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.1384: US DoJ prepares Google antitrust suit, real-world v virtual privacy, Facebook bans Indian politician, and more


Huawei 5G kit is being stripped out of European networks just as new iPhones can handle it. CC-licensed photo by Vodafone Enterprise Plenum e.V. 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. Unenhanced. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Justice Dept. plans to file antitrust charges against Google in coming weeks • The New York Times

Katie Benner and Cecilia Kang:

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The Google case could also give Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr an election-season achievement on an issue that both Democrats and Republicans see as a major problem: the influence of the biggest tech companies over consumers and the possibility that their business practices have stifled new competitors and hobbled legacy industries like telecom and media.

A coalition of 50 states and territories support antitrust action against Google, a reflection of the broad bipartisan support that a Justice Department case might have. But state attorneys general conducting their own investigations into the company are split on how to move forward, with Democrats perceived by Republicans as slow-walking the work so that cases can be brought under a potential Biden administration, and Democrats accusing Republicans of rushing it out under Mr. Trump. That disagreement could limit the number of states that join a Justice Department lawsuit and imperil the bipartisan nature of the investigation.

Some lawyers in the department worry that Mr. Barr’s determination to bring a complaint this month could weaken their case and ultimately strengthen Google’s hand, according to interviews with 15 lawyers who worked on the case or were briefed on the department’s strategy. They asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

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This really is an amazingly clueless story. First: the Google case, if filed, won’t be an “election-season achievement”. It will take years to come to court. Also, maybe ask yourself: which does the average American like more, Google or the government? I’ll guess at Google. So what’s the average American’s response going to be when it hears that the government is going after Google?

By contrast, the 1998 DoJ antitrust case against Microsoft was a popular president (Bill Clinton) against a company which made your computer crash and lose your work. None of that is in the story.

Third, and also not in the story: what the basis of the antitrust complaint would be. They spoke to all those lawyers yet never asked “and how should we explain this to the average reader?”

Still, at least you know that there might soon be an antitrust suit against Google. Or, you know, not.
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Huawei’s struggles in European telecoms • Counterpoint Research

Jan Stryjak:

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Across the rest of Europe, a growing list of carriers are also [like the UK] considering their options, and the removal of Huawei from their core networks is already underway. But doing so is not easy…or cheap. Vodafone for example is spending €200m ($224m) to extract Huawei from the core of its entire European operation. It will also take time: some carriers are much more reliant on Huawei than others (Sunrise Switzerland, for example, has a 100% Huawei 5G network) and issues around vendor incompatibility need to be carefully considered.

Huawei’s position in RAN is also at risk. European carriers may well follow the UK’s decision to remove Huawei from their RAN too, and there is growing momentum behind Open RAN technologies which aim to increase vendor competition: Telefónica has announced it will launch 4G and 5G Open RAN trials across its European operations this year, while Vodafone plans to open its entire European footprint up to tender in order to expand its supplier options and explore Open RAN technology. The Huawei saga will act as a catalyst to accelerate open RAN technology development, and adoption and may be further boosted by the introduction of statutory open RAN mandates by European governments.

The direction of travel, therefore, is clear: Huawei’s expulsion from all of Europe’s core networks seems to be a question of when, not if, and its European RAN business may be on the way out too. This will likely result in Europe playing catch-up in its 5G race with China and the US.

…[And] why would European carriers want to stock Huawei devices? In the past, Huawei’s deep pockets ensured European carrier portfolios were chock full of Huawei smartphones, the most popular being the P30 which still accounts for a significant proportion of Huawei’s sales. However, this device is now over a year old, and with inventory running low, a lack of a worthy successor in the pipeline and consumer sentiment waning, Huawei is being squeezed out.

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Online privacy should be modeled on real-world privacy • Daring Fireball

John Gruber:

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Imagine if you were out shopping, went into a drug store, examined a few bottles of sunscreen, but left the store without purchasing anything. And then immediately a stranger approached you with an offer for sunscreen. Such an encounter would trigger a fight or flight reaction — the needle on your innate creepometer would shoot right into the red. (Not to mention that if real-world tracking were like online tracking, you’d get the same creepy offer to buy sunscreen even if you just bought some. Tracking-based offers are both creepy, and, at times, annoyingly stupid.)

Or imagine if you found out that public billboards were taking photos of people who glance at them, logging those photos to a database, and using facial recognition to match them with photos taken at point-of-sale terminals in retail stores. That way, if, say, you were photographed looking at an ad for a soft drink, and later — hours, days, weeks — purchased that same soft drink, the billboard advertisement you glanced at hours, days, or weeks before could get “credit” for your purchase.

We wouldn’t tolerate it. But that’s basically how online ad tracking works.

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Gruber is writing about the Apple ad below, which seems to be nudging us to be thinking about iPhones, as there’s a launch coming up some time in the next few weeks.


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5G iPhones: Kuo says we can expect fewer super-fast 5G ones • 9to5Mac

Ben Lovejoy:

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Offering mmWave 5G is expensive, one recent report suggesting it will add as much as $50 per iPhone to Apple’s costs. That being the case, the expectation is that not all iPhone 12 models will support the faster 5G standard.

There have been conflicting reports about what that might mean. Some believe mmWave 5G will be limited to the flagship models (the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, if Apple uses iPhone 11 nomenclature). Others think all models will get it, but only in certain countries.

Noted Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has a new report today suggesting that Apple supplier Xuande will see lower growth thanks to reduced mmWave 5G orders from the iPhone maker.

»

We estimate that the shipments of millimeter wave iPhones in 2020 and 2021 will be about 4-6 million and 25-5 million, respectively. , Which is lower than the market consensus of 10-20 million and 40-50 million units. Therefore, Xuande’s contribution from millimeter-wave iPhone high single-piece components will be lower than expected.

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The report still sheds no direct light on whether mmWave 5G will be limited by model or by country, but one sentence in it may give a clue.

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We believe that due to the impact of COVID-19, the global 5G millimeter wave base stations are lower than expected.

«

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The 5G question actually becomes something to think about this year. Unlike years past when we had the transition to 4G, the smartphone market is saturated, so people are hanging on to their phones for two or even three years. Two years from now you’d expect 5G will be well developed. So might it be worth paying more now to get that functionality as your phone reaches its middle or late age?
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Facebook, under pressure in India, bans politician for hate speech • WSJ

Newley Purnell and Rajesh Roy:

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Facebook banned a member of India’s ruling party for violating its policies against hate speech, amid a growing political storm over its handling of extremist content on its platform.

The removal of the politician, T. Raja Singh, is an about-face for the company and one that will be politically tricky in India, its biggest market by number of users.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Facebook’s head of public policy in the country, Ankhi Das, had opposed banning Mr. Singh under Facebook’s “dangerous individual” prohibitions. In communications to Facebook staffers, she said punishing violations by politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party could hurt the company’s business interests in the country.

At the same time, Facebook is under pressure around the world to crack down on alleged hate speech.

Lawmakers in India’s opposition Congress party earlier called for hearings to examine whether Facebook has bent its own rules to favor Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

In Facebook posts and public appearances, Mr. Singh, a member of Mr. Modi’s BJP, has said Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors and threatened to destroy mosques. He had hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook and its Instagram service.

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This has only happened because the WSJ has exposed it and pressed on it. Facebook obviously didn’t do anything itself, because this is longstanding (and quite possibly enabled by the high-ranking Facebook India executive). More evidence that Facebook’s self-regulation is inadequate.
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A tale of two stores • Digital First

Youngjin Yoo:

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I went to Office Max to pick up chairs that I ordered earlier. The store was almost empty. I was happy to see my chairs stacked up in the cash register area. I thought it would a quick stop at the cash register to pay for the chairs and leave. Perhaps 5 minutes total. 

There were two employees at the cash register. One was dealing with a customer who tried to get a refund. The other was trying to find a product that a customer wants to buy (if you buy a big item there, you bring a card from the floor to the cash register and they will bring to you). I was the first one behind these two customers. Lucky me, I thought! Well, not quite.

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Quite an old story (from November 2017!) but more relevant than ever. (Via John Naughton’s Memex.)
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Official campaign website statement by Vice President Biden on the poisoning of Alexey Navalny • Official Biden website

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This outrageous and brazen attempt on Mr. Navalny’s life is just the latest incident in a long history of murder and poisoning of dissidents, investigative journalists, anti-corruption activists, and opposition leaders under the Putin regime. It is the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent.

The Kremlin no doubt thinks that it can act with impunity. Donald Trump has refused to confront Putin, calling him a “terrific person.” He has said nothing about intelligence reports that Putin placed bounties on the heads of American soldiers in Afghanistan. He has yet to condemn the attack on Mr. Navalny. His silence is complicity. Americans are less safe with Donald Trump in the White House.

As president, I will do what Donald Trump refuses to do: work with our allies and partners to hold the Putin regime accountable for its crimes.

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I always find it weird how once you’ve been vice-president you get to call yourself that all the time. It’s like being a peer in the UK, except they don’t notionally run the country.

The US government’s response was to have a National Security flack call it “completely reprehensible” on Twitter. Too hard for Trump to criticise Putin? Is he scared, or something?
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Facebook wants its AR glasses to give wearers superhearing • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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Facebook has pursued high-quality virtual sound for years, largely through its Oculus virtual reality headsets. FRL Research’s latest work focuses on AR applications. To give one example, “imagine being able to hold a conversation in a crowded restaurant or bar without having to raise your voice to be heard or straining to understand what others are saying,” the company explains.

AR glasses could do this by picking up audio with microphones, using contextual clues to gauge which sounds are important, and feeding those sounds through a noise-canceling earpiece. Conversely, if you’re on a phone or video call, improved spatial sound could project participants’ voices or other audio to specific parts of the room, increasing the sense that you’re really with somebody else — or “audio presence,” in FRL Research’s terms.

As Facebook acknowledges, the lab’s “perceptual superpowers” pitch is very similar to the function of existing hearing aids, which also amplify sound and reduce background noise. (One experimental system even uses brain implants to focus on specific voices.)

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Being able to focus your listening on someone in a noisy environment is an amazing capability we have in normal hearing, but it gets harder with age. Do you need glasses to enhance that? Couldn’t you just have earphones that focussed in the sound ahead of you?
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Large antibody study offers hope for virus vaccine efforts • Associated Press

Marilynn Marchione:

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Antibodies that people make to fight the new coronavirus last for at least four months after diagnosis and do not fade quickly as some earlier reports suggested, scientists have found.

Tuesday’s report, from tests on more than 30,000 people in Iceland, is the most extensive work yet on the immune system’s response to the virus over time, and is good news for efforts to develop vaccines.

If a vaccine can spur production of long-lasting antibodies as natural infection seems to do, it gives hope that “immunity to this unpredictable and highly contagious virus may not be fleeting,” scientists from Harvard University and the U.S. National Institutes of Health wrote in a commentary published with the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

…The study also found:

— Testing through the bits-of-virus method that’s commonly done in community settings missed nearly half of people who were found to have had the virus by blood antibody testing. That means the blood tests are far more reliable and better for tracking spread of the disease in a region and for guiding decisions and returning to work or school, researchers say.

— Nearly a third of infections were in people who reported no symptoms.

— Nearly 1% of Iceland’s population was infected in this first wave of the pandemic, meaning the other 99% are still vulnerable to the virus.

— The infection fatality rate was 0.3%. That’s about three times the fatality rate of seasonal flu and in keeping with some other more recent estimates, said Dr. Derek Angus, critical care chief at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

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Infection fatality rate v case fatality rate is quite different. CFR is higher – given that half the infections were missed by testing, you’d have a CFR at least twice as high.
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Facebook complains, Apple responds: iOS 14’s big privacy change gets postponed • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

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The feature, announced at Apple’s annual developer conference in June, would require app developers to notify a user of an app’s intent to track the user’s IDFA (ID for Advertisers). IDFA is used to track the user’s behavior across multiple apps and deliver targeted ads based on that behavior. The change would also require the user to opt in to that tracking.

Apple now says that, while developers will be able to implement this notification and request for permission, doing so will no longer be mandatory when iOS 14 launches sometime in the next couple of months. However, Apple was careful to clarify that it still intends to establish the requirement in the future, and that this is only a delay “to give developers time to make necessary changes.”

Here’s Apple’s statement on the matter, which was published to its developer portal today:

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In addition, on iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and tvOS 14, apps will be required to receive user permission to track users across apps or websites owned by other companies, or to access the device’s advertising identifier. We are committed to ensuring users can choose whether or not they allow an app to track them. To give developers time to make necessary changes, apps will be required to obtain permission to track users starting early next year. More information, including an update to the App Store Review Guidelines, will follow this fall.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1383: the A-level algorithm lesson, kill Twitter Trends!, Google remixes radio, India bans PUBG, Reels v Facebook, and more


The FBI finds these unsettling. CC-licensed photo by Steve Garfield 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. Non-algorithmic. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

“F**k the algorithm?”: what the world can learn from the UK’s A-level grading fiasco • Impact of Social Sciences

Daan Kolman:

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Last month, hundreds of students in UK gathered in front of the Department for Education and chanted “f**k the algorithm”. Within days, their protests prompted officials to reverse course and throw out test scores that an algorithm had generated for students who never sat their exams due to the pandemic.

This incident has shone the media spotlight on the question of AI bias. However, previous cases of AI bias have already led to well-intentioned efforts by data scientists, statisticians, and machine learning experts to look beyond the technical and also consider the fairness, accountability, confidentiality, and transparency of their algorithms.

What the A-level grading fiasco demonstrates is that this work may be misdirected. There is a key lesson to be learned from this algorithmic grading fiasco. A lesson that will only become more relevant as governments and organizations increasingly use automated systems to inform or make decisions: There can be no algorithmic accountability without a critical audience. By this, I mean that, unless it draws the attention of people who critically engage with it, technical and non-technical quality assurance of algorithms is a token gesture and will fail to have the desired effect.

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It’s (still) time to end ‘Trending’ on Twitter • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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During the Epstein mania, for example, #ClintonBodyCount trended, and President Trump — who is known to trawl Twitter trends for material — retweeted an account that sought to link Epstein’s death to the former president.

To me, the incident offered reasons to bring an end to trending topics altogether. One, the Twitter was seemingly powerless to stop bad actors from gaming the algorithm and inserting fringe ideas into mainstream discussion. And two, the feature had been made largely redundant by Moments, a 5-year-old product that uses human curators to find items of interest on Twitter each day and organize meaningful discussions around them.

In conversations with Twitter around that time, executives told me that they knew their trends had problems, but ensured me that fixes were coming. On Tuesday — more than a year after the disinformation World Cup — the first such fix arrived. The company announced it in a blog post:

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Sometimes the right Tweet can help make sense of a trend. Starting today, some trends will have a representative Tweet pinned to them to give you more insight about a trend right away.

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…now when something trends, you’ll see a tweet that explains why, plus maybe a short explanation from Twitter. If nothing else, this should resolve what might be the most common complaint about trends for the past decade or so: whenever a celebrity’s name is trending, everyone assumes they are dead, and has to frantically search through tweets to see whether that is in fact the case.

…Reading through the list of conspiracy topics that have surfaced in Twitter trends over the past year, it’s hard to imagine how the changes announced on Tuesday will much improve the product. Will trends be worthy when a human curator picks a “representative tweet” for, uh, #JewishPrivilege? What about #SaveTheChildren?

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Google wants to remix news radio just for you • WIRED

Boone Ashworth:

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Most of us know how delightful it is to hear a computer-generated song playlist that feels entirely personal. Now, Google wants to create a similar type of bespoke audio experience—not with music, but with news.

The company is adding some new features to its existing news aggregation service called Your News Update, which gathers news clips from different outlets and plays them in one continuous audio feed. Think of it like a Feedly or Flipboard-type service for spoken stories from your preferred news publications.

Google has updated the service to create a more fluid listening experience, so that sitting through an entire session doesn’t feel like you’re just working your way through a hodgepodge of disparate stories. Each personalized playlist is structured to mimic a news program typical of what you’d hear on public radio: short clips about the big headlines up front that gradually shift into longer, more detailed stories. The goal is to create a seamless 90-minute broadcast—a mix of radio, podcast snippets, and text-to-speech article translations—tailored to an audience of one.

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Or you could listen to the news, which would give you information about the whole world and take you out of your filter bubble? This is one of those ideas that must sound brilliant in the product meeting, but which doesn’t actually have good outcomes if adopted widely.
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A supercomputer’s Covid-19 analysis yields a new way to understand the virus • Elemental

Thomas Smith:

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once Covid-19 has established itself in the body, things start to get really interesting. According to Jacobson’s group, the data Summit analyzed shows that Covid-19 isn’t content to simply infect cells that already express lots of ACE2 receptors.

Instead, it actively hijacks the body’s own systems, tricking it into upregulating ACE2 receptors in places where they’re usually expressed at low or medium levels, including the lungs.
In this sense, Covid-19 is like a burglar who slips in your unlocked second-floor window and starts to ransack your house. Once inside, though, they don’t just take your stuff — they also throw open all your doors and windows so their accomplices can rush in and help pillage more efficiently.

The renin–angiotensin system (RAS) controls many aspects of the circulatory system, including the body’s levels of a chemical called bradykinin, which normally helps to regulate blood pressure. According to the team’s analysis, when the virus tweaks the RAS, it causes the body’s mechanisms for regulating bradykinin to go haywire. Bradykinin receptors are resensitized, and the body also stops effectively breaking down bradykinin. (ACE normally degrades bradykinin, but when the virus downregulates it, it can’t do this as effectively.)

The end result, the researchers say, is to release a bradykinin storm — a massive, runaway buildup of bradykinin in the body. According to the bradykinin hypothesis, it’s this storm that is ultimately responsible for many of Covid-19’s deadly effects.

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PUBG Mobile, 117 other Chinese apps now banned in India • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:

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The Indian government has banned 118 more Chinese mobile apps in the country, including mega-popular action title PUBG Mobile.

In a press release explaining the move, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said they chose to ban the apps as they “are engaged in activities which is prejudicial (sic) to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”

More specifically, the ministry claims that it received many complaints about these mobile apps “stealing and surreptitiously” sending user data to servers outside of India.

Aside from PUBG Mobile, some of the other notable names in this latest list of banned apps includes PUBG Mobile Lite, AFK Arena, AliPay, Baidu, several WeChat-branded apps, APUS Launcher, and Rules of Survival.

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Not much noticed on this side of the world, but the cold war going on between India and China is pretty intense.
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how reels undercuts facebook’s standoff with australia • The World Is Yours*

Alex Hern on the impasse in Australia, under which Facebook says it will stop including news links because of a new payment requirement:

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One of the problems with technology regulation is that “that would be bad”, “that would be bad for tech” and “that would be bad for tech companies” are often treated as interchangeable pieces of advice. 

One solution is to build up your technical expertise so that you can distinguish between those different types of advice, learning from the experts where they are helpful while dismissing their input when it is self-serving.

Another solution – the Australian federal solution – is to ignore the experts entirely and throw yourself over the waterfall in a barrel. Maybe you’ll be fine! Maybe you won’t be! Either way, everyone watching will have a grand old time, and we’ll probably learn something in the process.

… one thing I have liked about the Australian approach, as I so frequently do, is the fact that completely ignoring the experts does at least highlight some of the problems with the expert advice.

…Facebook’s point is that if the Australian news companies want to charge it per (say) headline on Facebook, while also retaining the ability to post their own headlines on Facebook… the company is signing a blank cheque. I can see why it would be against that!

Except.

Grab your phone, open Instagram, click add to Your Story, and flick over to Reels. You’ll see a little musical note. Click that, and you can search for almost any song you like, and add it to your Reel.

It’s a feature lifted wholesale from TikTok, of course, but that’s not important here; what is important is that it’s a feature for which Facebook has, almost certainly, negotiated a small fee per stream to be paid back to the labels.

In other words, Facebook has signed a blank cheque in order to allow excerpts of music be posted on Instagram

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Throw yourself over the waterfall in a barrel. That’s 2020 in a nutshell. Or a barrel.
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Google’s advertisers will take the hit from UK digital service tax • The Guardian

Mark Sweney:

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Google has told its tens of thousands of clients that from November it will charge an additional fee for ads served on Google and YouTube. The move will increase advertisers’ costs in line with the amount the tech giant is set to pay in new digital services taxes as they come into force: 2% in the UK, and 5% in Austria and Turkey.

Earlier this month, Amazon said that it would be passing on the 2% tax to sellers on its platform. With Google doing the same, Facebook, which makes an estimated £4.2bn in ad revenue in the UK, is expected to follow suit.

“Digital service taxes increase the cost of digital advertising,” said a Google spokeswoman. “Typically, these kinds of cost increases are borne by customers and like other companies affected by this tax, we will be adding a fee to our invoices, from November. We will continue to pay all the taxes due in the UK, and to encourage governments globally to focus on international tax reform rather than implementing new, unilateral levies.”

Google UK reported £1.6bn in revenues last year, up from £1.2bn, but paid just £44m in UK corporation tax as it does not report big profits.

However, this does not reflect how much it makes in total advertising revenues as they are reported in other jurisdictions. The research firm eMarketer estimates that in reality Google made about £5.7bn in ad revenue in the the UK last year, accounting for 39% of that total digital ad market, and will make over £6bn this year. The 2% tax equates to about £122m on those revenues.

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Apple following suit by increasing the cost of its developer accounts by 2% in the UK (before it puts on the 20% VAT). Not sure that’s how taxes are meant to play out.
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Doorbell cameras like Ring give early warning of police searches, FBI warned • The Intercept

Sam Biddle:

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The downside for police, who have rushed to embrace Ring usage nationwide as the Amazon subsidiary aggressively marketed itself to and sealed partnerships with local departments, is that networked cameras record cops just as easily as the rest of us. Ring’s cameras are so popular in part because of how the company markets their ability to detect motion at your doorstep, providing convenient phone alerts of “suspicious activity,” however you might define it, even when you’re out of the house.

But sometimes the police are the unannounced, unwanted visitor: “Subjects likely use IoT devices to hinder LE [law enforcement] investigations and possibly monitor LE activity,” the bulletin states. “If used during the execution of a search, potential subjects could learn of LE’s presence nearby, and LE personnel could have their images captured, thereby presenting a risk to their present and future safety.”

The document describes a 2017 incident in which FBI agents approached a New Orleans home to serve a search warrant and were caught on video. “Through the Wi-Fi doorbell system, the subject of the warrant remotely viewed the activity at his residence from another location and contacted his neighbor and landlord regarding the FBI’s presence there,” it states.

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Sauce for the goose turns out to serve gander as well.
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Intel announces its new 11th Gen Tiger Lake CPUs, available on laptops this fall • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Intel has officially announced its first 11th Gen Tiger Lake processors for laptops, which will feature the company’s new integrated Xe graphics, Thunderbolt 4 support, Wi-Fi 6, and a big leap in performance and battery life over the previous Ice Lake chips. The company claims that the new 11th Gen lineup offers the “best processor for thin-&-light” laptops.

Intel is launching nine new 11th Gen designs for both its U-series (which Intel is now referring to as UP3) and Y-series class chips (aka UP4), led by the Core i7-1185G7, which offer base speeds of 3.0GHz, a maximum single core turbo boost of up to 4.8GHz, and a maximum all-core boost of up to 4.3GHz. It also features the most powerful version of Intel’s Iris Xe integrated graphics, with 96 CUs and a maximum graphics speed of 1.35GHz.

…Intel isn’t being too specific on what those increases will be, but it promises that the new chips will offer a 20% faster speeds for day-to-day “office productivity” tasks, along with a similar 20% increase in “system-level power,” which is says results in more than an extra hour of battery life for things like video streaming.

…Also new is support for 8K HDR displays, along with the option to use up to four 4K HDR displays at once. There’s also improvements to the built-in AI engine, which Intel says will offer specific improvements for video calls (like background blurring) — tasks which ARM-based computers like the Surface Pro X have previously excelled at.

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Gauntlet thrown down to Apple. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for ’em.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1382: Amazon’s desperate drivers, Facebook zaps IRA (but not fake video), mask safety data, Apple… Search?, and more


Liu Caixin’s Three-Body Problem is being adapted into a TV series for Netflix. Before the end of the universe. CC-licensed photo by Philip Pace 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. Back in the swing. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon drivers are hanging smartphones in trees to get more work • Bloomberg

Spencer Soper:

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A strange phenomenon has emerged near Amazon.com Inc. delivery stations and Whole Foods stores in the Chicago suburbs: smartphones dangling from trees. Contract delivery drivers are putting them there to get a jump on rivals seeking orders, according to people familiar with the matter.

Someone places several devices in a tree located close to the station where deliveries originate. Drivers in on the plot then sync their own phones with the ones in the tree and wait nearby for an order pickup. The reason for the odd placement, according to experts and people with direct knowledge of Amazon’s operations, is to take advantage of the handsets’ proximity to the station, combined with software that constantly monitors Amazon’s dispatch network, to get a split-second jump on competing drivers.

That drivers resort to such extreme methods is emblematic of the ferocious competition for work in a pandemic-ravaged U.S. economy suffering from double-digit unemployment. Much the way milliseconds can mean millions to hedge funds using robotraders, a smartphone perched in a tree can be the key to getting a $15 delivery route before someone else.

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The gig economy was presented as a way to mobilise assets that weren’t being used. Instead it’s fast becoming a way of squeezing every asset up to and beyond its breaking point.

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GoT’s Benioff & Weiss and Netflix team for sci-fi epic Three-Body Problem • Polygon

Matt Patches:

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After striking up a development deal with the streamer last August, reportedly to the tune of $200m, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss departed HBO and ditched an assignment to write their own Star Wars trilogy. On Tuesday, Netflix VP of Original Series, Peter Friedlander unveiled the first fruits of the deal: a new live-action series inspired by Chinese author Liu Cixin’s acclaimed science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem.

“Liu Cixin’s trilogy is the most ambitious science-fiction series we’ve read, taking readers on a journey from the 1960s until the end of time, from life on our pale blue dot to the distant fringes of the universe,” Benioff and Weiss said in a news release for the announcement. “We look forward to spending the next years of our lives bringing this to life for audiences around the world.”

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The Three-Body Problem is an amazing trilogy. It would make a terrific, say, 64-hour series. You’d just about get the nuance in there, as it spans the time from the Cultural Revolution to the heat death of the universe.
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Facebook removes Russian disinformation network • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg:

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Facebook removed a network of fake accounts and pages created by Russian operatives who had recruited US journalists to write articles critical of Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, an apparent bid to undermine their support among liberal voters.

Facebook said it caught the network of 13 fake accounts and two pages early, before it had a chance to build a large audience — an action that the company said was evidence of its growing effectiveness at targeting foreign disinformation operations ahead of the 2020 election. The takedown emerged as a result of a tip from the FBI and was one of a dozen operations tied to the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) or individuals affiliated with it that Facebook has disrupted since the last presidential election, when IRA-backed pages amassed millions of views on the platform. The pages had about 14,000 followers.

…One of the journalists who wrote columns for Peace Data, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his career, said that an editor reached out to him through a direct message on Twitter in July offering $200 per article.

He pursued the opportunity in part because he had lost his job in the pandemic. He wrote articles about the conspiracy movement QAnon, covid, and on US militarism driving climate change.

«

Used AI-faked photos, the whole nine yards. Small but still determined.
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Republicans are flooding the internet with deceptive videos and Big Tech isn’t keeping up • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan and Daniel Dale:

»

A series of deceptively edited and misleading videos shared by prominent Republicans have run up millions of views across Facebook and Twitter in just the past few days. And while both companies have pledged to combat misinformation, their responses to these videos followed a familiar pattern: often they act too late, do too little, or don’t do anything at all.

Between Sunday and Monday, high-profile Republicans, including President Donald Trump, shared at least four misleading videos online.

One that circulated widely was a false video about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden posted to the Twitter account of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise. After an outcry, including from a person in the video who had words put in his mouth in order to distort what Biden was saying, Twitter took the action it takes in such instances, labelling the video as “manipulated media.”

The manipulated media label is just that, however – a label appearing below the video when people look at the specific tweet to which it has been applied. It’s small and potentially missed by users, and though it may potentially make some users pause before sharing a given video, it does not actually stop them if they decide to go ahead anyway.

«

The latter point is always what amazes me. If the platform has decided that something is misleading and a problem, then why allow it to keep spreading around your platform? It’s bizarre.
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Stolen Fortnite accounts earn hackers millions per year • Threatpost

Lindsey O’Donnell:

»

Hackers are scoring more than a million dollars annually selling compromised accounts for the popular Fortnite video game in underground forums.

With Fortnite’s immense popularity skyrocketing over the past few years – it currently has more than 350 million global players – the game is a lucrative target for cybercriminals. After tallying the auction sales for several high-end and low-end Fortnite account sellers over a three month period, researchers found that on the high end, sellers averaged $25,000 per week in account sales — roughly $1.2m per year.

“The market for stolen account sales is much larger than just the gaming industry…However, from our research, the black market for the buying and selling of stolen Fortnite accounts is among the most expansive, and also the most lucrative,” said researchers with Night Lion Security in a report last week.

The value of a hacked Fortnite account is centralized around a character’s in-game “skin” (essentially a digital costume), researchers said.

«

Yeah, well figured out, researchers. I guess it’s not really in Epic’s interests to enforce two-factor authentication or anything, because the people who get hacked will just… create a new account and spend the money again. Win-win for Epic.
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Mask wearers are “dramatically less likely” to get a severe case of Covid-19 • The Conversation

Monica Gandhi:

»

I am an infectious disease doctor and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. As governments and workplaces began to recommend or mandate mask-wearing, my colleagues and I noticed an interesting trend. In places where most people wore masks, those who did get infected seemed dramatically less likely to get severely ill compared to places with less mask-wearing.

It seems people get less sick if they wear a mask.

When you wear a mask – even a cloth mask – you typically are exposed to a lower dose of the coronavirus than if you didn’t. Both recent experiments in animal models using coronavirus and nearly a hundred years of viral research show that lower viral doses usually means less severe disease.

No mask is perfect, and wearing one might not prevent you from getting infected. But it might be the difference between a case of Covid-19 that sends you to the hospital and a case so mild you don’t even realize you’re infected.

«

Feels like common sense; illness is all about the viral load, after all. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Facebook threatens to block Australians from sharing news in battle over landmark media law • The Guardian

Amanda Meade:

»

Tuesday’s statement [by Facebook] marked the company’s first comment since Google also took an aggressive approach to the looming legislation, although the search giant has stopped short of saying it would block search functions in Australia.

The director of the the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, Peter Lewis, said Facebook is prepared to remove trusted journalism from its site but will allow disinformation and conspiracy theories to flourish.

“As a big advertising company, Facebook would do well to realise its success is only as strong as its network of users,” Lewis said. “Bullying their elected representatives seems a strange way to build long-term trust.

The announcement blindsided Australian media following a long silence from Facebook in Australia. Facebook chose to brief American journalists ahead of the release of the news about the ban, while ignoring Australian media. Sources said the targeting of the US media indicated Facebook’s main concern was that the mandatory code set an “international precedent”.

…[Facebook Australia manager Will] Easton denied the ACCC’s claim that the digital giants make money from news, saying “the reverse is true” in the case of Facebook.

He said in the first five months of 2020 Facebook sent two billion clicks from Facebook’s News Feed back to Australian news websites “at no charge”, traffic that was worth an estimated $200m to Australian publishers.

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Trump ban on Chinese drone parts risks worsening wildfires • Financial Times

Kiran Stacey:

»

The US interior department’s decision not to buy more drones with Chinese parts has made it more difficult to fight wildfires, according to an internal departmental memo, which lays bare one cost of the Trump administration’s crackdown on Chinese technology.

The memo, which was written by the department’s Office of Aviation Services earlier this year, found that by the end of the year, the department will have carried out only a quarter of the controlled burning it might otherwise have done had it gone ahead with planned drone purchases.

The US is experiencing one of its worst years for wildfire outbreaks thanks to hot weather and a lack of firefighters. And while none of those appear to have happened on federal land, government insiders warn the de facto ban on buying drones with Chinese components risks making the situation worse.

«

Unintended consequences.
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Apple showing signs it may soon launch a search engine to compete against Google Search • Coywolf

Jon Henshaw:

»

Based on Apple’s numerous search engineer job descriptions, and the continued consolidation of web and app results in Spotlight Search, an Apple search engine will likely function as a highly personalized data hub. It will be similar to Google Assistant on Android, but different since it (initially) won’t have ads, will be completely private, and have significantly deeper integrations with the OS.

One can imagine getting easy buy-in from users if they benefit from privacy, coupled with the seamless integration and personalization of their iCloud data. Apple can leverage AI and ML to deliver search results based on their email, messages, maps, events, reminders, notes, photos, files, contacts, music, news, TV shows and movies, third-party apps, documents, and more. And they can do it without ads and with the promise of real data privacy.

Apple has a lot to gain from this model. Some of the main benefits include:

• The promotion of apps in search results that will benefit Apple’s services and detract from Google’s push towards PWAs• A weakening of Google’s monopoly on search and a significant blow to its ad revenue and data mining• The promotion of Apple products and services. Including struggling services like Apple News+ and Apple TV+• Continued control and lock down of the Apple ecosystem. Users will become dependent on personalized search results with deep service and product integrations that are only possible via their search engine• The extension of their ad serving platform will allow app developers to promote their apps in search results.

«

Certainly rational. But can Apple turn down the $20bn or so Google pays for its special place in the Safari search bar?

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Chinese-made smartphones are secretly stealing money from people around the world • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

»

Mxolosi, an unemployed 41-year-old, became frustrated with his Tecno W2. Pop-up ads interrupted his calls and chats. He’d wake up to find his prepaid data mysteriously used up and messages about paid subscriptions to apps he’d never asked for.

“It was expensive for me, and at some point I ended up not buying data because I didn’t know what was eating it up,” he said.

He thought it might be his fault, but according to an investigation by Secure-D, a mobile security service, and BuzzFeed News, software embedded in his phone right out of the box was draining his data while trying to steal his money. Mxolosi’s Tecno W2 was infected with xHelper and Triada, malware that secretly downloaded apps and attempted to subscribe him to paid services without his knowledge.

…Along with South Africa, Tecno W2 phones in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, and Myanmar were infected.

…Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School who received his doctorate in South Africa, called the idea of Chinese-made phones extracting data and money from people living in poverty “digital colonialism.”

“If you have no disposable income, you’re basically left with people preying on your data,” he told BuzzFed News. “The problem we have here is that we don’t have a rational business model for a digital society.”

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1381: Facebook offers US election study, an Apple Silicon MacBook?, Uber and Lyft’s PR attack dogs, and more


You’re looking at the most reliably valuable territory on the Monopoly board. CC-licensed photo by Paul Wolfenden 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. September? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook project will study its impact on the 2020 election • Protocol

David Pierce:

»

Facebook is teaming up with academics across the country to determine once and for all whether Facebook is in fact influencing the 2020 election. The only catch: They won’t know the answer until well after it’s over.

The new research project, which Facebook announced Monday, will study how the 2020 election is playing out on the world’s largest social network, and how the platform affects things like political polarization, voter participation, trust in democracy and the spread of misinformation. A 17-person research team, which includes leading academics in the fields of media and politics, will work with some two dozen Facebook staffers to design the experiments.

Once users opt in to be part of the study, the research team will deidentify their data, split them into groups and begin tinkering with their News Feeds, switch up their ad experiences and, in some cases, even ask them to stop using Facebook temporarily, all while surveying participants to see how their experiences and viewpoints evolve and stack up against control groups. The findings, which Facebook will have no veto power over, will be published for free to the public beginning next summer.

In some ways, the undertaking demonstrates how far Facebook has come since 2016, when it eagerly courted political clients with the promise of influence, then, following President Trump’s victory, just as eagerly denied that it had any influence at all. Mark Zuckerberg himself famously called it a “pretty crazy idea.” But the fact that this sort of research is only now getting underway also demonstrates just how little we actually know four years later.

«

There were studies about the effect of Facebook on the 2018 election. One of them paid people not to use Facebook for the month before and after the November 2018 voting days. Those who didn’t use it, compared to a control group, became less politically polarised, better informed about news, and spent more time with their family. After the experiment, they were also more likely to remain off Facebook.
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Report: super-lightweight 12in MacBook powered by Apple Silicon to launch this year • Mac Rumors

Tim Hardwick:

»

Apple’s first ARM-based Mac will use an A14X processor, which is codenamed “Tonga” and manufactured by TSMC, and the MacBook will have a battery life of between 15 and 20 hours, according to the Chinese-language newspaper The China Times:

»

According to Apple’s supply chain, Apple is expected to launch a Macbook with a 12-inch Retina Display at the end of this year, using its self-developed and designed A14X processor, with the development code of Tonga, supporting a USB Type-C interface and weighing less than 1 kilogram, because of the low-power advantage of the Arm-based processor. The Macbook battery lasts 15 to 20 hours. The A14X processor will also be used in the new generation iPad Pro tablet.

«

Apple announced at its WWDC developer conference in June that its Macs will transition from Intel x86-based CPUs to its self-designed Arm-based Apple Silicon processors over the next two years. Bloomberg has said that Apple is currently developing at least three Mac processors that are based on the 5-nanometer A14 chip that will be used in the upcoming iPhone 12 models. According to the Chinese report’s sources, the first Apple-designed A14X processor has been finalized and will be mass produced using TSMC’s 5-nanometer process by the end of the year.

Apple’s first Mac processors will have 12 cores, including eight high-performance cores and at least four energy-efficient cores, according to Bloomberg. Apple is said to be exploring Mac processors with more than 12 cores for further in the future, with the company already designing a second generation of Mac processors based on the A15 chip.

«

That Apple would revive the 12in MacBook has become the frontrunner in speculation about the first Apple Silicon devices; it would either be that or the 13in MacBook Pro getting a bump to 14in. The MacBook would thus become the new generation MacBook Air – built for lightness and battery life. In time, would it replace or subsume the Air?
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Lions are less likely to attack cattle with eyes painted on their backsides • The Conversation

Cameron Radford:

»

While current approaches tend to focus on separating livestock from wild carnivores, for instance through fencing or lethal control, this is not always possible or desirable. Alternative and effective non-lethal tools that protect both large carnivores and livelihoods are urgently needed.

In a new study we describe how painting eyes on the backsides of livestock can protect them from attack.

Many big cats – including lions, leopards, and tigers – are ambush predators. This means that they rely on stalking their prey and retaining the element of surprise. In some cases, being seen by their prey can lead them to abandon the hunt. We tested whether we could hack into this response to reduce livestock losses to lions and leopards in Botswana’s Okavango delta region.

«

The pictures are out of this world. It’s the same sort of thinking though as zebras: the stripes confuse flies. When you put (or paint) zebra-style stripes on horses, they aren’t troubled so much by flies.
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It’s been a year since I defriended Facebook • ZDNet

Ross Rubin:

»

In the months since leaving and even in this extraordinary time that has impeded in-person connections, I have loved catching up with old friends through emails, direct messages, and phone calls. I’ve found these communications to strengthen real relationships as opposed to wading through the flotsam and forwarding that would fill the timeline. Leaving Facebook confirmed my sense that many of the “friendships” on Facebook are the relationship equivalent of junk food. They’re easy to obtain and quickly digested, but they’re not very nourishing.

For me, Facebook offered too low a signal-to-noise ratio, but there are occasionally some important signals. For that, I recommend having a Facebook-friendly friend or family member who is connected to many of the same folks you would be (or would want to be). Indeed, my deactivation was in part inspired by two college friends who never had Facebook accounts, but whose wives acted as conduits. Now, my wife, who enjoys being on Facebook more than I did, has graciously become my Facebook ambassador. When I organized a small group late last year, I turned to Band, which offers a Facebook Groups-like interface that people have found less imposing than Slack or Microsoft Teams.

One topic I’ve long considered is the chasm in public perception between Facebook and Google. The two internet giants have similar business models, but Google is largely beloved while Facebook is widely reviled.

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Zuckerberg denounces Apple’s monopolistic “stranglehold” on your iPhone • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit and Ryan Mac:

»

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a swing at Apple on Thursday, calling the iPhone maker’s app store monopolistic and harmful to customers during a companywide meeting.

“[Apple has] this unique stranglehold as a gatekeeper on what gets on phones,” Zuckerberg said to more than 50,000 employees via webcast. He added that the Cupertino, California–based company’s app store “blocks innovation, blocks competition” and “allows Apple to charge monopoly rents.”

While the Facebook CEO was specifically answering a question about Apple blocking gaming-related apps, his comments came at a time where authorities are scrutinizing both Silicon Valley giants for antitrust behavior. Last month both Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook, as well as the heads of Amazon and Google, testified in a House of Representatives hearing examining potentially monopolistic practices at the United States’ largest technology firms.

Zuckerberg’s comments were another signal that there’s no love lost in the long-contentious relationship between the leader of the social network and the $2 trillion electronic device maker.

«

OK, so Apple blocks Facebook from offering a game store, and from telling people that it takes the usual 30% cut of in-app purchases of tickets for online events. Not sure where the innovation is there.
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‘A totally different ballgame’: inside Uber and Lyft’s fight over gig worker status • CNET

Dara Kerr:

»

[UCal employment law professor Veena] Dubal seems to have become a target in a complex campaign involving social media harassment, take-down articles on conservative websites and actions by at least two public relations firms hired by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates. One of those PR firms, Sacramento-based MB Public Affairs, submitted a lengthy public records request on July 28 for Dubal’s email correspondence with 130 other labor activists, academics and union leaders. 

“It’s clearly a coordinated campaign,” says William Fitzgerald, who currently runs a strategic advocacy firm called The Worker Agency and previously worked for Google on both its public policy and communications teams. “What Uber is doing now with this is way further than anything I’ve seen. It’s a totally different ballgame.”

Public records obtained by CNET from the California Secretary of State show the five gig economy companies hired the PR firms to work on a ballot measure campaign that’s up for a vote in California’s November election. The ballot measure, Proposition 22, was jointly sponsored by the five companies and aims to specifically exempt them from [proposed anti-gig economy legislation] AB5.

«

Really brutal and horrible behaviour. Proof, if it were needed, that “tech” companies aren’t any more enlightened or fairminded than all their “old economy” predecessors.
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China calls Trump’s bluff on TikTok, putting US deal at risk • Bloomberg

Tim Culpan on China’s announcement that it will have to approve any sale of ByteDance’s AI:

»

Facebook, Snap and Alphabet (Google) are among those pouring billions of dollars into better predicting user behaviour. This is the bread and butter of search-engine results and timeline feeds, helping them sell more-targeted ads at higher prices. Notice that Google tends to return better results than Bing, despite having access to the same pool of data (the entire internet!), and you get a sense of why algorithms matter.

TikTok’s algos are gold. At least, that’s what bidders seem to think.

And it looks like Beijing agrees. Effectively, the Chinese government is saying, “You wanna buy TikTok? Go ahead, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get your hands on the secret sauce.” 

This development will surely send Microsoft, Oracle Corp. and everyone else back to their bankers, and lawyers, trying to figure out what TikTok would be worth without those algorithms. ByteDance, for its part, will need to work out what it can and cannot throw into the package it’s being forced to sell. That’s not easy.

At worst, this may require trawling through millions of lines of code to sort out whether content is allowable or forbidden. It’s not black and white. What one person considers AI may be viewed by another as mundane software technology. 

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If forced to play Monopoly, use this gameplan • Boing Boing

Mark Fraunfelder:

»

Monopoly is just such a beautifully designed game. The orange and yellow cards with the iconic temporarily embarrassed millionaire. The cast metal player tokens, the green houses and red hotels. The attractively colored currency. What a shame the game is not very much fun to play. Has anyone created a set of rules that makes Monopoly fun? In any case, if you find yourself being forced to play a game of Monopoly, Reddit user FatherofGray has some advice for winning.

»

Never buy purple, brown, utilities or railroads with the intent of completing the set – instead use them as trades with worae players that think they’re good. Railroads in particular are VERY in demand but awful unless you get all 4, at which point they’re still worse than the light blues.

The most valuable properties are the oranges and reds because that’s where most people land after getting out of jail – thr most common spot to be on in the game. Do pretty much anything you can to get a full set of orange or red. Yellow and light blue are also excellent choices.

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There’s more. If you have to play Monopoly, people will quail at your evil strategy.
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What if Facebook is the real ‘silent majority’? • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

»

what sticks out, when you dig in to the data, is just how dominant the Facebook right truly is. Pro-Trump political influencers have spent years building a well-oiled media machine that swarms around every major news story, creating a torrent of viral commentary that reliably drowns out both the mainstream media and the liberal opposition.

The result is a kind of parallel media universe that left-of-center Facebook users may never encounter, but that has been stunningly effective in shaping its own version of reality. Inside the right-wing Facebook bubble, President Trump’s response to Covid-19 has been strong and effective, Joe Biden is barely capable of forming sentences, and Black Lives Matter is a dangerous group of violent looters.

Mr. Trump and his supporters are betting that, despite being behind Mr. Biden in the polls, a “silent majority” will carry him to re-election. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest and most online son, made that argument himself at the Republican National Convention this week. And while I’m not a political analyst, I know enough about the modern media landscape to know that looking at people’s revealed preferences — what they actually read, watch, and click on when nobody’s looking — is often a better indicator of how they’ll act than interviewing them at diners, or listening to what they’re willing to say out loud to a pollster.

Maybe Mr. Trump’s “silent majority,” in other words, only seems silent because we’re not looking at their Facebook feeds.

“We live in two different countries right now,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist and digital director of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign. Facebook’s media ecosystem, he said, is “a huge blind spot for people who are up to speed on what’s on the front page of The New York Times and what’s leading the hour on CNN.”

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New Trump coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas pushes controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy • The Washington Post

Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey:

»

One of President Trump’s top medical advisers is urging the White House to embrace a controversial “herd immunity” strategy to combat the pandemic, which would entail allowing the coronavirus to spread through most of the population to quickly build resistance to the virus, while taking steps to protect those in nursing homes and other vulnerable populations, according to five people familiar with the discussions.

The administration has already begun to implement some policies along these lines, according to current and former officials as well as experts, particularly with regard to testing.

The approach’s chief proponent is Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist from Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, who joined the White House earlier this month as a pandemic adviser. He has advocated that the United States adopt the model Sweden has used to respond to the virus outbreak, according to these officials, which relies on lifting restrictions so the healthy can build up immunity to the disease rather than limiting social and business interactions to prevent the virus from spreading.

…Atlas, who does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, has expanded his influence inside the White House by advocating policies that appeal to Trump’s desire to move past the pandemic and get the economy going, distressing health officials on the White House coronavirus task force and throughout the administration who worry that their advice is being followed less and less.

…Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, said given the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus, it is likely that about 65 to 70% of the population would need to become infected for there to be herd immunity.

With a population of 328 million in the United States, it may require 2.13 million deaths to reach a 65% threshold of herd immunity, assuming the virus has a 1% fatality rate, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

«

But I thought they were all going to be saved by Covid plasma infusions? Or the rushed vaccine? It’s as if the people around Trump are just saying any old nonsense that they think will get his approval, and ignore how many people will die. Trump doesn’t care about anyone but himself, and nor do those around him. Under Trump, the US has now already passed from having a functioning government into federal authoritarianism; the question now is whether it can yank itself back after November.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1380: Apple zaps Epic’s dev account, WFH in… Barbados?, TikTok sale gets more complicated, Facebook’s moderator indifference, and more


What looks tasty? “Menu engineers” can steer you to dishes that make more money. CC-licensed photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0700GMT each weekday). You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.«

A selection of 11 links for you. No, you’re working on a holiday. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Meet the “menu engineers” helping restaurants retool in the pandemic • The Hustle

Michael Waters:

»

You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who have thought more about restaurant menus than Michele Benesch.

In 1968, her grandfather, Walter Baker, started Menu Men, Inc., a creative consultancy that specializes in infusing menus with fanciful designs.

At the time, says Benesch, the art of the menu was largely neglected. Sensing some room for disruption, Baker convinced restaurateurs to invest in fully customized designs.

Benesch never expected to enter the family business. But she couldn’t fully escape it, either. When she went out to dinner as a kid in Miami, her father, who ran the company at the time, always pointed out little menu tricks. He’d ask her about the materials used (“Why did this client choose a parchment?”), the fonts, the placement of each item. 

“My whole life, I was being an apprentice for the job I never realized I wanted,” Benesch says. 

By the time Benesch took over the business in 2006, the menu engineering trade had begun to gain wider recognition, with a growing number of hospitality schools funding research into the psychology of menus. 

Consultants like Benesch realized they could use this research to get customers to spend more money.

Today, Benesch blends design, psychology research, and general food knowledge to build a more scientific menu. With a bit of tinkering, she can increase the odds of, say, a diner picking the highest-margin meal on the menu.

Considering how small restaurant profits are (typically 3% to 5%), the right menu can mean the difference between success and failure. 

When a Las Vegas restaurant recently hired Benesch to revamp its menu, she cut their 4-page layout down to a simple 2-page panel, upped the font size, did some dish repositioning, and cut loose some of the dishes that weren’t selling well.

The new menu led to a spending bump equivalent to $9 more per customer.

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Barbados introduces plan to allow visitors to stay for a year to “work from home” • Yahoo Money

»

Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley announced the “12-month Barbados Welcome Stamp” earlier this month that would allow “persons to come and work from here overseas, digitally so, so that persons don’t need to remain in the countries in which they are,” Mottley said in a press conference.

Mottley noted that working remotely doesn’t mean you have to physically work near your office, making the case that living elsewhere — or even abroad — is possible for some occupations that simply require a reliable internet connection to accomplish work.

She continued: “The government is committed to working with you on the promotion of new concepts like the 12-month Barbados Welcome Stamp, being able to open our borders to persons traveling and making it as hospitable as ever for all of us, and making it available for Barbadians from every walk of life to believe that for special occasions, or just for so, that they can come out and be a part of this wonderful exercise.”

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I think she meant “wonderful money-generating exercise”. Getting people from higher-income countries to come and spend their money in Barbados is a great way to help your tourist-dependent economy while there aren’t any tourists.
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Apple terminates Epic Games’ developer account • Mac Rumors

Juli Clover:

»

Searching for Epic Games in the ‌App Store‌ brings up no apps and on the web, the Epic Games developer account is blank. Though the Epic Games developer account is no longer available, Fortnite continues to work.

Those who have downloaded Fortnite on an iPhone or iPad can continue to play the game, but there’s a catch – none of the new Marvel-themed Season 4 content is available because Fortnite is unable to be updated.

Fortnite has been in violation of the ‌App Store‌ rules since August 13, when it introduced a direct payment option that skirted Apple’s in-app purchase system by allowing payments directly to Epic Games. Shortly after Epic blatantly disregarded ‌App Store‌ policies, Apple pulled the app from the ‌App Store‌, leading to a lawsuit from Epic and a quickly escalating legal fight between the two companies.

Since Epic initiated the dispute with Apple, it has refused to back down from the direct purchase option added to Fortnite, and Apple has refused to allow the app in the ‌App Store‌ while the direct payment option remains. Apple told Epic that it was ready to “welcome Fortnite back onto iOS” if Epic removed the direct payment option and returned to the status quo while the legal battle plays out in court, but Epic has refused.

Last night, Epic sent out emails to Fortnite players blaming the unavailability of the new season on Apple and claming that Apple is “blocking Fortnite” in order to prevent Epic Games from “passing on the savings from direct payments to players.” Apple in turn has taken to featuring Fortnite competitor PUBG in its ‌App Store‌.

Apple originally wanted to terminate the developer accounts of both Epic Games and Epic International, a separate account linked to Epic’s Unreal Engine used by third-party app developers, but a judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing Apple from doing so. The judge declined to stop Apple from terminating the Epic Games account, however, telling Epic that it “created the situation” and made a “strategically and calculated move to breach” ‌App Store‌ terms.

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The judge’s reasoning was solid. Now we find out how much Epic needs the cash versus how much Apple needs Epic. I think both can survive without each other pretty well; this could turn into a long standoff.
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Tiktok assets can’t be sold without China’s approval • Bloomberg News

»

ByteDance Ltd. will be required to seek Chinese government approval to sell the US operations of its short-video TikTok app under new restrictions Beijing imposed on the export of artificial intelligence technologies, according to a person familiar with the matter.

AI interface technologies such as speech and text recognition, and those that analyze data to make personalized content recommendations, were added to a revised list of export-control products published on the Ministry of Commerce’s website late Friday. Government permits will be required for overseas transfers to “safeguard national economic security,” it said.

The new restrictions cover technologies ByteDance uses in TikTok and will require the company to seek government approval for any deal, according to the person, asking not to be identified because the details aren’t public. The new rule is aimed at delaying the sale and is not an outright ban, the person said.

President Donald Trump’s administration has said ByteDance must sell the US operations of its popular video-sharing app because of alleged national security risks. Microsoft and Oracle have submitted rival bids to ByteDance to acquire TikTok’s US business, while Centricus Asset Management and Triller were said to have made a last-minute pitch on Friday to buy TikTok’s operations in several countries for $20bn.

«

So it must be sold, but it can’t be sold. That’s going to be fun.
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Slack fixes ‘critical’ vulnerability that left desktop app users open to attack • Mashable

Jack Morse:

»

the exploit allowed for something known as “remote code execution,” which is just as bad as it sounds. Before Slack fixed it, an attacker using the exploit could have done some pretty wild stuff, such as gaining “access to private files, private keys, passwords, secrets, internal network access etc.,” and “access to private conversations, files etc. within Slack.”

What’s more, according to the disclosure, maliciously inclined hackers could have made their attack “wormable.” In other words, if one person in your team got infected, their account would automatically re-share that dangerous payload to all their colleagues. 

It’s worth emphasizing that the security researcher who discovered this vulnerability — a process that takes untold hours of work and is a literal job — decided to do what many would consider the right thing and report it to Slack via HackerOne. For the security researcher, whose HackerOne handle is oskars, this resulted in a bug bounty payment of $1,750. 

Of course, had that person wanted, they could have likely gotten much, much more money by selling it to a third-party exploit broker.

«

Slack might want to think about the amount it offers. Other hackers will have seen that and decided they could do better selling them. Suddenly, Slack looks like a security risk compared to, say, Microsoft Teams.
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A Kenosha militia facebook event asking attendees to bring weapons was reported 455 times. Moderators said it didn’t violate any rules • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac:

»

During Facebook’s Thursday all-hands meeting, Zuckerberg said that the images from Wisconsin were “painful and really discouraging,” before acknowledging that the company had made a mistake in not taking the Kenosha Guard page and event down sooner. The page had violated Facebook’s new rules introduced last week that labeled militia and QAnon groups as “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” for their celebrations of violence.

The company did not catch the page despite user reports, Zuckerberg said, because the complaints had been sent to content moderation contractors who were not versed in “how certain militias” operate. “On second review, doing it more sensitively, the team that was responsible for dangerous organizations recognized that this violated the policies and we took it down.”

During the talk, Facebook employees hammered Zuckerberg for continuing to allow the spread of hatred on the platform.

“At what point do we take responsibility for enabling hate filled bile to spread across our services?” wrote one employee. “[A]nti semitism, conspiracy, and white supremacy reeks across our services.”

The internal report seen by BuzzFeed News sheds more light on Facebook’s failure.

“Organizers… advocated for attendees to bring weapons to an event in the event description,” the internal report reads. “There are multiple news articles about our delay in taking down the event.”

«

At what point, one wonders, will Zuckerberg realise that his creation is utterly beyond his control – that Frankenstein has lost the ability to direct his monster?
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Facebook executive supported india’s Modi and disparaged opposition in internal messages • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Newley Purnell:

»

A Facebook Inc. executive at the center of a political storm in India made internal postings over several years detailing her support for the now ruling Hindu nationalist party and disparaging its main rival, behavior some staff saw as conflicting with the company’s pledge to remain neutral in elections around the world.

In one of the messages, Ankhi Das, head of public policy in the country, posted the day before Narendra Modi swept to victory in India’s 2014 national elections: “We lit a fire to his social media campaign and the rest is of course history.”

“It’s taken thirty years of grassroots work to rid India of state socialism finally,” Ms. Das wrote in a separate post on the defeat of the Indian National Congress party, praising Mr. Modi as the “strongman” who had broken the former ruling party’s hold. Ms. Das called Facebook’s top global elections official, Katie Harbath, her “longest fellow traveler” in the company’s work with his campaign. In a photo, Ms. Das stood, smiling, between Mr. Modi and Ms. Harbath.

Ms. Das’s posts, which were viewed by The Wall Street Journal, haven’t been previously reported. Some Facebook employees said the sentiments and actions described by Ms. Das conflicted with the company’s longstanding neutrality pledge.

The posts cover the years 2012 to 2014 and were made to a Facebook group designed for employees in India, though it was open to anyone in the company globally who wanted to join.

«

I’m guessing this was leaked by disgruntled Facebook employees. The scale of silent revolt inside Facebook is only going to grow. I can’t see how she can keep her job.
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Picking locks with audio technology • Communications of the ACM

Paul Marks on researchers who say they could recreate a copy of keys used for Yale or Schlage six-pin locks:

»

Their first task was to work out how to surreptitiously acquire the audio from a key insertion, and the researchers suggest no less than five ways of going about it. First, in a walk-by attack, a spy simply walks behind somebody just as they unlock a door or locker, holding their phone out to furtively record the sound of the key going into the lock. So far, though, they have only done this with the phone an unrealistic 10cm (nearly four inches) from the lock. “We are still working on making this attack realizable,” says Ramesh.

Their second method takes another tack entirely: install malware on a victim’s smartphone (or smartwatch) so it records and transmits key insertion audio via an Internet or 4G backchannel. Such viruses are already known in the wild.

Third, they believe an attacker might hack a product like a domestic Internet of Things (IoT) device that contains a microphone, like a video doorbell, which is next to the lock, and acquire audio over the air. Again, this is a known attack vector.

The fourth trick might involve long-distance microphones, the NUS team suggest, while a fifth might involve installing hidden microphones in a corridor of a set of target offices; over time, they suggest, attackers could quietly harvest door key audio for multiple offices.

Once they have a key-insertion audio file, SpiKey’s inference software gets to work filtering the signal to reveal the strong, metallic clicks as key ridges hit the lock’s pins…

«

I’ll go with “this is super-unlikely, but might make a neat subplot in a spy film.” (Thanks Steve for the link.)
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Everybody hates digital calendars, so everybody’s trying to build a better one • Protocol

David Pierce:

»

ReclaimAI has the same long-term goal as that of Clockwise, Woven and others: to turn calendars from a block of hours into a more malleable, relentlessly optimizing thing. Programmers who need 15 hours of deep work each week shouldn’t have to schedule it in advance, these companies think; their calendar should make sure they have space for it. One-on-one meetings that need to happen once a week but not necessarily at a set time should shift to accommodate everyone’s schedule. Martin said Clockwise has 16 different categories of calendar entries, including everything from doctor’s appointments (personal, immovable) to general “catch up on email” holds (important, but easy to move around), each with its own unique characteristics. There are more categories to come. Over time, the more a calendar actually understands what’s on it, the better it can take care of a user’s time.

This kind of thinking has a second benefit: It turns corporate calendars into a powerful analytics tool. If you want to know what your company values, look at how people spend their time. Or, just as often, how their time gets wasted.

«

The trouble with AI-organised and re-organised calendars is the potential for screwing up your life by surprising you with appointments you’re not prepared for but the machine has given you, surely? It’s a pain, but I wonder whether it’s trying to solve an insoluble problem – a sort of non-travelling salesman’s four-colour theorem.
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Blockchain, the amazing solution for almost nothing • The Correspondent

Jesse Frederik:

»

It seems that blockchain sounds best in a PowerPoint slide. Most blockchain projects don’t make it past a press release, an inventory by Bloomberg showed. The Honduran land registry was going to use blockchain. That plan has been shelved. The Nasdaq was also going to do something with blockchain. Not happening. The Dutch Central Bank then? Nope. Out of over 86,000 blockchain projects that had been launched, 92% had been abandoned by the end of 2017, according to consultancy firm Deloitte.

Why are they deciding to stop? Enlightened – and thus former – blockchain developer Mark van Cuijk explained: “You could also use a forklift to put a six-pack of beer on your kitchen counter. But it’s just not very efficient.” 

…[But] This is the market for magic, and that market is big.

«

Blockchain is heading solidly towards the trough of despond in the Hype Cycle (if it wasn’t there already). Bitcoin chunters on as a speculative toy for people with more money than sense (or more sense than other people with money).
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Israeli phone hacking company faces court fight over sales to Hong Kong • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:

»

Human rights advocates filed a new court petition against the Israeli phone hacking company Cellebrite, urging Israel’s ministry of defense to halt the firm’s exports to Hong Kong, where security forces have been using the technology in crackdowns against dissidents as China takes greater control.

Hong Kong police documents show the use of Cellebrite to hack and unlock phones of demonstrators. Former police officers have confirmed that Cellebrite has long been used by Hong Kong.

In July, police court filings revealed that Cellebrite’s phone hacking technology has been used to break into 4,000 phones of Hong Kong citizens, including prominent pro-democracy politician and activist Joshua Wong. He subsequently launched an online petition to end Cellebrite’s sales to Hong Kong, which gained 35,000 signatures.

“Defense Ministry officials must immediately stop the export of the Cellebrite system which is used for infringement on privacy, deprivation of liberty and freedom of expression, and political incrimination of Hong Kong citizens under the new National Security Law,” Wong wrote in a Facebook post urging Israel to stop Cellebrite’s exports to Hong Kong.

«

I’ve looked in vain for any statement by the Israeli government on what it thinks about China’s effective legislative annexation of Hong Kong. That would tell us how its ministry of defence would respond to this lawsuit.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

Start Up No.1379: Apple under news pressure on App Store fees, Adobe zaps Lightroom photos (oops), ML Roman emperors, and more


Las Vegas: a great place to go to catch Covid-19 (but how dangerous is it by age range, exactly?) CC-licensed photo by Mathieu Lebreton on Flickr.


Please note: The Overspill will be on a completely undeserved rest next week, planning to return on Sept August 31st.


You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. On a break! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

App stores, trust and anti-trust • Benedict Evans

On the topic of Epic:

»

Unfortunately, you can’t have your cake and eat it. A secure system with a switch to turn off the security might work for Linux and a highly technical user, but when you’ve given smartphones to a few billion people, a secure system with a switch to turn off the security is just a target for malware. That horoscope app can tell you’ll get more accurate results if it has access to some computer gibberish, so please press OK, and guess what? Everyone will press OK. A computer should not ask a question that the user won’t understand, and when you have billions of users that list looks different. This has been Google’s experience with Android: it chose a less restrictive sandbox than iOS and had many more malware problems, and Google has spent the last decade slowly rowing towards Apple’s approach.

…I think Apple is going to have to make fundamental changes to the payment model. Epic only has margin at stake, but Spotify can’t pay at all, it’s a direct competitor, and there’s no user benefit at all to Apple’s policy, just confusion and annoyance. The EU is now pursuing two separate competition policy cases against Apple: one over the App Store, with Spotify a complainant, and the other over Apple Wallet and Apple Pay. This second one is instructive: the EU is taking the view that Apple has a monopoly of payment on the iPhone. Market definition is everything. I-am-not-a-lawyer, but I don’t see how Apple can win on Spotify (or Kindle), and I don’t think it should.

That might mean changes in who and what is covered by payment rules, but it probably also means changes to the 30%. There’s a lot of argument about principle, but there’s also a price: if the rate was, say, 10%, I’m not sure that we would be having the same conversation, and Epic would certainly get less sympathy.

That 30% adds up to real money, incidentally. When the store launched, Steve Jobs said it was aiming to break even – the 30% was to cover the running costs, and it is worth remembering how many huge companies are getting the App Store, the manual review and the file downloads to hundreds of millions of users for nothing more than their $100 a year developer subscription. But the App Store is not running at break even anymore: in 2019 it made somewhere between $10bn and $15bn of commission – 20-30% of the ‘service revenue’ Apple likes to talk about.

«

Well I’m sure it will all get sorted out very amicably in the week while I’m away.
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iPhones with ‘Fortnite’ are being resold for thousands • Business Insider

Ben Gilbert:

»

If you were one of the millions of people who downloaded “Fortnite” before it was pulled from Apple’s App Store last week, then you’ve still got it — Apple can’t remove the game from your iPhone. But if you didn’t, perhaps you’d be willing to pay as much as $10,000 for an iPhone with the game preinstalled.

That’s what resellers on eBay are hoping.

A search of eBay’s US store on Wednesday with the term “iphone fortnite installed” yielded over 100 listings of resellers with various iPhone models. A search for “fortnite iphone” turns up even more.

The $10,000 option above, for instance, comes with the game preinstalled on 2017’s iPhone X.

Notably, “Fortnite” is a free-to-play game that’s available on nearly every gaming platform. Moreover, the game can be played across competing game platforms — whether you’re playing on Nintendo Switch, iPhone, PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Android, or Mac, you can play with other “Fortnite” players.

«

The headline is wrong: iPhones with Fortnite are being *offered* for resale for thousands. Gilbert didn’t find a single completed sale for anywhere like that price, and the story notes that most of the phones on offer haven’t attracted a single bid.

Though if you were Epic, it might make sense to try to amp up the media-perceived value of your product by offering a couple of old phones at absurd prices. I’m not suggesting Epic is doing that, but this certainly doesn’t hurt them at all.
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News publishers join fight against Apple over App Store terms • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin:

»

Major news organizations are joining the growing chorus of companies pushing for more favorable terms on Apple’s App Store, a crucial link to new digital customers.

In a letter to Apple chief executive Tim Cook on Thursday, a trade body representing the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other publishers said the outlets want to know what it would take for them to get better deal terms—which would allow them to keep more money from digital subscriptions sold through Apple’s app store.

App developers, including news publishers, pay Apple 30% of the revenue from first-time subscriptions made through iOS apps; that commission is reduced to 15% after the subscriber’s first year. Apple says the revenue split is similar to other app marketplaces and allows the company to cover the app store’s operating expenses.

“The terms of Apple’s unique marketplace greatly impact the ability to continue to invest in high-quality, trusted news and entertainment particularly in competition with other larger firms,” said the letter, which is signed by Jason Kint, chief executive of the trade body, Digital Content Next.

«

The letter basically says “how do we get Amazon’s deal that it gets on Amazon Prime Video?” After all, news apps are “reader” apps. This is going to be neverending for Apple.
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Adobe accidentally deleted people’s photos in latest Lightroom update • The Verge

Monica Chin:

»

For the past two days, photographers have been posting in a panic across Twitter, Reddit, and the Photoshop feedback forums. They’d downloaded Adobe’s latest update for Lightroom’s iOS app, and suddenly, their photos and presets were gone. Adobe has now confirmed the issue, and it’s also said that the data are gone for good.

“I’ve talked with customer service for 4+ hours over the past 2 days and just a minute ago they told me that the issue has no fix and that these lost photos are unrecoverable,” complained one Reddit user who says they’ve lost over two years’ worth of photo edits. The complaints were spotted by PetaPixel.

“This is literally the worst,” tweeted another customer, who said they lost not only 800 pictures but hundreds of dollars worth of paid presets.

Adobe representative Rikk Flohr acknowledged and apologized for the snafu in a forum post yesterday. Flohr did not address the scope of the problem, though he stated that the issue only impacted assets that were not synced to the Lightroom cloud.

«

But they can’t be recovered. That’s it. They’re gone. A great way to get users to stick with Lightroom and keep paying that subscription. Oh yeah. See also: Canon’s cloud platform has lost users’ files and can’t restore them. So in one case you’re only safe if you upload, in the other you’re only safe if you don’t.
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Cellphone data shows how Las Vegas is “gambling with lives” across the country • ProPublica

Marshall Allen:

»

A new analysis of smartphone data, conducted at ProPublica’s request, shows how interconnected the country is with visitors to Las Vegas — which heightens concerns about the limitations of interstate contact tracing. The companies X-Mode and Tectonix analyzed travel to and from Las Vegas during four days, a Friday to Monday, in mid-July. In compliance with privacy laws, X-Mode collects data from smartphone users, mainly those using fitness and weather apps that track their location. The data represents about 5% of the smartphone users in the United States. Tectonix analyzed the data and visualized it on a map.

During the four-day period, about 26,000 devices were identified on the Las Vegas Strip. Some of those same smartphones also showed up in every state on the mainland except Maine in those same four days. About 3,700 of the devices were spotted in Southern California in the same four days; about 2,700 in Arizona, with 740 in Phoenix; around 1,000 in Texas; more than 800 in Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland; and more than 100 in the New York area.

The cellphone analysis highlights a reason the virus keeps spreading, said Oscar Alleyne, an epidemiologist and chief program officer with the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “People have been highly mobile, and as a result, it makes sense why we see the continuation of the surge.”

«

“Highly mobile”. Righty-ho.
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Why the Facebookening of Oculus VR is bad for users, devs, competition • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:

»

This is how an Oculus ID works. Without spending a penny or confirming your real-life name, you can make a username, build a friends list, and acquire free-to-play software licenses. If you want to buy software or add-ons, you can either add a credit card or claim a prepaid voucher code. And if you violate any ToS, either within an official Oculus app or in a third-party ecosystem, punitive actions can be taken on both your username and your VR headset’s unique ID. They don’t need your name or life history to do that.

But Facebook’s real-name policy differs largely from the Oculus ID system:

»

Facebook is a community where everyone uses the name they go by in everyday life. This makes it so that you always know who you’re connecting with. The name on your profile should be the name that your friends call you in everyday life. This name should also appear on an ID or document from our ID list.

«

We’ve already seen how this policy can result in everything from headaches to security concerns. Victims of harassment and abuse are but one community with a vested interest in establishing alternate online identities. The same goes for members of the LGBTQ community. Weirdly enough, 2014 protests over the real-name policy included pledges from Facebook to expand and clarify its real-name rules for the sake of inclusion and user protection, but the above 2020 language doesn’t reflect such strides in the slightest.

Less-vulnerable users may simply not want their VR activities (gaming, apps, social spaces) attached to a “real-name” Facebook account for a number of reasons. Or they may vote with software by electing to use a third-party app’s account system—especially one that works across other VR ecosystems. Users may have established an identity in the online game Rec Room on an Oculus headset in order to play games and socialize with people on PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, or other headsets. Enforcing a Facebook requirement on top of that will send ripples through established VR communities.

And what happens if Facebook’s history of user manipulation comes to VR? Emotional manipulation within VR operates on greater extremes than on a flat screen, if the horror-gaming genre is any indication, so what kind of “A/B testing” might Facebook-connected Oculus users expect? And what if your actions within VR become attached to your real-life identity for Facebook’s “shadow profile” purposes?

«

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Uber and Lyft shutdown in California averted as judge grants emergency stay • The Verge

Andrew Hawkins:

»

A California appeals court judge blocked an order requiring Uber and Lyft to classify drivers as employees, averting an expected shutdown of the ride-sharing services in California at midnight tonight. The court granted Uber and Lyft a temporary stay while their appeals process play out.

Lyft had already announced it was planning to temporarily cease operations in the state earlier today, and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi had said the same about his company in an interview yesterday.

But the companies won an 11th hour reprieve from the California Court of Appeals hours before the shutdown was expected to go into effect. Uber and Lyft will now have until October to convince the court to throw out the order that it employ its drivers. If they are unsuccessful, the companies will be back where they started, and may again decide to shutdown.

Uber and Lyft are under enormous pressure to fundamentally alter their business models in California, the state where both companies were founded and raised billions of dollars in venture capital. Uber and Lyft say drivers prefer the flexibility of working as freelancers, while labor unions and elected officials contend this deprives them of traditional benefits like health insurance and workers’ compensation.

«

Hard to think anyone wouldn’t want to get the benefits (in the US particularly) of health insurance and compensation. “Oh no I’d much rather sort those things out myself,” said no freelancer ever.
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Americans misperceive the risks of death from coronavirus, research shows • TheHill

Joseph Guzman:

»

A joint Franklin Templeton-Gallup research project released late last month found that on average, Americans believed people aged 55 and older made up more than half, 57.7%, of total coronavirus deaths. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through July 22, those 55 and older made up more than 92% of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. 

Researchers also found that Americans believed people aged 44 and younger made up about 30% of total coronavirus deaths, when the actual figure was less than 3%. 

Americans also thought those aged 65 or older accounted for about 40% of COVID-19 deaths, when the actual figure was 80%. 

«

That’s a pretty substantial clearout at the older end, given there have been more than 170,000 deaths in the US. I certainly would have been among the wrong group in making an estimate.
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Turning stock charts into landscape art • Kottke

Jason Kottke:

»

Inspired by the charts on Robinhood and Yahoo Finance, Gladys Estolas is turning the charts of notable stocks into landscape artworks, inserting references to the company into the art. The Ford chart at the top has a truck, the Tesla chart features a rocket (a reference to SpaceX), and the Disney one includes the twin suns of Tatooine & a Jawa Sandcrawler.

«

I recall one a long way back which represented the stock market, and the stocks therein, into fish swimming around a central point. Didn’t mean a lot but sure was pretty.
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Photoreal Roman Emperor project. 54 machine-learning assisted portraits • Medium

Daniel Voshart:

»

The main technology behind Artbreeder is it’s generative adversarial network (GAN). Some call it Artificial Intelligence but it is more accurately described as Machine Learning.

Artistic interpretations are, by their nature, more art than science but I’ve made an effort to cross-reference their appearance (hair, eyes, ethnicity etc.) to historical texts and coinage. I’ve striven to age them according to the year of death — their appearance prior to any major illness.
My goal was not to romanticize emperors or make them seem heroic. In choosing bust / sculptures, my approach was to favor the bust that was made when the emperor was alive. Otherwise, I favored the bust made with the greatest craftsmanship and where the emperor was stereotypically uglier — my pet theory being that artists were likely trying to flatter their subjects.

Some emperors (latter dynasties, short reigns) did not have surviving busts. For this, I researched multiple coin depictions, family tree and birthplaces. Sometimes I created my own composites.

«

Useful to be reminded that they were real people after all.
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The ‘We Build The Wall’ huckster is accused of duping donors. Turns out, he planned to sell their data too • Daily Beast

Lachlan Markay:

»

[Brian] Kolfage [who set up the ‘We Build The Wall’ scam, which allegedly skimmed in Steve Bannon – indicted for same on Thursday] bragged that the voter contact list in his possession was likely the third biggest in Republican politics, surpassed only by those controlled by Trump himself and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). He said it contained names, email addresses, phone numbers, and other data points about donors to his nonprofit who Republican candidates could hit up for cash.

Kolfage proposed a revenue-sharing agreement, whereby he would keep 50% of all the funds raised by the campaigns and groups that used his list.

Kolfage’s pitch to the Republican consultant, who does digital fundraising for Republican candidates, suggests that Kolfage was seeking to rent the list to other vendors that work with political campaigns, rather than to the campaigns directly. That’s a common arrangement for digital fundraising vendors, but it makes it difficult to track down which, or how many, campaigns have rented the We Build The Wall list.

But at least one political candidate appears to have done so. The Daily Beast reported last year that Kris Kobac—the former Kansas Secretary of State, and We Build The Wall general counsel—sent a fundraising email to that list asking for donations to his ultimately failed 2020 Senate campaign. Legal experts told The Daily Beast at the time that that solicitation almost certainly violated federal campaign finance laws, either by failing to disclose that the campaign had paid for its use of the list, or by constituting an illegal in-kind contribution from the nonprofit to the campaign.

«

There’s probably no bigger mistake you can make in your life than to provide an email address along with a donation to someone in American politics. You’ll never hear the end of it.
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ISOlation.SITE

»

Protect your devices from web-transmitted infections (WTIs).

Picked up some random URL IRL?

Stay safe. Put it in the box, then press the button.

«

Another one for the bookmarks: effectively, a firewall (or very thick radiation-proof glass) that lets you view the site with tongs. Try it on a site you use already, such as a news site, to get an idea of how it functions.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: earlier attempts to take a five-week holiday have been thwarted by attentive readers.

Start Up No.1378: Facebook the (misinforation) superspreader, Zoom coming to more screens, Instagram pushes endless scrolling, and more


If you liked this experience, a new app can recreate it with your digital music. CC-licensed photo by Steve Cadman 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.

Procedural note: The Overspill will take a week’s break next week.

A selection of 10 links for you. Freely given. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

On Facebook, health-misinformation ‘superspreaders’ rack up billions of views • Reuters

Elizabeth Culliford:

»

Misleading health content has racked up an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook Inc (FB.O) over the past year, peaking during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy group Avaaz said in a new report on Wednesday.

The report found that content from 10 “superspreader” sites sharing health misinformation had almost four times as many Facebook views in April 2020 as equivalent content from the sites of 10 leading health institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The social media giant, which has been under pressure to curb misinformation on its platform, has made amplifying credible health information a key element of its response. It also started removing misinformation about the novel coronavirus outbreak that it said could cause imminent harm.

“Facebook’s algorithm is a major threat to public health. Mark Zuckerberg promised to provide reliable information during the pandemic, but his algorithm is sabotaging those efforts by driving many of Facebook’s 2.7 billion users to health misinformation-spreading networks,” said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.

«

Yeah so tell us something we didn’t know. But: these stories are coming daily now, from outlet after outlet. If you’re paying any attention to news about Facebook, you’ll feel that it’s all bad. That’s quite a change from a few years ago. It is all rolling downhill now.
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QAnon groups removed by Facebook • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel:

»

Facebook said on Wednesday that it had removed 790 QAnon groups from its site and was restricting another 1,950 groups, 440 pages and more than 10,000 Instagram accounts related to the right-wing conspiracy theory, in the social network’s most sweeping action against the fast-growing movement.

Facebook’s takedown followed record growth of QAnon groups on the site, much of it since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. Activity on some of the largest QAnon groups on the social network, including likes, comments and shares of posts, rose 200 to 300% in the last six months, according to data gathered by The New York Times.

“We have seen growing movements that, while not directly organizing violence, have celebrated violent acts, shown that they have weapons and suggest they will use them, or have individual followers with patterns of violent behavior,” Facebook said in a statement.

QAnon was once a fringe phenomenon with believers who alleged, falsely, that the world was run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who were plotting against President Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. But ahead of the November election, the movement has become increasingly mainstream. Marjorie Taylor Greene, an avowed QAnon supporter from Georgia, recently won a Republican primary and may be elected to the House in November.

«

Greene could arguably be representing people with mental illness. Not clear why you need to be mentally ill to do that, though. The question is, why didn’t Facebook do this some time back, before it got so big? It was obviously always heading towards physical harm – that’s essentially how it started.

But Facebook is suggesting that it will prevent QAnon nutcases from organising there again. This could get interesting.
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Facebook India executive files criminal complaint against journalist for Facebook post • Committee to Protect Journalists

»

Facebook regional director Ankhi Das should withdraw her criminal complaint against journalist Awesh Tiwari, and respect citizens’ rights to criticize her, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 16, Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South, and Central Asia, filed a criminal complaint with the cyber unit of the Delhi police, accusing Tiwari and other social media users of threatening her, “making sexually coloured remarks,” and defaming her, according to news website Newslaundry and a copy of the complaint shared on social media.

The complaint cited a Facebook post by Tiwari, Chhattisgarh state bureau chief of news channel Swarajya Express, who frequently posts political commentary on Facebook. The post criticized Das for her and Facebook’s alleged inaction in controlling hate speech by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party against religious minorities, and cited a Wall Street Journal article alleging Das’ fealty to the party. The post does not contain any sexual remarks or explicit threats.

In her complaint to the police, Das asked for an investigation to be opened against Tiwari for sexual harassment, defamation, and criminal intimidation.

«

The context for this is that Das is the person at Facebook India who blocked the deletion of hate content by the ruling BJP, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Reading the complaint, it doesn’t seem to target Tiwari over sexual harassment or intimidation. It’s all over the place, to be honest.

But there’s delicious irony in a Facebook executive complaining to the courts about a posting by a journalist on Facebook regarding something another journalist wrote about that executive interfering over postings on Facebook.
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Zoom is coming to Google Nest, Amazon Echo, and Facebook Portal smart displays • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

»

Zoom is expanding to a variety of new devices later this year, with the company announcing that the Amazon Echo Show, Facebook Portal, and Google Nest Hub Max will support the widely used videoconferencing app later this year.

It’s a big expansion for Zoom, which has recently started to branch out into its own licensed videoconferencing hardware. And smart displays — with their high-quality directional microphones and built-in touchscreens — are practically designed to be good videoconferencing devices.

The new Zoom integration is a big deal for Google, Amazon, and Facebook, too, given that all three of these companies have almost exclusively stuck to their own, in-house video chatting solutions (like Google Meet and Facebook Messenger) on their smart displays. The Portal will be the first to get Zoom, with a rollout planned for this September.

«

It’s going to be eeeeeeverywhere.
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Instagram rolls out suggested posts to keep you glued to your feed • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

»

Instagram is expanding its feed today with the launch of “suggested posts.” These posts, from accounts you don’t follow, will show up after you’ve reached the end of your feed and give you the option to keep scrolling with Instagram’s suggestions. Up until now, the feed has been entirely determined by users’ preferences and the people they follow.

For the past couple of years, Instagram has shown users a message when they reach the end of their feeds, meaning they’ve seen every post over the past two days from people they follow. With suggested posts, they’ll have the option to keep scrolling past that marker for more content. (That message will still be there along with the option to revisit old posts.)

The suggested posts won’t be the same ones that show up in Explore. They’ll be related to the content that people already follow, whereas Explore aims to point people toward adjacent content, says Julian Gutman, head of product at Instagram Home. He used space content, which he follows and engages with on his feed regularly, as an example. A suggested post might be a new space photo from someone he doesn’t follow, whereas his Explore page might contain posts related to physics more broadly.

«

Just when you thought that Instagram was going to encourage people not to spend all their waking hours endlessly scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
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Russiagate was not a hoax • The Atlantic

Franklin Foer:

»

The [Senate] committee fills in the gaps somewhat. It reports that [Trump campaign chairman Paul] Manafort and [Russian spy Konstantin] Kilimnik talked almost daily during the campaign. They communicated through encrypted technologies set to automatically erase their correspondence; they spoke using code words and shared access to an email account. It’s worth pausing on these facts: The chairman of the Trump campaign was in daily contact with a Russian agent, constantly sharing confidential information with him. That alone makes for one of the worst scandals in American political history.

The significant revelation of the document is that Kilimnik was likely a participant in the Kremlin scheme to hack and leak Clinton campaign emails. Furthermore, Kilimnik kept in close contact with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a former client of Manafort’s. The report also indicates that Deripaska was connected to his government’s hacking efforts. This fact is especially suggestive: Deripaska had accused Manafort of stealing money from him, and Manafort hoped to repair his relationship with the oligarch. Was Manafort passing information to him, through Kilimnik, for the sake of currying favor with an old patron?

As maddeningly elliptical as this section of the report may be—and much of it is redacted—it still makes one wonder why Mueller would cut a deal with an established prevaricator like Manafort before pursuing his investigation of Kilimnik to more concrete conclusions.

When Manafort—with a pardon dangling in front of him—brazenly lied to prosecutors, he helped save Trump from having to confront this damning story. He wasn’t the only Trump associate to obstruct justice. (The committee has referred five Trump aides and supporters to the Justice Department for possibly providing false testimony.)

«

This won’t make any difference to what people think – those positions will have long since ossified – but the obstruction of justice allegation could linger into next year. There are very serious questions about what a post-Trump administration would do over claims of lying to Congress; that’s part of what got Roger Stone convicted.

Kilimnik also concocted the story of *Ukrainian* interference in the US election. Of course Trump believed that rather than that Russia did. Maybe next year we’ll learn why he’s so in hock to Russia. Meanwhile, he’s revealed in the report as either a liar, a perjurer, a dupe, or all three.
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Inside Google’s feud with GetYourGuide, Trivago, HomeToGo • CNBC

Sam Shead:

»

Activity booking platform GetYourGuide, hotel finder Trivago, and Airbnb rival HomeToGo have been feuding with the search giant about their unpaid advertising bills since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Online travel companies were particularly exposed to the devastating economic impact of the Covid-19 outbreak as lockdowns brought worldwide mobility to a near standstill. New bookings dried up and the sites had to refund tens of millions of dollars to customers that were unable to travel.

In a joint letter, a group of German travel start-ups asked Google, which has helped the businesses thrive over the years by promoting their websites in its search results in exchange for a fee, to share the burden.

The letter didn’t work as the companies hoped it would. CNBC has been able to confirm through multiple sources and materials that Google demanded advertising bills were paid in full.

“Google refused to do anything and instead asked us to pay immediately in the midst of the pandemic,” said GetYourGuide Chief Executive Johannes Reck, who persuaded SoftBank to invest $500m in his Berlin-based company last year.

«

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A TikTok ban is overdue • The New York Times

Timothy Wu:

»

In China, the foreign equivalents of TikTok and WeChat — video and messaging apps such as YouTube and WhatsApp — have been banned for years. The country’s extensive blocking, censorship and surveillance violate just about every principle of internet openness and decency. China keeps a closed and censorial internet economy at home while its products enjoy full access to open markets abroad.

The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer be tolerated. The privilege of full internet access — the open internet — should be extended only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.

Behind the TikTok controversy is an important struggle between two dueling visions of the internet. The first is an older vision: the idea that the internet should, in a neutral fashion, connect everyone, and that blocking and censorship of sites by nation-states should be rare and justified by more than the will of the ruler. The second and newer vision, of which China has been the leading exponent, is “net nationalism,” which views the country’s internet primarily as a tool of state power. Economic growth, surveillance and thought control, from this perspective, are the internet’s most important functions.

«

This thinking is going to be prevalent now, whatever the political balance of the US is after November – more accurately, from late January. Huawei, TikTok (if still Chinese-owned, which I guess it won’t be), any other company originating in China: they’re all going to be viewed with suspicion in the US and will have strategy risk in dealing with the US.
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Rice University device channels heat into light • Rice University News

Mike Williams:

»

Gururaj Naik and Junichiro Kono of Rice’s Brown School of Engineering introduced their technology in ACS Photonics.

Their invention is a hyperbolic thermal emitter that can absorb intense heat that would otherwise be spewed into the atmosphere, squeeze it into a narrow bandwidth and emit it as light that can be turned into electricity.

The discovery rests on another by Kono’s group in 2016 when it found a simple method to make highly aligned, wafer-scale films of closely packed nanotubes.

Discussions with Naik, who joined Rice in 2016, led the pair to see if the films could be used to direct “thermal photons.”

“Thermal photons are just photons emitted from a hot body,” Kono said. “If you look at something hot with an infrared camera, you see it glow. The camera is capturing these thermally excited photons.”

Infrared radiation is a component of sunlight that delivers heat to the planet, but it’s only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. “Any hot surface emits light as thermal radiation,” Naik said. “The problem is that thermal radiation is broadband, while the conversion of light to electricity is efficient only if the emission is in a narrow band.

…Naik said adding the emitters to standard solar cells could boost their efficiency from the current peak of about 22%. “By squeezing all the wasted thermal energy into a small spectral region, we can turn it into electricity very efficiently,” he said. “The theoretical prediction is that we can get 80% efficiency.”

«

This isn’t a next-year technology, because it relies on nanotubes, and they’re still hellishly hard to manufacture reliably in volume. (Thanks John for the link.)
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Introducing Longplay • Adrian’s Corner

Adrian Schönig:

»

Longplay is a music player for anyone who enjoy listening to entire albums start-to-finish. It digs through your Apple Music or iTunes library – that might have grown over the years or decades and is full of a mix of individual songs, partial albums, complete albums and playlists – to identify just those complete albums and gives you quick access to play them.

It provides a beautiful view of all your album artwork, and let’s you explore your albums (or playlists) by various sort options. A unique one is Negligence which combines how highly you’ve ranked an album and when you last listened it, to let you rediscover forgotten favourites. Brightness sorts the albums by their primary colour for an interesting visual take on your albums collection.

You can hide albums or playlists that you don’t want to show up – useful for meditation or kids albums, or smart playlists that you use for doing house keeping.

For users who want to listen on specific AirPlay devices, such as multi-room audio systems or headphones, there’s a “Play on” feature that’s the quickest way to listen on the right device.

«

He did begin developing it on Spotify, but ran into hassles with the SDK and edge cases. (If it’s a runaway hit, maybe he’ll add Spotify back.) A neat way to re-visualise your music, and also to remind yourself that albums have a track order that people thought about.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1377: Facebook blocks Plandemic 2.. and Myanmar investigation, America’s two-foot trouble, the 30 per cent mystery, and more


Apple designed a secret version of this product for the US government to do… something top secret. CC-licensed photo by Misha Husnain Ali on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. Also available in metric. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The case of the top secret iPod • TidBITS

David Shayer was the second software engineer hired for the iPod project in 2001:

»

It was a gray day in late 2005. I was sitting at my desk, writing code for the next year’s iPod. Without knocking, the director of iPod Software—my boss’s boss—abruptly entered and closed the door behind him. He cut to the chase. “I have a special assignment for you. Your boss doesn’t know about it. You’ll help two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Report only to me.”

The next day, the receptionist called to tell me that two men were waiting in the lobby. I went downstairs to meet Paul and Matthew, the engineers who would actually build this custom iPod. I’d love to say they wore dark glasses and trench coats and were glancing in window reflections to make sure they hadn’t been tailed, but they were perfectly normal thirty-something engineers. I signed them in, and we went to a conference room to talk.

«

This is an amazing story: what they wanted is going to set a whole lot of hares running. The timing is really very interesting when you consider it in the light of this project.
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Facebook blocks users from linking to new Plandemic hoax video • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

»

Social media sites are trying to stop the spread of Plandemic: Indoctornation, a follow-up to the Plandemic conspiracy video about the novel coronavirus. As NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny noted, Facebook blocks users from reposting a link to the new video, which was uploaded to an external site earlier today. Twitter doesn’t block the video link, but it sends users who click it to a warning screen, saying that the link is “potentially spammy or unsafe.”

Twitter confirmed to The Verge that it’s warning people rather than blocking the link; the company will evaluate any short clips that are directly uploaded on a case-by-case basis and may remove any that it deems dangerous misinformation. Streaming channel London Real, which posted the video, reported that it was suspended by LinkedIn before its premiere. According to CrowdTangle, London Real’s original post linking to the video has about 53,000 interactions on Facebook. A reposted version of the video can be found on YouTube, but it currently has under 200 views.

Initially posted in May, the 26-minute Plandemic documentary was a hit on social media and promoted a number of false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, including the (completely incorrect) assertion that wearing a mask can “activate” the coronavirus.

«

Warned once, Facebook manages to get it right. Not for long, however…
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How Facebook is failing Myanmar again • Time

Matthew Smith on how Facebook is blocking an international investigation into the origins of the Myanmar genocide of 2016 and 2017:

»

Specifically, The Gambia is seeking documents and communications from Myanmar military officials as well as information from hundreds of other pages and accounts that Facebook took down and preserved. The Gambia is also seeking documents related to Facebook’s internal investigations into the matter as well as a deposition of a relevant Facebook executive. All of this information could help to prove Myanmar’s genocidal intent.

In May, The Gambia filed a similar application in US court against Twitter. The case disappeared quickly because The Gambia pulled its application shortly after submitting it, presumably because Twitter agreed to cooperate.

Not Facebook. Earlier this month, the company filed its opposition to The Gambia’s application. Facebook said the request is “extraordinarily broad,” as well as “unduly intrusive or burdensome.” Calling on the US District Court for the District of Columbia to reject the application, the social media giant says The Gambia fails to “identify accounts with sufficient specificity.”

The Gambia was actually quite specific, going so far as to name 17 officials, two military units and dozens of pages and accounts.

Facebook also takes issue with the fact that The Gambia is seeking information dating back to 2012, evidently failing to recognize two similar waves of atrocities against Rohingya that year, and that genocidal intent isn’t spontaneous, but builds over time.

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Just when you think Facebook can’t possibly get any worse.
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America has two feet. It’s about to lose one of them • The New York Times

Alanna Mitchell:

»

How big is a foot? In the United States, that depends on which of the two official foot measurements you are talking about. If it comes as a surprise that there are two feet, how about this: One of those feet is about to go away.

The first foot is the old US survey foot from 1893. The second is the newer, shorter and slightly more exact international foot from 1959, used by nearly everybody except surveyors in some states. The two feet differ by about one hundredth of a foot (0.12672 inches) per mile — that’s two feet for every million feet — an amount so small that it only adds up for people who measure over long distances.

Surveyors are such people. For more than six decades, they have been toggling between the two units, depending on what they are measuring and where.

The toggling does not always work. Michael L. Dennis, an Arizona-based surveyor and geodesist with the National Geodetic Survey, has been cataloging mix-ups with the two feet for years and repairing errors. Last year, he had enough.

“I kept running into these problems with different versions of the foot, and I thought it was ridiculous that this thing had gone on this long,” he said. “So I had this secret desire to kill off the US survey foot, and I’d been harboring that for years.”

Most states mandate the use of the old US survey foot for their state coordinate systems, which allow surveyors to take into account Earth’s curvature in their measurements. A few states mandate the use of the new, international foot.

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Amazing. Move over to the metric system? Hell no.
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Oracle enters race to buy TikTok’s US operations • Ars Technica (via FT)

James Fontanella-Khan and Miles Kruppa:

»

Oracle has entered the race to acquire TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned short video app that President Donald Trump has vowed to shut down unless it is taken over by a US company by mid-November, people briefed about the matter have said.

The tech company co-founded by Larry Ellison had held preliminary talks with TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, and was seriously considering purchasing the app’s operations in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the people said.

Oracle was working with a group of US investors that already own a stake in ByteDance, including General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital, the people added.

«

Oracle. Oracle? The closest Oracle has ever got to consumer software is MySQL, which is not consumer software. Is Larry Ellison just hoping, finally, to get one over Microsoft?
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Atlas shrugs • Science Magazine Editor’s Blog

H Holden Thorp on the appointment of neurological imaging specialist (but not infectious diseases specialist) Scott Atlas to the advisers to Trump:

»

as [two scientists] caution in the Science paper [about T-cell immune reaction to coronavirus], “Based on these data, it is plausible to hypothesize that pre-existing cross-reactive human CoV CD4+ T cell memory in some donors could be a contributing factor to variations in COVID-19 patient disease outcomes, but this is at present highly speculative [emphasis added].”  Many questions around this are yet to be settled, and it is most likely that exposure to a large a bolus of SARS-CoV-2 infection would overwhelm these cross-reactive T cells.

Not surprisingly, the hydroxychloroquine peddler (and physician turned investment manager) James Todaro seized on this for a Twitter thread, implying that the pandemic  was now over because if you add the 50% of individuals with cross-reactive T cells to the 10 to 20% now infected, the world will have reached herd immunity.

This is absurd because T cells attack cells that are already infected ([standard textbook] Janeway’s Immunobiology, page 13). It’s no shock that a digital charlatan like Todaro would push this.  But what is far more frightening is that Atlas told Rush Limbaugh the same thing:  “Some people who have come down with a cold over the course of the summer,” says Limbaugh, “miraculously end up less likely to get COVID-19, according to Scott Atlas.” Hilariously, Limbaugh’s blog post has the picture of Fauci holding up the Cell paper showing that the cross-reactive T cells are active against cells that already are infected with COVID-19.  Shane Crotty put together a long Twitter thread lucidly explaining the danger of these false declarations.

This episode represents a sad turning point in the saga of how the Trump administration continues to mishandle the pandemic.

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This is a turning point? The Trump handling of the pandemic has had endless “oh this must FINALLY be it”. It’s the clown car that never runs out of clowns.
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Scammers conned diners at The Ritz so they could buy stuff at Argos • Gizmodo UK

Holly Brockwell:

»

Thanks to a data breach, con artists got hold of the booking details for people who’d made reservations at The Ritz’s restaurants. Then they phoned them up and asked them to “confirm” their credit card details.

Understandably none the wiser, the fancypants diners gave their details, which were then used to attempt thousands of pounds’ worth of purchases at, of all places, Argos.

One woman called by the scammers said they’d even spoofed the hotel’s real phone number (sadly not difficult to do), and had the exact time and restaurant details of her booking for afternoon tea. They told her that her card had been declined, which you can imagine is pretty embarrassing when booking somewhere fancy – especially if you’re not the type of person who usually gets to go there. So, unsurprisingly, she gave details of a second card and the scammers tried to make several transactions of over a grand at Argos.

But here’s the really evil part: they then called the same woman from her bank’s phone number, told her that her card had been used by scammers, and that she’d need to give them a code to cancel it. Of course, the code was the transaction authorisation the bank had sent her to approve the purchase.

Another person targeted said she’d (ingeniously) realised something was wrong when the scammers couldn’t answer her questions about facilities at the hotel. If only we all had such presence of mind in a dodgy situation.

«

That’s quite a scam. Though the text messages I get say “the code to authorise your transaction is…” Why would you believe that’s a code to cancel? I guess it’s all about how persuasive the scammers are – “oh, our systems haven’t been updated for that, they say that for cancellation codes too.”
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Miami Police used facial recognition technology in protester’s arrest • NBC 6 South Florida

Connie Fossi and Phil Prazan:

»

Police body cameras and tower camera video show some of what happened on May 30 as protesters squared off with Miami officers forming a line outside of their downtown headquarters.

The videos, exclusively obtained by NBC 6 Investigators, captured heated moments as objects were thrown at officers and they popped tear gas to retake control of patrol cars.

Police say Oriana Albornoz, 25, threw two rocks at an officer hitting him once and injuring his leg. The department provided a video that shows her throwing something at officers standing across the street but it is difficult to discern what it is.

NBC 6 Investigators found a facial recognition program was used to identify a woman accused of throwing rocks at Miami Police officers during a protest on May 30. NBC 6’s Phil Prazan reports.
The incident report also states the officer’s body camera captured the moment, but the department didn’t provide that video to NBC 6. 

A month later, Albornoz was arrested and charged with battery on a police officer. She has pleaded not guilty. The NBC 6 Investigators found police used the facial recognition program Clearview AI to find her.

A recent NBC 6 investigation found police departments across South Florida, including Miami, are using the technology, which identifies people through publicly available photos including social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Albornoz’s attorney Mike Gottlieb did not know police used the technology to identify his client and questioned how it was used. “It looks like they’ve just done a regular photographic line up and had it not been for the vigilance of your news agency, I would not have known this,” Gottlieb said. 

Police make no mention of the technology in the arrest report – only writing Albornoz was “identified through investigative means.”

«

That could make for quite a court case: how will the police prove her presence? Clearview doesn’t do that. It just suggests that someone strongly resembles a few pixels in a picture.
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House GOP candidate known for QAnon support was ‘correspondent’ for conspiracy website

Brandy Zarodny:

»

Before running for office, Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote dozens of articles as a “correspondent” for a conspiracy news website, according to archived web pages uncovered by NBC News.

In posts published on the now-defunct “American Truth Seekers” website in 2017, Greene wrote favuorably of the QAnon conspiracy theory, suggested that Hillary Clinton murdered her political enemies, and ruminated on whether mass shootings were orchestrated to dismantle the Second Amendment.

…Greene has deleted the offending posts from most of her pre-candidate social media, but in a 2017 interview with a conservative activist on Facebook, Greene told viewers where to find her.

“AmericanTruthSeekers. So follow that page. They publish my articles and you’ll see me there,” she said in the interview.

In some 59 posts for the website, according to her author bio page, Greene commented on news of the day in blogs that built on articles from far-right outlets like Breitbart and fake news websites including YourNewsWire. The American TruthSeekers website is now inactive, but Greene’s posts were found by NBC News through the Internet Archive’s WayBack machine.

«

Good to see reporters using the Internet Archive to good effect. Now let’s see if Greene’s absurd stupidity can be used effectively against her.
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What can America learn from Europe about regulating big tech? • The New Yorker

Nick Romeo interviews former Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake:

»

When I met Schaake for lunch one day, at Stanford’s Business School, a month after she had moved to California, she was incredulous about the level of economic inequality. “It’s unbelievable,” she said. “These are among the richest Zip Codes in the world, but there’s no infrastructure—no street lights, no sidewalks, no real public transport investment—and so many people are homeless. If you talk to the rideshare drivers, they work multiple jobs and have these enormously long commutes. The inequality is heart-wrenching. Every day, I try to remind myself not to get used to it. I don’t want to become desensitized. If this is a petri dish of the high-tech society,” she concluded, “it has extraordinary downsides.”

Schaake often finds herself confronting two distinct visions for how the citizens of such a society should relate to their tech companies. The first sees companies and consumers as engaged in a virtuous circle of responsible, market-driven self-regulation. People support companies that offer useful services and protect their privacy; companies, who want to keep their users happy, try to strike a balance between those values when they conflict. It’s hoped that even firms that depend on advertising will eventually respond to consumer pressures and self-regulate accordingly. Government may have a limited regulatory role, but it’s really all about likes and dislikes.

The second model is more cynical about large companies and governments. It sees technology as a solution to the problems of surveillance and oppression, and regulation as either a malign constraint on freedom or a well-intentioned mistake.

…Many people who work in Silicon Valley see themselves as championing democracy and empowering individuals. But Schaake differs from the Silicon Valley consensus in her idea of what constitutes democratic power. Unregulated information technology is often presented as a bulwark against authoritarianism, and yet, in her view, technology that is beyond the reach of laws—and, therefore, voters—is anti-democratic.

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She’s pretty astringent about the people she meets in Silicon Valley altogether.
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Thirty per cent • Terence Eden’s Blog

Eden has Noticed Something:

»

A decade ago, I was invited to the UK launch of Windows Phone 7. It was Microsoft’s attempt to compete with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. Sure, Microsoft could make a brilliant OS and had excellent hardware partners – but could they convince developers to use yet another system?

At the time, I wrote:

»

The revenue share is 70/30. I really think MS have missed a trick here. It’s an “industry standard” price point because no one wants to get in to a price war. Increasing the share that goes to the developer would be an excellent way to convince wavering developers to adopt the platform.

«

Back in 2010, BlackBerry charged developers 30% as did Nokia Ovi, and HP’s WebOS, app stores from Opera and Samsung charged the same amount, even the Amazon app store charged 30%. None have shifted their pricing in the last decade.

That’s curious, isn’t it? Surely a new entrant into the market – or one struggling to retain market share – would have picked a different revenue split?

What a coincidence that they all, independently, came to the conclusion that 30% was a fair and reasonable amount to charge developers.

…I doubt anyone has said “My favourite app is £1 cheaper on Android, time to ditch my iPhone and buy a Samsung!” But we know from the game console market that exclusive games drive purchases. Recently, Apple forced the removal of the popular “Dark Sky” app from Android – presumably because they wanted users to switch. Attracting developers and convincing them to concentrate on your platform doesn’t rely on increased revenue share – but it sure can’t hurt.

«

I’d love to know if there’s a known economic phenomenon where retailers nominally in competition with each other are able to charge exactly the same markup on goods where the wholesaler has independent pricing power.
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Panasonic’s new home cubicle is a disheartening glimpse at our work-from-home future • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

»

The modern office cubicle is almost synonymous with the drudgery of a soul-crushing office job. But if for some reason you’ve found yourself missing the not-quite-solid not-quite-walls of your regular office, Panasonic is working to bring the magic of cubicles to your work-from-home life with its new 88,000 yen (around $835) Komoru home cubicle.

The Komoru is actually a bit more handsome-looking than a traditional office cubicle, and it’s made of wooden pegboards (to easily hang things) with a matching, integrated desk. It’s designed to blend in with your existing living room or apartment setup.

The idea is that the Komoru will give you about one square meter (around 10 square feet) of portioned-off space to set aside as a specific work zone, instead of having your work life bleed into the rest of your living setup. The walls are only about four feet high, meaning it’ll be enough to give you some privacy while sitting at your desk, but it won’t help much if you’re trying to create a quiet zone for Zoom calls.

«

It really is soul-sucking. It’s the Dementor of office-at-home designs (a reference for the Harry Potter fans, and parents of same).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1376: Epic v Apple battle intensifies, Facebook’s African push, Google’s Aussie disinformation, Huawei under pressure, and more


Fortnite’s iOS stats could look a lot worse if Apple revokes its developer licences in, uh, a fortnight. CC-licensed photo by Veselin Rogelov on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. Last one standing? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Epic Games asks court to stop Apple pulling its developer tools next week • Engadget

Nicole Lee:

»

Epic Games has filed yet another lawsuit against Apple. The Fortnite developer is now suing the Cupertino-based company for allegedly retaliating against it for its other lawsuit last week. Apple has not only removed the game from the App Store but has told Epic that it will “terminate” all its developer accounts and “cut Epic off from iOS and Mac development tools” on August 28th.

According to the filing, Epic claims that Fortnite’s removal from the App Store in conjunction with the termination of the developer accounts will likely result in “irreparable harm” to Epic. The company adds that cutting off access to development tools also affects software like Unreal Engine Epic, which it offers to third-party developers and which Apple itself has never claimed to have violated any policy. Without them, the company states that it can’t develop future versions of Unreal Engine for iOS or macOS.

“Not content simply to remove Fortnite from the App Store, Apple is attacking Epic’s entire business in unrelated areas,” the lawsuit states. “Left unchecked, Apple’s actions will irreparably damage Epic’s reputation among Fortnite users and be catastrophic for the future of the separate Unreal Engine business.” The company says that the preliminary injunctive relief is necessary to prevent Epic’s business from being crushed before the case even goes to judgement.

«

Apple’s response, in part: “Epic agreed to the App Store terms and guidelines freely”. And the Apple Developer Guidelines include the deathless phrase “Apple may terminate or suspend you as a registered Apple Developer at any time in Apple’s sole discretion. If Apple terminates you as a registered Apple Developer, Apple reserves the right to deny your reapplication at any time in Apple’s sole discretion.” Squeaky bum time for Epic.

While Epic might have gamed out that Apple would eject Fortnite from the App Store for offering its own payment system, it pretty clearly didn’t expect this nuclear response. Hard to see why a court would grant Epic an injunction for prima facie breaking Apple’s App Store guidelines. (Also: Apple’s kicking Fortnite’s devs out in a fortnight, so it’s the last one standing? Emblematic, at least.)
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Epic’s Fortnite standoff is putting Apple’s cash cow at risk • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

»

The 30% “Apple tax” is the beating heart for Apple’s services business, which it has emphasized as growth as the iPhone business starts to slow. That line of revenue has become a critical part of Apple’s business, the bright star executives have been able to point to on earnings reports in recent quarters.

Labeling the revenue line as “services” lets Apple obscure where the money is really coming from — and onstage, Apple executives tend to talk about the prestige products like Apple Music, Apple TV Plus, Apple News Plus, or Apple Arcade. But the money from those services is dwarfed by Apple’s cut of the money flowing through its App Store and its power to force major players like Adobe, Spotify, and even Epic to pay the toll. So when Apple squares off over Fortnite, it’s not just fighting over one app or one policy. It’s protecting one of the key sources of revenue in the years to come — a source it could lose permanently if Epic comes out on top.

The App Store may have started out small, but today, it makes Apple a staggering amount of money. In 2019 alone, Apple’s percentage taken on digital content sold through the App Store accounted for an estimated $18.3bn, or nearly 40% of Apple’s total service revenue. (To reach that number, Apple says that $61bn of digital content was sold through the App Store in 2019, of which it took an estimated $18.3bn cut, compared to the $46.3bn Apple reported in services revenue on its collected 2019 quarterly earnings.)

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Just so we know what’s at stake.
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Toxic trade-offs at Facebook • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:

»

Beginning in 2017, Facebook started a revamp to emphasize personal posts and interactions and to steer us away from aimlessly scrolling past news articles and puppy videos in the news feed. Among the changes was pushing people to Facebook Groups, or online forums of like-minded people.

For many people, groups can be a wonderful resource and social outlet. But they also have become places for people to wallow in fake health treatments, plot violence or spread false theories like QAnon.

Groups that post frequently and have a lot of avid back-and-forth — and that often applies to discussions of fringe ideas — tend to get circulated more in the Facebook news feed, which funnels more people into those groups. [eg Holocaust denial or QAnon or domestic terror groups.]

…Facebook now wants to become a place for us to have more private and meaningful conversations — a continuing evolution from a global public message board to the more cloistered space that Zuckerberg started to emphasize in 2017. I worry that this may create Facebook’s next unintended consequence.

Part of this privacy plan is a march to encrypt, or scramble, all activity so that there are no digital trails of what we post or say. There are good reasons for this. Facebook wouldn’t be able to peer into our private messages, and authoritarian rulers couldn’t demand that Facebook identify the person behind an account critical of the government.

But the potential pitfalls terrify me. Encrypting Facebook apps including Instagram and Messenger will make it difficult or impossible for Facebook to help law enforcement figure out who is selling drugs on Instagram or calling for violence in its groups. It will be harder to trace a propaganda campaign to a foreign government. Facebook will be able to say, truthfully, that it can’t see behind its own curtain.

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Inside Facebook’s new power grab • WIRED UK

James Ball on Facebook’s latest push, into Africa:

»

The scale of Facebook’s programmes, and their reach across dozens of countries, is for some, alarming. While it might seem odd to complain about free or cheap internet, concerns range from fears on misinformation, to worries that Facebook’s intervention could stifle potential local challengers, to suspicions about what the company might do with browsing data – something on which Facebook has hardly earned a glowing reputation.

“In my opinion, the ongoing expansion of the project has not received the scrutiny it deserves,” says Nothias. “Increasing connectivity, in general, benefits Facebook’s products. Facebook is pretty transparent about this.”

“Most importantly, for Free Basics users, Facebook becomes the homepage of the Internet. Free Basics builds brand loyalty among users. It contributes to Facebook’s dominant position in emerging markets with tremendous demographic growth.”

“Facebook is adamant that Free Basics is not a data extraction exercise – on the basis that information is aggregated or de-identified. But aggregated data is still valuable.”

Back in 2016, similar concerns were enough to trigger protests in India, and mobilise civil society groups around the world. So, what’s happened since for the outcry to be so muted? There’s several things going on, says Dr Anri van der Spuy, a senior associate at Research ICT Africa, a policy and regulation think-tank.

“In a lot of these contexts, people have to decide between buying a loaf of bread for their children or meal a day, and buying data,” she says. “Yes, [Facebook’s programme] is not perfect internet – [but] you can’t be highbrow about this. If people want to go on social media, they want to go on social media.”

«

Here’s the reality: in countries that use Free Basics, levels of disinformation and misinformation and (for want of a better phrase) “fake news” are worse than in those which don’t. WhatsApp and Facebook become “the internet”, they don’t prevent the spread of lies and outrage, and the effects are malevolent.
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Google lobbies Australian users against plans to make it pay for news • The Verge

Jon Porter:

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Google has published an open letter about a newly proposed government regulation that would compel it to pay media outlets for news content. Australians visiting their local Google homepage are presented with an ominous pop-up which warns that “the way Aussies use Google is at risk” and “their search experience will be hurt by new regulation.” It’s a bold lobbying move that puts Google’s arguments against the change in front of millions of Australians.

Australia’s consumer watchdog pushed back, saying the letter “contains misinformation,” adding that “a healthy news media sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy.”

Australia’s proposed News Media Bargaining Code law, which is currently in draft and targets Facebook alongside Google, follows a 2019 inquiry in Australia that found the tech giant to be taking a disproportionately large share of online advertising revenue, even though much of their content came from media organizations.

«

Google is really over-egging it by claiming peoples’ search experience will be hurt. The consumer watchdog letter says, in part,

»

Google will not be required to charge Australians for the use of its free services such as Google Search and YouTube, unless it chooses to do so.

Google will not be required to share any additional user data with Australian news businesses unless it chooses to do so. The draft code will allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services.

«

Essentially, it’s the copyright fight that has been brewing ever since Google was first created on a PC at Stanford University by copying the whole web – a much simpler tasks then.

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U.S. tightening restrictions on Huawei access to technology, chips • Reuters

David Shepardson:

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The Trump administration announced on Monday it will further tighten restrictions on Huawei Technologies, aimed at cracking down on its access to commercially available chips.

The US Commerce Department actions will expand restrictions announced in May aimed at preventing the Chinese telecommunications giant from obtaining semiconductors without a special license – including chips made by foreign firms that have been developed or produced with US software or technology.

The administration will also add 38 Huawei affiliates in 21 countries to the US government’s economic blacklist, the sources said, raising the total to 152 affiliates since Huawei was first added in May 2019.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business the restrictions on Huawei-designed chips imposed in May “led them to do some evasive measures. They were going through third parties,” Ross said. “The new rule makes it clear that any use of American software or American fabrication equipment is banned and requires a license.”

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That’s a noose tightening – although it will also push Huawei (and all of China) to develop chips in its own right.
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Secret Service bought phone location data from apps, contract confirms • Vice

Joseph Cox:

»

The Secret Service paid for a product that gives the agency access to location data generated by ordinary apps installed on peoples’ smartphones, an internal Secret Service document confirms.

The sale highlights the issue of law enforcement agencies buying information, and in particular location data, that they would ordinarily need a warrant or court order to obtain. This contract relates to the sale of Locate X, a product from a company called Babel Street.

In March, tech publication Protocol reported that multiple government agencies signed millions of dollars worth of deals with Babel Street after the company launched its Locate X product. Multiple sources told the site that Locate X tracks the location of devices anonymously, using data harvested by popular apps installed on peoples’ phones.

Protocol found public records showed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased Locate X. One former Babel Street employee told the publication that the Secret Service used the technology. Now, the document obtained by Motherboard corroborates that finding.

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Lax protections lead to abuses. Or do European and British intelligence agencies just have carve-outs that let them grab this data without reference? (Thanks G for the link.)
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Covid-19 is creating a wave of heart disease • The New York Times

Dr Haider Warraich (who is a cardiologist):

»

An intriguing new study from Germany offers a glimpse into how SARS-CoV-2 affects the heart. Researchers studied 100 individuals, with a median age of just 49, who had recovered from Covid-19. Most were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.

An average of two months after they received the diagnosis, the researchers performed M.R.I. scans of their hearts and made some alarming discoveries: nearly 80% had persistent abnormalities and 60% had evidence of myocarditis. The degree of myocarditis was not explained by the severity of the initial illness.

Though the study has some flaws, and the generalizability and significance of its findings not fully known, it makes clear that in young patients who had seemingly overcome SARS-CoV-2 it’s fairly common for the heart to be affected. We may be seeing only the beginning of the damage.

Researchers are still figuring out how SARS-CoV-2 causes myocarditis — whether it’s through the virus directly injuring the heart or whether it’s from the virulent immune reaction that it stimulates. It’s possible that part of the success of immunosuppressant medications such as the steroid dexamethasone in treating sick Covid-19 patients comes from their preventing inflammatory damage to the heart. Such steroids are commonly used to treat cases of myocarditis. Despite treatment, more severe forms of Covid-19-associated myocarditis can lead to permanent damage of the heart — which, in turn, can lead to heart failure.

But myocarditis is not the only way Covid-19 can cause more people to die of heart disease.

«

It’s all so jolly.

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Why did a small Pennsylvania town keep winning T-Mobile’s promotional contests? • CNBC

Megan Graham:

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Earlier this summer, players of a T-Mobile Tuesdays giveaway contest took to Reddit to discuss a strange discovery: the company in certain weeks gave away tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars in gift cards, prizes and cash to winners. In one of the contests, nearly a third of the publicly listed winners came from a Pennsylvania town with a population of less than 4,000.

Players wondered: What was in the water in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania? 

The theories began to blossom in threads as others posted publicly on social media asking T-Mobile for answers. Some surmised it could be the result of accidental coding. Maybe entries that were missing zip codes appeared to be from the town. Others suspected someone had figured out where, geographically speaking, someone could enter the contest to have a slight time advantage and set their server location as such. Some drew similarities to “McMillions,” an HBO series and podcast following a 2018 Daily Beast story titled “How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions.” 

The promotional app and contest, a ploy to foster goodwill with customers from a carrier known for such perks, offer occasional giveaways like tablets, Chromebooks, tickets to a “James Bond Fan Event,” a trip for two to Spanish-language awards show Premio lo Nuestro and more.

«

If I tell you that you could enter via a web form, you’ll probably get there, but it’s an entertaining read nonetheless.
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Level of cryptocurrency scams ‘unprecedented in modern markets’ • Yahoo Finance

Oscar Williams-Grut:

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Researchers found 355 incidents of price manipulation across several cryptocurrency exchanges over a period of just seven months. $350m (£267m) of suspicious trading activity was linked to “pump and dump” scams that reaped an estimated profit of $6m for organisers.

While names like bitcoin and ethereum dominate coverage of the cryptocurrency space, price manipulation occurs with smaller coins. There are over 6,000 cryptocurrencies in circulation, according to CoinMarketCap.com, with huge variations in market capitalisation and liquidity.

“You have a large number of coins that you can essentially play trading games with,” Dhawan said.

15% of all the nearly 200 cryptocurrencies Dhawan and his co-author Tālis J. Putniņš looked at were manipulated at least once during the seven month period they observed.

«

The researchers write: “Puzzlingly, people join in despite negative expected returns. In a simple framework, we demonstrate how overconfidence and gambling preferences can explain participation in these schemes, and find strong empirical support for both mechanisms. Pumps generate extreme price distortions of 65% on average, abnormal trading volumes in the millions of dollars, and large wealth transfers between participants. These manipulation schemes are likely to persist as long as regulators and exchanges turn a blind eye.”

Regulators? Exchanges? Zero chance that exchanges will lift a finger, and regulators might decide they have easier targets than people on crypto who can hide behind hard-to-trace accounts. All of which confirms to me that the crypto space is just a gaggle of greater fools.
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5G smartphones could crush your home Wi-Fi. So where’s the 5G? • WSJ

Joanna Stern went back, a year on, to see where 5G has got to. The answer hasn’t changed:

»

When I asked executives at each of the big carriers where I’d really experience the 5G speed on a smartphone, they all said variations of the same thing: 5G will unlock the technology of the future, but for now…hefty downloads!

David Christopher, executive vice president and general manager of AT&T Mobility, talked about downloading the entire Harry Potter movie collection in 2 minutes. Verizon’s Ms. Hemmer mentioned downloading “Stranger Things” and HD video calling. And Karri Kuoppamaki, T-Mobile vice president of radio network technology and strategy? Video and game downloads!

Even so, how often do any of us even download movies anymore? Maybe before a flight? But…where are you flying these days?

I found 5G to be far faster than the nationwide average home-internet speed, 86 Mbps, reported by Ookla. As you’ll see in my video, I moved 15 of my home gadgets into an RV—laptops, tablets, a 32-inch TV, an Xbox One, a Ring doorbell, etc.—to see if the connections could handle it. The only real bottlenecks were the 5G phones themselves, which aren’t meant to serve as hotspots for so many devices at a time and don’t have the range of a wireless router.

«

So basically it’s great for anyone living in an RV, as they’re called in the US (caravans, as they’re called more sensibly in the UK).
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What’s in a hedcut? Depends how it’s made • WSJ

Francesco Marconi, Carrie Reynolds and Emily Anderson:

»

The hedcut is a drawing created largely out of dots and hatched lines. It stems from a centuries-old tradition that is also used around the world to illustrate currency. At the Journal, we typically use hedcuts to depict notable subjects in our stories and our journalists who write them. We also use this stippled style of drawing to illustrate our daily feature known as the A-Hed.

Hedcuts first appeared on the front page of the Journal in 1979. Their classical feel suited the paper’s formal, famously text-heavy style at the time. Even as the Journal embraced more visuals across all our platforms in the decades since, the hedcut has persisted—becoming something of a status symbol for politicians, celebrities and reporters alike.

“The hand-drawn hedcut portraits are highly coveted,” said the Journal’s chief art director John Nichols. “They are the mark that you’ve made it at the Journal.”

Mr. Nichols oversees a team of five artists who create these drawings each day, typically spending four to five hours per image.

Not far from some of the illustrators is the Journal’s 21-month-old R&D Lab. These data scientists and machine-learning experts aim to bring science into the art of storytelling. In the case of the Journal’s hedcuts, this meant figuring out the best technical methods to mimic the stippling (dots) and hatching (lines) that give hedcuts their classic feel.

One initial challenge was deciding whether to use artificial intelligence at all. A simple way to create automated hedcuts could have been to use the light-contrast technology available in Adobe Photoshop to mimic the dark and light parts of a photograph in a stipple style.

…Wall Street Journal artists will continue to create the hedcut drawings you see on our stories each day. But our new AI-driven tool offers WSJ members a chance to partake in the tradition by creating their own here.

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You have to have a WSJ account to get the portrait. Having tried it, I’d say it’s nice, but you’d need a certain sort of vanity to use it if you don’t work for the WSJ (but if you do, that’s totally appropriate).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1375: Facebook ignores Indian politician’s hate speech, Google saves Mozilla, GPT-3 blogs, solar panel breakthrough, and more


Facebook’s algorithm is suggesting Holocaust denial groups when people search on the term. CC-licensed photo by Daniel_Sadono 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. Reboot! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook algorithm found to ‘actively promote’ Holocaust denial • The Guardian

Mark Townsend:

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Facebook’s algorithm “actively promotes” Holocaust denial content according to an analysis that will increase pressure on the social media giant to remove antisemitic content relating to the Nazi genocide.

An investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a UK-based counter-extremist organisation, found that typing “holocaust” in the Facebook search function brought up suggestions for denial pages, which in turn recommended links to publishers which sell revisionist and denial literature, as well as pages dedicated to the notorious British Holocaust denier David Irving.

The findings coincide with mounting international demands from Holocaust survivors to Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, to remove such material from the site.

Last Wednesday Facebook announced it was banning conspiracy theories about Jewish people “controlling the world”. However, it has been unwilling to categorise Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech, a stance that ISD describe as a “conceptual blind spot”.

The ISD also discovered at least 36 Facebook groups with a combined 366,068 followers which are specifically dedicated to Holocaust denial or which host such content. Researchers found that when they followed public Facebook pages containing Holocaust denial content, Facebook recommended further similar content.

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Recommending “similar” content has led to people literally being recruited to terrorist groups. No surprise that this would happen with Holocaust denial. That’s the content about which Mark Zuckerberg said in 2018 “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
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Facebook’s hate-speech rules collide with Indian politics • WSJ

Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz:

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In Facebook posts and public appearances, Indian politician T. Raja Singh has said Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors and threatened to raze mosques.

Facebook Inc. employees charged with policing the platform were watching. By March of this year, they concluded Mr. Singh not only had violated the company’s hate-speech rules but qualified as dangerous, a designation that takes into account a person’s off-platform activities, according to current and former Facebook employees familiar with the matter.

Given India’s history of communal violence and recent religious tensions, they argued, his rhetoric could lead to real-world violence, and he should be permanently banned from the company’s platforms world-wide, according to the current and former employees, a punishment that in the U.S. has been doled out to radio host Alex Jones, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and numerous white supremacist organizations.

Yet Mr. Singh, a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, is still active on Facebook and Instagram, where he has hundreds of thousands of followers. The company’s top public-policy executive in the country, Ankhi Das, opposed applying the hate-speech rules to Mr. Singh and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence, said the current and former employees.

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Yes, Facebook put its thumb on the scale because of politics. Literally scores of people have died in India due to content posted on Facebook’s apps (including WhatsApp). And then it does nothing when it knows someone is rabble-rousing?
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Mozilla signs fresh Google search deal worth mega-millions as 25% staff cut hits Servo, MDN, security teams • The Register

Katyanna Quach:

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Mozilla has renewed its lucrative nine-figure deal with Google to ensure its search engine is the default in Firefox in the US and other parts of the world.

Within hours of the browser maker laying off a quarter of its staff this week, a well-placed source told The Register Moz had signed a three-year agreement with Google. On Thursday, a spokesperson for Mozilla confirmed the partnership had been renewed though declined to go into specific detail on the contract duration and sums of money involved.

However, our source told us Moz will likely pocket $400m to $450m a year between now and 2023 from the arrangement, citing internal discussions held earlier this year.

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Saved by the bell. Even so, that’s three more years of charity during which it needs to figure out what it’s for. Google is surely overpaying for this, relative to Firefox’s absolute share (combined desktop and mobile). Though it might have some use in warding off antitrust complaints as Chrome becomes more and more dominant. (That’s the argument here, which I discovered after this.)
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A college kid created a fake, AI-generated blog. It reached #1 on Hacker News • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:

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At the start of the week, Liam Porr had only heard of GPT-3. By the end, the college student had used the AI model to produce an entirely fake blog under a fake name.

It was meant as a fun experiment. But then one of his posts reached the number-one spot on Hacker News. Few people noticed that his blog was completely AI-generated. Some even hit “Subscribe.”

While many have speculated about how GPT-3, the most powerful language-generating AI tool to date, could affect content production, this is one of the only known cases to illustrate the potential. What stood out most about the experience, says Porr, who studies computer science at the University of California, Berkeley: “It was super easy, actually, which was the scary part.”

GPT-3 is OpenAI’s latest and largest language AI model, which the San Francisco–based research lab  began drip-feeding out in mid-July. In February of last year, OpenAI made headlines with GPT-2, an earlier version of the algorithm, which it announced it would withhold for fear it would be abused. The decision immediately sparked a backlash, as researchers accused the lab of pulling a stunt. By November, the lab had reversed position and released the model, saying it had detected “no strong evidence of misuse so far.”

…The trick to generating content without the need for much editing was understanding GPT-3’s strengths and weaknesses. “It’s quite good at making pretty language, and it’s not very good at being logical and rational,” says Porr. So he picked a popular blog category that doesn’t require rigorous logic: productivity and self-help.

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Says as much about Hacker News (and the productivity and self-help category) as it does GPT-3.
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Sources: Google plans to eventually replace Duo with Meet • 9to5Google

Abner Li:

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With classic Hangouts on the way out, Google today has two video calling apps. However, that is one too many for the company, and sources familiar with the matter tell us that Google Duo will eventually be replaced by Meet.

This decision is the result of Google placing its consumer communication services — Duo, Messages, and Android’s Phone app — under the leadership of G Suite head Javier Soltero. After the unified team was made public in May, Soltero announced to employees that it does not make sense for Duo and Meet to coexist. 

Following the rise of work from home and remote learning, Google has moved aggressively to make Meet a Zoom competitor. Like Duo, it’s now “free for everyone” to use and going after the same market.

With all the focus on Meet, the new messaging chief opted to have the service become Google’s one video calling service for both regular and enterprise customers. Internally, this is being described as a merger of the two services that is codenamed “Duet” — a portmanteau of Duo and Meet.

We’re told by sources that this new direction and the reduced interest in building a dedicated consumer service came as a surprise to the Duo team.

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Oh man. Nothing should come as a surprise to people working on any of Google’s messaging apps. Any time there are more than two (video and text) there’s a risk of one getting wiped out.
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UK firm’s solar power breakthrough could make world’s most efficient panels by 2021 • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:

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An Oxford-based solar technology firm hopes by the end of the year to begin manufacturing the world’s most efficient solar panels, and become the first to sell them to the public within the next year.

Oxford PV claims that the next-generation solar panels will be able to generate almost a third more electricity than traditional silicon-based solar panels by coating the panels with a thin layer of a crystal material called perovskite.

The breakthrough would offer the first major step-change in solar power generation since the technology emerged in the 1950s, and could play a major role in helping to tackle the climate crisis by increasing clean energy.

By coating a traditional solar power cell with perovskite a solar panel can increase its power generation, and lower the overall costs of the clean electricity, because the crystal is able to absorb different parts of the solar spectrum than traditional silicon.

Typically a silicon solar cell is able to convert up to about 22% of the available solar energy into electricity. But in June 2018, Oxford PV’s perovskite-on-silicon solar cell surpassed the best performing silicon-only solar cell by reaching a new world record of 27.3%.

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That’s a 24% improvement. Substantial. And usually these things are “five years from now…” This is a lot quicker than that. Although there do seem to be questions about the longevity of the perovskite layer.

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We won’t remember much of what we did in the pandemic • Financial Times

Tim Harford (with a non-paywalled article):

»

Instead of storing each frame separately, video compression algorithms will start with the first frame of a scene and then store a series of “diffs” — changes from one frame to the next. A slow, contemplative movie with long scenes and fixed cameras can be compressed more than a fast-moving action flick.

Similarly, a week full of new experiences will seem longer in retrospect. A month of repeating the same routine might seem endless, but will be barely a blip in the memory: the “diffs” are not significant enough for the brain to bother with.

After months of working from home, I now realise that there was something incomplete about this account. New experiences are indeed important for planting a rich crop of memories. But, by itself, that is not enough. A new physical space seems to be important if our brains are to pay attention.

The Covid-19 lockdown, after all, was full of new experiences. Some were grim: I lost a friend to the disease; I smashed my face up in an accident; we had to wear masks and avoid physical contact and worry about where the next roll of toilet paper was coming from. Some were more positive: the discovery of new pleasures, the honing of new skills, the overcoming of new challenges.

But I doubt I am alone in finding that my memory of the lockdown months is rather thin. No matter how many new people or old friends you talk to on Zoom or Skype, they all start to smear together because the physical context is monotonous: the conversations take place while one sits in the same chair, in the same room, staring at the same computer screen.

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‘Canary in the coal mine’: Greenland ice has shrunk beyond return, study finds • Reuters

Cassandra Garrison:

»

Greenland’s ice sheet may have shrunk past the point of return, with the ice likely to melt away no matter how quickly the world reduces climate-warming emissions, new research suggests.

Scientists studied data on 234 glaciers across the Arctic territory spanning 34 years through 2018 and found that annual snowfall was no longer enough to replenish glaciers of the snow and ice being lost to summertime melting.

That melting is already causing global seas to rise about a millimeter on average per year. If all of Greenland’s ice goes, the water released would push sea levels up by an average of 6 meters — enough to swamp many coastal cities around the world. This process, however, would take decades.

“Greenland is going to be the canary in the coal mine, and the canary is already pretty much dead at this point,” said glaciologist Ian Howat at Ohio State University. He and his colleagues published the study Thursday in the Nature Communications Earth & Environment journal.

The Arctic has been warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world for the last 30 years, an observation referred to as Arctic amplification. The polar sea ice hit its lowest extent for July in 40 years.

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How suffering farmers may determine Trump’s fate • The New Yorker

Dan Kaufman:

»

In June, as Trump’s poll numbers dropped nationwide, the Washington Post reported that his campaign advisers were losing hope for Michigan and Pennsylvania, and would focus on holding Wisconsin. “It’s baked into the cake that Trump will lose the state’s large metro areas in a landslide, while the suburbs have been fleeing him,” Ben Wikler, the head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told me. “Trump can’t win a second term unless he racks up enormous margins in rural Wisconsin.”

For [dairy farmer and 2016 Trump voter, after two terms voting for Obama] Volenec, Trump’s appeal vanished almost immediately. “If I had known the things I know about him now, I wouldn’t have voted for him,” he said, when I visited him at his farm in February. As Trump’s trade wars escalated, Volenec’s problems worsened. In March, 2018, Canada effectively cut off all dairy imports from the United States, and milk from Michigan that had previously been exported began flooding into Wisconsin’s processing plants.

The co-op where Volenec sent his milk for processing was now competing with cheap out-of-state milk, and put a cap on the amount that it would take from him. That week, Volenec heard about a meeting of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a family-farm advocacy group, in nearby Dodgeville, to promote a version of supply management, a system used in Canada that sets a quota on the production of dairy, eggs, and poultry.

Designed, like the New Deal policies, to prevent overproduction and to guarantee farmers a stable income, the system relies on higher prices for Canadian consumers. Trump’s trade war with Canada is aimed at dismantling supply management, which has long been deplored by Republican politicians. John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, called it “Soviet-style” agriculture. For Volenec, it was a revelation. “This was my first glimpse into a world where the dairy farmer is not subservient to The Market,” he wrote in an essay called “Groomed for Apocalypse.”

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That essay isn’t linked in the piece, but it seems to be here. This is a lovely, elegaic article by Kaufman; elegies, of course, being a lament for the dead.
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Epic’s battle for “open platforms” ignores consoles’ massive closed market • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:

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when Fortnite was predictably removed from both [Apple’s and Google’s mobile] platforms, Epic filed lawsuits against both companies, alleging “anti-competitive restraints and monopolistic practices” in the mobile app marketplace. That move came alongside a heavy-handed PR blitz, including a video asking players to “join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming ‘1984.’”

But through this entire public fight for “open mobile platforms,” as Epic puts it, there is one major set of closed platforms that the company seems happy to continue doing business with. We’re speaking, of course, about video game consoles.

Most if not all of the complaints Epic makes against Apple and Google seem to apply to Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo in the console space as well. All three console makers also take a 30% cut of all microtransaction sales on their platforms, for example.

This DLC fee represents a big chunk of those console makers’ revenues, too. “Add-on content” was a full 41% of Sony’s Game and Network revenue in the latest completed fiscal quarter. Microsoft saw a 39-percent increase in gaming revenue the quarter after Fortnite was released, too, coyly attributing the bump to “third-party title strength.” And the Switch saw similar post-Fortnite digital revenue increases after Nintendo announced that fully half of all Switch owners had downloaded Fortnite.

On mobile platforms, Epic is calling the same kind of 30% fee “exorbitant” and says it wants to offer a more direct payment solution so it can “pass along the savings to players.” On consoles, though, Epic happily introduced a permanent 20% discount on all microtransaction purchases, despite there being no sign that the console makers have changed their fee structure.

The major console makers also all exercise full control over what games and apps can appear in their own walled gardens. When it comes to iOS, Epic says that “by blocking consumer choice in software installation, Apple has created a problem so they can profit from the solution.” When it comes to consoles, Epic is silent about the same state of affairs.

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Epic is being terribly hypocritical here, though as Orland points out, it’s a bit odd how it’s silent when the companies have investments in it. Epic’s CEO says that the 30% is permissible on games consoles because they’re sold below cost and there are “tremendous marketing campaigns”. Hmm.
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Research report on coronavirus fake news gets misreported by media • Mark Pak

Mark was suspicious about the BBC report last week on thousands of people dying from social media dis/misinformation about Covid-19:

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Here is the relevant part of that article:

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A popular myth that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus was circulating in different parts of the world. Following this misinformation, approximately 800 people have died, whereas 5,876 have been hospitalized and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus.

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That 5,876 figure is the origin of the 5,800 figure in the news reports. But note, it’s only the death toll from the one very specific piece of fake news: drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus. Nor is it a figure about social media specifically. It’s a hospitalisation total for that myth, however it spread. Social media almost certainly played a big part in it spreading, but there’s no attempt to isolate its impact from other sources of spreading.

What’s more, go to the footnotes for this figure and they are all sources that refer to Iran. It looks like the figure is specifically for the one country, not a global one. For example, one of the cited sources is this Al Jazeera story: “Iran: Over 700 dead after drinking alcohol to cure coronavirus”.

So we have a figure for hospitalisations due to one myth in one country that has ended up being reported as a global figure for myths on social media specifically.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified