Start Up No.1385: students hack AI testers, Pink Floyd’s Wine Glasses (yes), Huawei runs low on chips, Amazon’s odd reviewers, and more


Despite disappointing sales, Samsung is prepping another folding phone. Maybe on the diagonal this time? CC-licensed photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

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

These students figured out their tests were graded by AI — and the easy way to cheat • The Verge

Monica Chin:

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On Monday, Dana Simmons came downstairs to find her 12-year-old son, Lazare, in tears. He’d completed the first assignment for his seventh-grade history class on Edgenuity, an online platform for virtual learning. He’d received a 50 out of 100. That wasn’t on a practice test — it was his real grade.

“He was like, I’m gonna have to get a 100 on all the rest of this to make up for this,” said Simmons in a phone interview with The Verge. “He was totally dejected.”

At first, Simmons tried to console her son. “I was like well, you know, some teachers grade really harshly at the beginning,” said Simmons, who is a history professor herself. Then, Lazare clarified that he’d received his grade less than a second after submitting his answers. A teacher couldn’t have read his response in that time, Simmons knew — her son was being graded by an algorithm.

Simmons watched Lazare complete more assignments. She looked at the correct answers, which Edgenuity revealed at the end. She surmised that Edgenuity’s AI was scanning for specific keywords that it expected to see in students’ answers. And she decided to game it.

Now, for every short-answer question, Lazare writes two long sentences followed by a disjointed list of keywords — anything that seems relevant to the question. “The questions are things like… ‘What was the advantage of Constantinople’s location for the power of the Byzantine empire,’” Simmons says. “So you go through, okay, what are the possible keywords that are associated with this? Wealth, caravan, ship, India, China, Middle East, he just threw all of those words in.”

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I feel we will be hearing more and more of these stories as schools (and universities) start to implement more systems that aren’t really “smart” (as in human smart), but those up against them are.
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Shelved: Pink Floyd’s Household Objects • Long Reads

Tom Maxwell:

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Listening to a renowned album as cohesive as The Dark Side of the Moon, you would never guess that the follow-up to that historic release was going to be made using everyday items. Household Objects, recorded during several desultory sessions over a two-year time frame, was constructed with rubber bands, wine glasses, spray cans, newspapers, brooms, and other such utilitarian gear. It was shelved.

When people talk about Household Objects — including the members of Pink Floyd themselves — it’s usually described as a wasteful and pointless distraction, a primary example of mid-70s rock star indulgence. This is not the case. Household Objects may not have turned into an album, but it was entirely consistent with the band’s previous use of found sound on The Dark Side of the Moon. What initially appears as a stylistic deviation from its powerhouse predecessor — or worse, full-blown self-sabotage — is, in fact, a return to form. Moreover, the mournful tone of one of its experimental tracks became the emotional center of Wish You Were Here, the highly successful follow-up to Dark Side. Most interesting of all, the work on Household Objects can be seen as the musicians’ affirmative attempt at reconnection to the “non-musical” world, to their past, and ultimately to each other.

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Here’s “Wine Glasses”, which was one of the tracks – sort of – that was going to be part of Household Objects. If you have any familiarity with Wish You Were Here, you’ll recognise this immediately; you’ll almost be expecting the four-note guitar line to come in.

More than that, though, this is a thoughtful essay about how one rediscovers creativity, and how imposing limitations makes it flow.


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Huawei to launch phone with Kirin 9000 chips in limited numbers • Global Times

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Huawei has a stockpile of about 10 million Kirin 9000 chips that will support shipments for about half a year, one telecom expert said, as the “deadline” for production of the Kirin 9000 is drawing near after the US government moved to block shipments of semiconductors to Huawei Technologies from global chipmakers. 

Richard Yu Chengdong, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business group, disclosed recently that Huawei plans to launch its smartphone equipment with Kirin smartphone chips, but only in “limited numbers.” He also confirmed that production of the chip will stop after September 15 due to US sanctions.

This has left the market guessing about the soon-to-be launched Mate 40 series, which is expected to be Huawei’s last smartphone to carry Kirin chips. There have also been worries as to when Huawei will run out of Kirin 9000 chips and what solutions it will have.  

Huang Haifeng, a veteran high-tech observer, said that based on his knowledge, Huawei’s Kirin 9000 chip supplier, Taiwan-based TSMC, is working “day and night” to produce the chips for Huawei. The company earlier confirmed that it will stop shipping semiconductors to Huawei after mid-September to comply with the US sanctions.

“Huawei has about 10 million Kirin 9000 chips on hand, which means that about 10 million Mate40/Pro phones installed with the chip will be available, and I believe they will sell out very quickly,” Huang told the Global Times on Sunday. 

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Now it’s really starting to bite. First it will be the smartphones, then it will be the network kit. Speaking of which…
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It will cost $1.8 billion to pull Huawei and ZTE out of US networks, FCC says • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

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Removing Chinese equipment will cost small carriers as much as $1.8bn, according to a new report from the Federal Communications Commission. The report estimates that as much as $1.6bn of the cost would be eligible for federal reimbursement — but Congress has yet to appropriate the necessary funds.

Significant national security concerns have been raised about the use of Huawei and ZTE equipment in US networks — but many small carriers are still struggling with the cost of replacing it. In one instance, Eastern Oregon Telecom told The Verge that replacing the $500,000 of Huawei equipment was likely to cost as much as $1.5m — a cost too high for the small carrier to shoulder on its own. Today’s report makes clear that story is all too common among US providers.

The FCC report looks specifically at carriers who receive support from the Universal Service Fund, meant to subsidize coverage of underserved areas. It does not cover all carriers in the US using Huawei or ZTE equipment, and there may also be eligible carriers who have yet to report their equipment. As a result, the total cost of replacing Chinese equipment is likely even higher than the reported $1.8bn.

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The reason so many of those carriers plumped for Huawei is because again and again it is the cheapest. So naturally it’s going to cost more to replace. And to the delight of Nokia and Ericsson, this is going to be spent with them.
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KryptoCibule malware has been stealing and mining cryptocurrency • Tripwire

Graham Cluley:

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Security researchers at Slovak security firm ESET have discovered a new family of malware that they say has been using a variety of techniques to steal cryptocurrency from unsuspecting users since at least December 2018.

The malware, which has been named KryptoCibule, uses a variety of legitimate technology – including Tor and the Transmission torrent client – as part of its scheme to mine cryptocurrency, divert digital currency transactions into its creators’ own accounts, and plant a backdoor for hackers to remotely access infected systems.

KryptoCibule poses a three-pronged threat when it comes to cryptocurrency.

Firstly, it exploits the CPU and GPU of infected computers to mine for Monero and Ethereum. In an attempt to avoid detection by the legitimate user of the computer, KryptoCibule monitors the battery level of infected devices and will not do any mining if the battery is at less than 10% capacity.

If the battery level status is between 10% and 30%, however, Ethereum-mining via the GPU is suspended and only Monero-mining via the CPU takes place, albeit limited to one thread.

However, if the battery level is 30% or more and there has been no user activity for the last three minutes, “both the GPU and CPU miners are run without limits.”

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It’s a bit like SETI, really, but with even less utility. At least if we’d found alien life maybe they could have lent us some money.
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Foldable phones have flopped, but Samsung hopes its new model will flip the script • WSJ

Elizabeth Koh

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The foldable phone was supposed to upend the smartphone industry, but so far it has flopped.

Pitched last year as novel introductions to a staid industry over the past decade, folding phones promised portability with displays that opened up to the size of tablets yet when closed could still perform most functions of a smartphone.

But just as device makers were expecting sales to surge, the global coronavirus pandemic hit and sheared away early enthusiasm. Buyers stuck at home didn’t need a multifunctional gadget on-the-go, while lockdowns closed many retail shops where buyers could be wooed by the flashy phones up close. The economic shocks also have left fewer people craving a high-price device.

Globally, 1.74m foldable devices were shipped from the first launch last September through June 30, according to market tracker Canalys. That is a fraction of prepandemic forecasts and a rounding error in an industry that shipped 1.28bn smartphones during the 12 months ended that same date.

The latest entrant arrives Tuesday with Samsung Electronics Co.’s unveiling of the Galaxy Z Fold 2, the second iteration of its flagship foldable-screen model. It has a reinforced folding hinge and an even larger 7.6in main display. The price remains the same as its predecessor at $2,000.

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Hang on, I think I just saw the reason why the foldable market isn’t making an impact on the wider business. To be honest, I still don’t see what the attraction would be.

But also:

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Phone makers had expected initially modest sales, but even those forecasts have proven to be lofty. Samsung had originally aimed for 6 million foldable-device shipments in 2020; halfway through the year, they have hit one-tenth of that target.

The disappointment comes at a tough time for the industry. Overall smartphone sales slumped 20% in the first half of the year, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

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OK, other people don’t see the attraction either – especially not at that price.
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Amazon deletes 20,000 reviews after evidence of profits for posts • Financial Times

Dave Lee:

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Amazon has deleted approximately 20,000 product reviews, written by seven of its top 10 UK reviewers, following a Financial Times investigation into suspicious activity.

The FT found evidence the users were profiting from posting thousands of five-star ratings.

Those who had their reviews deleted included Justin Fryer, the number one-ranked reviewer on Amazon.co.uk, who in August alone reviewed £15,000 worth of products, from smartphones to electric scooters to gym equipment, giving his five-star approval on average once every four hours.

Overwhelmingly, those products were from little-known Chinese brands, who often offer to send reviewers products for free in return for positive posts. Mr Fryer then appears to have sold many of the goods on eBay, making nearly £20,000 since June.

When contacted by the FT, Mr Fryer denied posting paid-for reviews — before deleting his review history from his Amazon profile page. Mr Fryer said the eBay listings, which described products as “unused” and “unopened”, were for duplicates.

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What I particularly like about this story is that Dave Lee is based in San Francisco, from which he carried out his investigation into let’s-not-call-it-dodgy reviews by people apparently in Britain.

But also: this is crap, Amazon. All these years on and you still have no handle on your ratings system.
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Privately built border wall will fail, engineering report says • The Texas Tribune

Jeremy Schwartz and Perla Trevizo, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica:

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Company president Tommy Fisher, a frequent guest on Fox News, had called the [three-mile] Rio Grande fence [his company built] the “Lamborghini” of border walls and bragged that his company’s methods could help Trump reach his Election Day goal of about 500 new miles of barriers along the southern border.

Instead, one engineer who reviewed the two reports on behalf of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune likened Fisher’s fence to a used Toyota Yaris.

“It seems like they are cutting corners everywhere,” said Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. “It’s not a Lamborghini, it’s a $500 used car.”

Since Fisher’s companies embarked on construction of the Rio Grande fence, the Trump administration has awarded about $2bn in federal contracts to the firms to build segments of the border wall in other locations.

Fisher agreed to the inspection as part of ongoing lawsuits against Fisher Sand and Gravel filed last year by the National Butterfly Center and the International Boundary and Water Commission. They unsuccessfully sought to convince a federal judge to stop the construction of the project until the potential impacts of the wall on the Rio Grande could be determined.

Mark Tompkins, an environmental engineer hired by the wildlife refuge, noted in his report that widespread erosion and scouring occurred after heavy rain events such as Hurricane Hanna in July, but that the fence has yet to experience a flood of the Rio Grande.

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Certain to fail; scammed. Trump said he was going to build a wall and that Mexico would pay for it. Hasn’t happened either.
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SoftBank unmasked as ‘Nasdaq whale’ that stoked tech rally • Financial Times

Kana Inagaki, Katie Martin, Robert Smith and Robin Wigglesworth :

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The surge in purchases of call options — derivatives that give the user the right to buy a stock at a pre-agreed price — has been the talk of Wall Street, as the sheer size of the trades appears to have exacerbated a “melt-up” in many big technology stocks over the past few months. In August alone, Tesla’s share price shot up 74%, while Apple gained 21%, Google’s parent Alphabet rose 10% and Amazon 9%.

One person familiar with SoftBank’s trades said it was “gobbling up” options on a scale that was even making some people within the organisation nervous. “People are caught with their pants down, massively short. This can continue. The whale is still hungry.”

SoftBank declined to comment.

The Nasdaq was at one point on Friday down 10% from its peak — the common definition of a correction — yet the options boom means that the US stock market remains vulnerable to further bursts of volatility, according to Charlie McElligott, a strategist at Nomura. “The street is still very much in a dangerous space, and that flow is still out there,” he wrote in a note on Friday.

…The size and aggressiveness of the mysterious call buyer, coupled with the summer trading lull, has been a big factor in the buoyant performance of many big tech names as well as the broader US stock market, according to Mr McElligott. This week, he warned that dynamics around options meant the heavy purchases forced banks on the other side of the trades to hedge themselves by buying stocks, in a “classic ‘tail wags the dog’ feedback loop”.

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Great to know that money is being used so productively to… buy notional things.

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Facebook’s political ad ban also threatens ability to spread accurate information on how to vote • ProPublica

Jeremy Merrill:

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For elections administrators, the last few days before an election can be the most stressful and when communication is needed most. They remind voters to mail back their absentee ballots and when Election Day voting begins and ends. Many of these ads can still be run under Facebook’s new rules, as long as they’re set up more than a week before the election.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, local election offices are scrambling to find new ways for eligible voters to cast their ballots. Voting methods and locations will be changing fast, even within the seven-day window included in Facebook’s ban.

A few days before Connecticut’s primary election on Aug. 11, Hurricane Isaias struck the state, knocking out power to more than a million people. That led Connecticut’s governor to make a subtle, but crucial, change to the state’s election rules on the day before the election. He instructed elections officials to count mail-in ballots that had been postmarked by election day, instead of only those that had arrived by election day.

With power still out to tens of thousands of people and businesses, “it was really important that we told people that they only needed to postmark their ballots by election day, because the little bit of news they were getting was that the Postal Service was down,” Rosenberg said. The Postal Service’s sorting hub in Hartford had lost power for a time after the storm.

“The only way we can notify people of something changing that late in the process is via Facebook and Instagram,” he said

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Should we expect Facebook to make a tweak to its “ban” to allow for this?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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