Start Up No.1,106: the apps exploiting children, social ads for good, YouTube’s febrile phase, what climate scientists do (and don’t) do, and more


The BBC’s got a plan which would automatically tailor iPlayer content to users – and much more. CC-licensed photo by Barnaby_S on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Finally up to speed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I used Google ads for social engineering. It worked • The New York Times

Patrick Berlinquette:

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You don’t have to be a marketer with years of experience to do this. You just need to follow the instructions and put up a credit card (a few hundred bucks will suffice).

Recently, I followed the [Google] blueprint [used against people searching for Isis propaganda] and created a redirect campaign of my own.

The first step was to identify the problem I wanted to address. I thought about Kevin Hines and how his fate might have changed if cellphones with Google had existed back in 2000 when he tried to take his own life.

Could Kevin [Hines, who tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge] have been redirected? Could he have been persuaded — by a few lines of ad copy and a persuasive landing page — not to jump? I wondered if I could redirect the next Kevin Hines. The goal of my first redirect campaign was to sway the ideology of suicidal people.

The problem my campaign addressed: Suicidal people are underserved on Google. In 2010, Google started making the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline the top result of certain searches relating to suicide. It also forced autocomplete not to finish such searches.

The weakness of Google’s initiative is that not enough variations of searches trigger the hotline. A search for “I am suicidal” will result in the hotline. But a search for “I’m going to end it” won’t always. “I intend to die” won’t ever. A lot of “higher-funnel” searches don’t trigger the hotline.

I hoped my redirect campaign would fill the gap in Google’s suicide algorithm. I would measure my campaign’s success by how many suicidal searchers clicked my ad and then called the number on my website, which forwarded to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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Object-Based Media • BBC R&D

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Object-based media allows the content of programmes to change according to the requirements of each individual audience member.

The ‘objects’ refer to the different assets that are used to make a piece of content. These could be large objects: the audio and video used for a scene in a drama – or small objects, like an individual frame of video, a caption, or a signer.

By breaking down a piece of media into separate objects, attaching meaning to them, and describing how they can be rearranged, a programme can change to reflect the context of an individual viewer.

We think this approach has potential to transform the way content is created and consumed: bringing efficiencies and creative flexibility to production teams, enabling them to deliver a personalised BBC to every member of our audience…

My Forecast
When I watch the weather forecast on iPlayer, I can choose to replace the speaking presenter with a signing one. Because it knows me, iPlayer gives me a signer as default. It syncs with my calendar, knows where I’m planning to go in the next week, and gives me hyper-local forecasts. Ideal for planning my festival wardrobe for Radio 1’s Big Weekend!

Eastenders Catch-up
I love EastEnders but with four episodes a week there’s a lot to catch up on after a fortnight in the sun. iPlayer knows what I’ve missed and it creates a catch-up episode of Enders just for me. All the juicy bits are there and I’m up to speed in 30 minutes instead of two hours.

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Those are just two – the article points to plenty more things they can do. This is hugely ambitious, and they’re envisaging doing them within three years. Amazing if they can.
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Kids’ apps are filled with manipulative ads, according to a new study • Vox

Chavie Lieber:

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suddenly, the game is interrupted. A bubble pops up with a new mini game idea, and when a child clicks on the bubble, they are invited to purchase it for $1.99, or unlock all new games for $3.99. There’s a red X button to cancel the pop-up, but if the child clicks on it, the character on the screen shakes its head, looks sad, and even begins to cry.

The game, developed by the Slovenian software company Bubadu and intended for kids as young as 6, is marketed as “educational” because it teaches kids about different types of medical treatments.

But it’s structured so that the decision to not buy anything from the game is wrong; the child is shamed into thinking they’ve done something wrong. Pulling such a move on a young gamer raises troubling ethical questions, especially as children’s gaming apps — and advertising within them — have become increasingly popular.

On Tuesday, a group of 22 consumer and public health advocacy groups sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling on the organization to look into the questionable practices of the children’s app market. The letter asks the FTC to investigate apps that “routinely lure young children to make purchases and watch ads” and hold the developers of these games accountable.

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Mozilla: No plans to enable DNS-over-HTTPS by default in the UK • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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After the UK’s leading industry group of internet service providers named Mozilla an “Internet Villain” because of its intentions to support a new DNS security protocol named DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH) inside Firefox, the browser maker told ZDNet that such plans don’t currently exist.

“We have no current plans to enable DoH by default in the UK,” a spokesperson ZDNet last night.

The browser maker’s decision comes after both ISPs and the UK government, through MPs and GCHQ have criticized Mozilla and fellow browser maker Google during the last two months for their plans to support DNS-over-HTTPS.

The technology, if enabled, would thwart the ability of some internet service providers to sniff customer traffic in order to block users from accessing bad sites, such as those hosting copyright-infringing materials, child abuse images, and extremist material.

UK ISPs block websites at the government requests; they also block other sites voluntarily at the request of various child protection groups, and they block adult sites as part of parental controls options they provide to their customers.

Not all UK ISPs will be impacted by Mozilla and Google supporting DNS-over-HTTPS, as some use different technologies to filter customers’ traffic…

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This is the story which came out horrendously confused in the Sunday Times about three months ago, talking about “plans to encrypt Chrome”, which left everyone who understands what the words actually mean puzzled.
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The fight for the future of YouTube • The New Yorker

Neima Jahromi:

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Francesca Tripodi, a media scholar at James Madison University, has studied how right-wing conspiracy theorists perpetuate false ideas online. Essentially, they find unfilled rabbit holes and then create content to fill them. “When there is limited or no metadata matching a particular topic,” she told a Senate committee in April, “it is easy to coördinate around keywords to guarantee the kind of information Google will return.” Political provocateurs can take advantage of data vacuums to increase the likelihood that legitimate news clips will be followed by their videos. And, because controversial or outlandish videos tend to be riveting, even for those who dislike them, they can register as “engaging” to a recommendation system, which would surface them more often. The many automated systems within a social platform can be co-opted and made to work at cross purposes.

Technological solutions are appealing, in part, because they are relatively unobtrusive. Programmers like the idea of solving thorny problems elegantly, behind the scenes. For users, meanwhile, the value of social-media platforms lies partly in their appearance of democratic openness. It’s nice to imagine that the content is made by the people, for the people, and that popularity flows from the grass roots.

In fact, the apparent democratic neutrality of social-media platforms has always been shaped by algorithms and managers. In its early days, YouTube staffers often cultivated popularity by hand, choosing trending videos to highlight on its home page; if the site gave a leg up to a promising YouTuber, that YouTuber’s audience grew. By spotlighting its most appealing users, the platform attracted new ones. It also shaped its identity: by featuring some kinds of content more than others, the company showed YouTubers what kind of videos it was willing to boost. “They had to be super family friendly, not copyright-infringing, and, at the same time, compelling,” Schaffer recalled, of the highlighted videos.

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Long, and absorbing; with the telling phrase that one ex-YouTube staffer “told me that hate speech had been a problem on YouTube since its earliest days.”
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BA hit by biggest GDPR fine to date • Financial Times

Chris Nuttall:

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The UK Information Commissioner’s Office says it intends to fine BA £183m (€204m, $229m) — 1.5% of BA’s worldwide turnover in 2017 — after it admitted that more than half a million customers’ data had been stolen by hackers last August from its website and mobile app.

Under pre-GDPR powers, the maximum penalty was £500,000 but this has now risen to up to 4% of turnover. In the first nine months of GDPR, national data protection agencies in 11 countries had levied a total of €56m in fines, made up mostly of a €50m fine that France’s CNIL imposed on Google in January.

The ICO said poor security arrangements at BA had given hackers access to personal data, including customer logins, payment card details, travel bookings and name and address information. BA will be able to make representations to the ICO over the finding and fine.

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This, you’ll recall, was the remarkably clever Magecart scam, which replaced an innocent script from the BA baggage handling site to steal peoples’ credit card and other details when they paid for flights. Then BA found a second hacking script on the site, announced in October.
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Over 1,300 Android apps scrape personal data regardless of permissions • TechRadar

David Lumb:

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Researchers at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) created a controlled environment to test 88,000 apps downloaded from the US Google Play Store. They peeked at what data the apps were sending back, compared it to what users were permitting and – surprise – 1,325 apps were forking over specific user data they shouldn’t have.

Among the test pool were “popular apps from all categories,” according to ICSI’s report. 

The researchers disclosed their findings to both the US Federal Trade Commission and Google (receiving a bug bounty for their efforts), though the latter stated a fix would only be coming in the full release of Android Q, according to CNET.

Before you get annoyed at yet another unforeseen loophole, those 1,325 apps didn’t exploit a lone security vulnerability – they used a variety of angles to circumvent permissions and get access to user data, including geolocation, emails, phone numbers, and device-identifying IMEI numbers.

One way apps determined user locations was to get the MAC addresses of connected WiFi base stations from the ARP cache, while another used picture metadata to discover specific location info even if a user didn’t grant the app location permissions. The latter is what the ICSI researchers described as a “side channel” – using a circuitous method to get data.

They also noticed apps using “covert channels” to snag info: third-party code libraries developed by a pair of Chinese companies secretly used the SD card as a storage point for the user’s IMEI number. If a user allowed a single app using either of those libraries access to the IMEI, it was automatically shared with other apps.

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Android Q isn’t going to be universally adopted by any means. Data leaks are going to go on.
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No flights, a four-day week and living off-grid: what climate scientists do at home to save the planet • The Guardian

Alison Green is one of many academics interviewed for this piece:

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In July 2018, I came across Prof Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper, which was going viral online. Here was someone with credibility and a good track record who, having studied the science, was saying that we’re no longer looking at mitigation, we’re looking at adaptation; that societal collapse is inevitable.

People are starting to talk about the kind of spiritual awakening you get in these situations: an “ecophany”. I concluded that banging on about climate change on social media was not enough, and became involved with grassroots activism. Being a vice-chancellor no longer meant anything to me. I gave up my career, and I’m so much happier as a result. Now I talk at conferences and events about the need for urgent action and I have taken part in direct actions with Extinction Rebellion, including the closing of five London bridges last November and speaking in Parliament Square during the April rebellion.

The science shows that societal collapse could be triggered by any one of a number of things, and once triggered, it could happen quite quickly. I suppose I’m being protective towards my four children, aged between 16 and 24, but in the event, I feel I need to be somewhere where I’m growing my own food, living in an eco-house, trying to live off-grid. It would give me some security; I don’t feel secure where I live in Cambridge at the moment – I’m concerned by thoughts like, “What would happen if I turned the tap on and there was no water?”. On our current trajectory, cities will not necessarily be safe places in the future – possibly within my own lifetime, certainly within my children’s.

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Societal collapse. Just a phrase to roll around your head.
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Europe built a system to fight Russian meddling. It’s struggling • The New York Times

Matt Apuzzo:

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Efforts to identify and counter disinformation have proven not only deeply complicated, but also politically charged.

The new Rapid Alert System — a highly touted network to notify governments about Russian efforts before they metastasized as they did during the 2016 American elections — is just the latest example.

Working out of a sixth-floor office suite in downtown Brussels this spring, for example, European analysts spotted suspicious Twitter accounts pushing disinformation about an Austrian political scandal. Just days before the European elections, the tweets showed the unmistakable signs of Russian political meddling.

So European officials prepared to blast a warning on the alert system. But they never did, as they debated whether it was serious enough to justify sounding an alarm. In fact, even though they now speak of spotting “continued and sustained disinformation activity from Russian sources,” they never issued any alerts at all.

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“Struggling”, in the headline, is generous.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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Start Up No.1,105: Alaska overheats, machines search for new theories, Google ticked off in NZ, ransomware’s new targets, and more


Jony Ive’s designs have influenced a lot of others. What do we think? CC-licensed photo by Duncan Rawlinson – Duncan.co on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. Not speeded up. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

With little training, machine-learning algorithms can uncover hidden scientific knowledge • Techxplore

:

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Sure, computers can be used to play grandmaster-level chess (chess_computer), but can they make scientific discoveries? Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have shown that an algorithm with no training in materials science can scan the text of millions of papers and uncover new scientific knowledge.

A team led by Anubhav Jain, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Storage & Distributed Resources Division, collected 3.3 million abstracts of published materials science papers and fed them into an algorithm called Word2vec. By analyzing relationships between words the algorithm was able to predict discoveries of new thermoelectric materials years in advance and suggest as-yet unknown materials as candidates for thermoelectric materials.

“Without telling it anything about materials science, it learned concepts like the periodic table and the crystal structure of metals,” said Jain. “That hinted at the potential of the technique. But probably the most interesting thing we figured out is, you can use this algorithm to address gaps in materials research, things that people should study but haven’t studied so far.”

…”The paper establishes that text mining of scientific literature can uncover hidden knowledge, and that pure text-based extraction can establish basic scientific knowledge,” said [Gerbrand] Ceder, who also has an appointment at UC Berkeley’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering

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What happens when the machines start finding out things that we can’t understand? What do we do with that discovered knowledge? Happened with Go, happening with chess.
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Google accused of ‘flipping the bird’ at New Zealand laws after Grace Millane murder • The Guardian

Charles Anderson:

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Tech giant Google has been accused of “flipping the bird” at New Zealand laws by refusing to change company policy after it broke suppression orders related to the murder case of British backpacker Grace Millane.

Last December, a 27-year-old Auckland man appeared in the city’s high court charged with murdering Millane. His name was suppressed but it appeared in Google’s “what’s trending in New Zealand” email that went out to thousands of subscribers.

Millane, 22, from Essex, vanished in Auckland in December. Her body was later found in the Waitākere Ranges, west of the city.

Google executives met with New Zealand justice minister Andrew Little in Wellington to discuss the suppression breach, and assured the minister and prime minister Jacinda Ardern the issue would be dealt with.

However, when justice officials followed up with Google in March and again this week, the company said it had no plans to make changes. Little released an email from Google’s New Zealand government affairs manager Ross Young on Wednesday.

“We have looked at our systems and it appears that last year’s situation was relatively unique as it was a high-profile case involving a person from overseas, which was extensively reported by overseas media,” the email read…

…[Little said:] “In the end, Google is effectively acting as a publisher and publishing material that is under suppression orders in New Zealand, and they cannot and should not be allowed to get away with that.”

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Interesting question. Google Alerts simply take a headline (and excerpt) of content that’s already around. Is that publishing? Of course it is: news organisations republish content from Reuters and Associated Press all the time. The difference is that news orgs take some care about what they put out. Google’s learning that the hard way.
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Google still keeps a list of everything you ever bought using Gmail, even if you delete all your emails • CNBC

Todd Haselton:

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In May, I wrote up something weird I spotted on Google’s account management page. I noticed that Google uses Gmail to store a list of everything you’ve purchased, if you used Gmail or your Gmail address in any part of the transaction.

If you have a confirmation for a prescription you picked up at a pharmacy that went into your Gmail account, Google logs it. If you have a receipt from Macy’s, Google keeps it. If you bought food for delivery and the receipt went to your Gmail, Google stores that, too.

You get the idea, and you can see your own purchase history by going to Google’s Purchases page.

Google says it does this so you can use Google Assistant to track packages or reorder things, even if that’s not an option for some purchases that aren’t mailed or wouldn’t be reordered, like something you bought a store.

At the time of my original story, Google said users can delete everything by tapping into a purchase and removing the Gmail. It seemed to work if you did this for each purchase, one by one. This isn’t easy — for years worth of purchases, this would take hours or even days of time.

So, since Google doesn’t let you bulk-delete this purchases list, I decided to delete everything in my Gmail inbox. That meant removing every last message I’ve sent or received since I opened my Gmail account more than a decade ago.

Despite Google’s assurances, it didn’t work.

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Google begins showing British Android users rival search engines to appease EU regulators • Daily Telegraph

Margi Murphy:

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Google has begun asking British smartphone users whether they would like to switch to rival search engines in a bid to appease European regulators.

Android users will now have the option to go online using search engines such as Microsoft’s Bing, Yahoo or privacy-focused Google critic DuckDuckGo.

Google hopes the tactic will brush off any further advances from the European Commission, which delivered it a record €4.34bn fine (£3.9 bn) for being anticompetitive in July 2018. 

The European Commission’s competition chief Margrethe Vestager said it was wrong for Google to require Android manufacturers to install Google’s search app and Chrome browser app as a condition for licensing Google’s app store.

 While she acknowledged that Google didn’t prevent customers from using other search engines, she said that only 1pc of Android users chose to do so…

…“Once you have it, it is working, very few are curious enough to look for another search app or browser,” said Vestager.

At the time, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said the decision rejected “the business model that supports Android, which has created more choice for everyone, not less”.

Google’s web browser Chrome has always appeared as the default. Now, Android users are being asked whether they would like to download one different apps offering the same service instead.

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Hang on, though. Other browsers offer Google as the default search engine. What if people were assigned a search engine randomly?
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For better and worse, we live in Jony Ive’s world • The New Yorker

Nikil Saval:

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The archetypal telephone, the Model 500, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, had a clunking rotary dial, a heavy base, and a coiled cord that connected to a curved handset. It had, surprisingly, some mobility: you could hold the base of the phone in one hand, ideally with your middle and ring fingers, while walking around a room to the extent that the connection to the copper-wire outlet would allow. But it was the handset that was the product’s masterpiece. Molding itself to your hand and also to the crook between your shoulder and ear, it was a perfect instantiation of how a designer could shape everyday technology to the form of the human body, while anticipating the instincts—such as the desire to speak hands-free—that would guide the use of that technology.

The Apple iPhone, in the various iterations that the industrial designer Jony Ive produced, is the opposite. Few objects so continuously in use by human beings are as hostile to the human body as this slim, black, fragile slab, recalcitrant to any curve of head or shoulder or even palm, where it usually rests. It is made for a world without liquids, secretions, or hard surfaces, all of which threaten its destruction. Except for the curve of the edges, where the bevel of the glass screen has been painstakingly fused to the phone’s body, it is the shape of a photo, not a face.

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The extent to which Ive’s designs are anti-ergonomic is something that hasn’t been remarked on much, but it seems important. OK, the purpose of a smartphone isn’t to curve around your face; it’s to show you things at arm’s length. But the thrust of this article seems right, to me.
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Jony Ive’s fragmented legacy: unreliable, unrepairable, beautiful gadgets • iFixit

Kyle Wiens runs iFixit:

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Ive succeeded at building on the concepts he celebrated in Rams’ work at a vastly greater scale than anything Braun ever produced. The iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air, the physical Apple Store, even the iconic packaging of Apple products—these products changed how we view and use their categories, or created new categories, and will be with us a long time. And Apple has made a lot of them—they’ve stamped out over one billion iPhones to date, with a current production rate north of 600,000 per day.

Rams loves durable products that are environmentally friendly. That’s one of his 10 principles for good design: “Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment.” But Ive has never publicly discussed the dissonance between his inspiration and Apple’s disposable, glued-together products. For years, Apple has openly combated green standards that would make products easier to repair and recycle, stating that they need “complete design flexibility” no matter the impact on the environment.

Gary Hustwit, the documentarian behind the design-focused films Objectified and Rams, understands Dieter Rams’ conflicted views on Apple’s products better than many alive. “He doesn’t feel like he’s responsible [for consumerism], but I think he definitely feels like he had a role in getting to where we are now…

…It’s a shame that Ive is leaving Apple without reconciling this. His iPod started the practice of gluing in batteries, a technique that initially brought scorn but has since become the industry norm. AirPods channel much of Rams’ design aesthetic, except they have a built-in death clock and stop working after a couple years. The last seven years of Apple laptop designs have pushed the envelope of thinness, sacrificing upgradeability, serviceability, external ports, and usable keyboards along the way.

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Hedge funds are tracking private jets to find the next megadeal • Bloomberg

Justin Bachman:

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In April, a stock research firm told clients that a Gulfstream V owned by Houston-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. had been spotted at an Omaha airport. The immediate speculation was that Occidental executives were negotiating with Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to get financial help in their $38bn offer for rival Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Two days later, Buffett announced a $10bn investment in Occidental.

Where there’s a jet, there’s a data trail, and several “alternative data” firms are keeping tabs on private aircraft for hedge funds and other investors. The data on the Occidental plane came from Quandl Inc., which was acquired by Nasdaq Inc. in December. (Bloomberg LP, which publishes Bloomberg Businessweek, provides clients with reports from another company called JetTrack.)
There’s some evidence that aircraft-tracking can be used to get an early read on corporate news. A 2018 paper from security researchers at the University of Oxford and Switzerland’s federal Science and Technology department, tracked aircraft from three dozen public companies and identified seven instances of mergers-and-acquisitions activity.

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This uses planes’ ADS-B data, which as this other article explains, can be used to track dictators and arms embargo-busters too. (Also: here’s that 2018 paper.)

Should we call this “dark data” – info that’s available to some, but only at a price or to governments?
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Baked Alaska: record heat fuels wildfires and sparks personal fireworks ban • The Guardian

Susie Cagle:

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Alaska is trapped in a kind of hot feedback loop, as the arctic is heating up much faster than the rest of the planet. Ocean surface temperatures upwards of 10F hotter than average have helped to warm up the state’s coasts. When Bering and Chukchi sea ice collapsed and melted months earlier than normal this spring, the University of Alaska climate specialist Rick Thoman characterized the water as “baking”.

“I intentionally try to not be hyperbolic, but what do you say when there’s 10- to 20- degree [ºF] ocean water temperature above normal?” Thoman told the Guardian. “How else do you describe that besides extraordinary?”

The hot water has affected sea birds and marine life, with mass mortality events becoming commonplace in the region. The National Park Service characterizes Alaska’s increasingly frequent sea bird die-offs, called “wrecks”, as “extreme”. “The folks in the communities are saying these animals look like they’ve starved to death,” said Thoman.

Accelerating ice melt stands to put the state’s coastal communities at risk, reshaping food sources the people rely on and the very land on which they live. Where there are no built roads, Alaskans rely on frozen ground as infrastructure for traveling. Less ice means less of the life that’s evolved to depend on that ice, both animal and human.

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I was wondering earlier today what things might have been like if Al Gore had won the 2000 election outright, and begun making significant moves to act on climate. Would this still be happening? Would we feel it was all as impossible to shift as (I think) we do?
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A city paid a hefty ransom to hackers, but its pains are far from over • The New York Times

Frances Robles:

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More than 100 years’ worth of municipal records, from ordinances to meeting minutes to resolutions and City Council agendas, have been locked in cyberspace for nearly a month, hijacked by unidentified hackers who encrypted [Florida’s Lake City] city’s computer systems and demanded more than $460,000 in ransom.

Weeks after the city’s insurer paid the ransom, the phones are back on and email is once again working, but the city has still not recovered all of its files. There is a possibility that thousands of pages of documents that had been painstakingly digitized by Ms. Sikes and her team will have to be manually scanned, again.

Lake City’s troubles are hardly unique. In the past month alone, at least three Florida cities have been victims of ransomware attacks, after intrusions on larger cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Baltimore.

What sets the latest cyberattacks apart is the stunning size of their ransom demands. Riviera Beach, Fla., last month agreed to pay more than $600,000, several times what was asked of Baltimore, which did not have insurance and did not pay. The Village of Key Biscayne, near Miami, has not publicly disclosed whether it plans to pay the perpetrators of a recent ransomware attack. Earlier this year Jackson County, Ga., paid $400,000.

Atlanta’s mayor testified last week to Congress that an attack last year, when the city refused to pay $51,000 in extortion demands, has so far cost the city $7.2m.

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After some years of random phishing, the criminals have figured out that cities have both the resources and the urgent need to pay a sizeable ransom.
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Fake Samsung firmware update app tricks more than 10 million Android users • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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Over ten million users have been duped in installing a fake Samsung app named “Updates for Samsung” that promises firmware updates, but, in reality, redirects users to an ad-filled website and charges for firmware downloads.

“I have contacted the Google Play Store and asked them to consider removing this app,” Aleksejs Kuprins, malware analyst at the CSIS Security Group, told ZDNet today in an interview, after publishing a report on the app’s shady behaviour earlier [on July 4].

The app takes advantage of the difficulty in getting firmware and operating system updates for Samsung phones, hence the high number of users who have installed it.

“It would be wrong to judge people for mistakenly going to the official application store for the firmware updates after buying a new Android device,” the security researcher said. “Vendors frequently bundle their Android OS builds with an intimidating number of software, and it can easily get confusing.”

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Was still there on Friday evening. I think it might have been a mistake to publish his report on a huge public holiday in the US.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,104: Superhuman rows back, Samsung in hot (salt) water, Apple running with scissors?, India’s water problem, and more


A tiny number of YouTube videos get a huge number of views; in theory, it could dump most of them and barely notice the difference. CC-licensed photo by Manuel Cernuda 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. Who’s got the remote? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What content dominates on YouTube? • Pex.com

Rasty Turek:

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Forget the Pareto principe (80/20 rule). YouTube’s distribution is significantly worse. Only 0.64% of all videos ever reach more than 100,000 views.

Why does it matter?


Distribution of views as % of total views on the platform

Because these 0.64% represent an incredible 81.6% of all views on the platform. You read it right. Should YouTube remove 99.36% of all underperforming videos, they would save an astounding amount of money and still retain most of the revenue (especially considering that most of the underperforming videos are on channels that don’t meet monetization criteria).


Distribution of views per category

Music is the only category that consistently attracts hundreds of millions of users to watch the same videos over and over. The first video that ever broke 1B view mark was a music video. The vast majority of videos with over 1B views are music videos.

Not all content is equal.

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Just doing the numbers, 0.64% of all videos (5.2bn of them) is 33.3 million videos. They get 23.6 trillion views.

All the rest – 5.166bn videos – are getting 5.3 trillion views, or an average of a thousand views. And you can bet there’s a Pareto principle, or more, going on there. But of course it wouldn’t dump unwatched videos, and more than Google would limit itself to a single page of search results.
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Read statuses • Superhuman

Rahul Vohra is CEO of Superhuman, the pricey email app which has been getting dinged this week:

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Over the last few days, we have seen four main criticisms of read statuses in Superhuman:

• Location data could be used in nefarious ways
• Read statuses are on by default
• Recipients of emails cannot opt out
• Superhuman users cannot disable remote image loading

On all these, we hear you loud and clear. We are making these changes:
• We have stopped logging location information for new email, effective immediately
• We are releasing new app versions today that no longer show location information
• We are deleting all historical location data from our apps
• We are keeping the read status feature, but turning it off by default. Users who want it will have to explicitly turn it on
• We are prioritizing building an option to disable remote image loading.

«

That was satisfactorily quick. Vohra seems sincere in his apology (though he also points out that other “prosumer” email apps use “read status on by default”.
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D-Link agrees to new security monitoring to settle FTC charges • Ars Technica

:

»

Tuesday’s agreement settles a 2017 complaint by the US Federal Trade Commission that alleged D-Link left thousands of customers open to potentially costly hack attacks. The hardware maker, the FTC said, failed to test its gear against security flaws ranked among the most critical and widespread by the Open Web Application Security Project. The 2017 suit also said that, despite the lack of testing and hardening of its products, D-Link misrepresented its security regimen as reasonable.
Specific shortcomings cited by the FTC included:

• hard-coded login credentials on its D-Link camera software that used easily guessed passwords
• storing mobile app login credentials in human-readable text on a user’s mobile device
• expressly or implicitly describing its hardware as being secure from unauthorized access
• repeatedly failing to take reasonable testing and remediation measures to protect hardware from well-known and easily preventable software security flaws

“We sued D-Link over the security of its routers and IP cameras, and these security flaws risked exposing users’ most sensitive personal information to prying eyes,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a release.

«

There are almost surely more egregious IoT flaws out there, but they simply haven’t come to the FTC’s notice. (Though my current router has had a firmware upgrade available for roughly two years, and I haven’t wanted to install it because, well, it works fine at the moment.)
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Samsung accused of false claims about smartphone water resistance • SamMobile

SamMobile:

»

an IP68 rating certifies that the device can be submerged in 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. However, the official classification mentions that it must be fresh water since the tests for assigning these ratings are conducted in lab conditions. The devices are not tested in a swimming pool or the beach.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s issue is that Samsung’s advertisements show that the devices will be fine with exposure to all types of water, including ocean water and swimming pools, and that they “would not be affected by such exposure to water for the life of the phone.” The claim here is that Samsung showed people in its ads using the devices in pools and beaches even though the IP68 certification explicitly mentions fresh water. It has collected 300 examples of such ads.

The consumer watchdog adds that Samsung has denied warranty claims for customers whose phones were damaged after being used in water. It then points out that Samsung’s own website mentions that the new Galaxy S10 series is “not advised for beach or pool use.” Thus the ACCC is now initiating court action against Samsung and will be seeking penalties.

“Samsung stands by its marketing and advertising of the water resistancy of its smartphones,” the company said in a statement

«

Yeah, good luck with that. The ads are bad enough, but if it denied warranty claims, there’s no defence.
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User Inyerface – A worst-practice UI experiment

»

Hi and welcome to User Inyerface,
a challenging exploration of
user interactions and design patterns.

To play the game, simply fill in the form
as fast and accurate as possible.

«

You didn’t have anything planned for today, right?
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Kuo: Apple to include new scissor switch keyboard in 2019 MacBook Air and 2020 MacBook Pro • 9to5Mac

Benjamin Mayo:

»

Apple is apparently set to ditch the butterfly mechanism used in MacBooks since 2015, which has been the root of reliability issues and its low-travel design has also not been popular with many Mac users.

In a report published today, Ming-Chi Kuo says that Apple will roll out a new keyboard design based on scissor switches, offering durability and longer key travel, starting with the 2019 MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro is also getting the new scissor switch keyboard, but not until 2020.

The new scissor switch keyboard is a whole new design than anything previously seen in a MacBook, purportedly featuring glass fiber to reinforce the keys. Apple fans who have bemoaned the butterfly keyboard should be optimistic about a return to scissor switches.

Kuo says that Apple’s butterfly design was expensive to manufacture due to low yields. The new keyboard is still expected to cost more than an average laptop keyboard, but it should be cheaper than the butterfly components.

Apple has introduced four generations of butterfly keyboards in as many years, attempting to address user complaints about stuck keys, repeated key inputs, and even the loud clackiness of typing when striking each keycap.

«

The butterfly keys have all these problems in use and they have low yields? Those things are Pelion piled on Ossa. (Though I’m hoping my ageing 2012 MacBook Pro will survive long enough to let me skip the whole butterfly age.) But what’s the thinking behind using glass fibre? Is anyone complaining that their keys are breaking?
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Google Translate: In the second half of 2018, Apple removed 517 applications at the request of the Chinese government • VOA China

»

US Apple released a transparency report for the second half of 2018 on Wednesday, revealing that Apple, at the request of the Chinese government, removed 517 applications from China’s “app store” in the second half of last year.

In the report, Apple pointed out that the Chinese government filed a total of 56 requests for Apple to remove applications in the second half of last year, involving 626 applications, and Apple removed 517 of them. In comparison, Apple’s total number of applications requested by the government in the rest of the world is only 117. Apple said that the vast majority of applications that were removed in China were “related to illegal gambling or pornography.”

The report also shows that the Chinese government’s request for Apple to provide personal device information has increased dramatically, including who owns the device and what it is purchased with. The Chinese government requested 137,595 Apple devices in the second half of last year, up from 30,764 in the previous six months, and China’s figure is more than seven times that of the US, far exceeding half of the global total. Apple said the high figure “is mainly due to tax fraud investigations by tax authorities.”

«

The transparency report is here, or just grab the full PDF. Biggest number of “device requests”? Germany. Largest number of “devices specified in requests”? China, by a factor of about 10.
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Why not to use two axes, and what to use instead • Chartable

Lisa Charlotte Rost:

»

We believe that charts with two different y-axes make it hard for most people to intuitively make right statements about two data series. We recommend two alternatives strongly: using two charts instead of one and using indexed charts.

From time to time we get an email asking if it’s possible in Datawrapper to create charts with two different y-axes (also called double Y charts, dual axis charts, dual-scale data charts or superimposed charts). It is not – and we won’t add it any time soon. We’re sorry if that makes our user’s life harder, but we agree with the many chart experts[1] who make cases against dual axis charts. We hope you’ll hear us out.

We will first look at situations when people want to use dual axis charts, then we explain their problems, and afterward we’ll look at four alternatives

«

This blogpost is referenced in the slightly wordier, but not less good (just harder to excerpt) blogpost from the Office for National Statistics on the same topic. When the ONS comes out against dual axis, you know it’s bad.
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India staring at a water apocalypse • Asia Times

Saikat Datta:

»

While the ICIMOD study used climate change data and thousands of reports, another study using spy satellite imagery confirms that the loss to the glaciers has already arrived at an alarming stage. The study, published in the journal Sciences Advance, says that the region is losing 8.3 billion tons of ice every year. The average annual loss of ice between 2000 and 2016 doubled due to climate change. “Himalayan glaciers supply meltwater to densely populated catchments in South Asia,” the study notes, painting a grim picture of the region’s ability to sustain habitats.

If glaciers melting by the year 2100 is bad news, the outlook is worse when it comes to ground water. Himanshu Thakkar, who leads the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) in New Delhi, has been tracking water policies for decades. “Every study on the availability of water has now confirmed that ground water is the biggest source of water in the subcontinent. However, most governments are refusing to accept this as a reality. As a result, we have seen a succession of bad policies that has made matters worse,” he said.

Thakkar was part of a government committee in 2012 set up under the central planning commission, which used to design and implement India’s five-year development plans. Another study headed by noted water and development expert Mihir Shah concluded in 2016 that two-thirds of India’s irrigation needs depended exclusively on ground water.”However, since most of the finances are geared towards surface irrigation methods such as dams and canals, government agencies refuse to accept a scientific fact. As a result we have a slew of bad policies that have no bearing on reality,” Thakkar said.

Ironically, while India is facing one of its worst water crises and the southwest monsoons continue to be delayed, lawmakers who were recently elected in the general election don’t seem concerned.

«

“Government agencies refuse to accept a scientific fact” is going to be written on humanity’s gravestone.
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Facebook resolves day-long outages across Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

»

The issues started around 8AM ET and began slowly clearing up after a couple hours, according to DownDetector, which monitors website and app issues. The errors aren’t affecting all images; many pictures on Facebook and Instagram still load, but others are appearing blank. DownDetector has also received reports of people being unable to load messages in Facebook Messenger.

The outage persisted through mid-day, with Facebook releasing a second statement, where it apologized “for any inconvenience.” Facebook’s platform status website still lists a “partial outage,” with a note saying that the company is “working on a fix that will go out shortly.”

Apps and websites are always going to experience occasional disruptions due to the complexity of services they’re offering. But even when they’re brief, they can become a real problem due to the huge number of users many of these services have. A Facebook outage affects a suite of popular apps, and those apps collectively have billions of users who rely on them.

«

Obviously, this wouldn’t be a problem once all your money and transactions were tied up in a digital currency which relied on Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp to validate and carry them out. Outages would be a thing of the past. Of course. (Interestingly, Apple had a two-hour outage on a number of its iCloud services and Apple Pay on Thursday. Linked to Amazon?)

Related: this week the Talking Politics podcast discusses Libra, Facebook’s digital currency (isn’t really a cryptocurrency). Always worth listening.
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UK regulator proposes ban on crypto-based derivatives • Financial Times

Philip Stafford, Cat Rutter Pooley and Martin Coulter:

»

UK market regulators are planning to ban derivatives on cryptocurrencies for retail investors, warning it is “impossible” to value them reliably, and that trading them is “akin to gambling”.

A paper by the Financial Conduct Authority on Wednesday set out plans to prohibit the sale or marketing of derivatives linked to cryptoassets such as bitcoin and ethereum from early next year.

An 18-month study of the market by the watchdog concluded that cryptocurrencies could not be valued as easily as other volatile assets such as gold or orange juice.

In one example, the FCA found that two analysts using the same pricing model arrived, separately, at bitcoin valuations of $20 and $8,000. “This makes it impossible to reliably value the derivatives contracts . . . linked to them,” the paper said.

The ban would cover futures, options and exchange-traded notes, as well as contracts for difference — seemingly simple products that allow users to bet on whether prices will rise or fall. Consumers would avoid losses of £75m to £234m a year under the ban, the FCA said.

«

That’s also £75m-£234m that the scammers are going to try to get by other means, so watch out.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,103: why San Francisco’s techies hate it, will Boeing need bailing out?, voice’s slow takeoff, iOS13 fixes your gaze, and more


The Met Police’s facial recognition system might struggle with this lineup – but it does with people too. CC-licensed photo by Jason Hickey 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. Rings a bell. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘We all suffer’: why San Francisco techies hate the city they transformed • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

»

A frequent refrain among the more than a dozen tech workers who spoke to the Guardian for this article was that it is not so much the presence of have-nots that is ruining their experience of San Francisco, but an overabundance of haves.

“The housing crisis has a huge negative impact on quality of life because of who it excludes from living near you,” said Simon Willison, a software developer who moved to San Francisco from London five years ago. “When I visit other cities I’m always jealous of their income diversity: that people who have jobs that don’t provide a six-digit salary can afford to live and work and be happy.”

“Even though people think there is diversity in the city, there isn’t really,” said Adrianna Tan, a senior product manager at a tech startup who moved to San Francisco from Singapore. “Sure, you get people from all over the world, but the only ones who can move here now come from the same socio-economic class.”

“I feel like San Francisco is between Seattle and New York, but rather than the best of both, it’s the worst of both,” said Beth, a 24-year-old product manager who asked not to be identified by her real name. Beth moved to the city directly after graduating from Stanford to work at a major tech company, but recently transferred to Seattle. “Everyone I met was only interested in their jobs, and their jobs weren’t very interesting,” she said of her time in San Francisco. “I get it, you’re a developer for Uber, I’ve met a million of you.”

«

Fantastic article. Read it all.
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81% of ‘suspects’ flagged by Met’s police facial recognition technology innocent, independent report says • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe and Alexander J Martin:

»

Four out of five people identified by the Metropolitan Police’s facial recognition technology as possible suspects are innocent, according to an independent report.

Researchers found that the controversial system is 81% inaccurate – meaning that, in the vast majority of cases, it flagged up faces to police when they were not on a wanted list.

The force maintains its technology only makes a mistake in one in 1,000 cases – but it uses a different measurement to arrive at this conclusion.

The report, exclusively revealed by Sky News and The Guardian, raises “significant concerns” about Scotland Yard’s use of the technology, and calls for the facial recognition programme to be halted.

Citing a range of technical, operational and legal issues, the report concludes that it is “highly possible” the Met’s usage of the system would be found unlawful if challenged in court.

«

If you feel like doing some reading, here’s the full report. From the descriptions in it, the police are clearly fudging their figures.
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The coming Boeing bailout? • Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller writes about monopolies and industrial concentration:

»

Bad procurement is one reason (aside from military officials going into defense contracting work) why military products are often poor quality or deficient. For instance, the incredibly expensive joint strike fighter F-35 is a mess, and the Navy’s most expensive aircraft carrier, costing $13bn, was recently delivered without critical elevators to lift bombs into fighter jets. Much of this dynamic exists because of a lack of competition in contracting for major systems, a result of the consolidation [DoD official Bill] Perry pushed [on military contractors] in the early 1990s. Monopolies don’t have to produce good quality products, and often don’t.

At any rate, when McDonnell Douglas took over Boeing, the military procurement guys took over aerospace production and design. The company began a radical outsourcing campaign, done for political purposes. In defense production, plants went to influence Senators and Congressmen; in civilian production, Boeing started moving production to different countries in return for airline purchases from the national airlines.

Engineers immediately recognized this offshoring as a disaster in the making. In 2001, a Boeing employee named L. Hart Smith published a paper criticizing the business strategy behind offshoring production, noting that vital engineering tasks were being done in ways that seemed less costly but would end up destroying the company. He was quickly proved right.

«

A good view on what’s been going on at Boeing to make the 737 Max calamity inevitable.
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Alexa, is voice still the next big thing after mobile? • The Information

Priya Anand:

»

“I haven’t heard a mass market groundswell of consumers saying, ‘I will not buy Product X if it doesn’t have “Works with Google” or Alexa integration.’ It’s a feature and nice to have for a% of people,” said Niccolo de Masi, the chief innovation officer of Resideo, a maker of connected thermostats, security systems and other products. “It hasn’t tipped into being a mass market thing.”

Some companies have put Alexa, including the microphones and speakers necessary to communicate with the assistant, directly into their products. In January, Kohler, the manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom fixtures, unveiled an Alexa-enabled toilet that starts at $8,000—which will be available for purchase in 2020—with speakers and lights that can be controlled by voice commands. It also put Alexa into a $1,465 mirror, allowing people to “ask to adjust the lights to the ideal brightness for any grooming activity, play music, get the weather, tell a joke, and more,” as it says in an online brochure for the product.

A person familiar with Kohler’s sales figures said early demand for the mirror was below its expectations. That may partly be due to the fact that Amazon’s least expensive Alexa device, the Echo Dot, sells for a tiny fraction of the mirror. “They’re competing with a $30 device that’s being sold at cost and that’s really hard to do unless there’s some killer use case,” the person familiar with Kohler’s efforts said.

«

As Benedict Evans said some while back, the problem with voice is that it’s like the terminal line: it doesn’t show you what the affordances of the interface are. What can you say? How do you have to say it? What feedback does it give you on errors? If you’ve never used a terminal line, you won’t know the stark horror of facing the implacable blinking cursor and trying to work out how to coax it into life. But just imagine trying to work out how to order something different by voice, and you can see it.
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Amazon confirms it keeps your Alexa recordings basically forever • Ars Technica

Kate Cox:

»

Amazon has confirmed it hangs on to every conversation you’ve ever had with an Alexa-enabled device until or unless you specifically delete them.

That confirmation comes as a response to a list of questions Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) sent to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in May expressing “concerns” about how Amazon uses and retains customers’ Alexa voice assistant data.

Amazon’s response to Coons, as first reported by CNET, confirms that the company keeps your data as long as it wants unless you deliberately specify otherwise.

“We retain customers’ voice recordings and transcripts until the customer chooses to delete them,” Amazon said—but even then there are exceptions.

Amazon, as well as third parties that deploy “skills” on the Alexa platform, keep records of interactions customers have with Alexa, the company said. If, for example, you order a pizza, purchase digital content, summon a car from a ride-hailing service, or place an Amazon order, “Amazon and/or the applicable skill developer obviously need to keep a record of the transaction,” Amazon said, without clarifying the specific kind of data that’s in that record.

«

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Samsung Galaxy Fold: the foldable phone is about to launch • Bloomberg

Sam Kim and Sohee Kim:

»

Samsung Electronics Co. has completed a two-month redesign of the Galaxy Fold to fix embarrassing screen failures that forced its delay, people familiar with the matter say, allowing the Korean giant to debut its marquee smartphone in time for the crucial holiday season.

The world’s largest smartphone maker is now in the final stages of producing a commercial version but can’t yet pin down a date to begin sales, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified describing an internal effort. Samsung pulled the device after several publications including Bloomberg News reported problems with test versions, such as screen malfunctions that emerged after a film on the display was peeled off.

Korea’s biggest company is trying to move past yet another product faux pas. It has now stretched the protective film to wrap around the entire screen and flow into the outer bezels so it would be impossible to peel off by hand, said the people, who have seen the latest versions. It re-engineered the hinge, pushing it slightly upward from the screen (it’s now flush with the display) to help stretch the film further when the phone opens.

«

So the first Galaxy Fold that people buy will be the Galaxy Fold 2. All the people whothumped their money down for the first, unreleased, one should count themselves lucky. And still no date. I wonder if Huawei’s problems have eased the pressure on Samsung to get this out of the door.
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Apple’s iOS 13 update will make FaceTime eye contact way easier • TechCrunch

Darrell Etherington:

»

Apple has added a feature called “FaceTime Attention Correction” to the latest iOS 13 Developer beta, and it looks like it could make a big difference when it comes to actually making FaceTime calls feel even more like talking to someone in person. The feature, spotted in the third beta of the new software update that went out this week, apparently does a terrific job of making it look like you’re looking directly into the camera even when you’re looking at the screen during a FaceTime call.

That’s actually a huge improvement, because when people FaceTime, most of the time they’re looking at the screen rather than the camera, since the whole point is to see the person or people you’re talking to, rather than the small black lens at the top of your device.

The catch so far seems to be that this FaceTime feature is only available on iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, which could mean it only works with the latest camera tech available on Apple hardware.

«

Well, when it’s introduced it will work with the latest *and* last year’s phones, but anyway. It’s optional (you choose whether your eyes are redirected) and works, it seems, by making an augmented reality depth map of your face and adjusting where it shows your eyes. Finally, a use for AR! Though I saw a discussion on Twitter of whether this would lead to strange effects because you’d seem to be gazing at the other person all the time, which we interpret differently depending on our gender.
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iOS 13 beta 3 suggests new wired method for transferring data between devices • 9to5Mac

Guilherme Rambo:

»

While looking into the code changes between iOS 13 beta 2 and iOS 13 beta 3, we noticed some new assets in the Setup app – which runs when you set up a new device for the first time or after a reset. These new assets could suggest that Apple is working on a new way to transfer data between devices.

Currently, when you set up a new iOS device, you can restore it from an iTunes backup or from an iCloud backup. The second option can be sped up by having another iOS device next to the new one, logged in to your Apple ID account. This allows your data to be transferred wirelessly.

New assets and strings found in iOS 13 beta 3 suggest Apple is working on a way to transfer data from another iOS device directly, using a cable. One of assets shows an image of two iPhones connected to each other using a cable. It’s unclear how this could be achieved exactly given that current iPhones feature a Lightning port and Apple does not offer a Lightning-to-Lightning cable.

«

Surprised he didn’t say “but you could with a USB-C to USB-C…” Still hard to figure out whether Apple is ready to move to USB-C for its phones, though. The Lightning port has a gigantic installed base (nearly a billion devices?) which only grows with time; while USB-C remains a hot, if slowly improving, mess.
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House lawmakers officially ask Facebook to put Libra cryptocurrency project on hold • The Verge

Makena Kelly:

»

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, hinted at a move like this last month shortly after the project was announced. Waters’s letter today, sent to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, and Calibra CEO David Marcus, formalizes that request from a few weeks ago. Aside from Waters, the letter is signed by House Finance’s subcommittee leaders.

“If products and services like these are left improperly regulated and without sufficient oversight, they could pose systemic risks that endanger U.S. and global financial stability,” Water writes. “These vulnerabilities could be exploited and obscured by bad actors, as other cryptocurrencies, exchanges, and wallets have been in the past.”

Skepticism of the project isn’t only couched in the Democrat-controlled House, either. Senate Banking Chair Mike Crapo (R-ID) scheduled a hearing with Marcus for July 16th, citing concerns over the currency and the potential risks for data privacy it poses. The following day, Waters’s committee will also hold a hearing on the project.

“We look forward to working with lawmakers as this process moves forward, including answering their questions at the upcoming House Financial Services Committee hearing,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Verge Tuesday.

«

Facebook won’t be able to answer their questions, because they have no idea of what systemic risks are really posed by having a billion people swapping in and out of local currencies via bigger ones; if it becomes big enough Libra could be a currency basket with heft enough to dampen other forex markets, and so big enough to determine market rates. But we don’t know. Facebook doesn’t know. Nobody knows.
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Demand grows for tiny phone chargers using ‘new silicon’ • Financial Times

Louise Lucas:

»

A tiny phone, tablet and laptop charger, the first to use gallium nitride rather than silicon chips, has seen sales four times greater than predicted, prompting the Chinese company behind it to try to ramp up production.

Anker, a Shenzhen-based company that specialises in computer and mobile phone accessories, unveiled a line of chargers using gallium nitride (GaN), which conducts electrons 1,000 times faster than silicon, in January.

The use of GaN allowed Anker to virtually halve the size of its charger, while retaining full-speed charging. Another Chinese-owned company, RAVPower, has also started using GaN in its chargers…

Raytheon, the US defence group, said in 2017 that it had spent $300m researching GaN since 1999. Like some of its peers, it uses the material in its active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, which are able to detect stealth fighters at long range.

«

Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of gallium nitride; it seems like the coming thing for high-power applications. But then there’s this, further down the story:

»

Bankers familiar with the deals have said these military applications were at least partly behind Washington’s move to block two bids by Chinese buyers to acquire companies with the technology, Philips’ lighting business and Aixtron, in 2016.

GaN also featured in an official inquiry into the death of 31-year-old engineer Shane Todd, who was found dead in his flat two days after leaving a job at the Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore, where he had been working on the development of GaN.

Several IME employees told the inquiry that the US engineer had been involved in a “potential project” between the IME and Huawei for the development of a GaN amplifier.

«

Todd’s death was a huge topic in 2013; he died in June 2012. Huawei’s revenues really jumped in 2015, two years later.

unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,102: Europe’s heatwave is climate-driven, will Loon balloon?, 4shared shares too much, Facebook and YouTube battle cancer junk, and more


What if Superhuman isn’t such a nice product when it comes to everyone else’s email? CC-licensed photo by elycefeliz on Flickr.

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

Google internet balloon spinoff Loon still looking for its wings • Reuters

Paresh Dave:

»

Google’s bet on balloons to deliver cell service soon faces a crucial test amid doubts about the viability of the technology by some potential customers.

The company behind the effort, Loon says its balloons will reach Kenya in the coming weeks for its first commercial trial. The test with Telkom Kenya, the nation’s No. 3 carrier, will let mountain villagers buy 4G service at market-rate prices for an undefined period. Kenya’s aviation authority said its final approval would be signed this month.

Hatched in 2011, Loon aims to bring connectivity to remote parts of the world by floating solar-powered networking gear over areas where cell towers would be too expensive to build.

Its tennis-court-sized helium balloons have demonstrated utility. Over the last three years, Loon successfully let wireless carriers in Peru and Puerto Rico use balloons for free to supplant cell phone towers downed by natural disasters.

Kenyan officials are enthusiastic as they try to bring more citizens online.

«

Loon is still going? Perhaps the last remaining bonkers moonshot thing around.
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File-storage app 4shared caught serving invisible ads and making purchases without consent • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

»

With more than 100 million installs, file-sharing service 4shared is one of the most popular apps in the Android app store.

But security researchers say the app is secretly displaying invisible ads and subscribes users to paid services, racking up charges without the user’s knowledge — or their permission — collectively costing millions of dollars.

“It all happens in the background… nothing appears on the screen,” said Guy Krief, chief executive of London-based Upstream, which shared its research exclusively with TechCrunch.

The researchers say the app contains suspicious third-party code that allowed the app to automate clicks and make fraudulent purchases. They said the component, built by Hong Kong-based Elephant Data, downloads code which is “directly responsible” for generating the automated clicks without the user’s knowledge. The code also sets a cookie to determine if a device has previously been used to make a purchase, likely as a way to hide the activity.

«

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Rapid results in on climate change and the European heat wave • Ars Technica

Scott Johnson:

»

A team of climate scientists with an established method of rapidly analyzing extreme weather events like this has already taken a look at this heat wave. (The study has yet to be peer-reviewed but follows a protocol which has.) The team’s results give a good idea of the role of climate change in this heat wave.

The first question is how to define this weather event. The scientists decided to go with a human-health-relevant definition of the three-day mean temperature rather than a single daily high. They focused on June temperatures for the whole of France, as well as performing a local-scale analysis for just the city of Toulouse—where much of the team coincidentally happened to be attending a conference on weather extremes at the time.

The analyses look at both changes in past weather data and a host of climate-model simulations. In this case, the data shows a very large increase in heatwaves since the start of the 20th century. Based on the most recent data, this heat wave looks like it is approximately a 30-year event (meaning it has a probability of about 1 in 30 of occurring in a given year).

Around 1900, however, this would have been a much rarer event. The difference means it’s now roughly 100 times more likely to happen in our current, warmer climate. Put another way, the current 30-year heat wave event is a whopping 4°C or so hotter than what would have been a 30-year heat wave at the start of last century. These numbers came out pretty much the same for Toulouse and for France as a whole.

«

Putting more heat into the atmosphere is like putting your chips onto more numbers when you spin the roulette wheel. Your number’s more likely to come up. Not in a good way, though.
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Facebook, YouTube overrun with bogus cancer-treatment claims • WSJ

Daniela Hernandez and Robert McMillan:

»

Now, the companies say they are taking steps to curb such accounts. Facebook last month changed its News Feed algorithms to reduce promotion of posts promising miracle cures or flogging health services, a move that will reduce the number of times they pop up in user feeds, the company says. Some of the affected posts involve a supplement salesman who promotes baking-soda injections as part of cancer treatment.

“Misleading health content is particularly bad for our community,” Facebook said in a blog post announcing the moves.

Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube has been cutting off advertising for bogus cancer-treatment channels, a spokesman said. It is working with medical doctors to identify content promoting unproven claims and medical conspiracy theories and has tweaked its algorithms to reduce the number of times these dubious videos are presented to users.

Facebook and YouTube detailed their recent actions on cancer-related content after the Journal presented them with its findings. Widespread misinformation sometimes appeared alongside ads, videos or pages for proven treatments, the Journal found.

«

Once again, news organisations have to function as the moderator for these networks. It repeats and repeats and repeats.
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Apple to launch tailored iPhone for China: report • Global Times

Huang Ge:

»

Apple Inc will launch a new iPhone tailored for Chinese consumers, media reports said on Monday, a move that industry insiders said showed the US technology giant’s urgency to arrest a sales decline in the domestic market due to mounting cost pressure from the China-US trade war.

The new phone will reportedly remove Face ID, the facial recognition system for the iPhone, and instead employ an under-display fingerprint function, news site caijing.com.cn reported, citing sources on the upstream industry supply chain. An industry insider revealed that this is likely to “save on costs.” 

A structured light laser emitter, the major component of Face ID, would cost several hundred yuan, said a Beijing-based representative who preferred to be anonymous. He told the Global Times on Monday that “only Apple can afford it but that would also affect its sales.”

Apple declined to comment when reached by the Global Times on Monday.

Apple has lost many Chinese users who prefer smartphones priced at around 5,000 yuan ($731), indicated by an increase in purchases of local brands including Huawei, OPPO and Vivo.

Huawei shipped the largest number of phones in the Chinese market with a 34% share in the first quarter, followed by Vivo with 19%, OPPO with 18%, Xiaomi with 12% and Apple with 9%, showed data from the global industry consultancy Counterpoint Research. 

«

First time I’ve heard this rumour. It would be a break from using FaceID, but the price difference might be attractive for Apple and for users. And under-screen fingerprint readers are popular in China.
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Superhuman is Spying on You » Mike Industries

Mike Davidson has been using Superhuman – you know, the $30 per month email service that does it all for you – for a while:

»

when I see great design, I proactively try to spread it as far and wide as possible.

What I see in Superhuman though is a company that has mistaken taking advantage of people for good design. They’ve identified a feature that provides value to some of their customers (i.e. seeing if someone has opened your email yet) and they’ve trampled the privacy of every single person they send email to in order to achieve that. Superhuman never asks the person on the other end if they are OK with sending a read receipt (complete with timestamp and geolocation). Superhuman never offers a way to opt out. Just as troublingly, Superhuman teaches its user to surveil by default. I imagine many users sign up for this, see the feature, and say to themselves “Cool! Read receipts! I guess that’s one of the things my $30 a month buys me.”

When products are introduced into the market with behaviors like this, customers are trained to think they are not just legal but also ethical. They don’t always take the next step and ask themselves “wait, should I be doing this?” It’s kind of like if you walked by someone’s window at night and saw them naked. You could do one of two things: a) look away and get out of there, realizing you saw something that person wouldn’t want you to see, or b) keep staring, because if they really didn’t want anyone to see them, they should have closed their blinds. It’s two ways of looking at the world, and Superhuman is not just allowing for option B but actively causing it to happen.

«

Tracking pixels like that aren’t unique to Superhuman; PR companies use them all the time, and others too. But that’s different, as Davidson explains. He deals with peoples’ responses in his blogpost (including one from an investor in Superhuman), and its legal boilerplate. In short: Superhuman has been milkshake ducked.
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Chinese border guards put secret surveillance app on tourists’ phones • The Guardian

Hilary Osborne:

»

The Chinese government has curbed freedoms in the province for the local Muslim population, installing facial recognition cameras on streets and in mosques and reportedly forcing residents to download software that searches their phones.

An investigation by the Guardian and international partners has found that travellers are being targeted when they attempt to enter the region from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Border guards are taking their phones and secretly installing an app that extracts emails, texts and contacts, as well as information about the handset itself.

Tourists say they have not been warned by authorities in advance or told about what the software is looking for, or that their information is being taken.

The investigation, with partners including Süddeutsche Zeitung and the New York Times, has found that people using the remote Irkeshtam border crossing into the country are routinely having their phones screened by guards.

Edin Omanović, of the campaign group Privacy International, described the findings as “highly alarming in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land you in a detention camp”.

Analysis by the Guardian, academics and cybersecurity experts suggests the app, designed by a Chinese company, searches Android phones against a huge list of content that the authorities view as problematic.

«

For iPhones, they’re plugged into a reader which scans them. On Android, the app is removed before the phone is given back – but not always. A pervasive connected device means pervasive surveillance.
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China silences podcast and music apps as online crackdown widens • TechCrunch

Rita Liao:

»

Audio apps are flying high in China. In 2018, online listeners in the country grew 22.1% to surpass 400 million, at a rate far exceeding that of the mobile video and e-reading populations, according to market researcher iiMedia.

But the fledgling sector is taking a hit. On Friday, a total of 26 audio-focused apps were ordered to terminate, suspend services, or have talks with regulators as they were investigated and deemed to have spread “historical nihilism” and “pornography,” according to a notice posted by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC).

The clampdown has, in a way, been foreshadowed by a recent attack of user-generated audio content. Last month, Apple restricted Chinese users from accessing podcasts that aren’t hosted by its local partners, effectively preventing those with a Chinese Apple account from consuming content unchecked by Chinese censors.

«

Easy to forget this is happening all the time too.
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Endless AI-generated spam risks clogging up Google’s search results • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

Just take a look at this blog post answering the question: “What Photo Filters are Best for Instagram Marketing?” At first glance it seems legitimate, with a bland introduction followed by quotes from various marketing types. But read a little more closely and you realize it references magazines, people, and — crucially — Instagram filters that don’t exist:

»

You might not think that a mumford brush would be a good filter for an Insta story. Not so, said Amy Freeborn, the director of communications at National Recording Technician magazine. Freeborn’s picks include Finder (a blue stripe that makes her account look like an older block of pixels), Plus and Cartwheel (which she says makes your picture look like a topographical map of a town.

«

The rest of the site is full of similar posts, covering topics like “How to Write Clickbait Headlines” and “Why is Content Strategy Important?” But every post is AI-generated, right down to the authors’ profile pictures. It’s all the creation of content marketing agency Fractl, who says it’s a demonstration of the “massive implications” AI text generation has for the business of search engine optimization, or SEO.

“Because [AI systems] enable content creation at essentially unlimited scale, and content that humans and search engines alike will have difficulty discerning […] we feel it is an incredibly important topic with far too little discussion currently,” Fractl partner Kristin Tynski tells The Verge.

To write the blog posts, Fractl used an open source tool named Grover, made by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Tynski says the company is not using AI to generate posts for clients, but that this doesn’t mean others won’t.

«

I’m only slightly surprised nobody has realised this earlier. (Of course the AI-generated blogpost has an AI-generated author pic.) Google must be having meetings about how to tackle it, because it’s surely only a few months away. Philip K Dick’s world of computer-written newspapers feels very close.
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We’re closing the upload beta program. Here’s what artists need to know • Spotify

»

Almost a year ago, we started to beta test a feature that lets independent artists upload their music directly to Spotify. Today, we notified participating artists about our decision to close the beta program, along with how we can help them migrate their music to other distributors over the next month.

The insights and feedback we received from artists in the beta led us to believe:

The most impactful way we can improve the experience of delivering music to Spotify for as many artists and labels as possible is to lean into the great work our distribution partners are already doing to serve the artist community. Over the past year, we’ve vastly improved our work with distribution partners to ensure metadata quality, protect artists from infringement, provide their users with instant access to Spotify for Artists, and more.

The best way for us to serve artists and labels is to focus our resources on developing tools in areas where Spotify can uniquely benefit them — like Spotify for Artists (which more than 300,000 creators use to gain new insight into their audience) and our playlist submission tool (which more than 36,000 artists have used to get playlisted for the very first time since it launched a year ago). We have a lot more planned here in the coming months.

«

Two possible reasons why: 1) it was being used to scam Spotify through songs of minimal length which were then farmed out to bots to “listen” to, thus earning scammers money; 2) record labels didn’t like the idea of being cut out of their normal business. Preventing 1) while trying to make the people in 2) happy probably made Spotify decide that junking it altogether was simpler.

Side note: the URL for this blogpost is the first I recall encountering with an apostrophe. (Take a look.) They’re pretty uncommon in English-language (and for all I know all ASCII) sites.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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

Start Up No.1,101: Evernote’s long goodbye, climate change 30 years on, the racists in the CBP, Cue and Ive and Apple, and more


The current Mac Pro (the new one isn’t on sale yet): a Jony Ive design, or his team? 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 11 links for you. There you go. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A unicorn lost in the Valley, Evernote blows up the ‘fail fast’ gospel • The New York Times

Erin Griffith:

»

In Silicon Valley, the idea that most start-ups won’t make it to a splashy public offering or acquisition is not just understood, but embraced. “Fail fast, fail often” is one of the region’s earliest and best-recognized catchphrases. The implication is that people and companies that don’t find success can transition, efficiently and without stigma, to more promising ventures. But Evernote’s struggles illustrate a harsher truth: For many start-ups of a certain size, failure rarely happens abruptly.

More often, after early momentum wanes, the missteps and bad press accumulate until a company enters a slow, difficult rehabilitation that stretches on for years. But in and around San Francisco, no one likes to talk about getting stuck in start-up purgatory. Once venture capital investors have sunk in considerable sums, they’re willing to let struggling companies flounder for years on the off chance they hit on something big. “They’re not in it for a break-even or a slight loss or a slight gain,” said Jeffrey Cohen, a bankruptcy lawyer at Lowenstein Sandler. “They’re willing to let it ride a little longer to see whether it explodes.”

It’s a common trap for the most recent generation of start-ups, which has been marked by the proliferation of “unicorns” worth $1bn or more. For fledgling companies, taking enough investor money to become one of these magical ungulates was supposed to show customers, employees and the world that they were sure bets — that they were too special and big and valuable to fail. But many companies that chased three-comma valuations are now stuck trying to live up to almost impossible expectations.

«

Marvellous depiction of the slow slide into obscurity. Everything dies, even startups.
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Microsoft’s Ebook apocalypse shows the dark side of DRM • WIRED

Brian Barrett:

»

Microsoft made the announcement in April that it would shutter the Microsoft Store’s books section for good. The company had made its foray into ebooks in 2017, as part of a Windows 10 Creators Update that sought to round out the software available to its Surface line. Relegated to Microsoft’s Edge browser, the digital bookstore never took off. As of April 2, it halted all ebook sales. And starting as soon as this week, it’s going to remove all purchased books from the libraries of those who bought them…

Microsoft will refund customers in full for what they paid, plus an extra $25 if they made annotations or markups. But that provides only the coldest comfort.

“On the one hand, at least people aren’t out the money that they paid for these books. But consumers exchange money for goods because they preferred the goods to the money. That’s what happens when you buy something,” says Aaron Perzanowski, professor at the Case Western University School of Law and coauthor of The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy. “I don’t think it’s sufficient to cover the harm that’s been done to consumers.”

Presumably not many people purchased ebooks from Microsoft; that’s why it’s pulling the plug in the first place. But anyone who did now potentially has to go find those same books again on a new platform, buy them again, and maybe even find a new device to read them on. For certain types of readers, particularly lawyers and academics, markups and annotations can be worth far more than $25. And even if none of that were the case, the move rankles on principle alone.

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Electric cars grab almost half of sales in oil-producing Norway • Reuters

»

Almost half of new cars sold in Norway in the first six months of 2019 were powered by fully electric engines, up from just over a quarter in the same period last year, ensuring the Nordic nation retains its top global ranking in electric vehicle sales.

Tesla’s Model 3 was Norway’s top-selling vehicle, the Norwegian Road Federation (NRF) said when announcing the latest sales data on Monday.

In total, 48.4% of all new cars sold from January to June were electric, surpassing the 31.2% seen for the full year 2018, and making oil-producing Norway the global leader in per-capita electric car sales by a wide margin.

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California was warned about climate change 30 years ago. Now it’s feeling the effects • Los Angeles Times

Julia Rosen:

»

Back in 1989, Californians received a sobering warning: The accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere would likely bring more droughts, floods, fires, and heat waves to the state.

In the thirty years since, those projections of what would happen in a warming world have proven to be remarkably prescient.

“We’ve already observed some of the things we expected in 1989,” said Susan Fischer Wilhelm, a research manager at the California Energy Commission, the agency that compiled the report.

The assessment laid the groundwork for what has arguably become the country’s most ambitious effort to address global warming.

But to many who worked on the report, looking back on it now only underscores how long we’ve waited to act — and how much time has been wasted.

“I felt a sense of pride of being able to participate in something like this, but also a sense of regret for us as a society,” said Les Baxter, who worked on the report as a policy analyst at the CEC and is now vice president of program strategy for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“We’ve known what we need to do and we just keep refusing to do it.”

The report might have remained lost to history if Gary Estes hadn’t been going through boxes in his garage last year and stumbled upon a copy.

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Huawei reprieve: what happens next? • CNBC

Kate Fazzini:

»

The White House and Commerce Department haven’t yet clarified whether the policy will affect Huawei’s use of Google’s Android operating system on many of its mobile devices, or Microsoft’s Windows operating system on its computers.

But a Microsoft spokesperson said the company made “an initial evaluation” of the Commerce Department decision on Huawei and will “to continue to offer Microsoft software updates to customers with Huawei devices.”

“We’re still providing Windows software updates to customers with Huawei laptops,” the spokesperson said.

Google did not immediately respond to comment, and a Huawei spokesperson said the company “had no further details at this time.”

«

OK fine so you’re all as confused as the rest of us. Good to know.
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Inside the secret Border Patrol Facebook group where agents joke about migrant deaths and post sexist memes • ProPublica

A.C. Thompson:

»

ProPublica received images of several recent discussions in the 10-15 Facebook group and was able to link the participants in those online conversations to apparently legitimate Facebook profiles belonging to Border Patrol agents, including a supervisor based in El Paso, Texas, and an agent in Eagle Pass, Texas. ProPublica has so far been unable to reach the group members who made the postings.

ProPublica contacted three spokespeople for CBP in regard to the Facebook group and provided the names of three agents who appear to have participated in the online chats. CBP hasn’t yet responded.

“These comments and memes are extremely troubling,” said Daniel Martinez, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who studies the border. “They’re clearly xenophobic and sexist.”

The postings, in his view, reflect what “seems to be a pervasive culture of cruelty aimed at immigrants within CBP. This isn’t just a few rogue agents or ‘bad apples.’”

«

In Trump’s administration, that sort of thing will make them more, not less, employable. A reminder: dehumanising fellow human beings is a key step towards fascism.
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Jony Ive is leaving Apple, but his departure started long ago • WSJ

Tripp Mickle says that this story follows conversations over “more than a year” with people who worked with Ive and “people close to” Apple’s leadership:

»

Mr. Ive had been growing more distant from Apple’s leadership, say people close to the company. Mr. Jobs’s protégé—and Apple’s closest thing to a living embodiment of his spirit—grew frustrated inside a more operations-focused company led by Chief Executive Tim Cook.

Mr. Ive, 52, withdrew from routine management of Apple’s elite design team, leaving it rudderless, increasingly inefficient, and ultimately weakened by a string of departures, people close to the company say.

The internal drama explains a lot about Apple’s dilemma. Its one major new product of the post-Jobs era, the Apple Watch, made its debut five years ago. Its iPhone business is faltering, and more recent releases like its wireless AirPods haven’t been enough to shore up falling sales. It hasn’t had a megahit new product since the iPad that started selling in 2010…

…At a meeting with members of the watch team, [Ive] thanked them for their work, and said 2014 had been one of his most challenging years at Apple. The company sold about 10 million units in the first year, a quarter of what Apple forecast, a person familiar with the matter said. Thousands of the gold [Edition] version went unsold.

«

There’s a terrific podcast hosted by John Gruber, guest Ben Thompson, which runs over Ive’s importance and the questions that arise over his leaving. Gruber has the contacts, Thompson has the insight. (Hardware matters less at the modern Apple than in the past, for example.) The feeling is that Ive, like Jobs, wants to leave a permanent mark on the world. Apple Park – his last design job at Apple – is definitely a start.

What’s odd is if Mickle had been talking to people for a year, why he didn’t write it a week ago, before the announcement? Though sometimes the story only emerges in retrospect. But such fascinating questions: did Ive drive the design of the “trashcan” Mac Pro? Of the AirPods? Of the new Mac Pro? (Probably not.) The butterfly keyboard? Where do we discern the end of his reign?
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Can Apple hack it in Hollywood? We talk to the man behind Apple TV+ • British GQ

Stuart McGurk:

»

Cue himself is something of an Apple lifer, having joined the company in 1989. It was Steve Jobs who spotted his potential and over the years Cue has been responsible for everything from creating the App Store to the acquisition of Beats Audio.

What are his main memories of Jobs?

“Someone I loved dearly as a friend. So when you ask that question to me it’s a personal question. He was obviously an incredible boss. I had the greatest mentor in the world.”

Cue says he didn’t realise it at the time – “I was young” – but that one of the greatest things to happen to Apple was Jobs getting fired in 1985 by then-CEO John Sculley.

“Because when he came back, one of the things that he wanted to do is create a company that would outlast him and could live for hundreds of years.”

He was really thinking in terms of centuries?

“He absolutely was. And he put people in place and created a culture that he thought would do that. But obviously he was taken way too early. I figured I’d be walking out of Apple the same day he was walking out of Apple.”

He does not much rate the portraits of Jobs that have appeared since, not least the biography by Walter Isaacson and the film, Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin.

“No. Terrible. They’re not true. Most of the stories are just not accurate. They’re just not accurate. And I think they missed the boat on Steve. They don’t capture in my mind the real Steve. There’s a good book called Becoming Steve Jobs, which I think is the best book. It captures good, bad, fun, pain, emotions, all of it. That’s better than anything I’ve seen. So I’d encourage you to read that.”

«

Lots of good stuff in this interview; Cue denies the story that Cook (or he) passed “notes” on the content of the proposed TV dramas. Doesn’t deny he might have fallen asleep in a meeting. And more.
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The Pentagon has a laser that can identify people from a distance—by their heartbeat • MIT Technology Review

David Hambling:

»

A new device, developed for the Pentagon after US Special Forces requested it, can identify people without seeing their face: instead it detects their unique cardiac signature with an infrared laser. While it works at 200 meters (219 yards), longer distances could be possible with a better laser. “I don’t want to say you could do it from space,” says Steward Remaly, of the Pentagon’s Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office, “but longer ranges should be possible.”

Contact infrared sensors are often used to automatically record a patient’s pulse. They work by detecting the changes in reflection of infrared light caused by blood flow. By contrast, the new device, called Jetson, uses a technique known as laser vibrometry to detect the surface movement caused by the heartbeat. This works though typical clothing like a shirt and a jacket (though not thicker clothing such as a winter coat)…

…Cardiac signatures are already used for security identification. The Canadian company Nymi has developed a wrist-worn pulse sensor as an alternative to fingerprint identification. The technology has been trialed by the Halifax building society in the UK.

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America’s teenagers skew a lot more conservative than most people realize, and they get most of their news from Instagram • Business Insider

Kate Taylor:

»

It is tempting to see the teens and young 20-somethings of Generation Z as a united, progressive force, rising up to challenge a divided country. The reality is more complicated.

While Gen Z is united on some issues, including climate change and legalizing marijuana, political rifts remain.

Social media, including Instagram, one of the most popular places for Gen Z to get political news, is helping deepen and amplify these divisions, sparking concerns in some young Americans that the country is simply entering a new era of political strife.

One of the biggest differences about Gen Z, according to experts and members of the generation, is the role social media plays in shaping beliefs.

Social media is the top way Gen Z finds out about news, with 59% of respondents listing it as a top news source in Business Insider’s poll of more than 1,800 people between the ages of 13 and 21. The national poll was conducted with SurveyMonkey Audience partner Cint on behalf of Business Insider. It ran January 11-14.

More than half the people surveyed said they checked Snap, YouTube, or Instagram daily.

Parkland survivors, for example, organized and amplified their message on social media. Gonzales has more than 1.6 million followers on Twitter, while a Twitter campaign by Parkland survivor David Hogg helped persuade more than a dozen advertisers to slash ties with Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show.

But for most Gen Zers, Instagram, not Twitter, reigns supreme. About 65% of respondents said they checked it daily, with many Gen Zers citing it as a major source for political news specifically.

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Political news from Instagram? This is one of those moments when you suddenly think you’ve woken up in someone else’s novel. (“Gen Z” are those born in this century.)
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How Amazon and the cops set up an elaborate sting operation that accomplished nothing • VICE

Caroline Haskins:

»

For Amazon, fear is good for business.

If customers fear their neighbors, and fear they might steal a package, customers are less likely to be mad at Amazon if they don’t get a package they ordered. They’re also more likely to buy an Amazon-owned Ring doorbell camera, which is marketed as way of surveilling your stoop for package deliveries and package thieves—especially on Neighbors, the Ring-owned “neighborhood watch” app.

New documents obtained by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information request show how Amazon, Ring, a GPS tracking company, and the US Postal Inspection Service collaborated on a package sting operation with the Aurora, Colorado Police Department in December. The operation involved equipping fake Amazon packages with GPS trackers, and surveilling doorsteps with Ring doorbell cameras in an effort to catch someone stealing a package on tape.

The documents show the design and implementation of a highly elaborate public relations stunt, which was designed both to endear Amazon and Ring with local law enforcement, and to make local residents fear the place they live. The parties were disappointed when the operation didn’t result in any arrests.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,100: the Huawei un-ban puzzle, 5G’s infrastructure problem, how Uber worsens congestion and pollution, ‘kayfabe’ and Trump, and more


A new research technique uses pixel differences to detect or prevent deepfakes. CC-licensed photo by Dorian 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. Maybe it’s your eyesight? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Detecting deepfakes by looking closely reveals a way to protect against them • The Conversation

Siwei Lyu is Professor of Computer Science and the director of the Computer Vision and Machine Learning Lab at the University at Albany, State University of New York:

»

Some of my research group’s earlier work allowed us to detect deepfake videos that did not include a person’s normal amount of eye blinking – but the latest generation of deepfakes has adapted, so our research has continued to advance.

Now, our research can identify the manipulation of a video by looking closely at the pixels of specific frames. Taking one step further, we also developed an active measure to protect individuals from becoming victims of deepfakes.

In two recent (1) research papers (2), we described ways to detect deepfakes with flaws that can’t be fixed easily by the fakers.

When a deepfake video synthesis algorithm generates new facial expressions, the new images don’t always match the exact positioning of the person’s head, or the lighting conditions, or the distance to the camera. To make the fake faces blend into the surroundings, they have to be geometrically transformed – rotated, resized or otherwise distorted. This process leaves digital artifacts in the resulting image.

You may have noticed some artifacts from particularly severe transformations. These can make a photo look obviously doctored, like blurry borders and artificially smooth skin. More subtle transformations still leave evidence, and we have taught an algorithm to detect it, even when people can’t see the differences…

…As we develop this algorithm, we hope to be able to apply it to any images that someone is uploading to social media or another online site. During the upload process, perhaps, they might be asked, “Do you want to protect the faces in this video or image against being used in deepfakes?” If the user chooses yes, then the algorithm could add the digital noise, letting people online see the faces but effectively hiding them from algorithms that might seek to impersonate them.

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Explained, of course, with videos.
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Kudlow: US sales to Huawei won’t imperil national security • The New York Times

Associated Press:

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[White House economics adviser Larry] Kudlow told “Fox News Sunday” and CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Huawei will remain on an American blacklist as a potential security threat. He stressed that additional US licensing “will be for what we call general merchandise, not national security sensitive,” such as chips and software generally available around the world.

“What’s happening now is simply a loosening up for general merchandise,” Kudlow said. “This is not a general amnesty.”

Trump made the announcement Saturday after meeting with China’s Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Japan. Trump said US companies could make the sales if the transactions don’t present a “great, national emergency problem.”

Several Republican senators immediately expressed concerns. In a tweet Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called the decision a “catastrophic mistake.” Sen. Lindsey Graham [Republican, South Carolina], told CBS that Trump’s agreement was “clearly a concession,” and also said it would be a mistake if sales to Huawei involved “major technology.”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., described the Chinese company as a clear threat to US national security. “To me, Huawei in the United States would be like a Trojan horse ready to steal more information from us,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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The reversal on Huawei was predictable enough – Trump doesn’t do anything on principle, even when everyone around him knows that something should be done on principle – but this is just baffling. American companies were banned from selling to Huawei, and it looked like it would cripple the Chinese company. So is Google still on the banned list, given that its products aren’t generally available?
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The downside of 5G: overwhelmed cities, torn-up streets, a decade until completion • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

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5G networks don’t work like previous wireless cellular networks. Where 2G, 3G and even 4G rely on large towers with powerful antennas that can cover many square miles, the shorter-range, higher-frequency radio waves used by 5G networks—essential to their ability to deliver the 10- to 100-times faster speeds they promise—mean that 5G networks must have small cells placed much closer together.

Typically these small cells must be placed about 800 to 1,000 feet apart, says AT+T’s Ms. Knight. Small-cell antennas are typically the size of a pizza box, but can be much larger, and require both a fiber-optic connection to the internet and access to power. They go wherever there’s space: on buildings, new 5G-ready telephone poles and, often, retrofitted lampposts.

In 2018, the US had 349,344 cell sites, according to CTIA, a wireless industry trade organization. The organization estimates that—to achieve full 5G coverage—carriers will have to roll out an additional 769,000 small cells by 2026.

This rollout could mean three or four different carriers will be arriving at your street, each trying separately to dig to bury fiber. (And yes, fiber-optic cable almost always has to be buried.)

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Terrific piece about the real-world implications of getting this done. The implication (to me at least) is that rural areas will be unlikely to see 5G: its range is too short and the cost disproportionate to the benefits it can provide compared to 4G, with its greater range.
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GrubHub is buying up thousands of restaurant web addresses. That means Mom and Pop can’t own their slice of the internet • New Food Economy

H. Claire Brown:

»

Grubhub purchased three different domains containing versions of Shivane’s restaurant’s name—in 2012, 2013, and 2014. “I never gave them permission to do that,” she says. 

Shivane believes GrubHub purchased her restaurant’s web domain to prevent her from building her own online presence. She also believes the company may have had a special interest in owning her name because she processes a high volume of orders. She rattles off a list of names of local restaurants that she suspects may be in the same predicament. I find versions of about half those names on the list of GrubHub-owned domains. 

Additionally, it appears GrubHub has set up several generic, templated pages that look like real restaurant websites but in fact link only to GrubHub. These pages also display phone numbers that GrubHub controls. The calls are forwarded to the restaurant, but the platform records each one and charges the restaurant a commission fee for every order, according to testimony from GrubHub executives at a hearing at New York City Hall on Thursday. This happens on the GrubHub platform itself, too. The phone numbers you see displayed in the app typically aren’t a restaurant’s actual phone number, they’re the numbers that GrubHub uses to make sure it’s getting its commission. 

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GrubHub says it’s doing it as a service to restaurants: “we have created microsites for them as another source of orders and to increase their online brand presence. Additionally, we have registered domains on their behalf, consistent with our restaurant contracts.” But now has stopped doing it. Odd.
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‘Empty’ Uber cabs driving pollution and congestion • The Sunday Times

Nicholas Hellen:

»

Uber was launched in Britain with a promise that its smart technology, which matches passengers with the nearest vehicle for hire, would reduce traffic.

In 2014 Travis Kalanick, then its chief executive, told the Institute of Directors: “In our current model here in London there are 7½ cars taken off the road for every fully utilised Uber that is on the road.”

But James Farrar, a former Uber driver who obtained the figures after a two-year legal battle, said they provided hard evidence that the company’s approach added to congestion.

“They are competing on immediacy and availability and they do not carry any of the costs [of buying the cars]. That is going to lead to oversupply. You will cause congestion and these drivers will not have enough work.”

The figures, which tracked three drivers for a combined 7,500 hours, confirm that when they are looking for their next job they do not park, but typically spend 94% of their time cruising the streets, to maximise their chances of being offered another passenger.

David Dunn, 58, one of the three drivers, said he quit driving for Uber in Glasgow because he was having to work 80-hour weeks to recoup the £37,000 that he had spent on a car.

«

This doesn’t of course show how much of the time non-Uber taxis spend noodling around looking for trade, but it seems reasonable to think that if there are fewer taxis available, they spend less time not carrying passengers. Given that, maybe you’d want a licensing authority to mandate a maximum number of cars at some times, or that a certain proportion be electric (though that won’t help congestion), or similar. It’s the same story in the US.
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Inside Apple’s long goodbye to design chief Jony Ive • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

He was in charge of a roughly two-dozen person design team that included artists whose passions extended to the development of surfboards, cars, and even DJing on weekends. Many of their spouses worked as designers, too…

…some people familiar with Apple are already worried about the new design leadership. Now that Ive is officially leaving, longtime studio manager Evans Hankey will run the hardware design group, Apple said. Hankey is a great team leader, but Apple now lacks a true design brain on its executive team, which is a concern, a person familiar with the design team said.

Hankey and Dye will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. While Williams is a talented executive, some people familiar with matter believe the shift is another sign of Apple becoming more of an operations company. Apple declined to comment.

“The design team is made up of the most creative people, but now there is an operations barrier that wasn’t there before,” one former Apple executive said. “People are scared to be innovative.”

…The design team is taking on this challenge without veteran members. Christopher Stringer and Daniele De Iuliis, a pair of key Ive lieutenants, kicked off the departures a few years ago, with Daniel Coster leaving to lead design at GoPro in 2016. The team lost three members in the past six months: Julian Hoenig, Rico Zorkendorfer and Miklu Silvanto.

While each Apple designer specializes in specific product lines, they all contribute to each other’s products and plans. That means losing an individual designer is still a big deal, a former Apple executive said. “The design studio has no secrets,” this person said. “They all know what each other is working on.”

«

It’s definitely worth re-reading the New Yorker article from 2015 about Ive in the light of this announcement. It makes it feel a lot different. I didn’t think that Steve Jobs leaving Apple was the catastrophe some did. But Apple without Jobs and Ive isn’t the same beast.
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Publishers says Apple is changing Apple News Plus, its subscription bundle • Business Insider

Lucia Moses:

»

publishers have had mixed views on Plus so far. Some saw it as a way to reap revenue from Apple’s massive customer base as many of them struggle to grow ad revenue. (Apple is sharing half of the revenue with publishers based on how much time users spend with the given publishers’ content, knowledgeable sources said.) The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Vox, and TheSkimm, opted in, as did Business Insider. Big magazine chains including Hearst, Meredith, and Condé Nast are also participating in the bundle, but are contractually obligated to do so as former owners of the app, according to sources.

Some publishers had concerns that the bundle would not produce meaningful revenue and that it would cannibalize their own subscription businesses, though. Major subscription publications The New York Times and Washington Post opted out of the bundle.

Apple gave away Plus for free for the first month, and in its first two days, it reportedly had about 200,000 subscribers, which is about what Texture had. But three months in, publishing execs who spoke for this article said the subscription revenue they’d gotten from the service was underwhelming based on two months of data after the trial ended.

One publishing exec said Apple projected publishers would get 10 times the revenue they made from Texture at the end of Apple News Plus’ first year. “It’s one twentieth of what they said,” the exec said. “It isn’t coming true.”

«

Got to admit, I don’t open Apple News (the app) from one month’s end to the next. The fact that it defines links using its own URL schema is almost worse than Google’s AMP. There are better news aggregators.
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April 2017: How wrestling explains Alex Jones and Donald Trump • The New York Times

Nick Rogers, in April 2017:

»

Although the etymology of the word is a matter of debate, for at least 50 years “kayfabe” has referred to the unspoken contract between wrestlers and spectators: We’ll present you something clearly fake under the insistence that it’s real, and you will experience genuine emotion. Neither party acknowledges the bargain, or else the magic is ruined.

To a wrestling audience, the fake and the real coexist peacefully. If you ask a fan whether a match or backstage brawl was scripted, the question will seem irrelevant. You may as well ask a roller-coaster enthusiast whether he knows he’s not really on a runaway mine car. The artifice is not only understood but appreciated: The performer cares enough about the viewer’s emotions to want to influence them. Kayfabe isn’t about factual verifiability; it’s about emotional fidelity.

Although their athleticism is impressive, skilled wrestlers captivate because they do what sociologists call “emotional labor” — the professional management of other people’s feelings. Diners expect emotional labor from their servers, Hulkamaniacs demand it from their favorite performer, and a whole lot of voters desire it from their leaders.

The aesthetic of World Wrestling Entertainment seems to be spreading from the ring to the world stage. Ask an average Trump supporter whether he or she thinks the president actually plans to build a giant wall and have Mexico pay for it, and you might get an answer that boils down to, “I don’t think so, but I believe so.” That’s kayfabe. Chants of “Build the Wall” aren’t about erecting a structure; they’re about how cathartic it feels, in the moment, to yell with venom against a common enemy.

«

“Kayfabe” feels as though it describes quite a lot of politics right now. But definitely Trump.
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Boeing’s 737 Max software outsourced to $9-an-hour engineers • Bloomberg

Peter Robison:

»

Increasingly, the iconic American planemaker and its subcontractors have relied on temporary workers making as little as $9 an hour to develop and test software, often from countries lacking a deep background in aerospace – notably India.

In offices across from Seattle’s Boeing Field, recent college graduates employed by the Indian software developer HCL Technologies Ltd. occupied several rows of desks, said Mark Rabin, a former Boeing software engineer who worked in a flight-test group that supported the Max.

The coders from HCL were typically designing to specifications set by Boeing. Still, “it was controversial because it was far less efficient than Boeing engineers just writing the code,” Rabin said. Frequently, he recalled, “it took many rounds going back and forth because the code was not done correctly.”

Boeing’s cultivation of Indian companies appeared to pay other dividends. In recent years, it has won several orders for Indian military and commercial aircraft, such as a $22bn one in January 2017 to supply SpiceJet Ltd. That order included 100 737-Max 8 jets and represented Boeing’s largest order ever from an Indian airline, a coup in a country dominated by Airbus.

Based on resumes posted on social media, HCL engineers helped develop and test the Max’s flight-display software, while employees from another Indian company, Cyient Ltd., handled software for flight-test equipment.

In one post, an HCL employee summarized his duties with a reference to the now-infamous model, which started flight tests in January 2016: “Provided quick workaround to resolve production issue which resulted in not delaying flight test of 737-Max (delay in each flight test will cost very big amount for Boeing).”

«

Boeing says those programmers didn’t do the MCAS software that’s blamed for the crashes. There seems to be a deeper problem at Boeing, dumping its institutional memory (experienced staff) on the basis that its products are “mature”.
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Amazon’s facial recognition creates dystopic future for trans and nonbinary people • Jezebel

Dhruv Mehrotra and Anna Merlan:

»

We reached out to all the companies using Rekognition for facial analysis as listed on Amazon’s information page for the product. Only two got back to us in a meaningful way. One was Limbik, a startup that uses machine learning to help companies understand whether their videos are being watched, and by who. They told us that Amazon’s binary gender settings posed a problem for them: “We have noticed this as an issue for us, as the better we can tag videos with proper tags the more accurate we can be with predictions and improvement recommendations. It would be best if we could get this type of information as it would help us categorize videos better and help with prediction.”

Without that information, Limbik added, they have to specify to customers what their analysis, using Rekognition, does and doesn’t do. “Since Rekognition only returns a binary value for gender, we have to make sure that, to customers, we specify that it is biological sex that is examined and not gender specifically and that it isn’t perfect. We have internal conversations about this issue and have discussed remedies but as we can have upwords of 1000 tags connected to a video coming from other Rekognition services, our internal tagging methods, manual human tagging and other methods, we haven’t found a good way to address this.”

«

Umm. The thing is, the recognition system is making determinations based on the shape of the face, which is sex-chromosome-determined, not gender-determined. To use a broad metaphor, it’s about where you were born, not what town you live in now. Nowhere in the story is this acknowledged, though.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,099: polls and trolls, China’s electric bus dominance, the growing price of cutting the cord, $30 per month for email?, and more


The back of an iconic design; its iconic designer is heading out of Apple. CC-licensed photo by Carl Berkeley 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. Got 99 problems but finding a replacement head of design ain’t one. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Jony Ive, iPhone designer, announces Apple departure • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:

»

Sir Jonathan is setting up his own new venture, a creative business called LoveFrom, with Apple as its first client. The transition will begin later this year, with LoveFrom launching fully in 2020. 

“While I will not be an [Apple] employee, I will still be very involved — I hope for many, many years to come,” Sir Jonathan told the FT in an exclusive interview. “This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change.”

The departure of the world’s most famous industrial designer and the custodian of the entire Apple aesthetic — from its hardware and software to its physical architecture — will come as a shock to its investors and customers. Many see Sir Jonathan as one of its most crucial assets as it looks beyond the iPhone into a new phase of products and services. 

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, sought to play down the changes as an “evolution”, pointing to an expanded group of in-house designers that is “the strongest it’s ever been”. 

“We get to continue with the same team that we’ve had for a long time and have the pleasure of continuing to work with Jony,” Mr Cook told the FT. “I can’t imagine a better result.” 

«

So Apple’s going to be one of his clients. Which makes sense of a sort, but given the way that the ID (industrial design) team has determined the direction of the company for years and years, it will be up to Apple to prove that this isn’t going to be a huge disjointing change. The only way it couldn’t be is if Ive has been of diminishing importance over the past few years, and now someone else is going to step up and lead the ID team.

One must expect there will be a power struggle too. Apple’s press release says “Design team leaders Evans Hankey, vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, vice president of Human Interface Design, will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.” Going to be quite the spectator sport seeing which of those two prevails.
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Google’s new reCaptcha has a dark side • Fast Company

Katharine Schwab:

»

According to two security researchers who’ve studied reCaptcha, one of the ways that Google determines whether you’re a malicious user or not is whether you already have a Google cookie installed on your browser. It’s the same cookie that allows you to open new tabs in your browser and not have to re-log in to your Google account every time. But according to Mohamed Akrout, a computer science PhD student at the University of Toronto who has studied reCaptcha, it appears that Google is also using its cookies to determine whether someone is a human in reCaptcha v3 tests. Akrout wrote in an April paper about how reCaptcha v3 simulations that ran on a browser with a connected Google account received lower risk scores than browsers without a connected Google account. “If you have a Google account it’s more likely you are human,” he says. Google did not respond to questions about the role that Google cookies play in reCaptcha.

With reCaptcha v3, technology consultant Marcos Perona and Akrout’s tests both found that their reCaptcha scores were always low risk when they visited a test website on a browser where they were already logged into a Google account. Alternatively, if they went to the test website from a private browser like Tor or a VPN, their scores were high risk.

To make this risk-score system work accurately, website administrators are supposed to embed reCaptcha v3 code on all of the pages of their website, not just on forms or log-in pages. Then, reCaptcha learns over time how their website’s users typically act, helping the machine learning algorithm underlying it to generate more accurate risk scores.

«

But that also means Google is seeing everything you do. Okayyy but.. it does anyway?
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Trolls target online polls following first Democratic presidential debate • NBC News

Ben Collins and Ben Popken:

»

Users from pro-Trump communities on 4chan and Reddit implored fellow members to vote for lower-polling candidates in online polls, specifically Tulsi Gabbard and Bill de Blasio, in the hours after Wednesday’s Democratic debate — a sign that digital manipulation efforts related to U.S. politics and elections remain very much alive.

Users on 4chan’s anonymous far-right /pol/message board repeatedly posted links to polls across the web, encouraging one another to “blow the polls out” for Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii who has developed a substantial support base among many of its users.

The posts pointed users toward polls on national news websites like the Drudge Report, The Washington Examiner, and Heavy.com, but also polls from local news providers like NJ.com, which posts from several newspapers in the state.

“GIVE HER YOUR POWER,” read one 4chan post from 1 a.m. Thursday, pointing to a screenshot of the still-active Drudge poll showing Gabbard leading.

«

Online polls are a trapdoor to bad outcomes. Is anyone seriously still running online polls, let alone believing them?
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Why China is winning the electric bus race • CityLab

Linda Poon:

»

The biggest takeaway [from the World Enterprise Institute report] is the cities that want to hop aboard the e-bus revolution need to completely rewire their thinking about electricity and vehicles. “Understanding that electric vehicles are about more than just vehicles is one of the hardest barriers for people to cross over, in both the energy and transportation sectors,” says Camron Gorguinpour, one of the lead authors of the twin reports. “It’s hard on people who have gone through their whole careers thinking that vehicles and electrical systems are [separate] to now internalize that these things are one in the same.”

That means when cities consider adopting electric buses, they need to understand the power grid upgrades and charging infrastructure required, and challenges associated with that. Failure to do so is the most common mistake, according to Gorguinpour. Many cities just set up their charging stations thinking that things would “work themselves out.”

That’s why he says one of the most overlooked stories from Shenzhen’s experience is the city’s long process in setting up the charging infrastructure to support more than 16,000 electric buses. Each bus has a range of about 124 miles on a single charge of 252 kilowatt hours (KWh). In total, the fleet can eat more than 4,000 megawatt-hours (MWh). For comparison’s sake, 1 MWh is enough to power about 300 homes for an hour. “That’s an insane amount of power required, not to mention real estate,” he says.

«

99% of the world’s 425,000 electric buses are in China.
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Streaming TV is about to get very expensive – here’s why • The Guardian

Stuart Heritage:

»

Right now, things are just about manageable: if you have a TV licence, a Netflix subscription, an Amazon subscription and a Now TV subscription, you are pretty much covered – but things are about to take a turn for the worse.

In November, Disney will launch Disney+, a streaming platform that will not only block off an enormous amount of existing content (Disney films, ABC shows, Marvel and Pixar films, Lucasfilm, The Simpsons and everything else made by 20th Century Fox), but will also offer a range of new scripted Marvel shows that will directly inform the narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Essentially, if you want to understand anything that happens in any Marvel film from this point onwards, you’ll need to splash out on a Disney+ subscription.

Apple will also be entering the streaming market at about the same time, promising new work from Sofia Coppola, Jennifer Aniston, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Brie Larson, Damien Chazelle and Steven Spielberg. In the next three years, Apple will spend $4.2bn on original programming, and you won’t get to see any of it if you don’t pay a monthly premium.

There are so many others. NBCUniversal is pulling its shows from Netflix for its own platform. Before long, Friends is likely to disappear behind a new WarnerMedia streaming service – along with Lord of the Rings films, the Harry Potter films, anything based on a DC comic and everything on HBO – that it is believed will cost about £15 a month. In the UK, the BBC and ITV will amalgamate their archives behind a service called BritBox. The former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg is about to launch a platform called Quibi, releasing “snackable” content from Steven Spielberg and others that is designed to be watched on your phone. YouTube is producing more and more original subscription-only content. Facebook is making shows, for crying out loud.

«

Yay Americans! You cut the cord! Now you can get it all over the internet. In pieces.
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Creator of DeepNude, app that undresses photos of women, takes it offline • VICE

Samantha Cole:

»

On Wednesday, Motherboard reported that an anonymous programmer who goes by the alias “Alberto” created DeepNude, an app that takes an image of a clothed woman, and with one click and a few seconds, turns that image into a nude by algorithmically superimposing realistic-looking breasts and vulva onto her body.

The algorithm uses generative adversarial networks (GANs), and is trained on thousands of images of naked women. DeepNude only works on images of women, Alberto said, because it’s easy to find thousands of images of nude women online in porn.

Following Motherboard’s story, the server for the application, which was available for Linux and Windows, crashed.

By Thursday afternoon, the DeepNude twitter account announced that the app was dead: No other versions will be released and no one else would be granted to use the app.

“We created this project for users’ entertainment months ago,” he wrote in a statement attached to a tweet. “We thought we were selling a few sales every month in a controlled manner… We never thought it would become viral and we would not be able to control traffic.”

When I spoke to Alberto in an email Wednesday, he said that he had grappled with questions of morality and ethical use of this app.

«

One person proves it, a thousand will follow. The more depressing bit is that “it’s easy to find thousands of images of nude women online in porn.” It’s that “see through peoples’ clothes with X-ray specs!” advert brought to life through a smartphone.
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Consumers are becoming wise to your nudge • Behavioral Scientist

Simon Shaw:

»

I know exactly how the conversation will go.

I’m interviewing Chris, a 52-year-old man living a small coastal town, for the second time. We’ve been exploring the new checkout process for a client’s redesigned website. The new site isn’t performing as well as the company thought it would, so I’m exploring why and seeing what we can learn from competitors. 

“Only 2 rooms left? They don’t expect me to believe that do they? You see that everywhere.”

I leave with a wry smile. The client won’t be happy, but at least the project findings are becoming clear. Companies in certain sectors use the same behavioral interventions repeatedly. Hotel booking websites are one example. Their sustained, repetitive use of scarcity (e.g., “Only two rooms left!”) and social proof (“16 other people viewed this room”) messaging is apparent even to a casual browser. 

For Chris the implication was clear: this “scarcity” was just a sales ploy, not to be taken seriously.

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The problem now is that you can’t do that honestly; people will think you’re conning them.
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Huawei smartphone sales ebbing in Taiwan • Digitimes

Max Wang and Steve Shen:

»

Huawei shipped about 50,000 smartphones in Taiwan in May, accounting for a 8.6% share in terms of unit shipments and remaining in fourth place as it did a month earlier, trailing Apple (24.8%), Samsung (23.7%) and Oppo (10.8%), said the sources.

In terms of shipment value, Huawei saw its ranking slide one notch to fourth from third with a 6% share, trailing Apple (52.7%), Samsung (19.7%) and Oppo (6.4%).

However, the sources said that they believe sales of Huawei’s smartphones are likely to drop by 60-80% on month in June, with its ranking in unit shipments to tumble by 4-5 notches.

«

Not that you’d expect a Chinese mainland brand to sell that well in Taiwan.
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Pre-saving albums can allow labels to track users on Spotify • Billboard

Micah Singleton:

»

To pre-save music, which adds a release to a user’s library as soon as it comes out, Spotify users click through and approve permissions that give the label far more account access than the streaming giant normally grants them — enough to track what they listen to, change what artists they follow and potentially even control their music streaming remotely.

This lets labels access some of the data that streaming companies usually guard for themselves — which they want in order to compete with the streaming giants on a more even playing field. But at a time when the policies of online giants like Google and Facebook has made online privacy a contentious issue, music’s pre-saving process could begin to spark concern among consumers, and perhaps even regulators.

Labels also ask for far more permissions than they need. Spotify users who, for example, tried to pre-save the Little Mix single “Bounce Back” from links shared by the act or its label, Sony Music, were prompted to agree that Spotify could allow Sony to “view your Spotify account data,” “view your activity on Spotify” and “take actions in Spotify on your behalf.” The exact permissions Sony requests are only visible to those who click through to the corresponding submenus, so users may not fully understand all that they’re agreeing to — or that the changes apply to their account unless they change it on Spotify’s website…

…The only access labels need to pre-save music to a Spotify account is permission to “add and remove items in your Library.” But the submenus for Sony’s Little Mix campaign asked users for 16 additional permissions, including to “control Spotify on your device” and “stream and control Spotify on your other devices.” In its campaign for Chris Brown’s new single “No Guidance,” featuring Drake, Sony asked to “upload images to personalize your profile or playlist cover” and manage who you follow on Spotify. (Spotify, Sony and the other major labels declined to comment for this story.)

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Yeah, I bet they did. “Permissions overreach” is such a 21st century thing to do.
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Would you pay $30 a month to check your email? • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

»

if you’re approved for access, there’s a mandatory session in which a representative gives you a videoconference tutorial. In my case, Mr. Vohra spent a full hour teaching me how to use the app’s features. Superhuman, which plugs into your existing email account, works with only Gmail and Google G Suite addresses for now, but the company plans to expand to other providers soon.

Some of the app’s features — such as ones that let users undo sending, track when their emails are opened and automatically pull up a contact’s LinkedIn profile — are available in other third-party email plug-ins. But there are bells and whistles that I hadn’t seen before. Like “instant intro,” which moves the sender of an introductory email to bcc, saving you from having to manually re-enter that person’s address. Or the scheduling feature, which sees that you’re typing “next Tuesday” and automatically pulls up your calendar for that day.

These features will appeal most to power users who spend most of their day typing on a laptop or desktop. (Superhuman has a mobile app, but much of the heavy-duty functionality requires a keyboard.) Mr. Vohra said the app was targeted at people who spend three or more hours a day checking their email.

“When you’re doing three-plus hours of email every day, it’s your job,” Mr. Vohra said. “And every single other job has a tool that makes you do it faster.”

…with Superhuman, I bushwhacked through my unread emails in less than an hour, eventually reaching a kind of dissociative flow state. Invitation to a blockchain-themed happy hour? Hit ⌘-; to insert a “snippet,” a canned reply politely declining. Newsletter from a hotel I stayed at once in 2014? Hit ⌘-U to unsubscribe. It made checking my email feel less like doing work and more like speed-running a video game in which the object is to annoy as few people as possible.

«

OK, those sound useful – especially the Unsubscribe. I can imagine every email company (all three of them) stealing those features and making them universal (and free, rather than $30 per month) in a couple of years.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,098: life and data on 5G, classical streaming’s woes, EU v AI, Apple hires ARM chief, Libra’s risky potential, and more


Think carefully: are these gambling? Some games companies would like you to think so. CC-licensed photo by Brandon Cripps on Flickr.

A selection of 12 links for you. Not a baker’s dozen. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Adblock-proof just-this-side-of-annoying promo: got half an hour? Try The Human and Machine podcast. It’s a co-presentation by Julia Hobsbawm (of Editorial Intelligence) and myself.

The latest episode is a discussion with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Rohan Candappa, plus an interview with Professor Charlton McIlwain, about race and the internet.

Previous episodes included autopilots, the 737 Max and the implications for self-driving cars with Alex Hern of the Guardian and Dr Jack Stilgoe of University College London.

The next one (coming soon!) will talk to Professor Martyn Rees about humans on Mars, genetic modification, and much more. Find these episodes, and the whole series, by searching for “human and machine” on your podcast app.


EA: loot boxes are actually “surprise mechanics” that are “ethical and fun” • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:

»

Representatives from EA and Epic Games spoke in front of a UK parliamentary panel [last] Wednesday (transcript). They were there to defend the game industry against charges of addictive game mechanics and encouragement of gambling via loot boxes. But at least one of those representatives took issue with the basic premise that randomized item purchases should be labeled as “loot boxes” in the first place.

“That is what we look at as ‘surprise mechanics,'” EA Legal and Government Affairs VP Kerry Hopkins told the panel when asked about the ethics of loot boxes. “It is important to look at this. If you go to—I don’t know what your version of Target is—a store that sells a lot of toys and you do a search for surprise toys, you will find that this is something people enjoy. They enjoy surprises. It is something that has been part of toys for years, whether it is Kinder eggs or Hatchimals or LOL Surprise!”

As implemented in a game like FIFA, Hopkins went on to argue that these surprise mechanics are “quite ethical and fun [and] enjoyable to people… We think it is like many other products that people enjoy in a very healthy way. They like the element of surprise.

“The packs—the surprise that we talked about a little before—are fun for people,” Hopkins said. “They enjoy it. They like earning the packs, opening the packs, and building and trading the teams.”

«

Solipsistic nonsense. It’s gambling, because you pay non-trivial sums of money in the hope that you’ll get something of greater value than the sum paid, but you can also get something worth less. A Kinder Egg content is never worth more than you pay, never worth less.
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5G in Australia: supersonic speeds raise data consumption questions • CNET

Daniel Van Boom:

»

That brings us to a more practical issue. As noted, Randwick was my first testing location. About 25 minutes in, after several speed tests, downloading PUBG and two movies from Netflix, I got an SMS. “You’ve used 50% of your 20GB data allowance,” Telstra warned me. Uh oh.

The SIM card I was using was loaned to me by Telstra for testing, but 20GB isn’t an unusually small amount. Telstra’s fattest data plan offers 150GB for $70 (AU$100) a month, but the average Australian has a 10GB data limit, according to a 2018 Finder study. Most plans in Australia give you between 10 and 50GB of data. In the US, “unlimited” data plans tend to include up to about 75GB, or 100GB for Sprint’s priciest plan, before internet speeds are throttled.

It will be impossible to burn through 50GB, let alone 150GB, just by using social media, answering emails and streaming YouTube on 4G. But with 5G speed comes incentive to, y’know, use 5G. When 5G speeds outpace home broadband by a significant margin, data will have to become cheaper for those blazing speeds to be convenient and truly useful. 

«

In the UK, the mobile company EE (owned by the landline monopoly BT) is the first with 5G. In my experience, it’s also the stingiest with data allowances – or the priciest, which works out to the same thing. 5G is fast – though even those testers were seeing speeds fall in their testing.
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YouTube lets users override recommendations • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw and Gerrit De Vynck:

»

YouTube said it will let users override automated recommendations after criticism over how the online video service suggests and filters toxic clips.

“Although we try our best to suggest videos you’ll enjoy, we don’t always get it right, so we are giving you more controls for when we don’t,” Essam El-Dardiry, a product manager at YouTube, wrote in a blogpost on Wednesday.

Users will now be able to tell YouTube to stop suggesting videos from a particular channel by tapping the three-dot menu next to a video on the homepage or Up Next, then choosing “Don’t recommend channel.” After that, viewers should no longer see videos from that channel, El-Dardiry said.

The move comes after Susan Wojcicki and other YouTube executives were criticized for being either unable or unwilling to act on internal warnings about extreme and misleading videos because they were too focused on increasing viewing time and other measures of engagement.

«

It’s pretty weak sauce, though. The risk from recommendations is not from channels you recognise, but from the bazillions of nonsense things that drive people down rabbit holes, from all sorts of channels. It’s the recommendation algorithm itself.
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In the age of streaming, classical music gets lost in the metadata • The New York Times

Ben Sisario:

»

Classical music has always been a specialized corner of the music business, with a discerning clientele and few genuine blockbusters. But by some measures the genre has suffered in the shift to streaming. While 2.5% of album sales in the United States are classical music, it accounts for less than 1% of total streams, according to Alpha Data, a tracking service.

Two new companies, Idagio and Primephonic, see an opportunity in the disconnect. Both are challenging the big platforms by offering streaming services devoted to classical music, with playlists that push Martha Argerich over Ariana Grande, and databases tailored to the nuances of the genre.

“The mission we are on is to turn the tide for classical music the way Spotify has done for pop,” said Thomas Steffens, the chief executive of Primephonic, which is based in Amsterdam and went online last fall.

The genre has been an awkward fit for streaming partly because of the major services’ metadata — the underlying organizational schemes for identifying titles of recordings, the personnel associated with them and other details.

For most of the music on Spotify or Apple Music, a listing of artist, track and album works fine. But critics of the status quo argue that the basic architecture of the classical genre — with nonperforming composers and works made up of multiple movements — is not suited to a system built for pop.

Search Spotify’s mobile app for “Mozart Requiem,” for example, and a confusing list of dozens of albums follows; since there is no special field for a composer, most of those albums designate Mozart as the “artist.” On Apple Music, a composer field has become standard only in recent months.

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EU should ban AI-powered citizen scoring and mass surveillance, say experts • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

The recommendations are part of the EU’s ongoing efforts to establish itself as a leader in so-called “ethical AI.” Earlier this year, it released its first guidelines on the topic, stating that AI in the EU should be deployed in a trustworthy and “human-centric” manner.

The new report offers more specific recommendations. These include identifying areas of AI research that require funding; encouraging the EU to incorporate AI training into schools and universities; and suggesting new methods to monitor the impact of AI. However, the paper is only a set of recommendations at this point, and not a blueprint for legislation.

Notably, the suggestions that the EU should ban AI-enabled mass scoring and limit mass surveillance are some of the report’s relatively few concrete recommendations. (Often, the report’s authors simply suggest that further investigation is needed in this or that area.)

The fear of AI-enabled mass-scoring has developed largely from reports about China’s nascent social credit system.

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Oppo’s under-screen camera is real and taking photos in Shanghai • Engadget

Richard Lai:

»

when the camera is idle, the screen works just as normal. However, when you look up close, the area above the camera appears to be more pixelated. According to Oppo, this zoned-out area features a highly-transparent material plus a redesigned pixel structure for improved light transmittance. In other words, this camera tech requires a customized display panel, because existing ones won’t do the job — their transparency properties are only good enough for in-display fingerprint readers, but not conventional cameras.

Oppo added that the under-screen camera itself also packs a larger sensor with bigger pixels, along with a larger aperture to get as much light as possible. This does mean a drop in resolution, and based on our quick comparison, there’s certainly room for improvement in terms of clarity and color accuracy. This is a little worrying, considering Oppo has already applied its algorithm fix on haze removal, HDR plus white balance, and it’ll have to put in extra effort here to meet its usual selfie standards.

There’s still no update on when we can expect this under-screen camera technology to show up on a mass-production phone – all we were told was this will be released “in the near future.”

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“In the near future” is my favourite date. I’ve got it marked in my calendar. Meanwhile this seems like another not-quite-there-yet feature/gimmick that Oppo is rushing out so it can say “first!”
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Exclusive: Intel launches blockbuster auction for its mobile portfolio • IAM

Richard Lloyd:

»

In what looks set to become one of the highest profile patent sales in years, Intel has put its IP relating to cellular wireless connectivity on the auction block. The company is seeking to divest around 8,500 assets from its massive portfolio.

The news comes as the chip giant searches for a buyer for its 5G smartphone modem business having announced in April that it was pulling out of the market. That was after as it had become increasingly clear that the company, which has been the supplier of 4G modem chips to Apple for the last few years, was struggling to release a 5G product even though the rollout of the next generation of mobile technology is well underway.

The auction offering is comprised of two parts: the cellular portfolio and a connected device portfolio. The former includes approximately 6,000 patent assets related to 3G, 4G and 5G cellular standards and an additional 1,700 assets that read on wireless implementation technologies. The latter is made up of 500 patents with broad applicability across the semiconductor and electronics industries.

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Not quite a fire sale, but there isn’t anything left of the building now that Apple isn’t going to buy 5G modems from it.
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Apple hires ARM’s lead CPU architect amid rumours of ARM-based Macs as early as 2020 • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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ARM’s lead CPU and system architect Mike Filippo joined Apple last month, based out of the Austin, Texas area, according to his LinkedIn profile. Filippo led the development of several chips at ARM between 2009 and 2019, including the Cortex-A76, Cortex-A72, Cortex-A57, and upcoming 7nm+ and 5nm chips.

Filippo also served as Intel’s lead CPU and system architect between 2004 and 2009, and he was a chip designer at AMD between 1996 and 2004, so he brings a wealth of chipmaking experience with him to Apple.

Filippo’s profile still lists his ARM role as ongoing, but social media talk suggests that he has left the company.

Apple designing its own ARM-based processors for Macs would allow it to move away from Intel processors, which have frequently faced delays. In fact, sources within Intel reportedly confirmed to Axios that Apple does plan to transition to ARM-based processors in Macs starting next year.

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That’s quite an aggressive hire; can’t imagine ARM being charmed by it. The timetable for ARM-based Macs is going to be the focus of everyone’s interest in the next few months, for certain.
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Rumor: Samsung’s next foldable will be a clamshell device • Android Authority

Scott Adam Gordon:

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Samsung is already working on its next flexible display smartphone, according to speculation from ETNews. In an article published yesterday, the website suggested Samsung’s next folding screen device would be a clamshell-style product with an outward-facing, 1in display.

The phone would seemingly be more portable than the Galaxy Fold, which functions as a hybrid between phone and tablet. The future foldable is tipped to be about the size of a regular flagship, with its display coming in at around 6.7in when unfolded. The Galaxy Fold has a 7.3in screen when unfolded and a nearly 4:3 aspect ratio.

ETNews didn’t say whether the 1in screen on the outside would be touch-enabled, but it did say it would offer limited functionality. It might operate something like the always-on displays found on other Samsung phones.

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One inch seems awfully small for a screen. The idea is that it folds in the middle from top to bottom, so that.. well, I’m not really sure how this benefits humanity, but apparently we don’t have enough folding phones in our lives. Not that actually we have any yet, of course.
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US tech companies sidestep a Trump ban, to keep selling to Huawei • The New York Times

Paul Mozur and Cecilia Kang:

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Kevin Wolf, a former Commerce Department official and partner at the law firm Akin Gump, has advised several American technology companies that supply Huawei. He said he told executives that Huawei’s addition to the list did not prevent American suppliers from continuing sales, as long as the goods and services weren’t made in the United States.

A chip, for example, can still be supplied to Huawei if it is manufactured outside the United States and doesn’t contain technology that can pose national security risks. But there are limits on sales from American companies. If the chip maker provides services from the United States for troubleshooting or instruction on how to use the product, for example, the company would not be able to sell to Huawei even if the physical chip were made overseas, Mr. Wolf said.

“This is not a loophole or an interpretation because there is no ambiguity,” he said. “It’s just esoteric.”

After this article was published online on Tuesday, Garrett Marquis, the White House National Security Council spokesman, criticized the companies’ workarounds. He said, “If true, it’s disturbing that a former Senate-confirmed Commerce Department official, who was previously responsible for enforcement of U.S. export control laws including through entity list restrictions, may be assisting listed entities to circumvent those very enforcement mechanisms.”

Mr. Wolf said he does not represent Chinese companies or firms on the entity list, and he added that Commerce Department officials had provided him with identical information on the scope of the list in recent weeks.

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Trade’s gonna trade. And as one annoyed person has pointed out, wasn’t Trump elected on a “let’s all get rich selling stuff to the Chinese” platform?
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Here’s why some users are getting more LinkedIn notifications • Axios

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Linkedin will today announce algorithm changes made over the past 12-18 months to favor conversations in its Feed that cater to niche professional interests, as opposed to elevating viral content, its executives tell Axios.

News feeds that were fundamentally built to connect one voice to many are struggling to deliver on value as communication trends move to more personal and ephemeral conversations.

Users may have noticed that their notifications or engagements on LinkedIn have increased lately.

LinkedIn has done this in part, because internal research found that participation wasn’t even across the platform, and that much of the attention in on LinkedIn was skewed towards the top 1% of power users, according to Tim Jurka, Director of Artificial Intelligence at LinkedIn.
Changes include:
• Elevating content that users are most likely to join in conversation, which typically means people that users interact with directly in the feed through comments and reactions, or people who have shared interests with you based on your profile.
• Elevating a post from someone closer to a users’ interests or network if it needs more engagement, not if it’s already going viral.
• Elevating conversations with things that encourage a response (like opinions commentary alongside content), as well as posts that use mentions and hashtags to bring other people and interests into the conversation and elevating posts from users that respond to commenters.
• Elevating niche topics of conversation will perform better than broad ones. (When it comes to length, LinkedIn says its algorithm doesn’t favor any particular format, despite rumors that it does.)

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On that last point: it’s probably that people interact better with content of particular lengths because that’s how people are, not because the algorithm chooses the length.
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Facebook’s Libra has staggering potential: state control of money could end • The Conversation

Gavin Brown:

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Imagine ten years from now if, say, 40% of all US dollars are held on deposit by Facebook/the council to back the issued libra coins, which have by now become widely used across the world. We can hypothesise that US dollars might constitute a 30% weight of libra’s asset-backing basket – to have a steady exchange rate for libra, the idea is to underpin it with a selection of stable and widely traded financial assets.

In the likely event that the US experiences a moderate, or even severe economic crisis, Facebook/the council would need to rebalance the basket of assets to defend the value of libra. Let’s say they decided to revise down the US dollar weighting in their reserve to 25% of the basket. This would involve selling huge sums of US dollars and replacing them with, say, euros, and would significantly drive down the value of the dollar.

This would be a very negative market signal, encouraging other holders of dollars to dump them as well, thereby exacerbating the fall. And even before this happened, Facebook could potentially use the mere threat as leverage in negotiating with nation states on matters of regulation, taxation and so on. Based on Facebook’s current revenues, it would already be 90th in the world by GDP if it was a nation state, so its power to face off in negotiations with states and trading blocs is formidable even without libra.

«

Brown is senior lecturer in finance at Manchester Metropolitan University. (He’s also “a Non-Executive Director and Co-founder at Blockchain Capital Limited, a start-up digital assets fund which has yet to launch. It would not benefit directly from this article but does have an interest in digital asset investments such as bitcoin which leverage blockchain technology.”) That scenario isn’t so unlikely. And it’s slightly worrying, isn’t it? Libra’s value being like that of a share in an exchange-traded fund is slightly problematic if it’s used for transactions. Related: I appeared last night on an Al Jazeera program with the PR head of the Libra Consortium. I asked him twice whether it could go bust, and what would happen in that case to everyone’s Libra – would it be refunded? I don’t think I got a clear answer.
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Start Up No.1,097: Apple’s self-driving (again), RIP chatbot news, sizing Hong Kong’s protests, Facebook and Libra, and more


Quantum computing may be about to take off at a dramatic rate. Who benefits? CC-licensed photo by Kevin Dooley 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. Not a model. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Drive.ai, a self-driving car startup once worth $200 million, is closing • SFChronicle.com

Sophia Kunthara and Melia Russell:

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Mountain View startup Drive.ai, which made kits to turn regular cars into autonomous ones, will shut its office in June and lay off 90 workers in a permanent closure of its business, according to a filing with a state agency.

At the same time, Apple has hired a handful of hardware and software engineers from Drive.ai, in what appears to be part of a renewed effort by the iPhone and Mac maker to branch out into self-driving cars.

Three weeks ago, Apple was said to be exploring a purchase of Drive.ai, a deal that would let Apple pick up dozens of Drive.ai engineers while eliminating a competitor from the market.

So far, five former Drive.ai employees have changed their LinkedIn profiles to say they left Drive.ai in June and joined Apple the same month. Four of those workers list “special projects” in their job titles. Those employees include data, systems and software engineers.

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Apple doesn’t seem to quite want to let go of this idea. Can’t be a sunk cost thing; they know when to stop throwing good money after bad. Either their ambitions are much bigger than we suspect, or much smaller than we infer.
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R.I.P. Quartz Brief, the innovative mobile news app. Maybe “chatting with the news” isn’t something most people really want to do? • Nieman Journalism Lab

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When the Quartz app debuted in 2016, it was immediately clear that it would be a big step away from the news app mainstream. No list of headlines here; a first-time user saw what looked like a chat interface, familiar from whatever app they use to trade barbs with friends, and a sort of textual uncanny valley: Am I talking with a bot? A person? A news organization?

The answer was a combination of all three. In real time, the app’s prose was being sent by software; there wasn’t some thumb-sore intern responding to each and every user 24/7. But those words were written by real Quartz staffers, one tasked with condensing an interesting story into a script of back-and-forth responses that encouraged engagement with the story and felt human. And in a sense, you really were chatting with the news organization itself; as Quartz’s Zach Seward put it before the app even launched, “Quartz is an API”.

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Is it a surprise that people don’t want to have to work any harder than absolutely necessary to read the news? Mistaking novelty for utility is a common problem in product design.
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Does Neven’s Law describe quantum computing’s rise? • Quanta Magazine

Kevin Hartnett:

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In December 2018, scientists at Google AI ran a calculation on Google’s best quantum processor. They were able to reproduce the computation using a regular laptop. Then in January, they ran the same test on an improved version of the quantum chip. This time they had to use a powerful desktop computer to simulate the result. By February, there were no longer any classical computers in the building that could simulate their quantum counterparts. The researchers had to request time on Google’s enormous server network to do that.

“Somewhere in February I had to make calls to say, ‘Hey, we need more quota,’” said Hartmut Neven, the director of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence lab. “We were running jobs comprised of a million processors.”

That rapid improvement has led to what’s being called “Neven’s law,” a new kind of rule to describe how quickly quantum computers are gaining on classical ones. The rule began as an in-house observation before Neven mentioned it in May at the Google Quantum Spring Symposium. There, he said that quantum computers are gaining computational power relative to classical ones at a “doubly exponential” rate — a staggeringly fast clip.

With double exponential growth, “it looks like nothing is happening, nothing is happening, and then whoops, suddenly you’re in a different world,” Neven said. “That’s what we’re experiencing here.”

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Double exponential (the exponent of the exponent) is shockingly fast. Though the problem with quantum computers is that until (unless) you can find room-temperature superconductors, they’re going to be highly specialised kit, available only to a select few. Which poses its own kind of problem: who gets access?
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Hong Kong protests: measuring the masses • Reuters

Simon Scarr, Manas Sharma, Marco Hernandez and Vimvam Tong:

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Robert Chung, director of the program, said headcounts were getting hopelessly politicised. “Headcount calling has become less and less scientific,” Chung said. “One side bluffs more and more, the other side compresses harder and harder, both have gone beyond reality.”

Professor Yip, who also worked on crowd estimates for the June 16 rally, said: “I think the gap between the organisers and police becoming wider is a reflection of how much distrust is in the community. The wider the gap, the wider distrust.”

HKUPOP typically measures flow over the duration of a march, no matter how long, with estimates adjusted based on sample interviews with protesters about where they joined the march and when. The program did not deploy a team to measure crowd size on June 9 or June 16. But Yip said that based on what he saw of the march, he estimated the latest rally to have drawn 500,000 to 800,000 people.

It seems unlikely police and protesters in Hong Kong will reach a consensus about the size of crowds during marches and other rallies. And the science behind crowd counting will continue to evolve as researchers find more accurate ways to measure how many people take to the streets. But Yip said both sides may be missing the point by arguing over numbers.

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Long, scientific and detailed; but also pointing out that scientific might be the least useful way to think about it, because it’s political. (Via Sophie Warnes’s Fair Warning newsletter.)
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Global telecom carriers attacked by suspected Chinese hackers • WSJ

Timothy W. Martin and Eva Dou:

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Hackers believed to be backed by China’s government have infiltrated the cellular networks of at least 10 global carriers, swiping users’ whereabouts, text-messaging records and call logs, according to a new report, amid growing scrutiny of Beijing’s cyberoffensives.

The multiyear campaign, which is continuing, targeted 20 military officials, dissidents, spies and law enforcement—all believed to be tied to China—and spanned Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, says Cybereason Inc., a Boston-based cybersecurity firm that first identified the attacks. The tracked activity in the report occurred in 2018.

The cyberoffensive casts a spotlight on a Chinese group called APT 10; two of its alleged members were indicted by the US Department of Justice in December for broad-ranging hacks against Western businesses and government agencies. Cybereason said the digital fingerprints left in the telecom hacks pointed to APT 10 or a threat actor sharing its methods.

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Scary, right? However:

»

The Wall Street Journal was unable to independently confirm the report. Cybereason, which is run by former Israeli counterintelligence members, declined to name the individuals or the telecom firms targeted, citing privacy concerns.

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Nobody has been able to independently verify this claim. There are lots of security companies making these claims. It’s increasingly difficult to figure out who’s telling the truth, who’s exaggerating but truthful, and who’s spinning some big ones. Don’t forget that people once believed what Theranos told them too.
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Juul ban in San Francisco is passed, outlawing e-cigarette sales • Bloomberg

Ellen Huet:

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The city voted Tuesday to ban sales of e-cigarettes, making it illegal to sell nicotine vaporizer products in stores or for online retailers to ship the goods to San Francisco addresses. The ban will be the first of its kind to go into effect in the US.

The ordinance will now go to the mayor to sign into law. Cigarettes and other tobacco products will remain legal in the city, along with recreational marijuana.

As cigarette use in the US declines, tobacco companies have looked to other areas for revenue growth. Altria Group, which sells Marlboro cigarettes in the US, bought a 35% stake in Juul Labs Inc. last year, valuing the startup at $38bn. Juul told investors last month that revenue rose to $528m in the first quarter, as international sales took off. This week, an Indonesian retail chain that sells iPhones said it expected to begin carrying Juul products, sending its stock surging.

The legislation in San Francisco is aimed at all e-cigarette companies, but it has to feel personal for Juul. The San Francisco-based startup is the biggest target for vaping critics, who say it’s hooking kids on nicotine and creating a new generation of addicts.

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I can’t follow how you’d allow the sale of cigarettes and marijuana, but ban the sale of e-cigarettes (which release vapourised nicotine). Yes, they’re worse than not smoking, but they’re a lot safer than cigarettes; the principal risks are mouth and throat cancers (and nicotine addiction, of course), but not the lung cancer and others that cigarette smoking offers.
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Trump signs Executive Order compelling disclosure of prices in health care • WSJ

Stephanie Armour and Anna Wilde Mathews:

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President Trump on Monday pushed for greater price disclosure in health care, signing an executive order that could make thousands of hospitals expose more pricing information and require doctors, health clinics and others to tell patients about out-of-pocket costs upfront.

While President Trump has pledged repeatedly to take on health costs, the signing of the executive order unleashes coordinated efforts from multiple agencies to pursue the goal. It calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to issue a rule within two months that could require hospitals to publicize information on their negotiated rates with insurers for common procedures.

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Blimey. I guess this proves the stopped-clock theory. Trump admin does a good thing which will benefit people.
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Facebook, Libra, and the long game • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

»

the reality is that credit card penetration is much lower amongst the poor in developed countries and in developing countries generally: a digital currency ultimately premised on owning a smartphone has the potential to significantly expand markets to the benefits of both consumers and service providers.

To put it another way, Libra has the potential to significantly decrease friction when it comes to the movement of money; of course this potential is hardly limited to Libra — the reduction in friction is one of the selling points of digital currencies generally — but by virtue of being supported by Facebook, particularly the Calibra wallet that will be both a standalone app and also built into Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, accessing Libra will likely be much simpler than accessing other cryptocurrencies. When it comes to decreasing friction, simplifying the user experience matters just as much as eliminating intermediary institutions.

There is also another component of trust beyond caring about who is verifying transactions: confidence that the value of Libra will be stable. This is the reason why Libra will have a fully-funded reserve denominated in a basket of currencies. This does not foreclose Libra becoming a fully standalone currency in the long run, but for now both users and merchants will be able to trust that the value of Libra will be sufficiently stable to use it for transactions.

If all of these bets pay off — that users and merchants will trust a consortium more than Facebook; that Libra will be cheaper and easier to use, more accessible, and more flexible than credit cards; and that Libra itself will be a reliable store of value — than that decrease in friction will be realized at scale.

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This is a thoughtful article; Thompson isn’t taking things for granted. That idea of Libra growing at scale implies a world, eventually, where you have two currencies: WeChat Pay and Libra.
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Facebook’s new currency has big claims and bad ideas • Foreign Policy

David Gerard offers a counter-narrative:

»

David Marcus, the Facebook executive in charge of the project, told the press last week that the problems of banking the unbanked were technical — that banks were unable to move money fast enough without a blockchain. This is completely backward. Experts know how to move numbers on a computer. The slow part is settlement and compliance: making sure that money transmitters are solvent, honest, and not fronting for drug runners. Banking the unbanked is a slow, one-on-one social process. Libra’s public relations material describes this as if it were entirely a technical problem — and none of it is.

The real motivation for the project seems to be ideological. Marcus was formerly at PayPal, and he understands payments and regulation. But he’s been a bitcoin fan since 2012 and was on the board of the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase in 2017.

Marcus had been thinking about something like Libra for several years and had discussed the project with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg since January 2018. Zuckerberg was interested in the project and the ideas—“a high-quality medium of exchange for the world, on a blockchain that could scale,” as Marcus described it in a press conference on June 17.

Facebook is under increasingly close attention from governments deeply suspicious of its track record on privacy, election manipulation, and fake information and its repeated defiance of calls to appear before elected representatives. Yet Facebook and its closest partners seem to think that they are large and powerful enough to swing a coup against the concept of government control of money.

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So, take your pick.
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Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’ fraud trial may not start until September 2020 • Silicon Valley

Ethan Baron:

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Lawyers and prosecutors in the federal criminal case against disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes have agreed on a September 2020 start date for a trial expected to take three months, according to a new court filing.

Holmes is charged with felony conspiracy and fraud for allegedly misleading patients, doctors and investors about her now-defunct Silicon Valley blood-testing startup. She and former company president Sunny Balwani were indicted by a grand jury in June. They are charged with 11 criminal counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

On Friday, federal prosecutors and lawyers for Holmes and Balwani filed a joint memo in San Jose U.S. District Court, saying the prosecution did not oppose the proposal by lawyers for Holmes and Balwani to start the trial in September 2020, “or as soon thereafter as would be convenient for the court.” Prosecutors had preferred a start date in the first half of 2020, but the defense maintained that more time was needed to prepare, according to the memo.

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So it will suck up huge amounts of time and money and happen much later than we’d hoped, if at all. Somehow this seems fitting.
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Bitfinex misled public: execs feared $BTC drop to $1,000 as Tether hit $0.86 in October 2018 • The Block

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As speculation of major problems at Bitfinex and Tether ran rampant last October amidst rumors of customer withdrawal issues, Bitfinex published a notice to the market stating that there were no issues with the exchange. As customers and the public questioned the solvency of the related entities and the price of the stablecoin Tether dropped to $0.86, the company’s official stance was that all was well…

…At the same time as the positive public statement, Bitfinex was having severe problems meeting customer withdrawal demands. In response to the troubles, a senior Bitfinex executive bluntly wrote to his external payments partner, “Please understand all this could be extremely dangerous for everybody, the entire crypto community. BTC could tank to below 1k if we don’t act quickly.”

Unfortunately, the alleged solution was to co-mingle customer and company funds, including those from Tether, to support Bitfinex redemptions [from Tether to a currency you can actually use for something in the real world]. This activity, which wasn’t disclosed by Bitfinex, is now being pursued as “fraud” by one of the top lawyers in the State of New York.

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“Unfortunately” doesn’t belong in that last paragraph. I mean, call me curmudgeonly, but there was no accident there. Bitfinex did it on purpose. The writer shouldn’t have written it, and any editor should have struck it out. Complain about fake news if you like, but the problem starts with substandard news; the internet largely killed trade publications by taking away the oxygen of advertising, which tore up the training ground for the rest of the business. “Unfortunately”.

Also, I’m still very suspicious of Bitfinex.
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Huawei exec: the foldable Mate X with Android intact to launch by September • TechRadar

Matt Swider:

»

The foldable Huawei Mate X is still coming and we know when it’ll launch: September or sooner, according to a Huawei executive who spoke to TechRadar this week.

“It’s coming in September – at the latest,” said Vincent Pang, President of Huawei’s Western European Region, while visiting New York City. “Probably earlier, but definitely September is guaranteed.”

Where will the Huawei Mate X launch? “Any country that has 5G,” Pang told us, making sure to remind us that Huawei’s foldable phone is a 5G phone. 

This was likely stressed because the Samsung Galaxy Fold launched with a 4G LTE version (before ultimately being recalled), with a 5G version only spoken about once and never officially priced.

Of course, Pang’s “any country that has 5G” comment comes with a caveat. The Mate X isn’t coming to the US, which is no surprise given the Huawei ban in the US…

…will the Mate X actually run Android and its apps when it launches?

“Yes,” Pang told us. “Because it has already been announced,” suggesting that it may fall outside of Trump administration’s ban on US companies (including software companies like Google) from dealing with Huawei.

«

Minor detail: the Galaxy Fold didn’t launch. They sent some to reviewers. Makes sense that the Mate will have Android – it was kitted out before the US ban – but updates might be in question.

September feels a long, long way off, though. Yet it’ll be here in a smattering of weeks.
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