Start Up No.1477: Bezos steps aside, more App Store scams, anti-Navalny synthetic fakes, IBM’s blockchain heads to zero, and more


The next iOS update will unlock your phone if you’re wearing a facemask – and an Apple Watch CC-licensed photo by Marco Verch on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not stepping aside. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Email from Jeff Bezos to employees • About Amazon

Bezos is moving to become executive chairman and handing over the CEO reins to Andrew Jassy:

»

Today, we employ 1.3 million talented, dedicated people, serve hundreds of millions of customers and businesses, and are widely recognized as one of the most successful companies in the world.

How did that happen? Invention. Invention is the root of our success. We’ve done crazy things together, and then made them normal. We pioneered customer reviews, 1-Click, personalized recommendations, Prime’s insanely-fast shipping, Just Walk Out shopping, the Climate Pledge, Kindle, Alexa, marketplace, infrastructure cloud computing, Career Choice, and much more. If you get it right, a few years after a surprising invention, the new thing has become normal. People yawn. And that yawn is the greatest compliment an inventor can receive.

I don’t know of another company with an invention track record as good as Amazon’s, and I believe we are at our most inventive right now. I hope you are as proud of our inventiveness as I am. I think you should be.

As Amazon became large, we decided to use our scale and scope to lead on important social issues. Two high-impact examples: our $15 minimum wage and the Climate Pledge. In both cases, we staked out leadership positions and then asked others to come along with us. In both cases, it’s working. Other large companies are coming our way. I hope you’re proud of that as well.

I find my work meaningful and fun. I get to work with the smartest, most talented, most ingenious teammates. When times have been good, you’ve been humble. When times have been tough, you’ve been strong and supportive, and we’ve made each other laugh. It is a joy to work on this team.

«

As someone quipped, he’s leaving to spend less time with Congress. Amazon’s at an odd inflexion point, bigger and more powerful than ever, but also facing employee unrest.
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Thread by @keleftheriou: how subscriptions create scams on the App Store •Thread Reader App

Kosta Eleftheriou is the developer of a Watch app which puts a keyboard on your watch:

»

The App Store has a big problem👇

You: an honest developer, working hard to improve your IAP [in-app purchase] conversions.
Your competitor: a $2M/year scam running rampant.

«

There have been so many stories like this one (which is well worth reading) – Eleftheriou points to some – that it’s still amazing Apple isn’t wiping these out left and right. If it is, it should say so.
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Inauthentic Instagram accounts with synthetic faces target Navalny protests • Medium

Digital Forensic Research Lab:

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Prior to the January 23 protests, Navalny’s team announced plans for mass gatherings across Russia, publishing a list of cities, specific locations in those cities, and times. Moscow’s Red Square was not on the list of locations — the main protests in Moscow were planned for Pushkinskaya Square, which is approximately a 20-minute walk from Red Square. On the day of the protests, Russian authorities blocked Red Square, in a likely attempt to prevent demonstrators from approaching the Kremlin.

Immediately prior to the protests, posts geotagged Red Square on Instagram appeared to be flooded with content unrelated to the location. Geotags allow users to search for locations on the platform to see what kind of content was posted from the specific area. Search results display the latest posts geotagged with that particular location. In this case, Russian users might have been searching for the Red Square geotag to check for developments related to the January 23 protests, despite the Square not being the official demonstration location for these particular protests.

From January 17 onward, Instagram serach results for Red Square returnined the same type of images: profile pictures of various individuals. The DFRLab has determined these images are generated by StyleGAN, a type of neural network that can generate synthetic faces.

«

Notable that the systems for spotting synthetic faces are getting better. Of course, there’s quite a clue when you’re looking at accounts like these, where your first suspicion is that they’re fake.
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IBM Blockchain is a shell of its former self after revenue misses, job cuts: sources • CoinDesk

Ian Allison:

»

IBM has cut its blockchain team down to almost nothing, according to four people familiar with the situation.

Job losses at IBM escalated as the company failed to meet its revenue targets for the once-fêted technology by 90% this year, according to one of the sources.

“IBM is doing a major reorganization,” said a source at a startup that has been interviewing former IBM blockchain staffers. “There is not really going to be a blockchain team any longer. Most of the blockchain people at IBM have left.”

IBM’s blockchain unit missed its revenue targets by a wide margin for two years in a row, said a second source. Expectations for enterprise blockchain were too high, they said, adding that IBM “didn’t really manage to execute, despite doing a lot of announcements.”

A spokesperson for IBM denied the claims.

“Our blockchain business is doing well, thank you,” Holli Haswell, a director of public relations at IBM, said via email.

«

Not quite a denial about the shrinking job numbers – which the story puts at about 100 departures. Missing revenue targets by 90% is quite a miss. Enterprise blockchain seems to be Not A Thing.
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iPhone Face ID will soon work with masks – but only if you’re wearing an Apple Watch • Pocket-Lint

Dan Grabham:

»

Your Face ID iPhone will soon be able to unlock even if you’re wearing a mask. However, there’s a catch in that it will only do this if you’re wearing an Apple Watch that’s paired with the phone and unlocked.

One problem with having to wear face masks over your mouth and nose is that facial recognition doesn’t really work with them. That’s been a particular problem with newer iPhones (iPhone X, XS, XR, 11, 12) that rely on Face ID.

But that’s about to change with the next iteration of iOS 14, version 14.5. It’s now out as a developer beta for those who have access and will be publicly available over the coming weeks. iOS 14 was first released back in September.

Apple tells us that Face ID works just as you would expect with the new software. Your Apple Watch will give you some haptic feedback to let you know your iPhone has been unlocked. This is similar behaviour to using the Apple Watch to unlock your Mac which has been available for some time. Once again your Watch will need to be in close proximity to your iPhone.

«

So your iPhone unlocks your Watch, and then your Watch unlocks your iPhone. Apple only ever expected to do the first one. So it’s taken a little while to figure out the protocol.
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NYU researchers find no evidence of anti-conservative bias on social media • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

»

The report from NYU’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights says not only is there no empirical finding that social media companies systematically suppress conservatives, but even reports of anecdotal instances tend to fall apart under close scrutiny. And in an effort to appear unbiased, platforms actually bend over backward to try to appease conservative critics.

“The contention that social media as an industry censors conservatives is now, as we speak, becoming part of an even broader disinformation campaign from the right, that conservatives are being silenced all across American society,” the report’s lead researcher Paul Barrett said in an interview with The Verge. “This is the obvious post-Trump theme, we’re seeing it on Fox News, hearing it from Trump lieutenants, and I think it will continue indefinitely. Rather than any of this going away with Trump leaving Washington, it’s only getting more intense.”

The researchers analyzed data from analytics platforms CrowdTangle and NewsWhip and existing reports like the 2020 study from Politico and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, all of which showed that conservative accounts actually dominated social media. And they drilled down into anecdotes about bias and repeatedly found there was no concrete evidence to support such claims.

Looking at how claims of anti-conservative bias developed over time, Barrett says, it’s not hard to see how the “anti-conservative” rhetoric became a political instrument. “It’s a tool used by everyone from Trump to Jim Jordan to Sean Hannity, but there is no evidence to back it up,” he said.

«

Truly the most boring disinformation campaign is right-wingers complaining of being censored or ignored. Before social media, the Conservatives in the UK used it about the BBC (that it was biased against them, they were being ignored, and so on). It’s never true.
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The writing’s on the wall for Google Stadia – The Verge

Sean Hollister:

»

After 14 months, Google has decided it doesn’t want to be a game company anymore. Where once it had its own cloud-based console, controller, and the promise of homegrown triple-A games, it no longer wants to build its own games as of last Monday.

And though a Google spokesperson emphasizes that the company continues to “remain committed to Stadia as a platform,” it’s looking increasingly likely that platform won’t be a service where you sign up with Google to buy and rent cloud games.

Stadia boss Phil Harrison announced that Google was shutting down the company’s game studios in a memo today, and I think the exact wording of that memo is extremely telling. Go read it for yourself. I’ll wait.

Did you see the part about how Stadia is now a platform for Google’s partners? It’s pretty hard to miss: Harrison brings it up no fewer than five times in four paragraphs. In all but the very last paragraph, “partners” — not gamers — come first.

This suggests Google has realized an important truth: Stadia, like so many of Google’s other businesses, is optimally one where you aren’t the customer. The paying customers, if Google can get them, are game publishers themselves, and possibly ISPs that would like to deliver a cable-like bundle of games to go along with their cable-like bundles of shows.

Today, Harrison defines Stadia as a “technology platform for industry partners” — which suggests to me that he’s talking about turning Stadia into a white-label cloud gaming service.

«

That wouldn’t be such a bad future for Stadia. Or the white label version of it. Google doesn’t need to be in the game space. Perhaps this was the plan all along, or perhaps it just realised quite quickly that being a game studio wasn’t really going to fit with all its other interests. People are describing it as Google not having any idea what it’s up to, but quite possibly it did, and this is a smart way to utilise its cloud processing facilities without the pain of game hits and misses.
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Wikipedia’s new code of conduct targets harassment and misinformation • Engadget

K Holt:

»

The Wikimedia Foundation has announced the first Universal Code of Conduct to tackle misinformation and harassment on Wikipedia. The foundation says that the rules clearly spell out what behavior is acceptable.

The code explicitly prohibits Wikipedia users from deliberately adding false or biased information to articles, as well as harassing others on and off the platform. The use of slurs and stereotypes, doxxing, hate speech and threats of violence are all banned. In addition, the rules aim to stop the abuse of power, privilege or influence.

Editors are encouraged to assume edits were carried out in good faith, help newcomers and give credit where it’s due to show mutual respect for other users. The foundation also underscored its commitment to “creating spaces that foster diversity of thought, religion, sexual orientation, age, culture, and language to name a few.”

«

They seem like obvious things? I suppose though that having a code of conduct means that you can point to it when you ban someone for breaching it. Notable though that Wikipedia, by virtue of not using algorithmic targeting, has managed to stay largely free of the decline we’ve seen on social networks.
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Brexit witness archive: Philip Hammond • UK in a changing Europe

This is an interview about Brexit, as seen from inside the Tory administration that first triggered the referendum and then tried to figure out how the hell to do it. This is an interview with Philip Hammond, who was foreign secretary to David Cameron and then Chancellor to Theresa May – about whom he is repeatedly quite stingingly rude, in that British way. He’s also entertainingly rude about David Davis, who was one of the negotiators, and that’s worth quoting:

»

David Davis in particular had this very crude 1980s approach to negotiation. I know David quite well, I knew him before I went into politics – David’s backstory is that he was the trouble-shooter for Tate & Lyle. When there was a problem, they sent David Davis. Shut down a refinery, fire a load of people, get rid of the troublemakers: the bare-knuckle fighter. That’s how he liked to see himself. David Davis’ approach to negotiation is you slap it on the table, you lean across, and you eyeball them. If they don’t give way immediately, you say, ‘I’ll see you round the back.’ That was always his view on this. ‘We’ve got the money, they want our money, so we wave a cheque at them then we stick it in our back pocket and we say, ‘Right, show us what you’ve got’. In the end, they’ll want our money. They’ll want access to our market. How long is this going to take, 15 minutes? Give me 15 minutes in a room with these people. I’ll sort them out.’ That was his view of the world, and it was widely shared among the Brexiteers.

So they always assumed that this was entirely discretionary and we could just threaten to withhold it. That would give us this huge bargaining leverage. It never did.

«

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Tesla to recall 135,000 U.S. vehicles under pressure from auto safety regulators • Reuters

David Shepardson:

»

Tesla Inc has agreed to recall 134,951 Model S and Model X vehicles with touchscreen displays that could fail and raise the risk of a crash after US auto safety regulators sought the recall last month, according to a recall posted on a government website Tuesday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made the unusual recall request in a formal Jan. 13 letter to Tesla, saying it had tentatively concluded the 2012-2018 Model S and 2016-2018 Model X vehicles pose a safety issue. Automakers usually agree to voluntary fixes before the auto safety agency formally seeks a recall.

The agency said touchscreen failures posed significant safety issues, including the loss of rearview or backup camera images, exterior turn-signal lighting, and windshield defogging and defrosting systems that “may decrease the driver’s visibility in inclement weather.”

…Tesla acknowledged the problem but said if the display was not working, “the driver can perform a shoulder check and use the mirrors. If the screen is not visible to control the climate control and defroster settings, the driver will be able to manually clear the windshield.”

«

So the thing that’s the big selling point – the touchscreen – Tesla says is just an optional add-on? Mixed messaging to say the least.
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Facebook knew calls for violence plagued ‘Groups,’ now plans overhaul • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

»

Facebook executives were aware for years that tools fueling Groups’ rapid growth presented an obstacle to their effort to build healthy online communities, and the company struggled internally over how to contain them.

The company’s data scientists had warned Facebook executives in August that what they called blatant misinformation and calls to violence were filling the majority of the platform’s top “civic” Groups, according to documents The Wall Street Journal reviewed. Those Groups are generally dedicated to politics and related issues and collectively reach hundreds of millions of users.

The researchers told executives that “enthusiastic calls for violence every day” filled one 58,000-member Group, according to an internal presentation. Another top Group claimed it was set up by fans of Donald Trump but it was actually run by “financially motivated Albanians” directing a million views daily to fake news stories and other provocative content.

Roughly “70% of the top 100 most active US Civic Groups are considered non-recommendable for issues such as hate, misinfo, bullying and harassment,” the presentation concluded. “We need to do something to stop these conversations from happening and growing as quickly as they do,” the researchers wrote, suggesting measures to slow the growth of Groups at least long enough to give Facebook staffers time to address violations.

… In a 2020 Super Bowl ad, it celebrated amateur-rocketry buffs, bouldering clubs and rocking-chair enthusiasts—brought together through Groups.

Nina Jankowicz, a social media researcher at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said she became alarmed after hearing a Facebook representative advise a European prime minister’s social-media director that Groups were now the best way to reach a large audience on the platform.

“My eyes bugged out of my head,” said Ms. Jankowicz, who studies the intersection of democracy and technology. “I knew how destructive Groups could be.”

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: @Reynolds, who has direct experience working in the NHS, has a followup about Terence Eden’s suggestion on using LinkedIn to bug senior execs: “I always advise people having trouble with the NHS start by threatening to go to the Trust PALS department. And then go to PALS if that doesn’t solve the problem. Patient Advice and Liason Service short circuits the whole Org chart.”

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