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.1367: how to escape an island, coal use slumps further, Apple’s Schiller steps aside, Google’s Fitbit acquisition investigated, and more


The UK Home Office is to stop using an algorithm deemed ‘racist’ for processing visa applications. CC-licensed photo by Jon Evans 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 11 links for you. Not stranded (yet). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Missing sailors stranded on Pacific island saved by giant SOS in the sand • The Guardian

Ben Doherty:

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Three Micronesian sailors stranded on a remote Pacific island have been found alive and well after a rescue team spotted their giant SOS message written into the sand on a beach.

Australian and US military aircraft found the three men on tiny Pikelot Island, nearly 200km west of where they’d set off. Rescuers said they were “in good condition” with no significant injuries.

The men had been missing for three days after their seven-metre skiff ran out of fuel and strayed off course.

Authorities in the US territory of Guam raised the alarm on Saturday after the men failed to complete a 42km trip from Poluwat to Pulap atolls.

Australia’s HMAS Canberra was sailing between Australia and Hawaii when it received the call for help.

On Sunday, a helicopter from the Canberra spotted the giant SOS, close to a small makeshift shelter on the beach, and it landed on the tiny island to check the men’s condition and give them food and water.

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I find this really heartening. I’d only ever seen it in Tintin-style cartoons, but it’s great to know that it really works in practice. Next time, lads, please also set fire to things inside the letters so it shows at night.
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We won! Home Office to stop using racist visa algorithm • Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

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We are delighted to announce that the Home Office has agreed to scrap its ‘visa streaming’ algorithm, in response to legal action we launched with tech-justice group Foxglove.

From Friday, 7 August, Home Secretary Priti Patel will suspend the “visa streaming” algorithm “pending a redesign of the process,” which will consider “issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality” in automated visa applications.

»

“The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal, found that it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates. This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”

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–Chai Patel, Legal Policy Director of JCWI

Today’s win represents the UK’s first successful court challenge to an algorithmic decision system. We had asked the Court to declare the streaming algorithm unlawful, and to order a halt to its use to assess visa applications, pending a review. The Home Office’s decision effectively concedes the claim.

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Small – and not-so-small – victories. Important to challenge this, but you have to know that these systems are being used in order to mount the challenge. That’s the real problem. Because you know that once you dig into them, they’ll be rotten with assumptions.
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UK coal use to fall to lowest level since industrial revolution • Carbon Brief

Simon Evans:

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UK coal use is likely to soon fall back to levels last seen during the industrial revolution, Carbon Brief analysis of official figures suggests.

The UK used 49 million tonnes of coal in 2014 according to Carbon Brief estimates. That’s more than a 20% reduction compared to the previous year, and the joint lowest coal use in  records going back to the 1850s. Only 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, had equally low coal consumption.

There are several reasons to expect coal use to continue falling this year, suggesting a clear historic low is in store for 2015.

Getting out of coal as quickly as possible is necessary in developed countries, to prevent dangerous global warming. To assess UK progress we’ve looked back at its changing relationship with coal, and what that means for the climate.

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A longer-term view shows that we’re now using as little (or as much) coal as when Stephenson got his patent for the Rocket steam engine. I guess there was a lot being used to heat houses.
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Greg Joswiak replaces Phil Schiller as head of Apple marketing • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

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Apple’s longtime marketing chief, Phil Schiller, is stepping into a somewhat smaller role after decades with the company. Schiller is dropping his role as senior vice president of worldwide marketing, but he’ll remain in charge of the App Store and Apple Events. Greg Joswiak, previously the head of product marketing, will take over Schiller’s former position as Apple’s overall marketing leader.

Marketing is a huge role inside of Apple that goes beyond simply advertising products, so this marks a significant change within the company. As Apple puts it, the marketing division is “responsible for Apple’s product management and product marketing, developer relations, market research, business management, as well as education, enterprise, and international marketing.” Joswiak has been in Apple leadership roles for more than two decades, and he’s led Apple’s worldwide product marketing for the last four years.

Schiller has been with Apple since 1997, helping to steer the company from one of its lowest points to the technology juggernaut that it is today. While he’s been in charge of marketing, Schiller is also known for his involvement in Apple’s hardware, often presenting new products — like the previous Mac Pro — onstage at events.

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Schiller has been a crucial member of Apple. Incredible to think that he joined at the age of 27, and this year turned 60. More than three decades, from just after its darkest hour to its biggest. And he’s been involved in crucial decisions: he was one of the people who lobbied Steve Jobs to allow third-party developers to create the App Store in 2007. Jobs was Apple, but Schiller in many ways is even more the embodiment of Apple: outwardly calm, amiable, and prepared, but behind his eyes always working the angles and looking to the future. I interviewed him many times on and off the record and never felt I was being shortchanged.
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Last hurrah? 27-inch iMac get Intel processor upgrade, all-SSD storage, T2 chip – Six Colors

Jason Snell:

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At Apple’s developer conference in June, Tim Cook said that the company still had Macs with Intel processors in its pipeline. It must be rapidly filling with Macs with Apple silicon, but on Tuesday that pipeline disgorged a new Intel-based 27-inch iMac with a bunch of technical improvements, while retaining the prices of previous models.

For those expecting a redesign to the exterior of the iMac, which has been largely unchanged for many years now, it’s clear that any major rethinking of Apple’s venerable all-in-one is going to have to wait for the Apple silicon era. Apple’s not doing what it did with the iMac back during the last processor transition and redesigning the exterior just before swapping chips, and future Mac historians will be thankful for that.

…As for the future, is this the last Intel Mac we’ll see? There’s no way to tell, though reading between the lines, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were some more Intel-based Mac releases as Apple progresses through its two-year-long processor transition. But I’d wager good money that the next time we see an iMac update, there won’t be an Intel processor at its heart. And perhaps it will look appreciably different, too.

«

My guess for the order of Apple Silicon (ARM) updates is: MacBook, MacBook Pro 13in, Mac mini, MacBook Pro 16in, iMacs, MacBook Air, Mac Pro.

The Air as the last laptop to join because it’s insanely profitable once they’ve locked down the design, and they only updated it recently. They’ll want 18 months of that lovely profit first – and people don’t mind about the speed; it’s the name and the shape.

Also, I bet Schiller will want to introduce at least one of these machines.
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Science Twitter got catfished by a fake professor who ‘died from Covid’ • Gizmodo

Ed Cara:

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A bizarre saga of events played out on social media over the weekend, embroiling much of the close-knit world of scientists, academics, and researchers on Twitter. It started with accusations that Arizona State University’s actions had exposed one of their faculty members, an Indigenous woman and anthropologist, to an ultimately fatal case of covid-19. But it ended with allegations that the death was a hoax, carried out by someone who also faked the supposed professor’s entire existence.

Given that many colleges and schools are debating if and how it’s possible to reopen physically this fall in the midst of the pandemic, the accusations of negligence on the part of Arizona State University carry a heavy weight. But many members of the science Twitter community now suspect that the academic who was the first to report the woman’s death, Tennessee-based neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, has pulled off a catfishing scam for years, citing inconsistencies in the woman’s accounts of events in her now-gone tweets.

“Unfortunately, this appears to be a hoax. We have been looking into this since this weekend and cannot verify any connection with the university,” an ASU representative said in an email. If this was indeed a catfishing scheme, the faux death would not only make a mockery of the concerns people have about covid-19, but also the challenges that women of color continue to face in science. 

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A fabulous example of people wanting to believe, and ignoring a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. But equally, when you have someone who’s determined to catfish you hard, you need a very suspicious mind to detect it, which most people don’t come with. (Or read the NYTimes version of the story.)
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Theoretical physicists say 90% chance of societal collapse within several decades • Vice

Nafeez Ahmed:

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Two theoretical physicists specializing in complex systems conclude that global deforestation due to human activities is on track to trigger the “irreversible collapse” of human civilization within the next two to four decades. 

If we continue destroying and degrading the world’s forests, Earth will no longer be able to sustain a large human population, according to a peer-reviewed paper published this May in Nature Scientific Reports. They say that if the rate of deforestation continues, “all the forests would disappear approximately in 100–200 years.”

“Clearly it is unrealistic to imagine that the human society would start to be affected by the deforestation only when the last tree would be cut down,” they write.  

This trajectory would make the collapse of human civilization take place much earlier due to the escalating impacts of deforestation on the planetary life-support systems necessary for human survival—including carbon storage, oxygen production, soil conservation, water cycle regulation, support for natural and human food systems, and homes for countless species.  

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You wanted good news? Sorry.
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Google’s secret home security superpower: your smart speaker with its always-on mics •

Janko Roettgers:

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Last week, Reddit user Brazedowl received a curious notification on his phone: Google was telling him that a smoke detector in his home had gone off. Brazedowl, a teacher from North Carolina who goes by Drew in real life, knew about the smoke alarm — he was at home himself and had just fried some sausages in his kitchen. But up until that moment, he had no idea that his smart speaker was able to detect such events. “Google just made my dumb smoke detectors smart,” he wrote on Reddit. “Pretty rad.”

A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the feature was accidentally enabled for some users through a recent software update and has since been rolled back. But in light of Monday’s news that Google invested $450 million — acquiring a 6.6% stake — in home security provider ADT, it may be a sign of things to come for Google, as it hints at the company’s secret home security superpower: millions of smart speakers already in people’s homes.

Once the deal closes, ADT’s more than 20,000 installers will also sell Google-made smart displays, security cameras and other hardware, and ADT will more closely integrate Google technology into its own home security offerings. “The goal is to give customers fewer false alarms, more ways to receive alarm events, and better detection of potential incidents inside and around the home,” Google Nest VP and GM Rishi Chandra said in a blog post.

Brazedowl wasn’t the only Google smart speaker user receiving a possible preview of this kind of incident detection in recent days. Other Reddit users reported getting security alerts after breaking glassware, as well as some false alarms triggered by sounds like popped bubble wrap and high-frequency noises that could be confused with a smoke alarm.

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Google announced this in May for paying subscribers of its Nest Aware service. But it must be feasible for any Google Home to do this. Always listening, all the time.
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Mergers: proposed acquisition of Fitbit by Google • EU Competition Commissioner

Margrethe Vestager:

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Following its first phase investigation, the Commission has concerns about the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages), as well as on the supply of ”ad tech” services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising). By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one.

The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.

…the Commission will also further examine:

• the effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe; and
• whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit.

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Could take until December. Again, I wonder how Fitbit stays afloat during this.
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First cruises to set sail post COVID-19 abruptly canceled due to outbreak • Ars Technica

Beth Mole:

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At least 36 crew members and five passengers of the Norwegian cruise ship, MS Roald Amundsen, have tested positive for COVID-19.

Four of the infected crew members have been hospitalized and hundreds of passengers are in quarantine, awaiting test results.

MS Roald Amundsen is run by the Norwegian firm Hurtigruten, which in mid-June became the first cruise ship operator in the world to resume voyages amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hurtigruten assured travelers that it followed national public health guidelines and touted safety precautions for passengers on board, including social distancing, increased hygiene and sanitation protocols, and a vow to sail at no more than 50% capacity.

“At Hurtigruten, safety always has been, and always will be, our number one priority,” the company says on a COVID-19 safety page on its website. “With over 127 years of experience, we have established strict procedures for protection against infectious [sic] on board our ships.”

In the wake of the outbreak, the company has suspended all cruises. Norway’s government has also banned cruise ships carrying more than 100 people from disembarking passengers at its ports for 14 days.

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I cannot imagine what in the world would tempt anyone to take a cruise at the moment, unless they’re affiliated with Dignitas.
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Coronavirus future in USA will be whack-a-mole: Q&A with epidemiologist • USA Today

USA Today interviewed Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox:

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Q: What do you predict is going to happen when schools open in person?

A. I think a lot of schools will be able to open just fine. But the models all say that the single most important factor in the safety of an internal area that you’re trying to make safe — whether it’s a convention or a company or movie production or a theater — is the ambient viral burden. How bad are the incidence and the prevalence and the death rates in hospitals right outside that school? There will be schools that are located in fortunate places that have, at this point, very low incidence. But this virus hopscotches around.

Q. Even if relatively few kids get seriously ill, don’t they spread the disease? 

A. The school season has been, historically, the place that sets off the fall set of respiratory diseases. We talk about it as the spark that begins the American portion of influenza season. Respiratory viruses begin with the kids going to school and sharing viruses and then taking them home. And then a few weeks later, I’m sure you’ve had this experience: Your kids go to kindergarten and two weeks later, you’re getting a cold. So, I think it will help the virus to continue its growth, and it will spread it everywhere around the country that doesn’t already have it.

Q: Are we on the verge of the perfect storm?

A. Well, it can get really bad. If the epidemic isn’t stopped, it’ll just keep going. Right now maybe 10% of (the 330 million) Americans have had the disease. That means you got 300 million more customers for this disease who have not bought it yet.

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I’d be surprised if it’s even 10% that have had it. There’s a long way to go. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1366: the impatient media election, a teen hacker’s trajectory, Iran’s coronavirus coverup, Tim Maughan interview, and more


“And from here you can see the Russian hackers downloading all your email, Dr Fox.” CC-licensed photo by British High Commission, New Delhi 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 11 links for you. Not available on TikTok. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: Papers leaked before UK election in suspected Russian operation were hacked from ex-trade minister – sources • Reuters

Jack Stubbs and Guy Faulconbridge:

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Classified U.S.-UK trade documents leaked ahead of Britain’s 2019 election were stolen from the email account of former trade minister Liam Fox by suspected Russian hackers, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a law enforcement investigation is underway, said the hackers accessed the account multiple times between July 12 and Oct. 21 last year.

They declined to name which Russian group or organisation they believed was responsible, but said the attack bore the hallmarks of a state-backed operation.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Among the stolen information were six tranches of documents detailing British trade negotiations with the United States, which Reuters first reported last year were leaked and disseminated online by a Russian disinformation campaign.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab confirmed that report last month, saying that “Russian actors” had sought to interfere in the election “through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents”.

Reuters was not able to determine which of Fox’s email accounts was hacked and when it was first compromised. It is not clear if Fox, who is still a member of parliament but stood down as trade minister on July 24 last year in a cabinet reshuffle, was a minister at the time.

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“Which of his accounts”? That’s a worrying sentence: either it was his government account, which you would pray would be hack proof; or it was his personal account, in which case why are highly sensitive documents on there? The suspicion therefore is also that he didn’t use two-factor authentication, and that there wasn’t any network monitoring to see if there were connections to suspicious networks. All in all, a very concerning incident, far more than the simple contents of the emails.

If they were on his personal account, might there be grounds for prosecution under the Official Secrets Act?
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How the media could get the election story wrong • The New York Times

Ben Smith on how TV and social networks are trying to prepare for an election which could well be decided by postal votes that will take days to count:

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what the moment calls for, most of all, is patience. And good luck with that.

Nobody I talked to had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens to the wild allegations — rigged voting machines, mysterious buses of outsiders turning up at poll sites — that surface every election night, only to dissolve in the light of day.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

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Facebook is possibly the most important player here, but it’s totally predictable too that it’s going to be too pusillanimous about preventing people posting content that will cause real unrest. Maybe if it could just be shut down for a few days? Would anyone notice?
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From Minecraft tricks to Twitter hack: a Florida teen’s troubled online path • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper, Kate Conger and Kellen Browning:

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For Graham Ivan Clark, the online mischief-making started early.

By the age of 10, he was playing the video game Minecraft, in part to escape what he told friends was an unhappy home life. In Minecraft, he became known as an adept scammer with an explosive temper who cheated people out of their money, several friends said.

At 15, he joined an online hackers’ forum. By 16, he had gravitated to the world of Bitcoin, appearing to involve himself in a theft of $856,000 of the cryptocurrency, though he was never charged for it, social media and legal records show. On Instagram posts afterward, he showed up with designer sneakers and a bling-encrusted Rolex.

The teenager’s digital misbehavior ended on Friday when the police arrested him at a Tampa, Fla., apartment. Florida prosecutors said Mr. Clark, now 17, was the “mastermind” of a prominent hack last month, accusing him of tricking his way into Twitter’s systems and taking over the accounts of some of the world’s most famous people, including Barack Obama, Kanye West and Jeff Bezos.

His arrest raised questions about how someone so young could penetrate the defences of what was supposedly one of Silicon Valley’s most sophisticated technology companies.

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Because… the defences were crap?
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Coronavirus: Iran cover-up of deaths revealed by data leak • BBC News

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The number of deaths from coronavirus in Iran is nearly triple what Iran’s government claims, a BBC Persian service investigation has found.

The government’s own records appear to show almost 42,000 people died with Covid-19 symptoms up to 20 July, versus 14,405 reported by its health ministry.

The number of people known to be infected is also almost double official figures: 451,024 as opposed to 278,827.

The official numbers still make Iran the worst-hit in the Middle East. In recent weeks, it has suffered a second steep rise in the number of cases.

The first death in Iran from Covid-19 was recorded on 22 January, according to lists and medical records that have been passed to the BBC. This was almost a month before the first official case of coronavirus was reported there.

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Why the pandemic is so bad in America • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:

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A pandemic can be prevented in two ways: Stop an infection from ever arising, or stop an infection from becoming thousands more. The first way is likely impossible. There are simply too many viruses and too many animals that harbor them. Bats alone could host thousands of unknown coronaviruses; in some Chinese caves, one out of every 20 bats is infected. Many people live near these caves, shelter in them, or collect guano from them for fertilizer. Thousands of bats also fly over these people’s villages and roost in their homes, creating opportunities for the bats’ viral stowaways to spill over into human hosts. Based on antibody testing in rural parts of China, Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that studies emerging diseases, estimates that such viruses infect a substantial number of people every year. “Most infected people don’t know about it, and most of the viruses aren’t transmissible,” Daszak says. But it takes just one transmissible virus to start a pandemic.

Sometime in late 2019, the wrong virus left a bat and ended up, perhaps via an intermediate host, in a human—and another, and another. Eventually it found its way to the Huanan seafood market, and jumped into dozens of new hosts in an explosive super-spreading event. The COVID‑19 pandemic had begun.

…Being prepared means being ready to spring into action, “so that when something like this happens, you’re moving quickly,” Ronald Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, told me. “By early February, we should have triggered a series of actions, precisely zero of which were taken.” Trump could have spent those crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border.

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TL;DR: inevitability and incompetence.
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The man whose science fiction keeps turning into our shitty cyberpunk reality • OneZero

Brian Merchant interviews Tim Maughan, whose SF book “Infinite Detail” was called the best of 2019 by The Guardian:

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Tim Maughan: Before Infinite Detail came out, I was at a workshop incubator thing in Brooklyn. And there was a couple of kids there — this is before Infinite Detail — and they said, “Oh, yeah, we’re making a smart trash can.”

And I had started working on the recycling bit in Intimate Detail. I had written that chapter at the time, and my heart just fell. I said, “Right, so what is that? How does it work?” And they were like, “Well, it’s got a screen on the side. And when you put a can in, it thanks you for putting it in.” And I said, “Well, what’s the point? Why?” And they said, “Well, because it would encourage kids to recycle more. It’d be like little video games they can play.” And I’m thinking, “Okay, is it really that hard to get kids to recycle? I don’t feel like it is, but, anyway, whatever.”

I said, “What’s your business model?” He said, “Well, hopefully, we’ll get cities invested in it.” And I said, “Yeah, but…” And I knew exactly what his answer was going to be, and I kept pushing him on it. He said, “Well, yeah, eventually we do want to monetize the data it collects. Yeah, eventually we could be monitoring who’s walking past from the IDs on the phone or the footfall.” And that’s it. People are not even interested in fixing these problems. They’re interested in finding “solutions.” They’re finding other trajectories, other vectors to get data collection, that’s it because they literally have all been told data is new oil, and they fully fucking bought into this.

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I finished Infinite Detail yesterday. It’s the flip side of Shockwave Rider, by another (sadly deceased) British SF writer John Brunner: Infinite Detail is a hyperconnected world that becomes disconnected, Shockwave Rider is a hyperconnected world that becomes overconnected. Container ships play a large part in this interview, and it’s fascinating. Recommended. (Infinite Detail might also feel familiar to anyone who has read John Lanchester’s The Wall.)
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‘This is a new phase’: Europe shifts tactics to limit tech’s power • The New York Times

Adam Satariano:

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European Union leaders are pursuing a new law to make it illegal for Amazon and Apple to give their own products preferential treatment over those of rivals that are sold on their online stores.

In Britain, officials are drawing up a law to force Facebook to make its services work more easily with rival social networks, and to push Google to share some search data with smaller competitors.

And in Germany, authorities are debating a rule that would let regulators essentially halt certain business practices at the tech companies during an antitrust investigation.

Europe’s lawmakers and regulators … are drafting at least half a dozen new laws and regulations to aim at the heart of how those tech companies’ businesses work.

…“We have crossed a line,” said Andrea Coscelli, the head of Britain’s antitrust agency, the Competition and Markets Authority, which published a 400-plus-page report this month accusing Google and Facebook of anticompetitive behavior in online advertising. “Something needs to happen sooner rather than later, and it needs to be done in an intelligent way.”

Mr. Coscelli said the lack of specific tech regulation reminded him of the lax oversight of banks before the 2008 financial crisis. Regulators should treat the tech giants more like formerly state-owned enterprises such as British Telecom and Deutsche Telekom, he said.

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I tried to live without the tech giants. It was impossible • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:

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When I blocked Google, the entire internet slowed down for me, because almost every site I visited was using Google to supply its fonts, run its ads, track its users, or determine if its users were humans or bots. While blocking Google, I couldn’t sign into the data storage service Dropbox because the site thought I wasn’t a real person. Uber and Lyft stopped working for me, because they were both dependent on Google Maps for navigating the world. I discovered that Google Maps had a de facto monopoly on online maps. Even Google’s longtime critic Yelp used it to tell computer users where businesses could be found.

I came to think of Amazon and Google as the providers of the very infrastructure of the internet, so embedded in the architecture of the digital world that even their competitors had to rely on their services.

Facebook, Apple and Microsoft came with their own challenges. While Facebook was less debilitating to block, I missed Instagram (which Facebook owns) terribly, and I stopped getting news from my social circle, like the birth of a good friend’s child. “I just assume that if I post something on Facebook, everyone will know about it,” she told me when I called her weeks later to congratulate her. I tried out an alternative called Mastodon, but a social network devoid of any of your friends isn’t much fun.

Apple was hard to leave because I had two Apple computers and an iPhone, so I wound up getting some radical new hardware in order to keep accessing the internet and making phone calls.

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Cannot escape any of them.
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Pixel 4A review: Google’s smartphone camera for $349 • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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The specs are a good news / worrisome news kind situation. The good news is that Google has put in enough RAM (6GB) to run Android well and put in enough storage (128GB) to accommodate most users without hassle or annoyance. That 128GB of storage is especially notable because it’s double what the base iPhone SE offers — meaning an equivalent iPhone SE with 128GB of storage is $100 more than the Pixel 4A.

That all seems great, but the iPhone SE has a ridiculous advantage over the Pixel: its processor. Where Apple can use its economies of scale to put the fastest mobile processor ever made into its low-cost iPhone SE, Google has to make do with the options Qualcomm offers at this price point. That means the Pixel 4A uses the midtier Snapdragon 730G, which is the worrisome news.

It is fast enough for day-to-day use. Out of the box (and after Android gets over the usual first-day sync chug), it’s the kind of phone I would be happy to use every day. It takes a beat longer to open apps, and there’s some wonky scrolling in Chrome and Twitter, but it’s not slow.

What I worry more about is longevity. Android phones have a reputation for not lasting as many years as iPhones — and the processor is a big part of that. There’s just not as much headroom for future software complexity here. Google promises at least three years of software updates and says last year’s Pixel 3A (which also has a lower-tier processor) is aging well, but it’s something to think about. I would say if you want a phone that’s sure to last four or more years, look elsewhere.

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Good camera, doubts about the longevity of the support.
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Trump says US should get slice of TikTok sale price • WSJ

Alex Leary:

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President Trump confirmed Monday he is open to a deal in which Microsoft or another US company buys the video-sharing app TikTok, but said the government should receive payment for clearing a purchase.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Mr. Trump described the Sunday conversation he had with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella over the company’s interest in buying TikTok from its Chinese owner, Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.

“I said, ’Look it can’t be controlled for security reasons by China,’” Mr. Trump said. “Here’s the deal, I don’t mind whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else—a big company, a secure company, a very American company buy it.”

But the president, who on Friday floated banning TikTok, also said there would be conditions to a sale and he did not see how only part of the company could be purchased. Microsoft has said it is interested in buying TikTok operations in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, leaving other parts of the business in Chinese ownership.

“I did say that ‘If you buy it…a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States, because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen.’ Right now they don’t have any rights unless we give it to them.”

«

I’m hoping for “Microsoft to Trump: Drop Dead”. There’s absolutely no legal basis on which Microsoft or TikTok would owe any part of a sale price to the US government. This is just another part of the ongoing Trump corruption; except he now says it out loud, in front of cameras, rather than on phone calls or in the Oval Office. It could only be worse if one of Trump’s children or in-laws was buying or selling the company, and was getting a kickback. If by some opposite of a miracle Trump gets back in, that’ll be what you’ll see: it’ll be as corrupt as Zimbabwe.

Also, Microsoft can’t buy all of the company outside China: there are elements which are non-US and are expected to remain under control of ByteDance.
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Worldwide tablet PC market grew 26% in Q2 2020 • Canalys

»

Worldwide tablet shipments hit 37.5 million units in Q2 2020, a remarkable 26% year-on-year increase. Tablets, part of the PC market, had faltered in recent years, but demand in Q2 2020 was boosted by consumers and businesses wanting affordable access to basic computing power and larger screens to facilitate remote work, learning and leisure. Vendors were able to ramp up production to meet this renewed demand. At the same time, retailers and carriers in various markets provided financial incentives on devices and data to encourage tablet purchases.

«

Pretty dramatic: 37.5m for the quarter, of which Apple (predictably enough) had just under 40%. There still isn’t a tablet market beyond Apple and Samsung, which together have nearly 60% of the whole market.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1365: social media’s failing news diet, Twitter ejects David Duke, TikTok races Trump, is GPT-3 going to screw up comments?, and more


Algorithmic repetition: but how does Twitter’s function when fed a simalucrum of Trump’s tweets? CC-licensed photo by Ethan Miller 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 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Americans who mainly get their news on social media are less engaged, less knowledgeable • Pew Research Center

Amy Mitchell, Mark Jurkowitz, J. Baxter Oliphant and Elisa Shearer:

»

The rise of social media has changed the information landscape in myriad ways, including the manner in which many Americans keep up with current events. In fact, social media is now among the most common pathways where people – particularly young adults – get their political news.

A new Pew Research Center analysis of surveys conducted between October 2019 and June 2020 finds that those who rely most on social media for political news stand apart from other news consumers in a number of ways. These U.S. adults, for instance, tend to be less likely than other news consumers to closely follow major news stories, such as the coronavirus outbreak and the 2020 presidential election. And, perhaps tied to that, this group also tends to be less knowledgeable about these topics.

«

Also tend to be under 30, and have heard more conspiracy junk. Not investigated but likely: they’re more politically polarised than people who don’t use social media so much.

Would be great if there were comparative studies for other countries.
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Relevant content: Twitter’s algorithm does not seem to silence conservatives • The Economist

»

The [US] president says that “social media platforms totally silence conservatives’ voices.” However, a study by The Economist finds the opposite. Twitter’s feed used to show people the latest posts from accounts they followed, but in 2016 it launched an algorithm to serve “relevant” tweets to users, even if they were days old and from unfamiliar accounts. We compared the two systems, and found that the recommendation engine appears to reward inflammatory language and outlandish claims.

Our experiment began in June 2019, when we created a clone of Mr Trump’s profile. This bot used his picture, biography and location, and followed the same people as he did. We used it to re-post some of the president’s old tweets over several weeks, so that the algorithm could learn what our Trump clone cared about.

Then from September to December we checked every ten minutes if Mr Trump had tweeted something. If so, three things happened. First, our clone repeated the tweet. Second, we checked its Twitter feed and recorded the first 24 posts served by the algorithm. Finally, we simulated what a chronological feed might have looked like, using the 24 most recent tweets by accounts that Mr Trump follows.

Our algorithmic and chronological feeds differed starkly. Nearly half the recommended tweets were from users whom Mr Trump does not follow. Using sentiment-analysis tools to extract feelings from text, we found the average curated tweet was more emotive, on every scale, than its chronological equivalent—and more so than Mr Trump’s own posts, too.

«

The algorithm is picking for engagement – and emotive words do that. There’s plenty of solid academic research on this. Suitable material for a book, really.
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Twitter bans former KKK leader David Duke • The Washington Post

Jacob Bogage and Eugene Scott:

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Avowed white supremacist David Duke was permanently banned from Twitter for repeated violations of the social media platform’s rules on hate speech.

The former Ku Klux Klan leader and one-time Louisiana legislator’s most recent tweets included a link to an interview he conducted with Holocaust denier Germar Rudolf. Other posts promised to expose the “systemic racism lie,” as well as the “incitement of violence against white people” by Jewish-owned media. He also shared misinformation about the danger and spread of the coronavirus.

“People who refuse the mask are the real heroes,” he tweeted.

Duke, who most recently is known for endorsing President Trump, was banned in June, which Twitter confirmed Thursday evening. He also was banned by YouTube that month.

Twitter and other social media platforms have been under fire for years for lax regulations on racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic commentary from users, especially those who self-identify with hate groups.

«

Good to see Twitter focusing on the aim of reducing its user numbers to the nominal 250 million. Though seriously, this is long overdue. A platform that removed Graham Linehan (for his noise over the trans issue) before it removed David Duke needs to think about its priorities.

Obvious question: is Duke (still) on Facebook? Does he say the same things?
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Three people have been charged for Twitter’s huge hack, and a Florida teen is in jail • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

»

Early on July 31st, the FBI, IRS, US Secret Service, and Florida law enforcement placed 17-year-old Graham Clark of Tampa, Florida, under arrest. He’s accused of being the “mastermind” behind the biggest security and privacy breach in Twitter’s history, one that took over the accounts of President Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Kanye West, Apple, and more to perpetrate a huge bitcoin scam on July 15th.

Apparently, he wasn’t alone: shortly after the Tampa arrest was revealed and after we published this story, two more individuals were formally charged by the US Department of Justice: 22-year-old Nima Fazeli in Orlando and 19-year-old Mason Sheppard in the UK. They go by the hacker aliases “Rolex” and “Chaewon,” respectively, according to the DOJ. The FBI says that two individuals in total are in custody. An unidentified minor in California also admitted to federal agents that they’d helped Chaewon sell access to Twitter accounts.

But according to an affidavit released late Friday, authorities have probable cause to believe Clark, the Tampa teen, was the one who got access to Twitter’s internal tools and directly carried out the scam. Specifically, he allegedly convinced a Twitter employee that he worked in the Twitter IT department and tricked that employee into giving him the credentials.

«

As others have observed, if this is what some script kiddies with plausible social engineering can do, what might state actors who are really working on it be up to? We know the Saudis infiltrated the company. What else might be happening?
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AI-generated text is the scariest deepfake of all • WIRED

Renee DiResta:

»

undetectable textfakes—masked as regular chatter on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the like—have the potential to be far more subtle, far more prevalent, and far more sinister. The ability to manufacture a majority opinion, or create a fake-commenter arms race—with minimal potential for detection—would enable sophisticated, extensive influence campaigns. Pervasive generated text has the potential to warp our social communication ecosystem: algorithmically generated content receives algorithmically generated responses, which feeds into algorithmically mediated curation systems that surface information based on engagement.

Our trust in each other is fragmenting, and polarization is increasingly prevalent. As synthetic media of all types—text, video, photo, and audio—increases in prevalence, and as detection becomes more of a challenge, we will find it increasingly difficult to trust the content that we see. It may not be so simple to adapt, as we did to Photoshop, by using social pressure to moderate the extent of these tools’ use and accepting that the media surrounding us is not quite as it seems. This time around, we’ll also have to learn to be much more critical consumers of online content, evaluating the substance on its merits rather than its prevalence.

«

I hardly ever disagree with DiResta, but I just don’t see why, this many years into social media and our knowledge of bots, anyone takes “comments on Facebook/Twitter” as a metric of anything. It’s so easy to fake – even before GPT-3 – that there’s no value in trusting it.
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One flight is worth a thousand Big Macs: digesting these hard facts killed my appetite for flying • The Correspondent

Jelmer Mommers:

»

We really do have to acknowledge the hard truth. If we return to flying as we did before Covid-19, we’ll never bring global warming under control.

The urgent need to fly less may feel painful. It spells the end for a certain way of living. Since the ending of the second world war, flying has been associated with shifting boundaries, meeting people, new experiences and the discovery of new cultures. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain. He was right.

In flight over planet earth, holidaymakers, business people, academics would all sit together, paging through the same magazines, listening to announcements from the cockpit. It was sweet. 

But looking at the facts about flying and climate, we can arrive at only one conclusion. To keep the planet liveable, those of us who fly need to do it much less, or stop altogether.

Flying is a small but growing source of emissions. At just over 2% of global CO₂ emissions, it currently represents only a limited share of the total. But prior to coronavirus, this expanding industry was forecast to account for a fifth of all emissions by 2050. 

…Perhaps you have already decided to give up meat for the sake of the climate: did you know that one return flight from London to New York is as bad for the climate as consuming almost 1,000 Big Macs? Have you swapped old lightbulbs at home for environmentally friendly LEDs? The CO₂ you will save over five years is cancelled out by one medium-haul flight, from, say, Berlin to Lisbon.

I’m not saying these things to suggest that vegetarianism and energy saving are pointless. On the contrary, these are effective steps to lower your carbon footprint. But here’s that uncomfortable truth again: if we continue to fly, we will undo the progress made in many other areas.

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(Via John Naughton)
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Why America is afraid of TikTok • The Atlantic

Michael Schuman:

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Companies that operate in China, both local and foreign, repeatedly get into [political] scuffles with thin-skinned officials over perceived political incorrectness. But this type of interference has heightened scrutiny of TikTok’s decisions about content. All social-media outfits have challenges with content moderation, but with TikTok, critics make the assumption that choices about what should and should not be on the app are made to please Chinese censors. TikTok, of course, denies this, and insists that decisions are made by the U.S. team.

The inevitable controversies have ensued anyway. Critics accused TikTok of scrubbing videos supportive of prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong, whom Beijing considers “terrorists,” and of locking the account of a teen who shared a video critical of the Chinese government’s ill-treatment of the country’s minority Uighur community. (The company has denied both accusations. In the former case, an investigation by BuzzFeed News backed up TikTok’s assertion, and in the latter one, TikTok said the video was not the reason the account was frozen, and it apologized and reinstated the user’s access.) In the U.S., following the death of George Floyd, TikTok came under fire for allegedly suppressing videos related to Black Lives Matter and the protests against police brutality and racism. The company has said that this was a temporary technical glitch.

Facing perceived threats from China, Congress and the White House have tended to confront them with measures American officials previously preferred to avoid—restrictions on businesses and people.

«

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US to widen action against Chinese tech groups beyond TikTok • Financial Times

Aime Williams and Hannah Murphy:

»

The Trump administration has vowed to “take action” in a matter of days against Chinese software companies that it perceives as a risk to security, in a sign that Washington is set to broaden its offensive beyond the video-sharing app TikTok.

ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, is racing to save the app’s US operations with a plea to the administration to allow it to sell the unit to Microsoft.

Comments from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on Sunday suggested that additional action against a wider range of Chinese technology companies would follow.

“These Chinese software companies doing business in the United States, whether it’s TikTok or WeChat — there are countless more . . . are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist party, their national security apparatus,” Mr Pompeo told Fox News. 

“President Trump has said ‘enough’ and we’re going to fix it and so he will take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist party.”

«

Pompeo is an pompous enabling windbag, but questioning what data gets collected is a start. Maybe someone will question the data that gets collected about all Americans and sold to data brokers, who can then sell it to intermediaries run by Chinese companies who could be beholden to the CCP in just the same way. If there’s a leak, water will flow.
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Apple leaks reveal upcoming product launch dates • Seeking Alpha

SA Editor Yoel Minkoff:

»

It’s going to be a busy fall season for Apple, according to well-known leakers iHacktu Pro and Komiya, who published the launch dates for every upcoming company product.

The late 2020 updates will begin on August 19 with a new iMac, AirPods Studio, HomePod 2 and HomePod Mini, followed by an event on September 8 that will unveil the iPhone 12 line, iPad, Apple Watch Series 6 and AirTags.

Another special event on October 27 will show off the Apple Silicon MacBook and MacBook Pro 13″, iPad Pro and Apple TV 4K.

There’s also big expectations for a renewed AirPower charging mat, and smaller wireless charger AirPower Mini, as well as Apple Glass – the reported augmented reality smart glasses.

«

Just had to go over the edge with the “Apple Glass” thing at the end. (No. Way.) The dates and products otherwise sound… possible?, although the 19th is a Wednesday – Apple prefers Tuesdays. The August thing sounds a bit ambitious, but the October date for the MacBook (back with a bang, sorry, ARM, sorry, Apple Silicon chip) and similar MacBook Pro 13in all makes sense. Anyway, you could put the dates in your diary and see how they fare.

Related: Apple confirmed last week that the iPhone won’t arrive in September (though everyone expects it to be announced in September). Last times that’s happened was the iPhone XR in 2018, the iPhone X in 2017 (didn’t arrive until November), and before that the iPhone 4S in 2011 (launched October).
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Apple vs Google: a tale of two ecosystems • Android Authority

Chruv Bhutani isn’t thrilled by the lack of integration between Android, Google, Chromebooks and WearOS, especially compared to Apple’s cross-device integration:

»

It could be argued that by licensing out its software and operating system Google is just an enabler for a broader ecosystem running on its platform, and that’s fair enough but you don’t invest a fortune, buy two smartphone companies, and a wearable manufacturer without having serious hardware ambitions. Between the Chrome OS running Pixelbooks, the Pixel series of phones, and Nest hardware, Google has been trying to create a semblance of an alternative to Apple’s hegemony, and with it comes the responsibility to do it right.

However, operating in silos with each product acting as a distinct vertical just hasn’t worked to Google’s advantage. This lack of a unified focus and unwillingness to listen to what the market demands was epitomized by the launch of the flawed Pixel 4 and the subsequent departure of key executives. This is all the more astonishing in a time when even the notoriously stubborn Apple is willing to budge and add widgets to iPhones and iPad.

Look, I get that Google can’t or doesn’t want to miff its partner relations. That doesn’t mean gimping your own hardware is acceptable, however.

«

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Alphabet grows up – but Google’s problems are bigger than just the antitrust case • The Economist

»

These days employees are being told to access sensitive documents only if they “need to know”. Some staff talk of creating if not a labour union, then at least a group to defend their interests.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd many Googlers criticised their top management for doing too little, too late to make the company more diverse; after a couple of weeks the firm vowed to raise the “leadership representation of underrepresented groups” by 30% over the next five years. In June more than 2,000 employees signed an open letter to Mr Pichai demanding that the company stop selling its technology to police forces across America.

Over the past few weeks things have seemed to calm down internally. But the respite may be superficial. Many workers are keeping their mouths shut for fear of being laid off, one Googler reports. Few relish the thought of losing a cushy job in a recession. Activists now shun the firm’s communication tools and organise elsewhere online.

All this fuels murmurings and speculation, both inside and outside Alphabet, over whether Mr Pichai is the right person for the job. Some Google executives and engineers describe him as “too checked out” and his leadership as “uninspired”. He is also accused of excessive risk aversion. “I’ve never shied away from making big bets and following my instincts,” Mr Pichai insists. But it is hard to argue that he has shown the vision of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

«

He’s hardly in the position of Bezos, building from the ground up, or Nadella, trying to fix a very broken company. All he can easily do is screw things up; getting it right is harder.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1364: Qualcomm hints at iPhone 12 delay, antitrust hearings pour out incriminating emails, kids v Covid, and more


Want to know why Apple blocks you buying Kindle content in the app? Blame Steve Jobs. CC-licensed photo by Robert Occhialini 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 11 links for you. Undelayed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Congress forced Silicon Valley to answer for its misdeeds. It was a glorious sight • The Guardian

Matt Stoller, who is a former Senate staffer and strong anti-monopolist:

»

I have reported on small and medium-sized businesses frightened to come forward with stories of how they are abused by counterfeiting or unfair fees by the goliaths. As one told me about his relationship to Amazon, “I’m a hostage.”

Fortunately, the voices of small businesspeople afraid of retaliation came through their elected leaders. “I pay 20% of my income to Uncle Sam in taxes, and 30% to Apple,” one member of Congress noted she heard from businesspeople. Representative Ken Buck, Republican from Colorado, talked about one of the few courageous businesspeople who testified openly months ago, the founder of PopSockets, who had been forced to pay $2m to Amazon just to get Amazon to stop allowing counterfeits of its items sold on the platform. Another Republican representative, Kelly Armstrong, went into the details of Google’s use of tracking to disadvantage its competitors in advertising, joined by Democrat Pramila Jayapal, who asked Google’s CEO why the corporation kept directing ad revenue to its own network of properties instead of sending ad traffic to the best available result.

Over and over, the CEOs had similar answers. I don’t know. I’ll get back to you. I’m not aware of that. Or long rambling attempts to deflect, followed by members of Congress cutting them off to get answers to crisp questions. I learned two things from the surprisingly wan responses of these powerful men. First, they had not had to deal with being asked for real answers about their business behavior for years, if ever, and so they were not ready to respond. And two, antitrust enforcers for the last 15 years, stretching back to the Bush and Obama administrations, bear massive culpability for the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of these corporations.

«

Stoller was one of the people in the Open Markets team at the New America Foundation (NAF). But in mid-2017, the Open Markets team wrote an article praising the EU for fining Google for breaking antitrust rules. Two days later, the Open Markets team were given two months to leave the NAF by its chief. The NAF had previously received more than $21m from the family foundation of Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO.
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Dirty tricks and the 2020 election: lessons from the KGB • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan:

»

Oleg Kalugin, another KGB agent who lived in the US undercover, recounted in his book “Spymaster” how the KGB paid Americans to paint swastikas on synagogues in New York and Washington. This tactic had the potential to inflame tensions in the US and give the Soviet-controlled press a negative story to tell Russians back home about their capitalist foe.
In the decades since, our lives have largely moved online — and so have Russia’s attempts at disinformation and meddling in US affairs.

In groundbreaking work from the Atlantic Council and the online investigations company Graphika, researchers showed how a suspected Russian group has been distributing forged documents online over the past few years. These efforts included a fake letter purporting to be from a US senator and another letter designed to look like it came from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

The same Russian group is believed to have been behind a fake tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio claiming that a purported British spy agency planned to derail the campaigns of Republican candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. The fake tweet was picked up and falsely reported as real by RT, a Russian state-controlled news outlet. There’s no evidence of coordination between RT and the Russian group that promoted the fake tweet but RT did not issue a correction.

The internet hasn’t just made it easier for Russia to create forgeries, it’s also helped in their ability to distribute documents, forged or stolen.

«

Hurrah for social media! At least, if you’re a spy trying to destabilise countries that insist on letting them run rampant. Not sure why this is so hard for some folk to grasp.
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Apple emails reveal internal debate on Right to Repair • iFixit

Kyle Wiens:

»

These internal discussions reveal that what looks like Apple’s united front against Right to Repair is really an internal debate, rife with uncertainty.

The New York Times editorial in favor of Right to Repair last April set off a fire alarm inside Apple’s public relations team. When Binyamin Appelbaum reached out to research the issue, Apple’s VP of communications said in an internal email that “We should get him on the phone with [Apple VP Greg] Joz [Joswiak] or [Senior VP] Phil [Schiller].” That spawned an instant debate. “The larger issue is that our strategy around all of this is unclear. Right now we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth and no one is clear on where we’re headed.”

The emails show the high profile of Right to Repair inside Apple as leaders debate how to respond to a request for comment on an upcoming column. “The piece is using [Senator] Warren’s new right to repair for agriculture to talk about the broader right to repair effort and plans to use Apple as a symbol in that fight. We’re meeting with everyone shortly about the overall strategy and then I’ll connect with [Greg ‘Joz’ Joswiak].” The email goes on, “Appelbaum has, of course, talked with iFixIt [sic] and others.” They’re right about that!

The conversation resulted in a set of talking points that Kaiann Drance, VP of Marketing, talked through with Appelbaum. Afterwards, Apple PR wrote, “Kaiann did a great job and emphasized the need for a thoughtful approach to repair policy because of how important it is to balance customer safety with access to more convenient repairs.”

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Emails detail Amazon’s plan to crush a startup rival with price cuts • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

Quidsi’s founders didn’t want to sell their company, but Amazon’s diaper price war was starting to hurt Quidsi. Growth was slowing, and Quidsi was having trouble raising additional capital to continue expanding.

On September 14, the founders of Quidsi flew to Seattle to meet with Amazon and discuss a possible acquisition. As Quidsi’s founders were sitting in a meeting with Amazon brass, Amazon hit Quidsi in the gut. It announced a new program called “Amazon Mom” that offered free Prime service and an additional 30-percent discount on diapers if users signed up to get them through Amazon’s monthly “subscribe and save” program. This was a larger discount than Amazon offered on most other Subscribe and Save items.

This put Quidsi in an untenable situation, as [author of The Everything Store, Brad] Stone writes:

»

That month, Diapers.com listed a case of Pampers at $45; Amazon priced it at $39, and Amazon Mom customers with Subscribe and Save could get a case for less than $30. At one point, Quidsi executives took what they knew about shipping rates, factored in Proctor and Gamble’s wholesale prices, and calculated that Amazon was on track to lose $100m over three months in the diapers category alone. Amazon’s losses may have actually been even larger. During Wednesday’s hearing, Scanlon said that internal documents obtained by the committee showed Amazon losing $200m in a single month from diaper products.

«

Amazon knew it was bleeding Quidsi dry. An internal email later in September discussed the price cuts Quidsi was forced to make to compete with the new Amazon Mom discounts. “They expect to lose lots of money in the next few yrs,” wrote executive Peter Krawiec. “This will make it worse.”

«

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Read Steve Jobs’ emails about why you can’t buy digital books in Amazon’s apps • The Verge

Jay Peters:

»

Two sets of emails discuss the decisions that, to this day, keep iPhone and iPad users from buying digital books in Amazon’s apps. (You have to use a web browser as a workaround.)

In one email from November 2010, marketing chief Phil Schiller wrote to Jobs, internet services lead Eddy Cue, and product marketing head Greg Joswiak about how Amazon was marketing the Kindle mobile app at the time as a way to easily read Kindle books across both an iPhone and an Android device. Jobs said, “[i]t’s time for Amazon to decide to use our payment mechanism or bow out [of the App Store],” and followed that with “[a]nd I think it’s time to begin applying this uniformly except for existing subscriptions (but applying it for new ones).”

In another conversation, Cue laid out a draft of new subscription policies for apps on the App Store on February 6th, 2011, days before Apple officially announced the new policies.

Jobs said: “I think this is all pretty simple — iBooks is going to be the only bookstore on iOS devices. We need to hold our heads high. One can read books bought elsewhere, just not buy/rent/subscribe from iOS without paying us, which we acknowledge is prohibitive for many things.”

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Documents show Apple gave Amazon special treatment to get Prime Video into App Store • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

»

During a hearing before the House antitrust subcommittee on Wednesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook testified that “we apply the rules to all developers evenly” when it comes to the App Store. But documents revealed by the subcommittee’s investigation show Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue offered Amazon a unique deal in 2016: Apple would only take a 15% fee on subscriptions that signed up through the app, compared to the standard 30% that most developers must hand over.

An email from Cue to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos lists the terms negotiated:

That meeting took place in 2016, and at the time, Bezos said he was waiting for “acceptable business terms” before launching the Prime Video app on Apple’s platforms. Pressed for whether the terms may have included a reduction in the 30% App Store cut, Bezos told The Verge’s Nilay Patel that “private business discussions should stay private.”

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That hearing sure has turned up some great content.
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Children COVID carriers: researchers find coronavirus-infected children are major carriers, further complicating the school-reopening debate • Fortune

Katherine Dunn:

»

In a study of children under five who show mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19, those kids were found to contain higher concentrations of the virus compared to older children, teens and adults, according to researchers at a Chicago pediatric hospital and Northwestern University.

The findings come as parents, educators and policymakers around the world grapple with the question of whether it’s safe to reopen day-care centers and schools in the coming weeks.

The study, which was released Thursday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, did not test the transmission rate of children—but does raise the prospect that children could be just as, or even more, prone to COVID infection and transmission than adults, although symptoms in the vast majority of children are comparably milder, the researchers found.

“One of the things that’s come up in the whole school reopening discussion, is: since kids are less sick, is it because they have less of the virus?,” said Taylor Heald-Sargent, the lead author and a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, and assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“And our data does not support that,” she told Fortune. As a result, “we can’t assume that kids aren’t able to spread the virus.”

«

But but but: what proportion of children under five show mild to moderate symptoms? How liable are they to infection? That’s the key question that remains unanswered.
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Telegram files EU antitrust complaint against Apple’s App Store • Financial Times

Javier Espinosa:

»

In a complaint to EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager, Telegram, which has more than 400m users, said Apple must “allow users to have the opportunity of downloading software outside of the App Store”.

In June, Ms Vestager announced two antitrust investigations into Apple, one of which concerned the App Store. Apple’s conflicts with developers over the rules of the App Store have also escalated recently.

Both Spotify and Rakuten have previously complained to the EU that the app store represents a monopoly power, given that developers have to accept Apple’s terms, including a 30% commission on in-app purchases, in order to reach the hundreds of millions of people who use iPhones.

Apple’s App Store fees across the world are estimated to generate more than $1bn for the company each month.

In its complaint, Telegram took issue with Apple’s argument that the App Store commission keeps it running.

In a post this week, Mr Durov said: “Every quarter, Apple receives billions of dollars from third-party apps. Meanwhile, the expenses required to host and review these apps are in the tens of millions, not billions of dollars. We know that because we at Telegram host and review more public content than the App Store ever will.”

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Google’s $2.1bn Fitbit deal faces EU antitrust probe: sources • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:

»

Alphabet Inc unit Google this month offered not to use Fitbit’s health data to help it target ads in an attempt to address EU antitrust concerns. The opening of a full-scale investigation suggests that this is not sufficient.

The deal, announced last November, would see Google compete with market leader Apple and Samsung in the fitness-tracking and smart-watch market, alongside others including Huawei and Xiaomi.

The European Commission, which will launch the probe following the end of its preliminary review on Aug. 4, is expected to make use of the four-month long investigation to explore in depth the use of data in healthcare, one of the people said.

«

What happens to Fitbit in the meantime? Does Google slip a bit of money under the door to keep it going? The next quarterlies are on 5 August, so those will be something to watch. (In the quarter to April it lost $20m on sales of $188m, selling 2.2m devices for a lower price than the year before. It’s got $251m of cash on hand, down from $334m in December (ie down $83m). Things aren’t looking good.
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It looks like Apple’s iPhone 12 release date is definitely delayed • BGR

Chris Smith:

»

Qualcomm’s Chief Financial Officer Akash Palkhiwala talked to Reuters about the chipmaker’s guidance for the September quarter. The exec explained that a delay of a flagship phone next quarter would impact its bottom line of the period.

“We’re seeing a partial impact from the delay of a flagship phone launch. And so what we’ve seen is a slight delay that pushes some of the units out from the September quarter to the December quarter for us,” he said.

Palkhiwala would not explicitly name the iPhone 12 series, but only a device like the iPhone could alter earnings guidance in such a manner that Qualcomm would have to address it.

Qualcomm is expected to provide the 5G modem for all the upcoming iPhone 12 models, and that’s why a delay would impact its bottom line. The exec said that Qualcomm would provide 5G components to all major smartphone makers, including the customer facing a delayed launch. Again, the CFO did not name Apple. “Suffice to say, I think going forward we expect to be selling to all of them,” Palkhiwala said.

Assuming all of this information is accurate, and Apple will launch the iPhone 12 series in October, we’d still expect the company to unveil the handsets on time, during a mid-September press event.

«

I had been thinking that Qualcomm doesn’t make Apple’s CPU, but if it’s making the modems that makes more sense. Although “launch in September, but wait a few weeks for it to go on sale” isn’t that much different from normal, is it.
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Huawei trumps Samsung for first time in worldwide smartphone market in Q2 2020 • Canalys

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Huawei shipped more smartphones worldwide than any other vendor for the first time in Q2 2020. It marks the first quarter in nine years that a company other than Samsung or Apple has led the market. Huawei shipped 55.8m devices, down 5% year on year. But second-placed Samsung shipped 53.7m smartphones, a 30% fall against Q2 2019.

Huawei is still subject to US government restrictions, which have stifled its business outside of mainland China. Its overseas shipments fell 27% in Q2. But it has grown to dominate its domestic market, boosting its Chinese shipments by 8% in Q2, and it now sells over 70% of its smartphones in mainland China. China has emerged strongest from the coronavirus pandemic, with factories reopened, economic development continuing and tight controls on new outbreaks.

“This is a remarkable result that few people would have predicted a year ago,” said Canalys senior analyst Ben Stanton. “If it wasn’t for COVID-19, it wouldn’t have happened. Huawei has taken full advantage of the Chinese economic recovery to reignite its smartphone business. Samsung has a very small presence in China, with less than 1% market share, and has seen its core markets, such as Brazil, India, the United States and Europe, ravaged by outbreaks and subsequent lockdowns.”

«

All down to China.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1363: how Amazon screws up, Instagram’s fear of Zuck’s wrath, life on TheirTube, masks break facial recognition, and more


Main Square at Disney World, Florida, in busier times: find out what it’s like in a pandemic CC-licensed photo by Wally Gobetz 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. Not under oath. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

(The on-off-you’re-muted-out-of-time inquisition of the four tech chiefs by the US Congress finished too late to be included here. We’ll see what there is worth including tomorrow.)

Disney World during the pandemic is extremely weird • The Atlantic

Graeme Wood went there at the height of the… emptiness:

»

You emerge from the tunnel into a town square, the first of several themed sub-parks of the Magic Kingdom, and the only one that is compulsory, because you must pass through it to reach the others. It is designed to look like small-town Middle America roughly 100 years ago, during the heyday of sarsaparillas and the Model T. The square has a train station, then one shop-lined avenue leading to the rest of the park. This sub-park, called Main Street, U.S.A., is unique in that it has no rides—nothing to do at all, really, other than buy merchandise with your MagicBand and, in normal times, enjoy the first of many interactions with beloved cartoon characters, or, rather, sweaty adults entombed in costumes.

Main Street, U.S.A., is fairly crowded and mirthful compared with a small town in America a century ago, when the country had only about a third of the population it has today. But compared with a normal, pandemic-free day, it is desolate and somber, like a small town hit hard by scarlet fever and bad news about local boys off fighting in the Great War. The music still plays, but every 10 minutes a voice interrupts to instruct us all to “please wear a face covering. Wash your hands often and thoroughly. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and maintain physical distancing.” This memento mori is especially grim when it is played between “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

The characters keep their distance. In fact, I do not think I saw a proper Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, or Jiminy Cricket during my entire visit. On the balconies of certain buildings, occasionally a princess dances around and calls out to visitors. And at intervals, a parade of characters passes—but preceding it there are surgical-masked, uniformed cast members, clearing the streets like Secret Service agents to make sure the princesses have a path forward and perhaps to intercept any overly enthusiastic children who want to run up to give them a hug. Among the most American elements of Disney magic is that it lets kids imagine princesses as accessible and pure-hearted, rather than as aristocrats worried they might be coughed on by proles. That particular magical spell is temporarily broken.

«

Many, many wonderful lines. (Via the wonderful Emma Beddington.)
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Amazon’s enforcement failures leave open a back door to banned goods—some sold and shipped by Amazon Itself • The Markup

Annie Gilbertson and Jon Keegan:

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Amazon bans pill presses used to make prescription drugs. They’re included among 38 pages of third-party seller rules and prohibitions for its U.S. marketplace.

Yet an investigation by The Markup found that Amazon fails to properly enforce that list, allowing third-party sellers to put up and sell banned items.

Alongside its third-party marketplace, Amazon sells products to consumers directly, and The Markup found it was also selling banned items itself, revealing cracks in the largely automated purchasing system that feeds its massive product catalog.

We found nearly 100 listings for products that the company bans under its categories of drugs, theft, spying, weapons and other dangerous items, a virtual back alley where mostly third-party sellers peddle prohibited goods, some of which are used for illicit and potentially criminal activities.

The Markup filled a shopping cart with a bounty of banned items: marijuana bongs, “dab kits” used to inhale cannabis concentrates, “crackers” that can be used to get high on nitrous oxide, and compounds that reviews showed were used as injectable drugs.

We found two pill presses and a die used to shape tablets into a Transformers logo, which is among the characters that have been found imprinted on club drugs such as ecstasy. We found listings for prohibited tools for picking locks and jimmying open car doors. And we found AR-15 gun parts and accessories that Amazon specifically bans.

«

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Teaching GPT-3 to identify nonsense • Arram Sabeti

:

»

One of the trickiest things about GPT-3 is that you can prove that it knows how to do something, but you can’t prove that it doesn’t, since a slightly different prompt can get much better results.

Nick Cammarata of OpenAI responded to Kevin’s post on Twitter: “it’s all about the prelude before the conversation. You need to tell it what the AI is and is not capable. It’s not trying to be right, it’s trying to complete what it thinks the AI would do :)”

Nick changed Kevin’s prompt to add a prelude saying: ‘This is a conversation between a human and a brilliant AI. If a question is “normal” the AI answers it. If the question is “nonsense” the AI says “yo be real”’ and added two examples of nonsense questions…

«

This gets pretty scary. Once you have an AI that knows when you’re trying to fool it and responds by telling you to “be real”, the Turing Test is all but passed.
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TheirTube

»

Theirtube is a Youtube filter bubble simulator that provides a look into how videos are recommended on other people’s YouTube. Users can experience how the YouTube home page would look for six different personas.

Each persona simulates the viewing environment of real Youtube users who experienced being inside a recommendation bubble through recreating a Youtube account with a similar viewing history. TheirTube shows how YouTube’s recommendations can drastically shape someone’s experience on the platform and, as a result, shape their worldview. It is part of the Mozilla Creative Media Awards 2020 — art and advocacy project for examining AI’s effect on media and truth, developed by Tomo Kihara.

How does it work?

Each of these TheirTube personas is informed by interviews with real YouTube users who experienced similar recommendation bubbles. Six YouTube accounts were created in order to simulate the interviewees’ experiences. These accounts subscribe to the channels that the interviewees followed, and watches videos from these channels to reproduce a similar viewing history and a recommendation bubble.

«

The choices are Fruitarian, “Prepper”, “Liberal”, “Conservative”, conspiracist, climate denier. The context of “liberal” and “conservative” is the American political one, so “liberal” means “somewhere in the middle of the British Conservative Party” for British readers.
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Google offers refunds after smart glasses stop working • BBC News

»

The Canadian company, recently purchased by Google, says its Focals glasses will cease functioning on Friday.

From then, owners will not be able to use “any features” of the glasses, or connect to the companion app. But the company has also said it will automatically refund all customers. It promised to send the purchase price back to the original payment method, and to contact those customers whose refunds it could not process.

At the end of June, North announced it was being acquired by Google, and would not release a planned second-generation device. It also said it would “wind down” its first generation smart glasses, released last year.

Customers found out that meant the smart glasses would be rendered “dumb” through a statement published on the company’s website and by email.

The Focals glasses, however, come with prescription lenses as an option, meaning they can function as everyday prescription eyewear. The bulky frames, housing a laser, battery, and other kit will no longer do anything that regular spectacles cannot do.

Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight, said the pulling of features from cloud-powered hardware is not uncommon – and something that has happened to him before. “If you want to be an early adopter and have some fun new tech that an ambitious start-up has created, there’s always a risk that they won’t be able to make the business plan stack up,” he warned.

«

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Hong Kong students arrested under national security law • BBC News

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Four students have been arrested in Hong Kong in the first police operation to enforce China’s new national security law for the territory.

The four were detained for “inciting secession” on social media after the new law began on 1 July, police said. A pro-independence group said those arrested included its former leader, Tony Chung.

Beijing’s controversial new law criminalises subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces.
Previous arrests under the new law have been made for slogans and banners at protests.

Critics say China’s new law erodes Hong Kong’s freedoms. But Beijing has dismissed the criticism, saying that the law is necessary to stop the type of pro-democracy protests seen in Hong Kong during much of 2019.

Three men and a woman aged between 16 and 21 were arrested on suspicion of organising and inciting secession, police said.

“Our sources and investigation show that the group recently announced on social media to set up [sic] an organisation that advocates Hong Kong independence,” said Li Kwai-wah from the new national security unit inside Hong Kong police.

«

China gets the quiet crackdown underway. Are these people ever going to be seen in public again? And will the UK and US (and other countries) extend HK citizens some sort of immigration waiver? That would be the way to undermine this Chinese takeover.
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Face masks are breaking facial recognition algorithms, says new government study • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

Wearing face masks that adequately cover the mouth and nose causes the error rate of some of the most widely used facial recognition algorithms to spike to between 5% and 50 percent, a study by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has found. Black masks were more likely to cause errors than blue masks, and the more of the nose covered by the mask, the harder the algorithms found it to identify the face.

“With the arrival of the pandemic, we need to understand how face recognition technology deals with masked faces,” said Mei Ngan, an author of the report and NIST computer scientist. “We have begun by focusing on how an algorithm developed before the pandemic might be affected by subjects wearing face masks. Later this summer, we plan to test the accuracy of algorithms that were intentionally developed with masked faces in mind.”

Facial recognition algorithms such as those tested by NIST work by measuring the distances between features in a target’s face. Masks reduce the accuracy of these algorithms by removing most of these features, although some still remain. This is slightly different to how facial recognition works on iPhones, for example, which use depth sensors for extra security, ensuring that the algorithms can’t be fooled by showing the camera a picture (a danger that is not present in the scenarios NIST is concerned with).

«

Comment on Twitter: “next week there’ll be a ‘viral challenge’ to post a photo of yourself with and without a mask.”
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New disinformation resembles 2016 Russian meddling: FireEye report • Business Insider

Jeff Elder:

»

Bad actors are hacking media websites to post fraudulent stories, creating fake journalist personas, and spreading anti-US disinformation, researchers from FireEye warned Wednesday. The tactics are reminiscent of Russian meddling around the 2016 election – but are significantly more sophisticated, researchers say.

“We have good reason to believe these are Russians,” says John Hultquist, senior director of analysis at Mandiant Threat Intelligence, a research division of FireEye. “The elections could be their goal.”

Researchers say disinformation campaigns in 2016 also originated in Eastern Europe and targeted an English-language audience with narratives that disparaged the US. The campaigns then moved West and took root in the US in time to hit social media before the 2016 election, and a hacking group tied to Russian military intelligence ultimately gained access to the Democratic National Committee email servers. And this campaign now taking place in Eastern Europe looks very similar, Hultquist says.

The new campaigns originated in the same way and are propagating the same kind of content, but hacking media websites and creating convincing journalist personas is a new level of skill, according to Hultquist.

“This is not just troll farm stuff,” he said.

«

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You Download the App and it Doesn’t Work

»

“There are many things that they [Hey] could do to make the app work within the rules that we have. We would love for them to do that.

“You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store.”

–Phil Schiller

«

There follows a long list of apps where you download it and it doesn’t work. Apple’s position here is so clearly compromised that the only sensible thing to get out from under a ton of antitrust complaints is to remove this daft rule. Because there’s no way it’s going to be able to enforce it on everyone.
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‘Instagram can hurt us’: Mark Zuckerberg emails outline plan to neutralize competitors • The Verge

Casey Newton and Nilay Patel:

»

nIn late February 2012, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emailed his chief financial officer, David Ebersman, to float the idea of buying smaller competitors, including Instagram and Path. “These businesses are nascent but the networks established, the brands are already meaningful, and if they grow to a large scale the could be very disruptive to us,” he wrote. “Given that we think our own valuation is fairly aggressive and that we’re vulnerable in mobile, I’m curious if we should consider going after one or two of them. What do you think?”

Ebersman was skeptical. “All the research I have seen is that most deals fail to create the value expected by the acquirer,” he wrote back. “I would ask you to find a compelling elucidation of what you are trying to accomplish.” Ebersman went on to list four potential reasons to buy companies and his thoughts on each: neutralizing a competitor, acquiring talent, integrating products to improve the Facebook service, and “other.”

It’s a combination of neutralizing a competitor and improving Facebook, Zuckerberg said in a reply. “There are network effect around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.”

Zuckerberg continued: “One way of looking at this is that what we’re really buying is time. Even if some new competitors springs up, buying Instagram, Path, Foursquare, etc now will give us a year or more to integrate their dynamics before anyone can get close to their scale again. Within that time, if we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale.”

«

Released as part of the US Antitrust Committee hearings – as is a text conversation between Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, and Matt Cohler, an investor, about whether to accept Zuck’s offer to buy Instagram. “We’ll never escape the wrath of Mark.” I reiterate: put a ceiling on the size of social networks. It’s the only way to control them.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1362: how Google search got so closed, US lets off Twitter Saudi insiders, marathon masks, Trump tweets deleted, and more


Want a better picture from your webcam? Camo, a British app, lets you use your iPhone camera for Mac apps CC-licensed photo by Brett Renfer 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. Clearly. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google’s top search result? Surprise! It’s Google • The Markup

Adrianne Jeffries and Leon Yin:

»

A trending search in our data for “myocardial infarction” shows how Google has piled up its products at the top. It returned:

• Google’s dictionary definition
• A “people also ask” box that expanded to answer related questions without leaving the search results page
• A “knowledge panel,” which is an abridged encyclopedia entry with various links
• And a “related conditions” carousel leading to various new Google searches for other diseases

All of these appeared before search results by WebMD, Harvard University, and Medscape. In fact, a user would have to scroll nearly halfway down the page—about 42 percent—before reaching the first “organic” result in that search.

Google’s decision to place its products above competitors’ and to present “answers” on the search page has led to lawsuits and regulatory fines. A number of websites said it killed their revenues—and their companies. Founders of both innovative startups and companies that had been around for a decade or more told The Markup that once Google started placing its product first, they didn’t stand a chance.  

Travel research firm Skift wrote in November that the entire online travel industry is suffering. “The fact that Google is leveraging its dominance as a search engine into taking market share away from travel competitors is no longer even debatable.”

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There’s a supporting article about how they did their research. It feels as though Google has decided not to leave it to chance any more: keep people on the site to show them ads.

Do read through to the point where it shows that Google doesn’t always (often?) offer the best prices for flights, either. That’s the danger of shopping monopolies: you might not see what is being hidden from you.
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Ex-Twitter workers win US case dismissal over Saudi hacks • Bloomberg via MSN

Clare Roth and Peter Blumberg:

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The US sought to dismiss charges it brought late last year against two former Twitter Inc. employees and a Saudi national for allegedly helping Riyadh spy on dissidents who use the social network.

Prosecutors in San Francisco on Tuesday asked for a judge’s permission to drop the charges. The two-page filing doesn’t offer a reason but specifies that the dismissal would be “without prejudice,” meaning the government could file new charges.

The two former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, were accused of feeding the Saudi government information about Twitter users critical of it. They were recruited by a Saudi named Ahmed Almutairi, who lives in the kingdom and has worked for the royal family’s social media company, according to prosecutors.

All three were charged with acting as illegal foreign agents. Of the three, only Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, is in custody. He has pleaded not guilty.

Twitter, the Saudi Embassy, a lawyer for Abouammo and the U.S. attorney in San Francisco didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment on the prosecutor’s request for dismissal.

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What possible reason would there be to withdraw these charges? The suspicion is that this is some corrupt deal sewn up by the US DOJ with Saudi Arabia. Four years ago, that wouldn’t have been countenanced. Now, it’s the first suggestion.
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The rise of synthetic audio deepfakes • Nisos Security

Robert Volkert, VP Threat Investigations and Dev Badlu, VP Technology at Nisos:

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Audio deepfakes are the new frontier for business compromise schemes and are becoming more common pathways for criminals to deceptively gain access to corporate funds. Nisos recently investigated and obtained an original attempted deepfake synthetic audio used in a fraud attempt against a technology company. The deepfake took the form of a voicemail message from the company’s purported CEO, asking an employee to call back to “finalize an urgent business deal.” The recipient immediately thought it suspicious and did not contact the number, instead referring it to their legal department, and as a result the attack was not successful.

Nisos investigated the phone number the would-be attacker used and determined it was a VOIP service with no owner registration information. It was likely simply acquired and used as a “burner” for this fraud attempt only. While there was no actual voicemail message associated with the number, we made no attempt for live contact with the owner of the phone number for legal reasons.

…The most famous use of deep fake synthetic audio technology in criminal fraud was a September 2019 incident involving a British energy company. The criminals reportedly used voice-mimicking software to imitate the British executive’s speech and trick his subordinate into sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to a secret account.

The managing director of this company, believing his boss was on the phone, followed orders to wire more than $240,000 to an account in Hungary.1

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So the threat from audio deepfakes is really to business rather than to politics. So far, anyhow.
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Making news and enlightening audiences: BBC’s flagship news show in the pandemic • Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Sarah Sands is leaving as editor of the BBC’s Today programme after three years, and last December was facing a boycott by government ministers who thought they were going to teach the BBC a lesson; they wouldn’t appear on the show:

»

if there is a problem with the show, it’s down to me.

And having no ministers is a problem.  

I said I would not beg [for forgiveness, because the programme wasn’t at fault], and I didn’t. But I did go to Downing Street to see if we could find a way through. Serious issues were on the agenda – floods, a big decision on HS2, Huawei. The Today programme seemed the right place to talk about them. Downing Street wondered what was in it for the government.

On January 29, Chinese nationals at a hotel in York [were] reported to have fallen ill, the first coronavirus cases on British soil. 

Over the following month, coverage of the crisis increased by the day. We talked to doctors, to epidemiologists, WHO officials, to the brightest minds we could find. They came on willingly and shared everything they knew. Everyone seemed happy to answer intelligent questions for an intelligent audience. Everyone, except the government.    

And something really interested happened during those weeks.

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What if the pandemic hadn’t intervened? I think the result would have been the same. The government would discover that it needed to be heard more than it could use social media.
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Facebook’s ‘red team’ hacks its own AI programs • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

»

Deepfake technology is becoming easier to access and has been used for targeted harassment. When Canton’s group formed last year, researchers had begun to publish ideas for how to automatically filter out deepfakes. But he found some results suspicious. “There was no way to measure progress,” he says. “Some people were reporting 99% accuracy, and we were like ‘That is not true.’”

Facebook’s AI red team launched a project called the Deepfakes Detection Challenge to spur advances in detecting AI-generated videos. It paid 4,000 actors to star in videos featuring a variety of genders, skin tones, and ages. After Facebook engineers turned some of the clips into deepfakes by swapping people’s faces around, developers were challenged to create software that could spot the simulacra.

The results, released last month, show that the best algorithm could spot deepfakes not in Facebook’s collection only 65% of the time. That suggests Facebook isn’t likely to be able to reliably detect deepfakes soon. “It’s a really hard problem, and it’s not solved,” Canton says.

Canton’s team is now examining the robustness of Facebook’s misinformation detectors and political ad classifiers. “We’re trying to think very broadly about the pressing problems in the upcoming elections,” he says.

Most companies using AI in their business don’t have to worry as Facebook does about being accused of skewing a presidential election. But Ram Shankar Siva Kumar, who works on AI security at Microsoft, says they should still worry about people messing with their AI models. He contributed to a paper published in March that found 22 of 25 companies queried did not secure their AI systems at all. “The bulk of security analysts are still wrapping their head around machine learning,” he says. “Phishing and malware on the box is still their main thing.”

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Camo – Use your phone as a pro webcam, free • Reincubate

»

Camo:

Look amazing on video calls. Use your iPhone or iPad as a pro webcam and get powerful effects and adjustments for Zoom, Meet, and more.

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A British software company with the answer to Joanna Stern’s (and everyone else’s) prayers: use your iPhone as the webcam while you use your Mac. (As recommended on Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)

There are a growing number of iPhone/iPad + Mac app pairings – Duet is another, to make an iPad work as a second screen for a Mac. Others?
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Their businesses went virtual. Then Apple wanted a cut • The New York Times

Jack Nicas and David McCabe:

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ClassPass built its business on helping people book exercise classes at local gyms. So when the pandemic forced gyms across the United States to close, the company shifted to virtual classes.

Then ClassPass received a concerning message from Apple. Because the classes it sold on its iPhone app were now virtual, Apple said it was entitled to 30% of the sales, up from no fee previously, according to a person close to ClassPass who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting Apple. The iPhone maker said it was merely enforcing a decade-old rule.

Airbnb experienced similar demands from Apple after it began an “online experiences” business that offered virtual cooking classes, meditation sessions and drag-queen shows, augmenting the in-person experiences it started selling in 2016, according to two people familiar with the issues.

Airbnb discussed Apple’s demands with House lawmakers’ offices that are investigating how Apple controls its App Store, according to three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Those lawmakers are now considering Apple’s efforts to collect a commission from Airbnb and ClassPass as part of their yearlong antitrust inquiry into the biggest tech companies, according to a person with knowledge of their investigation.

…With gyms shut down, ClassPass dropped its typical commission on virtual classes, passing along 100% of sales to gyms, the person close to the company said. That meant Apple would have taken its cut from hundreds of struggling independent fitness centers, yoga studios and boxing gyms.

Apple said that with Airbnb and ClassPass, it was not trying to generate revenue — though that is a side effect — but instead was trying to enforce a rule that has been in place since it first published its app guidelines in 2010.

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That’s going to make for an interesting session when Tim Cook gets grilled by the US House Antitrust Committee.
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Sen. Josh Hawley wants to strip legal protections from sites with targeted ads • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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Sen. Josh Hawley (Republican, Missouri) has introduced the latest of several bills designed to weaken a key online legal shield. The Behavioral Advertising Decisions Are Downgrading Services (or BAD ADS) Act would remove protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for large web services that display ads based on “personal traits of the user” or a user’s previous online behavior. This is defined as “behavioral advertising” and does not include targeting based on users’ locations or the content of the site they’re on.

Section 230 shields websites from legal liability for user-created content. Unlike several previous bills, including ones sponsored by Hawley, the BAD ADS Act doesn’t appear to address any specific critiques of Section 230. It’s seemingly an anti-targeted ads bill that threatens companies with the loss of an unrelated legal protection instead of monetary fines. Hawley has previously introduced a bill that would create a Do Not Call list equivalent for targeted advertising, and he’s proposed banning “addictive” design features like endless scrolling on social networking apps.

In a statement, Hawley said that “manipulative ads are not what Congress had in mind when passing Section 230,” although he did not elaborate on a relationship between the two topics.

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The trouble with Hawley’s plan is that stripping s230 would leave such companies liable for absolutely everything, so they’d just block everything except the most vanilla content, and certainly anything that might get them co-sued. It’s a self-defeating move: why wouldn’t someone sue Hawley for things he tweets or posts on Facebook causing some sort of harm?

Here’s my suggestion (pass it on): put a ceiling on the size of social networks. 100 million, 200 million? The specific danger comes from size, not from particularly what they do. Let the right-wing nutjobs be on Gab or Parler. Let the others be on Mastodon, Counter.social, whatever. But put the limit on how many they can reach.
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Two Donald Trump tweets deleted by Twitter overnight • HillReporter.com

Steph Bazzle:

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Twitter has started acting when a tweet from Donald Trump violates their site rules. Over Monday night, two tweets from the president were removed. Unlike some of the recent responses from the site, this time they didn’t include a statement about the content. However, the tweets in question are archived, and the content may be a clue.

According to Factbase, one of the tweets was about COVID-19. It was a retweet, and while the link to the article is no longer visible, the text describes the claims of one Dr. Vladimir Zelenko. “I have treated over 350 patients [using hydroxychloroquine] with 100% success.”

Here’s the problem with this claim, as documented by the New York Times back in April (when Zelenko was already claiming 350 cases cured). Zelenko’s claims aren’t backed by evidence, the officials in his New York village, Kiryas Joel, have asked him to stop, saying that he’s exaggerating the outbreak in their community and inflating numbers by falsifying the number who became ill, and the numbers don’t reflect what scientific studies continue to find. Further, without sufficient testing, any suggestion for treating pre-symptomatic patients becomes moot.

Trump’s second deleted tweet was also a retweet. This one linked to an article by The Post Millenial. It claims that Garrett Foster, a protester killed in Austin, shot at a car five times before a driver fired back, killing him. That article has since been updated to include the following correction [saying that Foster, who was killed, was not the first shooter].

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Interesting that we haven’t heard any screaming from Trump about this. (Related: his dim son – OK, Junior, I have to narrow it down – had his Twitter access limited for tweeting nonsense about hydroxychloroquine. So of course the right-wingers claimed it was election interference. Night, day, follow.)
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A doctor ran 22 miles with a face mask on to debunk a ridiculous myth • BGR

Chris Smith:

»

Face mask protesters have made up several silly reasons to oppose the use of the simplest tool possible to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Some oppose the idea of being told what to do, suggesting face masks are about complying with the government. They are not. It’s about curbing the spread of the virus. Others claim the use of face masks is actually harmful, claiming they can reduce the flow of oxygen. That’s also false. Again, the use of face covers can reduce the spread of a pathogen, protecting both the person wearing the mask and others.

A few weeks ago, a doctor put on six surgical masks at the same time to prove it wouldn’t affect his breathing. He wore a pulse oximeter, a device that measures oxygen saturation, as proof. Unsurprisingly, the medical gadget confirmed his blood oxygen levels stayed within normal parameters. Another doctor performed an even more audacious task to dispel the hypoxia myth; he ran 22 miles and monitored his oxygen with the same type of device. The conclusion was identical: face masks do not reduce the flow of oxygen, even if you’re running and need a much higher intake of air to supply the increased oxygen needs of the muscles.

Dr. Tom Lawton from the Bradford Royal Infirmary in Yorkshire, England decided to run with a face mask on to fight misinformation and the spread of fake news about face masks. His oxygen levels never fell below 98% during the course of his run — any value of over 94% is considered normal.

«

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1361: the trouble with ‘hygiene theatre’, an AI overhang?, Surgisphere’s suspect surgeon, Twitter’s woeful security, and more


Blank no longer: Garmin has “solved” a ransomware attack, but won’t say how CC-licensed photo by otama 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 9 links for you. The joke edition. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The scourge of hygiene theatre • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson on why scrubbing tables won’t save you (because you’re not actually going to catch it from a “fomite”, or virus-laden gunk on a surface):

»

hygiene theatre builds a false sense of security, which can ironically lead to more infections. Many bars, indoor restaurants, and gyms, where patrons are huffing and puffing one another’s stale air, shouldn’t be open at all. They should be shut down and bailed out by the government until the pandemic is under control. No amount of soap and bleach changes this calculation.

Instead, many of these establishments are boasting about their cleaning practices while inviting strangers into unventilated indoor spaces to share one another’s microbial exhalations. This logic is warped. It completely misrepresents the nature of an airborne threat. It’s as if an oceanside town stalked by a frenzy of ravenous sharks urged people to return to the beach by saying, We care about your health and safety, so we’ve reinforced the boardwalk with concrete. Lovely. Now people can sturdily walk into the ocean and be separated from their limbs.

By funneling our anxieties into empty cleaning rituals, we lose focus on the more common modes of COVID-19 transmission and the most crucial policies to stop this plague. “My point is not to relax, but rather to focus on what matters and what works,” Goldman said. “Masks, social distancing, and moving activities outdoors. That’s it. That’s how we protect ourselves. That’s how we beat this thing.”

«

Hygiene theatre being the followup to security theatre, as seen in airports everywhere after September 2001.
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Are we in an AI overhang? • LessWrong 2.0

Andy Jones:

»

An overhang is when you have had the ability to build transformative AI for quite some time, but you haven’t because no-one’s realised it’s possible. Then someone does and surprise! It’s a lot more capable than everyone expected.

I am worried we’re in an overhang right now. I think we right now have the ability to build an orders-of-magnitude more powerful system than we already have, and I think GPT-3 is the trigger for 100x-larger projects at Google and Facebook and the like, with timelines measured in months.

GPT-3 is the first AI system that has obvious, immediate, transformative economic value. While much hay has been made about how much more expensive it is than a typical AI research project, in the wider context of megacorp investment it is insignificant.

GPT-3 has been estimated to cost $5m in compute to train, and – looking at the author list and OpenAI’s overall size – maybe another $10m in labour, on the outside.

Google, Amazon and Microsoft all each spend ~$20bn/year on R&D and another ~$20bn each on capital expenditure. Very roughly it totals to ~$100bn/year. So dropping $1bn or more on scaling GPT up by another factor of 100x is entirely plausible right now. All that’s necessary is that tech executives stop thinking of NLP as cutesy blue-sky research and start thinking in terms of quarters-till-profitability.

«

If GPT-3 has really only cost $5m, then I’d expect all of Google, Amazon and Microsoft (and even Apple) to have much better AI by now. But they don’t. It’s a sort of anti-existential proof, because they all have good reasons to build such systems.
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The doctor behind the disputed Covid data • The New York Times

Ellen Gabler and Roni Caryn Rabin on the peculiar case of Sapan Desai, the man behind Surgisphere, the company behind the nonexistent Covid-19 case data in the cases testing the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine:

»

Over the next five years [from 2006], his performance and a pattern of behaviour at the North Carolina hospital worried colleagues, according to physicians who worked with him there.

In interviews, Drs. Olcese, Mani Daneshmand, Dawn Elfenbein and 10 others — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media or feared retribution from their employers or Duke — said there were broad concerns inside the surgery department about Dr. Desai.

The doctors, many of whom were also residents, said they could not trust information he provided about patients’ medical conditions or test results. Several doctors said it became standard practice to double check anything Dr. Desai said about a patient, such as how the person had fared overnight or whether a test had been ordered.

Several former colleagues said that often he did not follow through on directives about treating patients, and that when he was questioned about it, he sometimes passed blame or offered implausible explanations.

In one instance, Dr. Desai did not respond to pages from nurses during an overnight shift while on call, recalled Dr. Olcese. When she asked about the missed pages, he said he had been resuscitating an infant by performing a rare, complicated procedure — an incident the charge nurse said never occurred, according to Dr. Olcese and another doctor present for Dr. Desai’s explanation.

“He was essentially a giant roadblock that you had to work around,” said Dr. Olcese, now a neurocritical care doctor at Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. “You didn’t want him to bring you down with him.”

«

And a reminder, once more, that the Surgisphere fabulism was exposed not by the two peer-reviewed journals which published HCL articles, but by a journalist at The Guardian (Australia) puzzled by the fact that the papers cited more cases and deaths in Australia than had been recorded.

If that’s stopped a liar, that’s a good job done.
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Google to keep employees home until summer 2021 amid coronavirus pandemic • WSJ

Rob Copeland:

»

The move will affect nearly all of the roughly 200,000 full-time and contract employees across Google parent Alphabet Inc, and is sure to pressure other technology giants that have slated staff to return as soon as January.

Alphabet Chief Executive Sundar Pichai made the decision himself last week after debate among Google Leads, an internal group of top executives that he chairs, according to a person familiar with the matter. A small number of Google staffers were notified later in the week, people familiar said.

Mr. Pichai was swayed in part by sympathy for employees with families to plan for uncertain school years that may involve at-home instruction, depending on geography. It also frees staff to sign full-year leases elsewhere if they choose to move.

“I know it hasn’t been easy,” Mr. Pichai wrote in a note to staff Monday, after The Wall Street Journal reported the impending extension. “I hope this will offer the flexibility you need to balance work with taking care of yourselves and your loved ones over the next 12 months.”

«

Feels reasonable; by this time next year I’d hope we’ll have a working vaccine that is rolling out on a wide scale. (Let’s come back and check, shall we?)
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Twitter’s security woes included broad access to user accounts • Bloomberglaw

Jordan Robertson, Kartikay Mehrotra and Kurt Wagner:

»

Twitter’s oversight over the 1,500 workers who reset accounts, review user breaches and respond to potential content violations for the service’s 186 million daily users have been a source of recurring concern, the employees said. The breadth of personal data most of those workers could access is relatively limited — including such things as Internet Protocol addresses, email addresses and phone numbers — but it’s a starting point to snoop on or even hack an account, they said.

The controls were so porous that at one point in 2017 and 2018 some contractors made a kind of game out of creating bogus help-desk inquiries that allowed them to peek into celebrity accounts, including Beyonce’s, to track the stars’ personal data including their approximate locations gleaned from their devices’ IP addresses, two of the former employees said.

…According to the former security employees, Twitter management has often dragged its heels on upgrades to information security controls while prioritizing consumer products and features, a source of tension for many businesses.

Efforts to better govern Twitter’s user-support staff and contractors have also gotten short shrift, resulting in a workplace where too many people have access to too many powerful tools, the former employees said. Even with some basic tracking systems in place, contractors have found workarounds to explore details about former lovers, politicians, favorite brands and celebrities, they added.

«

This is such a mess. Twitter has clearly been a mess that nobody has been willing to clear up for years. The longer it goes on, the harder to clear up.
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Coronavirus: Lewis Hamilton deletes vaccine conspiracy theory post • BBC News

Marianna Springfield:

»

Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton has issued a statement “clarifying his thoughts” and confirming he is not anti-vaccine after sharing a video linked to unfounded conspiracy theories about a coronavirus vaccination.

Hamilton originally shared the post about Bill Gates and vaccine trials on his Instagram story to his 18 million followers. It stayed up for 13 hours before he deleted it.

The F1 driver has now issued a statement on the same platform, explaining that he “hadn’t actually seen the comment attached” to the post in question, saying that he’s “only human”.

…He said he had not seen the comment attached to the video he shared and “has a lot of respect for the charity work Bill Gates does”.

He added: “I also want to be clear that I’m not against a vaccine and no doubt it will be important in the fight against coronavirus” – although he did express concerns about potential side effects and how a vaccine might be funded.

«

Perhaps a multi-millionaire who lives abroad in order to avoid tax might be able to help fund it? Then he couldn’t have any concerns about it.
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Sick of AI engines scraping your pics for facial recognition? Here’s a way to Fawkes them right up • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

»

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Sand Lab have developed a technique for tweaking photos of people so that they sabotage facial-recognition systems.

…Fawkes consists of software that runs an algorithm designed to “cloak” photos so they mistrain facial recognition systems, rendering them ineffective at identifying the depicted person. These “cloaks,” which AI researchers refer to as perturbations, are claimed to be robust enough to survive subsequent blurring and image compression.

The paper [PDF], titled, “Fawkes: Protecting Privacy against Unauthorized Deep Learning Models,” is co-authored by Shawn Shan, Emily Wenger, Jiayun Zhang, Huiying Li, Haitao Zheng, and Ben Zhao, all with the University of Chicago.

“Our distortion or ‘cloaking’ algorithm takes the user’s photos and computes minimal perturbations that shift them significantly in the feature space of a facial recognition model (using real or synthetic images of a third party as a landmark),” the researchers explain in their paper. “Any facial recognition model trained using these images of the user learns an altered set of ‘features’ of what makes them look like them.”

«

Wonder how long it will take for this to be an option in smartphones. “Distort selfies” as a preference setting.
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Pre-existing and de novo humoral immunity to SARS-CoV-2 in humans • bioRxiv

(A very big UK-based team of researchers):

»

Zoonotic introduction of novel coronaviruses is thought to occur in the absence of pre-existing immunity in the target human population. Using diverse assays for detection of antibodies reactive with the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) glycoprotein, we demonstrate the presence of pre-existing humoral immunity in uninfected and unexposed humans to the new coronavirus.

SARS-CoV-2 S-reactive antibodies were readily detectable by a sensitive flow cytometry-based method in SARS-CoV-2-uninfected individuals and were particularly prevalent in children and adolescents. These were predominantly of the IgG class and targeted the S2 subunit. In contrast, SARS-CoV-2 infection induced higher titres of SARS-CoV-2 S-reactive IgG antibodies, targeting both the S1 and S2 subunits, as well as concomitant IgM and IgA antibodies, lasting throughout the observation period of 6 weeks since symptoms onset.

«

If I’m reading this right, it says that children and teenagers have effective antibodies despite not having been exposed to the virus that causes Covid-19. That explains a lot of things, though it then offers up the puzzle of why that resistance diminishes with age, since you’d expect people to be continually exposed to various coronaviruses through their life.
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Garmin obtains decryption key after ransomware attack • Sky News

Alexander Martin:

»

Last week, Garmin’s services were taken offline after hackers infected the company’s networks with a ransomware virus known as WastedLocker.

A number of the company’s services are operational again and the business has now confirmed the “cyber attack” for the first time, stating: “Affected systems are being restored and we expect to return to normal operation over the next few days.”

…Security sources who spoke to Sky News said WastedLocker is believed to be developed by Evil Corp, a hacking group based in Russia which was sanctioned by the US Treasury last December.

The sanctions mean that “US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions” with the cyber criminals, although the US Treasury did not respond to questions about whether the general prohibition applied in the circumstances of extortion.

Sources with knowledge of the Garmin incident who spoke to Sky News on the condition of anonymity said that the company – an American multinational which is publicly listed on the NASDAQ – did not directly make a payment to the hackers.

«

That last bit raises so many questions. Did a middleman carry the bag with the money? Or did someone crack the encryption for them (highly unlikely)? The bigger question is whether their paying the middleman breaches US sanctions. I’d guess that if Garmin is necessary enough to the US military, it’ll be decided that it doesn’t.

Dad joke: Q: where did the hackers go? A: I dunno, they ransomware.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1360: Intel faces the future, does Britain back Biden?, the Swede helping the Chinese smartphone biz, faster tests are better, and more


FBI? Yes, I’d like to report the death of the G4 Cube, 19 years ago. CC-licensed photo by Matt Thomas 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 11 links for you. Back to it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

20 years ago, Steve Jobs built the “coolest computer ever”—and it bombed • Ars Technica

Steven Levy:

»

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Power Mac G4 Cube, which debuted July 19, 2000. It also marks the 19th anniversary of Apple’s announcement that it was putting the Cube on ice. That’s not my joke—it’s Apple’s, straight from the headline of its July 3, 2001, press release that officially pulled the plug.

The idea of such a quick turnaround was nowhere in the mind of Apple CEO Steve Jobs on the eve of the product’s announcement at that summer 2000 Macworld Expo. I was reminded of this last week, as I listened to a cassette tape recorded 20 years prior, almost to the day. It documented a two-hour session with Jobs in Cupertino, California, shortly before the launch. The main reason he had summoned me to Apple’s headquarters was sitting under the cover of a dark sheet of fabric on the long table in the boardroom of One Infinite Loop.

“We have made the coolest computer ever,” he told me. “I guess I’ll just show it to you.”

He yanked off the fabric, exposing an 8-inch stump of transparent plastic with a block of electronics suspended inside. It looked less like a computer than a toaster born from an immaculate conception between Philip K. Dick and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (But the fingerprints were, of course, Jony Ive’s.) Alongside it were two speakers encased in Christmas-ornament-sized, glasslike spheres.

“The Cube,” Jobs said, in a stage whisper, hardly containing his excitement.

«

I remember talking to Fred Anderson, then Apple’s CFO, who was insistent that it was going to be popular with “prosumers” (consumers who want sorta-kinda professional quality but at consumer-ish prices). The Cube’s rapid failure persuaded me that there’s no viable market in targeting prosumers, and never will be.

It is to Jobs’s credit that he was so prepared to change course so quickly. But in July 2000, Apple was missing the boat on MP3s and CD burning. By July 2001, the iPod was a few months away and the Cube was ballast Apple didn’t need.
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Exclusive: want Face ID on the Mac? macOS Big Sur suggests the TrueDepth camera is coming • 9to5Mac

:

»

We were able to find a new extension on macOS Big Sur beta 3 with codes intended to support “PearlCamera.” You may not remember, but this is the internal codename Apple uses for the TrueDepth camera and Face ID, which was first revealed with the iPhone X leaks in 2017.

Codes such as “FaceDetect” and “BioCapture” found within this extension confirms that Apple is preparing macOS to operate with Face ID, as these codes are similar to those used by iOS. We investigated and this Face ID extension was clearly built for macOS, and it’s not some remnant code from Catalyst technology.

However, the implementation is still in the early stages, so it might take some time before Apple announces a new Mac model with the TrueDepth camera to support Face ID.

Only the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro currently feature biometric authentication through Touch ID integrated into the keyboard. Having Face ID on the Mac would bring even more convenience to unlocking the computer, and it would also fit perfectly on iMac, which doesn’t have a built-in keyboard. As Touch ID depends on the T2 security chip, it would be impractical for Apple to add it to a separate wireless keyboard.

«

Overdue, inasmuch as Windows machines have had it for quite a while. But likely another thing to make Apple Silicon computers attractive. Or maybe even the forthcoming Intel ones too.
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Intel ‘stunning failure’ heralds end of era for US chip sector • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Ian King:

»

After Chief Executive Officer Bob Swan said Intel is considering outsourcing, the company’s shares slumped 16% on Friday, the most since March, when the stock market plummeted in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We view the roadmap missteps to be a stunning failure for a company once known for flawless execution, and could well represent the end of Intel’s computing dominance,” Chris Caso, an analyst at Raymond James, wrote in a research note on Friday.

Swan says where a semiconductor is made isn’t that important. However, domestic chip production has become a national priority for China, and some U.S. politicians and national-security experts consider sending this technical knowhow overseas to be a potentially dangerous mistake.

“We’ve seen how vulnerable we are,” John Cornyn, a top Senate Republican, said in June when U.S. lawmakers proposed an estimated $25bn in funding and tax credits to strengthen domestic semiconductor production.

Intel’s Xeon chips run computers and data centers that support the design of nuclear power stations, spacecraft and jets, while helping governments quickly understand intelligence and other crucial information.

Many of these processors are made at facilities in Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico. If Intel outsources this work, it would likely be done by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which focuses on production and is currently the world leader. It’s based in Hsinchu, one of the closest Taiwanese cities to China, which considers the Asian island a rogue province rather than an independent country.

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Feels like a hinge moment in the chip business. TSMC becomes the most important manufacturer in the entire world. Diversification suddenly becomes more important than ever.
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Microsoft’s Surface Duo looks like it’s ready to launch • The Verge

Tom Warren:

»

Microsoft has spent the past few weeks teasing the Surface Duo on Twitter, and it now looks like the dual-screen device is ready to launch. Microsoft’s new Android-powered device first appeared at the FCC earlier this week, and today it has shown up on the Bluetooth SIG certification page. Devices typically appear in FCC and Bluetooth listings just a few weeks away from launch.

Recent rumors had suggested the Surface Duo might appear in July, but it’s clear the device isn’t ready to launch this month. Instead, it looks increasingly likely that Microsoft will launch the Surface Duo in the coming weeks.

Sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans tell The Verge that the company had originally planned to focus on the Surface Duo and dual-screen devices at Build earlier this year. These plans changed once it was clear Build would be held virtually due to the pandemic, and Microsoft also pushed back its Windows 10X dual-screen plans to far beyond 2020.

«

Have to say, the form factor makes far more sense than the foldables from Samsung and Huawei: you get a full-size screen (with the other screen folded back, facing out) and then a two-screen combo. It’s more honest about the foldable-ness than the others. Probably won’t sell many, but that’s about Microsoft’s position in the phone business more than comparative merit.
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You won’t even hear it whispered in No 10, but they’re desperate for Joe Biden to beat Donald Trump • The Sunday Times

Tim Shipman:

»

Johnson’s China crisis will not disappear if Joe Biden, the former vice-president who leads in the polls, wins the top job. As Pompeo told MPs last week: “China is the only bipartisan issue we have in the States. It won’t matter if it’s President Trump or President Biden. The policy is the same.”

However, Biden will try to rein in Beijing’s international aggression using alliances and institutions, rather than Twitter. “They [senior Democrats] believe in going to the UN and working with allies,” a source said.

This appeals to Johnson. The only episode from his spell as foreign secretary about which he likes to boast is the building of a global coalition to kick out more than 150 Russian spies after the Salisbury poisonings in 2018.

Biden’s approach on trade could also take the sting from the dodgy-chicken debate, since he has signalled that he might revive Barack Obama’s plan to join the Pacific free trade area — the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — which the UK had expressed a desire to join in June.

A Tory adviser said: “The assumption in Whitehall is that if Biden wins, we won’t need to do a bilateral trade deal because we might both end up in CPTPP. That is already committed to high standards of animal welfare. Some of the sting will be removed from those issues.”

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Imint is the Swedish firm that gives Chinese smartphones an edge in video production • TechCrunch

Rita Liao:

»

The hyper-competitive nature of Chinese phone makers means they are easily sold on new technology that can help them stand out. The flipside is the intensity that comes with competition. The Chinese tech industry is both well-respected — and notorious — for its fast pace. Slow movers can be crushed in a matter of a few months.

“In some aspects, it’s very U.S.-like. It’s very straight to the point and very opportunistic,” [Imint CEO and founder Andreas] Lifvendahl reflected on his experience with Chinese clients. “You can get an offer even in the first or second meeting, like, ‘Okay, this is interesting, if you can show that this works in our next product launch, which is due in three months. Would you set up a contract now?’”

“That’s a good side,” he continued. “The drawback for a Swedish company is the demand they have on suppliers. They want us to go on-site and offer support, and that’s hard for a small Swedish company. So we need to be really efficient, making good tools and have good support systems.”

The fast pace also permeates into the phone makers’ development cycle, which is not always good for innovation, suggested Lifvendahl. They are reacting to market trends, not thinking ahead of the curve — what Apple excels in — or conducting adequate market research.

«

(Thanks Adewale Adetugbo for the link.)
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Frequent, fast, and cheap is better than sensitive • Marginal REVOLUTION

Taylor Cowen:

»

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

…The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap is better at telling you whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but that’s what we want to know open schools and workplaces. Second, the virus grows so quickly that the time period in which the PCR tests outperforms the cheap test is as little as a day or two. Third, the PCR tests are taking days or even a week or more to report which means the results are significantly outdated and less actionable by the time they are reported.

The fundamental issue is this: if a test is cheap and fast we shouldn’t compare it head to head against the PCR test. Instead, we should compare test regimes. A strip test could cost $5 which means you can do one per day for the same price as a PCR test (say $35). Thus, the right comparison is seven cheap tests with one PCR test.

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You’d probably need some complicated maths to figure out quite how likely the test was to be right if you got a positive, a negative, and a negative. But the general principle – test often, not slowly – has to be the right one.
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Fire and fawning • No Mercy / No Malice

Scott Galloway:

»

The CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are scheduled to testify in front of the US House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. Some thoughts…

Big tech has won before the hearing starts. Agreeing to let all four testify concurrently inhibits the committee’s ability to go deep on any one issue, and will leave the American public with a sentiment instead of a viewpoint on big tech, much less any conclusions (such as, that the Obama DOJ was asleep at the switch, and Instagram and Whatsapp should be divested). The Covid-inspired remote format dramatically lessens the likelihood of an unscripted moment that reveals something the American public didn’t previously know. Fabric softener for tough questioning is the deep pockets that keep members in power.

«

Some of the questions are good (“Your market capitalization per employee is thousands of times higher than that of other companies in your sectors. Do you think your companies contribute to income inequality?”) though quite a few focus too much on market capitalisation, which isn’t something the companies directly control; some mistake what market power companies have, or show that it’s not big – as in Apple, where the “Apple tax” on streaming services works out to a few% of total revenues. And Jeff Bezos’s “worth” isn’t money in the bank: it’s shares, which can go down as well as up. (Via John Naughton)
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YouTube’s psychic wounds • Columbia Journalism Review

Nicholson Baker decided to try YouTube, and set up a brand new account on a new email address, chose an Elvis video to watch, and then some parakeets, and then:

»

I went back to my home screen, where the breaking news of the day, displayed as a row of smaller video thumbnails, was “Biden Talks ‘Presidential Leadership’ in Time of Coronavirus.” Biden says, “Just over a week ago, many of the pundits declared that this candidacy was dead. Now we’re very much alive.” A crowd cheers.

Then something oddly political happened. The next video that the algorithm gave me was a three-year-old monologue by Judge Jeanine Pirro, on Fox News, about why Hillary Clinton used a private email account for her government correspondence. Before it played, an ad came on from the Trump campaign, wanting me to take a survey. Then I got a second ad, for a newspaper with ultraconservative and Falun Gong connections called the Epoch Times: “Are you tired of the media spinning the truth and pushing false narratives?” Evidently YouTube, not knowing much about me yet, wrongly assumed that I was a member of the alt-right. Based on what? Where I live, in Maine, or that I like dancing-cockatoo videos? That I like Elvis? Maybe it was Elvis.

Judge Jeanine’s monologue was bitter and unpleasant. “Bill and Hillary Clinton are the Bonnie and Clyde of American politics,” she says. I clicked the “next” arrow. Now I was given fourteen minutes of Hillary Clinton testifying about Benghazi from 2015. Why?

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Avoiding the news stuff turns out to be very tricky. Yet feasible.
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Lenovo Flex 5G review: insane battery life, at a cost • Android Authority

Eric Zeman:

»

There’s no Intel inside. The Lenovo Flex 5G is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx mobile processor with eight Kryo 495 cores clocked at 2.84GHz. It features an Adreno 680 GPU, 8GB of LPDDR4 RAM, and 256GB of UFS 3.0 storage. This system felt fast across the board, though its Geekbench 5 scores were only 721 for single-core and 2862 for multi-core.

Battery life is absolutely outstanding. The machine has a four-cell 60Wh lithium-polymer battery inside. Combined with the 8cx, it absolutely kills. Lenovo rates battery life at an astounding 24 hours. I couldn’t kill the battery over a period of several days. It lasts and lasts and lasts. That includes time spent surfing on 5G, which you’d expect to drain the battery right quick. The Lenovo Flex 5G has some of the best battery life we’ve tested.

«

Seems to me this is a hint of what Apple Silicon might be able to do. The A12Z, in the iPad Pro, is a 2.48GHz chip, and that knocks lots of Windows (and Mac) machines into a box. Ramp up the speed, add in a few cores, and you’ve still got something that will be faster and last all day.

Plus this Lenovo has 5G built in. Even 4G would be welcome to lots of people.
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America’s looming primary-care crisis • The New Yorker

Clifford Marks:

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Even before the pandemic, primary care was in crisis. Primary-care doctors were already among the most poorly compensated physicians in the country; for medical students burdened with debt, those smaller salaries lessened the specialty’s allure. Experts have long warned of a shortage of doctors providing foundational forms of outpatient care, especially in rural areas. Last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that more than fourteen thousand primary-care physicians were needed to eliminate existing shortages.

For this article, I spoke with more than twenty primary-care physicians, from New York City to rural Nebraska and suburban Colorado. They work in single-physician practices, in multi-specialty groups, or as part of hospital systems. Nearly all of them described dramatic declines in revenue. Many benefitted from the P.P.P. [government bailout money]; without it, some of their clinics might not have survived. All of the physicians expressed concern about how they would navigate the uncertainty ahead. “This is taking us down,” Jacqueline Fincher, an internist and the president of the American College of Physicians, told me. “We’re not going to have a vaccine and herd immunity for probably a year—so, is this sustainable for a year? The reality is, it’s probably not, certainly not for most small practices.” If many of them go out of business, the consequences for Americans’ health could be profound and enduring. What’s at stake is not just a pattern of health outcomes but the shape of the health-care system as a whole. The way that patients interact with their doctors and the path that American health care takes in the future may be about to shift.

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America, land of concurrent looming crises.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1359: Instagram’s racial bias bias (yes), where the UK’s Covid response has gone well, TikTok considers selling itself, and more


Might this be the next way to get a different experience on Twitter? It’s “exploring” subscription options. CC-licensed photo by Aranami 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 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook ignored racial bias research, employees say • NBC News

Olivia Solon:

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In mid-2019, researchers at Facebook began studying a new set of rules proposed for the automated system that Instagram uses to remove accounts for bullying and other infractions.

What they found was alarming. Users on the Facebook-owned Instagram in the United States whose activity on the app suggested they were Black were about 50% more likely under the new rules to have their accounts automatically disabled by the moderation system than those whose activity indicated they were white, according to two current employees and one former employee, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media.

The findings were echoed by interviews with Facebook and Instagram users who said they felt that the platforms’ moderation practices were discriminatory, the employees said.

The researchers took their findings to their superiors, expecting that it would prompt managers to quash the changes. Instead, they were told not share their findings with co-workers or conduct any further research into racial bias in Instagram’s automated account removal system. Instagram ended up implementing a slightly different version of the new rules but declined to let the researchers test the new version.

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Unsurprisingly, the employees were annoyed – and they say Facebook managers keep ignoring this sort of stuff. And we’re not surprised, are we. But there are signs of fracture in Facebook’s culture: read on.
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Facebook employee leaks show feelings of betrayal by company leadership • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman:

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In spite of the occasional internal dustup, employees generally felt the company was doing more good than harm. At the very least, they avoided publicly airing their grievances.

“We are failing, and what’s worse, we have enshrined that failure in our policies.”
“This time, our response feels different,” wrote Facebook engineer Dan Abramov in a June 26 post on Workplace, the company’s internal communications platform. “I’ve taken some [paid time off] to refocus, but I can’t shake the feeling that the company leadership has betrayed the trust my colleagues and I have placed in them.”

Messages like those from Wang and Abramov illustrate how Facebook’s handling of the president’s often divisive posts has caused a sea change in its ranks and led to a crisis of confidence in leadership, according to interviews with current and former employees and dozens of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. The documents — which include company discussion threads, employee survey results, and recordings of Zuckerberg — reveal that the company was slow to take down ads with white nationalist and Nazi content reported by its own employees. They demonstrate how the company’s public declarations about supporting racial justice causes are at odds with policies forbidding Facebookers from using company resources to support political matters. They show Zuckerberg being publicly accused of misleading his employees. Above all, they portray a fracturing company culture.

…Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook’s former election ads integrity lead, said the employees’ concerns reflect her experience at the company, which she believes is on a dangerous path heading into the election.

“All of these steps are leading up to a situation where, come November, a portion of Facebook users will not trust the outcome of the election because they have been bombarded with messages on Facebook preparing them to not trust it,” she told BuzzFeed News..

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Eisenstat’s point is the important one – and Facebook, I bet you, doesn’t have a policy about it.
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The UK’s response to Covid-19 has been world-class • Bloomberg via MSN

Tyler Cowen, who does agree at the start that the UK’s public health response has been lousy, and that it has one of the highest death rates per million:

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the most important factor in the global response to Covid-19 has to be progress on the biomedical front, and on that score the U.K. receives stellar marks. In fact, I would argue, it is tops in the world, and certainly No. 1 on a per capita basis.

First, a cheap steroid known as dexamethasone was the first drug shown to reduce death in Covid-19 patients, and the trials proving its effectiveness came from the U.K., with Oxford University playing a prominent role. In one sample, the drug reduced deaths among a vulnerable group by one-third (it is less effective for milder cases). Dexamethasone is now a part of treatment regimens around the world, and even poor countries can afford it.

It is fair to call this achievement a home run, or at least a triple (or must I say, “a six”?). And while Spain also had a role in proving the beneficial use of this drug, the U.K. clinched the path-breaking research.

The world is also in the midst of a race to find a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19. And so far the leading contender comes from the U.K. Results published on Monday indicate that the vaccine generated an immune response in a group of about 1,000 patients. To develop this vaccine, the British-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca has been working with Oxford, and the company has inked a major deal for widespread distribution to poorer countries.

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I guess you could say that in areas that are useful to the world, the UK has done well. On everything else.. no.
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Coronavirus: New NHS England contact-tracing app may bring ‘personal benefits’ • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe:

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NHS England’s coronavirus contact-tracing app could be revamped with new features designed to bring “personal benefits” to users, Sky News can reveal.

The proposed features include “Fitbit-style” alerts letting people know whether they might have been at risk of catching coronavirus, and “check-ins” with QR codes at the entrances of businesses, according to a person involved with the project.

Officials at NHS England’s innovation unit, NHSX, believe this will help win over a sceptical public and revitalise the troubled project after a series of high-profile delays and development issues.

But one of the proposed features could bring the UK government into further conflict with Apple after it emerged that the tech company had refused a request by another government to add QR check-ins to its app.

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Going to take a wild guess that this is going to fall far short.
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Amazon met with startups about investing, then launched competing products • WSJ

Dana Mattioli and Cara Lombardo:

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When Amazon’s venture-capital fund invested in DefinedCrowd Corp, it gained access to the technology startup’s finances and other confidential information.

Nearly four years later, in April, Amazon’s cloud-computing unit launched an artificial-intelligence product that does almost exactly what DefinedCrowd does, said DefinedCrowd founder and Chief Executive Daniela Braga.

The new offering from Amazon Web Services, called A2I, competes directly “with one of our bread-and-butter foundational products” that collects and labels data, said Ms. Braga. After seeing the A2I announcement, Ms. Braga limited the Amazon fund’s access to her company’s data and diluted its stake by 90% by raising more capital.

Ms. Braga is one of more than two dozen entrepreneurs, investors and deal advisers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal who said Amazon appeared to use the investment and deal-making process to help develop competing products.

In some cases, Amazon’s decision to launch a competing product devastated the business in which it invested. In other cases, it met with startups about potential takeovers, sought to understand how their technology works, then declined to invest and later introduced similar Amazon-branded products, according to some of the entrepreneurs and investors.

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This is the same complaint that used to be made against Microsoft. (Stac Electronics was the classic case.)
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US investors try to buy TikTok from Chinese owner • Financial Times

Henny Sender, Arash Massoudi, Miles Kruppa and Hannah Murphy:

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A group of US tech investors has launched an ambitious plan to buy TikTok from its Chinese owner, as the popular short video app tries to escape being banned by the White House. 

The investors, led by the venture capital firms General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital, are in discussions with the US Treasury and other regulators to see if spinning out TikTok and firewalling it from its Chinese parent would satisfy US concerns about the app, according to two people involved in the process. 

Last weekend, President Donald Trump’s election campaign placed ads on Facebook suggesting that TikTok was “spying” on US users, a claim the company has denied. Other critics have noted the app’s huge influence as it sits on the mobile phones of tens of millions of Americans.

Other investors, including New York-based private equity firms and Silicon Valley tech firms, have also made approaches to ByteDance and its founder, Zhang Yiming, about a potential deal for TikTok.

But none is as far advanced as the General Atlantic and Sequoia group, according to the people involved. ByteDance was reluctant to share its technology with a rival company, said one of the investors, adding: “This is the only viable plan.”

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CFIUS – the US body which looks at foreign takeovers – is also considering making it unwind its 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly. But the power of TikTok now is the algorithm, not necessarily the music.
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Twitter says it’s looking at subscription options, as ad revenue drops sharply • CNN

Brian Fung, CNN Business:

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Twitter is actively exploring additional ways to make money from its users, including by considering a subscription model, CEO Jack Dorsey said Thursday. The move comes as Twitter suffers a sharp decline in its core advertising business.

“You will likely see some tests this year” of various approaches, Dorsey told analysts on an investor call held to discuss the company’s second quarter earnings results. Dorsey said he has “a really high bar for when we would ask consumers to pay for aspects of Twitter,” but confirmed that the company is seeking to diversify its sources of revenue in what are “very, very early phases of exploring.”

Earlier this month, rumors flared about a paid Twitter option after the company posted a job opening focused on building a subscription platform codenamed “Gryphon.” Twitter’s stock surged at the time, signaling investor appetite for the company to find new revenue streams.

Shares of Twitter rose 4% in early trading Thursday following the earnings results.

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That would be something. Twitter has shown that it’s not afraid to think of different ways to do things. Zero ads? A free pass to other subscription sites? Guaranteed verification? It has to be something that cn be reversed, of course.
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Facebook is simulating users’ bad behavior using AI • The Verge

James Vincent:

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Facebook’s engineers have developed a new method to help them identify and prevent harmful behavior like users spreading spam, scamming others, or buying and selling weapons and drugs. They can now simulate the actions of bad actors using AI-powered bots by letting them loose on a parallel version of Facebook. Researchers can then study the bots’ behavior in simulation and experiment with new ways to stop them.

…In real life, scammers often start their work by prowling a users’ friendship groups to find potential marks. To model this behavior in WW, Facebook engineers created a group of “innocent” bots to act as targets and trained a number of “bad” bots who explored the network to try to find them. The engineers then tried different ways to stop the bad bots, introducing various constraints, like limiting the number of private messages and posts the bots could send each minute, to see how this affected their behavior.

Harman compares the work to that of city planners trying to reduce speeding on busy roads. In that case, engineers model traffic flows in simulators and then experiment with introducing things like speed bumps on certain streets to see what effect they have. WW simulation allows Facebook to do the same thing but with Facebook users.

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Will it simulate Facebook suggesting “bad actors” join white supremacist groups and similar? Because that’s a bit of a problem in the real world.
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The star of ‘Plandemic’ spent years flooding the vaccine court system with bad science • Vice

Anna Merlan:

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These are heady times, not just for Mikovits and Wakefield, but for the broader anti-vaccine movement. Amid the ongoing devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine—one experts worry could potentially be rushed into production, and thus subject to fear and suspicion and rejection from people who desperately need it—they see an opportunity to discredit the entire vaccine schedule, and the science behind it.

The goal appears to be nothing less than to undermine the basic functioning of the vaccine manufacture system at a time when we need it more urgently than ever. But a secondary goal is to be able to sue vaccine manufacturers in civil court again, which hasn’t been possible since the 1980s—and which could not only undermine the production of vaccines, but mean a staggering payday for many of the attorneys who make up the backbone of the anti-vaccine movement.

Justice is coming for vaccine makers, Mikovits, Wakefield and other anti-vaccine celebrities are promising their devoted fans. The vaccine system is teetering on the brink of collapse, they suggest. And with the COVID-19 vaccine projected for the near future, they clearly hope that now is the right time to persuade others that vaccines are fundamentally unsafe, and that resisting them is nothing less than humanity’s last stand.

In the meantime, though, the first part of this plan—inserting discredited science into an already overtaxed system and falsely linking vaccines with a variety of ailments—has already been underway for a long, long time.

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The weird thing about all this is how it sounds like a conspiracy theory. We’re fighting their conspiracy theory with our conspiracy theory.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: I wrongly said that “K-12” in the US is secondary school. I should have checked: it’s “Kindergarten to 12th grade”. Basically, all of formal school that isn’t university.

Start Up No.1358: Facebook’s mimsy political labels, Slack files EU antitrust complaint against Microsoft, Covid reinfection?, and more


Protesters against the HB 6 bill, which became law in Ohio: its architect has been arrested on suspicion of taking bribes. CC-licensed photo by Becker1999 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 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook begins labeling, but not fact-checking, posts from Trump and Biden • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan and Marshall Cohen:

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After President Donald Trump posted an unfounded claim to Facebook (FB) on Tuesday that mail-in voting could lead to a “corrupt election,” the social network slapped a label on it. But the label did not attempt to fact-check the post as true or false. Instead, it directed users to a government website to learn more about how to vote.

The response is part of Facebook’s new policy, announced by CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month, to label posts about the November election. In recent days, Facebook has placed the same label beneath a mix of posts from Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, including one from the former vice president calling to “vote Donald Trump out this November” that does not make any factual assertions about voting.

This new approach has already been criticized by some industry watchers who worry the labels are confusing or could even be viewed as tacit endorsements of the President’s controversial posts.
“This warning seems pretty useless — it might even seem that Facebook is endorsing what Trump is saying and providing a path for more information,” Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, wrote on Twitter.

Twitter’s rigid fact-check rules allow Trump to continue spreading false information about the election
The labeling began rolling out over the last few days, according to Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone. It comes in the aftermath of employees and civil rights leaders panning Facebook’s decision not to take action on earlier incendiary posts from Trump, including one on mail-in ballots and another during a protest, in which he said “looting” would lead to “shooting.” (Twitter flagged these posts by the President.)

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Classic Facebook. It’s always never enough. Always, continually, predictably. If there are two options, it will always take the less-good, less-effective, less-useful one.
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Larry Householder affidavit: Ohio energy law that bailed out FirstEnergy was fueled by bribery • Vox

Leah Stokes:

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On Tuesday, the news broke that the FBI had arrested Ohio Speaker of the House of Representatives Larry Householder, the architect of HB 6, a law that passed in July 2019. That bill, widely recognized as the worst energy policy in the country, gutted Ohio’s renewables and energy efficiency laws while bailing out several coal and nuclear plants.

As I wrote in my book, Short Circuiting Policy, the law was a multibillion-dollar gift to FirstEnergy, a private electric utility that has resisted climate policy for decades. It turns out it was a gift paid for with $61m in bribes.

Spending a few million to get more than a billion dollars? Not a bad return on investment.

Unfortunately, this kind of corruption is not an aberration for the electric utility industry. Across the US, most private utilities are resisting the clean energy transition, and many are buying off politicians with campaign contributions to do it. What’s more, the industry celebrates it — the Edison Electric Institute, the national private utility association, gave FirstEnergy an award for its work to pass HB 6.

Corruption like this within the electric utility industry is a barrier to solving the climate crisis. But the way forward is clear: citizens must demand that politicians stop taking money from these fossil fuel companies and start holding them accountable.

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Slack files EU antitrust complaint against Microsoft • WSJ

Sam Schechner:

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Business-messaging app Slack has filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft in the European Union, accusing the software giant of abusing its dominance in allegations that echo the Windows-maker’s competition battles more than a decade ago.

The complaint, filed Wednesday to the European Commission, the EU’s top competition regulator, accuses Microsoft of trying to snuff out competition in its push into workplace collaboration tools by tying its Teams software to its widely used Office productivity suite.

Slack Technologies, which supplies its messaging app as well as a hub for other business-collaboration apps, alleges that Microsoft forces companies to install Teams, blocks its removal and makes certain types of interoperability impossible. The company is asking the EU to force Microsoft to sell Teams as a stand-alone product, rather than bundling it with Office.

Microsoft said that it is committed to providing its customers a variety of choice and that it looks forward to providing additional information to the European Commission.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said the regulator has received Slack’s complaint against Microsoft and “will assess it under our standard procedures.” In the past such complaints have at times—but not always—led to formal investigations.

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It’s all the same song that we used to hear: interoperability, bundling, pricing. All they have to do is show that Microsoft has a dominant market share and they’re sold. And in about 2025, there will be the first steps to a resolution.
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Can you become reinfected with Covid? It’s very unlikely, experts say • The New York Times

Apoorva Mandavilli:

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What’s unusual in the current pandemic, Dr. Mina said, is to see how this dynamic plays out in adults, because they so rarely experience a virus for the first time.

Even after the first surge of immunity fades, there is likely to be some residual protection. And while antibodies have received all the attention because they are easier to study and detect, memory T cells and B cells are also powerful immune warriors in a fight against any pathogen.

A study published July 15, for example, looked at three different groups. In one, each of 36 people exposed to the new virus had T cells that recognize a protein that looks similar in all coronaviruses. In another, 23 people infected with the SARS virus in 2003 also had these T cells, as did 37 people in the third group who were never exposed to either pathogen.

“A level of pre-existing immunity against SARS-CoV2 appears to exist in the general population,” said Dr. Antonio Bertoletti, a virologist at Duke NUS Medical School in Singapore.

The immunity may have been stimulated by prior exposure to coronaviruses that cause common colds. These T cells may not thwart infection, but they would blunt the illness and may explain why some people with Covid-19 have mild to no symptoms. “I believe that cellular and antibody immunity will be equally important,” Dr. Bertoletti said.

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This is interesting in the context of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s top dolt, who has now tested positive three times. Except there don’t seem to be any occasions where he’s tested negative. He’s just mildly ill, perhaps.

Or, perhaps, he hasn’t tested positive at all, because at his age (65) he could get pretty ill. Telling the press you’re ill when you’re not would be a good way to play the tough guy, and reinforce his message that it’s nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, people are dying.
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So *that’s* how Breitbart is still making money • BRANDED

BRANDED:

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For the past few years, we’ve all believed that not funding hate is as easy as blocking bad sites. That you can avoid the risks of being viewed next to terrorist propaganda or hate speech by simply opting out.

But nothing about digital advertising is straightforward.

Last month, Zach Edwards, a data supply researcher, reached out to us with a tip. He told us he had found evidence that Breitbart was continuing to siphon advertising dollars from unsuspecting brands without their knowledge or consent. He told us the average marketer would never know — that you wouldn’t find any clues of this by checking your site list.

This tactic enables vast sums of money to be funnelled towards bad actors mostly without detection, which means that the biggest companies in the world are still funnelling ad dollars towards hate and disinformation. Even if you have blocked Breitbart or use an inclusion list, your brand could still be at risk.

Zach has been our guide to understanding this type of ad fraud, which we find to be so egregious that it should be illegal. We decided to join forces with him for this story.

👉🏽 You can read Zach’s technical version here.

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This is super-complicated. But a weird thing: Breitbart, Drudgereport, the Mirror in the UK are somehow sharing advertising revenue. Embarrassing for the Mirror among others.
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Artificial intelligence is the hope 2020 needs • Bloomberg via MSN

Tyler Cowen:

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GPT-3 does not try to pass the Turing test by being indistinguishable from a human in its responses. Rather, it is built for generality and depth, even though that means it will serve up bad answers to many queries, at least in its current state. As a general philosophical principle, it accepts that being weird sometimes is a necessary part of being smart. In any case, like so many other technologies, GPT-3 has the potential to rapidly improve.

It is not difficult to imagine a wide variety of GPT-3 spinoffs, or companies built around auxiliary services, or industry task forces to improve the less accurate aspects of GPT-3. Unlike some innovations, it could conceivably generate an entire ecosystem.

There is a notable buzz about GPT-3 in the tech community. One user in the U.K. tweeted: “I just got access to gpt-3 and I can’t stop smiling, i am so excited.” Venture capitalist Paul Graham noted coyly: “Hackers are fascinated by GPT-3. To everyone else it seems a toy. Pattern seem familiar to anyone?” Venture capitalist and AI expert Daniel Gross referred to GPT-3 as “a landmark moment in the field of AI.”

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Want some more reading? Here’s more about GPT-3. Make sure you read to the end. If you’re not paying attention to GPT-3, watch out for GPT-4 in a couple of years’ time.
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The racist history of tipping • POLITICO Magazine

Reverend Dr William Barber:

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You might not think of tipping as a legacy of slavery, but it has a far more racialized history than most Americans realize. Tipping originated in feudal Europe and was imported back to the United States by American travelers eager to seem sophisticated. The practice spread throughout the country after the Civil War as US employers, largely in the hospitality sector, looked for ways to avoid paying formerly enslaved workers.

One of the most notorious examples comes from the Pullman Company, which hired newly freed African American men as porters. Rather than paying them a real wage, Pullman provided the black porters with just a meager pittance, forcing them to rely on tips from their white clientele for most of their pay.

Tipping further entrenched a unique and often racialized class structure in service jobs, in which workers must please both customer and employer to earn anything at all. A journalist quoted in Kerry Segrave’s 2009 book, Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, wrote in 1902 that he was embarrassed to offer a tip to a white man. “Negroes take tips, of course; one expects that of them—it is a token of their inferiority,” he wrote. “Tips go with servility, and no man who is a voter in this country is in the least justified in being in service.”

The immorality of paying an insufficient wage to workers, who then were forced to rely on tips, was acknowledged at the time. In his popular 1916 anti-tipping study, The Itching Palm, writer William Scott described tipping as an aristocratic custom that went against American ideals. “The relation of a man giving a tip and a man accepting it is as undemocratic as the relation of master and slave,” Scott wrote. “A citizen in a republic ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with every other citizen, with no thought of cringing, without an assumption of superiority or an acknowledgment of inferiority.”

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As someone remarked on Twitter, almost every unusual practice you see in America is linked to racism.
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Twitter cracks down on QAnon, bans thousands of accounts • The Washington Post

Tim Elfrink:

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As QAnon conspiracy theorists bombarded Chrissy Teigen with false claims and threats last week, the model and author blocked more than 1 million accounts and threatened to abandon the platform and her 13 million followers.

On Tuesday, Twitter took broad action itself against the right-wing conspiracy theory. The social media company recently deleted more than 7,000 QAnon accounts, the company confirmed to The Washington Post, and is removing QAnon URLs from tweets and working to prevent the conspiracy theory from showing up in recommendations and trending topics. The changes could ultimately affect more than 150,000 accounts.

The company told The Post the move to crack down on QAnon wasn’t directly motivated by Teigen’s high-profile conflict last week, but rather an emerging trend of QAnon groups coordinating to abuse people.

Teigen backed the move, telling a critic who called Twitter’s announcement “censorship” that harassment isn’t free speech.

“You don’t have a ‘right’ to coordinate attacks and make death threats,” Teigen wrote on Twitter. “It is not an ‘opinion’ to call people pedophiles who rape and eat children.”

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Teigen has had a grisly time. The fruitloops of QAnut have been going after her for years. Wiping the ones coordinating it off the site is an overdue move.
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Nvidia interested in buying SoftBank’s Arm chip designer • TheStreet

Rob Lenihan:

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Nvidia is reportedly interested in acquiring Arm Ltd., the semiconductor designer owned by Japanese investment group SoftBank Group.

Shares of Nvidia at last check were up 1.2% at $418.

Nvidia made an approach in recent weeks about a potential deal for Cambridge, England-based Arm, Bloomberg reported, citing people with knowledge of the matter.

SoftBank is exploring options to sell part or all of its stake in Arm through a private deal or public stock listing, Bloomberg said. Other potential bidders could also emerge.

Nvidia’s interest may not lead to a deal, and SoftBank may still opt to pursue a listing, the people said. 

Arm sells semiconductor designs and also licenses the fundamentals of how chips communicate with software, known as instruction sets. Even some companies that design their own chips, such as Apple, do so using Arm’s instruction set.

A deal for Arm could become the biggest-ever acquisition in the chip industry, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. 

Arm is owned by SoftBank and its $100bn Vision Fund. SoftBank bought Arm in 2016 for $32bn, which at the time was the UK’s largest listed technology company.

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Doubtful whether Nvidia will get the go-ahead for this: the competition question (you’re a dominant GPU designer and you want to own the dominant CPU designer?) is obvious.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified