Start Up: Facebook’s antiviral, Brexit’s immigration woes, Lenovo’s coming writedown, and more

The Atari 2600 video game Dragster had a world record of 5.51 seconds for completion – until the end of January. (Yes, this is Lego.) Photo by Aaron on Flickr.

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0800GMT each weekday). You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.«

A selection of 10 links for you. Still no Mac, now also using Apple Pencil. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The leaked Brexit analysis shows how cutting EU immigration will hit the UK economy • Buzzfeed

Alberto Nardelli:


BuzzFeed News revealed on Monday that the [secret] assessment, compiled by officials across Whitehall for the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), said UK economic growth would be lower under all three main Brexit scenarios that were modelled.

The analysis also includes several potential immigration policies to illustrate the impact falling EU migration after Brexit would have on the economy.

It shows that the negative impact of a stricter immigration policy – replacing free movement with arrangements in line with those for non-EU citizens – would be far bigger than the 0.2% boost to economic growth that a US trade deal is calculated to bring.

Even a more flexible immigration policy, which would lead to a smaller drop in migration from the EU, would still be enough by itself to cancel out the benefits of a US deal, the document shows.

The findings starkly illustrate the difficulties Theresa May faces as she attempts to shape a Brexit deal that minimises the long term hit on the economy while satisfying the demands of Leave voters.


The obvious, and severe, impact will be on the NHS, where recruitment will be much more difficult because of the costs involved in moving to the UK compared to the free movement regime now.

What’s odd is how roundabout Buzzfeed’s reporting is. There’s no detail in the story – possibly to protect the person who leaked it to them.
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Twitter followers vanish amid inquiries into fake accounts • NY Times

Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel Dance and Rich Harris:


More than a million followers have disappeared from the accounts of dozens of prominent Twitter users in recent days as the company faces growing criticism over the proliferation of fake accounts and scrutiny from federal and state inquiries into the shadowy firms that sell fake followers.

The people losing followers include an array of entertainers, entrepreneurs, athletes and media figures, many of whom bought Twitter followers or artificial engagement from a company called Devumi. Its business practices were detailed in a New York Times article on Saturday describing a vast trade in fake followers and fraudulent engagement on Twitter and other social media sites, often using personal information taken from real users. Twitter said on Saturday that it would take action against Devumi’s practices. A Twitter spokeswoman on Tuesday declined to comment about whether the company was purging fake accounts.

The singer Clay Aiken, the actor John Leguizamo and the reality TV star Lisa Rinna have each lost a substantial number of followers, according to a review of their accounts. So has Martha Lane Fox, a British businesswoman and Twitter board member. Other well-known users have taken to Twitter in recent days to complain of lost followers, suggesting that a broad swath of people may be affected, not just Devumi customers.


Only a million?
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All followers are fake followers • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:


The investor Mark Cuban called for a real-name policy on services like Twitter, arguing that “there needs to be a single human behind every individual account.” That’s a terrible idea: As the entrepreneur Anil Dash has argued, it would endanger marginalized people without improving trust. But Cuban’s reform does square with the Times’ take on virtue and wickedness at Twitter. Just shine light upon the shadows of the black market to put an end to the corruption. Then ordinary folk can be freed from the lust for fame that would rob them of their true selves.

But this is a fairy-tale story about the internet. Fraud is not the ultimate problem with fake social-media activity. The hustle itself is the blight. It produces the racket that sucks so many into its orbit. Salle Ingle is stuck in the same rat race as Kathy Ireland, and you and me, too. We just encounter it at different scales.

The culprit is the numbers themselves, not the lies that augment them, nor the profits made in doing so. The only reason there can be a market, let alone a black market, for social-media engagement is because these services are marketplaces of attention, not of ideas, products, or services. That’s why Twitter counts followers, likes, retweets, and all the rest so prominently. If the numbers were less visible, or entirely hidden, everyone might live more meaningful, more productive lives online, using posts as means to ends rather than as circulations within the system. It’s hard to imagine such a change taking place while companies like Twitter rely on the aspiration of visible metrics as a compulsion to use their services. That compulsion produces the attention necessary to sell advertisers and satisfy investors.


It can be hard to ignore the numbers – ooh look they’re only a tab away! – but they mean so little, in general, that they’re better ignored.
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Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook changes reduced time spent on site by 50 million hours a day in Q4 • CNBC

John Shinal:


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that the changes the company made to its service last year reduced time spent on the site by 50 million hours per day.

“Already last quarter, we made changes to show fewer viral videos to make sure people’s time is well spent. In total, we made changes that reduced time spent on Facebook by roughly 50 million hours every day. By focusing on meaningful connections, our community and business will be stronger over the long term,” Zuckerberg wrote.

The company has also begun to make changes to its content-recommendation software amid criticism that Facebook has been used to spread misinformation, hate speech and other violent content.

Last April, a Facebook user recorded and uploaded a video of himself killing an elderly man.

On the company’s previous earnings call in November, Zuckerberg had said: “I want to be clear about what our priority is. Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.”


50 million hours per day! Divided by, umm, 2.13 billion monthly active users. So that’s 1.5 billion hours per month, or less than an hour per user per month, or less than a couple of minutes per day.
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Smartphone addiction made me restless, anxious and muddled • The Pool

Sali Hughes realised she was addicted.. to her phone:


We spend train journeys not looking out of the window or reading a book, but staring at a screen, cycling aimlessly through apps, chasing another hit. Instead of experiencing boredom, clarity and calm, we’re in a constant state of stimulation, where there’s simply not enough room for new memories, ideas, fantasies or plans (according to the experts, multitasking is a myth. Every time you move from an IM chat to your work, you unavoidably lose concentration and damage productivity). Meanwhile, apps and smartphones are painstakingly designed to keep us on them for as long as possible, in order to gather our data and expose us to targeted advertising, while heavy users are becoming more depressed.

Having spent a whole day shouting, “OH, MY GOD!” and reading passages of the book [How To Break Up With Your Phone, out on 9 February] aloud, I enthusiastically began adopting How To Break Up With Your Phone’s plan to restore sanity to my phone use. Like a smoker throwing their fags in a skip, I deleted my most-used social apps (Facebook and Twitter) so, whenever tempted to use them, I’d have to decide if I could be bothered to log in on the websites (usually not). I disabled notifications on WhatsApp and Messenger, and reorganised these and my dozens of other apps, tiling my home screen with neat folders, like Travel, Work Essentials and Games, so the myriad colourful icons weren’t constantly staring, pleading at me.


It’s a topic that keeps coming up, but there are many ways to discover it. (The Amazon affiliate link is The Pool’s, not mine, so support them. Don’t buy the Kindle version, for I hope obvious reasons.)
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Lenovo heads for a goodwill iceberg • Bloomberg Gadfly

Tim Culpan:


There’s absolutely no doubt, based on management’s previous public statements, that those units [Motorola’s mobile business and IBM’s server business] bought at a cost of $5bn are performing worse than expected. What’s extraordinary is that after four years Lenovo hasn’t recognized such impairment and allows the goodwill to sit on the balance sheet.

Reporting standards only require a test of goodwill to be done annually, so it’s reasonable not to see anything announced in the past few quarters. But the company’s financial year is coming to an end March 31, so the clock is ticking.

You can understand management’s reticence. After a slew of deals in the late 2000s, Acer, a Taiwanese PC maker, clung to inflated goodwill figures despite clear signs that the acquisitions weren’t bearing fruit. In the end, it had to conduct an IAS36 impairment test and recognized a NT$9.4bn ($335m) writedown, enough to plunge Acer into a record annual loss and spur the ousting of its chairman and CEO.

That impairment was equivalent to about 24% of Acer’s total intangible assets at the time.

For Lenovo, I calculate it would take a mere 10.3% writedown to push it into a loss for the current fiscal year – and that’s only for an impairment on goodwill, and only at the mobile and server divisions. A deeper, 20% impairment on those units would bring about a record annual loss.


This is a terrific insight. Lenovo was clearly suffering from hubris when it took on Motorola and the IBM server division. The PC division is the only thing keeping it afloat.
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US probes Apple over updates that slow older iPhones • Bloomberg

Tom Schoenberg, Matt Robinson and Mark Gurman:


The US Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating whether Apple violated securities laws concerning its disclosures about a software update that slowed some handsets, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News on Tuesday. The US government has requested information from the company, according to the people, who asked not to be named because the probe is private.

The inquiry is in early stages, they cautioned, and it’s too soon to conclude any enforcement will follow. Investigators are looking into public statements made by Apple on the situation, they added. While the slowdown has frustrated consumers, investigators are concerned the company may have misled investors about the performance of older phones. 

“We have received questions from some government agencies and we are responding to them,” an Apple spokeswoman said. She reiterated an earlier statement that the company “never — and would never — do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades.”


Prediction: this is going to go nowhere.
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Scoop: Apple delays iOS features to focus on reliability, performance • Axios

Ina Fried:


Software head Craig Federighi announced the revised plan to employees at a meeting earlier this month, shortly before he and some top lieutenants headed to a company offsite.

On the cutting board: Pushed into 2019 are a number of features including a refresh of the home screen and in-car user interfaces, improvements to core apps like mail and updates to the picture-taking, photo editing and sharing experiences.

What made it: There will be some new features, of course, including improvements in augmented reality, digital health and parental controls. In addition, Apple is prioritizing work to make iPhones more responsive and less prone to cause customer support issues.

But, but but: While a renewed focus on quality and performance might ease some outside criticism, some inside the team question whether the approach will actual lead to higher quality. Plus, customers tend to pay for features more than security and reliability, which are tough to assess at the time of purchase.


I don’t think customers pay for software features on phones. They pay for the phones, and the software comes along for the ride; its quality decides whether they pony up when it comes time to replace it, though. (A friend told me today how his Moto G died on him in France. Annoyed, he has replaced it with an iPhone 6S, which he’s delighted with.)

The offsite meeting might be the “top 100” group which sees what it coming up for the rest of the year. New Mac Pro, iPhones.. what else?
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South Korea says no plans to ban cryptocurrency exchanges, uncovers $600m of illegal trades • Reuters

Dahee Kim and Cynthia Kim:


South Korea has been at the forefront of pushing for broad regulatory oversight of cryptocurrency trading as many locals, including students and housewives, jumped into a frenzied market despite warnings from policy makers around the world of a bubble.

Seoul previously said that it is considering shutting down local cryptocurrency exchanges, which threw the market into turmoil and hammered bitcoin prices. Officials later clarified that an outright ban is only one of the steps being considered, and a final decision was yet to be made.

Customs said about 637.5bn won ($596.02m) worth of foreign exchange crimes were detected.

Illegal foreign currency trading of 472.3bn won formed the bulk of the cryptocurrency crimes, it said in a statement, but gave no details on what action authorities were taking against the rule breaches.

In one case, an illegal FX agency collected a total of 1.7bn won ($1.59m) from local residents in a form of “electric wallet” coins to transfer it to a partner agent abroad. The partner agent then cashed them out and distributed the settlement to clients based in that country, according to the statement.


South Korea is going to get hurt when this goes south, as it inevitably must – it’s still on a par with trading cowrie shells, which is fine as long as nobody asks “why are we trading cowrie shells, especially as we keep getting ripped off?”
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A man accused of cheating at video games may lose his Guinness World Record • Washington Post

Amy B Wang:


In 1982, a player named Todd Rogers supposedly recorded a time of 5.51 seconds on Dragster, a driving simulation — in the most rudimentary, early-’80s sense, anyhow — that requires shifting gears at just the right time to maximize the “car’s” speed across the screen.

To prove his feat, as his story goes, Rogers said he took a Polaroid picture of his 5.51-second time and sent it to Activision, the game’s publisher, which confirmed the score.

In 2000, Rogers’s score, as recorded by Activision, would eventually be formally imported into the databases of Twin Galaxies, a group that keeps track of video game records around the world. Through the ensuing years, other game records would rise and fall on the Twin Galaxies scoreboards, but the closest anyone could come to beating Rogers in Dragster was 5.57 seconds.

In 2001, Guinness World Records recognized Rogers as having the longest-standing video game record in the world. His 1982 Dragster time, it seemed, was ironclad.

Until Monday.

Faced with a growing number of complaints that Rogers had falsified his time, as well as an increasing pile of evidence suggesting that a 5.51-second run on Dragster was technically impossible, Twin Galaxies announced Monday that it had thrown out all of Rogers’s records — not simply his 1982 Dragster time — and banned him for life from its scoreboards.


This is an amazing story – reminiscent of the fantastic documentary King Of Kong (which if you haven’t seen, you really should). Read more at the Twin Galaxies site; it’s as though an Olympic winner had been found to be cheating decades later. And there’s also Rogers’s response – which is a long way short of a rebuttal – on Pastebin.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yes, OK, yesterday’s post (and hence email) didn’t have a subject line. Oops.

Start Up: pricing iPhones, see humans evolve!, why credit systems are broken, Manc-y Oyster, and more

In 2011, Facebook compared political ads on its site to – guess what? Photo by vijay chennupati on Flickr.

Hey web readers: 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. You can choose not to pay $1,000 for them. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

AI will soon identify protesters with their faces partly concealed • Motherboard

Louise Matsakis:


A new paper to be presented at the IEEE International Conference on Computer Vision Workshops (ICCVW) introduces a deep-learning algorithm—a subset of machine learning used to detect and model patterns in large heaps of data—that can identify an individual even when part of their face is obscured. The system was able to correctly identify a person concealed by a scarf 67% of the time when they were photographed against a “complex” background, which better resembles real-world conditions.

The deep-learning algorithm works in a novel way. The researchers, from Cambridge University, India’s National Institute of Technology, and the Indian Institute of Science, first outlined 14 key areas of the face, and then trained a deep-learning model to identify them. The algorithm connects the points into a “star-net structure,” and uses the angles between the points to identify a face. The algorithm can still identify those angles even when part of a person’s mug is obscured, by disguises including caps, scarves, and glasses.

The research has troubling implications for protestors and other dissidents, who often work to make sure they aren’t ID’d at protests and other demonstrations by covering their faces with scarves or by wearing sunglasses. “To be honest when I was trying to come up with this method, I was just trying to focus on criminals,” Amarjot Singh, one of the researchers behind the paper and a Ph.D student at Cambridge University, told me on a phone call.

Singh said he isn’t sure how to prevent the technology from being used by authoritarian regimes in the future.


But note that this is a long way from reliability, or real-time, or anything that would stand up in court. 67% accuracy sounds a lot, but it leaves gigantic holes for doubt. That won’t stop authoritarian regimes using it, of course.

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Your next phone will probably cost you $1,000 • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


On Tuesday, Apple will introduce its latest top-of-the-line iPhone, and even the cheapest model is expected to cost about $1,000. A few days later, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 goes on sale for a comparable amount. The iPhone is expected to be made from glass and stainless steel, while the Note has an exceptionally large, bright screen with a metal-and-glass case. New features for the iPhone will include upgraded cameras and the ability to unlock your phone with a 3D scan of your face. All that stuff has pushed up prices, and there’s a risk that even many longtime early adopters will balk at laying out four figures, including tax.

“A thousand dollars is a line in the sand,” says Ramon Llamas, an analyst at researcher IDC. “There’s going to be a comparison of what $1,000 is to people’s everyday lives, and whether or not that purchase is justified. For some people, $1,000 represents a single paycheck. For others, it represents several weeks of groceries.”


That’s the cheapest model of the top-of-the-line phone, and nobody is forcing you to buy that one. These articles are written as though people were being lined up at the point of bayonets and made to purchase them.

Nice graphic though. The reason why prices keep moving up: it’s where the profit margin is.
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Autonomous cars: the level 5 fallacy • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée on the idea that cars will be completely self-driving (“Level 5”):


In prior Monday Notes that discussed electric and autonomous cars, a subject of endless fascination, I evoked scenarios where SD cars can’t cope with circumstances that require human intervention. Today, I’ll offer the pedestrian crossing at the intersection of Hayes and Octavia in San Francisco:

Understandably, the Google Street View picture was taken in the early morning. Now, imagine the 1 pm Sunday scene with crowded sidewalks and sticky car traffic. In today’s world, pedestrians and drivers manage a peaceful if hiccuping coexistence. Through eye contact, nods, hand signals, and, yes, courteous restraint, pedestrians decide to sometimes forfeit their right-of-way and let a few cars come through. On the whole, drivers are equally patient and polite (an unceasing subject of amazement for Parisians walking the streets of San Francisco).

Can we “algorithmicize” eye contact and stuttering restraint? Can an SD car acknowledge a pedestrian’s nod, or negotiate “turning rights” with a conventional vehicle?

No, we can’t. And we don’t appear to have a path to overcome such “mundane” challenges.
But you don’t have to believe me, or think I’m not “with it”. We can listen to Chris Urmson, Google’s Director of Self-Driving Cars from 2013 to late 2016 (he had joined the team in 2009). In a SXSW talk in early 2016, Urmson gives a sobering yet helpful vision of the project’s future, summarized by Lee Gomes in an IEEE Spectrum article [as always, edits and emphasis mine]:


“Not only might it take much longer to arrive than the company has ever indicated — as long as 30 years, said Urmson — but the early commercial versions might well be limited to certain geographies and weather conditions. Self-driving cars are much easier to engineer for sunny weather and wide-open roads, and Urmson suggested the cars might be sold for those markets first.”



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How to generate FiveThirtyEight graphs in Python • Dataquest

Alexandru Olteanu:


If you read data science articles, you may have already stumbled upon FiveThirtyEight’s content. Naturally, you were impressed by their awesome visualizations. You wanted to make your own awesome visualizations and so asked Quora and Reddit how to do it. You received some answers, but they were rather vague. You still can’t get the graphs done yourself.

In this post, we’ll help you. Using Python’s matplotlib and pandas, we’ll see that it’s rather easy to replicate the core parts of any FiveThirtyEight (FTE) visualization.

We’ll start here:

And, at the end of the tutorial, arrive here:

To follow along, you’ll need at least some basic knowledge of Python. If you know what’s the difference between methods and attributes, then you’re good to go.


If you’re into Python and graphs, this is what you want.
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Taxi medallions, once a safe investment, now drag owners into debt • The New York Times

Winnie Hu:


Owning a yellow cab has left Issa Isac in deep debt and facing a precarious future.

It was not supposed to turn out this way when Mr. Isac slid behind the wheel in 2005. Soon he was earning $200 a night driving. Three years later, he borrowed $335,000 to buy a New York City taxi medallion, which gave him the right to operate his own cab.

But now Mr. Isac earns half of what he did when he started, as riders have defected to Uber and other competitors. He stopped making the $2,700-a-month loan payment on his medallion in February because he was broke. Last month, it was sold to help pay his debts.

“I see my future crashing down,” said Mr. Isac, 46, an immigrant from Burkina Faso. “I worry every day. Sometimes, I can’t sleep thinking about it. Everything changed overnight.”

Taxi ownership once seemed a guaranteed route to financial security, something that was more tangible and reliable than the stock market since people hailed cabs in good times and bad. Generations of new immigrants toiled away for years to earn enough to buy a coveted medallion. Those who had them took pride in them, and viewed them as their retirement fund.

Uber and other ride-hail apps have upended all that.


The New York taxi medallion business is crashing, hard. Difficult not to see this as people who happened to be looking in the wrong direction when the articulated lorry of technological change came down the road.
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Our entire credit bureau system is broken • The Verge

Russell Brandom:


It’s easy to point to Equifax [the credit reference agency which was thoroughly hacked] as the problem, and its poor handling of the breach (and possible insider trading) certainly doesn’t help. But the problem is bigger than any single company. In a world flooded with information, we’re still relying on a tiny set of sensitive data to protect us from fraud, and putting the burden on the average consumer when that data leaks out. We treat data as private when it’s already been exposed in breach after breach. This system has reached its breaking point. It’s time to burn it all down and start over.

In the most basic terms, credit bureaus work as a reputation service. You submit someone’s name and get back a report on all the money they’ve borrowed over the years and how it’s been repaid. That’s valuable information if you’re deciding whether to lend someone money, so businesses (or their customers) are often willing to pay for it. In that situation, the biggest risk to the lender is an impostor who runs up someone else’s tab and then skips town. So along the way, credit bureaus have become an identity service, too. Along with the potential client’s name, they ask for a Social Security number, and if those things don’t match, they know they’re dealing with fraud.

This is a terrible way to manage identity. From afar, a Social Security number looks kind of like a password. But you can change a password, and you shouldn’t use the same one with every service. To get slightly more technical, you can hash passwords, which lets services verify your identity without keeping your exact password easily available. Right now, I could count the number of places my Gmail password exists anywhere on one hand, whereas I’ve been writing my Social Security number on forms since I was 12. By now, hundreds of organizations have it, from old jobs to old dentists. That number was never going to be safe from scammers. The system was set up for failure from the very beginning.


Powerful, and spot-on, piece.
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Massive genetic study shows how humans are evolving • Nature News & Comment

Bruno Martin:


A huge genetic study that sought to pinpoint how the human genome is evolving suggests that natural selection is getting rid of harmful genetic mutations that shorten people’s lives. The work, published in PLoS Biology1, analysed DNA from 215,000 people and is one of the first attempts to probe directly how humans are evolving over one or two generations.

To identify which bits of the human genome might be evolving, researchers scoured large US and UK genetic databases for mutations whose prevalence changed across different age groups. For each person, the parents’ age of death was recorded as a measure of longevity, or their own age in some cases.

“If a genetic variant influences survival, its frequency should change with the age of the surviving individuals,” says Hakhamanesh Mostafavi, an evolutionary biologist at Columbia University in New York City who led the study. People who carry a harmful genetic variant die at a higher rate, so the variant becomes rarer in the older portion of the population.

Mostafavi and his colleagues tested more than 8 million common mutations, and found two that seemed to become less prevalent with age. A variant of the APOE gene, which is strongly linked to Alzheimer’s disease, was rarely found in women over 70. And a mutation in the CHRNA3 gene associated with heavy smoking in men petered out in the population starting in middle age. People without these mutations have a survival edge and are more likely to live longer, the researchers suggest.

This is not, by itself, evidence of evolution at work. In evolutionary terms, having a long life isn’t as important as having a reproductively fruitful one, with many children who survive into adulthood and birth their own offspring. So harmful mutations that exert their effects after reproductive age could be expected to be ‘neutral’ in the eyes of evolution, and not selected against.

But if that were the case, there would be plenty of such mutations still kicking around in the genome, the authors argue.


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Google appeals against EU’s €2.4bn fine over search engine results • The Guardian

Daniel Boffey:


Google is appealing against the record €2.4bn (£2.2bn) fine imposed by the European Union for its abuse of its dominance of the search engine market in building its shopping comparison service.

The world’s most popular internet search engine has launched its appeal after it was fined by the European commission for what was described as an “old school” form of illegality.

The Luxembourg-based general court, Europe’s second-highest, is expected to take several years before ruling on Google’s appeal, which had been widely expected. The Silicon Valley giant had responded to the fine at the time of its announcement by saying that it “respectfully” disagreed with the legal argument being pursued.


But still has to stop boosting its shopping service in contravention of EC rules; has until 28 September to comply. The EC is looking at its proposal on this, apparently.
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May 2011: Facebook: exempt us from federal election commission rules • POLITICO

Jennifer Epstein, in May 2011:


Facebook, the company that has helped put so much of what was once private out in open on the web, is looking for a sort of corporate privacy setting of its own — the company is looking to ensure that it is exempt from federal election rules requiring campaign advertisements to include disclosures of who paid for them.

In a request to the Federal Election Commission made late last month, lawyers for the social networking powerhouse argued that the small ads on Facebook’s website should not have to include disclosures because of the limited amounts of room for text.

While it’s easy to include disclosures on a television ad, billboard or email, Facebook argues, it’s more difficult with the tiny ads posted along the side of its webpages. “With some mediums … – e.g. bumper stickers, buttons, pens, T-shirts, concert tickets, and text messages – it is inconvenient or impracticable to include a disclaimer,” three lawyers from the Washington office of the firm Perkins Coie write in their request for an advisory opinion from the FEC.

The company says it has made a conscious decision to keep the ads on its site small and less obtrusive to the user experience, and does not want to take away from that experience or penalize campaign advertisers. “Facebook gives a wide range of candidates and causes a voice where they would otherwise not be able to afford one through more traditional political advertising,” spokesman Andrew Noyes said in a statement to POLITICO. “We encourage the FEC to consider these benefits and other fundamental differences between some online ad formats and newspaper and TV advertising.”


Facebook was in effect claiming that its ads – including the political ones – are the equivalent of skywriting (which doesn’t need disclosure about who paid for it). The FEC agreed. This, of course, turns out to have been a significant turning point, even though nobody saw it at the time.

Imagine if all the political ads on Facebook in the 2016 election had had to declare who bought them. The discourse around the company would be very different. (Twitter too have used this get-out, I believe.)
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A beginner’s guide to using My Get Me There • Medium

Susil Nash on “Manchester’s hilarious attempt at reinventing London’s Oyster” (the latter, for Americans, is an RFID system which can be used to pay contactlessly for trips on buses and underground; it’s worked, pretty much perfectly, since 2004:


The first of the new system’s fun quirks is that My Get Me There isn’t just a card. It’s an app too. Now, you might think that’s to be expected — it’s a convenient way to manage your card, right? The two work together in harmony, right? Wrong. The app and the (presumably ironically-named) ‘Smart Card’ are two completely separate systems that work entirely independently of one another.

Your first decision is therefore whether to opt for the app, the Smart Card or, as will be the case for most travellers, both. The app is certainly less tricky to get hold of (more on that in a moment) but the significant downside is that it can only be used on Metrolink — Manchester’s tram network. Which means no smartphone fun for Team Bus or the vehicle-agnostics, but app-tastic news for all tram devotees.
Having said that, there are a couple of things that even you dedicated Metrolinkers should watch out for before ditching the paper tix. Firstly, know that you’ll need to make sure you’re not low on battery when heading out the door because, if your phone gives up mid-travels, you could be hit with a £100 fine. Secondly, you’ll need to remain online… ish. The reason for the ‘ish’ is that you don’t actually need web access to use the app once you’ve bought your ticket. However, any tickets on your phone will expire if that device “has not been connected to the internet for a long period” (that’s literally the timescale specified on their website).

So do make sure your phone has a plenty of juice and has been connected to the internet at least once in the most recent ‘long period’.


Even worse: it’s not a top-up scheme. It’s a “specific tickets for specific journeys” system. And you have to be over 16. It’s as if they wanted to keep cash forever.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Vertu sold for £50m, your Facebook data selfie, the tiny workstation market, and more

Then again, “passwört” might make a good password if hackers only use English dictionaries. Photo by Joachim S Müller on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Turkish exile snaps up smartphone maker Vertu for £50m • Daily Telegraph

Christopher Williams:


The scion of an exiled and secretive Turkish business dynasty has bought the British smartphone maker Vertu, which targets the wealthy buyers with handsets costing up to £40,000.

The Daily Telegraph can reveal that Baferton Ltd, a Cyprus-registered vehicle funded by Hakan Uzan, has paid around £50m to acquire the Hampshire manufacturer from its Chinese owners Godin Holdings.

Mr Uzan is part of one of Turkey’s most controversial families and was once found in contempt of court in Britain. He has tangled in court with the current President of the United States and Nokia, the mobile giant that created Vertu in the first place.

Nokia built Vertu in the late 1990s to carve out a niche for handmade devices based on expensive materials including sapphire screens, ostrich leather casing and titanium frames.


Read the story for how he got into a row with Nokia. I don’t think Vertu is long for this world.
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Password rules are bullshit • Coding Horror

Jeff Atwood:


If you examine the data, this also turns into an argument in favor of password length. Note that only 5 of the top 25 passwords are 10 characters, so if we require 10 character passwords, we’ve already reduced our exposure to the most common passwords by 80%. I saw this originally when I gathered millions and millions of leaked passwords for Discourse research, then filtered the list down to just those passwords reflecting our new minimum requirement of 10 characters or more.

It suddenly became a tiny list. (If you’ve done similar common password research, please do share your results in the comments.)


This is a terrific rant by Atwood, but it also contains lots of good points about passwords.
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What does my Facebook data say about me? I found out using Data Selfie • This Is Not a Sociology Blog

Christopher Harpertill:


What is most interesting is not so much what [social networks] do know about us but rather what they want to know about us and how they go about categorising us. As the philosopher of science Ian Hacking has pointed out, the categorisation of people is not a neutral act. When we create “human kinds” (categories or types of people) this has a “looping effect”. He suggests that:

To create new ways of classifying people is also to change how we can think of ourselves, to change our sense of self-worth, even how we remember our own past. This in turn generates a looping effect because people of the kind behave differently and so are different.

The problem with the kind of categorisation which Data Selfie reveals is that we are not aware of the classifications which are produced by social networks but our experiences are shaped by them anyway. The adverts and news articles we see online are chosen for us by the kinds the kind of analysis I’ve discussed here. More worryingly social media data (and the classifications they produce) are used to identify potential terrorists and in China to feed into an all purpose “social credit system” which will determine peoples’ access to services and act as a tool of “social management”.  Tools such as Data Selfie are really valuable for highlighting how opaque systems are being used to analyse us but we also have to think very carefully about how these might be used.


As a way of finding out what Facebook thinks of you, it’s quite effective. Of course, Facebook is wrong about you.

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Workstation market shipment increased 20% in fourth quarter • GraphicSpeak

Randall Newton:


The workstation market is thriving. In 2Q16, Jon Peddie Research reported results as inspiring. 3Q16 results were even better, record-setting. 4Q16 results require a new level of superlatives. If a mature market like this one can be said to have a “blowout” quarter, this would be it.

With total shipments of around 1.23 million units, the worldwide market for workstations grew at 20.1% year over year (with revenue close behind at 18.6%).


And that’s a record shipment figure. I never knew the workstation market was so tiny. Unless most of those in use are actually assembled from motherboards. And it’s split between HP and Dell (38%, 35%) with Lenovo in third place with 14%.

So that’s 0.47m units for HP in its record quarter.
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Glitch • Fog Creek Software

A new web offering from the Fog Creek bunch:


Glitch is the friendly community where you’ll build the app of your dreams

With working example apps to remix, a code editor to modify them, instant hosting and deployment – anybody can build a web app on Glitch, for free.


The idea is that it’s collaborative coding, rather like Google Docs is for writing on the web. Worth a look if that’s your thing.
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Why international first class is slowly disappearing from airlines • Skift

Brian Sumers:


As recently as a decade ago, passengers on most airlines who wanted a flat-bed often had one option — international first class. In business class, airlines usually had a cradle-style seat, or an angled flat-seat. Both are comfortable, but neither is as conducive to a good-night’s rest as a flat seat.

Now, nearly every international airline has an adequate flat bed in business class. Most have some drawbacks — they’re usually not as wide or as long as first class beds, and they often don’t have as much room for storage or a passenger’s feet as flyers would like — but they are sufficient. And business class seats, even the most generous ones, take up less space than first class, so carriers can sell more of them.

Over time, even the most flush companies started requiring executives to fly in business class. Now, airlines with first class are chasing a small segment of passengers who see value in a larger seat with more personalized service. From some destinations, like Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, London, Dubai, and Hong Kong, enough customers exist. But on others, few passengers will pay a premium.

Keeping an industry-leading first class can be expensive. With the gap in seat quality narrowing, airlines often make up the difference by offering over-the-top amenities passengers don’t need. Many serve caviar and expensive champagne, even though the New York Times recently noted that $100 (or more) per bottle champagne doesn’t taste great at altitude.

Some airlines, like Lufthansa, have dedicated first class lounges and car services that whisk passengers from one gate to another, so they need not walk through the terminal. Others, like Emirates and Etihad, have onboard showers.


Those showers are the ones which have Jennifer Aniston installed, right? Odd though how the elite elements of air travel are being whittled away: first Concorde, now first class.
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Trump supporters protest The Man In The High Castle’s anti-Nazi radio station • The A.V. Club

Sean O’Neal:


As part of an ad campaign for its original series The Man In The High Castle, Amazon recently launched Resistance Radio, a streaming station set, like the Philip K. Dick adaptation itself, in an alternate 1962 America run by fascists. The pre-recorded program features “bootleg songs” alongside interstitials where underground DJs talk about standing up to Nazis, urging listeners to keep the fight alive in a nation that’s been overrun by fear, oppression, and authoritarian rule. For whatever reason, some conservatives have interpreted this as being about Donald Trump. And faced with what appears to be such a strong anti-Nazi statement, and a call for people who still believe in American ideals to stand up against the country’s destruction, naturally these patriots have rushed to loudly denounce it.

As io9 reported, a dystopian satire of the kind even Dick could not have imagined has played out today under Twitter’s #ResistanceRadio hashtag, which shot to the top of the site’s trending list thanks to a clearly demarcated paid promotion (or, as some have suggested, Twitter’s obvious liberal conspiracy). There, loyalists with as many as two American flag emojis in their usernames have been bravely standing up to this stupid, leftist, “don’t be a Nazi” claptrap, sneering generally at the prospect of anyone “resisting” anything, and laughing at all those idiots who just don’t get it.


So hard to think why these conservatives would think something anti-Nazi could be about Donald Trump and his minions. 🤔
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Pandora has to face the music • Bloomberg Gadfly

Tara Lachapelle:


Here’s the predicament: Given Pandora’s strapped finances and inferior competitive position, the company should sell itself. But there’s really only one suitor out there, and that’s Sirius XM Holdings Inc., by way of Liberty Media Corp., Sirius’s current majority owner and potentially its future 100% owner.

[Greg] Maffei is chairman of Sirius and CEO of Liberty Media, while dealmaking titan John Malone is chairman of Liberty. They’ve made their interest in Pandora no secret, but there’s a wide gap between what they’d be willing to pay and what Pandora founder and CEO Tim Westergren will accept.

Asked about a deal at an investor conference last week, Maffei stirred the pot:


I would buy Pandora if it were not $13. Do you want to sell it for $10? We probably will buy it. They aren’t selling for $10.


In fact, $13 might not even cut it. Sirius reportedly made an offer of as high as $15 a share in 2016 that was rejected by Pandora’s board. But Westergren is a member of the board who happens to be up for reelection in a couple of months. And the company’s second-largest shareholder is activist hedge fund Corvex Management, which has been pressuring Pandora to sell itself.


Pandora’s IPO price was $16 in 2011. But it burnt through $241m in cash in 2016. It’s going to need a buyer. SoundCloud, Tidal, Pandora – 2017 is going to be brutal in the streaming music business, just like 2016 was. Meanwhile Westergren says Pandora will be profitable this year. I’ll bet against that one.
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The Commuter trucker jacket is a connected piece of apparel from Levi’s and Google • Digital Trends

Lulu Chang:


Why have a wearable on your wrist when you can have it all over your torso? Two years after first teasing us with its line of connected clothing, Google and Levi’s have put us out of our misery. The first piece to come out of Project Jacquard is the Commuter Trucker jacket, and as a reward for waiting so long, you’ll have to pay $350 for the garment.

The key to the Commuter is the fabric of the jacket’s left sleeve. While technically powered by a rechargeable tag that’s found on the inside of the sleeve, the very material of the jacket is itself smart. Indeed, its comprised of a conductive yarn that could theoretically be woven into any fabric, and as a result, any sort of clothing. From there, you could just touch your clothing as you would a touchscreen in order to activate certain functionalities, like playing music.

As it stands, Google is trying to figure out how third-party developers can contribute to the platform, which means that for the time being, the Commuter will only be able to manipulate the core functionality of your smartphone, like answering the phone, reading texts, or managing your Calendar and figuring out Maps. And because this is a Google product, it probably won’t work so well with your iPhone.


I detect a certain amount of sarcasm in the “as a reward for waiting so long” bit. It’s pretty clear already that this is the Google Glass of whenever it arrives.
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Gordmans Stores files for bankruptcy with plan to liquidate • Bloomberg

Andrew Dunn:


Omaha, Nebraska-based Gordmans, which operates over 100 stores in 22 states and employs about 5,100 people, is the latest victim in a retail industry suffering from sluggish mall traffic and a move by shoppers to the internet. 

The shift has been especially rough on department stores, including regional chains like Gordmans that once enjoyed strong customer loyalty, but even national concerns like Sears Holdings Corp. and Macy’s Inc. have had to close hundreds of locations to cope with the slump.

Gordmans traces its roots to 1915, when Russian immigrant Sam Richman opened a clothing shop in Omaha. He later teamed up with a former Bloomingdale’s executive, Dan Gordman, whose car broke down in Omaha en route to California. Gordman met Richman’s daughter while he was waiting for his car to be repaired and decided to stick around. The two later married.

Private equity firm Sun Capital Partners bought the business in 2008 and took it public two years later. Funds managed by Sun Capital hold about 49.6% of Gordmans’ equity, according to a court filing.


This feels like a squeeze of the little by the niche, the giant and the online. There isn’t much room in between.
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Rogue Twitter accounts fight to preserve the voice of government science • The Intercept

Alleen Brown:


The Alt_BLM account is one of dozens of “alt” and “rogue” federal agency accounts that launched shortly after Trump’s inauguration, operating under names like altEPA and Rogue POTUS Staff. A number of the accounts are administered by actual federal employees, including three that provided information to the Intercept indicating they work for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, and the Interior Department. Others are run by a cast of characters that includes a former military analyst who worked for the NSA, a union employee, an art student, and a Boeing employee. Most of them declined to be named out of fear of workplace retaliation and pressure to shut down their accounts.

The alt-accounts’ activism is premised on the assumption that their key participants cannot be identified for fear of workplace retaliation, and though their primary act of rebellion is simply tweeting the truth, it’s a setup in many ways primed for exploitation by scammers. In the case of alt-accounts that have used their massive following to sell merchandise, noble motives are virtually unverifiable for followers.


Very notable that she doesn’t mention @RoguePOTUSstaff – which claims to be inside the White House. I expect she tried and got nowhere, so focussed on the science (and labour) ones.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: First: a wine expert who also knows about the restaurant where Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai were pictured tells me that there were wine glasses on the table, and “the staff don’t leave them there if they aren’t used”. So Cook and/or Pichai had some wine.

Second: the .xyz TLD is owned by XYZ, not Google. The security company BlueCoat isn’t impressed by those who hang out at .xyz domains, though they make an exception for Google of course.

Start up: further Russian hacking, MacBook Pro redux, troubled tablets?, Wii U goodbye, and more

US elections are built around a picture of 1950s American which no longer exists. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr.

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Microsoft says Russia-linked hackers exploiting Windows flaw • Reuters

Jim Finkle and Dustin Volz:


Microsoft said on Tuesday that a hacking group previously linked to the Russian government and U.S. political hacks was behind recent cyber attacks that exploited a newly discovered Windows security flaw.

The software maker said in an advisory on its website there had been a small number of attacks using “spear phishing” emails from a hacking group known Strontium, which is more widely known as “Fancy Bear,” or APT 28. Microsoft did not identify any victims.

Microsoft’s disclosure of the new attacks and the link to Russia came after Washington accused Moscow of launching an unprecedented hacking campaign aimed at disrupting and discrediting the upcoming U.S. election.


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Can DDoS attacks trigger ads and make money for the target? • calls itself “a think tank for digital crime fighting”:


Can DDoS attacks trigger ads? 


Yes. All application / layer-7 DDoS attacks trigger ads on the target site by default. The”visits” resulting from some layer-7 DDoS attack are no different from visits from advanced web scrapers visiting a page. This means layer-7 attacks may end up making money for the target and give the incentive to the target to not disclose such attacks. For ad fraud perps, it gives plausible deniability for otherwise highly suspicious patterns  in their traffic profile…

…Questionable sites often use shady ad networks to monetize their traffic, and many such ad networks will welcome any spike in traffic with open arms. Regular ad network commission is 50% or more of the revenue generated by the ad impressions on a site in their network. Therefore they do not always have the right incentives to disqualify suspicious traffic as non-legitimate. Even major networks such as Google have serious issues in proactively dealing with traffic quality. Recent research covering Google’s ad network traffic quality shows evidence for this claim.


Huh. Interesting idea. Hard to prove, though. Which is what makes it interesting.
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‘Normal America’ is not a small town of white people • FiveThirtyEight

Jed Kolko:


I calculated how demographically similar each U.S. metropolitan area is to the U.S. overall, based on age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity. The index equals 100 if a metro’s demographic mix were identical to that of the U.S. overall.

By this measure, the metropolitan area that looks most like the U.S. is New Haven, Connecticut, followed by Tampa, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. All of the 10 large metros that are demographically most similar to the U.S. overall are in the Northeast, Midwest or center of the country, with the exception of Tampa. Two of them — New Haven and Philadelphia — are even on Amtrak’s Acela (that’s “uh-SELL-ah”) line. None is in the West, though Sacramento, California, comes close at No. 12.


Also entertaining, in the same piece, is “places that are most like 1950s America” and this comment:


These misconceptions affect our politics: an outdated view of “normal America” is baked into the presidential election process. Iowa and New Hampshire, which vote first in the primary season and therefore have disproportionate influence, rank 37th and 41st, respectively, in their similarity to the U.S. overall.


Might make sense to start changing that. Power of data and all that.
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The final Wii U will roll off Nintendo’s production line this week •

Tom Phillips:


Nintendo will end Wii U production this Friday, multiple sources have confirmed to Eurogamer.

At the last official count, as of 30th September, Nintendo had shipped 13.36m Wii U consoles. The Wii U’s final tally will likely now be only slightly more.

For comparisons sake, GameCube sold 21m. N64 sold 32m. Wii sold 101m.

Nintendo’s Japanese production line will shut down for the last time this week after the final deadline for orders passed yesterday, Eurogamer understands. Only a small number of further orders were placed.

Wii U launched back in November 2012 and quickly shifted a couple of million units, although sales have been steady to slow ever since.


The original Wii was wonderful because you stood up to use it. It was an action console. The games – Wii Sports and the rest – reflected that. It was energising. The Wii U turned that into a seated console, with that stupid tablet which was too heavy to hold standing up. It completely missed what made the Wii wonderful, even if it did conform to the idea of a “games console” – ironically, just as the time that games in volume were becoming more mobile than ever before.
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Second Life creators head to virtual reality • WSJ

Joanna Stern:


Onstage at The Wall Street Journal’s WSJDLive 2016 global technology conference, Second Life creator Linden Lab demonstrated its forthcoming social virtual reality platform Sansar. It lets you create a 3-D virtual avatar and environment and then invite others to join you.

“Once you can create any space, you can create any social interaction you want,” says Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg. “Whether it is an office, classroom, family room, bar.”


As long as that social interaction is with spooky robots, as evidenced by the picture of the avatars of Joanna Stern and Geoffrey Fowler:

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Debunking Trump’s “secret server” • Errata Security

Rob Graham on the story, via DNS data, that a “Trump server” is “communicating” with “a server in Russia”:


The evidence available on the Internet is that Trump neither (directly) controls the domain “”, nor has access to the server. Instead, the domain was setup and controlled by Cendyn, a company that does marketing/promotions for hotels, including many of Trump’s hotels. Cendyn outsources the email portions of its campaigns to a company called Listrak, which actually owns/operates the physical server in a data center in Philidelphia.

In other words,  Trump’s response is (minus the political bits) likely true, supported by the evidence. It’s the conclusion I came to even before seeing the response.

When you view this “secret” server in context, surrounded by the other email servers operated by Listrak on behalf of Cendyn, it becomes more obvious what’s going on. In the same Internet address range of Trump’s servers you see a bunch of similar servers, many named [client] In other words, is not intended as a normal email server you and I are familiar with, but as a server used for marketing/promotional campaigns.


Slate’s original story always felt like a stretch.
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Twitter tests new ad-blocking Reader mode on mobile • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Twitter is testing a new feature on its iOS app which turns on Apple’s “Reader” mode by default on every link opened in its in-app browser.

First introduced in 2010, and ported to iOS in 2011, Reader mode is a oft-forgotten feature in Safari that strips out most of the formatting from a webpage, removing adverts, navigation links, comments, and almost everything else except for the main content of a text-based article.

In the new test from Twitter, rolled out for a small number of users – including one Guardian reporter – the company has enabled Reader mode by default on every single link clicked.

While the new feature can be a boon for those navigating badly designed web-pages, it also manages to mangle the presentation of almost as many sites. While the feature works well for traditional news articles, anything that isn’t a chunk of text-heavy content in the middle of a page falls apart.

The change will also be worrying for many media organisations: unlike similar light-weight webpage options, such as Facebook Instant Articles and Google’s Amp project, there’s no option to customise the appearance of the Reader version of the page, nor any ability to monetise the views.


Yeah, it’s the latter worrying them. Though there’s no obvious reason why Twitter should be doing this. It seems to be having a bonfire of the vanities at the moment.
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Is that a PC on your desk? Windows hybrids, Macs and iPads struggle for share • ZDNet

Ed Bott:


Does anyone even know what a PC is anymore?

That’s not an idle question. Unfortunately, it’s a reflection of the confusion among analysts covering this space today.

I’ve just reviewed four years’ worth of data from IDC and Gartner, the two big research companies that release regular reports tracking the state of the PC market. IDC publishes its results in its Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, while Gartner’s data is part of its PC Quarterly Statistics Worldwide report. Full reports are a subscribers-only product, but both firms publish detailed press releases with each new publication.

So, if you study both sets of data you’ll get a good handle on the PC market, right?

Spoiler: They can’t even agree on the definition of a PC.

…IDC says a Chromebook is a PC but a Surface Book running Windows 10 isn’t. Gartner counts the entire Surface line but leaves Chromebooks off the list.

To make things even more confusing, Apple (alone among device makers) publishes detailed sales figures for both its iPad and Mac lines. And Tim Cook insists that “the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people.”


Yup, it’s a problem all right; made worse by the purposeful obfuscation by those research companies in their public releases. The companies of course want people to pay for the full data, but there’s plenty of confusion sown because writers get hold of half the story and can’t figure out the other half.
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Low-cost detachables and slates in the lead as tablet market slump persists • IDC


The worldwide tablet market continued its slump as vendors shipped 43m units in the third quarter of 2016 (3Q16), a year-over-year decline of 14.7%, according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker. In contrast to the annual decline, 3Q16 shipments were up 9.8% over the second quarter of 2016 as the larger vendors prepared for the holiday quarter.

Low-cost (sub-$200) detachables also reached an all-time high as vendors like RCA flooded the market. “Unfortunately, many low-cost detachables also deliver a low-cost experience,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. “The race to the bottom is something we have already experienced with slates and it may prove detrimental to the market in the long run as detachables could easily be seen as disposable devices rather than potential PC replacements.”

“Beyond the different end-user experience delivered by low- and high-end tablets, we’re witnessing real tectonic movements in the market with slate companion devices sold at the low-end serving a broader platform strategy, like Amazon is doing with Alexa on its Fire Tablets, and more expensive productivity tools closer to true computing and legitimate notebook replacement devices that should manage to keep average prices up,” said Jean Philippe Bouchard, research director, Tablets at IDC.

Despite Apple’s marketing push for the iPad Pro, the iPad Air and Mini lines have been the models with mass appeal, accounting for more than two-thirds of its shipments this quarter. Although Apple’s tablet shipments declined 6.2% year over year, total iPad-related revenues were flat for the quarter, thanks to the iPad Pro offering.

Samsung continued to hold the number 2 position. Fortunately, the negative press from the Note 7 did not bleed over into its tablet business. However, overreliance on the declining slate market led to a decline of 19.3% compared to 3Q15. Samsung’s attempt to enter the detachable market with its TabPro S at the beginning of 2016 seems to have taken a backseat as its price and positioning remain uncompetitive.


IDC’s comment implies about 3m iPad Pros (both flavours) shipped/sold, but it sounds like Samsung is hanging on by its fingertips. And – the irony – Microsoft’s Surface still doesn’t figure in IDC’s top five, meaning it shipped fewer than 2.4m (possibly more like 1m), even though it arguably chiselled out the niche for the Pro – but also, I’d suggest, did it too early. It’s not just technology; timing matters too.
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Interview Transcription • transcrbr


transcrbr provides a technological solution to transcribing interviews, while retaining the quality of transcriptions created by humans.


Set up by a team including an MSc in AI from Edinburgh, and a former staffer at Google and Microsoft. It’s aiming to create a speech-to-text product using AI to intelligently transcribe interviews. Sign up if you’re interested. I’ve always wondered how soon we’d have this – the improvements in speech-to-text seem to beckon towards it, yet nobody offered it.
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Uber is quietly terrible for women and black people: study • Jalopnik

Damon Lavrinc:


The National Bureau of Economic Research, a respected non-profit and non-partisan research organization, has released the findings of a two-year study that tracked discrimination of riders using Uber, Lyft, and Flywheel in Seattle and Boston. The study was done by researchers at MIT, Stanford and the University of Washington.

The study involved nearly 1,500 rides across the two cities, with work beginning in Seattle late last year to this March. Undergrads from the University of Washington were given identical phones with the three ride-sharing apps pre-loaded, instructed to take a handful of prescribed routes, and then noting when the ride was requested, when it was accepted by the driver, when they were picked up, and finally when they got to their destination.

In the Seattle experiment, trip requests from black riders took between 16 to 28% longer to be accepted by both UberX and Lyft, and breaking UberX out showed a wait time of 29 to 35% longer than their white counterparts.

Those figures are based on UberX usage, primarily because of the different ways a new ride is displayed to the driver through the Uber or Lyft app.

For Uber, drivers don’t see the name of the person they’re picking up until they accept the fare, at which point they can cancel. But for Lyft, which displays the rider’s name and picture (if they included it) before they accept the fare, means trying to quantize discriminatory practices through Lyft is largely impossible—a model Uber could conceivably adopt.


Two years is a long time for a study. But this really is something Uber should respond to.
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How Apple could have avoided much of the controversy • Chuqui

Chuq von Rospach used to work at Apple; his take on last week’s product introduction (and non-introduction, on the desktop side) is worth your time:


Speaking of clusters, let’s talk Mac Pro for a minute. I’ve come to the belief that the trash can Mac pro, the “Can’t Innovate my Ass” machine, is a product mistake of the “20th Century Anniversary Macintosh” caliber. It was a technological marvel, it was a stunning design, and it was a terrible piece of hardware for it’s primary audiences because of limited upgradability and component flexibility — and then Apple compounded that by not having good upgrade plans in place to refresh it since the design it created wouldn’t let its users do it for themselves.


And this, which to me is a killer point about ports:


to those arguing that Apple is just soaking users by forcing them to buy dongles, adding $40 to a $2500 product simply isn’t financially significant. And if you think about it, if Apple did see these are lucrative products instead of functional accessories, they’d make them a lot prettier.

But the bigger issue around dongles is that niche thing again. These are accessories that allow specific customizations to the device that some people will want, but which most people won’t need. If you think about it, perhaps the biggest change from my older, 2013 laptop is that it’s gone from having seven (yes, that many) ports, each with a specific purpose to having four points, each customizable by a cable to dongle to solve the problem you have.

My laptop has a power port, an SD card port, 3 Thunderbolt ports and two USB ports. I know that in the four years I’ve owned it, I’ve never used the SD card, I use the Power port, one Thunderbolt port, and occasionally plug a USB cable in. So half the ports in this thing are never used — and yet I paid for them because they were built into the computer.

That’s the issue that defines dongles: Should 100% of buyers pay for a feature when only 5% of the owners will use it? Or 10%? How many users will need a feature before you think it ought to be required for everyone to buy it as part of the device? Where do you draw that line?


I’ve never used the SD card slot or – I’m pretty sure – the HDMI output port on my 2012 Macbook Pro. Not really going to fight over that. The whole piece is well worth reading at leisure.
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Benjamin Button reviews the new MacBook Pro • Pinboard blog

Maciej Ceglowski, channelling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous character:


The new MacBook Pro shows that Apple is finally becoming serious about developers.

Gone is the gimmicky TouchBar, gone are the four USB-C ports that forced power users to carry a suitcase full of dongles. In their place we get a cornucopia of developer-friendly ports: two USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 ports, a redesigned power connector, and a long-awaited HDMI port.

Photographers will rejoice at the surprising and welcome addition of an SDXC card reader, a sign that Apple might be thinking seriously about photography.

The new MagSafe connector is a bit of Apple design genius. The charging cord stays seated securely, but pops right off if you yank on it. No more worries about destroying your $2k laptop just by accidentally kicking a cord.

What hasn’t changed: Apple has kept the beautiful Retina display, and storage and memory are the same as before. The new machines will be slightly thicker (to accomodate the USB ports) and 200 grams heavier, but it’s not clear how this will affect battery life.

Interestingly, Apple has removed the fingerprint reader and its associated dedicated chip, perhaps assuming that developers would not comfortable with a machine they don’t fully control.


That Button. Some day soon they’re going to start banning him from bars on age grounds.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start up: hackers for hire, Chrome grows, Tinder’s CEO chats, and more

Google Timeline: law-enforcement-friendly, at least in theory. Picture by portalgda on Flickr.

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Hired-gun hacking played key role in JPMorgan, Fidelity breaches » Reuters

Jim Finkle and Joseph Menn:

The trio, who are accused of orchestrating massive computer breaches at JPMorgan Chase & Co and other financial firms, as well as a series of other major offences, did little if any hacking themselves, the federal indictments and a previous civil case brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission indicate.

Rather, they constructed a criminal conglomerate with activities ranging from pump-and-dump stock fraud to Internet casino break-ins and unlicensed Bitcoin trading. And just like many legitimate corporations, they outsourced much of their technology needs.

“They clearly had to recruit co-conspirators and have that type of hacker-for-hire,” said Austin Berglas, former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s New York cyber division, who worked the JPMorgan case before he left the agency in May. “This is the first case where it’s that clear of a connection.” Berglas, who now heads cyber investigations for private firm K2 Intelligence, said additional major cases of freelance hacking will come to light, especially as more people become familiar with online tools such as Tor that seek to conceal a user’s identity and location.

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Living in different worlds » Benedict Evans

A few years ago, one of the big UK retailers told me an anecdote from some market research they’d done into cameras. Their customers had said they wanted a solution for storing all the camera cards they had. This puzzled the researchers, so they dug a little further, and found out that a lot of their customers had dozens and dozens of memory cards.…

[they] just took the memory card out of the camera at the end of a trip, and when they wanted to show people the photos they’d taken they retrieved the card and put it back into the camera. 

I recognise this behaviour because it’s what my father-in-law does – and when he wants to print something from his computer, he takes a photo of the screen, takes out the camera’s memory card, slots it into the printer and prints out the photo (he also made quite a lot of money day-trading Imagination Tech – over the phone). 

As we go from 1.5bn PCs, of which only half are consumer, to 3bn iOS and Android devices today and 4-5bn in the future, this will become ever more important.

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Chrome’s number of monthly active users on mobile devices has doubled over the past year

Bertel King:

During the keynote address yesterday for this year’s Chrome Dev Summit, VP of Chrome Darin Fisher shared some numbers about the mobile web browser’s rate of adoption. tl;dr, people are flocking to Chrome, and fast. Over the past year, the number of 30 day active users has doubled from 400 million to 800 million.

Chrome’s adoption has been boosted by an increasing number of devices now shipping the browser by default. Chrome for Android users visit 100+ sites a month on average, showing a decent level of engagement.

The power of defaults. Once it was Internet Explorer; now it’s Chrome. That final sentence is maddening, though. Where’s the evidence that that’s a decent level of anything? What does it compare to? Three different sites per day is “decent engagement”? Seriously? There’s a new generation of people writing content who seem incapable of doing simple maths and following its thread. (1.4bn Google Android monthly active users, 800m Chrome monthly active users. Think about that too.)
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Exclusive: Samsung Pay to launch in China, Spain, and the UK in Q1 2016 » SamMobile

As per the information that we’ve received, Samsung is planning to launch Samsung Pay in China, Spain, and the UK in the first quarter of 2016. Currently, only five Samsung devices – the Galaxy S6, the Galaxy S6 edge, the Galaxy S6 edge+, the Galaxy Note 5, and the Gear S2 – support Samsung Pay, though the Gear S2 only supports NFC payments.

Samsung uses MST technology, which mimics card swipes at regular checkout equipments to make payments, in Samsung Pay-enabled smartphones.

Card swipes are useless in the UK and Spain, as everything is chip-and-PIN. But Samsung Pay does support those too. Wonder if that will help sales of the high-end phones at all.
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How law enforcement can use Google Timeline to track your every move » The Intercept

Jana Winter:

The recent expansion of Google’s Timeline feature can provide investigators unprecedented access to users’ location history data, allowing them in many cases to track a person’s every move over the course of years, according to a report recently circulated to law enforcement.

“The personal privacy implications are pretty clear but so are the law enforcement applications,” according to the document, titled “Google Timelines: Location Investigations Involving Android Devices,” which outlines the kind of information investigators can now obtain.

The Timeline allows users to look back at their daily movements on a map; that same information is also potentially of interest to law enforcement. “It is now possible to submit a legal demand to Google for location history greater than six months old,” the report says. “This could revitalize cold cases and potentially help solve active investigations.”

Familiar? Exactly the same realisation for iOS in 2011, which was then quickly encrypted. Android was already doing that too.

Four years later, nothing’s really changed.
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Tinder? I’m an addict, says hook-up app’s co-creator and CEO Sean Rad » London Evening Standard

Charlotte Edwardes swipes quite a weird interview, including this:

He’s obsessed with journalists — “too many are not seeking truth but fame” — and baffled by critics because “you can’t deny Tinder is what the world wants”. His own “truth” is that Tinder is “wonderful” — “we’ve solved the biggest problem in humanity: that you’re put on this planet to meet people.” 

In September Vanity Fair accused Tinder of heralding the “dawn of the dating apocalypse” in an article that interviewed twentysomethings in New York who used it solely for casual sex. 

Rad is “defensive” and still “upset” about the article, muttering  mysteriously that he has done his own “background research” on the writer Nancy Jo Sales, “and there’s some stuff about her as an individual that will make you think differently.” He won’t elaborate on the matter.

His argument for why the piece was “wrong” veers from “our research shows 80 per cent of users are looking for a long-term meaningful relationship” to “we believe in democracy. If society just wants to ‘hook up’, who am I to judge?” 

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WhatsApp reneges on their promise of true message encryption » Medium

Dawud Gordon:

In interviews with journalists WhatsApp stated that they would use Public Key Encryption, where only the sender and recipient can unencrypted content. Indeed they did, but they used the same key for every user. This makes the Brno hack possible, meaning anyone on the same network as your phone could gain access to the content of your messages. Also, it means that WhatsApp themselves still have access to all message content. Moreover, their parent corporation Facebook has access as well and the ability to target you with advertising based on the content of your WhatsApp messaging. While this is surprising given WhatsApp’s previous PR, it does explain the mysterious $19bn price tag that Facebook was willing to put on WhatsApp.

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India to overtake US next month with 402 million internet users » Tech In Asia

Malavika Velayanikal:

The number of internet users in India will reach 402 million next month, nearly 50% more than what it was last year, according to a study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB International. With the latest surge, India will overtake the US to have the second-largest internet user base in the world, next only to China. This will be music to the ears of mobile and internet-based businesses targeting the fast-growing digital market in India.

It took a decade for India to move from 10 million internet users to 100 million, but only four years to quadruple that figure. The primary driver of this takeoff is the boom in affordable smartphones over the past couple of years. But two-thirds of India’s population remain outside the internet, and broadband availability is poor.

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Google Glass successor dumps some glass » The Information

Jessica Lessin:

So much for the screen. We’ve learned that Google’s revamped Google Glass project, dubbed Project Aura, is working on a wearable with a screen—and at least one without.

People tell us there have been three versions of the head-mounted device in development, although the three may be consolidated into two. One version, targeted at enterprises, has a screen. The others, one of which is targeted at “sport” users, doesn’t and relies on audio. They use bone conduction, like the original Google Glass. In other words, headphones worn on your face.

Or even like headphones worn on your head?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:

Start up: the $10 iPhone, the mobile data boom, Watch 2 in June? and more

Clickbait! (Translation optional, but it’s nothing too shocking.) Photo by pvantees on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Walmart’s $10 smartphone has better specs than the original iPhone » Motherboard

Nicholas Deleon:

Walmart is now selling a TracFone-branded LG smartphone that costs $9.82 (it also ships free if your online order total tops $50). Now, there are a few reasons why you may not want such a smartphone—for one, it’s running an outdated version of Android that may make it vulnerable to hackers—but there’s no denying that it represents something pretty special.

For less than $10 (plus the cost of data access) the user gets access to the Google Play app store, giving him or her the power to summon transportation at the push of a button, instantly connect with friends, and watch livestreams from all over the world. A bona fide smartphone, in other words.

It’s perhaps even more impressive when you consider that its modest specs — a 3.8in display, 3G and Wi-Fi networking, and a 3-megapixel camera — surpass those of the original iPhone, which was referred to in the tech press at the time as the “Jesus phone.”

It’s been eight years, so, what, three Moore’s Law cycles? Impressive nonetheless.
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Funniest new Twitter feed of the day: Clickbait Robot » Quirker

Michael Moran:

it’s easy to get sucked in – especially when a clickbait story piggybacks on a current trend and gets mixed in with genuine news.

Understandably, web users don’t much like it. And actually, most web professionals don’t like it much either.

Rob Manuel, is just such an internet professional. In the past he has devised quizzes, games and animations for B3ta and UsVsTh3m that might have been called clickbait, but generally did deliver on their promise.

And now he’s devised the ultimate clickbait machine. It scrapes Twitter’s current trending topics and boils them down into crazy-sounding headlines without any human intervention. It’s weird, and it’s very very funny…

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A team of robots may learn to grasp a million objects » MIT Technology Review

Will Knight:

[Stefanie] Tellex [of Brown University] says robotics researchers are increasingly looking for more efficient ways of training robots to perform tasks such as manipulation. “We have powerful algorithms now—such as deep learning—that can learn from large data sets, but these algorithms require data,” she says. “Robot practice is a way to acquire the data that a robot needs for learning to robustly manipulate objects.”

Tellex also notes that there are around 300 Baxter robots in various research labs around the world today. If each of those robots were to use both arms to examine new objects, she says, it would be possible for them to learn to grasp a million objects in 11 days. “By having robots share what they’ve learned, it’s possible to increase the speed of data collection by orders of magnitude,” she says.

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Ericsson Mobility Report » Ericsson

The Ericsson Mobility Report is one of the leading analyses of mobile network data traffic. It provides in-depth measurements from the world’s largest selection of live networks spread all around the globe, with analysis based on these measurements, internal forecasts and other relevant studies. The report provides insights into the current mobile network data traffic and market trends, applicable to both consumers and enterprises.

This one is for the third quarter: suggests 3.4bn smartphone subscriptions, up from 2.6bn last year, and 1.4GB of data per user on average per month, up from 1.0GB a year ago. In western Europe it’s 2.0GB per user per month. Lots of interesting data, including one about churn between iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

5G doesn’t look like a big winner though.
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Encrypted messaging apps face new scrutiny over possible role in Paris attacks » The New York Times

David Sanger and Nicole Perlroth:

American and French officials say there is still no definitive evidence to back up their presumption that the terrorists who massacred 129 people in Paris used new, difficult-to-crack encryption technologies to organize the plot.

But in interviews, Obama administration officials say the Islamic State has used a range of encryption technologies over the past year and a half, many of which defy cracking by the National Security Agency. Other encryption technologies, the officials hint, are less secure than terrorist and criminal groups may believe, and clearly they want to keep those adversaries guessing which ones the N.S.A. has pierced.

Some of the most powerful technologies are free, easily available encryption apps with names like Signal, Wickr and Telegram, which encode mobile messages from cellphones. Islamic State militants used Telegram two weeks ago to claim responsibility for the crash of the Russian jet in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 224 people, and used it again last week, in Arabic, English and French, to broadcast responsibility for the Paris carnage.

This argument isn’t going to go away; it’s going to continue between privacy advocates and governments (who are always seeking to surveil and gather). Every incident like that in Paris becomes ammunition, in a near-literal sense.
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The TalkTalk hack can’t be shrugged off » The Guardian

John Naughton:

Imagine a chemicals company that, as part of its operations, needs to process hazardous, carcinogenic materials, and therefore has to store them on site. Now imagine that some unscrupulous guy siphons off large quantities of the hazardous gunk and when this crime is revealed by the company, the boss is unable to tell reporters whether the tank containing the hazardous material was locked, or even covered.

If TalkTalk had been a chemicals producer and toxic chemicals had been stolen, the public outrage would be palpable. But because it’s a communications company, the response is just a resigned shrug. It’s just personal data, theft of which goes on every week: just think of the infidelity site Ashley Madison and the US health insurer Anthem. Stuff happens, move on.

The trouble is that personal data in the wrong hands is a very hazardous substance indeed. It’s the raw material that fuels a vast global industry, which uses it for phishing, pharming, malware distribution, hacking of corporate databases, extortion and blackmail.

Also worth it for the David Runciman quote about the difference between a scandal and a crisis.
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​How to easily defeat Linux Encoder ransomware » ZDNet

Neat, from Steven Vaughan-Nichols:

just crack open your files yourself.

You see the would-be cyber-criminals made a fundamental mistake. Their encryption method uses a faulty implementation of Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to generate the encryption key. Specifically, as the anti-virus company Bitdefender reported, the “AES key is generated locally on the victim’s computer. … rather than generating secure random keys and IVs [initialization vector], the sample would derive these two pieces of information from the libc rand() function seeded with the current system time-stamp at the moment of encryption. This information can be easily retrieved by looking at the file’s time-stamp.”

Armed with this, it’s trivial – well, for encryption experts – to find the key you need to restore your files. Since most of you don’t know your AES from your Playfair, Bitdefender is offering a free Python 2.7 script to obtain the Linux.Encoder key and IV for your containinated server.

They probably won’t make the same mistake next time, though.
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We are not getting out of PCs, says Fujitsu exec » The Register

Paul Kunert:

Fujitsu is the latest bit part PC player to state its commitment to the product line, as it prepares to spin off the computer and mobile businesses into two separate subsidiaries.

The units were part of the Ubiquitous Solutions division but at some point in the next 12 months will be distinct entities sitting under the Product division, the company told us.

“We are super committed to the PC business,” said head of product EMEA, India and Africa, Michael Keegan.

“It’s a very big part of the overall P&L [account] but we recognise that it is a massively changing business and needs more focus.”

I think you’ll find Fujitsu’s PCs are probably part of the “loss” in P&L, which swung to a loss for the half-year. But as it’s splitting the mobile phone and PC businesses, we’ll be able to see more clearly in future.
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Wearable devices becoming main growth driver for ODMs » Digitimes

Aaron Lee and Joseph Tsai:

Quanta and Compal together have already acquired over 50% of the overall notebook orders for 2016, but both are still pessimistic about overall shipments in 2016. In 2016, the market watchers expect the market will gradually lean toward both the entry-level and high-end segments. More inexpensive Windows-based notebooks and Chromebooks are expected to be introduced, while vendors will also focus more on high-end products such as gaming notebooks.

Meanwhile, wearable device shipments are also expected to grow dramatically. Quanta, the maker of the Apple Watch, is expected to see related orders surging in 2016 and the ODM reportedly has also received orders for Apple’s second-generation Apple Watch for the second quarter of 2016.

Jeez, talk about burying the intro. “APPLE WATCH 2 TO SHIP IN APRIL?” is the way to write this. Although that rumour is already doing the rounds.
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Google to contest Russia’s antitrust ruling on Android » Reuters

Maria Kiselyova:

Google will contest in court a ruling by Russia’s antitrust agency that it broke competition law by abusing its dominant position with its Android mobile platform, the U.S. technology company said on Tuesday.

Russia’s competition watchdog ruled in September that Google had broken the law by requiring pre-installation of certain applications on mobile devices running on Android.

“We intend to contest this decision and explain in court why we consider it unfounded,” Google said in its official Russian blog.

Google has until Dec. 18 to amend its contracts with smartphone manufacturers in order to comply with the ruling in the case that was launched by local rival Yandex.

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Google removes another app from the Play Store for dodgy reasons, this time it’s the notorious Tasker » Android Police

Rita El Khoury:

the app isn’t just useful for gimmicks and even if many of us feel overwhelmed by it or don’t need it, it’s still part of the foundation of Android and the poster child for all the possibilities you have with the platform.

Taking Tasker out without a notice isn’t just reckless, it’s being stupidly blind to the entire history of Android, especially when the grounds for removal are dodgy at best. We’ve contacted Pent, Tasker’s developer to see what’s going on, and so far the story is as weird as it gets.

Pent didn’t get a warning regarding the removal and in the Developer Console, he sees this explanation:

“This app has been removed from Google Play for a violation of the Google Play Developer Programme Policy regarding Dangerous Products. Please review the Optimising for Doze and App Standby article, modify your app’s manifest and resubmit. More details have been emailed to the account owner.”

It seems that the removal was based on the existence of a dangerous permission that disables Doze in the app’s manifest: android.permission.REQUEST_IGNORE_BATTERY_OPTIMIZATIONS. The same reason was given to Stefan Pledl for the removal of his app LocalCast from the Play Store.

However, and here’s the weird part, that permission isn’t in the Play Store version of Tasker. As a matter of fact, Pent tells us the app wasn’t published in any form to the Play Store with that permission.

People will be up in arms about this, right? Update: as of Wednesday morning, it’s back.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

A vision of the future: the only two companies which get it right

We really are. The trick is figuring out which ones matter. Photo by topgold on Flickr.

In Digital Wars (book! Kindle! iBook!), in the chapter about the struggle between Apple and Microsoft for primacy in music, I detailed part of the visit by Steve Ballmer to London in October 2004 when he made his now-infamous comments: “What’s the most common format of music listened to on an iPod? Stolen!”

More telling, at least in hindsight, was this part. The analysis is mine, direct from the book.

One journalist asked: “Microsoft’s smartphone has been a slow seller [its PocketPC-based phones sold such small numbers Microsoft didn’t announce sales figures until 2005, when they hit nearly 6m] while Apple and other companies have stolen a lead in portable music player markets. How will Microsoft tackle that?”

 Ballmer’s reply: “Over time most people will carry a phone that has a little hard disk in it that carries lots of music. Mobile phones are about 600 million units a year. Now, how many devices do we want to carry? We have to have a more compelling value proposition. [Research In Motion’s] BlackBerry has a niche market position [at the time, around 2m users worldwide] but it’s not a very sticky device. It allows you to make bad phone calls but it’s a good Exchange client. We will see an explosion of larger keyboard devices.”

What’s interesting about that comment – apart from how well it illustrates Ballmer’s gadfly salesman’s mind flitting about the subject in search of a compelling way to persuade people to buy an integrated device that could make phone calls and play music – is its lack of technological foresight. First, that “most people would carry a phone with a ‘little hard disk”’. Apple had already bought up supplies of solid-state Flash memory for an iPod with no moving parts, and when meeting me four years earlier Hase had introduced the idea of a 1-gigabyte Flash chip – enough to hold about 250 music tracks. The Motorola phone being co-developed with Apple would store its songs in Flash memory; and any technologist knew that prices for Flash storage were, like those for hard drive storage, halving every year.

Second, the idea of the explosion of larger keyboard devices is classically short-term thinking that also ignores the relentless march of processing power. Although touch computing was still mainly in the laboratory, it was already conceivable: Nokia had that year built a prototype touch screen phone, and a small company called Fingerworks had been working between 2001 and 2005 on “multi-touch” systems for screens, and making presentations at conferences. A technologist – an engineer – keyed into the industry’s future would have known of it and seen its direction.

Very few companies are able to envision what the future will look like. Steven B Johnson wrote about the importance of “adjacent technologies” for innovation and invention: that before you can make one technological leap, you need to have all the technologies available that will let you do that.

But you also have to have people who can see how the landscape will look when you fast forward five, seven, ten years. It’s not just Moore’s Law, with its constant doubling; it’s also the pricing and availability of other technologies such as screens, batteries, sensors, and their integration with existing materials. The 2007 iPhone was unimaginable to almost anyone in 2002; by 2012, there was a feeling that it was old hat, and the shift towards wearables was already in full swing (the Pebble first appeared in 2012).

So which companies are good at doing this?

Having covered the technology space for decades, there are still only two companies which in my view reliably spot the future and move towards it, and shape themselves and their products to line up with it.

Far sight and big brains

The first: Google. Larry Page and Sergey Brin have proven, again and again, that they can see what’s coming around the corner, and position themselves (and their company) for it. Internet search? Minor problem in 1996, when they started on it. But they could follow the growth, and see the oncoming problem: a bazillion sites and no proper index.

Fast forward to 2005: while Eric Schmidt is busy chief executive-ing, Page and Brin investigated and bought a small mobile startup called “Android”. They didn’t even refer the purchase to Schmidt. They did it because they could see that the mobile internet would be the future, and that they had to be part of it with their own mobile platform; Android was a protective measure against Microsoft cornering the smartphone market and potentially locking out Google search.

It happens again and again. Collaborative editing through Google Docs (another purchased company). Google Maps (another purchased company). The self-driving car initiative, which puts together the improving capabilities of sensors, maps, computation and control, makes sense in hindsight; but to start work on it when it’s years away from being commercial so that you can steal a lead on the companies that are already well-placed is part of shaping the future. (This doesn’t mean that Google will be the first, or only, company to succeed with SDCs, or even that it will; but it’s seeing that possibility.)

There are tons more examples at Google, though many of them are still in the ferment of development; we don’t know if they’ll be farsighted or just overambitious when we look back in five years’ time.

Touching the alternative future

The second company that keeps seeing the future: Apple. The original iPod grasped the idea of music, and miniaturisation, wrapped in a beautiful design. The iPhone grasped the burgeoning capability of multi-touch (which Apple had already explored for years) along with the promise that Google had previously seen, and wrapped it in a package that had Andy Rubin (head of Android) hastily scrapping plans for a BlackBerry-alike and thinking immediately of an iPhone-alike. (For that immediate insight too Rubin deserves praise.)

Even the word that leaks out of what Apple hasn’t done shows that it’s trying to grab the future. Take the “nope, no TV” story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, interestingly timed just after Carl Icahn published a long screed insisting that Apple was going to release a TV next year. (Hard not to see this as Apple putting the story out there to calm the stock market.)

In the WSJ story, we get details like:

Apple had searched for breakthrough features to justify building an Apple-branded television set, those people said. In addition to an ultra-high-definition display, Apple considered adding sensor-equipped cameras so viewers could make video calls through the set, they said.

Ultimately, though, Apple executives didn’t consider any of those features compelling enough to enter the highly competitive television market.

The sensor-equipped cameras sounds like Apple was trying to make use of technology acquired from PrimeSense in November 2013. At the time, I thought that the amount spent pointed to Apple wanting to put the technology into a product within a year – as had happened with Authentec (fingerprint unlock) and Anobit (SSD technology).

Here’s what PrimeSense had:

So PrimeSense is important, and Apple wants to use its technology soon. Its 3D sensors have a range of up to 3.5 metres – about the depth of the typical living room, or the sort of distance most people sit from a TV set – and were used in the original Microsoft Kinect add-on for Xbox. (For the second-generation Kinect, Microsoft has moved to a different supplier – which it acquired.)

We know what the original Kinect could do: it could detect faces, movements, people and map them all in 3D space. So what is Apple interested in doing around that?

Now you know: it wanted it for a TV. But the use case wasn’t compelling. Waving at your TV is not, apparently, the future.

Why not..?

You might be wondering where Microsoft is on this list, and Facebook, and a multitude of others. Microsoft – well, it hasn’t been able to overcome the contradictions of its own strategy taxes to be able to embrace the future and tear down its past. (Satya Nadella is doing that now, to some extent, but it’s long overdue.) Look again at that extract from my book at the top. Ballmer shows no sign of understanding what was coming, of how quickly the deluge would overwhelm the space. The Zune (2006) used a spinning hard drive, fer Crissake, when the iPod nano (SSD) had come out in September 2005.

That’s the other part of seeing the future: being able to let go of the past. Apple and Google have been able to shrug and say “OK, on to the next thing” in many cases, and let their old products die. Google search doesn’t die, of course, but that’s because it’s still an essential task for many. Equally, Google has been happy to cull products when they don’t fit the future it’s expecting.

Facebook hasn’t had enough time to show us what and how it can shape the future, and also I think that its reluctance to embrace hardware (understandably) also means that it’s reliant on others to lead the way. That would be Apple and Google, though, especially through mobile, where Google’s Android is driving the evolution of all sorts of adjacent industries to the smartphone (camera optics, GPS chips, batteries) and Apple is showing what really effective user interfaces and experiences feel like (the Watch is a giant leap, but one where you don’t realise that the ground has moved underneath you).

I’d love to know which other companies have shown that they can spot the future, and pivot themselves towards it repeatedly. Sure, Dropbox and Box foresaw storage being free; but what else have they seen? What are the other enterprises that have regrouped themselves and solved a problem that was coming our way five years ago, or are solving a problem coming our way in five years’ time? Do tell me your thoughts.

Start up: making the Apple Watch, Tinder with an AI, web v apps again, what’s the real mobile search?, and more

Uvas reservoir, California, in February 2014. Photo by ian_photos on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Can be hung on string to deter tigers. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tinder users at SXSW are falling for this woman, but she’s not what she appears » Adweek

Tinder users at the SXSW festival on Saturday were encountering an attractive 25-year-old woman named Ava on the dating app. A friend of ours made a match with her, and soon they were have a conversation over text message.

But when he opened up Ava’s Instagram, it became clear something was amiss. There was one photo and one video, both promoting Ex Machina, a sci-fi film that just happened to be premiering Saturday night here in Austin. The link in her bio went to the film’s website. And it turns out the woman in the photos is Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who plays an artificial intelligence in the movie.

The conversation is rather clever, in the context of the film. I liked this as a promotional idea. (Other people didn’t. I’d say, abandon hope all ye who go on Tinder, and you won’t be disappointed.)

How Apple makes the Watch » Atomic Delights

This link has been shared all over the place, but you might have chosen to avoid it. That’s a mistake; you can discover so much just about manufacturing from reading it. Here’s just a tiny piece of Greg Koenig’s writeup, based solely on the Apple Watch manufacturing video:

Apple chooses to not show what is likely the most unique and important step in the production of the Watch; cold forging. In production forging, a blank of metal is placed between two extraordinarily hard steel dies that have the bottom and top halves formed into open faced molds. The hammer – a piece of capital equipment roughly the size of a house laid on it’s end – slams the dies closed with force measured in tens of thousands of tonnes. Under such pressure, the metal reaches a state called “plastic deformation” and literally bends, compresses and flows into the shaped cavities of the die. For complex, or high-precision forging, multiple dies with successively deeper cavities are used to gradually tease the material into the desired shape.

Forging produces what’s called a “net shape” part; the process is unable to create precision holes, pockets, threads and other features that will require a trip to the CNC mills. What forging does do is create parts of exceptional strength.

A hammer the size of a house. Consider that for a moment. Koenig merits your attention.

Can the mobile Web win back developers from iOS, Android? » CNET

Stephen Shankland speaks to Dominique Hazaël-Massieux of the W3C:

Web allies are working to make up for lost time. The Application Foundations effort, announced in October 2014, adds new heft to existing work to improve standards. It emphasizes a collection of priorities like video chat, cryptography, typography, responsiveness and streaming media.

“There are challenges around performance, around making apps work offline and outside the browser,” Hazaël-Massieux said. One big part of the fixes is a standard called Service Workers that dramatically remakes Web apps’ deeper workings. Service Workers are programs that run in the background, letting Web apps work even if there’s no network connection and enabling things like push notifications. With Service Workers, those notifications could come through even if a person is using another app.

“A component provided by the browser registers itself with the operating system. When the OS receives a notification, it knows it should wake up the browser, and the browser wakes up the Web application,” Hazaël-Massieux said. “Service Workers are about getting the Web to live also outside the browser. That opens up interesting opportunities.”

Another feature he’s excited about is payments provided with an interface that would take Apple and Google out of the loop, letting the programmer choose what payment mechanisms to offer.

In general, the answer has to be “no”, though. Simply because (as Matt Gemmell has pointed out) a web app is “an app running on an app running on the system”, where an app is “an app running on the system”. It’s a bit like interpreted v compiled code.

I’ve seen the new face of Search, and it ain’t Google » Alex Iskold

The “ten blue links” aren’t optimum on mobile (Google already knows this, of course);

imagine, that instead of Google text field or browser bar, you get a familiar Text Messaging interface and you can ask questions. Here is what happens next:

1. You will ask questions in the natural form, like you do in real life.

2. Your questions will be naturally compact, because you are used to compact form of text messaging, but they won’t be one word or one phrase like we type into Google. You still can have typos, and missing punctuation.

3. This format naturally lends itself onto the conversation. That is, you don’t expect 10 links, you expect a human response. And you expect to respond in response to this response, and so on – that is, you expect a conversation.

4. ‘The answer’ will be things / objects / places, and links will become secondary. The answer will be 1 or 2 or 3 things but not 10 things. The choice will be naturally added via a conversation and iteration, not by pushing 10 links on the user upfront.

5. You won’t be able to tell the difference between a person or machine replying to you. This is where all the amazing AI stuff (looking at you, Amy) is going to come handy and will really shine.

6. You won’t think of this as search anymore, but as your command and control for all things you need – tasks, purchases and of course good old search. It will be like Siri, except it will be based on text, and have a lot more capabilities. And it will actually work great. (No offense Siri, but you have ways to go).

Sounds a bit like the (failed) Jelly, but he suggests Magic, Sensay and Cloe as possible implementations. This feels like it’s heading in the right direction. Search shouldn’t really be might-be-right links on mobile.

California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now? » LA Times

Jay Famigliette:

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.

Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.

I wonder what this means for all the technology companies in that region.

Connected audio products to grow at a CAGR of 88% from 2010-2018, says IHS » Digitimes

Annual shipments of connected audio products, including wireless speakers, wireless soundbars, and connected AV receivers, are expected to grow at a CAGR of 88%, from 1.5m units in 2010 to nearly 66m units in 2018, according to IHS.

The popularity of mobile devices and changing consumer habits in media consumption are not only increasing demand for wirelessly connected audio devices, but also rapidly altering the home audio landscape.

Within this composite group of products, connected soundbars and wireless speakers are expected to provide noteworthy growth, not just within home audio, but also within the overall consumer electronics market. Combined shipments are forecast to grow at a CAGR of 94% over the same period.

That’s some pretty dramatic growth, driven by people listening to audio at home from their mobile.

Samsung seals big SSD chip deal with Apple » Korea Times

The latest agreement is calling for Samsung Electronics to sell its latest solid state drive (SSD) storage devices using its V-NAND technology to Apple’s new range of ultra-slim and high-end notebook models, two people directly involved with the deal told The Korea Times, Friday.

“Samsung Electronics recently agreed with Apple to provide SSDs using its latest three-dimensional (3D) V-NAND tech. The deal is estimated to be worth a “few billion dollars,” said one of the people.

Samsung’s chip factory in Xian, China, will handle the production.

Still best of frenemies.

What Is Android 5.1’s anti-theft “Device Protection” feature and how do I use it? » Android Police

David Ruddock wrestles with this feature, which is basically the same as Apple’s iCloud lock (introduced in 2013) and Samsung’s similar feature:

With Android 5.1, Google revealed that it was releasing a new feature for handsets called Device Protection. This anti-theft feature makes it basically impossible for a thief to use your phone in the event it is stolen and wiped. First things first, though: how do you get this feature?

Right now (as in, at the time of this article), there is a single device with the feature currently enabled: the Nexus 6. The Nexus 9 will get device protection as well, but its Android 5.1 update has not yet rolled out. Nexus 4, 5, 7 (2012 and 2013), and 10 will not receive the factory reset Device Protection feature. Allegedly, no phone or tablet that did not ship with Android 5.1 or higher out of the box will receive the factory reset protection feature (again, except Nexus 6 and Nexus 9), at least according to Google at this time.

However, Google’s support site says the info applies to devices that have 5.0 or higher preinstalled (as in shipped with), though, so it’s not clear if devices that shipped with 5.0 and then later upgrade to 5.1 (or higher) will then get it. Google didn’t provide a satisfactory response to this question, unfortunately.

I get the faint feeling with Lollipop that Google is struggling to keep everything from falling off the table. First the rollback on encryption, now this. (Some commenters claim to see it on their Nexus 5, but Ruddock says it’s “simply a leftover that Google forgot to remove from the ROMs of unsupported 5.1 devices.”)

MWC: not all 4G LTE modems are created equal according to tests with Qualcomm and Samsung » Moor Insights & Strategy

Even though many modems and networks may currently only be capable of Category 4 LTE speeds (150 Mbps downlink), there are still some differences in how much those modems perform given the exact same conditions. In some cases, our testing at 20 MHz band width showed that the performance differences between Qualcomm’s and Samsung’s modems can be as big as 20%, meaning that one user can get their files 20% faster than someone else with a competitor’s phone and they are also saving power by getting that file faster and shutting down the data connection quicker.

Also finds differences in power consumption – Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 is 5-10% better there too. But Samsung benefits by buying its own modems, of course.