Start Up No.1556: Florida’s barmy social media law, self-driving cars still lost, India hassles Twitter, Amazon dings fake reviews, and more


If you think you can discern lossless audio, good news – we’ve got the audio tests so you can prove it. CC-licensed photo by Jim on Flickr.

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

Florida governor signs law to block ‘deplatforming’ of Florida politicians • The Verge

Makena Kelly:

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Monday that bars social media companies like Twitter and Facebook from “knowingly” deplatforming politicians.

The bill, SB 7072, was proposed in February, weeks after former President Donald Trump was banned from Facebook and Twitter after the deadly right-wing riot at the US Capitol. The law bars social media platforms from banning Floridian political candidates and authorizes the Florida Election Commission to impose fines if these candidates were to be deplatformed. The fines range from $250,000 per day for statewide office candidates and $25,000 per day for non-statewide offices.

“This will lead to more speech, not less speech,” DeSantis said during a press conference at the Florida International University in Miami Monday. “Because speech that’s inconvenient to the narrative will be protected.”

Many are already skeptical about the new law’s legality, with the tech-friendly Chamber of Progress calling it “clearly unconstitutional.” As a state law, the measure could be overturned if courts find it conflicts with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which broadly immunizes platforms from liability for good-faith moderation activity. It could also be subject to a constitutional challenge under the First Amendment, which has been interpreted to broadly prevent government interference to corporate speech.

But regardless of its legal status, the measure will help establish DeSantis’ political bona-fides among the anti-tech wing of the Republican Party. For years, Republicans have pressured platforms like Facebook over their content moderation policies, accusing the companies of being biased against conservative speech online. DeSantis’ bill is one of the first major victories for populist Republicans in opposition to the power of Big Tech.

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Hilariously, the bill makes an exception for companies (in Florida) which own a theme park more than 25 acres in size. You may have heard of it: starts with D, ends with -isney. Not sure if it runs a social network, but just in case! Got to keep those funders happy. Which offers the exciting prospect of Twitter World – run the rollercoaster of angry tweets! – and Facebook Land, where everyone is your Friend.

The number of Floridian politicians likely to be permanently deplatformed is roughly zero, at a guess (it’s not retrospective; there is one ex-politician living in Florida who has been deplatformed). The aim of this law is to be repealed, to create anger, the one true fuel for life online. Social warming: it’s all around us.
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The costly pursuit of self-driving cars continues on. And on. And on • The New York Times

Cade Metz:

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The tech and auto giants could still toil for years on their driverless car projects. Each will spend an additional $6bn to $10bn before the technology becomes commonplace — sometime around the end of the decade, according to estimates from Pitchbook, a research firm that tracks financial activity. But even that prediction might be overly optimistic.

“This is a transformation that is going to happen over 30 years and possibly longer,” said Chris Urmson, an early engineer on the Google self-driving car project before it became the Alphabet business unit called Waymo. He is now chief executive of Aurora, the company that acquired Uber’s autonomous vehicle unit.

So what went wrong? Some researchers would say nothing — that’s how science works. You can’t entirely predict what will happen in an experiment. The self-driving car project just happened to be one of the most hyped technology experiments of this century, occurring on streets all over the country and run by some of its highest-profile companies.

…“You have to peel back every layer before you can see the next layer” of challenges for the technology, said Nathaniel Fairfield, a Waymo software engineer who has worked on the project since 2009, describing some of the distractions faced by the cars. “Your car has to be pretty good at driving before you can really get it into the situations where it handles the next most challenging thing.”

Like Waymo, Aurora is now developing autonomous trucks as well as passenger vehicles. No company has deployed trucks without safety drivers behind the wheel, but Mr. Urmson and others argue that autonomous trucks will make it to market faster than anything designed to transport regular consumers.

Long-haul trucking does not involve passengers who might not be forgiving of twitchy brakes. The routes are also simpler. Once you master one stretch of highway, Mr. Urmson said, it is easier to master another. But even driving down a long, relatively straight highway is extraordinarily difficult. Delivering dinner orders across a small neighborhood is an even greater challenge.

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ABX High Fidelity Test list

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IS YOUR AUDIO SYSTEM REALLY READY FOR LOSSLESS SOUND?

Here you will find a set of ABX tests allowing you to compare lossless and lossy compression in a variety of formats and bitrates. This site is still in its infancy, and the number of tests available will probably grow over time.

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Created in November 2014, last updated.. well, minor additions aside, not since then. But it’s a useful list if you’d like to find out whether you’ve got “golden ears” – that is, your ears are so good that you’re going to have to sell a lot of gold in order to satisfy them. (Not really. It means that your ears are terrific.) You have to take multiple tests, not knowing which one you’re hearing.

If you succeed on recognising the difference, do get in touch. And, of course, you’ll qualify to justifiedly turn on the “lossless” settings on Apple Music or Amazon Music next month. (Thanks Geraint P for the link.)
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lofi.cafe – lofi music 🎧

Rather neat: background music to work by, with lots of different “radio” stations to choose from. Saves the mental effort of choosing music, which so often is the most time-consuming part of getting some background music on. OK, might not be just what you want but at least you’ve got more choices now for your new life back perching on cafe tables asking for the Wi-Fi password. Not lossless, obviously. Sorry about that.
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Bitcoin’s troubles go far beyond Elon Musk • The New Yorker

John Cassidy:

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Early last week, three state-run Chinese financial agencies warned Chinese banks not to provide their customers with any services relating to bitcoin and other virtual currencies, including trading, storage, or acceptance as a means of payment. Later in the week, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a statement that said, “We should crack down on bitcoin mining and trading activities and prevent individual risks from being passed to the whole society.” Since the bitcoin-mining system relies heavily on power provided by Chinese power plants, this was no idle threat. And China has accompanied its moves against bitcoin by taking steps to roll out its own digital currency, which will initially circulate alongside cash.

The United States and other Western countries haven’t yet gone as far as China has, but their governments aren’t standing idle, either. Earlier this year, Janet Yellen, the Treasury Secretary, described bitcoin (correctly) as an “extremely inefficient way of conducting transactions,” and pointed out (equally correctly) that it is used “often for illicit finance.”

…In India, where investing in bitcoin has become popular, there have been reports that the government is preparing to ban people from owning the digital currency. Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s biggest hedge fund, has suggested that, under certain circumstances, even the U.S. government could outlaw bitcoin, to protect its monopoly on the supply of money. At this stage, such a development doesn’t seem likely. Still, the ultimate outcome is uncertain—a fact that Musk acknowledged over the weekend. In yet another tweet, he wrote, “The true battle is between fiat & crypto. On balance, I support the latter.” That pledge of allegiance came as no surprise. But, if investors have learned anything over the past few decades, it is that fighting the feds can be costly.

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More mood music. Bad mood music.
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Police in Delhi have descended on Twitter’s headquarters in the country • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit:

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On Monday, a team of officers from the Special Cell, an elite branch of the police in charge of investigating terrorism and organized crime in New Delhi, descended on Twitter’s offices in the city to “serve a notice” to the head of Twitter in India. Police also attempted to enter a Twitter office in Gurugram, a location that has been permanently closed, a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

The move came three days after Twitter put a “manipulated media” label on the tweets of half a dozen members of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, in which they had accused the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party, of scheming to damage Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his handling of the second wave of India’s coronavirus pandemic.

In an image the members circulated, they claimed that the Indian National Congress was giving special medical favors to journalists affected by the pandemic among other things. AltNews, an Indian fact-checking website, found that the image was forged. (Congress has also filed a police complaint against Sambit Patra, the BJP spokesperson who initially shared the image.) On Friday, India’s IT ministry sent a letter to the company asking it to remove the labels. Twitter did not.

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The temperature is rising, and there’s no obvious way that this is going to be resolved except through the Indian government banning Twitter – as it already has done with TikTok (as part of a feud with China).
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Amazon removes popular tech brands amid fake review leak • Digital Trends

Andrew Martonik:

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If you go to Amazon looking for a new charger or a pair of headphones today, your options will be limited. People have started noticing that chargers, cables, webcams, keyboards, mice, speakers, and headphones — likely among other categories — from popular companies are either unavailable for shipping or gone from the platform entirely. Aukey and Mpow, extremely well-known companies with popular products, have all but disappeared from Amazon.

And we have a good idea of the reason: Fake reviews.

Online safety advocate SafetyDetective uncovered a massive trove of data pointing to wide-reaching pay-for-play review systems purportedly focused on China-based phone and computer accessory companies that primarily sell on Amazon. The leak exposed a system of companies paying to generate real-looking — but completely falsified — reviews for new products. The goal is simple: shoot up the Amazon rankings for having a high number of reviews and an average rating, which starts the waterwheel of purchases and real reviews.

The system would essentially have third-party companies buy products, submit favorable 5-star reviews from fake user accounts, and then be reimbursed for the products (and then some) via a separate payment platform to protect the integrity of the “verified purchase” denotation on Amazon. The leak shows over 75,000 Amazon accounts being used for the services, though the true scale isn’t yet known. There could be many more individuals or smaller groups implicated in the scheme.

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The discouraging thing is that it wasn’t Amazon that found this. As so often, the task of improving the site feels like it’s being outsourced to the users.
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Smart guitar will practically play itself • Hackaday

Kristina Panos:

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Honestly, the guitar is kind of an unwelcoming instrument, even if you don’t have any physical disabilities.

A Russian startup company called Noli Music wants to change all of that. They’re building a guitar that’s playable for everyone, regardless of physical or musical ability. Noli Music was founded by [Denis Goncharov] who has a form of muscular dystrophy. [Denis] has always wanted to rock out to his favorite songs, but struggles to play a standard guitar.

If you can touch the fretboard, it seems, you can whale away on this axe without trouble. It’s made to be easier to play all around. The strings aren’t fully tensioned, so they’re easy to pluck — the site says they only take 1.7oz of force to actuate.

Right now, the guitar is in the prototype stage. But when it’s ready to rock, it will do so a couple of ways. One uses embedded sensors in the fretboard detect finger positions and sound the appropriate note whether you pluck it or simply fret it. In another mode, the finger positions light up to help you learn new songs. The guitar will have a touchscreen interface, and Noli are planning on building a companion app to provide interactive lessons.

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Seems like this would be a recipe for a lot of bum notes as you accidentally touch the strings or move your fingers around the frets. The requirement to press a little hard on the strings to begin to generate a note (which you then have to pluck) is a feature, not a bug. Sure, this will be good for someone with muscular dystrophy. But it’s going to create a different kind of guitar sound.
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Google’s new Samsung smartwatch partnership looks a lot like giving up • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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or the past few years, there’s been no cohesive vision for what Wear OS should be; Google hasn’t offered one. And by the looks of the recent Samsung partnership, it’s choosing to punt on the issue entirely, handing off the business of imagining the future of Android wearables to one of its partners instead.

Samsung used to offer an Android Wear watch, until it jumped ship for its own Tizen platform. OnePlus’ recent smartwatch also skips Wear OS entirely. You have to have screwed up badly to get partners to forgo the deep built-in integration and the wealth of apps on the Play Store, but Google has managed to accomplish it with Wear OS.

Maybe the Tizen-hybrid Wear will fix that. It’s certainly a win for Samsung, the hero that gets to provide the essential backbone for Google’s third-act of wearable hardware while reaping the benefits of the massive Android developer community.

And Google does get some big benefits here. There’s one fewer competitor for its future smartwatch platform (something that there were already relatively few of outside of Apple after Google bought Fitbit.) And there’s also the potential of gaining Samsung’s semiconductor expertise for future smartwatch chips, which would certainly help with the Qualcomm issues that the company has had in the past.

But Google hasn’t shown yet that it’ll handle the next phase of its wearables any better than the first two. And it’s a concerning start that a company that’s best known for leading on software innovation had to go and outsource its next wearable operating system to Samsung instead.

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Part of the problem is Qualcomm, whose chips haven’t been up to the task. But wearables are a little business compared to YouTube, Android, search. Ditto for Chromebooks and tablets.
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Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. That’s all.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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