Start Up No.1634: Facebook launches ‘smart’ glasses, Apple’s bug bounty questioned, Kenya and Brazil’s social media distortion, and more


Ever wondered what sort of jokes the Romans found funny? Never fear – a few of their tropes have been excavated. CC-licensed photo by sheila_blige on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Monitored for customer quality purposes. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Ray-Ban Stories: hands-on with Facebook’s first smart glasses • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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Starting [next] Thursday, the first pair of smart glasses made by Facebook and Ray-Ban are going on sale for $299. They’re called Ray-Ban Stories, and you’ll be able to find them pretty much anywhere Ray-Bans are sold, including LensCrafters and Sunglasses Hut stores.

The frames feature two-front facing cameras for capturing video and photos. They sync with a companion camera roll app called Facebook View, where clips can be edited and shared to other apps on your phone (not just Facebook’s own). There’s a physical button on the glasses for recording, or you can say “Hey Facebook, take a video” to control them hands-free.

And, perhaps most importantly, they look and feel like regular glasses.

With their core ability of taking photos and videos, Ray-Ban Stories are essentially a sleeker version of Snapchat’s Spectacles, which first debuted in 2016 to a lot of hype that quickly fizzled. These Ray-Bans don’t have displays in the lenses, like the latest Spectacles that were unveiled earlier this year. However, speakers on both sides of the frame can play sound from your phone over Bluetooth, allowing you to take a call or listen to a podcast without pulling your phone out. A touchpad built into the side of the frame lets you change the volume or play and pause what you’re hearing.

Ray-Ban Stories are the first product in a multiyear partnership between Facebook and the European eyewear conglomerate EssilorLuxottica, Ray-Ban’s parent company. While they’re limited in what they can do, Ray-Ban Stories are the most normal-looking, accessible pair of smart glasses to hit the market so far.

Both companies also see them as a step toward more advanced augmented reality glasses that overlay graphics onto the real world.

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They basically do a bit of filming and can play your music. They’re not even as capable as Google Glass, which if Google were to have a go now could probably make a little more sense. In technology, timing is everything.
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Apple’s bug bounty program prompts frustration in security community • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

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Hoping to discover hidden weaknesses, Apple for five years now has invited hackers to break into its services and its iconic phones and laptops, offering up to $1 million to learn of its most serious security flaws.

Across the tech industry, similar “bug bounty” programs have become a prized tool in maintaining security — a way to find vulnerabilities and encourage hackers to report them rather than abuse them.

But many who are familiar with the program say Apple is slow to fix reported bugs and does not always pay hackers what they believe they’re owed. Ultimately, they say, Apple’s insular culture has hurt the program and created a blind spot on security.

“It’s a bug bounty program where the house always wins,” said Katie Moussouris, CEO and founder of Luta Security, which worked with the Defense Department to set up its first bug bounty program. She said Apple’s bad reputation in the security industry will lead to “less secure products for their customers and more cost down the line.”

Apple said its program, launched in 2016, is a work in progress. Until 2019, the program was not officially opened to the public, although researchers say the program was never exclusive.

“The Apple Security Bounty program has been a runaway success,” Ivan Krstić, head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture, said in an emailed statement. Apple has nearly doubled the amount it has paid in bug bounties this year compared to last, and it leads the industry in the average amount paid per bounty, he said.

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The topic of bug bounties was discussed on the Accidental Tech Podcast a few weeks ago, where everyoe ragged on Apple (rather like this story does), but the next week there was some followup. One tweet pointed out that “unfortunately Apple can’t just pay insane bug bounties, because if they did, all the internal bug hunters would quit and make more doing the same job from the outside. It’s a delicate balance and bug hunters have to want to do the right thing for it to work.”

The other point made in the program is that paying bug bounties relies heavily on trust. What if they tell you about it, and also sell it to someone else, to be exploited before it gets fixed? What if you don’t agree on the value? This is true, of course, for bounties with any company.

Apple, though, has a huge backlog of bugs needing to be fixed. That’s its real problem. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Inside the shadowy world of disinformation-for-hire in Kenya • Mozilla Foundation

Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo:

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Highlights of the investigation include:

Disinformation campaigns are a lucrative business. One interviewee revealed that disinformation influencers are paid roughly between $10 and $15 USD to participate in three campaigns per day. Payments are made directly to the influencers through the mobile money platform MPESA.

Twitter’s trending algorithm is amplifying these campaigns, and Twitter is placing ads amid all this misinformation. Eight of the 11 campaigns examined reached the trending section of Twitter. The campaigners we spoke to told us that this is their number one target, as it affords them the amplification they seek.

These campaigns run like a well-oiled machine. One of the influencers who researchers spoke to explained a complex system of using Whatsapp groups to coordinate and synchronize tweets and messaging. Anonymous organizers use these groups to send influencers cash, content, and detailed instructions.

These campaigns are increasingly targeting individuals. No longer focusing on just broad issues and events, disinformation campaigns are increasingly identifying and targeting individuals, like members of the Linda Katiba movement and the Kenyan judiciary. This work is also beginning to border on incitement and advocacy of hatred, which is against Kenyan Law.

Verified accounts are complicit. One influencer we spoke to claimed that the people who own coveted “blue check” accounts will often rent them out for disinformation campaigns. These verified accounts can improve the campaign’s chances of trending. Says one interviewee: “The owner of the account usually receives a cut of the campaign loot.”

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As I explain in Social Warming, campaigns like this are influential even if almost all of the population isn’t online or using social media because it affects those who make the high-level decisions.
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Brazil’s Bolsonaro bans social networks from removing some posts • The New York Times

Jack Nicas:

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President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is temporarily banning social media companies from removing certain content, including his claims that the only way he’ll lose next year’s elections is if the vote is rigged — one of the most significant steps by a democratically elected leader to control what can be said on the internet.

The new social media rules, issued this week and effective immediately, appear to be the first time a national government has stopped internet companies from taking down content that violates their rules, according to internet law experts and officials at tech companies. And they come at a precarious moment for Brazil.

Mr. Bolsonaro has used social media as a megaphone to build his political movement and make it to the president’s office. Now, with polls showing he would lose the presidential elections if they were held today, he is using sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to try to undermine the legitimacy of the vote, following the playbook of his close ally, former President Donald J. Trump. On Tuesday, Mr. Bolsonaro repeated his claims about the election to thousands of supporters in two cities as part of nationwide demonstrations on Brazil’s Independence Day.

Under the new policy, tech companies can remove posts only if they involve certain topics outlined in the measure, such as nudity, drugs and violence, or if they encourage crime or violate copyrights; to take down others, they must get a court order. That suggests that, in Brazil, tech companies could easily remove a nude photo, but not lies about the coronavirus. The pandemic has been a major topic of disinformation under Mr. Bolsonaro, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all having removed videos from him that pushed unproven drugs as coronavirus cures.

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That’s going to create quite the conundrum for the networks. Shut down in Brazil? Disobey, and remove posts anyway? Bolsonaro exploited social media last time. And he’s not relinquishing that.
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New Safety Tech Fund challenge • Home Office

Home Secretary Priti Patel:

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I am calling on our international partners and allies to continue to back the UK’s approach of holding technology companies to account and asking social media companies to put public safety before profits. They must not let harmful content continue to be posted on their platforms or neglect public safety when designing their products. We believe there are alternative solutions, and I know our concerns are shared by law enforcement colleagues and the most respected child protection organisations in the UK and around the world.

This is also a technical issue, so we are seeking technical solutions. Recently Apple have taken the first step, announcing that they are seeking new ways to prevent horrific abuse on their service. Apple state their child sexual abuse filtering technology has a false positive rate of 1 in a trillion, meaning the privacy of legitimate users is protected whilst those building huge collections of extreme child sexual abuse material are caught out. They need to see though that project. [Probably should read “They need to see through that project.” – CA]

But that is just one solution, by one company, and won’t solve everything. Big Tech firms collectively need to take responsibility for public safety and greater investment is essential. Today I am launching a new Safety Tech Challenge Fund. We will award five organisations from around the world up to £85,000 each to develop innovative technology to keep children safe in environments such as online messaging platforms with end-to-end encryption.

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Patel is fairly relentless in her backing of bad ideas – on the same day she said this, she backed a scheme to break international maritime law by “turning back” boats of refugees trying to cross the Channel from France. Which of course calls into question whether maybe the CSAM scanning is actually a bad idea after all.

Also, WhatsApp offered much the same in India in 2018 – $50,000 grants to those who could stop the spread of fake news on its platform. Didn’t succeed.
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Since there are mentions of
Social Warming, my latest book, you could buy it and find out more.


El Salvador bitcoin move could cost Western Union $400m a year • CNBC

MacKenzie Sigalos:

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Many in the 2.5 million Salvadoran diaspora send money to friends and family still living in El Salvador. Last year, they collectively transferred nearly $6bn, or roughly 23% of the country’s gross domestic product, and a chunk of that went to the middlemen facilitating these international transfers.

“Remittances are one area where the status quo in our legacy financial system is terrible, with extraordinarily high fees leveled at populations that can ill afford them,” said Matt Hougan, chief investment officer of Bitwise Asset Management.

“It’s a worn-out Twitter saying, but bitcoin really does fix this,” said Hougan.

The hassle around remittances is one chief reason El Salvador President Nayib Bukele cited for declaring bitcoin legal tender. As part of the rollout, the government has launched its own national virtual wallet — called “Chivo,” or Salvadoran slang for “cool” — which offers no-fee transactions and allows for quick cross-border payments. 

“It won’t be overnight; 100% of remittances aren’t going to move to the Chivo app tomorrow. These things take time, and people naturally worry about trying new things with money. But the current fee levels of charge for remittances are going to prove unsustainable,” Hougan said.

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That $400m on $6bn is 6.7% of the value of each transaction. Here’s one of the ways to see whether bitcoin does indeed fix this: see what the cost of transactions is for bitcoin transfers. (It’s not quite free, and it’s not quite instant.)
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No laughing matter? What the Romans found funny • Antigone

Orland Gibbs goes into some detail, though it was this bit that caught my eye:

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Roman comedy frequently makes use of a ‘game’ structure, and its frequency suggests its popularity. ‘Game’ structure is a key principle of many schools of improvised comedy today.  The Free Association in London, for example, one of the capital’s main improvisation schools, defines game as “a comedic pattern that repeats”. Actors play out a ‘grounded’ (=normal) scenario until the ‘shiny thing’ emerges: someone says something a bit weird that the audience respond to, most commonly with a laugh or a perceptible apprehension in the room. The other actor(s) might verbalise this apprehension by simply saying, “Sorry, what?” This ‘shiny thing’ is then developed into a point of view for the character, which either annoys / baffles other people on stage or is used to annoy the person with the point of view. A perfect example of this would be Keegan Key’s and Jordan Peele’s “Substitute Teacher” sketch, where a proud and hard-as-nails substitute teacher, Mr Garvey, cannot pronounce any names on the register correctly, but is increasingly incensed when the bearers of those names gently correct him.

We find Plautus using ‘game’ structure most famously in the “okay-yep” passage in Rudens (“The Rope,” lines 1212–27). The master of the house, Daemones, comes out to find Trachalio, the slave of the young romantic Plesidippus. Daemones gives Trachalio a list of instructions and, after every instruction, Trachalio says licet (“okay”). The schtick is then reversed as Trachalio gives Daemones a list of instructions, and every instruction is answered with licet. We can see how much this repetition has irritated Daemones, because after Trachalio leaves he calls upon Hercules to curse Trachalio (infelicet, a nonsense word that could be taken along the lines “Let him be damned!”, line 1225) for saying licet so much. In this instance, the game isn’t the repetitions, but rather what the repetitions are doing to Daemones: making him increasingly angry.

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Gibbs also points out that there was plenty of sexism in the humour, denigrating women and so on. This, of course, only began fading out in the late 1970s.
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Houseparty shut down to work on Epic Games vision of metaverse • The Washington Post

Gene Park:

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Houseparty, the social video app that launched in 2016 and soared in popularity during the pandemic, will be shutting down in October, the company announced Thursday. In a release, Houseparty said it will be absorbed into Epic Games to work on “creating new ways to have meaningful and authentic social interactions at metaverse scale across the Epic Games family.” The “Fortnite” developer acquired Houseparty in 2019 for a reported $35m, according to Business Insider.

“Since joining Epic, the Houseparty team’s social vision and core technology have already contributed to new features used by hundreds of millions of people in ‘Fortnite’ and by developers around the world,” Houseparty stated. “As a result, we can’t give the app or our community the attention that it deserves.”

The app will continue to function until October, when it will be removed from app stores. Users will be notified of the shutdown via in-app notifications.

Last year, Houseparty was integrated into the gameplay experience of Epic’s flagship battle royale title, “Fortnite,” by allowing users to engage in video chats while playing. Earlier this year, Epic Games raised $1bn in a round of funding to support its vision of building the metaverse, largely defined as the next iteration of the Internet that would focus on social interaction and interconnecting online properties and the real world.

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So I guess October marks Epic’s view of the end of the pandemic?

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Why eastern European truckers are not planning to return to the UK • Financial Times

Marton Dunai, Agata Majos and Peter Foster:

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Europe as a whole is short of truckers. “It is a global driver shortage across Europe, not an isolated problem of one country,” said Zsolt Barna, chief executive of Waberer’s, one of eastern Europe’s largest hauliers based in Budapest.

Some EU member states are proportionately worse off than the UK, Barna pointed out, including Romania, an important source of truckers for the UK over the years, which out of a population of 20m is 20,000 drivers short.

For the EU drivers that have left but still have the right to return and live in the UK, the prospects of higher pay that some UK companies are now offering was not enough. Many said they had already found work elsewhere on higher wages and in a better working environment.

Peter Kovecs, another Hungarian, lasted two years in England. After inheriting his family’s farm he came to the UK to earn money to reinvest in the business and had planned to stay for longer. But after his experience he said nothing would tempt him back.

“They bullied us while the drivers kept coming,” Kovecs said. “Now they are begging us.” Once he had saved £60,000 he decided to go home even though that was below the target he had set himself. “I will never go back. I like England, it’s a great country, I will take the family there one day, but to work, the way they treat people? Never again.”

Krzysztof, who declined to give his surname, worked for four years in the UK before returning to Poland in 2020. His wife became pregnant and they decided they wanted the child to be raised in their homeland.

He drives trucks in Poland and Germany and has no plans to return to the UK permanently, even if the pay was better. He said IR35 [preventing people setting up companies to hire themselves out as “contractors”] was the final straw for him and many Polish drivers he knew.

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The UK’s HGV driver shortage was 50,000 in 2015 – pre-Brexit. Now it’s 100,000. HGVs are essential to the supply chain. Now the links are starting to break.
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Introducing the Good Data Project • The Good Data Project

Nate Elliott:

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I can’t think of any business tool more important than data.

Good data tells stories that illuminate the world around us. It convinces cardiologists to prescribe meditation rather than medication. It tells farmers in Iowa how they can save crawfish in Louisiana. It even explains why Steph Curry is worth $215 million to the Golden State Warriors.

Bad data confuses and obscures. It hides the true urgency of climate change, makes politicians misunderstand the economy, and ruins your chocolate chip cookies. Sometimes, it costs lives.

Unfortunately there’s a lot more bad data in the world than good. Anyone armed with SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn Polls, and PowerPoint can create and display data. But most people never learned how.

My name is Nate Elliott and I plan to change that. For 12 years as a Forrester Research analyst I collected, analyzed, and explained data. For the past six years I’ve helped clients create surveys, uncover stories in their data, and tell those stories to the world. I don’t have an advanced degree in statistics, but for two decades I’ve made real-world data work in real-world marketing content, sales pitches, and business plans. I know that most polls and graphs would be a lot better if their creators knew a few simple rules.

For the next six months I’ll share what I know — and try to learn a lot more — about:
Creating and collecting data. How to create reliable surveys and polls, and how to find good data when you can’t collect it yourself.
• Depicting data with figures. How to choose the right chart type and highlight the data that matters, without deceiving the reader.
• Explaining data with words. How to discuss data accurately and in context, and present insights rather than just statistics.

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Microsoft indefinitely postpones return to US offices • CNBC

Jordan Novet:

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Microsoft said Thursday it will indefinitely delay the reopening of its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and its other US offices as the coronavirus continues to proliferate in the country. The software and hardware maker did not provide a new date to replace the Oct. 4 target it had announced in early August.

The decision, which will affect more than 103,000 Microsoft employees in the US, reflects the cautious approach large technology companies are taking to bringing employees back to facilities following a rise in hospitalizations and deaths tied to Covid.

In August, with cases of the virus’ delta variant mounting, Amazon said corporate workers in the US and some other countries will start returning to offices in January 2022. Around that time Microsoft said it had pushed back its reopening plan from Sept. 7 to Oct. 4. Now Microsoft is being less specific.

“Given the uncertainty of Covid-19, we’ve decided against attempting to forecast a new date for a full reopening of our US work sites in favor of opening US work sites as soon as we’re able to do so safely based on public health guidance,” Jared Spataro, a Microsoft corporate vice president, wrote in a blog post.

Once the company is ready to welcome employees back, it will announce a monthlong transition period so workers can get ready, Spataro wrote.

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There’s going to be a lot of this; people I’ve spoken to, while obviously not in any way a statistical study, indicate that “hybrid” (or in IT companies “agile”) working is seen as the obvious expectation now.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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