwing up our conspiracy theories.)
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Where Trump and Biden stand on big tech • WSJ

John D. McKinnon and Ryan Tracy:


In a second term, Mr. Trump and his appointees likely would maintain—and possibly accelerate—the broad-scale regulatory scrutiny of technology companies that marked his first term. That effort has included allegations of anticonservative bias online, antitrust investigations of internet giants such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc., and actions against Chinese-owned apps such as TikTok and WeChat.

Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee, has also been critical of Big Tech’s market power. He and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) say they would support stricter antitrust oversight and online privacy rules. But the Biden camp has emphasized forcing social-media companies to better police their sites against false information, and taking government action to help workers under threat from innovations such as self-driving cars.

…Mr. Biden has expressed concerns about the potential impacts of many tech innovations, such as self-driving vehicles, on people with middle-class jobs. “Whether your predictions are true about automation and self-driving trucks, these folks aren’t stupid,” he said in a speech in 2018 at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “They listen, they understand and they’re scared to death.” Among Mr. Biden’s proposed solutions are such ideas as providing extra government aid to help workers who have been dislocated by tech.

…In a New York Times interview early this year, Mr. Biden described meeting as vice president with tech leaders—“little creeps,” he called them—touting their industry’s economic benefit.

“‘You have fewer people on your payroll than all the losses that General Motors just faced in the last quarter, of employees. So don’t lecture me about how you’ve created all this employment,’” Mr. Biden said he responded.


Notice how the WSJ actually has no idea what a second Trump administration would do, because Trump doesn’t. I’ll take a stab at how this story originated. A news editor wandered over (in real life or virtually) to the writers and said “hey, with the election coming up.. how about we do a piece contrasting where Trump and Biden stand on Big Tech?” Writers groaned inwardly. Then replied cheerily “Sure!”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1394: Facebook’s internal discord grows, Apple One for all?, hacking Tony Abbott, how PG&E messed up maintenance, and more

The internal email says there’s a car with its lights on – so should you click the link to the photo? CC-licensed photo by oatsy40 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. Closer than ever. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Phishing tricks: the top ten treacheries of 2020 • Naked Security

Paul Ducklin:


the Phish Threat team asked themselves, “Which phishing templates give the best, or perhaps more accurately, the worst results?”

Are business email users more likely to fall for sticks or carrots? For threats or free offers? For explicit instructions or helpful suggestions? For “you must” or “you might like”?

The answers covered a broad range of phishing themes, but had a common thread: not one of them was a threat.

Most of them dealt with issues that were mundane and undramatic, while at the same time apparently being interesting, important, or both.

Nothing on this list was truly urgent or terrifying, and they all sounded likely and uncomplicated enough to be worth getting out of the way quickly.


The examples here are so generic, yet brilliant: emails claiming to be new HR rules of conduct, tax summaries, “scheduled server maintenance”, “task assigned to you”, email tests, vacation policies, the utterly brilliant “car lights left on – I uploaded the picture *here*” (which leads to the malware), and more.

Don’t think you’ll be perfect. Some years back a military group which had been briefed to watch out for phishing all eagerly clicked on an attachment in an email which said “BIN LADEN KILLED BY SPECIAL FORCES”. (Before OBL was really killed, obviously.) Luckily for them it was just a test run by the security team to show how vulnerable people are.
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Is Apple One a bargain? It’s complicated • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:


in most cases, Apple One only makes sense if you’re already subscribing to Apple’s most in-demand services: iCloud storage, which is essential for backing up most iPhones given Apple’s increasingly absurd (and stingy) 5GB allowance for new devices, and Apple Music. And at the end of the day, Apple One doesn’t make subscribing to those two key services dramatically cheaper — it just provides a discount for subscribing to Apple’s less popular services. It’s a good discount, mind you, but one that still results in most customers paying more than they are right now.

The hard numbers confirm this. According to Counterpoint Research, Apple Music had an estimated 68 million users by the end of 2019. Barclays Analysts estimated that the company had 170 million paid iCloud customers in 2018. Comparatively, Apple had just 10 million subscribers as of February 2020 for Apple TV Plus — many of whom were riding along on the free one-year trial that Apple offers for the service, which will coincidentally start to expire for the earliest customers next month. And while estimates for Arcade are harder to come by, it’s likely far below Apple Music and iCloud.

In other words: the number of customers who already subscribe to Apple services beyond Music and iCloud––the ones who would actually get the benefits of the discounted pricing––are far outnumbered by those that don’t. And that’s the real point of Apple One: not to save you money, but to get you to spend more on services like Apple Arcade and Apple TV Plus that you might not have been considering subscribing to before.


That numbers for iCloud customers is about one-fifth of the iPhone installed base. Apple clearly thinks there’s some room for expansion, particularly with the lowest-tier “Personal” offering as a way either to get people to sign up for Apple Music, or to get more iCloud storage. Something of a problem if they’re using Spotify, though.
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Facebook to curb internal debate over sensitive issues amid employee discord • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:


Facebook is moving to curb internal debate around divisive political and social topics, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday, after a spate of disputes and criticism that has fueled discord among staff.

The steps will include delineating which parts of its internal company messaging platform are acceptable for such discussions, and careful moderation of the discussions when they occur, Mr. Zuckerberg told employees at a company meeting, according to a spokesman. Employees shouldn’t have to confront social issues in their day-to-day work unless they want to, the CEO said.


Kevin Roose of the NYT pointed out that this is due to Facebook using Facebook internally for its communications. Which means that all the amplification of polarising content happens same as it does for people outside. That’s really dogfooding. (In a followup tweet, Roose said “A FB employee told me once that they often made their Workplace posts sharper and more opinionated than their actual beliefs, so they’d have a better chance of appearing in managers’ feeds.”)

So the answer is “careful moderation”? Looking forward to that for the other billion-odd users. Separately, Facebook said it’s going to try harder to moderate Groups. Only a few years too late; Zuckerberg began promoting them in 2017 because he thought we were all too lonely. Turned out that included terrorists too.
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When you browse Instagram and find former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s passport number • Mango



Tony Abbott is one of Australia’s many former Prime Ministers.

(For security reasons, we try to change our Prime Minister every six months, and to never use the same Prime Minister on multiple websites.)

This particular former PM had just posted a picture of his boarding pass on Instagram (Instagram, in case you don’t know it, is an app you can open up on your phone any time to look at ads).

The since-deleted Instagram post showing the boarding pass and baggage receipt. The caption reads “coming back home from japan 😍😍 looking forward to seeing everyone! climate change isn’t real 😌 ok byeee”

“Can you hack this man?” [came the request]


Entertaining post about how to discover a vulnerability that lets you capture personal information (and a lot more) while keeping out of trouble. Who knew that airline websites have so much data – including employee discussions about you – hung around your own boarding pass login.
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Thread by @TubeTimeUS on Thread Reader App • Thread Reader App


This electrical transmission tower has a little problem. Can you spot it? Actually, it’s not a small problem–it cost us 16.65 *billion* dollars and caused the deaths of 85 people.


Thus (illustrated with a picture of what is technically known as a transposition tower, but looks to most people like an electricity pylon) begins a fascinating thread which reveals the creaking infrastructure of the US and how you need really strong financial incentives to keep utilities in line. You don’t need to be on Twitter to read it.
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Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg need Trump even more than Trump needs Facebook • Bloomberg

Sarah Frier and Kurt Wagner:


after Republicans complained about the voter registration efforts, Facebook seemed to back off further, according to emails obtained by the Tech Transparency Project. The company had planned a two-day promotion over the July 4th holiday on Facebook, as well as on Instagram and Messenger, but then cut that down to a one-day push on Facebook alone.

Facebook has said that the suggestion that the company scaled down its voter registration plans for political reasons is “pure fabrication.” Another spokesman, replying to a Twitter user who suggested the same, responded with a picture of a woman in a tin foil hat.

The company, of course, knows lots about conspiracy theorists, who thrive on the site. There’s QAnon, a far-right movement that espouses a complex theory involving a cabal of elites engaged in child sex trafficking. The FBI deemed it a form of domestic terrorism in August 2019, but Facebook only started removing accounts in May. The company also initially ignored posts tied to a Kenosha, Wis., militia in which users discussed shooting Black Lives Matter protesters. The militia’s event page was flagged more than 400 times, but moderators allowed it to stay up, according to BuzzFeed. Not long after the posts began appearing, a 17-year-old with an assault rifle shot and killed two people at a protest in the city.

…Biden, meanwhile, has said he also favors removing Section 230 protections and holding executives personally liable. “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan,” he told the New York Times in January. Zuckerberg seems keenly aware of the risks of a Trump loss. He’s told employees that Facebook is likely to fare better under Republicans, according to people familiar with the conversations.


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TikTok accepts deal revisions as Trump prepares to review proposal • The New York Times

David McCabe, Erin Griffith, Ana Swanson and Mike Isaac:


Some Republican lawmakers, such as Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, have criticized any deal that would leave ByteDance in control of TikTok’s code or algorithms as inadequate in addressing national security concerns. That has raised questions of whether Mr. Trump could face criticism for the Oracle-TikTok proposal while running for re-election.

…While rushing to secure a deal, TikTok is also hunting for a permanent chief executive to replace Kevin Mayer, who resigned in late August, citing the changing political pressures of the role. Vanessa Pappas, the general manager of TikTok in North America, took over in the interim.

Among those whom TikTok has talked to about the job is Kevin Systrom, a founder and former chief executive of Instagram, people briefed on the matter said. Talks are preliminary, and no final decisions have been made, they said.

The parties to a deal expect to name an American chief executive of the new TikTok entity, one person familiar with the matter said.


Criticism of Trump while he’s running for re-election? I thought he was running for that right now. And I could find plenty of people who are critical of him. As ever, the NYT manages to pretend that Trump is some sort of vaguely normal politician who cares what people think, rather than a corrupt real estate broker with narcissistic personality disorder.

Kevin Systrom would be a fascinating choice for TikTok’s CEO.
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QArmyJapanFlynn (QAJF): the collective delusion is global • Medium

Geoff Golberg:


According to the account’s bio description, Eri is the “sole [Japanese] translator” for QMap, in addition to being the “founder” of QAJFlynn (aka QArmyJapanFlynn). Moreover, the official QAJF site is listed in the account’s bio description, as are three Twitter accounts that, in our research, have emerged as being central to QAnon (@StormIsUponUs, @GenFlynn, and @intheMatrixxx). The @StormIsUponUs account, aka JoeM, was one of the largest QAnon supporting accounts prior to its suspension on April 9th, 2020. At the time of suspension, @StormIsUponUs reflected having 273 thousand Followers.

Given Eri(QMapJapan)’s Followers count is approaching 80 thousand, it would be easy for one to conclude that QAnon is wildly popular among Japanese speakers.

Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the vast majority of accounts following @okabaeri9111 are fake accounts.

Twitter’s refusal to enforce their own rules not only results in advertisers like Rolex wasting their advertising dollars on useless inventory (i.e. Rolex is a victim of blatant ad fraud and where their brand appears adjacent QAnon), but also functions to create the illusion that QAnon has a massive following among Japanese speakers.

Social Forensics has contacted Mounia Mechbal, Rolex’s VP of Marketing and Communications, to inform her that Twitter is engaging in ad fraud that presents Rolex’s brand adjacent QAnon (we will update this post should we receive a response):


“Half of what I spend on advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half,” goes the famous saying. With online advertising you know: more than half.
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Exclusive: AT&T considers cellphone plans subsidized by ads • Reuters

Sheila Dang, Helen Coster, Krystal Hu, Kenneth Li:


AT&T is considering offering wireless phone plans partially subsidized by advertising as soon as a year from now, chief executive John Stankey said in an interview on Tuesday.

The consideration, which has not been previously disclosed, underscores AT&T’s commitment to the advertising business as the US phone carrier reviews its portfolio to identify assets to sell in order to reduce its debt load. AT&T is considering selling its advertising-technology unit Xandr, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

“I believe there’s a segment of our customer base where given a choice, they would take some load of advertising for a $5 or $10 reduction in their mobile bill,” Stankey said.


I wonder if Stankey would be willing to suffer advertising that tracked and targeted him for the sake of a few dollars off his phone bill. You might say: of course not, and he doesn’t have to because he can afford to pay more. But if the CEO isn’t willing to use his own product, why should others have to tolerate having their privacy invaded and ads barked at them all the time?

I wonder too how many spam calls Stankey gets to his mobile number. If that number were to go up rapidly, perhaps AT&T would start figuring out how to block them more effectively. Again: it’s a matter of getting the CEO to use the product, not live in a bubble of exception.
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Listen to an unheard Steve Jobs NeXT keynote from 1988 • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:


“The Macintosh architecture is going to peak next year sometime. And that means that there’s enough cracks in the wall already, and enough limitations to the architecture, that the Mac’s pretty much going to be everything it’s ever going to be sometime next year.”

A tech CEO is onstage helpfully explaining that the Mac’s expiration date is imminent. More important, he’s about to introduce us to a new computer designed for the next decade. I am in a distant seat among his audience of more than 2,000 at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where the anticipation in the air is thick enough to induce a contact high.

After all, we are among the lucky few who will hear about the NeXT computer directly from Steve Jobs himself.

What we were witnessing on the evening of November 30, 1988 wasn’t the NeXT launch event. That had happened seven weeks earlier at San Francisco’s Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, before 3,000 invited developers, educators, and reporters. Jobs was now giving a second performance of the same basic presentation at the monthly general meeting of the Boston Computer Society. It was open to all members, and therefore a much more public affair than the exclusive San Francisco version.


What McCracken is excited about – and historians of computing will be excited about – is a huge trove of audio recordings of many of the big names from the dawn of personal computing speaking about important moments there. If that’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this.
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Swedish consortium unveils mammoth wind-powered car carrier • The Driven

Joshua Hill:


A Swedish consortium including ship design firm Wallenius Marine has unveiled a modern-day sailing ship which will be capable of carrying 6-7,000 vehicles and be able to reduce emissions for the trans-Atlantic crossing by 90%.

The wPCC – wind Powered Car Carrier – is a Swedish collaborative project led and overseen by Wallenius Marine and including the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and maritime consulting firm SSPA.

Heralded as a “Swedish project for truly sustainable shipping,” the wPCC is currently being developed by the consortium and is expected to be sailing by the end of 2024.

The world’s largest sailing vessel, the wPCC is billed as being able to reduce emissions by 90% as compared to other ocean-going freighters. A transatlantic crossing aboard the wPCC would take twelve days, instead of the current seven days it takes a conventional freighter.

Conversely, the current fleet of around 450 large car transporters currently use 40 tonnes of fossil fuel per day, opening the door for significant reductions to shipping emissions.


That’s splendid news! Although these, er, vehicles that you’re sail-shipping. What sort of fuel do they run on, precisely?
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Start Up No.1393: Oracle TikTok bid still uncertain, Spotify negative on Apple One, iOS 14 released, cyberwar on newspapers, and more

Who’s unafraid of Apple’s new Fitness+ offering? These people. CC-licensed photo by Tony Webster 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. Spin, but in a good way. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Oracle’s TikTok bid leaves US security concerns unaddressed • Bloomberg

Saleha Mohsin , Nick Wadhams, and Jennifer Jacobs:


Oracle’s bid for TikTok falls short of resolving concerns of Trump administration officials that the Chinese-owned video-sharing app poses a risk to US national security, according to people familiar with the matter.

President Donald Trump has the authority to sign off on a deal, but continuing concerns from national security officials could sway his decision. The agreement remains on the table, with discussions continuing between administration officials and the companies, said the people, who asked not to be named because the talks are confidential.

Addressing those remaining issues could pave the way for US approval, the people said.

The officials, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, are concerned that after a potential transaction, TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, could still have access to user data from its nearly 100 million users in America, said the people. The officials remain wary about the proposed new ownership structure and how much influence that would give China over the company.


I wonder if ByteDance is just trying as best it can to string this out beyond the election date. The reality is still that if the algorithm isn’t part of the deal, it’s just a hosting deal – just the same as Apple being obliged to store iCloud data for Chinese users in China (so the Chinese government can inspect it). We have met the enemy, and he is us. Though quite what the NSA hopes to find out from 100 million American kids dancing, who knows. WSJ reports overnight that US wants over 50% of ownership. Good luck with that.
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Peloton CEO on Apple launching workouts: ‘a legitimization of fitness content’ • CNBC

Lauren Thomas:


Peloton CEO John Foley said Tuesday that Apple launching a fitness platform is a “legitimization” of this type of content. 

Foley’s remarks were made during the bike maker’s first-ever investor meeting as a public company, and coincided with Apple’s splashy unveiling of the fitness platform, which will allow users to access a catalog of workout videos on iPhones, iPads, or on an Apple TV that sync to an Apple Watch. 

Peloton shares dipped slightly on the news and recently were up about 4%. 

“We’re just digesting the announcement like everybody,” Foley said. “The biggest thing I will say is it’s quite a legitimization of fitness content, to the extent the biggest company in the word, a $2 trillion company, is coming in and saying fitness content matters. It’s meaningful enough for Apple.” 

However, he said, Peloton separates itself from Apple with its high-tech spin bikes and treadmills, which Apple isn’t planning to offer customers.


Peloton kit is flipping expensive. Like £2,000 for a bike and then a subscription for the service. But this is not a Swiss watch v Apple Watch situation. Peloton users love their kit and the experience, so aren’t going to abandon it. If you can afford it, you’ll probably go for Peloton rather than something cheaper. Apple though is going to mop up a significant number of people for whom Fitness+ will be a gym membership on their wrist (you need an Apple Watch to use it).
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Spotify steps up antitrust war over Apple One bundling • Yahoo


Sweden’s global number one music streamer Spotify is urging EU competition authorities to probe Apple’s One bundled subscription services as it steps up its antitrust criticisms of the US tech titan.

“Once again, Apple is using its dominant position and unfair practices to disadvantage competitors and deprive consumers by favoring its own services,” said Spotify in a statement.

“We call on competition authorities to act urgently to restrict Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, which if left unchecked, will cause irreparable harm to the developer community and threaten our collective freedoms to listen, learn, create, and connect,” the firm added in a Tuesday statement.

Spotify has already been involved in two other competition face-offs with Apple surrounding the latter’s Apple Store and Apple Pay.

The Swedish company says that a low-priced bundle including music streaming from Apple Music, a key rival, skews the market.

Spotify is by a distance the global leader in music streaming, with 299 million users according to latest data from June – including 138 million subscription holders – and sales of €1.89bn ($2.2bn).


As Ben Thompson pointed out, there’s nothing stopping Spotify bundling itself with some offering from Google or an Android OEM or a carrier or.. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s done a few of those. Spotify might have a case the cost of signing people up through the App Store, but this is thin gruel. Apple’s nowhere near a monopoly of smartphones.

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Apple releases iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 with home screen redesign, App Library, compact UI, Translate app, Scribble support, App Clips, and more • MacRumors

Juli Clover:


Apple has released iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, the newest operating system updates designed for the iPhone and iPad. As with all of Apple’s software updates, iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 can be downloaded for free. iOS 14 is available on the iPhone 6s and later, while iPadOS 14 is available on the iPad Air 2 and later.


Good rundown of what’s new. I think the instantly most popular thing will be pinning message recipients to the top of the screen for quick access to people or groups you often communicate with.

And people are going to be quite puzzled for a while by incoming calls not taking over the screen. Expect lots of people to miss calls for a while.

Plus you can change your default browser and mail app. Say goodbye to your battery if you choose Chrome and Gmail, I suspect.
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Oregon GOP senator who walked out to stop climate vote loses house to wildfire • Labour 411

Sahid Fawaz:


Oregon Republican state senator Fred Girod was one of 11 Republicans who made headlines when they walked out of the senate – some even leaving the state – so that a quorum could not be achieved for a climate change bill.

As Wikipedia states:

“From June 20, 2019, all 11 Republican state senators for Oregon, including Girod, refused to show up for work at the Oregon State Capitol, instead going into hiding, some even fleeing the state. Their aim was to push the vote on a cap-and-trade proposal that would dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to combat climate change to voters instead of being instituted by lawmakers. The Senate holds 30 seats, but 1 is vacant due to a death. Without the Republican senators, the remaining 18 Democratic state senators could not reach a quorum of 20 to hold a vote…”

…Now with wildfires raging in Oregon, climate change has come to Girod’s doorstep. Literally.

Oregon Live reports:

“Fred Girod stood near the edge of a steep drop between what remained of his house and the Santiam River, grasping the destruction days after the Beachie Creek wildfire destroyed homes, businesses and landmarks along the canyon.

The walls of the one-story home had collapsed, leaving two stone columns and a chimney that rose out of the rubble. The heat and flames had twisted the frame of the deck where he would sit to watch bald eagles, ospreys and sunrises.”


Oregon Live somehow omits the point about preventing the vote.
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Climate science contrarian installed in upper-level NOAA position • Ars Technica

Scott Johnson:


The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently hired a new person in an upper-level deputy assistant secretary position. Normally, this would not be too surprising or newsworthy, but this is an exception. Joining NOAA as the “Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction” is University of Delaware Professor David Legates—a well-known contrarian who rejects the science of human-caused climate change.

The position apparently reports to acting head of NOAA Neil Jacobs, although the circumstances of the hire are unknown. Ars asked NOAA about the duties of this position, but the agency has not responded. Jacobs was entangled in the fallout from President Trump’s inaccurate tweets about Hurricane Dorian that culminated in a forecast map doctored with a black marker. A pair of investigations found that Jacobs capitulated to directives from the office of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the White House, releasing an unsigned NOAA statement that sought to rescue the president’s inaccurate statements by mildly admonishing the forecasters who corrected him.

…Legates was Delaware’s State Climatologist between 2005 and 2011. Although he started his career working on precipitation data and patterns, he is primarily known for rejecting, at every opportunity, the human role in climate change. He’s a frequent contributor to work by the Heartland Institute—a “think tank” that opposes the facts of climate science. When Ars visited a Heartland conference in 2015, Legates was there, presenting a talk that waved away trends in US rainfall extremes as an artifact of measurement changes.


No, it’s fine, checks and balances, norms of behaviour, standards, etc.

In reality there’s very little time left for the US. If this goes on it will effectively become a rogue state acting to destroy the world’s climate. Which might sound extreme. But there’s very little time before things get bad all over.
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Facebook’s first ‘smart glasses’ will be Ray-Bans, coming next year • The Verge

Nick Statt:


The company has talked for years about its plans to build AR devices that resemble a standard pair of glasses, and the company is now working with Ray-Ban maker EssilorLuxottica to design the frames of its first consumer smart glasses, confirming rumors last fall that the company had partnered with the Italian eyewear brand.

“We’re passionate about exploring devices that can give people better ways to connect with those closest to them. Wearables have the potential to do that. With EssilorLuxottica we have an equally ambitious partner who’ll lend their expertise and world-class brand catalogue to the first truly fashionable smart glasses,” Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s vice president of the Reality Labs division, said in a statement.

We don’t have any details on what Facebook’s eventual AR glasses will be called, what they look like beyond the Aria prototype, or how much they might cost (or for that matter how much the Ray-Ban designed smart glasses will cost).

But AR and smart glasses designed to look like standard pieces of eyewear have become more common in recent years, with companies like North (now owned by Google) and Nreal developing pretty impressive devices. Meanwhile, all the major tech giants — including Amazon, Apple, Google, Intel, and others — have either already released a device in the smart glasses or AR category, or are said to be actively working on something.


Colour me continually sceptical about these things. There won’t be a display, so what’s the point? To take photos? Snap tried that and lost a bucketload of money. If it doesn’t have a display and so can’t provide any useful info, hardly anyone is going to tolerate the nerd factor of wearing them.
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Amazon Music jumps into the podcasting game with original and exclusive shows • Android Police

Jules Wang:


Spotify is pushing nearly all of its chips onto podcast browsing and production as a way to drive its revenues. Amazon may be looking to do the same for its Amazon Music service as it has enabled podcast streaming and is making a splash with what it can call its own shows including “Disgraceland,” “That Scene with Dan Patrick,” and new shows from Will Smith.

Free and paid Amazon Music users in the Germany, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. can listen to widely-available podcasts right now through its website. We weren’t immediately able to find podcasts on the Android app — there is a supporting update and changelog for that feature — but it’ll also be there as well as iOS, Google Assistant, and Echo devices. Listeners will be able to download shows for offline listening and follow their favorite series as well.

The company is also claiming production credit and exclusive rights to a number of shows…


Podcasts are the perfect way for music streaming services to get away from having to pay per-play (as with music tracks) and into lump sums, so that they can benefit from the zero marginal cost of serving every extra podcast. In Spotify’s case it’s evident that it really wants to push that; now that Amazon is doing the same, is Apple going to be able to hold back from doing it too?
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What newsrooms can learn from threat modeling at Facebook • The Verge

Alex Stamos, former security chief at Facebook (interviewed by Jay Rosen):


So, let’s imagine The New York Times has hired me to help them threat model and practice for 2020. This is a highly unlikely scenario, so I’ll give them the advice here for free.

First, you think about your likely adversaries in 2020. You still have the Russian security services. FSB, GRU, and SVR. So I would help gather up all of the examples of their disinformation operations from the last four years.

This would include the GRU’s tactic of hacking into websites to plant fake documents, and then pointing their press outlets at those documents. When the documents are inevitably removed, they spin it as a conspiracy. This is something they did to Poland’s equivalent of West Point, and there has been some recent activity that looks like the planting of fake documents to muddy the waters on the poisoning of Navalny.

You have the Russian Internet Research Agency, and their current activities. They have also pivoted and now hire people in-country to create content. Facebook broke open one of these networks this week.

This year, however, we have new players! You have the Chinese. China is really coming from behind on combined hacking / disinformation operations, but man are they making up time fast. COVID and the Hong Kong crisis has motivated them to build much more capable overt and covert capabilities in English. And most importantly, in 2020, you have the domestic actors.

The Russian activity in 2016, from both the security services and troll farms, has been really well documented.

JR: And breakdowns created by government, like an overwhelmed Post Office.

Yes, true!

I wrote a piece for Lawfare imagining foreign actors using hacking to cause chaos in the election and then spreading that with disinfo. It’s quaint now, as the election has been pre-hacked by COVID.

The struggles that states and local governments are having to prepare for pandemic voting and the intentional knee-capping of the response by the Administration and Republican Senate has effectively pre-hacked the election — in that there is already going to be huge confusion about how to vote, when to vote, and whether the rules are being applied fairly.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified