About charlesarthur

Freelance journalist - technology, science, and so on. Author of "Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the battle for the internet".

Start Up No.970: the mystery of Sandberg, Huawei’s 2013 tell, the bias around AI, the paralyzed robot waiters, and more


There are more than 8,000 of these still in use by the NHS. Is that definitely bad? CC-licensed photo by Mikhail Noel on Flickr.


It’s charity time. Today’s suggested charities are for those who are both deaf and blind. (I’ve linked in the past to Molly Watt’s descriptions of her experiences.)
In the UK there is Deafblind UK.
In the US, there are many charities and organisations supporting the deafblind.
Pick one near you.

Please give as you feel able.


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. Because why not. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

My befuddling dinner with Facebook empress Sheryl Sandberg • WIRED

Virginia Heffernan:

»

What I decided is that what middle-class women mean by “work” (cubicles) and “life” (childcare) is not what Sheryl Sandberg means by those words. The axes of existence for her might be closer to what I’d call “glamour” (scallops) and “deluxe domesticity” (her kids have a house with a private waterfall). So this night of book promotion, though there were no desks in sight, somehow counted toward the “work” in the “work-life balance” she was aiming to embody in her life of glamour and luxe.

In other words, I idolized Sheryl Sandberg the woman—good for any sister who finds a way to amass $1.6 billion for being at parties and steering clear of some boring ops job—but from the first minute I saw her in person in 2013 I was very, very concerned about Facebook. It dawned on me that Sandberg was human—a small, vain, bright, self-absorbed, convivial everywoman with a talent for money and fame—and that no one human, even Sandberg, could discipline the galactic, epochal spiritual wildfire that Mark Zuckerberg had inflicted on the Internet.

The Facebook of 2013 is now a distant memory. As 2018 comes to a close—a “low dishonest” time, as Auden said of the 1930s—that high-flying, hardly working, nap-besotted, righteous Facebook has given way to one known for secrecy and collaboration with disinformation campaigns and computational propaganda. The purpose of these campaigns at Facebook, in the words of the Oxford Internet Institute at Balliol College, is to “hack people.”

Hacking us. Not connecting us. I deactivated my Facebook account a year and a half ago, and at the same time sold the few shares of Facebook stock I’d bought to be a good sport on the day of the IPO.

«

I listened to Sandberg’s appearance in August 2017 on Desert Island Discs, a UK radio programme which interviews people about their lives and loves, and usually manages to extract some insight. Sandberg was pure Teflon; somehow both flawless and utterly uninteresting. (You might disagree; the BBC managed to extract “10 things we learned from her guest slot”.)
link to this extract


From 2013: Exclusive: Huawei CFO linked to firm that offered HP gear to Iran • Reuters

Steve Stecklow, writing in January 2013:

»

Cathy Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, served on the board of Hong Kong-based Skycom Tech Co Ltd between February 2008 and April 2009, according to Skycom records filed with Hong Kong’s Companies Registry.

Reuters reported last month that in late 2010, Skycom’s office in Tehran offered to sell at least 1.3 million euros worth of HP gear to Mobile Telecommunication Co of Iran, despite US trade sanctions. At least 13 pages of the proposal were marked “Huawei confidential” and carried Huawei’s logo. Huawei said neither it nor Skycom ultimately provided the HP equipment; HP said it prohibits the sale of its products to Iran.

Huawei has described Skycom as one of its “major local partners.”

«

And guess what? The arraignment of Meng Wanzhou last week included the allegation that Huawei operated SkyCom specifically in order to do business with Iran. From the latest story:

»

The US authorities allege Meng committed fraud by telling an HSBC executive her company was in compliance with US sanctions against Iran limiting communication technology. The meeting took place in 2013, but the location was not revealed.

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The US case looks strong. This isn’t a bargaining chip.
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The seductive diversion of ‘solving’ bias in artificial intelligence • Medium

Julia Powles and Helen Nissenbaum:

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What has been remarkably underappreciated is the key interdependence of the twin stories of A.I. inevitability and A.I. bias. Against the corporate projection of an otherwise sunny horizon of unstoppable A.I. integration, recognizing and acknowledging bias can be seen as a strategic concession — one that subdues the scale of the challenge. Bias, like job losses and safety hazards, becomes part of the grand bargain of innovation.

The reality that bias is primarily a social problem and cannot be fully solved technically becomes a strength, rather than a weakness, for the inevitability narrative. It flips the script. It absorbs and regularizes the classification practices and underlying systems of inequality perpetuated by automation, allowing relative increases in “fairness” to be claimed as victories — even if all that is being done is to slice, dice, and redistribute the makeup of those negatively affected by actuarial decision-making.

In short, the preoccupation with narrow computational puzzles distracts us from the far more important issue of the colossal asymmetry between societal cost and private gain in the rollout of automated systems. It also denies us the possibility of asking: Should we be building these systems at all?

The endgame is always to “fix” A.I. systems, never to use a different system or no system at all.
In accepting the existing narratives about A.I., vast zones of contest and imagination are relinquished. What is achieved is resignation — the normalization of massive data capture, a one-way transfer to technology companies, and the application of automated, predictive solutions to each and every societal problem.

Given this broader political and economic context, it should not surprise us that many prominent voices sounding the alarm on bias do so with blessing and support from the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple. These convenient critics spotlight important questions, but they also suck attention from longer-term challenges. The endgame is always to “fix” A.I. systems, never to use a different system or no system at all.

«

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Heading to a cardiologist….. : AppleWatch • Reddit

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If you have the Apple Watch 4 please please update to the new firmware released yesterday and take your ECG.

I did last night and tried it out. Weird. Abnormal heat rate notifications. Ran the ECG app and came back afib. Well…glitchy firmware. Let’s try again. Afib. Again and again and again. Piece of crap watch.

My wife wakes up and I put it on her. Normal. Normal. Me afib. Try the other wrist, try the underside of the wrist. Every time afib warning.

Ok. So go to Patient First. Parking lot full and I’m going to blow it off and head home. Look at the watch again, afib again.

Fine walk in and sign in. They ask what’s wrong and I’m embarrassed. ‘Ok so there is a new watch feature….hahaha….I’m silly but can we check this?”

I did not know that this comment was a quick queue pass for Patient First. I’m taken right back and hooked up. The technician looks at the screen and says “I’m going to get the doctor”

«

Yup, he had atrial fibrillation. Discovering these from day one is pretty impressive.
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How y’all, youse and you guys talk • The New York Times

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The data for the quiz and maps shown here come from over 350,000 survey responses collected from August to October 2013 by Josh Katz, a graphics editor for the New York Times who developed this quiz and has since written “Speaking American,” a visual exploration of American regional dialects.

Most of the questions used in this quiz are based on those in the Harvard Dialect Survey, a linguistics project begun in 2002 by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. The original questions and results for that survey can be found on Dr. Vaux’s current website.

The colors on the large heat map correspond to the probability that a randomly selected person in that location would respond to a randomly selected survey question the same way that you did. The three smaller maps show which answer most contributed to those cities being named the most (or least) similar to you.

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Apparently I’m from Providence, Yonkers or New York. Fun for anyone to try, whether or not you’re American.
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Cafe in Japan hires paralyzed people to control robot servers • Nextshark

Carl Samson:

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A cafe with an all-robot staff controlled by paralyzed people has opened in Tokyo.

The cafe, called Dawn ver.β, held its ribbon cutting ceremony on Nov. 26.

Ten people with conditions like ALS [muscular dystrophy] and other spinal cord injuries are currently employed at Dawn, according to Sankei.

From home, they operate the OriHime-D, a 120-centimeter (4-foot) robot that communicates, moves around and handles objects.

Behind the OriHime-D is Ory, a startup that develops robotics for disabled people. In a video, a paralyzed man is seen “typing” commands through his eyes. The OriHime-D can also be used by people involved in childcare, nursing care or other activities that prevent them from leaving home or a certain location.

“Even those who can’t go out can work through this alter ego and have a role in society,” Ory noted.

Dawn (Diverse Avatar Working Network), based on the same cafe in the 2008 anime “Time of Eve,” imagines a coffee shop where humans and robots interact as equals, SoraNews24 noted.

The cafe, located in the Japanese capital’s Akasaka District, is a joint effort between Ory, All Nippon Airways (ANA), the Nippon Foundation, and the Avatar Robotic Consultative Association (ARCA).

«

The “workers” do get paid, though the cafe has ended the experiment as of Friday. I truly cannot decide if this is wonderful, or weirdly exploitative, or both, or neither.
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Axe the Fax campaign leads to government ban on new fax machines in NHS by April 2020 • Silver Buck

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An NHS campaign to remove fax machines across the health sector has led to the government announcing a ban of fax machines by April 2020.

The Axe the Fax campaign, which was launched in September, has been encouraging NHS organisations to pledge to remove their fax machines and share information, challenges and best practices with each other, largely through social media, to speed up the process.

Up until the launch of the campaign, which also features a dedicated Axe the Fax toolkit, there has been no guidance, advice or funding to support health and care organisations to improve stakeholder engagement or to change their processes to enable them to switch off the machines.

Richard Corbridge, Chief Digital Information Office at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which initiated the campaign when it announced It would remove its 340 fax machines by the end of 2018 said: “There is a huge disjoint in the digitisation of the NHS. While some areas are looking at artificial intelligence, others are still faxing patient information from one area of the hospital to another.

“Today’s announcement that fax machines will not be purchased from next month and be banned from March 2020 is a landmark in the Axe the Fax campaign, which has been locally led and driven and received huge buy-in not only from NHS organisations across the country but as far as the US and Australia.”

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Apparently there are more than 8,000 of them in use. Yet faxes have their use: very hard to hack, point-to-point, simply sending proves it has arrived at the other end. However, they’re not entirely secure.
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This data shows that Remainers are overwhelmingly winning the Brexit war on social media • Buzzfeed News

Alex Spence:

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Campaigners trying to keep Britain in the European Union via a second referendum are winning the war for attention on social media, according to an analysis conducted by BuzzFeed News of the most-viral Brexit-related stories of the year.

Data tracking the social distribution of media articles on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter reveals that news reports and opinion pieces portraying Brexit in a negative light are far more likely to be widely shared than those giving a positive impression of leaving the union.

Of the 100 most-viral stories about Brexit this year, 61 were negative in sentiment, according to BuzzFeed News’ review of data from BuzzSumo, a company that tracks sharing across social networks. The groundswell of anti-Brexit activity on these platforms has been a crucial factor in the campaign for a second vote, which has been gathering momentum since the summer, activists said.

In stark contrast, only eight of the 100 most-shared articles conveyed a positive view of Brexit, according to BuzzFeed News’ analysis. Two of those were columns by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage on the Telegraph website decrying the government’s “betrayal” of the Leave vote.

The rest of the articles were classified as neutral.

«

Three possibilities: (1) support for Remain has ramped up enormously (2) pro-Brexit bots (Russsssssian?) have been zapped by Facebook and Twitter, leaving the pro-Remain noise which shows up here (3) pro-Brexit folk have given up on social media.

On balance, I’d go with (2).
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Eleven researchers publish sharp critique of EPA fuel economy logic • Ars Technica

Megan Geuss:

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The EPA’s lengthy technical analysis stated that better fuel economy rules would be costly for companies. Those costs would be passed on to consumers, and those consumers would put off buying new cars with better safety features, causing accidents that would cost more than 12,000 lives. The EPA also argued that if fuel economy standards are left in place, people will be able to spend less on gas, which means they would drive more, meaning greenhouse gas emissions and driving in general might not reduce as much as expected. This so-called “rebound effect” has been well-studied in scientific literature, but economists and public policy researchers are extremely skeptical of how the current administration has applied it…

…In their Thursday letter, the researchers explained that one of the primary and most egregious differences between the reports centered on how the EPA estimated the projected fleet size of cars and trucks out to 2025. Tighter fuel economy standards lead to more expensive cars as well as more expensive used cars, the letter says. That would mean that the total US vehicle fleet would shrink if fuel economy standards are kept in place.

On the other hand, freezing the fuel economy standards would increase the total US vehicle fleet as the US economy grows. But oddly, the EPA’s 2018 report says that freezing fuel economy standards will shrink the US vehicle fleet. [Emphasis added – CA]

“This is inconsistent with basic economic principles,” the researchers wrote, adding that the EPA’s most recent model has erased about 6 million projected vehicles with little explanation. Such a model “leads to misleading conclusions related to the overall size of the fleet, fleet composition, and the amount of scrappage; and undermines EPA and NHTSA modeling efforts to improve the understanding of the costs and benefits of fuel economy standards,” the letter says.

Correcting that underestimation of vehicles almost entirely wipes out any reduction in crash fatalities that the EPA estimated, the researchers wrote. After all, more cars on the road means more crashes.

«

How surprising that the Trump administration would try to warp the calculation to fit the conclusion it wants to reach.
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Prediction: the next ‘Friends’-style scramble at Netflix will be over ‘The Office [US]’ • BGR

Andy Meek:

»

If Comcast-owned NBCUniversal has not started thinking about what the future holds for The Office as far as its next streaming home, it likely will soon. Netflix in recent days kicked up a storm from fans of Ross, Rachel and the rest of the Friends gang when it briefly looked like the show was set to disappear from Netflix come January 1. And then some behind-the-scenes dealmaking led Netflix to win the rights to keep streaming it for another year. However, it reportedly had to pay the hefty sum of $100m for that privilege.

So if that’s how much Netflix had to pay to hang out to Friends for just a little while longer, you can bet there’s going to be a similar scramble to keep Jim, Pam and the entire Dunder Mifflin crew whose story apparently generates more viewing hours than anything else Netflix has got.

This dynamic will be fascinating to watch play out in the coming months and really throughout 2019, as a few credible streaming challengers get off the ground to potentially rival Netflix, such as Disney+. By one estimate, Netflix’s original programming at the moment makes up only 8% of its content when measured in hours. Which is why we’re going to see the streaming giant keep ramping up its slate of original offerings, things like Narcos and The Haunting of Hill House, while at the same time also doing whatever it can — such as paying massive amounts of money — to keep popular content from outside providers streaming on its platform for as long as possible.

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In my experience, Amazon Prime is full of junk I don’t want to watch; Netflix is full of stuff I do want to watch (so far). Content is king.
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Updated AlphaZero crushes Stockfish in new 1,000-game match • Chess.com

»

In news reminiscent of the initial AlphaZero shockwave last December, the artificial intelligence company DeepMind released astounding results from an updated version of the machine-learning chess project today.

The results leave no question, once again, that AlphaZero plays some of the strongest chess in the world.

The updated AlphaZero crushed Stockfish 8 in a new 1,000-game match, scoring 155 -6 =839…

AlphaZero also bested Stockfish in a series of time-odds matches, soundly beating the traditional engine even at time odds of 10 to one.

In additional matches, the new AlphaZero beat the “latest development version” of Stockfish, with virtually identical results as the match vs Stockfish 8, according to DeepMind. The pre-release copy of journal article, which is dated Dec. 7, 2018, does not specify the exact development version used. 

[Update: Today’s release of the full journal article specifies that the match was against the latest development version of Stockfish as of Jan. 13, 2018, which was Stockfish 9.]

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“Some of the best chess in the world”? Come on – it’s by far the best chess player that has ever existed. Stockfish is used to analyse the human championships; maybe AlphaZero will start developing new tactics unthought of by humans, as it has in Go.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.969: Microsoft officially goes with Chromium, Apple v inflation, Google kills another messaging app, Ericsson screws up, and more


An older form of encryption. How would Australia’s government have made it give up its secrets? CC-licensed photo by Sven Graeme on Flickr.


It’s charity time. Today’s suggested one is Wikipedia: at a time when people increasingly don’t want to believe news sources, Wikipedia remains a remarkably impartial source of information about all sorts of topics. Please give as you feel appropriate.

Suggestions for other charities are welcome by email or on Twitter.


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. Treat yourself. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Edge dies a death of a thousand cuts as Microsoft switches to Chromium • Ars Technica

Peter Bright:

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Microsoft is going to use Google’s Blink rendering engine and V8 JavaScript engine in its Edge browser, largely ending development of its own EdgeHTML rendering engine and Chakra JavaScript engine. This means that Microsoft will be using code from—and making contributions to—the Chromium open source project.

The company’s browser will still be named Edge and should retain the current look and feel. The decision to switch was motivated primarily by compatibility problems: Web developers increasingly test their pages exclusively in Chrome, which has put Edge at a significant disadvantage. Microsoft’s engineers have found that problematic pages could often be made Edge compatible with only very minor alterations, but because Web devs aren’t using Edge at all, they don’t even know that they need to change anything.

The story is, however, a little more complex. The initial version of Edge that shipped with the first version of Windows 10 was rudimentary, to say the least. It was the bare bones of a browser, but with extremely limited capabilities around things like tab management and password management, no extension model, and generally lacking in the creature comforts that represent the difference between a bare rendering engine and an actual usable browser. It also had stability issues; crashes and hangs were not uncommon.

Microsoft’s own telemetry showed that many users did give Edge a chance, but as soon as a problem was encountered—a crash, a hang, or perhaps a page that didn’t work right—they’d switch to Chrome and never really look back.

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As in the modern smartphone wars, Microsoft entered this race at least a lap too late. But as one person commented on Twitter (I can’t find the link now), If you can get the quality of Chrome but without the tracking, you’re definitely ahead.
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Are Apple products overpriced? • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler and Andrew van Dam:

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Apple says prices go up because it introduces new technologies such as Face ID and invests in making products that last a long time. Yet it has clearly been feeling price discomfort from some quarters. This week, amid reports of lagging sales that took its stock far out of the trillion-dollar club, it dedicated its home page to a used-car sales technique that’s uncharacteristic for an aspirational luxury brand. It offered a “limited-time” deal to trade in an old iPhone and get a new iPhone XR for $450, a $300 discount.

Apple offers trade-ins for many products now. And not everything Apple has gone up in price: An entry-level iMac and iPad have gotten cheaper since 2014, though in both cases the company has since added a new higher-end (and higher-price) “Pro” version to its lineup.

It’s a good time to take stock of what you’re paying for. Back at the end of 2014, when the iPhone 6 came out, the average price paid for any iPhone was $634, according to BayStreet. This year, it’ll be $898. (Samsung owners over the same period went from $635 to $710, not accounting for promotions.) Add in services such as iCloud storage and AirPod headphones, and our Apple bill climbs even higher.

«

The graphic above, and the one below, both from the article, are quite telling – of Apple buyers’ loyalty and the value they perceive, as much as anything.


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The latest on Messages, Allo, Duo and Hangouts • Google Products blog

Matt Klainer is vice president, Consumer Communications Products

»

Thanks to partnerships with over 40 carriers and device makers, over 175 million of you are now using Messages, our messaging app for Android phones, every month.

In parallel, we built Google Allo, a smart messaging app, to help you get more done in your chats and express yourself more easily. Earlier this year we paused investment in Allo and brought some of its most-loved features—like Smart Reply, GIFs and desktop support—into Messages. Given Messages’ continued momentum, we’ve decided to stop supporting Allo to focus on Messages.

Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app—here are instructions on how to do so. We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.

We built Duo, our simple, high-quality video calling app, so you never miss a moment with the people who matter most. It’s one of Google’s highest rated mobile apps and is seeing strong growth and engagement across both Android and iOS.

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I dunno, it sounds a bit like the chairman of the football club expressing their full confidence in the manager. (They inevitably get fired a few days later.) Google’s problem these days is that it can never decide on just one product and really go with that. It did in the past – search, mail, ads – but ever since has been all over the place.
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Australia passes bill to force tech firms to hand over encrypted data • Reuters

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Australia’s parliament on Thursday passed a bill to force tech firms such as Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook and Apple to give police access to encrypted data, the most far-reaching such requirements imposed by a western country.

The bill, staunchly opposed by the tech giants which fear Australia could be an example as other nations explore similar rules, is set to become law before the end of the year.

“Let’s just make Australians safe over Christmas,” opposition Labor party leader Bill Shorten told reporters outside parliament in the capital of Canberra.

The bill, passed by the lower house of parliament earlier on Thursday, was to be debated in the upper Senate, where Labor said it intended to suggest new amendments, before going back to the lower house.

In an eleventh-hour twist, Labor said that despite its reservations, it would pass the bill in the Senate, on the proviso that the coalition agreed to its amendments next year.

“We will pass the legislation, inadequate as it is, so we can give our security agencies some of the tools they say they need,” Shorten said…

…Australia’s government has said the laws are needed to counter militant attacks and organized crime and that security agencies would need to seek warrants to access personal data.

Technology companies have opposed efforts to create what they see as a back door to users’ data, a stand-off that was propelled into the public arena by Apple’s refusal to unlock an iPhone used by an attacker in a 2015 shooting in California.

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Based on this, Australia’s politicians’ education is still somewhere in 1998. Can’t see it working, either: criminals will just use apps from companies that don’t have any base in Australia.
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Apple’s newest Watch features will transform heart health • WIRED

Robbie Gonzalez:

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Apple Watch’s new features [enabled via a software update this week] are designed to help users spot signs of an irregular heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation—AFib, for short. It’s the most common form of arrhythmia, with upwards of 6 million diagnoses in America alone, a number that is expected to increase to 12 million by 2030. It’s also associated with increased risk of serious health problems like stroke.

Plus it’s underdiagnosed. Conservative estimates predict that 700,000 Americans are affected by AFib and don’t even know it, but many experts think the actual number is much higher. Apple thinks its wearables, which already adorn the wrists of millions of people, can help spotlight previously undiagnosed cases of AFib and enable patients with existing diagnoses to monitor their symptoms.

The company is backing those claims with two clinical trials, which it describes in a white paper published on its website Thursday. The first trial found that the watch’s irregular rhythm notifications compared favorably to the performance of a typical, doctor-prescribed ECG patch, accurately flagging the presence of AFib and occasionally other arrhythmias. It featured 226 people, a tiny subset of patients from a much larger, and still ongoing, study conducted in collaboration with Stanford Medicine.

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Apple is really showing that vertical integration can pay off in early markets. Did it with the iPod, did it with the iPad, has done it with AirPods.

Note though: iPhone and Watch have to be on the latest software; Watch must have been bought in the US. Otherwise, you don’t get it.
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Huawei faces catastrophe in the technology cold war • The Guardian

I wrote about the arrest of Huawei’s CFO – specifically, why it happened:

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The US has long suspected that Huawei has also been involved in breaking sanctions. Internal documents seized from ZTE when it was found to be breaking sanctions showed that it knew of another Chinese company, codenamed F7, was doing the same by setting up “cut out” companies to which it would sell equipment. This would then be sold on to the sanctioned country. In one crucial passage, ZTE’s document says that “F7’s proposal to acquire US 3leaf company was opposed by the US government.” In 2010, Huawei sought to acquire 3leaf – but backed away after US government opposition.

Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk
Asked if it was the company referred to as F7 in the ZTE document, Huawei said: “Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations where it operates, including applicable export control and sanction laws and regulations of the UN, US and EU.”

If the US can prove that Huawei broke Obama-era sanctions against Iran, it could precipitate a rush of bans against the company. If, like ZTE, it were banned from receiving American parts, its smartphone business, the world’s second largest behind Samsung, would grind to a halt.

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The document is really worth reading. I did a Twitter thread about it with some extracts. Circumstantial, but quite a thing.
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Update on software issue impacting certain customers • Ericsson

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Börje Ekholm, President and CEO, Ericsson, says: “The faulty software that has caused these issues is being decommissioned and we apologize not only to our customers but also to their customers. We work hard to ensure that our customers can limit the impact and restore their services as soon as possible.”

An initial root cause analysis indicates that the main issue was an expired certificate in the software versions installed with these customers. A complete and comprehensive root cause analysis is still in progress. Our focus is now on solving the immediate issues.

During the course of December 6, most of the affected customers’ network services have been successfully restored. We are working closely with the remaining customers that are still experiencing issues.

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Oh WELL DONE. Only affected 31 million customers or so at a time when Huawei was on the ropes, PR-wise.
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The statistical rule of three • John Cook Consulting

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suppose you are testing children for perfect pitch. You’ve tested 100 children so far and haven’t found any with perfect pitch. Do you conclude that children don’t have perfect pitch? You know that some do because you’ve heard of instances before. Your data suggest perfect pitch in children is at least rare. But how rare?

The rule of three gives a quick and dirty way to estimate these kinds of probabilities. It says that if you’ve tested N cases and haven’t found what you’re looking for, a reasonable estimate is that the probability is less than 3/N. So in our proofreading example, if you haven’t found any typos in 20 pages, you could estimate that the probability of a page having a typo is less than 15%. In the perfect pitch example, you could conclude that fewer than 3% of children have perfect pitch.

Note that the rule of three says that your probability estimate goes down in proportion to the number of cases you’ve studied. If you’d read 200 pages without finding a typo, your estimate would drop from 15% to 1.5%. But it doesn’t suddenly drop to zero. I imagine most people would harbor a suspicion that that there may be typos even though they haven’t seen any in the first few pages. But at some point they might say “I’ve read so many pages without finding any errors, there must not be any.” The situation is a little different with the perfect pitch example, however, because you may know before you start that the probability cannot be zero.

If the sight of math makes you squeamish, you might want to stop reading now. Just remember that if you haven’t seen something happen in N observations, a good estimate is that the chances of it happening are less than 3/N.

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I had never heard of this.
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How to game the App Store • David Barnard

He’s a third-party app developer:

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As I’ve said many times before, the App Store is not a free market. Apple can and does dramatically shape the App Store economy. Similar to how governments shape economies through tax law and other policies, Apple shapes the App Store economy through App Review policies, App Store implementation details, editorial decisions, the App Store search algorithm, and in so many other subtle (and not so subtle) ways. I’d love to see Apple wield that power to shape the App Store in ways that will sustain and encourage meaningful development instead of continuing to allow the deck to be stacked against it.

I know what you’re thinking… these are just the ramblings of a failed app developer who blames Apple for their own shortcomings. Quite the opposite. While not an “App Store millionaire”, for the past 10 years I’ve provided for my (growing) family solely on revenue from my apps. And three of my apps have grossed over $1m. While my net income (I spend a lot on design, share revenue with partners, pay Apple 30% on some of that, pay self employment tax, pay way too much for health insurance, etc) hasn’t made me a millionaire (or anywhere close), I’m still blown away that my apps have been downloaded by millions of people, been featured countless times by Apple, mentioned everywhere from indie blogs to the NY Times, and grossed millions of dollars.

My critique of Apple’s management of the App Store (which began in 2008) has never been about embarassing Apple or denigrating its employees or motives, I want to see this amazing platform Apple created be the best it can possibly be. The App Store is an incredible marketplace that has generated tens of billions in revenue while empowering billions of people around the world to do amazing things with these magical little computers we carry around in our pockets. But I do think the overall success of the App Store has blinded Apple to the need for various course corrections over the years. And as the financial incentive to build and maintain great niche apps dries up, the beautiful and diverse forest of apps that is the App Store will slowly start to look more like the unkempt Play Store.

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What follows is a hell of a dissection of the failings of the App Store as it stands. Apple does need to consider what it’s doing, and not doing.
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In Indonesia Lion Air crash, black box data reveal pilots’ struggle to regain control • The New York Times

James Glanz, Muktita Suhartono and Hannah Beech:

»

Data from the jetliner that crashed into the Java Sea last month shows the pilots fought to save the plane almost from the moment it took off, as the Boeing 737’s nose was repeatedly forced down, apparently by an automatic system receiving incorrect sensor readings.

The information from the flight data recorder, contained in a preliminary report prepared by Indonesian crash investigators and released on Wednesday, documents a fatal tug of war between man and machine, with the plane’s nose forced dangerously downward over two dozen times during the 11-minute flight.

The pilots managed to pull the nose back up over and over until finally losing control, leaving the plane, Lion Air Flight 610, to plummet into the ocean at 450 miles per hour, killing all 189 people on board.

The data from the so-called black box is consistent with the theory that investigators have been most focused on: that a computerized system Boeing installed on its latest generation of 737 to prevent the plane’s nose from getting too high and causing a stall instead forced the nose down because of incorrect information it was receiving from sensors on the fuselage.

«

link to this extract


A backlash is coming to Carlos Ghosn’s arrest • Bloomberg

Joe Nocera:

»

People who know nothing about the Japanese justice system are going to start asking aloud how Ghosn’s ordeal [in which he remains in a small cell, and is interrogated for hours at a time] can possibly be justified. They’ll ask why Japanese executives who have been embroiled in far bigger scandals – the ones who cooked the books at Olympus Corp., say, or oversaw the faulty airbags at Takata Corp. – weren’t treated as harshly as Ghosn. They’ll ask, finally, whether the whole thing was a ruse, designed to get Ghosn out of the way so that Nissan’s Japanese executives could reassert control of the company.

Because there’s a pretty good chance that’s what’s really happened here. According to the Japanese news media, a Nissan whistleblower informed prosecutors of Ghosn’s alleged crimes. If so, the timing was awfully convenient. As Bloomberg reported earlier this year, Ghosn was pushing for Renault and Nissan – which had been part of a Ghosn-led alliance since 1999 1  – to merge into a single company. Most Nissan executives, starting with CEO Hiroto Saikawa, vehemently opposed the merger.

Two decades earlier, Ghosn created the alliance to help Nissan avoid bankruptcy; he had Renault invest $5 billion in the Japanese company in return for a one-third stake. (Renault currently owns 43% of Nissan, while Nissan owns 15% of Renault.) With Nissan now bigger and more profitable than Renault, the Japanese executives bristle at the alliance. And they deeply resent having to take orders from the often high-handed Ghosn.

My theory – and I’m hardly the only one who believes this – is that Nissan’s executives, unable to fire their chairman, had him arrested instead, along with Kelly, the only other Westerner on the Nissan board.

«

I have wondered from the start whether this is actually an Olympus scenario. This remains my suspicion – not because westerners can’t commit crimes, or do so in Japan, but because the crimes he’s accused of are so bizarre. Underdeclaring income? His income is decided by the company.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.968: Facebook’s emails released, can Uber make a profit?, Tom Cruise v motion smoothing, BT v Huawei, and more


Facebook has been getting a thumbs-down for a number of its past practices, revealed by emails. CC-licensed photo by Kelly Gardner on Flickr.


It’s December: charity time. Today’s suggested charities:
– UK readers: The National Deaf Children’s Society
– US readers: American Society for Deaf Children
– Australian readers: Deaf Children Australia
(In other countries try a search on “deaf children [your country]”.)


A selection of 12 links for you. Could be five, could be more. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Canadian authorities arrest CFO of Huawei Technologies at US request • WSJ

Kate O’Keeffe and Stu Woo:

»

Canadian authorities in Vancouver have arrested Huawei Technologies Co.’s chief financial officer at the request of the U.S. government for alleged violations of Iranian sanctions, the latest move by Washington to crack down on the Chinese cellular-technology giant.

A spokesman for Canada’s justice department said Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1 and is sought for extradition by the US. A bail hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Friday, according to the spokesman. Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, serves as the company’s CFO and deputy chairwoman.

Ms. Meng’s arrest comes amid a year-long U.S. government campaign against a company it views as a national-security threat. In the past year, Washington has taken a series of steps to restrict Huawei’s business on American soil and, more recently, launched an extraordinary international outreach campaign to persuade allied countries to enact similar curbs.

«

Holy cow. And speaking of “similar” curbs…
link to this extract


BT to strip Huawei equipment from its core 4G network • Financial Times

Nic Fildes:

»

BT will strip Huawei equipment out of its core 4G network within two years to bring its mobile phone business in line with an internal policy to keep the Chinese company’s equipment at the periphery of telecoms infrastructure.

Governments around the world have become increasingly wary of Huawei’s presence in critical national telecoms infrastructure, especially as they prepare for auctions for 5G, a superfast service that will enable a new generation of digital products and services.

The US, Australia and New Zealand have moved to block the use of the Chinese company’s 5G equipment on security grounds, and the head of the UK’s secret service has warned that the UK must decide whether to follow suit.

«

First the US blocks Huawei from selling handsets on AT&T, now BT is pushing it out of the EE network (which it bought in 2016). This isn’t so much BT reversing anything, as implementing a policy it’s always had.
link to this extract


Facebook used people’s data to favour certain partners and punish rivals, documents show • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Mike Isaac:

»

Facebook used the mountains of data it collected on users to favour certain partners and punish rivals, giving companies such as Airbnb and Netflix special access to its platform while cutting off others that it perceived as threats.

The tactics came to light on Wednesday from internal Facebook emails and other company documents released by a British parliamentary committee that is investigating online misinformation. The documents spotlight Facebook’s behavior from roughly 2012 to 2015, a period of explosive growth as the company navigated how to manage the information it was gathering on users and debated how best to profit from what it was building.

The documents show how Facebook executives treated data as the company’s most valuable resource and often wielded it to gain a strategic advantage. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, were intimately involved in decisions aimed at benefiting the social network above all else and keeping users as engaged as possible on the site, according to emails that were part of the document trove.

In one exchange from 2012 when Mr. Zuckerberg discussed charging developers for access to user data and persuading them to share their data with the social network, he wrote: “It’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network. So ultimately, I think the purpose of platform — even the read side — is to increase sharing back into Facebook.”

«

The fallout from these emails is going to go on and on. Here are a few more stories from them…
link to this extract


Facebook knew Android call-scraping would be ‘high-risk’ • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

»

In March, many Android users were shocked to discover that Facebook had been collecting a record of their call and SMS history, as revealed by the company’s data download tool. Now, internal emails released by the UK Parliament show how the decision was made internally. According to the emails, developers knew the data was sensitive, but they still pushed to collect it as a way of expanding Facebook’s reach.

The emails show Facebook’s growth team looking to call log data as a way to improve Facebook’s algorithms as well as to locate new contacts through the “People You May Know” feature. Notably, the project manager recognized it as “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” but that risk seems to have been overwhelmed by the potential user growth.

Initially, the feature was intended to require users to opt in, typically through an in-app pop-up dialog box. But as developers looked for ways to get users signed up, it became clear that Android’s data permissions could be manipulated to automatically enroll users if the new feature was deployed in a certain way.

In another email chain, the group developing the feature seems to see the Android permissions screen as a point of unnecessary friction, to be avoided if possible. When testing revealed that call logs could be collected without a permissions dialog, that option seems to have been obviously preferable to developers.

«

And then Facebook denied up and down it had done this. This is what growth hacking does: it kills moral judgement.
link to this extract


Facebook ends platform policy banning apps that copy its features • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:

»

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

That policy felt pretty disingenuous given how aggressively Facebook has replicated everyone else’s core functionality, from Snapchat to Twitter and beyond. Facebook had previously enforced the policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.

«

This, after it killed off apps like Vine and so on.
link to this extract


Facebook’s internal tensions are spilling beyond the company’s walls • Buzzfeed News

Charlie Warzel:

»

Internally, the conflict seems to have divided Facebook into three camps: those loyal to Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg; those who see the current scandals as proof of a larger corporate meltdown; and a group who see the entire narrative — including the portrayal of the company’s hiring of communications consulting firm Definers Public Affairs — as examples of biased media attacks.

“It’s otherwise rational, sane people who’re in Mark’s orbit spouting full-blown anti-media rhetoric, saying that the press is ganging up on Facebook,” a former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s the bunker mentality. These people have been under siege for 600 days now. They’re getting tired, getting cranky — the only survival strategy is to quit or fully buy in.”

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Facebook spokesperson called this “a challenging time.”

“We are more determined than ever to continue making progress on the issues we’ve faced,” they said. “People at Facebook are focused on building products that help people connect and have a positive impact in the world.”

Two former employees said the spate of negative reports has cast a shadow over the company in recent weeks. Current and former employees describe a tense and, at times, hostile atmosphere inside the company, one in which both senior employees and even staunch loyalists are contemplating their futures.

People are “hoping for a Sundar or Dara moment,” one former senior Facebook employee told BuzzFeed News, referring to past leadership changes at Google and Uber in which founding employees stepped aside from top jobs. A second senior employee echoed the view, suggesting that some inside the ranks are looking for a shakeup to come from the outside.

«

link to this extract


Searching the creative internet • Crawshaw

David Crawshaw:

»

What I miss about my “90s internet” wasn’t it specifically, with its slow data links, tiny JPEGs, buffering RealPlayer, or the tag. It did not the tiniest fraction of the wonderful content the internet has today.

What I miss is that I could “go on the internet” and be in a creative corner of the human experience. Today if you “go on the internet”, that means you pulled your phone out of your pocket, dismissed some notification spam and start reading click-bait shared by people you have met on social media.

Today you have to choke your way through the money-making miasma to find the joy.

I wish the internet of creative people and their works had a front page and a search engine. Something that made finding the blog about the search for planet 9 easy to find, and the New Yorker article on it hard to find. A place where wikipedia articles came first, where all the interesting technical stuff you might find in whitequark’s feed was what you got instead of sidebar ads, not buried away behind the popular and the profitable. Where a D&D podcast made by three brothers and their dad in West Virginia was as easy to find as the podcasts produced by NPR’s $200m/year machine.

There is enough interest the creative web to pay for its tools. Wikipedia raises $80m a year from donations! (What they spend it on does not seem at all effective to me, but it’s not my money. Your software does cost more when you have to spend time making sure it doesn’t hurt your fundraising.)

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link to this extract


Will Uber survive the next decade? • NY Mag

Yves Smith:

»

Uber has never presented a case as to why it will ever be profitable, let alone earn an adequate return on capital. Investors are pinning their hopes on a successful IPO, which means finding greater fools in sufficient numbers.

Uber is a taxi company with an app attached. It bears almost no resemblance to internet superstars it claims to emulate. The app is not technically daunting and and does not create a competitive barrier, as witnessed by the fact that many other players have copied it. Apps have been introduced for airlines, pizza delivery, and hundreds of other consumer services but have never generated market-share gains, much less tens of billions in corporate value. They do not create network effects. Unlike Facebook or eBay, having more Uber users does not improve the service.

Nor, after a certain point, does adding more drivers. Uber does regularly claim that its app creates economies of scale for drivers — but for that to be the case, adding more drivers would have to benefit drivers. It doesn’t. More drivers means more competition for available jobs, which means less utilization per driver. There is a trade-off between capacity and utilization in a transportation system, which you do not see in digital networks. The classic use of “network effects” referred to the design of an integrated transport network — an airline hub and spoke network which create utility for passengers (or packages) by having more opportunities to connect to more destinations versus linear point-to-point routes. Uber is obviously not a fixed network with integrated routes — taxi passengers do not connect between different vehicles.

«

The context: Uber just announced a $1bn loss for the quarter. Never mind, they’ll make it up in volume.
link to this extract


California fires released emissions equal to a year of power use • Quartz

Zoe Schlanger:

»

California’s 2018 fire season, including the largest fire in state history, released nearly as much climate-warming and air-polluting emissions as a year’s worth of electricity use there.

The wildfires released 68 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, according to the US Geological Survey, or 15% of the state’s total emissions. For comparison, all electricity use in California in 2016 produced roughly 76 million tons in emissions.

Those figures were the highlights of a Nov. 30 statement from the Interior Department that blamed the wildfires largely on forest-management practices.

«

This is a bad take (and to be clear, the source of the badness is the DOI): the “emissions” from burning short-lived plants are completely unlike those from burning gas (a fossil fuel), which is half of California’s generation) or coal (a fossil fuel). Short-lived plants weren’t buried underground for millions of years; they’re carbon-neutral, viewed over the lifespan of most people.

It’s clueless of the DOI to put out this statement, but clueless too of publications to repeat it without pointing out how wrong it is.
link to this extract


The global online dating landscape in 2018 • GlobalWebIndex

»

At 65% of the user base, men outnumber women almost 2 to 1 as the biggest online daters.

Most growth in the online dating market seems to be coming from location-based dating apps, like Happn and Badoo, which have crept up slowly from 7% monthly usage to 13% in the past three years. On the other hand, paid-for online dating services have flatlined, as illustrated in our latest infographic taking an in-depth look at the global online dating landscape.

Acceptance and adoption aren’t universal though. As expected, younger people make up the majority of online daters: 75% of online daters are under the age of 30, and 90% are under 40. Among singles who use the internet, online dating peaks at the age of 25.  This audience is truly global too, especially throughout emerging markets.

Populations in these markets are generally younger, but the greater popularity holds up even after taking age differences into account. This means dating apps face larger implicit competition from other sources of socializing – dating-led or not. But it also reveals the potential to integrate with social media platforms, which we’ve already seen with Facebook announcing it was trialling a dating app.

«

link to this extract


Motion impossible: Tom Cruise declares war on TV frame interpolation • The Guardian

Stuart Heritage:

»

This has been a landmark year for Tom Cruise. In Mission: Impossible – Fallout he made the action film of his career. He’s currently filming a sequel to one of his most beloved films, Top Gun. And it’s been rumoured that he has plans to make history by literally filming Mission: Impossible 7 in space.

How on earth could Tom Cruise manage to top all this? Simple. He’s made a video urging you to switch off motion smoothing on your TV. For this, he deserves everything. Welcome back, Tom. We’ve missed you.

At 9:46 last night, Tom tweeted an 87-second video in which he and his go-to director Christopher McQuarrie explained the concept of video interpolation and why it is the death of all good things. Video interpolation, they explained, is a digital video effect used to improve the quality of high-definition sport. “The unfortunate effect is that it makes most movies look like they were shot on high-speed video rather than film,” said Cruise. “This is sometimes referred to as the ‘soap-opera effect’.” They explained that most HD televisions come with video interpolation switched on by default, they explained how to switch it off, and then they both nodded with total sincerity…

…you’d better believe that, if Tom Cruise wants you to turn off motion smoothing on your television, you will turn off motion smoothing on your television. This video is just the start. The next stage will be visiting your house personally and asking you nicely. After that he’ll visit your house and verbally threaten you. If you still haven’t switched off motion smoothing by then, Tom Cruise will force himself through your TV screen using willpower alone, like the girl from The Ring, grab the remote out of your dumb cow hands and turn off motion smoothing himself. He will do whatever it takes.

«

Come on, I mean, just for the headline alone.
link to this extract


Bizarre ‘dark fluid’ with negative mass could dominate the universe – what my research suggests • The Conversation

Jamie Farnes is a research associate and astrophysicist at the University of Oxford’s e-Research Centre:

»

Negative masses are a hypothetical form of matter that would have a type of negative gravity – repelling all other material around them. Unlike familiar positive mass matter, if a negative mass was pushed, it would accelerate towards you rather than away from you.

Negative masses are not a new idea in cosmology. Just like normal matter, negative mass particles would become more spread out as the universe expands – meaning that their repulsive force would become weaker over time. However, studies have shown that the force driving the accelerating expansion of the universe is relentlessly constant. This inconsistency has previously led researchers to abandon this idea. If a dark fluid exists, it should not thin out over time.

In the new study, I propose a modification to Einstein’s theory of general relativity to allow negative masses to not only exist, but to be created continuously. “Matter creation” was already included in an early alternative theory to the Big Bang, known as the Steady State model. The main assumption was that (positive mass) matter was continuously created to replenish material as the universe expands. We now know from observational evidence that this is incorrect. However, that doesn’t mean that negative mass matter can’t be continuously created. I show that this assumed dark fluid is never spread too thinly. Instead it behaves exactly like dark energy.

«

Well, at least it gives you something to talk about at parties.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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.

Start Up No.967: Microsoft dumping Edge, Bose’s audio.. sunglasses?, Python for bras, how was Quora hacked?, and more


Jeff Dean, with a coworker at Google, essentially revolutionised the modern web with some code they wrote. CC-licensed photo by Niall Kennedy on Flickr.


Today’s suggested charity is The Internet Archive, which preserves web content that might otherwise be lost (or conveniently scrubbed). It’s having its annual funding drive; please donate as you feel fit.


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

What is Windows Lite? It’s Microsoft’s Chrome OS killer • Petri

Brad Sams:

»

Microsoft is working on a new version of Windows that may not actually be Windows. It’s currently called Lite, based on documentation found in the latest build, and I can confirm that this version of the OS is targeting Chromebooks. In fact, there are markings all over the latest release of the insider builds and SDK that help us understand where this OS is headed.

If you have heard this before, it should sound a lot like Windows 10 S and RT; Windows 10 Lite only runs PWAs and UWP apps and strips out everything else. This is finally a truly a lightweight version of Windows that isn’t only in the name. This is not a version of the OS that will run in the enterprise or even small business environments and I don’t think you will be able to ‘buy’ the OS either; OEM only may be the way forward.

The reason Microsoft had to kill off Windows10 S was to make way for this iteration of Windows. The goal of Windows Lite is to make it super lightweight, instant on, always connected, and can run on any type of CPU. Knowing that this week Qualcomm will announce a new generation of Snapdragon that can run Windows significantly better than the 835, fully expect to see this new chip powering many of the first devices running the new OS.

And there’s something a bit different about Lite that we haven’t seen from every attempt at launching this type of software in the past; it may not be called Windows.

«

Anything dubbed a “–killer” won’t be – such a name may even doom it – and the problem for Microsoft is that to compete with ChromeOS on that OS’s terms would be to lose ignominiously. It can’t be done: either you make a browser-based minimal OS, or you don’t. A “light Windows” is like being a little pregnant, or crossing the chasm in two hops.
link to this extract


Microsoft is building a Chromium-powered web browser that will replace Edge on Windows 10 • Windows Central

Zac Bowden:

»

Microsoft’s Edge web browser has seen little success since its debut on Windows 10 in 2015. Built from the ground up with a new rendering engine known as EdgeHTML, Microsoft Edge was designed to be fast, lightweight, and secure, but it launched with a plethora of issues that resulted in users rejecting it early on. Edge has since struggled to gain traction, thanks to its continued instability and lack of mindshare, from users and web developers.

Because of this, I’m told that Microsoft is throwing in the towel with EdgeHTML and is instead building a new web browser powered by Chromium, which uses a similar rendering engine first popularized by Google’s Chrome browser known as Blink. Codenamed “Anaheim,” this new browser for Windows 10 will replace Edge as the default browser on the platform, according to my sources, who wish to remain anonymous. It’s unknown at this time if Anaheim will use the Edge brand or a new brand, or if the user interface (UI) between Edge and Anaheim is different. One thing is for sure, however; EdgeHTML in Windows 10’s default browser is dead.

Many will be happy to hear that Microsoft is finally adopting a different rendering engine for the default web browser on Windows 10. Using Chromium means websites should behave just like they do on Google Chrome in Microsoft’s new Anaheim browser, meaning users shouldn’t suffer from the same instability and performance issues found in Edge today. This is the first step towards revitalizing Windows 10’s built-in web browser for users across PCs and phones. Edge on iOS and Android already uses rendering engines native to those platforms, so not much will be changing on that front.

«

Stunning news; Bowden was the first with it. What a turnaround for the company which was taken to court by the US government because it integrated its browser into the operating system. Google is making its branch of WebKit into the operating system of the web. So now there’s basically Chrome, Safari, Firefox and.. nothing.
link to this extract


The friendship that made Google huge • The New Yorker

James Somers:

»

One day in March of 2000, six of Google’s best engineers gathered in a makeshift war room. The company was in the midst of an unprecedented emergency. In October, its core systems, which crawled the Web to build an “index” of it, had stopped working. Although users could still type in queries at google.com, the results they received were five months out of date. More was at stake than the engineers realized. Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were negotiating a deal to power a search engine for Yahoo, and they’d promised to deliver an index ten times bigger than the one they had at the time—one capable of keeping up with the World Wide Web, which had doubled in size the previous year. If they failed, google.com would remain a time capsule, the Yahoo deal would likely collapse, and the company would risk burning through its funding into oblivion.

In a conference room by a set of stairs, the engineers laid doors across sawhorses and set up their computers. Craig Silverstein, a twenty-seven-year-old with a small frame and a high voice, sat by the far wall. Silverstein was Google’s first employee: he’d joined the company when its offices were in Brin’s living room and had rewritten much of its code himself. After four days and nights, he and a Romanian systems engineer named Bogdan Cocosel had got nowhere. “None of the analysis we were doing made any sense,” Silverstein recalled. “Everything was broken, and we didn’t know why.”

Silverstein had barely registered the presence, over his left shoulder, of Sanjay Ghemawat, a quiet thirty-three-year-old M.I.T. graduate with thick eyebrows and black hair graying at the temples. Sanjay had joined the company only a few months earlier, in December. He’d followed a colleague of his—a rangy, energetic thirty-one-year-old named Jeff Dean—from Digital Equipment Corporation. Jeff had left D.E.C. ten months before Sanjay. They were unusually close, and preferred to write code jointly. In the war room, Jeff rolled his chair over to Sanjay’s desk, leaving his own empty. Sanjay worked the keyboard while Jeff reclined beside him, correcting and cajoling like a producer in a news anchor’s ear.

Jeff and Sanjay began poring over the stalled index. They discovered that some words were missing—they’d search for “mailbox” and get no results—and that others were listed out of order. For days, they looked for flaws in the code, immersing themselves in its logic. Section by section, everything checked out. They couldn’t find the bug.

«

A simple magical feature. Ghemawat and Dean went on to write MapReduce – which underpins Hadoop, is used by Facebook – and then Dean made TensorFlow, Google’s AI framework, happen. Essential reading; what they produced is Google at its best.
link to this extract


Bose Frames audio sunglasses arrive in January, cost $199 • CNET

David Carnoy:

»

When it announced its new augmented reality platform with a set of prototype AR glasses back in March, Bose said that a commercial version of the product was coming. Now it’s here: Bose Frames, a set of sunglasses with built-in microspeakers and microphones, will be available in the US in January for $199. Preorders start today at bose.com, and Bose AR apps are coming next year. (It will launch in select global markets in spring 2019; $199 converts to about £155 or AU$270.)

Weighing about the same as your typical sunglasses at 1.6 ounces (45 grams), Frames will come in two styles. Bose says they can stream music and information, take and make calls, and access virtual assistants “while keeping playlists, entertainment and conversations private.”

I had a chance to try a pair of the prototypes earlier this year and was generally impressed with the sound quality. They seem to be about on par with the Apple AirPods’ sound, which also feature an open, non noise-isolating design.

«

They look… tolerable? Battery life not great though, at less than four hours; two hours to recharge. Notable how more and more people are trying this: Google, Snap, now Bose.
link to this extract


Learning How AI Makes Decisions • PCMag UK

»

After her neural networks failed to reveal the reasons they were mislabelling videos and pictures, [Kate] Saenko [an associate professor at the Department of Computer Science at Boston University] and a team of researchers at Boston University engaged in a project to find the parameters that influenced those decisions.

What came out of the effort was RISE, a method that tries to explain to interpret decisions made by AI algorithms. Short for “randomized input sampling for explanation of black-box models,” RISE is a local explanation model.

When you provide an image-classification network with an image input, what it returns is a set of classes, each associated with a probability. Normally, you’d have no insight into how the AI reached that decision. But RISE provides you with a heatmap that describes which parts of the image are contributing to each of those output classes.

For instance, in the above image, it’s clear that the network in question is mistaking brown sheep for cows, which might mean that it hasn’t been trained on enough examples of brown sheep. This type of problem happens often. Using the RISE method, Saenko was able to discover that her neural networks were specifying the gender of the people in the cooking videos based on pots and pans and other objects that appeared in the background instead of examining their facial and physical features.

The idea behind RISE is to randomly obscure parts of the input image and run it through the neural network to observe how the changes affect the output weights. By repeating the masking process multiple times, RISE is able to discern which parts of the image are more important to each output class.

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Clever – and very usable.
link to this extract


Why Xiaomi’s fancy phones aren’t selling • Tech In Asia

Karen Chiu:

»

“I once tried to convince a friend to get the Mi Note 2. He was pretty excited until he asked about the price. ‘How much? 2,800 yuan [US$405]? How good can that phone be?’” wrote Zhorizonxiansen, a Zhihu user.

“This is a common mentality among phone users these days. If you use Xiaomi, you’re a low-end user, you’re a loser. If you say other phones aren’t good, you’re just broke and jealous.”

Another person, who described himself as a 27-year-old working in sales in a first-tier city, said he’s never met anyone at work who uses Xiaomi.

“Buying a phone isn’t about value for money. It’s not like you’ll buy a particular phone just because it’s cheaper than another one with the same specs. For example, if your relatives, friends and colleagues all drive a BMW or a Mercedes, you could still get a Hyundai or Honda even if you don’t have money. Just don’t buy an Alto,” said Wenyusuruo, referring to a Chinese-made car brand.

It’s hard to tell if Xiaomi users are actually as poor as many in China believe. A recent report by Shanghai-based research agency MobData found that college graduates and those who earn more than 20,000 yuan (around US$2,880) a month actually prefer Xiaomi (and Huawei) phones. Oppo, Vivo and Apple users, on the other hand, earn less on average.

Yet the image has stuck. One reason could be that Xiaomi continues to churn out extremely cheap handsets. Its cheapest phone in China at the moment is the US$86 Redmi 6A, which costs nearly US$30 less than Vivo’s cheapest, the Y73.

Xiaomi is actively trying to boost its premium offerings in China. Abacus News contacted company spokesman John Chan, who directed us to their most recent financial report, which says the average selling price of Xiaomi smartphones in China increased 16% year on year. He declined to comment further.

So Xiaomi is rolling out fancier phones. But there seems to be one problem: consumers aren’t buying them.

«

Who would have thought that a phone could be too cheap?
link to this extract


What we learned from three years of bra engineering, and what’s next • Bra Theory

Mona Zhang:

»

In the beginning, I wrote a Python-based program that would take measurements as inputs and, after a few calculations, output the pattern (or blueprint) of the bra. We built it end to end, even including the seam allowances and labels that bra-makers require to sew the pattern…

…In 2016, we quickly learned a painful lesson: the important part was not the technology itself, but closing the feedback loop of measurements and bra-that-fits.

As much as I wanted to nerd out and build a sexy (pun-intended) 3D solution, we actually had to scrap our algorithm for a period of time so that we could move faster.

So we ditched the algorithm for something more agile, with fewer assumptions: we became a custom bra-maker.

We didn’t forget our vision. As our bra-makers taught me about the garment, I taught them about the algorithm. What we did had to be reproducible. Our resident bra-makers soon learned that whenever they “eyeballed” something, I was going to swoop in and ask a lot of annoying questions. We began to get feedback on the product, even if it wasn’t purely produced by code, in a way that could inform the code.

Though we pivoted from the 3D technology, it allowed us to simplify the problem.

«

There’s a lot of naivete on show here; but also optimism that she can create the perfect bra and that women will put down $350 per.
link to this extract


Quora security update • The Quora Blog – Quora

»

For approximately 100 million Quora users, the following information may have been compromised:

• Account information, e.g. name, email address, encrypted (hashed) password, data imported from linked networks when authorized by users
• Public content and actions, e.g. questions, answers, comments, upvotes
• Non-public content and actions, e.g. answer requests, downvotes, direct messages (note that a low percentage of Quora users have sent or received such messages).

Questions and answers that were written anonymously are not affected by this breach as we do not store the identities of people who post anonymous content.

«

Neat way of getting in that you have at least 100 million users, but also that few people send messages. Meanwhile: another day, another big hack.
link to this extract


Samsung used my DSLR photo to fake their phone’s “portrait mode” • DIY Photography

Dunja Dudic:

»

Curious as I am, I performed a reverse image search a few days later, just for fun. I thought that, even if I get to see the image online, it could be included in a blog post about outdoor activities, nature, autumn… Maybe even makeup. But to my surprise, there was only a bunch of search results related with Galaxy A8 Star. I clicked on the first link, scrolled down, and saw this:

My first reaction was to burst out into laughter. Just look at the Photoshop job they did on my face and hair! I’ve always liked my natural hair color (even though it’s turning gray black and white), but I guess the creator of this franken-image prefers reddish tones. Except in the eyes though, where they removed all of the blood vessels.

Whoever created this image, they also cut me out of the original background and pasted me onto a random photo of a park. I mean, the original photo was taken at f/2.0 if I remember well, and they needed the “before” and “after” – a photo with a sharp background, and another one where the almighty “portrait mode” blurred it out. So Samsung’s Photoshop master resolved it by using a different background.

«

I bet the Photoshopper was not pleased with the challenge of cutting around her many fine strands of hair. Which you can tell, because they gave up on the right-hand side of the picture.

But come on, Samsung. This is just crappy.
link to this extract


Tumblr’s anti-porn algorithm is flagging basically everything as NSFW • Daily Dot

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw:

»

Starting on Dec. 17, the site will block anything it considers to be adult-rated visual content, a category that ranges from porn .gifs to “female-presenting nipples,” whatever that means.

This porn ban is already being implemented, with Tumblr flagging everything it deems to be explicit material. On a purely conceptual level, this was already bad news for many Tumblr users. An NSFW content ban will hurt the livelihoods of artists and sex workers on the site, and potentially lead to a mass exodus of bloggers who want to retain their creative freedom. However, it looks like the problems go even further because Tumblr’s content flagging algorithm is hopelessly incompetent. As soon as Tumblr started highlighting “explicit” content on Dec. 3, users reported having totally innocuous posts flagged on their accounts.

Tumblr and Twitter are already full of screencaps showing random posts mislabeled as explicit material. In some cases, you can kind of see how the mistake happened (for instance, art with partial but non-sexual nudity, or images that a bot might mistake for a human body), but there’s also a ton of content that appears to have been flagged at random.

«

The range of content that’s being flagged is hilarious and also worrying. Although, contra theory: Tumblr’s management want to let the system flag like crazy, and it will listen to the complaints in order to tune it.
link to this extract


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.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified. Ha!

Start Up No.966: the UK’s retail space crash, Alexa: play Apple Music, Facebook’s role in French riots, and more


If it were a Tumblr blog, it would be facing imminent closure. CC-licensed photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.


Today’s suggested charity is BookTrust: give £10 and a child in social care will receive books for Christmas.


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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Retail decline, in maps: England and Wales lose 43m square metres of shop space • The Conversation

Paul Michael Greenhalgh:

»

Across the UK, retailers are struggling to survive. This is down to several factors: years of austerity and low wage growth has meant that households have less spending power, the cost of imported goods has risen – as has the national minimum wage – and the trend of “bricks to clicks” means more consumers are shopping online, from the convenience of their home, than in store.

This is not just bad news for retailers. Empty shop fronts blight the high street in towns and cities across country. Research I conducted, together with the R3intelligence team at Northumbria University, found that retail is in decline across most of England and Wales, with just a few areas bucking the trend.

By comparing the government’s own data on business rates – based on values from 2008 to 2015, and made available in the 2010 and 2017 rating lists – we have been able to analyse changes in the number and value of retail properties across England and Wales over that period. The map below shows how the average “rateable” value of retail floorspace – which is its estimated value on the open rental market – has changed in each local authority.

«

Mike Ashley, of Sports Direct, suggested on Monday that companies with over 20% of sales online should pay an extra tax; otherwise, he says, the high street will be dead by 2030.
link to this extract


Amazon Alexa to let Apple Music play through speakers • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. announced their second partnership this month: the iPhone maker’s music-streaming service is coming to Amazon’s Echo devices in December.

The move gets Apple Music onto the most-popular voice-controlled speakers, giving it distribution beyond Apple’s own devices. Subscribers will be able to control Apple Music with Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, the first time Apple has opened up its music service to full voice control outside its own Siri technology.

The decision pushes Apple’s music service into more living rooms at a time when its own internet-connected speaker, the HomePod, hasn’t sold as well as the competition. Given the breadth of Alexa-enabled speakers on the market, the move could also boost Apple’s own subscription numbers.

“This is further evidence that Apple sees it needs to work with other hardware players in order to advance Apple Music, and it is an admission that the HomePod has been a disappointment,” said Gene Munster of Loup Ventures.

«

Combined with the decision to let Amazon sell iPhones, Gurman wonders whether there’s a rapprochement between the two companies. I think it’s more that it’s win-win for Amazon to sell iPhones etc. As for the choice between allowing Apple Music to go on the Echo (which I bet you both Apple and Amazon wanted – probably Amazon a tiny bit more than Apple, because it becomes a selling point for the Echo): it’s more simple economics. Apple Music is already on the Sonos systems, so price isn’t the barrier. There’s no sensible reason to keep it off the Echo on that basis.

Now the question is whether Apple Music will show up on Google Home. I wonder if that depends on who sees the telemetry data.
link to this extract


How Facebook is fueling the French populist rage • Monday Note

Frederic Filloux:

»

The “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) unrest that has been spreading across France over the recent weeks is the perfect, grass-rooted, unstructured movement that demonstrates the efficiency of Facebook and the damages it can indirectly cause to Western democracies.

The Yellow Vests started with the controversial tax on gasoline and grew with a widespread discontent against the government. President Emmanuel Macron is viewed as the embodiment of the French elite, disconnected from the country, and willing to favor “The Rich”. Next was a series of blockades across the country, that turns increasingly violent.

On Saturday, 166,000 people carrying the iconic outfit— invented by some Scottish railway workers nearly a century ago and which is a mandatory equipment in French cars — were on deck. In Paris, the demonstration turned violent in with scores of destructions. Firefighters had to respond to 249 fires of cars and stores.

I spent my entire afternoon there. Nearly all the people I talked to admitted to relying on Facebook to get informed in real-time on the unfolding events. In France, 63% of internet users are on Facebook. The country is served by a remarkable cellular infrastructure that is relatively inexpensive and reliable (laws have been passed to force carriers to progressively cover 100% of the territory). The result is countless selfies, videos, and live blogging taken during the event, which fuelled anger and fantasy and above all an incredible efficiency to organize hundreds of demonstrations large and small.

«

As he points out, for those who want to revolt, or who sympathise, Facebook has replaced the traditional media – and nothing can penetrate the new bubble it creates. But he also has an important message if you think the answer is “ban Facebook”.
link to this extract


YouTube Music is a bad product in desperate need of improvement • Android Central

Andrew Martonik:

»

YouTube Music is so unfinished and lacking features that I question whether Google has any intentions of following through with its vision of replacing Google Play Music entirely. Put simply, I can’t believe Google thinks anyone will pay $10 per month for it when all signs point to Google itself not caring about YouTube Music’s success.

YouTube Music effectively doesn’t work with Google Home. Yes you can select “YouTube Music” as your music provider in the Google Home app, but that only gives you access to a music catalogue when you ask for specific songs or artists. You can ask any way you want, but a Google Home won’t play your YouTube Music “Mixtape” or any custom playlists. It’ll try its best to play some music from YouTube on your Chromecast instead, but that’s not helpful. And most times when you think you do get a Google Home to play YouTube Music, it isn’t actually playing YouTube Music — it’s playing Google Play Music, of course, so there’s a good chance it’ll start pulling your old GPM playlists and sending listening history there instead. Great.

YouTube Music also still doesn’t work with Android Auto, which is just as inexcusable as not working with Google Home. Android Auto and YouTube Music apps have both been updated at least half a dozen times since the music service re-launched with this new direction, and I still can’t use it to play music in the car. You can start up YouTube Music and then open Android Auto to at least get a player for play/pause/seek, but it won’t show up as a media choice in the app.

Then there’s the Music app and website, which are just rudimentary. Building playlists is clunky and feels tacked-on. Search is an odd mix of actual songs, tracks from compilation albums, and a weird sprinkling of YouTube videos.

«

Google now has metastatizing music offerings to go with its chat offerings. Why? What’s the difference from Google Music Play Access All Areas, or whatever it’s called this week?
link to this extract


Google keeps failing to understand tablets • The Verge

Vlad Savov:

»

Tablets, despite being proximate to both phones and laptops, are unique. To have a good tablet experience, you need an OS that is made specifically for that task. It must offer an intuitive touchscreen interface, like a phone, but it should also make full use of its greater screen real estate and higher spec ceiling. Apple’s iPad is, of course, the role model for how this is done. Apple has developed custom X editions of its iPhone chips for use in the iPad, taking advantage of the larger battery and better cooling of the tablet. The company has also dedicated major iOS releases to improving iPad functionality, even while the iPhone remains its most important product. That, together with a historic willingness among app developers to create iPad-specific apps, generates a distinct iPad-only user experience.

So long as Google keeps trying to cram its software for other platforms onto a tablet, it will continue to suffer the ignominy of failure. Android Wear on smartwatches, now renamed Wear OS, has been another instructive example of what should be a very simple concept: if you want to build the best possible version of any gadget, the software for it has to be designed for it. Someone at Google really ought to consult Microsoft’s long, abortive history of trying to slim Windows down just enough to make it fit onto mobile devices. (The Surface Pro 2-in-1s of today are good, but they’re still more laptop than tablet.) There’s also Intel’s spectacularly profligate run of pseudo-mobile chips that were just trimmed-down laptop and desktop processors.

The future of technology will be defined by more software specialization, not less.

«

Google’s problem is that Android tablets have been second in its priorities after phones (and then third, after WearOS), which has put them a long way down the pecking order for developers considering what to develop for. As Savov points out elsewhere in the article, too many Android tablet apps are poorly resized versions of the phone app – rather than being rethought for the bigger real estate of the large screen.
link to this extract


More than 40% of world coal plants are unprofitable: report • Reuters

Nina Chestney:

»

More than 40% of the world’s coal plants are operating at a loss due to high fuel costs and that proportion could to rise to nearly 75% by 2040, a report by environmental think-tank Carbon Tracker showed on Friday.

Institutional investors are increasingly divesting from fossil fuel companies due to the risk their assets will become stranded as tougher emissions cut targets discourage their use and renewable energy becomes even cheaper.

London-based Carbon Tracker analysed the profitability of 6,685 coal plants around the world, representing 95% of operating capacity and 90% of capacity under construction.

It found that 42% of global coal capacity is already unprofitable. From 2019 onwards, it expects falling renewable energy costs, air pollution regulations and carbon pricing to result in further cost pressures and make around 72% of the fleet cashflow negative by 2040.

«

link to this extract


Blockchain study finds 0.00% success rate and vendors don’t call back when asked for evidence • The Register

Andrew Orlowski:

»

Though Blockchain has been touted as the answer to everything, a study of 43 solutions advanced in the international development sector has found exactly no evidence of success.

Three practitioners including erstwhile blockchain enthusiast John Burg, a Fellow at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), looked at instances of the distributed crypto ledger being used in a wide range of situations by NGOs, contractors and agencies. But they drew a complete blank.

“We found a proliferation of press releases, white papers, and persuasively written articles,” Burg et al wrote on Thursday. “However, we found no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved in these claims. We also did not find lessons learned or practical insights, as are available for other technologies in development.”

Blockchain vendors were keen to puff the merits of the technology, but when the three asked for proof of success in the field, it all went very quiet.

«

link to this extract


2012: long before H-P deal, Autonomy’s red flags • WSJ

Ben Worthen, Paul Sonne and Justin Scheck, back in 2012 when the Autonomy deal was starting to fall apart:

»

When Autonomy Corp. was starting up in this historic university town, founder Mike Lynch stuck a sign on an office door that read “Authorized Personnel Only.” Behind the door, he told visitors, were 500 engineers working on “hush-hush” projects.

The door, in fact, led to a broom closet, Mr. Lynch recounted in a 2010 speech. By then, Autonomy had grown from its founding in 1996 to one of Europe’s largest and fastest-growing software companies. Hewlett-Packard bought it in October 2011 for more than $11bn…

…Interviews in California and England with former Autonomy employees, business partners and attorneys close to the case paint a picture of a hard-driving sales culture shaped by Mr. Lynch’s desire for rapid growth. They describe him as a domineering figure, who on at least a few occasions berated employees he believed weren’t measuring up.

Along the way, these people say, Autonomy used aggressive accounting practices to make sure revenue from software licensing kept growing—thereby boosting the British company’s valuation. The firm recognized revenue upfront that under US accounting rules would have been deferred, and struck “round-trip transactions”—deals where Autonomy agreed to buy a client’s products or services while at the same time the client purchased Autonomy software, according to these people.

“The rules aren’t that complicated,” said Dan Mahoney of accounting research business CFRA, who covered Autonomy until it was acquired. He said that Autonomy had the hallmarks of a company that recognized revenue too aggressively. He said neither US nor international accounting rules would allow companies to recognize not-yet collected revenue from customers that might be at risk not to pay, which he said appears to be the case in some of Autonomy’s transactions.

A person familiar with H-P’s investigation said the company is confident the deals are improper even under the international accounting standards Mr. Lynch cites. “We’ve looked at this very closely,” this person said.

«

Last week, Lynch was formally charged in the US with 14 counts of conspiracy and fraud. This is going to grind on for years and years.
link to this extract


France and Germany abandon ambitious plans for EU digital tax • Financial Times

Mehreen Khan:

»

France and Germany have abandoned EU plans to impose a wide-ranging digital tax on tech companies, in favour of a narrow levy on advertising sales that would be likely to exclude giants like Amazon and Apple.

In an attempt to rescue reform of taxation rules for digital companies, Paris and Berlin will on Tuesday present a draft plan to impose a 3% tax on revenues generated by ad sales in the digital economy, according to a draft seen by the Financial Times. 

The new compromise abandons a wider three-pronged digital tax plan that would have also targeted around 180 of the largest technology groups by capturing activities like data sales and the activities of online platforms, raising an estimated €5bn a year.

Under the new Franco-German version, the likes of Facebook and Google would be targeted through their sales of advertising but other retailers like Amazon, AirBnB and Spotify were likely to be excluded, said officials. Advertising revenues would form the “minimum common scope” of the EU’s tech tax, says the text.

Diplomats said the focus on just advertising was designed to alleviate German concerns that its car companies could be hit by the tax. It is also an attempt to overcome staunch opposition from Nordic economies who have pushed back against Europe’s attempts to go it alone with new tax rules for digital companies, in favour of broader international rules. 

«

link to this extract


Verizon takes aim at Tumblr’s kneecaps, bans all adult content • Ars Technica

Peter Bright:

»

Oath, the Verizon subsidiary that owns the Yahoo and AOL digital media brands, has announced that as of December 17, all adult content will be banned from the Tumblr blogging site. Any still or moving images displaying real-life human genitals or female nipples and any content—even drawn or computer-generated artwork—depicting any sexual acts will be prohibited.

Genitals and female nipples will only be permitted within the context of breastfeeding, childbirth, and in health-related subjects such as gender confirmation surgery. Written erotica will also remain on the site.

Nowadays, pornography represents a substantial element of Tumblr’s content. A 2013 estimate said that around 11% of the site’s 200,000 most-visited domains were porn, and some 22% of inbound links were from adult sites.

Tumblr’s relaxed attitude both toward adult content and to copyright infringement—a good proportion of the porn is simply lifted from commercial adult websites—created a safe space for adult content. So a wide range of communities—particularly those poorly represented in broadly heteronormative mainstream porn—took advantage of this atmosphere to publish their own pornography. Present-day Tumblr has substantial LGBT, kink, fetish, and BDSM representation, for example. This encompasses a mix both of the commercial (amateur models promoting their content) and the non-commercial (porn made for fun, for empowerment, for the sheer joy of exhibitionism).

«

Only 11%? Seriously? Anyhow, they’re going to do this using automated tools – don’t snicker at the back – and you can see it all going wrong.

Just as a reminder, Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1.1bn under Marissa Mayer in May 2013. What do you think it’s worth now?
link to this extract


The new word processor wars: a fresh crop of productivity apps are trying to reinvent our workday • Geekwire

Tony Lystra:

»

the old “office suite” is being reinvented around rapid-fire discussion threads, quick sharing and light, simple interfaces where all the work happens inside a single window. In recent years, the buzzwords in tech have been “AI” and “mobile.” Today, you can add “collaboration” to that list — these days, everybody wants to build Slack-like communication into their apps.

For notes and docs, there’s Quip, Notejoy, Slite, Zenkit, Notion and Agenda. For spreadsheets, there’s Bellevue, Wash.-based Smartsheet, as well as Airtable, Coda and, although it’s a very different take on the spreadsheet, Trello. The list goes on seemingly ad infinitum, largely thanks to the relative ease with which developers can launch software in the cloud.

“Work has totally changed,” said Aaron Levie, the co-founder and CEO of Box, the online storage company that is building its strategy around unifying data and messaging from a dizzying mix of cloud apps. “Employees were lucky to have two, three, five modern applications in the 90s. Now they have almost unlimited ways of being productive.”


Notejoy, like other new productivity apps, combines the word processor with Slack-like collaboration. (Notejoy Image)

At a fundamental level, many of these apps aren’t built atop new technologies like touchscreens or AI so much as they are reinventing anew the way most of us still get our work done — typing on a physical keyboard and in front of a monitor. In this new environment, workers aren’t satisfied with the apps IT gives them anymore. They expect the same simple user interfaces found in the consumer apps they’ve become accustomed to on their phones, and they’re tired of wading through standard-issue file directories based on the classic Windows and Mac OS structures.

«

The Microsoft Word 2.0 ad at the top of the article shows an interface that’s so perfect in its simplicity. Then they added cruft to it.

Of the “spreadsheets”, Coda (not the Mac app) looks very interesting for a task-based approach – which is what these new products generally seem to focus on.

And who’d have thought people might get tired of file directories?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.965: Zuckerberg on outrage, iPads v MacBook Pros, CRISPR v Alzheimers, the White House tech beat, and more


Hello and welcome! Which hacking group would you like your data to go to? CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.


Charity time: It’s December. Ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; different ones as the month progresses .
Today’s is:
Shelter, the UK charity for the homeless. It’s a difficult time to be homeless.
(If you’re not in the UK, and want to donate to a charity nearer home, please search on “homeless charity [your country]”.)


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 13 links for you. There you go! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A blueprint for content governance and enforcement • Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg:

»

One of the biggest issues social networks face is that, when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content. This is not a new phenomenon. It is widespread on cable news today and has been a staple of tabloids for more than a century. At scale it can undermine the quality of public discourse and lead to polarization. In our case, it can also degrade the quality of our services.

Our research suggests that no matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed, as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average — even when they tell us afterwards they don’t like the content.

This is a basic incentive problem that we can address by penalizing borderline content so it gets less distribution and engagement. By making the distribution curve look like the graph below where distribution declines as content gets more sensational, people are disincentivized from creating provocative content that is as close to the line as possible.

This process for adjusting this curve is similar to what I described above for proactively identifying harmful content, but is now focused on identifying borderline content instead. We train AI systems to detect borderline content so we can distribute that content less.

The category we’re most focused on is click-bait and misinformation. People consistently tell us these types of content make our services worse — even though they engage with them. As I mentioned above, the most effective way to stop the spread of misinformation is to remove the fake accounts that generate it. The next most effective strategy is reducing its distribution and virality.

«

This is a fascinating post, worth reading at length – while also thinking “ah yeah but you missed that problem the first time round, didn’t you?” every often. But the confirmation that outrage is what lends virality is useful.
link to this extract


Does Google harm local search rivals, EU antitrust regulators ask • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:

»

The European Commission, which took the world’s most popular internet search engine to task for these two anti-competitive practices, is wrapping up a third case which involves Google’s AdSense advertising service.

The EU competition authority’s interest in local search services followed a complaint by U.S. search and advertising company Yelp and rivals in the travel, restaurant and accommodation industries.

It sent questionnaires to Google rivals last month, asking for details of the company’s practices and the impact on competing services between January 2012 to December 2017.

Regulators also wanted to know if rivals experienced an impact in the operation of their local services as a result of major search algorithm changes by Google, including the introduction of its Panda 4.0 algorithm.

Introduced in 2014, this algorithm determines what appears in Google search results.

Companies were also asked if Google’s introduction of the Local Universal or One Box had a substantial impact on their local search services.

«

Be pretty incredible if local search wasn’t affected by Google. The better question is: how quickly will the EU act, and will it actually be effective?
link to this extract


GAN Paint • IBM

»

#GANPaint draws with object-level control using a deep network. Each brush activates a set of neurons in a GAN that has learned to draw scenes. More information at gandissect.csail.mit.edu.

«

This is good fun if you need a distraction today. Or another day.
link to this extract


Ethical questions over Number 10’s social media push for Brexit deal • The Conversation

Toby James found a tweet from No.10 pushing Theresa May’s deal in his Twitter timeline, clearly as a promoted tweet – and so clearly paid for:

»

Political advertising on social media is a difficult area to regulate in the UK. Laws on political advertising at election time doesn’t cover social media campaigning. The government might use advertising in other areas to promote the effectiveness of public policies – such as to encourage us to smoke less. However, in this case the intended message is to convince the public that the draft Withdrawal Agreement is a good idea – a message predominantly political in nature at the most politically sensitive of times.

The money spent on this advert in my feed is public money: our money. Government revenue, of course, largely comes from taxpayer income. On this basis, Number 10 seems to be investing in political campaigning from the public purse in an effort to ensure the prime minister’s survival.

There are usually strict, legally binding, spending limits set on how much each campaign can spend at an election or referendum, and campaigns are legally required to disclose sources of their funding. After the 2016 EU referendum, the Leave campaign was fined for overspending, and there are still police investigations in progress to discover the source of that revenue.

Read more: Arron Banks criminal investigation: could evidence against him make Brexit void?

The reason why this matters is that there should not be unfair advantages in important electoral contests such as referendums. The result should be influenced by the people’s preferences, rather than the side which has the most money. Spending limits – and regulations governing political advertising on television – are a way of limiting this influence.

«

No doubt about it, No.10 is playing some dirty hockey here.
link to this extract


Despite CRISPR baby controversy, Harvard University will begin gene-editing sperm • MIT Technology Review

Antonio Regalado:

»

At [Harvard University’s] Stem Cell Institute, IVF doctor and scientist Werner Neuhausser says he plans to begin using CRISPR, the gene-editing tool, to change the DNA code inside sperm cells. The objective: to show whether it is possible to create IVF babies with a greatly reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

To be clear, there are no embryos involved—no attempt to make a baby. Not yet. Instead, the researchers are practicing how to change the DNA in sperm collected from Boston IVF, a large national fertility-clinic network. This is still very basic, and unpublished, research.

Yet in its purpose the project is similar to the work undertaken in China and raises the same fundamental question: does society want children with genes tailored to prevent disease?

Since Sunday, when the CRISPR babies claims was made public, medical bodies and experts have ferociously condemned He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist responsible. There is evidence his experiments—now halted—were carried forward in an unethical, deceptive manner that may have endangered the children he created. China’s vice minister of science and technology, Xu Nanping, said the effort “crossed the line of morality and ethics and was shocking and unacceptable.”

Amid the condemnation, though, it was easy to lose track of what the key experts were saying. Technology to alter heredity is for real. It is improving very quickly, it has features that will make it safe, and much wider exploratory use to create children could be justified soon. 

«

Ambitious.
link to this extract


Fun with charts: The iPad bests the MacBook • Six Colors

Jason Snell takes a look at what the benchmarks say about the latest iPads v the latest MacBook (Pro or plain):

»

You might say it’s not fair to compare these devices because the iPad Pro is a computer but not a PC. But even if you don’t buy the fact that the iPad Pro is perhaps the best value in terms of processor performance in Apple’s mobile product lineup today, you’ve got to admire the power of that eight-core A12X Bionic processor. The only MacBooks that can beat it right now in overall score are the two fastest 15-inch MacBook Pro models.

(For those who are concerned that only measuring multi-processor scores is unfair because so many software tasks aren’t multithreaded and have to push a single processor core to the limit—don’t sweat it. The iPad Pro still comes out on top in all the single-core versions of these measurements.)

«

This is pretty dramatic: in price/performance terms, the iPads are miles ahead. That probably applies for non-Apple PCs too. Though as Snell says, there are other criteria too.
link to this extract


On Switching from an iPad Pro and a Macbook to a Pixelbook • Fraser Speirs

Fraser (who I’ve known for years) drove the first “all iPad” school in Scotland – perhaps the world – but on becoming head teacher, found his iPad Pro wasn’t up to the job:

»

mainly what happened [is] my work took me outside that boundary of complexity and duration that the iPad can support.

At the same time, Chromebooks have been on the rise. They are killing Apple in US K-12 education but it’s still not clear exactly what impact they are having on the wider market if any. It does seem obvious to me, though, that Google knows exactly where their strength lies and it actually has very little to do with ChromeOS itself.

My school runs on GSuite but we usually access it through iPads. What I have found, though, is that the GSuite iOS apps are not very good. They lack important (and sometimes basic) functionality found in the web version of GSuite and they take a long time to adopt iOS platform features.

The point, though, is that GSuite is so powerful and so much at the heart of everything I do at school that if you asked me to decide between giving up GSuite and giving up iPad, I’m afraid iPad has to go. It is for this reason that I have been vocally advocating that Apple make iOS Safari as close to a “desktop class” browser as it can be. I don’t know the technical reasons why GSuite can’t be accessed in Safari on iOS. I don’t know if the browser has limitations that mean the apps genuinely can’t run in it, or whether they could but Google just chooses not to allow it.

I’m entirely willing to believe that this isn’t Apple’s fault. That doesn’t mean it’s not their problem. Lack of feature-complete access to GSuite is, I believe, as serious a risk to Apple in K-12 as the potential lack of Photoshop and Office on Mac OS X was to its role in business back in the early 2000s.

None of this is to say that iPad and iOS has suddenly become a bad platform. It has not – although I could make a strong case that every change made to multitasking in iOS 11 worsened the experience in every way. iPad is still a good platform for the things it was good at back in 2015/16 when I was using it full time. What has really changed more than anything are my own personal computing needs and the strength of the competition.

«

If I try to access docs.google.com on the iPad, Google flat-out refuses and insists I use the Google Docs app. Personally, I don’t like that.
link to this extract


Covering a White House where news is always just a tap away • The New York Times

Katie Rogers, who covers the White House for the NYT, interviews herself:

»

How have you seen White House tech evolve under President Trump?

I think moment-to-moment digital coverage of every single thing the president does is new with this White House. President Barack Obama had people tracking his movements through Twitter and beyond, but with this administration, journalists live-tweet, photograph and send video from pool sprays (brief Oval Office events) and Marine One departures, in addition to news conferences.

If I’m on the road, it’s easy for me to tune into a pool spray or speech through someone else’s Periscope live-streaming account, for instance. And when the president is at one of his properties, including the Trump Hotel or Mar-a-Lago, I often lurk on Instagram to see who is hanging out with him.

The Trump White House also had journalists switch over to an in-house Wi-Fi network, which made some reporters understandably uncomfortable for security reasons. The West Wing has also made more use out of devices that scan for gadgets including phones — I can understand why Signal is so popular. I think the anxiety over surveillance is perhaps more heightened than it was under the Obama administration, which, by the way, did its part to pave the way for these types of procedures.

What are your most important tech tools for keeping up with breaking news from the White House and talking to your sources?

I’ve been on this beat since January. I thought I was pretty much tethered to the news before, but this job requires you to imbibe a daily tidal wave of news. So that’s fun.

A lot of my monitoring is Twitter-based, so I use tools I’ve relied on for years. I use Nuzzel, a social news app that lets me know what the people I follow on social media are sharing, which is helpful for identifying the stories getting traction. And I use Twitter’s list function to sort all of the noise into manageable buckets: I have lists of White House reporters, politicians, White House aides and Washington chatterboxes.

«

And of course Signal for keeping in touch secretly with contacts. What she has to say about the Trumps’ use of technology might surprise you.
link to this extract


Elton John is not the man they think he is at home • Vulture.com

Bill Wyman with a biographical piece on Reg Dwight, as seen in TV ads and on a farewell tour:

»

In “Blues for Baby and Me,” John begs his (female) lover to come with him and head West on a bus. This matters, right? Hard to imagine John himself would ever want to induce a woman onto a bus in the first place, much less head West on it. And then, even as John collected Rolls-Royces and embarked on a jet-setting lifestyle that would span nearly five decades, again and again he delivered Taupin’s laments of the country boy scalded by the hot flame of the city (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Honky Cat,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and on and on). And yet he sang the songs, convincingly, and we accordingly projected onto him the romantic schema of Taupin’s conception. Insular, shy Reg found that this suited him just fine; his great talent was to adopt the persona and rise up and make those flights of fancy real for his listeners. This is an old pop model — the rock one of authenticity calls for the singer to write his or her own songs, right? John upended that and used Taupin’s fanciful concoctions to maintain an image of harmlessness.

«

It’s a thorough, fascinating piece. I just kept thinking – it’s not that Bill Wyman, is it?
link to this extract


How many times has your personal information been exposed to hackers? • The New York Times

K.K. Rebecca Lai, Nicole Perlroth, Tiffany Hsu and Josh Keller:

»

There’s been another mega-breach. Marriott said Friday that information for as many as 500 million of its customers may have been stolen. Answer the questions below to learn which parts of your identity may have been stolen in the last five years. Not all attacks are included here, and many attacks go undetected, so think of your results as a minimum level of exposure.

«

Excellent graphic; you don’t even have to have gone to the US to have had a ton of your data exposed.
link to this extract


iPhone ‘Heart Rate’ app on App Store attempts to scam customers out of $90 using Touch ID [since removed] • 9to5Mac

Zac Hall:

»

Despite Apple’s strict review process for software distributed through the App Store, it’s still possible for malicious actors to take advantage of loop holes in the system to scam customers.

The latest example is a rather sophisticated and devious trick used by an app that claims to read your heart rate through your fingertip using Touch ID. In reality, the app (which is currently on the App Store) uses your fingerprint to authorize a transaction for $89.99 while dramatically dimming the screen to fool you.

The con is less effective on iPhones and iPads with Face ID (iPhone X and later and iPad Pro 2018), but iOS devices with Touch ID are still likely the majority of devices in use today.

Using a third-party app from the App Store to read your heart rate from the iPhone or iPad isn’t uncommon either. Apps like Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor have long used the camera and flash to attempt to take heart rate measurements through the finger.

In the case of the ‘Heart Rate Measurement’ app currently on the App Store, the scam relies on a user not reading the dialog box that appears when a heart rate reading is attempted. The screen brightness drops to its lowest point and the black and white in-app purchase user interface is almost illegible compared to the bright red fingerprint icon that appears on-screen with Touch ID devices.

While the app clearly violates App Store policy for misleading customers with ridiculous in-app purchases unrelated to the app’s function, it’s possible that the trick used by the app was added after Apple’s app review process.

«

Now removed. But that’s super-sneaky.
link to this extract


Google Pixel Slate review: slapdash software ruins good hardware • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

»

When you have a keyboard attached, the Pixel Slate works like any other Chromebook. There’s a mouse and resizable windows. You can open up Chrome tabs, web apps, and Android apps, and move them around. It’s all really familiar if you’ve used a modern Chromebook — down to Android apps working but feeling like an invasive species.

Here’s where we get into those tiny indignities I mentioned earlier. We’re a year and a half into the experiment of letting Google Play Store Android apps run on Chrome OS, and that experiment is not going well.

Progress in getting Android apps to work better on big screens has been painfully slow. Spotify only recently began allowing the ability to resize its app window, but it’s still just a silly blown-up phone app. The same goes with Google’s own apps. YouTube Music is a mess on this size screen. And you as a user have to make decisions about which version of apps like YouTube Music to use in the first place: the web app or the Android app?

I can accept some of these foibles because I have managed to only use Android apps in a few places where I really need them. And, honestly, they are sometimes more useful than web apps. What I have a harder time accepting is that there are just too many bugs. My first review unit spiraled into a bootloop that Google could not diagnose and had to replace. The second has been more stable, except that sometimes Bluetooth disconnects or even straight up refuses to turn on until after a reboot.

Here, I’ll remind you that Google excised the headphone jack from this device so you’ll be dependent on Bluetooth a lot more. I have contacted Google about the Bluetooth bug (among other things), and here’s its statement: “We’ve received reports about intermittent Bluetooth issues and are working on a fix as soon as possible.”

Other bugs are just sort of infuriating.

«

The advantage that this does have over the iPad is that the software is on a six-week update cycle. That’s about eight per year. Question is, can Google get the focus to make it work? Mashable has a similarly discouraging review which concludes “Just get a Surface Pro”.
link to this extract


2019 is your last year to use Google Hangouts if you haven’t moved on already • 9to5 Google

Stephen Hall:

»

According to source familiar with the product’s internal roadmap, Google Hangouts for consumers will be shutting down sometime in 2020. That’s not surprising at all since Google essentially ceased development on the app more than a year ago. But just know, going into 2019, this is indeed your last year to keep using the beloved (?) legacy chat app.

Last spring, Google announced its pivot for the Hangouts brand to enterprise use cases with Hangouts Chat and Hangouts meet, so the writing has been on the wall for quite some time regarding the Hangouts consumer app’s demise. Meanwhile, Google has transitioned its consumer-facing messaging efforts to RCS ‘Chat’ and Android Messages following Allo’s misadventures.

Given the Google’s abandonment of the app in terms of development and its presumed eventual death, many have already transitioned away from using it. But Hangouts is still the prominent chat option in Gmail on the web and the app remains on the Google Play Store to this day. Many recent reviews say that the app is showing signs of age, noting bugs and performance issues.

«

However Google’s Hangouts chief Scott Johnston rebutted parts of the claim; Hangouts “classic” will close but “the migration to Chat and Meet will ensure the messaging platform lives on, and that support continues.”

Choices when using Google messaging programs: (1) use the oldest, as it’ll have the most users and be most feature-complete. Risk: gets shut down
(2) use the newest, as it’ll have the whizziest features. Risk: buggy and nobody else uses it.

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.964: Indian virus scam arrests, loot boxes investigated, Microsoft v Apple, Mic drops, and more


Smartphone maker Gionee’s chief executive lost millions gambling. His company’s going down too. CC-licensed photo by John Wardell 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. Indubitably. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

That virus alert on your computer? Scammers in India may be behind it • The New York Times

Vindu Goel and Suhasini Raj:

»

On Tuesday and Wednesday, police from two Delhi suburbs raided 16 fake tech-support centers and arrested about three dozen people. Last month, the Delhi authorities arrested 24 people in similar raids on 10 call centers.

In Gautam Budh Nagar, one of the suburbs, 50 police officers swept into eight centers on Tuesday night. Ajay Pal Sharma, the senior superintendent of police there, said the scammers had extracted money from thousands of victims, most of whom were American or Canadian.

“The modus operandi was to send a pop-up on people’s systems using a fake Microsoft logo,” Mr. Sharma said. After the victims contacted the call center, the operator, pretending to be a Microsoft employee, would tell them that their system had been hacked or attacked by a virus. The victims would then be offered a package of services ranging from $99 to $1,000 to fix the problem, he said.

Such scams are widespread, said Courtney Gregoire, an assistant general counsel in Microsoft’s digital crimes unit.

Microsoft, whose Windows software runs most personal computers, gets 11,000 or so complaints about the scams every month, she said, and its internet monitors spot about 150,000 pop-up ads for the services every day. The company’s own tech-support forums, where people can publicly post items, also see a steady stream of posts offering fake tech-support services.

…The scam is quite lucrative. Researchers at Stony Brook University, who published a detailed study of fake tech-support services last year, estimated that a single pop-up campaign spread over 142 web domains brought in nearly $10m in just two months.

«

When I first reported on this in 2010, the focus was in Mumbai, but anywhere with a call centre will do. It’s endless: there’s always a call centre list, always willing people to run the scam, money to be made, people do be duped.

But you’d think they could stop the popup ads.
link to this extract


Major sites running unauthenticated JavaScript on their payment pages • Terence Eden’s Blog

Terence Eden:

»

A few months ago, British Airways’ customers had their credit card details stolen. How was this possible? The best guess goes something like this:
• BA had 3rd party JS on its payment page
• The 3rd party’s site was hacked, and the JS was changed.
• BA’s customers ran the script, which then harvested their credit card details as they were typed in.

This should have been a wake-up call to the industry. Don’t load unauthenticated code on your website – and especially not on your payments page.

«

Deliveroo, Spotify, The Guardian, Fanduel, EasyJet (sorta), and British Airways. Argh.
link to this extract


Microsoft is worth as much as Apple (again). How did that happen? • The New York Times

Steve Lohr on how Microsoft’s market capitalisation has come back to match – even pass – Apple’s:

»

There is a short-term explanation for Microsoft’s market rise, and there is a longer-term one.

The near-term, stock-trading answer is that Microsoft has held up better than others during the recent sell-off of tech company shares. Apple investors are worried about a slowdown in iPhone sales. Facebook and Google face persistent attacks on their role in distributing false news and conspiracy theories, and investor concerns that their privacy policies could scare off users and advertisers.

But the more enduring and important answer is that Microsoft has become a case study of how a once-dominant company can build on its strengths and avoid being a prisoner of its past. It has fully embraced cloud computing, abandoned an errant foray into smartphones and returned to its roots as mainly a supplier of technology to business customers.

That strategy was outlined by Satya Nadella shortly after he became chief executive in 2014. Since then, Microsoft’s stock price has nearly tripled…

…Mr. Nadella made the cloud service a top priority, and the company is now a strong No. 2 to Amazon. Microsoft has nearly doubled its share of that market to 13% since the end of 2015, according to the Synergy Research Group. Amazon’s share has held steady at 33% over that span.

Microsoft has also retooled its popular Office apps like Word, Excel and PowerPoint in a cloud version, Office 365. That offering caters to people who prefer to use software as an internet service and gives Microsoft a competitive entry against online app suppliers like Google.

«

Satya Nadella, without a doubt, has executed perfectly.
link to this extract


Facebook considered charging for access to user data • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman and Kirsten Grind:

»

Internal emails show Facebook Inc. FB +1.89% considered charging companies for continued access to user data several years ago, a step that would have marked a dramatic shift away from the social-media giant’s policy of not selling that information, according to an unredacted court document viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The emails in the document also indicate that Facebook employees discussed pushing some advertisers to spend more in return for increased access to user information.

Taken together, the internal emails show the company discussing how to monetize its user data in ways that are employed by some other tech firms but that Facebook has said it doesn’t do.

At a congressional hearing in April, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said, “I can’t be clearer on this topic: We don’t sell data.”

The emails—most from about 2012 to 2014—are far from conclusive, lacking context and in some cases truncated. But they provide a window into mostly sealed court filings—which a British lawmaker has pledged to make public next week—from a lawsuit against Facebook filed by a company called Six4Three LLC…

…The Wall Street Journal viewed three pages of unredacted material from one 18-page document that showed portions of some internal emails. In other court filings, Facebook said these excerpts were subsequently redacted because they contained “sensitive discussion of Facebook’s internal strategic analysis of third-party applications, the release of which could damage Facebook’s relationships” with those apps.

«

Or you can go and read them unredacted at Ars Technica, where Cyrus Farivar discovered you could just put the document into a text editor and, aha. (Choose the text option.)

The discussion it reveals, via internal Facebook emails, is pretty shocking.
link to this extract


New bill would make cash-free businesses illegal in New York • Grub Street

Alexia Tsoulis-Reay:

»

New York city councilmember Ritchie J. Torres will formally introduce legislation that could ban so-called cashless businesses from operating in New York City. Like lawmakers in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey, Torres, who represents the 15th Council District in the central Bronx, believes that cash-free establishments are discriminatory by design. If his bill is passed, any business that refuses to accept cash will face fines — a move that would impact the many cash-free restaurants, coffee shops, and cafés that have recently emerged across New York City. On the eve of announcing his bill, Grub Street talked to him about the racism and classism that he believes are at the heart of the so called “cashless revolution.”

Q: How did you become aware of cash-free businesses?
RJT: I started coming across coffee shops and cafés that were exclusively cashless and I thought: But what if I was a low-income New Yorker who has no access to a card? I thought about it more and realized that even if a policy seems neutral in theory, it can be racially exclusionary in practice. Therein lies the problem with card-only policies. I see it as a way to gentrify the marketplace.

Paper money is a universal currency. We all use it at some point in our lives, and delegitimizing paper money with a card-only policy should be unlawful.

Q: Why do you think cashless business models “gentrify the marketplace”?
RJT: On the surface, cashlessness seems benign, but when you reflect on it, the insidious racism that underlies a cashless business model becomes clear. In some ways, making a card a requirement for consumption is analogous to making identification a requirement for voting. The effect is the same: It disempowers communities of color.

These are public accommodations. The Civil Rights Act established a framework for prohibiting discrimination in matters of housing, employment, and public accommodations. If you’re intent on a cashless business model, it will have the effect of excluding lower-income communities of color from what should be an open and free market.

«

link to this extract


iOS 12 adoption crosses 75%, according to Mixpanel, beating iOS 11 upgrade rate • 9to5Mac

Benjamin Mayo:

»

iOS 12 adoption continues to steadily increase, outpacing iOS 11 by several weeks. Last year, Mixpanel recorded 75% share for iOS 11 on December 17th. iOS 12 reached the same milestone yesterday, or about three weeks faster.

Mixpanel data comes from analytics frameworks inside apps and mobile websites, logging the OS version for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch devices it sees in the wild …

The analytics company currently says that iOS 12 has a 75.05% share of the iOS install base, with iOS 11 at 19.5% and older versions making up less than 5.5% of the total pie.

Both Mixpanel’s data and Apple’s official charts show that iOS 12 adoption is happening at a faster rate than iOS 11, but both vary a bit on the nominal percentage figures.

For its part, Apple said that iOS 12 crossed the 50% mark on October 10th. As of October 29, it reported that 60% of all devices are using iOS 12. When it next updates its chart, it should be comfortably above the 70% mark.

iOS 11 was widely seen as a fumble in software quality, which led to Apple making performance a key focus of iOS 12. The strategy certainly seems to have paid off, with many customers reporting that their ‘old’ phones (especially devices like iPhone 5s and 6 Plus) have been given a fresh breath of life. There also have not been any major showstopper bugs associated with the iOS 12 launch.

«

Mixpanel’s data tends to skew American; Apple doesn’t seem to give this adoption data any more. (It used to be on its developer site.)
link to this extract


Mic has laid off the majority of its staff • Recode

Peter Kafka:

»

Mic is laying off the majority off its staff, while the digital publisher works on a deal to sell the remainder of its assets to Bustle Digital Group.

Mic CEO Chris Altchek announced the layoffs at a staff meeting this morning. Until today the company had employed more than 100 people. I’ve asked Mic to provide details on the layoffs, including the total number of people who will lose their jobs.

Cory Haik, Mic’s publisher, has already left the company. I’m told that the under the proposed terms of the Bustle deal, Altchek and co-founder Jake Horowitz would stay on after the acquisition.

Mic raised more than $60m to build a millennial-focused news company, but couldn’t find a business model to support its costs, which include a two-floor office in Manhattan’s World Trade Center.

Facebook recently cancelled a deal with Mic to publish a news video series.

«

Great ways to burn through $60m in seven years: rent two floors of prime real estate in New York, plus others in other cities; and be a web property whose domain name isn’t a Googlewhack. (By comparison I offer you “daring fireball” and “asymco”, both Googlewhacks in their beginnings.)

Once you’ve done that, failure is pretty much assured. Sympathies to those laid off, but the warning signs were there long ago. Suggestions are that Bustle (which is skilled at buying distressed media properties) might buy it for less than $10m. At its last funding round, Mic raised $21m at a valuation of hundreds of millions – don’t ask me how.
link to this extract


South Korea charges 11 with selling Samsung technology to China • Bloomberg

Sam Kim:

»

The chief executive officer of a Samsung supplier and eight of his employees received 15.5 billion won ($13.8m) after conspiring with two representatives of the Chinese company to transfer organic light-emitting diode knowhow, according to a statement from prosecutors in Suwon. The names of the companies and individuals weren’t disclosed.

Intellectual property theft is a national concern for South Korea as it tries to maintain its narrowing technology lead over China. The mainland is pouring billions into becoming self-sustaining in areas such as memory chips and displays, two fields where Samsung is the world leader. Curved-edge OLED screens have become a signature feature of the Suwon-based company’s high-end Galaxy smartphones, including the Note 9.

The US is also concerned about what it considers a state-backed campaign of technology theft by China. Earlier this year a former Apple Inc. engineer was arrested in the US on charges of stealing driverless car secrets. Earlier this month Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Co. and Taiwan’s United Microelectronics Corp. were indicted on charges they conspired to steal trade secrets form Micron Technology Inc…

…The South Korean supplier transferred “3D lamination” technology and other equipment to the Chinese screen maker between May and August, violating a non-disclosure agreement with Samsung, according to the prosecutors. They were caught while loading additional pieces onto a ship headed for the mainland, they said.

Prosecutors said the supplier sold the technology after its sales dipped and that the CEO set up a fake company headed by his sister-in-law. They accused him of building the equipment at another factory in an attempt to cover up the alleged plot.

«

link to this extract


The FTC may be coming after video game loot boxes • BGR

»

During a US Senate subcommittee hearing this week, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan grilled commissioners from the Federal Trade Commission about video game loot boxes — about how prevalent they are as well as the fact that stricter oversight of them might be needed. “Loot boxes are now endemic in the video game industry and are present in everything from casual smartphone games to the newest, high-budget video game releases,” she said during the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. “Loot boxes will represent a $50 billion industry by the year 2022, according to the latest research estimates.” She then asked commissioners if they would be willing to look more closely at their usage in video games, and the commissioners said they would.

A number of news headlines are out today saying the FTC will “investigate” loot boxes, but we should note the agency doesn’t appear to have given a full indication as of yet regarding the details here. Nevertheless, the various players are already reacting accordingly.

The Entertainment Software Association, for example, sent this position statement on loot boxes to Polygon following that Senate hearing. In it, the trade group tries to beat down the insinuation left in the hearing that loot boxes represent a form of gambling, which of course would need to be strictly regulated: “Loot boxes are one way that players can enhance the experience that video games offer. Contrary to assertions, loot boxes are not gambling. They have no real-world value, players always receive something that enhances their experience, and they are entirely optional to purchase. They can enhance the experience for those who choose to use them, but have no impact on those who do not.”

«

Entirely optional: true of gambling.
No impact on those who don’t do it: true of gambling (unless it’s used to fix matches, but that’s a different level of impact).
No real-world value: applies to casino chips and other gambling tokens.
Always receive something that enhances their experience: the point is that the value of the “something” is random compared to the amount paid. That is gambling.

Loot boxes are gambling. It’s about time.
link to this extract


Did ‘billion-dollar’ gambling loss in Saipan imperil Chinese smartphone maker Gionee? • South China Morning Post

Li Tao:

»

“I did participate in gambling in Saipan, but how could I possibly lose that much (10 billion yuan)? If it is true, shares of Imperial Pacific [the casino owner] should have surged,” Liu Lirong, Gionee’s chairman and chief executive, said in an interview with Securities Times in Hong Kong at the weekend, responding to recent reports that his gambling loss of 10bn yuan (US$1.44bn) had resulted in the collapse of Gionee.

When asked how much he lost gambling, Liu told the Securities Times reporter, “a bit more than 1 billion yuan”.

Gionee, which ranked behind Apple in sixth place for handset sales in China last year, is now on the verge of bankruptcy restructuring as suppliers have halted component sales after failing to receive payments for several months, according to the report. Liu admitted in the interview that Gionee’s total debts amount to 17bn yuan ($2.45bn), with 10bn yuan of this owed to banks, 5bn yuan to upstream suppliers and about 2bn to advertising agencies.

As the “absolute authority” at Gionee – a company he founded – for 16 years, Liu said in the interview that he may have confused his private assets with those belonging to the company as he has borrowed frequently over the years for personal reasons…

…Liu denied in the interview that Gionee’s troubles were primarily the result of his gambling. He said the company had been losing money since the beginning of 2013, with average losses of no less than 100m yuan per month between 2013 and 2015, and the monthly loss further widened to no less than 200m yuan in the past two years.

«

Gionee was apparently the fifth biggest phone maker in China; sold about 40m handsets in 2016; last public product launch in November 2017; fired half its factory staff in April. As I said: time to leave the dancefloor.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.963: the headphones vulnerable to hacking, Amazon gets chippy, tracking a novel’s progress, AutoCAD malware?!, and more


Amazon’s new Textract might be able to OCR the text – and tables – if you can scan it. CC-licensed photo by Thom Watson 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 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How restaurants got so loud • The Atlantic

Kate Wagner:

»

Other sounds that reach 70 decibels include freeway noise, an alarm clock, and a sewing machine. But it’s still quiet for a restaurant. Others I visited in Baltimore and New York City while researching this story were even louder: 80 decibels in a dimly lit wine bar at dinnertime; 86 decibels at a high-end food court during brunch; 90 decibels at a brewpub in a rehabbed fire station during Friday happy hour.

Restaurants are so loud because architects don’t design them to be quiet. Much of this shift in design boils down to changing conceptions of what makes a space seem upscale or luxurious, as well as evolving trends in food service. Right now, high-end surfaces connote luxury, such as the slate and wood of restaurants including The Osprey in Brooklyn or Atomix in Manhattan.

This trend is not limited to New York. According to Architectural Digest, mid-century modern and minimalism are both here to stay. That means sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears. No soft goods and tall ceilings mean nothing is absorbing sound energy, and a room full of hard surfaces serves as a big sonic mirror, reflecting sound around the room.

The result is a loud space that renders speech unintelligible. Now that it’s so commonplace, the din of a loud restaurant is unavoidable. That’s bad for your health—and worse for the staff who works there. But it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.

«

link to this extract


Sennheiser headset software could allow man-in-the-middle SSL attacks • Bleeping Computer

Lawrence Abrams:

»

When users have been installing Sennheiser’s HeadSetup software, little did they know that the software was also installing a root certificate into the Trusted Root CA Certificate store. To make matters worse, the software was also installing an encrypted version of the certificate’s private key that was not as secure as the developers may have thought.

Similar to the Lenovo SuperFish fiasco, this certificate and its associated private key, was the same for everyone who installed the particular software. Due to this it could allow an attacker who was able to decrypt the private key to issue fraudulent certificates under other domain that they have no control over. This would allow them to perform man-in-the-middle attacks to sniff the traffic when a user visits these sites.

While these certificate files are deleted when a user uninstalls the HeadSetup software, the trusted root certificate was not removed. This would allow an attacker who had the right private key to continue to perform attacks even when the software was no longer installed on the computer.

According to a vulnerability disclosure issued today by security consulting firm Secorvo these certificates were discovered when doing a random check of a computer’s Trusted Root Certificate CA store.

«

Whaaaat. Some time later:

»

Now that they had access to the private key for the root certificate, they were able to generate a wild card certificate that signs traffic from google.com, sennheiser.com, and for fun, some of the headset maker’s competitors – jbl.com, harmankardon.com, and bose.com.

«

link to this extract


Amazon Textract: extract text and data • AWS

»

Amazon Textract is a service that automatically extracts text and data from scanned documents. Amazon Textract goes beyond simple optical character recognition (OCR) to also identify the contents of fields in forms and information stored in tables.

Many companies today extract data from documents and forms through manual data entry that’s slow and expensive or through simple optical character recognition (OCR) software that is difficult to customize. Rules and workflows for each document and form often need to be hard-coded and updated with each change to the form or when dealing with multiple forms. If the form deviates from the rules, the output is often scrambled and unusable.

Amazon Textract overcomes these challenges by using machine learning to instantly “read” virtually any type of document to accurately extract text and data without the need for any manual effort or custom code.

«

Ooo. There’s a free tier. Or $1.50 per thousand pages. Now in preview. (Is that Amazonese for “beta”?)
link to this extract


Amazon Web Services introduces its own custom-designed Arm server processor, promises 45% lower costs for some workloads • GeekWire

»

After years of waiting for someone to design an Arm server processor that could work at scale on the cloud, Amazon Web Services just went ahead and designed its own.

Vice president of infrastructure Peter DeSantis introduced the AWS Graviton Processor Monday night, adding a third chip option for cloud customers alongside instances that use processors from Intel and AMD. The company did not provide a lot of details about the processor itself, but DeSantis said that it was designed for scale-out workloads that benefit from a lot of servers chipping away at a problem.

The new instances will be known as EC2 A1, and they can run applications written for Amazon Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and Ubuntu. They are generally available in four regions: US East (Northern Virginia), US East (Ohio), US West (Oregon), and Europe (Ireland).

Intel dominates the market for server processors, both in the cloud and in the on-premises server market. AMD has tried to challenge that lead over the years with little success, although its new Epyc processors have been well-received by server buyers and cloud companies like AWS.

But lots of companies have tried and failed to build attractive server processors using the Arm architecture, which enjoys the same market share in mobile phones as Intel does in the data centre.

«

Amazon bought its own company to do this. It’s able to figure out the cost-benefit because it knows precisely what it needs the chips to do, rather than the generalised ones that other companies have tried to sell it. That’s what the ARM architecture tends to be about.
link to this extract


C M Taylor on ‘keystroke logging project’ with British Library • English and Drama blog

»

Re-entering the academic world after starting work as an Associate Lecturer on the Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University, I began speculating about writers’ archives. Did previous scholars have access to more hand-written and typed drafts of works in progress – actual objects showing the shaping of works of art – but with the normalisation of computerized authorship, were these discrete drafts abolished in the rolling palimpsest of write and digital rewrite?

Plus, I was considering a new novel myself, but as I have written elsewhere, emotionally I was daunted by the long-haul loneliness of novel writing, a process I considered in my most despairing moments as like wallpapering a dungeon.

I spoke to my friend Mark about these two things – the lost drafts and the loneliness – and in a flash he had the answer: ‘Put a piece of malware on it.’

He meant that if I put some malware, or spyware, on my computer to note everything I did, it would record all changes made to an evolving manuscript, plus it might offer a weird kind of company for me in my wallpapered dungeon.

It was worth a shot.

«

Generated 222GB of data across 108,318 files.
link to this extract


Bloomberg is still reporting on challenged story regarding China hardware hack • The Washington Post

Eric Wemple is the WaPo’s media critic:

»

In emails to employees at Apple, Bloomberg’s Ben Elgin has requested “discreet” input on the alleged hack. “My colleagues’ story from last month (Super Micro) has sparked a lot of pushback,” Elgin wrote on Nov. 19 to one Apple employee. “I’ve been asked to join the research effort here to do more digging on this … and I would value hearing your thoughts (whatever they may be) and guidance, as I get my bearings.”

One person who spoke with Elgin told the Erik Wemple Blog that the Bloomberg reporter made clear that he wasn’t part of the reporting team that produced “The Big Hack.” The goal of this effort, Elgin told the potential source, was to get to “ground truth”; if Elgin heard from 10 or so sources that “The Big Hack” was itself a piece of hackery, he would send that message up his chain of command. The potential source told Elgin that the denials of “The Big Hack” were “100% right.”

According to the potential source, Elgin also asked about the possibility that Peter Ziatek, senior director of information security at Apple, had written a report regarding a hardware hack affecting Apple. In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Ziatek says that he’d never written that report, nor is he aware of such a document. Following the publication of Bloomberg’s story, Apple conducted what it calls a “secondary” investigation surrounding its awareness of events along the lines of what was alleged in “The Big Hack.” That investigation included a full pat-down of Ziatek’s own electronic communications. It found nothing to corroborate the claims in the Bloomberg story, according to Ziatek.

«

Still wonder how Bloomberg is going to reverse the ferret on this one.
link to this extract


I’ve got a bridge to sell you: why AutoCAD malware keeps chugging on • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

The attacks aren’t new. Similar ones occurred as long ago as 2005, before AutoCAD provided the same set of robust defenses against targeted malware it does now. The attacks continued to go strong in 2009. A specific campaign recently spotted by security firm Forcepoint was active as recently as this year and has been active since at least 2014, an indication that malware targeting blueprints isn’t going away any time soon.

In an analysis expected to be published Wednesday, company researchers wrote:

»

CAD changed our modern life and, as an unfortunate side effect, industrial espionage also changed along with it. Design schemes, project plans, and similar vital documents are being stored and shared between parties in a digital manner. The value of these documents–especially in new and prospering industries such as renewable energy–have probably never been this high. All this makes it attractive for the more skilled cybercriminal groups to chip in: instead of spamming out millions of emails and waiting for people to fall for it, significantly more money can be realized by selling blueprints to the highest bidder.

«

Forcepoint said it has tracked more than 200 data sets and about 40 unique malicious modules, including one that purported to include a design for Hong Kong’s Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. The attacks include a precompiled and encrypted AutoLISP program titled acad.fas. It first copies itself to three locations in an infected computer to increase the chances it will be opened if it spreads to new computers. Infected computers also report to attacker-controlled servers, which use a series of obfuscated commands to download documents.

«

link to this extract


Are you sitting down? Standing desks are overrated • The New York Times

Aaron Carroll:

»

Let’s start with what we know about research on sitting, then explain why it can be misleading as it relates to work. A number of studies have found a significant association between prolonged sitting time over a 24-hour period and increased risk for cardiovascular disease. A 2015 study, for instance, followed more than 150,000 older adults — all of whom were healthy at the start of the study — for almost seven years on average. Researchers found that those who sat at least 12 hours a day had significantly higher mortality than those who sat for less than five hours per day.

A 2012 study in JAMA Internal Medicine followed more than 220,000 people for 2.8 years on average and found similar results. Prolonged sitting over the course of a day was associated with increased all-cause mortality across sexes, ages and body mass index. So did a smaller but longer (8.6 years on average) study published in 2015 in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health.

Another study from 2015, which followed more than 50,000 adults for more than three years, also found this relationship. But it found that context mattered. Prolonged sitting in certain situations — including when people were at work — did not have this same effect.

«

I’m not going to take this news… sitting down. No, wait.

Why might that be? Sitting itself may not be the problem; it may be a marker for other risk factors that would be associated with higher mortality. Unemployed or poorer people, who would also be more likely to have higher mortality, may be more likely to spend large amounts of time sitting at home. For some, sedentary time is a marker, not the cause, of bad outcomes.
link to this extract


Nintendo Switch loses shine with shipments seen missing target • Bloomberg

Yuji Nakamura:

»

With few attractive titles for the holiday shopping season and shipments on track to fall short of the company’s targets, doubts are growing whether Nintendo Co.’s Switch can ever become a mass-market product.

When the device debuted last year as a hybrid console that could be carried around, it was classic Nintendo — a new gadget that broke the norms of conventional video games. Equipped with a built-in screen and hypersensitive controllers, the Switch was billed as a worthy successor to the Wii, Nintendo’s rule-breaking blockbuster console.

The goal was to make the gaming experience as seamless as possible, while letting people use the product in new ways, such as turning it into a virtual piano or motorcycle. But so far, the Switch has struggled to find customers beyond a core fan base. The Switch is on track to reach 35 million unit shipments by March, according to the average of eight analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg, short of Nintendo’s target of 38 million.

After cramming its best franchises — Super Mario, Zelda and Splatoon — into the first 12 months, the Kyoto-based company was left with fewer games to show off in the second year, hurting hardware sales. Cardboard accessories introduced in April, called Nintendo Labo, have mostly failed to expand interest beyond those who were already planning to pick up a Switch.

“All great consoles need a great second year, and Nintendo hasn’t delivered one for the Switch,” said Cornelio Ash, an analyst at William O’Neil & Co. in Los Angeles. “Investors thought over five years they could sell maybe 90 million units. But after this year, that’s looking pretty much impossible.”

«

link to this extract


KodakOne allegedly owes developers over $100K in unpaid invoices • The Next Web

“Mix”:

»

In a series of email exchanges reviewed by Hard Fork, a group of contractors has accused KodakOne for failing to pay up their contracting fees in the agreed timeframe. The contractors are collectively seeking to receive over $125,000 in accumulated invoices, according to an email sent by a UK-based law firm on their behalf.

“Unfortunately apologies and unfulfilled promises of a payment proposal are not enabling my client to pay the people that did the work for [KodakOne],” the email shared with Hard Fork read. “Time is short and in the absence of any meaningful payment proposal, court proceedings will be commencing in [seven] days.”

The email was sent on behalf of European recruiting agency iFindTech, which purportedly helped KodakOne find talent to build its platform. The email was sent by law firm London Law Practice on October 26.

Indeed, the email exchanges show that at some point iFindTech reps advised contractors to cease work on KodakOne until all owed funds have been paid out.

«

Kodak has some problems.
link to this extract


Killing 3ve: how the FBI and tech industry took down a massive ad fraud scheme • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

»

In August 2017, the FBI organized a secret meeting of digital advertising and cybersecurity experts in a secure room in a Manhattan federal building. The roughly 30 people in attendance met to create a coordinated response to a massive ad fraud scheme that posed a risk to the global digital advertising industry and sparked a criminal investigation.

After an introduction by FBI agents, representatives from Google and bot-detection firm White Ops outlined the details of what the tech employees say is one of the largest and most sophisticated digital ad fraud operations they’d encountered.

Sandeep Swadia, the CEO of White Ops, called it a “very complex, ever-shifting maze,” while Scott Spencer, a Google product manager, labeled it a “multiheaded beast” in exclusive interviews with BuzzFeed News.

Eventually, they gave it a name: 3ve (pronounced “eve”).

Today the Department of Justice announced it has unsealed a 13-count indictment against eight men for charges including wire fraud, computer intrusion, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering for their alleged role in masterminding and operating 3ve. The government alleges they stole tens of millions of dollars by using “sophisticated computer programming and infrastructure around the world to exploit the digital advertising industry through fraud.”

«

link to this extract


US iOS users targeted by massive malvertising campaign • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

A cyber-criminal group known as ScamClub has hijacked over 300 million browser sessions over 48 hours to redirect users to adult and gift card scams, a cyber-security firm has revealed today.

The traffic hijacking has taken place via a tactic known as malvertising, which consists of placing malicious code inside online ads.

In this particular case, the code used by the ScamClub group hijacked a user’s browsing session from a legitimate site, where the ad was showing, and redirected victims through a long chain of temporary websites, a redirection chain that eventually ended up on a website pushing an adult-themed site or a gift card scam.

These types of malvertising campaigns have been going on for years, but this particular campaign stood out due to its massive scale, experts from cyber-security firm Confiant told ZDNet today.

“On November 12 we’ve seen a huge spike in our telemetry,” Jerome Dang, Confiant co-founder and CTO, told ZDNet in an email.

Dangu says his company worked to investigate the huge malvertising spike and discovered ScamClub activity going back to August this year.

“The difference is the volume,” Dango told us. “One of the reasons for the November 12 spike is that they were able to access a very large ad exchange. Previously they only had access to lower reputation ad networks which limited their visibility on premium websites.”

Dangu said that during the 48 hours during which the malvertising spike was active, 57% of Confiant’s customers were affected, showing the malvertising campaign’s huge reach.

He said that the malicious ads were created to look like ads for official Android apps (play.google.com), but in reality, they were engineered to hijack iOS US-based users and redirect them to ScamClub’s adult and gift card scams, where crooks tried to collect users’ personal and financial data via deceitful offers.

«

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: OK, so: it is the null allele of the CCR5 gene (mentioned in the story about a Chinese scientist altering babies’ DNA with CRISPR) which is of recent origin, according to Wikipedia, not the CCR5 gene itself. The point being though that the null allele seems to confer resistance against HIV, but has no obvious drawbacks. Well, apart from higher risk of a tick-borne encephalitis. Thanks to Chris Wolverton for pointing that out.

Start Up No.962: Google staff get restive, how will each MP vote?, bitcoin’s mining exodus, Android tablet pro, and more


Iran’s currency has crashed – and the Telegram app isn’t helping. CC-licensed photo by David Stanley on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Not regulated by the SEC. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Read Google employees’ open letter protesting Project Dragonfly

Sara Salinas and Jillian D’Onfro:

»

Google employees are calling on the company to cancel Project Dragonfly, an effort to create a censored search engine in China.

“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” an open letter signed by Google employees published Tuesday on Medium says. “After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case.”

Eleven Google employees had signed the letter as of its posting, and the number of signatures quickly grew, amounting to more than 100 several hours after it published.

Project Dragonfly has drawn criticism from human rights groups and US politicians since The Intercept first reported details about the internal effort this summer, and in August, thousands of Google employees signed a letter saying that it raised “urgent moral and ethical issues.”

«

Is Google losing its soul or finding it? Drifting away from its roots or rediscovering them? I get the feeling that the restive employees are actually trying to align the company with to its original utopian vision, of constantly improving the world through its products.
link to this extract


How will your MP vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal? • The Guardian

Jessica Elgot and Dan Sabbagh:

»

MPs may support or oppose the bill for a number of reasons: those on the government payroll, including cabinet ministers, must support the bill or resign. Those who have already resigned from government on this issue can be expected to vote against, as can those who have already submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister. Those of all parties who are campaigning for a “people’s vote” are also expected to vote against.

«

This is great – you can search for your MP by name or constituency. Of course, what people say or indicate today could all change in the next couple of weeks.
link to this extract


The app destroying Iran’s currency • Foreign Policy

Rohollah Faghihi:

»

As soon as it became clear that the United States would reimpose sanctions, many middle-class and wealthy Iranians felt a temptation to engage in currency trading, having concluded that the value of the rial would soon decline. For all these Iranians, the goal was to buy dollars. Some Iranians even sold their homes and invested the proceeds in dollars to preserve the value of their assets—or, simply, to secure a profit.

The fire sale of Iranian rials weakened the rial even further, and the Iranian government tried to arrest it in various ways, including by banning the official sale of foreign currency. But this only served to make the currency-trading market less transparent—and, correspondingly, more exploitative.

There has always been a gap between the more sophisticated currency traders and those driven by ignorance and fear, but the informal marketplace widened it. That has become especially evident on Tehran’s Ferdowsi Boulevard, the center of Iran’s informal money-changing economy, where anyone can bring rials in cash and walk away with U.S. bills.

In one instance on Ferdowsi, I recall seeing one elderly women bring the equivalent of her entirely yearly income and exchange it at a rate of 170,000 rials to the dollar—an offer significantly below what the rial was then worth, even as the consensus was that the currency was probably undervalued at that moment. The rial has yet to weaken to the point that the woman’s bet would have paid off.

Iran’s professional money traders increasingly use Telegram to exploit the black market’s lack of transparency to maximize their own profits, at the expense of their Iranian clients—and to the distress of the Iranian government. As one of the few social media or messaging apps that the Iranian government doesn’t censor, Telegram—specifically, the news feeds on its “channel” function, which allow posts to be distributed to anyone who chooses to sign up for them—has become one of the most trusted sources of news for Iranians, displacing state media and even ostensibly independent newspapers.

«

link to this extract


600K bitcoin miners shut down in last 2 weeks, F2Pool founder estimates • CoinDesk

Wolfie Zhao:

»

Between 600,000 and 800,000 bitcoin miners have shut down since mid-November, amid declines in price and hashrate across the network, according to the third-largest mining pool.

In an interview with CoinDesk, Mao Shixing, founder of F2pool, said his firm’s estimate takes into account the total network hashrate drop and the average hash power of older mining machines that are having a hard time generating profits.

According to data from blockchain.info, the bitcoin network’s entire hashrate, which captures the aggregated computing power on the world’s first blockchain, has dropped from around 47m tera-hashes per second (TH/s) on Nov. 10 to 41m on Nov. 24 – an almost 13% decline.

Mao explained most miners that may have halted operations are likely those using older models, such as the Antminer T9+ made by Bitmain and AvalonMiner 741 by Canaan Creative. These miners have an average hash power of around 10 TH/s and are estimated to be losing money right now, according to F2pool’s miner revenue index

…Stepping back, Mao said there are multiple factors that contributed to the shakeout among miners, including the recent market decline that followed the bitcoin cash hard fork on Nov. 15; an increase in electricity costs in China; and the fact that Chinese manufacturers are still racing to upgrade their products, making older machines increasingly uncompetitive.

«

The bitcoin cash hard fork increasingly looks like a key reason for the price crash of the past couple of weeks, by forcing some miners to liquidate large amounts of bitcoin in order to buy new kit. The question is whether once they have new kit they will find anyone interested in the processing they have to offer.
link to this extract


Check your repos… Crypto-coin-stealing code sneaks into fairly popular NPM lib (2m downloads per week) • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

»

A widely used Node.js code library listed in NPM’s warehouse of repositories was altered to include crypto-coin-stealing malware. The lib in question, event-stream, is downloaded roughly two million times a week by application programmers.

This vandalism is a stark reminder of the dangers of relying on deep and complex webs of dependencies in software: unless precautions are taken throughout the whole chain, any one component can be modified to break an app’s security. If your project uses event-stream in some way, and you should check to make sure you didn’t fetch and install the dodgy version during testing or deployment.

Here’s how it all started: a developer identified on GitHub as “right9control” volunteered to take over event-stream, which had been built by another dev. The JavaScript was then briefly updated to include another module, flatmap-stream, which was later modified to include Bitcoin-siphoning malware – prompting alarm yet again that those pulling third-party packages into their apps have no idea what that code may be doing.

A timeline can be found here, but in short: on September 9, right9control added flatmap-stream as a dependency to event-stream, and then on September 16, removed the dependency by implementing the code themselves. However, this latter change was not automatically pushed out to the library’s users. On October 5, flatmap-stream was altered by a user called “hugeglass” to include obfuscated code that attempted to drain Bitcoins from wallets using the software.

«

As he says, the interdependencies and reliance on third-party code is becoming a serious problem. Recall that the British Airways hack earlier this summer occurred in a broadly similar way: BA’s site was hacked so that a small bit of code loaded from BA’s site for baggage checkin would send credit card details to a hacking group.
link to this extract


Special report: little known to many investors, cryptocurrency reviews are for sale • Reuters

Anna Irrera:

»

Earlier this year, Ukrainian startup Hacken was looking to promote its new coin after raising $3m online in late 2017. Chief executive Dmytro Budorin and his team identified a list of almost 200 cryptocurrency social media personalities they thought could help them, he said.

Hacken paid $7,500 for Christopher Greene, host of Alternative Media Television – a YouTube channel with more than 500,000 subscribers – to review its coin in a video, Budorin told Reuters. In the 25-minute video, published on June 22, Greene raved about Hacken’s coin and business, describing it as a “huge market opportunity” with “potential 1,000x returns.”

Nowhere in the video – which has more than 92,000 views – is Hacken’s payment to Greene mentioned. Greene, who used to work for wealth management firm Merrill Lynch, directs viewers in the first minute of the video to a disclaimer on his website that states he “may receive compensation for products and services” that he recommends. There is no specific mention of Hacken, or any specific cryptocurrency issuers, paying him.

Greene did not respond to emails and phone messages from Reuters asking about his work for Hacken.

Four days after the YouTube review was published, Greene turned to Twitter to brag that Hacken’s coin was up 14% on the day to $1.54 per coin.

Some people paid attention. Carter Zurawel, a yoga instructor in Calgary, Canada, replied to Greene’s tweet: “That Hacken video was great man! Made me buy a couple hundred.”

The token’s price has since fallen by more than 75% to 36 cents. Zurawel told Reuters in Twitter messages that he lost much of his initial investment, worth several hundred dollars. He said he was not aware that Greene was paid for his Hacken video, but he shrugged off the poor performance of the currency. “I will probably hold onto it because I strongly believe that the cryptocurrency market will rally in the future,” he told Reuters.

«

🙄
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Fortnite hits 200 million registered users • Fortune

Chris Morris:

»

If you’re a parent who’s tired of Fortnite, we’ve got some bad news for you. It’s not going anywhere.

Epic Games reports the number of registered users for the game has hit 200 million—up from 125 million in June and a mere 40 million in January.

That’s a phenomenal growth rate for the free-to-play game, which has turned into a cash machine for Epic and its part owner Tencent Games as players spend freely on in-game items.

The title, which crossed the $1 billion dollar sales threshold in July, has become a touchstone in the gaming world. New releases from competitors now need to include a battle royale multiplayer mode, offering their own take on the gameplay style. This is where players are dropped into an ever-shrinking area and the last one alive wins the game.

Both Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Take-Two Interactive Software’s Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, have competing modes.

While 200 million is an impressive number of registered users, it’s unclear how many of those users are actively playing the game. Earlier this month, Fortnite hit a record of 8.3 million concurrent players.

«

Lots registered, but few active? Then again, wait for the school holidays.
link to this extract


Facebook is failing its black employees and its black users • Mark Luckie on Facebook

Luckie sent this memo (excerpted here) Facebook-wide on his last day at the company earlier this month:

»

Black people are one of the most engaged demographics on Facebook…

Black people are far outpacing other groups on the platform in a slew of engagement metrics. African Americans are more likely to use Facebook to communicate with family and friends daily, according to research commissioned by Facebook. 63% use Facebook to communicate with family, and 60% use Facebook to communicate with friends at least once a day, compared to 53% and 54% of the total population, respectively. 70% of black U.S. adults use Facebook and 43% use Instagram, according to the Pew Research Center. 55% of black millennials report spending at least one hour a day on social networking sites, 6% higher than all millennials, while 29% say they spend at least three hours a day, 9% higher than all millennials, Nielsen surveys found. Black people are driving the kind of meaningful social interactions Facebook is striving to facilitate.

…but their experiences are sometimes far from positive.

Black people are finding that their attempts to create “safe spaces” on Facebook for conversation among themselves are being derailed by the platform itself. Non-black people are reporting what are meant to be positive efforts as hate speech, despite them often not violating Facebook’s terms of service. Their content is removed without notice. Accounts are suspended indefinitely.

When these rulings are upheld with little recourse, it upends the communities of color Facebook claims to be supporting. It decreases the likelihood that people will continue to engage at the same level on our platform. Even high-profile figures who are plagued with these issues sometimes have to wait until it’s a major press story for it to be addressed.

There is a prevailing theory among many black users that their content is more likely to be taken down on the platform than any other group. Even though the theories are mostly anecdotal, Facebook does little to dissuade people from this idea. Black people continue to use the platform because for many it is still their best way to connect directly with the causes they care about. Our communities should be able to trust that we have their best interests at heart.

«

link to this extract


Working on an Android tablet, 2017 edition • Henri Bergius

Bergius is a startup worker and programmer, and uses a Google Pixel C tablet with its keyboard for all his daily work:

»

So, why work on Android instead of getting an iPad Pro? I’ve actually worked on both, and here are my reasons:

• Communications between apps: while iOS has extensions now, the ability to send data from an app to another is still a hit-or-miss. Android had intents from day one, meaning pretty much any app can talk to any other app
• Standard charging: all of my other devices charge with the same USB-C chargers and cables. iPads still use the proprietary Lightnight plug, requiring custom dongles for everything
• Standard accessories: this boils down to USB-C just like charging. With Android I can plug in a network adapter or even a mouse, and it’ll just work
• Ecosystem lock-in: we’re moving to a world where everything — from household electronics to cars — is either locked to the Apple ecosystem or following standards. I don’t want to be locked to a single vendor for everything digital
• Browser choice: with iOS you only get one web renderer, the rather dated Safari. On Android I can choose between Chrome, Firefox, or any other browser that has been ported to the platform

Of course, iOS has its own benefits. Apple has a stronger stance on privacy than Google. And there is more well-made tablet software available for iPads than Android. But when almost everything I use is available on the web, this doesn’t matter that much.

«

link to this extract


Why do computers use so much energy? • Scientific American

David Wolpert:

»

Precise estimates vary, but currently about 5% of all energy consumption in the U.S. goes just to running computers—a huge cost to the economy as whole. Moreover, all that energy used by those computers ultimately gets converted into heat. This results in a second cost: that of keeping the computers from melting.
These issues don’t only arise in artificial, digital computers. There are many naturally occurring computers, and they, too, require huge amounts of energy. To give a rather pointed example, the human brain is a computer. This particular computer uses some 10–20% of all the calories that a human consumes. Think about it: our ancestors on the African savanna had to find 20% more food every single day, just to keep that ungrateful blob of pink jelly imperiously perched on their shoulders from having a hissy fit. That need for 20% more food is a massive penalty to the reproductive fitness of our ancestors. Is that penalty why intelligence is so rare in the evolutionary record? Nobody knows—and nobody has even had the mathematical tools to ask the question before.

There are other biological computers besides brains, and they too consume large amounts of energy. To give one example, many cellular systems can be viewed as computers. Indeed, the comparison of thermodynamic costs in artificial and cellular computers can be extremely humbling for modern computer engineers. For example, a large fraction of the energy budget of a cell goes to translating RNA into sequences of amino acids (i.e., proteins), in the cell’s ribosome.

But the thermodynamic efficiency of this computation—the amount of energy required by a ribosome per elementary operation—is many orders of magnitude superior to the thermodynamic efficiency of our current artificial computers. Are there “tricks” that cells use that we could exploit in our artificial computers? Going back to the previous biological example, are there tricks that human brains use to do their computations that we can exploit in our artificial computers?

More generally, why do computers use so much energy in the first place?

«

It’s not a “hissy fit” if your brain stops working, but I sort of see his point. Also it’s not 20% more food – it’s 20% more calories. Hence why fat is prized as a food by our poor, unevolved bodies, surprised by our ousting from the savannah to exile in the supermarket.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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.

Start Up No.961: China goes CRISPR?, wearables for good and bad, Brexit and the Prisoners’ Dilemma, another Android app fraud, and more


In many places, it’s quicker to stick on 4G rather than join this. CC-licensed photo by Jorge Cortell on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Fishing rights not included. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Supreme Court could allow suit over Apple iPhone apps’ sales • The New York Times

»

The issue before the high court at this early stage of the suit is whether the case can proceed at all. Justice Stephen Breyer, who used to teach antitrust law at Harvard Law School, said the consumers’ case seemed straightforward and in line with a century of antitrust law.

Apple argues it’s merely a pipeline between app developers and consumers, and that iPhone users have no claims against Apple under federal laws that prohibit unfair control of a market.

Tens of thousands of software developers set the prices and agree to pay Apple a 30% commission on whatever they sell, the lawyer representing Apple said in the courtroom. If anyone should be able to sue Apple, it’s a developer, Daniel Wall said. “There have been plenty of disputes, but none has ever gone to litigation,” he said.

Chief Justice John Roberts was alone among the nine justices who seemed prepared to agree with Apple.

Among the justices who appeared to be on the other side, Justice Elena Kagan said consumers appear to have a direct relationship with Apple. “I pick up my iPhone. I go to Apple’s App Store. I pay Apple directly with credit card information that I’ve supplied to Apple. From my perspective, I’ve just engaged in a one-step transaction with Apple,” Kagan said.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said if consumers are paying more than they should, then perhaps they should be able to sue. The relevant federal antitrust law says “any person injured” can sue, Kavanaugh said.

His comments could align him with justices who would allow the suit to proceed. In other cases, the court has ruled there must be a direct relationship between the seller and a party complaining about unfair, anti-competitive pricing.

«

Decision expected by late spring. In general, how difficult the judges’ questions are has an inverse or zero relationship to how the decision falls. But journalists love to think they’ve glimpsed a tell.
link to this extract


EXCLUSIVE: Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies • MIT Technology Review

Antonio Regalado:

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When Chinese researchers first edited the genes of a human embryo in a lab dish in 2015, it sparked global outcry and pleas from scientists not to make a baby using the technology, at least for the present.

It was the invention of a powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR, which is cheap and easy to deploy, that made the birth of humans genetically modified in an in vitro fertilization (IVF) center a theoretical possibility.

Now, it appears it may already be happening.

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses.

The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone, he declined to comment. 

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The Wikipedia page for CCR5 notes that it’s of recent origin and seems to have had positive selection pressure. Sure, deleting it might prevent HIV incursion.. for now. But what is it allowing?

Later reports in the day have suggested there have been live births from this experiment.
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Not so big in Japan: Apple cuts price of iPhone XR to boost sales • WSJ

Takashi Mochizuki:

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Apple has used marketing dollars before to discount certain iPhone models and drive sales, viewing it as a lever to manage inventory, according to people familiar with its sales and production tactics. During the iPhone 6s cycle, Apple cut production on one model then offered carrier and retailer discounts to help reduce excess inventory, one of these people said.

When extending discounts, Apple has typically chosen to do so on phones made for specific markets because the cost is less than having to reconfigure the device for resale in another market, this person said.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Apple has slowed production plans for all the three models released in recent months, with some drastic chops made on least-expensive XR models.

Though it has been done in the past, officials at Japanese carriers say it is rare for Apple to cut the price in their market on a recently launched handset.

“A price cut within a month of the release is rare not just for Apple but for smartphone makers in general,” said a senior official at a wireless operator, who monitors sales.

Analysts say weaker-than-expected demand for the iPhone XR may mirror what happened with the iPhone 5c in 2013, where sales picked up the following year. Apple’s higher-priced XS and XS Max models, released in September, appeal more to tech’s early adopters who typically fuel initial sales of new iPhones.

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Price cuts might be rare in Japan, but they’re not rare among smartphone companies – look at Samsung, which has been doing exactly that for years. The fact that Apple has so few smartphone models and clearly set prices makes any cross-subsidisation or change in pricing easier to sniff out.
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Paul Massey and John Kinsella shot ‘in gangland assassination’ • BBC News

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Massey was shot dead on 26 July 2015 outside his home in Clifton, Salford, by a gunman firing an Uzi sub-machine gun. Then at about 06:45 BST on 5 May this year, Kinsella was shot dead near his home in Rainhill, St Helens, by a man on a bike, the jury heard.

The prosecutor said a man, allegedly Mr Fellows, had cycled up behind Kinsella and shot him twice in the back with a handgun and then twice to the back of the head.

Mr Greaney said there were “clear parallels” which suggested the same people carried out both killings.
Police investigating Kinsella’s murder seized a GPS watch belonging to Mr Fellows, the court heard.

When detectives analysed this it showed a few months before the 2015 murder of Massey, the wearer had travelled to where the victim was killed. The prosecution claim this showed Mr Fellows on a “reconnaissance run” for the planned gangland hit. Mr Boyle had acted as a “spotter” for both killings, the court was told.

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Wearables are such tattle-tales.
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What made me go to the doctor? • vowe dot net

Volker Weber:

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I keep getting asked the same question: how could you possibly tolerate the pain for so long? This is a hard question to answer. It’s a combination of many factors and I am not going to try answering it. The more interesting question is why I decided to no longer tolerate it. The answer is easy: I could see that my body was failing.

Look at the two graphs above, both taken from Apple Health. The data originates from the heart rate sensor of my Apple Watch. I have been wearing it for years, 23 hours a day. That means I have a lot of data to compare against.

The left graph shows how my resting heart rate went from 62 to 85 over the course of only a few weeks. There is no good explanation. Your resting heart rate goes down over time as you exercise and your heart becomes stronger. Mine isn’t particularly strong. I walk a lot but I have little cardio fitness. 62 is pretty good for my fitness level and my age, but it should not suddenly go up, especially not continously. My heart was not allowed to rest, not even during sleep.

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So wearables can be good for your health too.
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Mobile internet is faster than WiFi in 33 countries • Engadget

Jon Fingas:

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It’s tempting to assume that a good WiFi hotspot will outpace modern cellular data, but that’s not necessarily true — in some countries, WiFi might be more of a pain. OpenSignal has conducted a study showing that mobile data is faster on average than WiFi hotspots in 33 countries, including multiple African, European, Latin American and Middle Eastern nations. And the differences are sometime gigantic. You’ll typically have an advantage of 10Mbps or more in places like Australia, Oman and the Czech Republic, while multi-megabit advantages are common in places like Austria, Iran and South Africa.

There are many countries where cellular and WiFi links are roughly competitive. And not surprisingly, WiFi has a clear advantage countries where home broadband is relatively fast, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and the US. However, LTE provides a consistent edge for download speeds in some areas — in Lebanon, your downstream speeds tend to be 25Mbps faster than on WiFi.

The findings led OpenSignal to suggest that users and device makers alike need to rethink the assumption that WiFi is usually best. While that might have been true when smartphones were young, it’s not so true any more in the LTE era — and WiFi has its own problems, such as overcrowded networks.

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Related: XKCD from.. not long ago. For which the mouseover text – sometimes the best part of an XKCD cartoon (and the part you struggle to get on mobile without “view source”) – says: “According to the cable company reps who keep calling me, it’s because I haven’t upgraded to the XTREME GIGABAND PANAMAX FLAVOR-BLASTED PRO PACKAGE WITH HBO, which is only $5 more per month for the first 6 months and five billion dollars per month after that.”

But it is important for phones to look for the faster network, not the “strongest” one. Especially in my house where the Wi-Fi is noticeably slower than the 4G, except that’s weaker.
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Will Theresa May’s Brexit deal survive? Game theory has an answer • The Conversation

Nicos Georgiou is a lecturer in maths, probability and statistics:

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The prisoner’s dilemma can be used to model many social and political situations. With the Brexit strategy, the role of the prisoners is played by the two Tory factions, the Remainers and Brexiteers. Each group has the option of voting for or against the deal – cooperating or not. The cost of each decision is a political one.

If both factions vote against the deal, there will be some political cost since the deal probably won’t pass. But it is completely unclear what will happen afterwards. This might trigger a leadership election, a general election, a new referendum or crashing out with no deal. All MPs like at least one of these options – so if everybody thinks there is a good chance they will get what they actually want (which is impossible), the political cost will be perceived as low.

If both factions vote in favour of this deal, it will have a high probability of passing (there are always willing Labour MPs to vote against their party line). Each of the Tory groups can blame the other for the “bad deal” that they were “forced” to sign, but it could arguably be a higher cost strategy as everybody fundamentally dislikes something about it. So it may seem the best bet would be for the two factions to cooperate to vote against it.

But the PM could place her MPs in a prisoner’s dilemma situation to make sure they don’t cooperate with each other to scupper her deal. She could do this by convincing both factions that voting in favour of her deal is good for them but bad for the others. To do that, she would need to rig the value of the perceived cost so that it will be higher if they vote against it than if they vote in favour – independent of what the political opponents in the other group choose to do.

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This, indeed, feels like the tactics that Theresa May is pursuing: scare both sides by the potential outcome, even though the outcomes the two sides are scared of is the one that the other side likes. Herd them through the middle.
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Q3 2018: Mobile Market Monitor • Counterpoint Research

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• Global smartphone shipments declined 5% annually reaching 380 million units in Q3 2018. Emerging markets growth could not offset the decline in developed markets.

• All the regions declined amidst the global slowdown. Latin America declined most at 7% YoY.

• India’s smartphone shipments surpassed those of the USA and reached an all-time high in 2018 Q3, while China’s smartphone market continued to decline for the fifth consecutive quarter.

• Top 10 OEMs contribute almost 79% of the global smartphone market, thereby leaving 600+ brands competing for the remaining 21% of the market.

• Samsung led the smartphone market by volume while HMD grew fastest at 73% YoY. Samsung recorded its highest ever shipment in India, even though its shipments declined for the fourth consecutive quarter.

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And Huawei ahead of Apple, in 2nd position (14% market v 12%). Xiaomi coming up strongly at 9%. Though this is about sales, not installed base, of course.
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Android apps with more than 2bn total downloads are committing ad fraud • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

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Eight apps with a total of more than 2 billion downloads in the Google Play store have been exploiting user permissions as part of an ad fraud scheme that could have stolen millions of dollars, according to research from Kochava, an app analytics and attribution company that detected the scheme and shared its findings with BuzzFeed News.

Seven of the apps Kochava found engaging in this behavior are owned by Cheetah Mobile, a Chinese company listed on the New York Stock Exchange that last year was accused of fraudulent business practices by a short-seller investment firm — a charge that Cheetah vigorously denied. The other app is owned by Kika Tech, a Chinese company now headquartered in Silicon Valley that received a significant investment from Cheetah in 2016. The companies claim more than 700 million active users per month for their mobile apps.

The allegations are the latest shock to a vast digital ad tech industry that remains dogged by a multibillion-dollar fraud problem and a mobile ecosystem rife with malicious ads and fraudulent practices. BuzzFeed News reported last month on an ad fraud scheme that tracked user behavior in dozens of Android apps to generate fake traffic and steal advertisers’ money. Google estimated close to $10m was stolen from it and its partners, and subsequently removed many of the apps from its Play store.

While the most immediate victims are brands who lose ad dollars to bots and other schemes, ad fraud also diverts revenue away from legitimate publishers and developers. In the case of mobile apps, it can cause frustration for users who may see their phone battery drained and data usage spike as a result of illegitimate ad transactions taking place without their knowledge.

This particular scheme exploits the fact that many app developers pay a fee, or bounty, that typically ranges from 50 cents to $3 to partners that help drive new installations of their apps. Kochava found that the Cheetah and Kika apps tracked when users downloaded new apps and used this data to inappropriately claim credit for having caused the download.

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$10m sounds like a low estimate. The accused apps: Clean Master, CM File Manager, CM Launcher 3D, Security Master, Battery Doctor, CM Locker, and Cheetah Keyboard. I think Mary Branscombe’s comment on this is apposite.
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