Start Up No.1193: Google cuts back TGIF, the $4bn browser extension, Ring shares a bit too much video?, “right to repair”.. military equipment, and more


The new antibiotics pipeline is barren. Time to take pharma companies into public ownership and fill it? CC-licensed photo by Sheep purple on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. Quid pro quod erat demonstrandum. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google shakes up its ‘TGIF’—and ends its culture of openness • WIRED

Steven Levy:

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“It’s not working in its current form,” Pichai said of what was once the hallmark of Google culture. In 2020, he declared, the [TGIF] meetings [held at the end of Fridays] would be limited to once a month, and they would be more constrained affairs, sticking to “product and business strategy.” Don’t Be Evil has changed to Don’t Ask Me Anything.

With that, Pichai not only ended an era at Google, he symbolically closed the shutters on a dream held widely in the tech world—that one can scale a company to global ubiquity while maintaining the camaraderie of an idealistic clan.

Pichai cited decreased attendance rates, the difficulty of running a real-time gathering across time zones, and an uptick in meetings among big product groups like Cloud or YouTube. His most resonant reason, however, was that Google employees could no longer be trusted to keep matters confidential. He cited “a coordinated effort to share our conversations outside of the company after every TGIF … it has affected our ability to use TGIF as a forum for candid conversations on important topics.” He also noted that while many want to hear about product launches and business strategies, some attend to “hear answers on other topics.” It seems obvious he was referring to recent moments when aggrieved employees registered objections to Google’s policies and missteps—on developing a search engine for China, bestowing millions of dollars to executives charged with sexual misconduct, or hiring a former Homeland Security apparatchik. Pichai says Google may address such issues in specific town-hall meetings when warranted.

…The loss of TGIF is huge. The ability to ask the boss any question in a timely fashion was a powerful symbol of employee empowerment. The practice began when Google was relatively tiny, as a relaxed session—beer was served!—where cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took queries, no matter how challenging, from anyone who cared to ask. The company even invented an app that allowed employees to rank potential questions, so pressing ones would get precedence.

When I was writing a book about Google some years ago, I sat in on several TGIFs, held in the cavernous Charlie’s Cafe on the Mountain View campus. They followed a format that became a template for dozens of new companies thereafter.

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Levy – who has been so far inside Google he was almost a staffer – says that the company’s culture has effectively been changed from Don’t Be Evil to Don’t Ask Me Anything. It’s been a long time coming.
link to this extract


PayPal acquires the company behind the Honey deal-finding Chrome extension for $4bn • The Verge

Jay Peters:

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When you’re shopping on one of the 30,000 online retailers Honey works with, the extension will find coupon codes for things you add to your cart and attempt to automatically apply them for you. In my experience, though, the codes Honey finds don’t always work — Best Buy’s online store didn’t take a Honey-found coupon for an order I created for a Nintendo Switch, for example — but it’s a useful service to at least help you check for coupon codes before you buy something.

Honey can also track prices of an individual item and notify you when it drops below a certain threshold. Honey also offers a rewards program, Honey Gold, which gives you “Gold” for using Honey while you’re shopping that can be redeemed for gift cards. (PayPal-owned Venmo just launched a similar rewards program for its physical debit card.)

PayPal’s press release isn’t clear about exactly how Honey and its deal-finding tech will be integrated into PayPal’s products, but in an interview with TechCrunch, PayPal SVP John Kunze said that PayPal wants to build Honey’s functionality “into the PayPal and Venmo experiences.” PayPal merchant partners will also apparently be able to use Honey to offer more targeted promotions, according to TechCrunch.

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The Techcrunch version that it points to doesn’t make what seems to me the amazing thing here: this is a Chrome extension. A business that relies on being a Chrome extension is worth $4bn.
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Merkel faces party revolt over Huawei’s role in German 5G rollout • Financial Times

Guy Chazan:

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Angela Merkel is facing a rebellion in her party over the German government’s decision not to formally exclude Huawei from the buildout of its next generation 5G telecoms network, amid rising concern in Berlin at potential security risks.

MPs from Ms Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union have put forward a motion for the party’s annual conference this week in Leipzig that would in effect ban the Chinese supplier from the 5G project.

There is also pressure from inside Ms Merkel’s own cabinet to pursue a tougher line on Huawei. Foreign minister Heiko Maas said on Wednesday that when it came to the safety of critical infrastructure, Germany “cannot afford to ignore the political and legal realities that a supplier is subjected to”.

Ms Merkel has refused to prohibit Huawei outright, insisting instead that all telecom equipment providers be allowed to take part in the 5G rollout providing they meet certain tightened security standards.

The chancellor has stuck to the approach despite fierce pressure from the US to shut out the Chinese group, which Washington says could be used by Beijing to conduct espionage or cyber sabotage.

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The US pressure isn’t surprising, but the internal pressure is a new thing. Huawei isn’t entirely trusted at the network level either.
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Ring: Doorbell camera footage can be kept by police forever and shared with whomever they’d like • The Washington Post

:

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Police officers who download videos captured by homeowners’ Ring doorbell cameras can keep them forever and share them with whomever they’d like without providing evidence of a crime, the Amazon-owned firm told a lawmaker this month.

More than 600 police forces across the country have entered into partnerships with the camera giant, allowing them to quickly request and download video recorded by Ring’s motion-detecting, Internet-connected cameras inside and around Americans’ homes.

The company says that the videos can be a critical tool in helping law enforcement investigate crimes such as trespassing, burglary and package theft, and that homeowners are free to decline the requests. But some lawmakers and privacy advocates say the systems could empower more widespread police surveillance, fuel racial profiling and spark new neighborhood fears.

In September, following reports about Ring’s police partnerships by The Washington Post and other outlets, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) wrote to Amazon asking for details about how it protected the privacy and civil liberties of people caught on camera. Since that report, the number of law enforcement agencies working with Ring has increased nearly 50 percent.

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“The telescreen recieved and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever the wanted to.”
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Facebook’s director of business integrity explains the platform’s political ads policy • AdAge

Garett Sloane interviewed Rob Leathern:

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Twitter now bans just about all political ads. You’ve taken a different approach. Why?
I won’t talk specifically about the decisions other companies are making. I can talk a little bit about how we think about political ads and social issue ads. When it comes to issue ads obviously there’s a challenge about where to draw the line. Things that mention candidates or an election campaign are clearly political, but there are a lot of ads that are about highly politicized issues: health care, veterans services, climate change, other areas. We think it’s important to take kind of a broad approach here.

We also have to give people a place to express their voice. It’s not just about the presidential and well-known candidates, but it’s also about the local, little-known or new candidates that don’t typically have access to the same kind of media, the same kinds of ways to get their message out there.

We think that if we stopped running political ads on our services then the people who would really benefit are going to be the incumbents and established politicians, the newcomers would not benefit. Challengers don’t have the ability to spend $60,000 to produce a TV ad, let alone the media costs of running it.

Why not ban negative ads?
We have been working to even just identify what are political ads and what are social issue ads. It’s a challenging technical problem to identify these ads, which we’ve gotten a lot better at and continue to improve. We’re going to continue to miss things, but I think we’re getting better at just identifying social issues and political ads. But going to the next point of identifying what is a negative ad and what’s not, that’s also just a difficult technical challenge, and we’re definitely focused on the first part of that, identifying political ads.

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Facebook’s problem remains that any line it draws will inevitably turn out to be inscribed in sand, because a zillion bad actors will attempt to jump over it, or blur it. Even so, the idea that issues-based ads are “political” and therefore you throw up your hands is nonsensical. You can present the issues to people: eg “we should pay more for health care”, or “we should pay less tax because it gets wasted” or “the rich should pay a bigger proportion of taxes” are political, but don’t have to be associated with candidates.
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Here’s one reason the US military can’t fix its own equipment • The New York Times

Elle Ekman:

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In July, the Federal Trade Commission hosted a workshop to address “the issues that arise when a manufacturer restricts or makes it impossible for a consumer or an independent repair shop to make product repairs.”

It has long been considered a problem with the automotive industry, electronics and farming equipment. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have even brought it up during their presidential campaigns, siding with farmers who want to repair their own equipment; while the senators are advocating national laws, at least 20 states have considered their own right-to-repair legislation this year.

I first heard about the term from a fellow Marine interested in problems with monopoly power and technology. A few past experiences then snapped into focus. Besides the broken generator in South Korea, I remembered working at a maintenance unit in Okinawa, Japan, watching as engines were packed up and shipped back to contractors in the United States for repairs because “that’s what the contract says.” The process took months.

With every engine sent back, Marines lost the opportunity to practice the skills they might need one day on the battlefield, where contractor support is inordinately expensive, unreliable or nonexistent.

I also recalled how Marines have the ability to manufacture parts using water-jets, lathes and milling machines (as well as newer 3-D printers), but that these tools often sit idle in maintenance bays alongside broken-down military equipment. Although parts from the manufacturer aren’t available to repair the equipment, we aren’t allowed to make the parts ourselves “due to specifications.”

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None of your $200 hammers here. But the warranty on the hammers, well…
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Big Pharma has failed: the antibiotic pipeline needs to be taken under public ownership • The Conversation

Claas Kirchhelle, Adam Roberts and Andrew Singer:

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the injection of over £520m of public money since 2016 has not prevented the industry from further contracting. Between 2016 and 2019, major producers, such as Sanofi, Novartis and AstraZeneca shuttered their antibiotic-development divisions. This resulted in the closure of well-financed industrial research departments and a critical global loss of human capital and expertise in antibiotic R&D. According to a recent review, there is “now a shortage of experts qualified to lead research programs employing promising new antibiotic discovery methods”.

Although international non-profit organisations are mobilising further public money to subsidise for-profit development, it is questionable whether this public-private model will bear fruit. After over three decades of market failure and in the face of a critical contraction of remaining industry activity, alternatives beyond the market should urgently be explored.

The public is already sponsoring the high-risk phases of drug discovery and trialling by university researchers and private companies but own none of the intellectual property once antibiotics go to market. There has also been little public pay-off either in terms of new antibiotic classes or increased access to effective drugs in low-income countries.

The market is broken. It is time to apply recent official calls of “public money for public goods” to areas beyond farming and seriously consider public ownership of antibiotic research, development and production.

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Kirchhelle is a research associate at the Oxford Martin School/ Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford; Roberts is a Reader in Antimicrobial Chemotherapy and Resistance, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine; Singer is a chemical ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Back in 1997, I spoke to the (about to be outgoing) science minister Ian Taylor, who said that getting more research into antibiotics was one of the most urgent matters facing us. Nothing’s happened since; that’s over 20 years lost.
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Does money make people right-wing and inegalitarian? A longitudinal study of lottery winners • Warwick University

Nattavudh Powdthavee and Andrew J. Oswald:

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The causes of people’s political attitudes are largely unknown. We study this issue by exploiting longitudinal data on lottery winners. Comparing people before and after a lottery windfall, we show that winners tend to switch towards support for a right-wing political party and to become less egalitarian. The larger the win, the more people tilt to the right. This relationship is robust to (i) different ways of defining right-wing, (ii) a variety of estimation methods, and (iii) methods that condition on the person previously having voted left. It is strongest for males. Our findings are consistent with the view that voting is driven partly by human self-interest. Money apparently makes people more right-wing.

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This is an academic paper, so it’s a PDF. It’s from 2014, not that that should make any difference. In effect, it’s showing that *sudden* accumulation of money makes people more right-wing, but the broad effect probably explains why shadowy thinktanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs or the so-called Taxpayers Alliance, neither of which discloses the sources of their funding but which are surely funded by rich people, espouse particularly right-wing views of the world – and particularly what should happen to those who have lots of money.
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Google is putting an algorithmic audio news feed on its Assistant • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Google is rolling out a new service for Google Assistant that it’s calling “Your News Update.” It takes the idea of an algorithmically determined news feed — the kind you get from Facebook or on Google’s news feed — and turns it into an audio stream. To play it, you simply ask a Google smart speaker or Assistant on your phone to “listen to the news.”

Google uses the information it has learned about you over the years alongside your location to custom-build a series of short news updates from partners from which it has licensed audio. It hopes to foster an ecosystem it’s calling “the audio web,” according to Liz Gannes, Google’s product manager of audio news. These aren’t podcasts so much as news bites, similar to the hourly news updates that can be heard on the radio.

Your News Update replaces the current way of getting news updates from Assistant, which consists of a straightforward list of news sources. With that system, you have to choose which sources you want and what order they’re played in…

…Google has licensed audio from a variety of news sources, including ABC, Cheddar, The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News Radio, PBS, Reuters, WYNC, and a bunch of local radio stations…

…the main problem I have with this kind of news feed is that while an algorithmic list of stories makes sense on a screen, it’s incredibly annoying when it’s a linear stream of audio. On a screen, you can scan through quickly and read headlines and sources, picking and choosing what you prefer. On an audio feed, you have to constantly bark “Hey Google, skip” if you get a story that isn’t a good match.

I also have concerns that, as with news feeds on the web, this new audio news feed will reinforce filter bubbles.

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Yup. He’s absolutely right: it will. And you can also bet, like night follows day, that there will be attempts to game this. Hasn’t Google learnt anything from Facebook and YouTube’s and its own debacles around algorithmic suggestions for nuanced news topics?
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Age structure of the world population • Our World in Data

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser:

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In comparing 1950 and 2018 we see that the number of children born has increased – 97 million in 1950 to 143 million today – and that the mortality of children decreased at the same time. If you now compare the base of the pyramid in 2018 with the projection for 2100 you see that the coming decades will not resemble the past: According to the projections there will be fewer children born at the end of this century than today. The base of the future population structure is narrower.

We are at a turning point in global population history. Between 1950 and today it was a widening of the entire pyramid that was responsible for the increase of the world population. What is responsible for the increase of the world population from now on is not a widening of the base, but a ‘fill up’ of the population above the base. Not children will be added to the world population, but people of working age and old age. The number of children born will remain as high as it is today, but as global health is improving and mortality is falling these children will live longer. The final step that will end rapid population growth.

At a country level “peak child” is often followed by a time in which the country benefits from a “demographic dividend” when the proportion of the dependent young generation falls and the share of the population in working age increases.

This is now happening at a global scale. For every child younger than 15 there were 1.8 people in working-age (15 to 64) in 1950; today there are 2.5; and by the end of the century there will be 3.4.

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The other graphic to look at in this fascinating page is the median age in countries – which is indicative both of their likelihood to see widespread violence (lower when the median age is higher) and to be politically conservative (goes up with median age).

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1192: Apple reveals repair costs (sorta), fact-checking’s problem, Google’s flawed election spend data, and more


A SIM swap hack is being blamed for Arron Banks’s Twitter account being hacked. CC-licensed photo by Karl Baron on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. A-ha! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Arron Banks’s private Twitter messages leaked by hacker • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

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Arron Banks’s Twitter account has been hacked and the entire private message history of the Leave.EU founder uploaded to the internet, in what appears to be a targeted attack that has been reported to the police.

The founder of the pro-Brexit campaign group, who has been the subject of questions about the source of his group’s funding and rule breaches during the EU referendum, confirmed the hack and accused Twitter of leaving his personal data available for anyone to access for almost 24 hours.

Leave.EU spokesman, Andy Wigmore, told the Guardian the hack had been reported to the police and they were investigating possible breaches of the Computer Misuse Act.

“The police told us pretty quickly that it was a simswap,” he said, referring to the tactic where control of a phone number is obtained by a hacker, enabling them to gain access to the account.

The attack appears to have involved gaining access to Banks’s email address, which was registered to an expired campaign website. Someone else appears to now own the domain for that site, which directs users to pornography.

Wigmore said he and Banks had been unable to download the hacked messages due to a lack of technical skills. However, they had been sent some by others who had managed to download them. Wigmore dismissed the content as “gossip” rather than revelations. He also criticised Twitter for the time it took the social media platform to respond to the data breach.

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Wigmore tried to claim that anyone accessing the file (uploaded to mega.nz and others) would be breaching the Computer Misuse Act, and that Twitter would know who had accessed it. Neither true, of course. Be interesting to see what stories appear in the next few days from it.
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Questions for and answers from Apple for the US House Judiciary Committee

Questions for the Record from the Honorable David N. Cicilline, Chairman, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the Committee on the Judiciary: Questions for Mr. Kyle Andeer, Vice President, Corporate Law, Apple, Inc.:

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18. What types of repairs does Apple prevent its authorized technicians from making on Apple devices and what are the reasons for doing so?
AASPs [Apple Authorised Service Providers] conduct the exact same repairs that Apple Retail Stores offer. There are a very limited number of repairs that require special fixtures or equipment, necessitating that those repairs be done at an Apple Repair Center. In these cases, neither an Apple Retail Store nor an AASP will be permitted to conduct the repair. But they can mail the device to the closest Apple Repair Center to do the repair and then ship it back to the customer.

19. Does Apple take any actions to block consumers from seeking out or using repair shops that offer a broader range of repairs than those offered by authorized technicians? If yes, describe each action that Apple takes and the reason for doing so.
Apple does not take any actions to block consumers from seeking out or using repair shops that offer a broader range of repairs than those offered by Apple’s authorized technicians. Customers are free to obtain repairs from any repair shop of their choice.

20. How many repair technicians does Apple employ in the United States?
There are tens of thousands of Apple-authorized repair technicians working at Apple Retail Stores and third-party retailers.

21. For each year since 2009, please identify the total revenue that Apple derived from repair services.
For each year since 2009, the costs of providing repair services has exceeded the revenue generated by repairs.

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That last one is going to surprise folks a little. It’s quite evasive in parts (“Apple has spent billions of dollars on Apple Maps”, and so on). There might be plenty more from a careful read.
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How does fact-checking work when we can’t agree on the truth? • Columbia Journalism Review

Mathew Ingram:

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Jonathan Albright, who runs the Digital Forensic Research unit at Columbia’s Tow Center, says that his research shows that many of the same disinformation strategies from the 2016 election—aimed at reinforcing polarization and institutional distrust—are being leveraged this time around, too. As before, the focus is on religion, immigration, health, and climate change. When it comes to political advertising, Albright says, fact-checking wouldn’t be sufficient to confront the scope of the problem—even if Facebook did allow for it. “We need a [Federal Election Commission]-style portal on how citizen data is used in political campaigns, not separate platform political ad APIs,” he argues. Baybars Örsek, of the International Fact-Checking Network, says that Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political ads is a mistake: “I think fact-checkers should be able to flag not only political advertisements but also political claims and statements on Facebook.” 

Rampant disinformation may seem like a modern crisis, but Kelly Weill, of The Daily Beast, points out that “the US is a country that’s always held conspiratorial thinking close to its heart. The signers of the Declaration of Independence believed a number of falsehoods about plots by King George III against America.” Conspiratorial thinking often comes with new communication methods, Weill adds: the Flat Earth movement got its start in the United Kingdom in the mid-1840s, when newspapers became widely available. Renee DiResta, of the Stanford Internet Observatory, says that disinformation is “a chronic condition, and we’re now in the process of figuring out the best way to manage it.”

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You can read all of the “virtual symposium“; it’s worth it.
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Google admits major underreporting of election ad spend • The Guardian

Alex Hern and Niamh McIntyre:

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the company’s transparency report published this week included the claim that Labour spent just £50 on adverts in the week beginning 27 October, when the election was called, and nothing at all in the week following. That would mean that, for the week immediately following the dissolution of parliament, Labour ran no adverts on Google Search or YouTube, or on the company’s wider ad network.

In fact, Labour was advertising heavily in that period, spending tens of thousands of pounds on adverts on Google Search results for terms including “Brexit party” and “Brexit”.

The correct figures were disclosed by Google in a previous version of its transparency report, no longer available on its website: the party spent £63,900 in two weeks, at least 1,000 times more than the amount reported by Google.

A similar, though smaller, discrepancy exists in the spend reported for the Conservative party. Originally, the Tory spend was reported as £12,450, but in the latest version of the report that is downgraded to £9,900.

When the Guardian highlighted the discrepancy, Google admitted that this week’s report was incorrect, and that the figures published last week were the accurate ones. The company initially said it had no plans to update the public version of the report with the correct figures until next Tuesday, but shortly before publication said it would fix any errors “as soon as possible”. In the meantime, the incorrect information is still available on the site for download.

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Google getting data wrong? It’s like there’s a rift in the universe.
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Pollution • Patrick Collison

Collison is a member of the Long Now foundation; “the long term is underrated”, he says:

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Air pollution is a very big deal. Its adverse effects on numerous health outcomes and general mortality are widely documented. However, our understanding of its cognitive costs is more recent and those costs are almost certainly still significantly under-emphasized…

• Chess players make more mistakes on polluted days: “We find that an increase of 10 µg/m³ raises the probability of making an error by 1.5 percentage points, and increases the magnitude of the errors by 9.4%. The impact of pollution is exacerbated by time pressure. When players approach the time control of games, an increase of 10 µg/m³, corresponding to about one standard deviation, increases the probability of making a meaningful error by 3.2 percentage points, and errors being 17.3% larger.” – Künn et al 2019.

A 3.26x (albeit with very wide CI) increase in Alzheimer’s incidence for each 10 µg/m³ increase in long-term PM2.5 exposure? “Short- and long-term PM2.5 exposure was associated with increased risks of stroke (short-term odds ratio 1.01 [per µg/m³ increase in PM2.5 concentrations], 95% CI 1.01-1.02; long-term 1.14, 95% CI 1.08-1.21) and mortality (short-term 1.02, 95% CI 1.01-1.04; long-term 1.15, 95% CI 1.07-1.24) of stroke. Long-term PM2.5 exposure was associated with increased risks of dementia (1.16, 95% CI 1.07-1.26), Alzheimer’s disease (3.26, 95% 0.84-12.74), ASD (1.68, 95% CI 1.20-2.34), and Parkinson’s disease (1.34, 95% CI 1.04-1.73).” – Fu et al 2019. Similar effects are seen in Bishop et al 2018: “We find that a 1 µg/m³ increase in decadal PM2.5 increases the probability of a dementia diagnosis by 1.68 percentage points.”

• A study of 20,000 elderly women concluded that “the effect of a 10 µg/m³ increment in long-term [PM2.5 and PM10] exposure is cognitively equivalent to ageing by approximately two years”.

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Amazing how many negatives fossil fuels turn out to have.
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Google confirms Android camera security threat: ‘hundreds of millions’ of users affected • Forbes

Davey Winder:

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The vulnerabilities themselves (CVE-2019-2234) allowed a rogue application to grab input from the camera, microphone as well as GPS location data, all remotely.

The implications of being able to do this are serious enough that the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) specifically has a set of permissions that any application must request from the user and be approved before enabling such actions.

What the Checkmarx researchers did was to create an attack scenario that abused the Google Camera app itself to bypass these permissions. They did so by creating a malicious app that exploited one of the most commonly requested permissions: storage access. “A malicious app running on an Android smartphone that can read the SD card,” Yalon said, “not only has access to past photos and videos, but with this new attack methodology, can be directed to take new photos and videos at will.”

…[security expert Ian] Thornton-Trump is happy that Google issued a fix and issued it quickly, but says that, based upon the severity and comprehensive nature of the vulnerabilities, “it’s time for Google to apply perhaps some of the “Project Zero” capability to dig deeply into the Android OS itself.” There’s little doubt that the high number of Android vulnerabilities being disclosed is hurting the Android brand.

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At will. But it was patched in July, with the coordination of Samsung and Google. And I’m not sure about this “little doubt” over the Android brand and vulnerabilities.
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The collapse of the information ecosystem poses profound risks for humanity • The Guardian

Lydia Polgreen:

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he digital revolution greatly expanded human knowledge and wealth much as the industrial revolution did 150 years earlier when new technologies, notably the combustion engine, brought about extraordinary economic growth. And much like the building of great railways and interstate highways allowed people to connect, the creation of tools that allow anyone to be their own publisher has made it possible for new voices to reach large audiences around the world.

But if the price of the industrial revolution was planetary destruction on an unimaginable scale, the digital revolution may be costly in a different but similarly destructive way. William Randolph Hearst owned the means of production and was free to publish made up stories to sell papers and stoke the Spanish-American war. Today, everyone is free to be their own propagandist.

When the scientists behind the Doomsday clock published their yearly assessment of how close we are to planetary doom, they added a new dimension to the dual threats of nuclear proliferation and climate change, namely “the intentional corruption of the information ecosystem on which modern civilization depends”.

What we’ve seen in recent years isn’t just the collapse of informational authority. It is the destruction of the pact between the purveyors of quality information and the businesses that wanted to reach the consumers of that information.

…That world is a very dangerous one for humans in general, but it poses special and serious risks for businesses. Without facts, what are contracts? Without facts, what are laws? A world without facts is as dangerous for companies as it is for citizens.

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Intriguing metaphor.

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Secretive energy startup backed by Bill Gates achieves solar breakthrough • CNN

Matt Egan:

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Heliogen, a clean energy company that emerged from stealth mode on Tuesday, said it has discovered a way to use artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to reflect so much sunlight that it generates extreme heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Essentially, Heliogen created a solar oven — one capable of reaching temperatures that are roughly a quarter of what you’d find on the surface of the sun.

The breakthrough means that, for the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes. In other words, carbon-free sunlight can replace fossil fuels in a heavy carbon-emitting corner of the economy that has been untouched by the clean energy revolution.

“We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions,” Bill Gross, Heliogen’s founder and CEO, told CNN Business. “And that’s really the holy grail.”

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Not very clear where it’s doing this, but it looks mid-American. Also using AI to achieve it.

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How Turkish coffee destroyed an empire • 1843 Magazine

Sarah Jilani:

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Coffee houses gave men somewhere to congregate other than in homes, mosques or markets, providing a place for them to socialise, exchange information, entertain – and be educated. Literate members of society read aloud the news of the day; janissaries, members of an elite cadre of Ottoman troops, planned acts of protest against the Sultan; officials discussed court intrigue; merchants exchanged rumours of war. And the illiterate majority listened in. In the coffee houses they were introduced to ideas that spelled trouble for the Ottoman state: rebellion, self-determination and the fallibility of the powerful.

It wasn’t long before the authorities began to regard the kahvehane [public coffee houses] as a threat. Some sultans installed spies in coffee houses to gauge public opinion; others, like Murad IV, an early-18th-century sultan, tried shutting them down altogether. But they were too profitable. When simmering nationalist movements came to a boil throughout Ottoman lands in the 19th century, the popularity of coffee houses burgeoned. Ethnic groups in European regions of the empire with an Eastern Orthodox Christian majority started agitating for independence. Nationalist leaders planned their tactics and cemented alliances in the coffee houses of Thessaloniki, Sofia and Belgrade. Their caffeine-fuelled efforts succeeded with the establishment of an independent Greece in 1821, Serbia in 1835, and Bulgaria in 1878. The reign of kahve was over.

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Nowadays coffee houses are just used to show off optimistic projections of growth for vague startups.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1191: Snapchat checking political ads, cheaper iPhone sells in China, spot that bot!, Disney+ hacked accounts for sale, and more


An old-time skill.. has just become relevant again: the scissor switch has definitely returned to Apple’s keyboard. CC-licensed photo by Andy Ihnatko on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Make backups. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple iPhone 11 scores early China success, official data shows • Bloomberg

Yuan Gao, and Colum Murphy:

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Apple shipped 10 million iPhones in China during September and October, based on Bloomberg’s calculations from government data on overall and Android device shipments. That’s the first indication of the company’s performance following the autumn release of its latest gadgets, and it shows iPhone shipments up 6% from a year earlier, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, which is run by the country’s technology ministry.

That affirms expectations that Apple’s iPhone 11 is selling more strongly than its predecessor, particularly in a market that’s second only to the US in its importance to Apple’s bottom line. The company had recently been stuck in a rut in China, ceding ground to local rivals like Huawei and Xiaomi, which offer more enticing pricing, better specifications and increasingly premium design. Apple also lost market share to Samsung Electronics and Huawei globally prior to the iPhone 11’s release. Chief executive officer Tim Cook has said new pricing, a monthly payment program and trade-in offers helped the iPhone’s performance in China.

“Chinese customers seem to be receiving the iPhone 11 series better than last year’s models because of the lowered retail price,” said Nicole Peng, a Canalys analyst. “We see weaker shipments for old models but the latest products are going strong.”

Overall Chinese smartphone shipments dropped 5% to 69.3 million units during the two months, according to reports published by the academy, which is run by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and tracks the number of smartphones that get permits to be sold in China.

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Price affects sales? Who could have guessed? Seems the iPhone isn’t quite the Veblen good some thought.
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GPTrue or False • Chrome Web Store

“thesofakillers”:

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OpenAI’s recently released GPT-2 model has revealed itself to be capable of generating incredibily realistic text.

With the rampant spread of fake news in today’s world, such tools may pose a threat to the quality of the information found on the internet.

Luckily, OpenAI also released a detector which is designed to detect whether a given portion of text has been generated by GPT-2 or not.

This extension wraps the detector into a simple browser extension. Simply select a portion of text (at least 50 words) and the extension will let you know of the GPT-2 log probability that the text is indeed real.

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Pretty soon this will have to be built in to every browser, won’t it. (User tests suggest it’s pretty good at it.)
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Facebook’s fake numbers problem • Financial Times

Elaine Moore and Hannah Murphy:

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At first glance, Amy Dowd’s Facebook account appears perfectly normal. There is a smiling profile picture of a young woman surrounded by autumnal leaves and the date that she began a new job at Southeast Missouri State University. But look more closely and things begin to seem strange. Unlike most 29 year olds, Amy has no friends, no interests and no photos. The only thing she has written is a gushing review of a US haulage company. “Fake account,” replied one user. They were right.

This Amy Dowd does not exist. Her account is a fake bought by the Financial Times as part of an investigation into the millions of bogus accounts littering the social media network in spite of efforts to better verify users.

The proliferation of phoney identities has reached a record high. That is a problem for a company that trumpets user growth — considered a barometer of health by investors — while receiving criticism for failing to prevent the spread of false information by third parties.

Facebook’s own estimates suggest duplicate accounts represent approximately 11% of monthly active users while fake versions make up another 5%. Others claim the total is higher. Yet Facebook continues to promote its user base as an incredible 2.45bn per month — close to one-third of the global population.

Growth in user numbers looks significantly less impressive once adjusted for duplicate and fake accounts — up 7% in the past two years, rather than 18% calculated by Facebook.

The discrepancy highlights the lack of transparency around the metrics used by one of the world’s most valuable companies. Given the importance of users to the company’s revenue growth and profitability Facebook needs to open up its data to more detailed audit and create a new, adjusted metric to count users.

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Facebook released data the other day saying that it zaps pretty much every fake account itself, and that humans spot about 0.5% of them. I think that’s “surviving planes syndrome” – it doesn’t know how many fake accounts it misses.
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Google Stadia wants you to replace your video game console. Don’t • The New York Times

Brian Chen:

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I recommend taking a wait-and-see approach before buying games there. Here are the biggest uncertainties:

• It’s unclear whether Stadia games will continue streaming smoothly. Once hordes of people start using the service, they might overload the servers, and gamers could see degraded performance. (I was among a small number of reviewers testing the service.) Google said its data centers were designed to handle peak traffic proficiently.

• Will the cost be worth it to gamers? Like other game providers, Google will sell games à la carte — a premium game costs $60, for example. But to play the games in the highest (4K) resolution, gamers must pay a subscription of $10 a month. Gamers might prefer instead to buy a PlayStation 4 Pro for $400 and play 4K games for as long as they wish.

• The games catalog is the biggest unknown. With Stadia’s release, there will be about two dozen titles to buy — mostly games that were released on other systems. While Nintendo’s Switch had only 10 titles on Day 1, among those was an exclusive Zelda game that got rave reviews.

It’s unclear whether Stadia will get highly anticipated titles on the same day they are released for PlayStation 4 or Xbox. A Google spokesman said that in the future, Stadia should get new titles around the same time as other game systems.

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Still struggle to see the benefit of this over just buying a console.
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ByteDance to take on rivals with music streaming launch • Financial Times

Anna Nicolaou:

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The Beijing-based technology company aims to launch as soon as next month, initially in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia and Brazil, before a future opening in the US, according to people briefed on the plans. 

The move would see ByteDance, valued by Japanese investment group SoftBank at $75bn last year, battle directly with industry leaders Spotify, Tencent and Apple in the market for paid music.

The Chinese group aims to differentiate itself from rivals by focusing on the user-generated content that has quickly made TikTok one of the world’s most popular social media platforms.

The app allows people to post and watch short video clips; content often veers towards silly comedy sketches and dance “challenges” to various trending songs. TikTok claims more than 1bn users, which makes it more popular than better known social media platforms Snapchat or Twitter.

Music executives are keen to make money from TikTok, which is free to use. They view a new ByteDance app as a welcome addition to the music streaming market, where a number of companies, including Apple, Spotify and Amazon, offer a similar catalogue of songs. 

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I liked the comedian David Mitchell’s comment about music: “I find it’s rather like the weather. There’s just a lot of it and it’s always there and you can like it or complain about it.” Music services are all becoming more and more weather-like.
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Thousands of hacked Disney+ accounts are already for sale on hacking forums • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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Hackers didn’t waste any time and have started hijacking Disney+ user accounts hours after the service launched.

Many of these accounts are now being offered for free on hacking forums, or available for sale for prices varying from $3 to $11, a ZDNet investigation has discovered.

The Disney+ video streaming service launched on November 12. The service, although being available only in the US, Canada, and the Netherlands, has already amassed more than 10 million customers in its first 24 hours.

The Disney+ launch was marred by technical issues. Many users reported being unable to stream their favorite movies and shows.

But hidden in the flood of complaints about technical issues was a smaller stream of users reporting losing access to their accounts.

Many users reported that hackers were accessing their accounts, logging them out of all devices, and then changing the account’s email and password, effectively taking over the account and locking the previous owner out.

…Two users who spoke with ZDNet on the condition we do not share their names admitted that they reused passwords. However, other users said online that they did not, and had used passwords unique for their Disney+ accounts.

This suggests that in some cases hackers gained access to accounts by using email and password combos leaked at other sites, while in other cases the Disney+ credentials might have been obtained from users infected with keylogging or info-stealing malware.

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That’s a low, low price for an account.
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Snapchat fact-checks political ads unlike Facebook: CEO Evan Spiegel • CNBC

William Feuer:

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has defended Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political advertising, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided to ban all political advertising, though the company is now struggling to define what actually qualifies as a political advertisement. Google, which also owns YouTube, has remained quiet on the matter.

In contrast, Snapchat has a team to fact-check all political advertising on the platform, Spiegel says.

“We subject all advertising to review, including political advertising,” he said Monday. “And I think what we try to do is create a place for political ads on our platform, especially because we reach so many young people and first-time voters we want them to be able to engage with the political conversation, but we don’t allow things like misinformation to appear in that advertising.”

He compared Snap’s policy on political ads to cable TV. “That might be more similar to cable rather than broadcast,” he said.

Under Federal Communications Commission rules, broadcast television stations cannot censor certain political advertisements based on accuracy concerns. Cable television networks are not bound by the same federal policies.

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Wouldn’t it be nice if Facebook copied this, like it does everything else that Snapchat does?
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MacBook Pro 16″ 2019 teardown • iFixit

:

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Remember the iMac’s Magic Keyboard? It’s a well-liked, reliable design that Apple calls the “core technology” for the redesigned keyboard in this new machine.

That might be understating it slightly: side by side, we’re hard pressed to spot any differences.

Scissor switches, keycaps… There’s slightly less space surrounding these new keys, and pundits will celebrate those reconfigured arrow keys—but everything else looks nigh identical.

News flash: there’s not even a dust-proofing membrane on these new switches. We’re inclined to take this as a very good sign. (It means we can finally eat Doritos during teardowns again.)…

…Compared once again with the desktop Magic Keyboard:

The two scissor mechanisms look nearly identical. The old Magic scissor is ever-so-slightly thicker (1.6 vs 1.38 mm).

0.22 mm may not seem like much, but no doubt a lot of engineering went into the re-creation of this slender new scissor switch.

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It’s crazy that a teardown of a Mac, at the end of 2019, should have to focus on whether the keyboard is likely to be reliable. Let’s hope we never have to hear about it again.
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The flat-Earth conspiracy is spreading around the globe. Does it hide a darker core? • CNN

Rob Picheta, CNN:

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On a clear day, the curvature of the Earth can be seen from an airplane window. But remarkably, the hundreds of flat Earthers at the Dallas gathering were just a small portion of the movement.

People in every pocket of this spherical planet are rejecting science and spreading the word that the Earth is flat.

There’s no clear study indicating how many people have been convinced — and flat Earthers like Weiss will tell you without evidence there are millions more in the closet anyway, including Hollywood A-listers and commercial airline pilots — but online communities have hundreds of thousands of followers and YouTube is inundated with flat-Earth content creators, whose productions reach millions.

A YouGov survey of more than 8,000 American adults suggested last year that as many as one in six Americans are not entirely certain the world is round, while a 2019 Datafolha Institute survey of more than 2,000 Brazilian adults indicated that 7% of people in that country reject that concept, according to local media…

…most adherents demonstrate plenty of anti-scientific tendencies. It’s hard to find a flat Earther who doesn’t believe most other conspiracies under the sun; a flat-Earth conference is invariably also a gathering of anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers and Illuminati subscribers, to name a few.

It’s that hyper-skeptical mindset that helps flat earthers answer the big questions — like who’s hiding the true shape of the planet from us?

“The ruling elite, from the royal family to the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds … all of those groups that run the world, they’re in on it,” says Weiss.

«

As HG Wells said, “we are in a race between education and catastrophe.” Hard to figure who’s winning.
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WeWork may lay off thousands • The New York Times

Peter Eavis and Mike Isaac:

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WeWork is preparing to cut at least 4,000 people from its work force as it tries to stabilize itself after the company’s breakneck growth racked up heavy losses and led it to the brink of collapse, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

The cuts are expected to be announced as early as this week and will take place across WeWork’s sprawling global operation. Under the plan, the company’s core business of subletting office space would lay off 2,000 to 2,500 employees, one of the people said. An additional 1,000 employees will leave as WeWork sells or closes down noncore businesses, like a private school in Manhattan that WeWork set up. Additionally, roughly 1,000 building maintenance employees will be transferred to an outside contractor. Together, these employees would represent around a third of the 12,500 people WeWork employed at the end of June.

But one of the people said the company could shed as many as 5,000 to 6,000 employees.

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Has there ever been a bigger car crash of a venture-funded company? I’d love to know.
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Vaping apps go up in smoke on Apple’s App Store • The Washington Post

Marie Baca:

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Apple removed all vaping-related apps from its App Store on Friday, siding with experts who call vaping “a public health crisis” and “a youth epidemic.”

Some of the 181 vaping apps removed by Apple permit the user to control the temperature or other settings on vaping devices. Others offer users access to social networks or games. The App Store has never permitted the sale of vaping cartridges through apps.

“We’re constantly evaluating apps, and consulting the latest evidence to determine risks to users’ health and well-being,” Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said in a statement. Apple cited evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups that have linked vaping and e-cigarette usage to deaths and lung injuries.

The App Store is a powerful platform that generates billions of dollars in revenue for Apple. Apple sets the rules for what is allowed on it, affecting millions of users and developers. Some critics complain that Apple applies its standards unevenly or is too restrictive, while others say the company hasn’t gone far enough to curb harmful apps.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment about the criticism.

Apple says it hasn’t approved a vape-related app since June. That’s when the company updated its app review guidelines to prohibit anything that encourages or facilitates vaping, the company said.

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A study published in the UK on the same day which showed that switching from cigarettes to vaping improves the health of the heart. The vaping deaths in the US seem to be linked to misuse. I find this move peculiar, at minimum; unjustified, at worse.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,190: ex-Apple chip execs aim at servers, track Twitter hoaxes, costing Labour’s broadband plan, Amazon’s externalities, and more


Ships rely on GPS – but someone in China has figured out how to spoof it reliably. CC-licensed photo by Travis on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. It’s the time of year. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: a GPS mystery in Shanghai • MIT Technology Review

Mark Harris:

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As the crew carefully maneuvered the 700-foot ship through the world’s busiest port, its captain watched his navigation screens closely. By international law, all but the smallest commercial ships have to install automatic identification system (AIS) transponders. Every few seconds, these devices broadcast their identity, position, course, and speed and display AIS data from other ships in the area, helping to keep crowded waterways safe. The position data for those transponders comes from GPS satellites.

According to the Manukai’s screens, another ship was steaming up the same channel at about seven knots (eight miles per hour). Suddenly, the other ship disappeared from the AIS display. A few minutes later, the screen showed the other ship back at the dock. Then it was in the channel and moving again, then back at the dock, then gone once more.

Eventually, mystified, the captain picked up his binoculars and scanned the dockside. The other ship had been stationary at the dock the entire time.

When it came time for the Manukai to head for its own berth, the bridge began echoing to multiple alarms. Both of the ship’s GPS units—it carried two for redundancy—had lost their signals, and its AIS transponder had failed. Even a last-ditch emergency distress system that also relied on GPS could not get a fix.

Now, new research and previously unseen data show that the Manukai, and thousands of other vessels in Shanghai over the last year, are falling victim to a mysterious new weapon that is able to spoof GPS systems in a way never seen before.

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Long talked about, it looks like aggressive GPS spoofing is now a real thing.
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Gifaanisqatsi

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Koyaanisqatsi is a 1983 wordless documentary primarily made up of slow motion and time-lapse footage. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the trailer.

I wondered how easy it would be to make an internet version using random Giphy ‘gifs’ which have been tagged as slow motion or time-lapse, playing them along with the Philip Glass soundtrack.

(As with any random thing, there is a chance some dodgy content may get through. I have used Giphy’s PG-13 setting and it seems okay, but click on a video and it will tell you an id – send me this and I’ll block anything iffy. Also note that this may not work on phones, especially iPhones, as they can be weird about multiple videos, and it’s quite heavy on your processor and bandwidth.)

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This is good fun, and the soundtrack works with pretty much anything.
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Former Apple chip executives found company to take on Intel, AMD • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

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Three of Apple former top semiconductor executives in charge of iPhone chips have founded a startup to design processors for data centers, aiming to take on current industry leaders Intel Corp and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

NUVIA Inc was founded by Gerard Williams III, Manu Gulati and John Bruno in early 2019 and is developing a processor code-named Phoenix. The company on Friday said it raised $53m from Dell Technologies Capital and several Silicon Valley firms, which will help it expand from 60 employees to about 100 by the end of this year.

The company’s founders, backers and plans have not been previously reported.

Williams left Apple this spring after more than nine years as chief architect for all Apple central processors and systems-on-a-chip. Gulati spent eight years at Apple working on mobile systems-on-a-chip, and Bruno spent five years in Apple’s platform architecture group. Gulati and Bruno also worked for Alphabet Inc’s Google before coming to NUVIA.

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That’s some high-powered execs there. Apple bought PA Semi in 2008, and hired Williams in 2010 from ARM. But it seems like the chip group is always seeing change.

You’d have to guess that these are going to be ARM-based servers, which is a slice of the market that hasn’t seen much action yet.
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Hoaxy® : FAQ

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What is Hoaxy?

Hoaxy is a tool that visualizes the spread of articles online. Articles can be found on Twitter, or in a corpus of claims and related fact checking.

What is the difference between Hoaxy search and Twitter search?

There are two search modes. Hoaxy search finds claims and related fact checking in a limited corpus of articles from low-credibility and fact-checking sources, dating back to 2016. This mode leverages the Hoaxy API to retrieve relevant articles, accounts, and tweets. Twitter search lets users track articles from any sources posted on Twitter, but only within the last 7 days. Twitter mode uses the Twitter Search API to retrieve relevant, popular, or mixedtweets matching your search query. It is compatible with all advanced search operators. At most, Hoaxy is capable of visualizing the top 1000 accounts and in the case of a Twitter search, this will be the most recently active 1000 accounts if sorted by Recent.

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Fun! Worth adding to your bookmarks.
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How feasible is Labour’s free broadband plan and part-nationalisation of BT? • The Guardian

Mark Sweney and Patrick Collinson:

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Could the government and BT shareholders agree a fair price for Openreach?
There is likely to be significant difficulty valuing British Broadband, which is what Labour would call a nationalised Openreach. Bloomberg has valued it at £15bn.

The Labour party has said parliament would decide what to pay but it would have to be a fair price to get the backing of employee shareholders, pension fund investors, small shareholders and big overseas investors. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, which has 12% of the business, is likely to be a tough negotiator, for instance.

But it would likely cost less than it would have done a few years ago. BT’s share price was 500p in 2015 but is now only 191p. Labour has said that BT shareholders would get government bonds in return for their shares, which pay a lower dividend than BT investors currently receive.

Would nationalising broadband work?
Australia has tried to do this with its National Broadband Network and it has been branded one of the biggest infrastructure failures in its history. Set up in 2006, the government’s plan was to roll out full fibre to 93% of all premises, although over the years this was watered down to a “multi-technology mix” using different technologies offering varying levels of speed and service to consumers. “Only one other country in the world has come close to going down this route, Australia,” says Matthew Howett, the principal analyst at telecoms research firm Assembly. “And for a good reason – it’s hard, expensive and fraught with difficulty. Australia’s NBN is years late, massively overbudget and offering speeds and technology a fraction of the original political intention.”

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The problem with the Australia program was that it got watered down to stick with copper. Nationalising BT Openreach would be a radical move – but so was selling the public BT into the private sector in 1984. Now it’s just using Openreach as a cash cow. Infrastructure shouldn’t be that.
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Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales launches Twitter and Facebook rival • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:

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Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has quietly launched a rival to Facebook and Twitter that he hopes will combat “clickbait” and misleading headlines. 

WT:Social, his new social-networking site, allows users to share links to articles and discuss them in a Facebook-style news feed. Topics range from politics and technology to heavy metal and beekeeping. 

While the company is completely separate to Wikipedia, Mr Wales is borrowing the online encyclopedia’s business model. WT:Social will rely on donations from a small subset of users to allow the network to operate without the advertising that he blames for encouraging the wrong kind of engagement on social media.

“The business model of social media companies, of pure advertising, is problematic,” Mr Wales said. “It turns out the huge winner is low-quality content.” 

While Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms ensure that the posts with the most comments or likes rise to the top, WT:Social puts the newest links first. However, WT:Social hopes to add an “upvote” button that will allow users to recommend quality stories.

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Have to say that this would have been perfect about 15 years ago. Hard to see it really making an impact now, though he’s right about the problems.
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Most Americans think they’re being constantly tracked—and that there’s nothing they can do • MIT Technology Review

Angela Chen:

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More than 60% of Americans think it’s impossible to go through daily life without being tracked by companies or the government, according to a new Pew Research study. The results provide important context on the long-running question of how much Americans really care about privacy. 

It’s not just that Americans (correctly) think companies are collecting their data. They don’t like it. About 69% of Americans are skeptical that companies will use their private information in a way they’re comfortable with, while 79% don’t believe that companies will come clean if they misuse the information. 

When it comes to who they trust, there are differences by race. About 73% of black Americans, for instance, are at least a little worried about what law enforcement knows about them, compared with 56% of white Americans. But among all respondents, more than 80% were concerned about what social-media sites and advertisers might know. 

Despite these concerns, more than 80% of Americans feel they have no control over how their information is collected. 

Very few people read privacy policies, the survey shows. That’s understandable. A review of 150 policies from major websites found that the average one takes about 18 minutes to read and requires at least a college-level reading ability. Few people have time for that—and even if they did, most people are forced to agree anyway if they really need the service.

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Brand hijacking and Amazon’s China strategy • The Margins

Ranjan Roy:

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For decades, we’ve vilified the “middleman” as an inefficiency; an unnecessary tax paid by the consumer which technology finally solved for. But, we ignored the layers of accountability and positive value that many of these conduits provided.

Think about it: If you bought a child’s toy from Sears, you would assume that it didn’t contain 400x the amount of lead legally allowed. But that’s no longer the case:

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Another musical-instrument set failing the Journal’s tests, made by a company calling itself Innocheer and listed as in China, likely contributed to a New York City child’s lead poisoning, according to city health officials. The city in May 2018 began tracking down contaminated products including the set bought on Amazon, a New York health-department spokesman says.

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If you went to a store and bought a motorcycle helmet that was listed as DOT compliant, but it in fact, was not and your son died in an accident where it did not act as expected, you’d expect proper recourse, but you’d be wrong:

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The coroner declared Mr. Stokes dead at the scene, a day before he and his girlfriend planned to find out their unborn baby’s gender. His mother sued Amazon, claiming the helmet was flawed. Amazon in court argued it didn’t sell the helmet but merely listed it on the seller’s behalf. It settled for $5,000 without admitting liability. It declined to comment on the case.

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The examples go on and on, but you get the point. What was long decried as inefficiency, in fact, imbued some semblance of accountability. When Jeff Bezos says “your margin is my opportunity” he seems to gloss over whether there was a modicum of value being delivered within that margin.

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In short: problems that used to be contained within the system have become externalities.
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Microsoft is killing off its Cortana app for iOS and Android in January • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft has revealed that it’s planning to kill off its Cortana app for iOS and Android in January. The software maker has posted a new support article for Cortana users in the UK, Canada, and Australia that reveals Cortana for iOS and Android is disappearing in at least those markets. Microsoft has also confirmed to The Verge that the Cortana app will disappear in the UK, Australia, Germany, Mexico, China, Spain, Canada, and India on January 31st.

“Cortana is an integral part of our broader vision to bring the power of conversational computing and productivity to all our platforms and devices,” says a Microsoft spokesperson in a statement to The Verge. “To make Cortana as helpful as possible, we’re integrating Cortana deeper into your Microsoft 365 productivity apps, and part of this evolution involves ending support for the Cortana mobile app on Android and iOS.”

It’s not clear how much longer the Cortana for iOS and Android app will continue to operate in the US after January 31st.

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Come on, they say they’re integrating it into Office, but the truth is it’s dead. A brief history: development started in 2009, and it was introduced in April 2014. Amazon’s Alexa: introduced in November 2014. Surprising how one has survived and the other hasn’t.
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Google Pixel 4 review: overpriced, uncompetitive, and out of touch • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

»

When the original Google Pixel first came out, there was an abundance of things you could give Google’s new smartphone division the benefit of the doubt on. The design was a year or two behind the competition, with thicker bezels and a less appealing design. Availability was very poor, as the phone was only sold in a handful of countries compared to the world-dominating distribution networks of Apple and Samsung. At a whopping $650, the original Pixel phone was shockingly expensive compared to the awesome value previously provided by the Nexus line. The fabled integration of hardware and software hadn’t shown many benefits yet, but that was easy to excuse since the original Pixel was rushed out the door. “This will all get better,” we all thought. Google was just getting started!

We’re on generation 4 of the Pixel line now, and nothing has really gotten better. The Pixel 4 design is still dated compared to the competition, sporting a sizable bezel when most of the smartphone world has moved on to minimal cameral blemishes or completely hidden cameras. Distribution is still very bad. The Pixel 4 is only for sale in 12 countries, a laughable number compared to the 70 countries that Apple does iPhone business in and the 100+ countries that can buy the Galaxy S10. The pricing problem has gotten even worse, as the Pixel 4’s entry point is now higher than the iPhone 11. Yet, the iPhone 11 has a bigger screen, a bigger battery, and a longer support window.

We’re not seeing any benefits from the supposed “deeper” integration of hardware and software, either. In four generations, Google has yet to do anything special with its hardware. It mostly just produces cookie-cutter smartphones at a very high price, doing the same thing as other companies often a year or two behind the competition.

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Tough crowd, the Android reviewer for a big tech site.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,189: the UK political spending dashboard, .org to .cost?, Schiller keys in, South Korea’s scientific kids, and more


Vaccination: Facebook thinks that it’s political, not scientific – and so allows ads opposing it. CC-licensed photo by frankieleon on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. “Yes, and”. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

7charts: UK Politics • Applied Data Science

»

UK Politics: How are the UK’s political organisations targeting Facebook users?

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You have to go and look at these: seven charts which show where the advertising spend is going, broken down by age group, gender, month, party, topic, region, and demographic. And it’s being updated all the time. A terrific digital dashboard – though of course it can’t see what the “dark ads” are that are being used on Facebook; only who’s spending. (A million thanks to Jim Morrison for the link.)
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Facebook has shut down 5.4 billion fake accounts this year, but millions likely remain • CNN

Brian Fung and Ahiza Garcia:

»

So far this year, Facebook has shut down 5.4 billion fake accounts on its main platform, but millions likely remain, the social networking giant said Wednesday. That’s compared to roughly 3.3 billion fake accounts removed in all of 2018.

As much as 5% of its monthly user base of nearly 2.5 billion consists of fake accounts, the company said, despite advances in technology that have allowed Facebook to catch more fake accounts the moment they are created.

The disclosure highlights the scale of the challenge before Facebook as it prepares for a high-stakes election season in the United States, as well as the 2020 US census. Analysts and watchdogs are bracing for a wave of fake and misleading content on social media following revelations about election meddling in 2016.
On a call with reporters, CEO Mark Zuckerberg framed the large number of fake accounts that have been removed as a sign of how seriously the company is taking this issue and called on other platforms to make similar disclosures.

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What this says loud and clear is that Facebook’s account creation system is far, far too slack. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be the message that Zuckerberg is getting, though. It has removed twice as many fake accounts than there are actual internet users.
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Majority of anti-vaxx ads on Facebook are funded by just two organizations • The Guardian

Jessica Glenza:

»

The majority of Facebook ads spreading misinformation about vaccines are funded by two organizations run by well-known anti-vaccination activists, a new study in the journal Vaccine has found.

The World Mercury Project chaired by Robert F Kennedy Jr, and Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, a project of campaigner Larry Cook, bought 54% of the anti-vaccine ads shown on the platform during the study period.

“Absolutely we were surprised,” said David Broniatowski, a professor of engineering at George Washington University, one of the authors of the report. “These two individuals were generating the majority of the content.”

Cook uses crowd-funding platforms to raise money for Facebook ads and his personal expenses. The crowd-funding platform GoFundMe banned Cook’s fundraisers in March 2019. YouTube has demonetized Cook’s videos.

«

Notable comment in the conclusions of the paper:

»

A small set of anti-vaccine advertisement buyers have leveraged Facebook advertisements to reach targeted audiences. By deeming all vaccine-related content an issue of “national importance,” Facebook has further the politicized vaccines.

«

Yup: Facebook’s delight in pulling in money has once again put peoples’ lives at risk.
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The org that doles out .org websites just sold itself to a for-profit company • The Verge

Jay Peters:

»

Today, the Public Interest Registry (PIR), which maintains the .org top-level domain, announced that it will be acquired by Ethos Capital, a private equity firm (via Domain Name Wire). This move will make PIR, previously a non-profit domain registry, officially part of a for-profit company — which certainly seems at odds with what .org might represent to some. Originally, “.org” was an alternative to the “.com” that was earmarked for commercial entities, which lent itself to non-profit use.

That’s not all: o n June 30th, ICANN, the non-profit that oversees all domain names on the internet, agreed to remove price caps on rates for .org domain names — which were previously pretty cheap. Seems like something a for-profit company might want.

Removing price caps wasn’t exactly a popular idea when it was first proposed on March 18th. According to Review Signal, only six of the more than 3,000 public comments on the proposal were in favor of the change.

«

This can’t be a good move. It’s either going to see a flight elsewhere or a collapse.
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Apple’s Phil Schiller on reinventing the new MacBook Pro keyboard • CNet

Roger Cheng:

»

Q: Walk me through the feedback you got on the butterfly keyboard and how that informed the new scissor-based keys.
Schiller: “As you know, a number of years ago we started a new keyboard technology with this butterfly keyboard and began it with MacBook. It had some things it did really well, like creating a much more stable key platform. It felt more firm and flat under your finger — some people really like that, but other people weren’t really happy with that. We got sort of a mixed reaction. We had some quality issues we had to work on. Over the years we’ve been refining that keyboard design, and we’re now on the third generation, and a lot of people are much happier with that as we’ve advanced and advanced it.

“But a few years back, we decided that while we were advancing the butterfly keyboard, we would also — specifically for our pro customer — go back and really talk to many pro customers about what they most want in a keyboard and did a bunch of research. That’s been a really impressive project, the way the engineering team has gotten into the physiology of typing and the psychology of typing — what people love.

“As we started to investigate specifically what pro users most wanted, a lot of times they would say, “I want something like this Magic Keyboard, I love that keyboard.” And so the team has been working on this idea of taking that core technology and adapting it to the notebook, which is a different implementation than the desktop keyboard, and that’s what we’ve come up with [for] this new keyboard.”

«

Very clever how Schiller emphasises that it’s “specifically for our pro customer” – as if Apple won’t bring it to the consumer laptops in time, but also as a way to justify this appearing first on the top end laptop. Of course it’s only the pro customers who need a reliable keyboard. Yup. Sure.

In reality: the new keyboard will come to the other devices pronto, because that saves Apple a lot of money in repairs, and also lets it amortise the tooling costs of the new keys. Just hold tight.
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More South Korean academics caught naming kids as co-authors • Nature

Mark Zastrow:

»

The number of South Korean academics accused of naming children as co-authors on research manuscripts — even though the children did not contribute to the research — continues to grow. An education ministry report details 11 university academics who named high-school or middle-school-aged children on papers that the children allegedly did not contribute to. Nine of these are newly identified, bringing the total number accused to 17, and the total number of papers affected to 24, since the practice was first exposed in late 2017.

Five of the nine newly identified academics named their own children on papers, said the report. One named a child of an acquaintance, and the others had no special relationship to the children. It is thought that in some cases, the children were named on papers to boost their chances of winning university places, for which competition in the country is fierce. The papers the ministry has identified as problematic stretch back at least as far as 2007.

The report’s release comes amid intense national scrutiny of the way children of South Korea’s wealthy, well-connected ‘elite’ get accepted to university. Unjustified authorship is considered research misconduct in South Korea.

«

Apparently the reason is so that they can boost their application to university: “look at this paper I already wrote!” Take that, rich American people who do it by splurging money to endow places..
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How top health websites are sharing sensitive data with advertisers • Financial Times

:

»

Using open-source tools to analyse 100 health websites, which include WebMD, Healthline, Babycentre and Bupa, an FT investigation found that 79% of the sites dropped “cookies” — little bits of code that, when embedded in your browser, allow third-party companies to track individuals around the internet. This was done without the consent that is a legal requirement in the UK.

Google’s advertising arm DoubleClick was by far the most common destination for data, showing up on 78% of the sites tested, followed by Amazon, which was present in 48% of cases, Facebook, Microsoft and adtech firm AppNexus.

“These findings are quite remarkable, and very concerning,” said Wolfie Christl, a technologist and researcher who has been investigating the adtech industry. “From my perspective, this kind of data is clearly sensitive, has special protections under the [General Data Protection Regulation] and transmitting this data most likely violates the law.”

…The data shared included:
• drug names entered into Drugs.com were sent to Google’s ad unit DoubleClick.
• symptoms inputted into WebMD’s symptom checker, and diagnoses received, including “drug overdose”, were shared with Facebook.
• menstrual and ovulation cycle information from BabyCentre ended up with Amazon Marketing, among others.
• keywords such as “heart disease” and “considering abortion” were shared from sites like the British Heart Foundation, Bupa and Healthline to companies including Scorecard Research and Blue Kai (owned by software giant Oracle).

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Kine creator: “The biggest concern with Stadia is that it might not exist” • GamesIndustry.biz

Rebekah Valentine:

»

Though [Kine developer Gwen] Frey is excited about Stadia’s possibilities, she acknowledged that the service has some work to do. Google Stadia has received plenty of criticism for its slow, pricey, and at times confusing rollout. Though Frey prefaced her statements by noting she doesn’t speak for Google and isn’t privy to their plans, she’s fairly confident the company’s slow start is a deliberate move, and that the true potential of the technology won’t be realized for some time.

“I’m not sure it will have a super-strong launch initially, but I don’t even think they want to have a super-strong launch,” she said. “I get the sense that they want to scale slowly and see where this goes.

“The biggest complaint most developers have with Stadia is the fear is Google is just going to cancel it. Nobody ever says, ‘Oh, it’s not going to work.’ or ‘Streaming isn’t the future.’ Everyone accepts that streaming is pretty much inevitable. The biggest concern with Stadia is that it might not exist. And if you think about it like that, that’s kind of silly. Working in tech, you have to be willing to make bold moves and try things that could fail. And yeah, Google’s canceled a lot of projects. But I also have a Pixel in my pocket, I’m using Google Maps to get around, I only got here because my Google Calendar told me to get here by giving me a prompt in Gmail. It’s not like Google cancels every fucking thing they make.

“This is tech. The default state is failure. But this is cool, and it could really change things.”

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Huawei’s Google problem runs deep • The Information

Juro Osawa and Nick Bastone:

»

Huawei executives underestimated the consequences of the Google ban. While the challenges of losing access to Google’s app store and maps were obvious, the executives hadn’t fully appreciated that most Android apps rely on Google’s services for everything from notifications to analytics to in-app purchases, said employees familiar with Huawei’s internal discussions.

The difficulties for Huawei show how tightly Google’s products are weaved into the mobile internet. In addition to making the Android operating system that powers more than 80% of mobile phones, including all Huawei smartphones. Google also operates high-profile internet services central to most phones, like YouTube and Google Maps.

Google also owns behind-the-scenes services, such as its mobile advertising network, that are key to many apps. Google’s control over the mobile ecosystem is expected to be one facet of the intensifying regulatory probes into the company’s dominance in the US and Europe. 

Since May—when sanctions took effect that prevent Huawei from using key Google services and other U.S. technologies—Huawei has encountered stark reminders of the American internet company’s ubiquity. The sanctions, put in place by the Trump administration because of national security concerns, blocked Huawei from Google Mobile Services, which include the Google Play app store, Google Maps, Gmail and YouTube. Huawei is still able to use Android on its phones because the operating system is open source.

The sanctions quickly forced Huawei to look for ways to replace Google’s widespread services for Android apps. Some Huawei managers in the company’s consumer electronics division told The Information that they were surprised to learn how dependent Android apps are on Google tools for authenticating users, sending notifications, analyzing data, integrating mapping functions and making money from ads.

«

On the one hand, Huawei’s executives look pretty foolish not having realised the critical path in their system, and its vulnerability to disruption. On the other, who would have expected even three years ago that the US would pull the move it did? Even the arrival of Trump in late 2015 didn’t look like it could trigger this outcome. (Though this is surely driven by the intelligence services and National Security Council, not Trump himself.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,188: energy forecast hots up, MacBook Pro keyboard gets thumbs up, Sir Rod Stewart’s railway city, strife at Google?, and more


Too late for this one, but Wikihow will show you how to stop a wedding – and do much more, Wikipedia-style. CC-licensed photo by Jackie Lund on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. If you can’t get over it, you’ll have to go under it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Profound shifts’ underway in energy system, says IEA World Energy Outlook • Carbon Brief

Simon Evans:

»

The world’s CO2 emissions are set to continue rising for decades unless there is greater ambition on climate change, despite the “profound shifts” already underway in the global energy system.

That is one of the key messages from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2019, published today. This year’s 810-page edition is notable for its renamed central “Stated Policies Scenario” (STEPS), formerly known as the “New Policies Scenario”.

…On the basis of stated plans and policies around the world, the IEA [International Energy Agency] says that global energy needs will continue to rise by 1% per year until 2040, adding demand equivalent to China’s current total.

This growth is driven by a rising population – based on the UN’s “medium” projections to reach 9 billion people by 2040 – and an expanding economy, with global GDP increasing by 3.4% a year, per International Monetary Fund projections.

The rate of energy demand growth is around half the average rate of 2% seen since 2000, the IEA says, due to shifts towards less energy-intensive industries, energy efficiency gains and “saturation effects” – for example, where demand for cars reaches a peak.

Some 49% of demand growth would be met by renewables in the STEPS, as shown with the red line in the chart, below. Gas use is also expected to rise rapidly (blue), overtaking coal to become the second-largest source of energy after oil and meeting a third of the rise in overall demand.

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There isn’t any good news in this; we’re surely going to see rapidly rising global temperatures.
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Extraordinary scenes of Venice underwater after historic flood in Italy • Slate

Elliot Hannon:

»

The mayor of Venice declared a state of emergency as six feet of water swept through the low-lying Italian city, the second highest flood in the city’s history. The surge in water left homes barricaded and streets flooded as residents and tourists waded through knee-high water. The city’s famous Piazza San Marco was flooded by more than three feet of water, according to Italian news agency ANSA, and the water level could rise to as much as five feet. “Venice is on its knees,” the city’s mayor said on Twitter Wednesday. Local officials say more water is expected after strong winds combined with high tides due to rainstorms caused the historic flood.

«

Venice has been trying to build sea defences for years. This is the result: failure. It’s a harbinger for lots of low-lying cities around the world in the decades to come.
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The History of wikiHow and the Future of the Internet – The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:

»

I’m sure the first (and possibly only) lessons I had in kissing came from the pages of CosmoGIRL! (RIP), which probably obliquely suggested that it would be easier if I invested my allowance in Hilary Duff’s favorite boho-chic staples first. But today’s teens get to learn from wikiHow, the 14-year-old, crowdsourced web platform known for irony-free step-by-step guides to tasks as practical as setting up a Google Chromecast and as wildly inadvisable as stopping a wedding.

“If you’re under 25, you learned a lot of stuff on wikiHow,” the site’s cofounder Jack Herrick tells me over the phone. “A lot of the questions you asked wikiHow were the things you were too embarrassed to ask anyone else.”

As a result, wikiHow’s readers have a complicated relationship with the site, like you might have with your parents or anyone else who’s helped you through humiliating times. There’s real feeling there, Herrick believes, and that’s why there are also so many memes at wikihow’s expense: The best way to disguise your most sincere feelings is to make rude jokes. On Reddit, 500,000 people contribute to a subreddit solely devoted to ripping wikiHow illustrations from their context and recaptioning them, often bleakly: An image of a person choking themselves is labeled “How to punish the person ruining your life.” An illustration of a gravestone is titled “How to celebrate your unvaccinated child’s 5th birthday.”

…In 2005, wikiHow started experimenting with opt-out advertising, presenting site visitors with a button that turned off individual ads. Herrick expanded the idea in 2008 with a button that turned off all ads for 24 hours at a time. A few months later, he told The Wall Street Journal that revenue had fallen less than 1%, and that opt-out advertising was simply a “good netizen thing to do.”

Now, anyone who registers for a wikiHow account automatically has all of the site’s ads turned off for them, forever. The site makes its profit from casual readers who don’t register, and still see ads, and it sources its content from the invested readers who’ve turned them off, but then add value to the site by writing and editing.

The company never releases financial information, Herrick says, even to employees. He alternately refers to venture capital as “the wizard behind the curtain” and “Doritos.” As in, the idea that venture capitalists know anything that he can’t figure out himself is a myth. As in, once you eat one Dorito, you want more Doritos, forever.

«

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Google fires staffer, suspends two others, amid rising workplace tensions • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

Google has fired a staffer who allegedly leaked the names of Google employees and their personal details to the news media, Ryan Gallagher reports in a scoop for Bloomberg News. Two other Googlers have been put on leave for violating company policies, Google told Gallagher.

A Google spokeswoman told Gallagher that one of the employees “had searched for and shared confidential documents outside the scope of their job, while the other tracked the individual calendars of staff working in the community platforms, human resources, and communications teams.” The tracking made affected staff uncomfortable, the spokeswoman said.

Google’s move represents the latest sign of growing tensions between labor and management at Google. Until recently, Google was known for having one of Silicon Valley’s most open workplace cultures. Employees could access information about projects they weren’t working on. Rank-and-file employees could ask tough questions of senior management at weekly “TGIF” meetings that were broadcast throughout the company.

But that open culture has begun to break down as the polarization of the broader American political culture has seeped into Google’s workplace. Two years ago, for example, Google engineer James Damore wrote a controversial memo suggesting that biological differences could help explain the gender gap among engineers at Google. The memo leaked, and Damore was fired.

«

Certainly ironic that a company which has contributed to the polarisation in the US (through YouTube’s “engagement trumps all” algorithm driving people towards extremes) should be suffering as a result.

(I’d quote directly from the Bloomberg piece, but I’ve already used up my three free articles, and feel that (at something like ten different subs) I’ve reached Peak Subscription, despite all Bloomberg’s blandishments and price-cut offers.)
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Gatekeepers gonna gatekeep • The Margins

Can Duruk reminisces about his time at Digg, as a way of thinking about Zuckerberg’s insistence that things are SO much better now that news is democratised by, um, Facebook:

»

Obviously, [in the submissions to Digg] there was a lot of porn, and a whole lot of (not always mutually exclusively) spam. There were tons of manual and automated tooling to weed those out from ever reaching the front page. The list of items that showed up on the front was *mainly* determined by votes (there wasn’t much of a complicated algorithm), but the Digg editors still had final veto power. They had 15 minutes if I am remembering correctly before the next batch of stories would go live, so they’d visit all those 20 or so links in that 15 minutes to make sure nothing too salacious made it there.

However, the real mess wasn’t that Digg was not, in fact, some front-page made by the crowds, but rather, it was a bunch of groups fighting over it. There was definitely a considerable number of users (obviously not really a diverse crowd by any measure), but the real power generally rested with a small amount of people. There were, for example, conservative bury-brigades (digg, bury, get it?) that convened over Yahoo Groups (R.I.P.) and constituted what we now call Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior. Besides, however, the vintage alt-rights, we also had less weird people like the MrBabyman, who, with his weird but affable charm, commanded a ton of votes.

One of the many untold things that happened with Digg’s V4 launch was that our traffic and, more importantly, reputation took such a hit that we sort of had to wave the white flag to those folks. For years, Digg fought a silent battle for its front page with those influential groups; we needed them for the views, but we also did not like that they exerted as much control over the “democratic” front page as they did.

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The 16-inch MacBook Pro • Marco.org

Marco Arment seems to have had early access to the new MacBook Pro – unsurprising, as he’s a hugely influential developer and podcaster who has complained loud and long about the butterfly keyboard:

»

I’m on cloud nine. Look at this glorious keyboard! An Esc[ape] key! Inverted-T arrow keys! A millimeter of key travel! Enough spacing between the keys for our fingers to accurately orient themselves! And keystrokes will probably work, 100% of the time, for years!

Five years ago, nobody would’ve considered any of these noteworthy, and readers would’ve suspected you weren’t of sound mind if you included them in a review.

Five years ago, laptop keyboards were fine. Everyone was pretty much satisfied with the ones they had, they worked, and we never had to talk or think about them.

Today, finally, we begin heading back to that world.

The butterfly keyboard was an anomaly — it was a huge departure from everything else we’d ever used, mostly not in good ways.

The new keyboard is very similar to the recent desktop Magic Keyboard, and I expect it to have a wide appeal, just as the Magic Keyboard does. It has slightly less travel and spacing, but the overall feeling is very similar — and it’s nothing at all like the butterfly keyboard.

I absolutely love it — not because it’s the most amazing keyboard in the world, but because it’s completely forgettable in the best possible way. It just feels normal again.

There’s a lot more to love about the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The screen and battery are bigger, but the size and weight barely increased. It’s almost as fast as my iMac Pro, and the new thermals can sustain higher performance. The speakers and microphone got huge, unexpected improvements.

And I didn’t get everything I wanted. But many of my wishlist items fall outside of what Apple is likely to ever do, and all of them are much less important than making the computer’s primary input device functional, acceptable, and reliable. Now we have the luxury of being able to complain about less-urgent wishes.

«

I’d say it’s certain that Apple is going to see a gigantic leap in laptop sales this quarter, comparable to the bump when it finally produced the larger-screened iPhone 6, which pulled forward lots of delayed purchases. A lot of people having been sitting on their hands, waiting for a scissor-switch mechanism, because it’s simply more reliable. I’m among them. (The machine I’m using dates from 2012; it’s still perfectly usable.)

See also: Jason Snell; Dieter Bohn at The Verge.
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IBM: Our Mac-using employees outperform Windows users in every way • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

»

According to IBM, one staff member can support 5,400 Mac users, while the company needed one staff member per 242 PC users. Only 5% of Mac users called the help desk for assistance, compared with 40% of PC users. This Mac-IBM love affair has been ongoing for a few years, and the same IBM PR points out that in 2016, IBM CIO Fletcher Previn declared that IBM saves anywhere from $273 to $543 when its end users choose Mac over PC.

This year, the company gave even stronger evidence in favor of Macs over PCs. Supposedly 22% more macOS users exceed expectations in performance reviews compared with Windows users, while high-value sales deals tend to be 16% larger for macOS users. Mac users also have a higher “net promoter score” of 47.5 versus 15 and are 17% less likely to leave IBM. Mac users are also happier with third-party software availability at IBM, according to IBM’s own press release. In addition, Mac users are more likely to report that migration is simpler compared with Windows 7 to Windows 10. Windows users are nearly 5x more likely to need on-site help support.

«

Just spitballing here, but is it possible that the Mac users are execs and the PC users are, for want of a better word, the drones who are viewed as eminently replaceable? Does the person at the reception desk use a Mac, or a PC? Hruska asks these and similar questions in his piece – but there aren’t any answers from IBM.

In short, a survey that reveals less than it appears to.
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I am railing: Sir Rod Stewart reveals his epic model railway city • BBC News

:

»

In between making music and playing live, Sir Rod has been working on a massive, intricate model of a US city for the past 23 years.

He unveiled it as part of an interview with Railway Modeller magazine.

He then phoned in to Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 show to rebuff the host’s suggestion he had not built it himself.

“I would say 90% of it I built myself,” he insisted. “The only thing I wasn’t very good at and still am not is the electricals, so I had someone else do that.”

Sir Rod has released 13 studio albums and been on 19 tours during the time it took to build the city, which is modelled on both New York and Chicago around 1945.

“A lot of people laugh at it being a silly hobby, but it’s a wonderful hobby,” he said.

He told Railway Modeller he worked on the skyscrapers and other scenery while on tour, requesting an extra room for his constructions in his hotels.

«

I won’t link to the pictures, because Railway Modeller deserves to have you look at them at the BBC site (so it will definitely get paid). They are amazing.

Another fact about Rod Stewart: when he goes to a restaurant with friends, over the course of the meal they surreptitiously try to move their table as close to the door as possible. Staff beware.
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Next in Google’s quest for consumer dominance: banking • WSJ

Peter Rudegeair and Liz Hoffman:

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Google will soon offer checking accounts to consumers, becoming the latest Silicon Valley heavyweight to push into finance.

The project, code-named Cache, is expected to launch next year with accounts run by Citigroup and a credit union at Stanford University, a tiny lender in Google’s backyard.

Big tech companies see financial services as a way to get closer to users and glean valuable data. Apple introduced a credit card this summer. Amazon.com has talked to banks about offering checking accounts. Facebook is working on a digital currency it hopes will upend global payments.

Their ambitions could challenge incumbent financial-services firms, which fear losing their primacy and customers. They are also likely to stoke a reaction in Washington, where regulators are already investigating whether large technology companies have too much clout.

…Mr. Sengupta said Google wanted to bring value to consumers, banks and merchants, with services that could include loyalty programs, but it wouldn’t sell checking-account users’ financial data. The company said it doesn’t use Google Pay data for advertising purposes and doesn’t share that data with advertisers.

Fifty-eight per cent of people recently surveyed by consulting firm McKinsey & Co said they would trust financial products from Google. That was better than Apple and Facebook but worse than Amazon.

«

Throwing Apple’s credit card and Facebook’s Libra into the same sentence really is putting a mountain next to a molehill in terms of impact, but okay.
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Nike won’t sell directly to Amazon anymore • CNBC

Lauren Thomas and Elly Cosgrove:

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Nike will stop selling merchandise directly to Amazon, as part of its push to sell more directly to consumers, the company confirmed to CNBC.

The abrupt halt will end a pilot test that Nike and Amazon launched together in 2017. At the time, Nike agreed to sell a limited product assortment to Amazon, in exchange for stricter policing of counterfeits and restrictions on unsanctioned sales of its products. That included Nike’s athletic footwear, apparel and accessories.

Prior to 2017, Nike had resisted such a deal with Amazon, focusing its attention on its own online marketplace and stores. The fear for many brands has always been that, by partnering with Amazon, a company loses control over how its brand is represented on the site.

«

This will be a counterfeiting thing: no doubt it became harder to know if a seller there was perhaps a reseller. Now, Nike can be pretty certain about what is on there. And it can build out its direct-to-consumer sales, which are already 30% of annual sales.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,187: Facebook iOS app has camera bug, US demographics and its doughtiest opponent, Galileo’s GPS problem, not enough fish, and more


Snapchat’s having another go at Spectacles (these are v1; it’s up to v3, which look better). But what are they for? CC-licensed photo by Trey Ratcliff on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. Not awake at 3.30am. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Snapchat Spectacles 3 review • CNBC

Todd Haselton:

»

Snap’s Spectacles 3 launch on Tuesday for $380. They let you record video and snap pictures, apply new 3D effects to them and then post that content to Snapchat or other social networks.

Unlike the previous two versions of Spectacles, the Spectacles 3 introduce new augmented reality and 3D features with the aid of a new depth sensor. Thanks to this tech, you can make it look like you’re walking down a rainbow hallway, that heart-shaped balloons are floating in a park around you, or that a cartoon phoenix is following you around on a walk. Or you can take pictures and convert them into tilting 3D images and GIFs that can bring your adventures to life.


These blobs just appear in the real world around objects.

But Spectacles 3 aren’t meant for mass consumption the way earlier models might have been. (Snapchat wrote off nearly $40m when the first model flopped.) Instead, Spectacles 3 are aimed at wealthier influencers and creators who want to add special effects to their Snapchat posts. That’s a relatively small audience.

At $380, they’re not exactly priced for mass consumption anyway. Given Snapchat reaches 90% of 13- to 24-year olds, they’re also probably too expensive for most of the younger buyers.

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The problem is always about the content, isn’t it? And the examples that Haselton shows here are just, well, daft. What one wants is content you can use – such as messages, times, maps – overlaid on the real world. A heads-up dashboard for the world, if you like. At least they’re starting to get the pricing right.
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Facebook is secretly using your iPhone’s camera as you scroll your feed • The Next Web

“Mix”:

»

iPhone owners, beware. It appears Facebook might be actively using your camera without your knowledge while you’re scrolling your feed.

The issue has come to light after a user going by the name Joshua Maddux took to Twitter to report the unusual behavior, which occurs in the Facebook app for iOS. In footage he shared, you can see his camera actively working in the background as he scrolls through his feed.

The problem becomes evident due to a bug that shows the camera feed in a tiny sliver on the left side of your screen, when you open a photo in the app and swipe down. TNW has since been able to independently reproduce the issue.

«

Facebook’s VP of integrity responded on Twitter: “We recently discovered our iOS app incorrectly launched in landscape. In fixing that last week in v246 we inadvertently introduced a bug where the app partially navigates to the camera screen when a photo is tapped. We have no evidence of photos/videos uploaded due to this.” He also says a fix is being submitted to the App Store as of Tuesday.
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Moderate Republicans can save America • The Atlantic

Yoni Appelbaum:

»

What has caused such rancor? The stresses of a globalizing, postindustrial economy. Growing economic inequality. The hyperbolizing force of social media. Geographic sorting. The demagogic provocations of the president himself. As in Murder on the Orient Express, every suspect has had a hand in the crime.

But the biggest driver might be demographic change. The United States is undergoing a transition perhaps no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced: Its historically dominant group is on its way to becoming a political minority—and its minority groups are asserting their co-equal rights and interests. If there are precedents for such a transition, they lie here in the United States, where white Englishmen initially predominated, and the boundaries of the dominant group have been under negotiation ever since. Yet those precedents are hardly comforting. Many of these renegotiations sparked political conflict or open violence, and few were as profound as the one now under way.

Within the living memory of most Americans, a majority of the country’s residents were white Christians. That is no longer the case, and voters are not insensate to the change—nearly a third of conservatives say they face “a lot” of discrimination for their beliefs, as do more than half of white evangelicals. But more epochal than the change that has already happened is the change that is yet to come: Sometime in the next quarter century or so, depending on immigration rates and the vagaries of ethnic and racial identification, nonwhites will become a majority in the U.S. For some Americans, that change will be cause for celebration; for others, it may pass unnoticed. But the transition is already producing a sharp political backlash, exploited and exacerbated by the president. In 2016, white working-class voters who said that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, or who said they felt like strangers in their own country, were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not. Two-thirds of Trump voters agreed that “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline.” In Trump, they’d found a defender.

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Oh, and what sort of defender. Read on…
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Stephen Miller’s affinity for white nationalism revealed in leaked emails • Southern Poverty Law Center

Michael Edison Hayden:

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In the run-up to the 2016 election, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage, according to leaked emails reviewed by Hatewatch.

The emails, which Miller sent to the conservative website Breitbart News in 2015 and 2016, showcase the extremist, anti-immigrant ideology that undergirds the policies he has helped create as an architect of Donald Trump’s presidency. These policies include reportedly setting arrest quotas for undocumented immigrants, an executive order effectively banning immigration from five Muslim-majority countries and a policy of family separation at refugee resettlement facilities that the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General said is causing “intense trauma” in children.

In this, the first of what will be a series about those emails, Hatewatch exposes the racist source material that has influenced Miller’s visions of policy.

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And he’s the key influence on so many policies in the White House. America’s systems turn out to be astonishingly vulnerable to racists; perhaps they never weren’t.
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AI-generated fake content could unleash a virtual arms race • VentureBeat

Chris O’Brien:

»

When it comes to AI’s role in making online content, Kristin Tynski, VP of digital marketing firm Fractl, sees an opportunity to boost creativity. But a recent experiment in AI-generated content left her a bit shaken. Using publicly available AI tools and about an hour of her time, Tynski created a website that includes 30 highly polished blog posts, as well as an AI-generated headshot for the non-existent author of the posts. The website is cheekily called ThisMarketingBlogDoesNotExist.com.

Although the intention was to generate conversation around the site’s implications, the exercise gave Tynski a glimpse into a potentially darker digital future in which it is impossible to distinguish reality from fiction.

Such a scenario threatens to topple the already precarious balance of power between creators, search engines, and users. The current flow of fake news and propaganda already fools too many people, even as digital platforms struggle to weed it all out. AI’s ability to further automate content creation could leave everyone from journalists to brands unable to connect with an audience that no longer trusts search engine results and must assume that the bulk of what they see online is fake.

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Though personally, having read the fake marketing blog, I’d say that the AI provides a much sparkier output, and it’s grammatically correct too. And it doesn’t mean putting a human under the yoke of having to write it.
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One man’s mistake, missing backups and complete reboot: the tale of Europe’s Galileo satellites going dark • The Register

Kieren McCarthy:

»

Here’s what we do know based on the report given at the Miami conference in September and additional details dug out by Hubert and others.

• The vague reports from the Galileo team that everything was fine and no one should worry was built on the fact that the actual satellites themselves were all still working (well, apart the ones that aren’t) and were in their expected positions. In other words, the actual hardware in orbit was fine; it hadn’t been hit by anything, or gone flying off at tangents.
• The actual problem almost certainly came from the software that undertakes the complex job of keeping the whole system in sync. It is no mean feat to keep the atomic clocks on the satellites accurate to within nanoseconds when everything in flying around in multiple orbits. There was some kind of anomaly in the reference time system while it was being upgraded – which is where the operator error came in – and that sent the whole system spinning.
• For reasons that remain unclear, the backup system was not available, meaning that it wasn’t possible to simply rollback to the previous version. As a result, things got more and more inaccurate.
• Additionally, it appears that at the time everything went awry, the system was not configured in the normal way so engineers had a hard time figuring out how to get it all back working together.
• Eventually the decision was made that it has taken so long to figure out what had gone wrong that the best solution was to effectively reboot the entire system. Which is what they did. But because it is a fiendishly complex setup, that reboot took several days to complete.

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Galileo looks quite the mess: only 21 of 26 satellites is working, and it needs 24 to provide a functional system. And the organisation is hugely complex so that when things go awry, there’s all sorts of finger-pointing to get it un-awry.

Running a geopositioning satellite system is also one of the hardest things you can attempt.
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How GOP-linked PR firms use Google’s ad platform to harvest email addresses • Engadget

Sam Baker:

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What’s the seventh largest purchaser of US political ads on Google right now?

After the Republican Senate and Congressional Leadership Funds and the Trump campaign, comes a group called DedicatedEmails.com –- a limited-liability company specializing in digital marketing for clients looking to attract new customers via “opt-in email lists”.

It also owns and runs a supposed news site called Conservative Buzz and, under that banner, it’s been running Google Ads like this:

[“Does Trump deserve a second term?” advert]

Which lead those who click on them to webpages like this:

[“Does Donald Trump deserve a second term?/ Enter email address / Vote now! Yes/No]

That [Vote] box is ticked on arrival. Clearly not the best polling practice.

The ads appear to be geared towards collecting potential voter email addresses and directing people to questionable news sites. The emails people receive after signing up are either miracle health cures, secret new ways to boost your income or scary news about savings and the latest socialist coming to take them.

According to Google’s political advertising transparency report, DedicatedEmails.com has spent over $3.5m on more than 3,400 Google ads like the one above to date — promoting poll questions that ultimately ask for email addresses. And it’s not the only company doing this.

In a joint Engadget and Point investigation, we found at least three companies actively placing these types of ads connected to incendiary ‘news’ sites, one of which is run by a Republican donor and another that was registered by a former Trump campaign lawyer.

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The Conservative Party in the UK seems to have been doing something similar, buying a top spot on Google Ads for “register to vote” and using a system which harvests user data. Sneaky.
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Sadfishing, predators and bullies: the hazards of being ‘real’ on social media • WSJ

Julie Jargon:

»

Influencers have used the word “anxiety” three times more so far this year than they did in all of 2016 and more than six million posts on Instagram reference #mentalhealthawareness, according to Captiv8 Inc., an influencer marketing firm.

“With millennials, everything on social media was about curation, showing the perfect life. They were raised where it was all about the group and fitting in,” said Jayne Charneski, founder of Front Row Insights & Strategy, a consumer-insights firm. “Generation Z is being raised by Gen-Xers, who are fiercely independent, and so it’s cool to be different. Gen Z is an inclusive, open-minded generation, and vulnerability is social currency now.”

There are upsides to opening up online, as my colleague Andrea Petersen recently wrote. Research shows that self-disclosure can be beneficial to people struggling with mental-health issues because it removes the stigma. Teenagers with mental-health problems have found all of this new openness from the people they admire to be empowering. Seeing celebrities and influencers sharing their struggles can show followers that no one is perfect.

What teens might not realize is that influencers’ motivation for doing so isn’t always pure. When influencers share personal struggles, it tends to result in more followers, likes and comments, which results in more brand sponsorships. (This might start to change. Instagram’s CEO last week said it will expand a global test of hiding “like” counts on certain users’ posts to the U.S. starting this week.)

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Jeremy Stoppelman’s long battle with Google is finally paying off • Buzzfeed News

Mat Honan:

»

when you see an average review number on Yelp, it’s a pretty good indicator. A 4.5-star restaurant is probably going to be pretty great. A 2-star restaurant? Not gonna eat there. You might also see an alert about a restaurant’s cleanliness on Yelp. In more than 30 states, it makes that information available right on a restaurant’s page. It’s another transparency measure that’s good for consumers but has probably cost the company money with the communities of small businesses that populate its site.

“If you optimize for maximum attention, you’re leaning into human nature of rubbernecking at train crashes, and all the worst stuff that humanity can provide.”
“I’m sure we could have been making a lot more money if we allowed ourselves to be compromised and just said: Anything goes on Yelp. You want 5 stars? Tell your friends to go write a bunch of reviews for you and they’ll be on Yelp and then you can advertise. And wouldn’t it be wonderful?” said Stoppelman.

Instead, Yelp went another route. It is vigilant about reviews, and has passed on some easy ways to make money from users’ data. It doesn’t let businesses target users who happen to be walking by with an ad, for example. Despite persistent rumors, it’s hard to imagine Yelp fitting in as an acquisition target for Big Tech — in just two interviews with BuzzFeed News, the outspoken Stoppelman took shots at Facebook, Amazon, and Google.

Which is all the more curious as Stoppelman is a member of perhaps the most successful circle of investors ever, in the PayPal Mafia, and yet his business runs counter to so much of the prevailing wisdom in Silicon Valley, which argues for growth at any cost.

“When I look out at other companies,” Stoppelman said, “I see other priorities, namely growing revenue as much as possible. So why didn’t Facebook crack down on certain types of content, or why did they allow sensational stories or stories that are not true to blast across the network and get amplified so much? Had they had the foresight to say, ‘Hey, this is bad for the world’ or ‘This is bad for our long-term brand, we should shut it down,’ it probably wouldn’t have turned into an eventually traumatic political issue.

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So the way he’s winning the battle is by taking a different direction.
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The sea is running out of fish, despite nations’ pledges to stop • National Geographic

Todd Woody:

»

new research shows that governments have actually increased financial support for fishing practices that decimate marine life, despite public pledges to curtail such handouts.

In an exhaustive survey of 152 countries, scientists at the University of British Columbia found that ocean-faring nations spent $22bn on harmful subsidies in 2018, or 63% of the total amount expended to support the global fishing industry.

That’s a 6% rise since 2009. Harmful subsidies is a term that refers to those that promote overfishing and illegal fishing that would otherwise not be profitable, such as subsidies that underwrite fuel costs allowing industrial trawlers to sail to the farthest reaches of the planet. Fuel subsidies alone accounted for 22% of all fishing subsidies last year.

China, which operates the world’s largest overseas fishing fleet, has increased harmful subsidies by 105% over the past decade, according to the study published in Marine Policy.

“It’s hard to take much positive from this study, but it can be a rallying cry for governments as the WTO is in a position to end harmful subsidies and have a huge impact on the ocean,” says Isabel Jarrett, manager of Pew Charitable Trusts’ fishing subsidies program. Pew helped fund the research.

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This was in October. Not sure that things improved.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,186: Google’s data grab, Apple’s AR headset timings, what if China makes Libra?, and more


Magic Leap has put up a bunch of patents as collateral for a loan. Is it in trouble? CC-licensed photo by Collision Conf on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Not unseated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google’s ‘Project Nightingale’ gathers personal health data on millions of Americans • WSJ

Rob Copeland:

»

The data involved in the initiative encompasses lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.

Neither patients nor doctors have been notified. At least 150 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients, according to a person familiar with the matter and the documents.

Some Ascension employees have raised questions about the way the data is being collected and shared, both from a technological and ethical perspective, according to the people familiar with the project. But privacy experts said it appeared to be permissible under federal law. That law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, generally allows hospitals to share data with business partners without telling patients, as long as the information is used “only to help the covered entity carry out its health care functions.”

Google in this case is using the data, in part, to design new software, underpinned by advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, that zeroes in on individual patients to suggest changes to their care. Staffers across Alphabet, Google’s parent, have access to the patient information, internal documents show, including some employees of Google Brain, a research science division credited with some of the company’s biggest breakthroughs.

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Apple eyes 2022 release for AR headset, 2023 for glasses • The Information

Wayne Ma, Alex Heath and Nick Wingfield:

»

Apple’s headset, code-named N301, will offer a hybrid of AR and VR capabilities, according to people familiar with the device. It resembles the Oculus Quest, a Facebook virtual reality headset released earlier this year, but with a sleeker design, these people said. Cameras will be mounted on the outside of the device, allowing people to see and interact with their physical surroundings, they said. Apple wants to make heavy use of fabrics and lightweight materials to ensure the device is comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, executives said in the presentation in October.

The headset will have a high-resolution display that will allow users to read small type and see other people standing in front of and behind virtual objects. The technology will be able to map the surfaces, edges and dimensions of rooms with greater accuracy than existing devices on the market, executives said at the meeting. To illustrate these capabilities, attendees at the October meeting were shown a recording of a demonstration in which a virtual coffee machine was placed on a real kitchen table surrounded by people in a room. The virtual coffee machine obscured people standing behind it in the room.

Apple is planning to reach out to third-party software developers as early as 2021 to encourage them to build apps for the new hardware, the company told employees at the October meeting. 

In contrast, Apple’s AR glasses, code-named N421, present bigger technical challenges than the headset and are further from release. They are meant to be worn all day, and current prototypes look like high-priced sunglasses with thick frames that house the battery and chips, according to a person who has seen them. 

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“Thick frames”. Hmmm. At least three years away from production though.
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All Magic Leap patents have apparently been assigned to J.P. Chase Morgan as collateral • Karl Guttag

Karl Guttag:

»

Things have been very quiet lately with respect to Magic Leap. So quiet, that apparently the assignment of all of Magic Leap patents over 2 months ago went unnoticed. Except for a few users trying to keep it alive, the Sub-Reddit on Magic Leap pretty dead for many months. The initial source of information for this article came from a post on the AR_MR_XR Sub-Reddit. Reddit user, u/LegendOfHiddnTempl found that USPTO is now showing all Magic Leap patents to be assigned to J.P. Morgan Chase as collateral. The patents include the former Osterhaut Design Group (ODG) patents Magic Leap acquired via Magic Leap’s shell company Mentor Acquisitions earlier this year.

I checked on the official USPTO website and sure enough, the assignment as collateral document was executed on August 20th, 2019 and is publicly available copied here. I have cut and pasted a few key parts of the 451-page document listing all the patents and applications that have been assigned. I have not checked every patent, but it appears to be all of Magic Leap’s I.P. including the former ODG patents.

Apparently Magic Leap needed to put up their I.P. as collateral for a loan. As recent as April 2019, it was announced that NTT Docomo had invested $280m on top of deals with AT&T and SK Telecomm. Magic Leap is estimated to have over 1,800 employees and 19 office sites.

Employees of high-tech companies doing work like Magic Leap typically run about $250,000 or more of salary, benefits, office/facilities/equipment per employee per year. Senior R&D people can cost even more, but even if technicians are paid much less, the equipment they run is often very expensive. Then you have the SG&A on which Magic Leap appears to be heavily spending with a lot of marketing and facilities. When you total it all up, most people I talk to think Magic Leap is spending somewhere between $600m and $800m per year and that they have burned through all of their initial $2.4bn.

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Ooww. There’s still no sign of Magic Leap.. leaping. It’s barely even crawling. Another crunch for a hugely hyped augmented reality startup.
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Deep learning has a size problem • Heartbeat

Jameson Toole:

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There are many examples of massive models being trained to achieve ever-so-slightly higher accuracy on various benchmarks. Despite being 24X larger than BERT, MegatronLM is only 34% better at its language modeling task. As a one-off experiment to demonstrate the performance of new hardware, there isn’t much harm here. But in the long term, this trend is going to cause a few problems.

First, it hinders democratization. If we believe in a world where millions of engineers are going to use deep learning to make every application and device better, we won’t get there with massive models that take large amounts of time and money to train.

Second, it restricts scale. There are probably less than 100 million processors in every public and private cloud in the world. But there are already 3 billion mobile phones, 12 billion IoT devices, and 150 billion micro-controllers out there. In the long term, it’s these small, low power devices that will consume the most deep learning, and massive models simply won’t be an option.

To make sure deep learning lives up to its promise, we need to re-orient research away from state-of-the-art accuracy and towards state-of-the-art efficiency. We need to ask if models enable the largest number of people to iterate as fast as possible using the fewest amount of resources on the most devices.

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This does then go very deep into all the machine learning models out there. But the general point seems worth making.
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The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising • The Correspondent

Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn:

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Two weeks later, [professor of economics at the UCal Berkeley, Steve] Tadelis met the marketing consultants in the flesh. The advisers had put together a slick presentation demonstrating how eBay was raking in piles of cash with its brilliant ad campaigns. Tadelis recalled: “I looked around the room, and all I saw were people nodding their heads.”

Brand keyword advertising, the presentation informed him, was eBay’s most successful advertising method. Somebody googles “eBay” and for a fee, Google places a link to eBay at the top of the search results. Lots of people, apparently, click on this paid link. So many people, according to the consultants, that the auction website earns at least $12.28 for every dollar it spends on brand keyword advertising – a hefty profit!

Tadelis didn’t buy it. “I thought it was fantastic, and I don’t mean extraordinarily good or attractive. I mean imaginative, fanciful, remote from reality.” His rationale? People really do click on the paid-link to eBay.com an awful lot. But if that link weren’t there, presumably they would click on the link just below it: the free link to eBay.com. The data consultants were basing their profit calculations on clicks they would be getting anyway.

Tadelis suggested an experiment: stop advertising for a while, and let’s see whether brand keyword advertising really works. The consultants grumbled.

When, a few weeks later, Tadelis contacted the consultants about a follow-up meeting, he was told the follow-up had come and gone. He hadn’t been invited.

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This is a deep look at what’s fairly evident: a lot of ad spend is to make people (advertiser, publisher, middlemen-aplenty) feel good.
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About the Apple Card (JHH) • DHH

Following on from that “Apple Card gave my wife lower credit than me” row..:

»

My name is Jamie Heinemeier Hansson. Since my husband, David, tweeted about an unfortunate and ridiculous situation with AppleCard that involves me, I have been (or my credit-worthiness has been) the subject of lots of speculation. Unlike David, I am an extremely private person who does not post on social media. I am slightly mortified to have my name in the news. However, lest I be cast as a meek housewife who cannot speak for herself, I would like to make the following statement:

I care about digital privacy. It’s why I wanted an AppleCard in the first place.

I care about transparency and fairness. It’s why I was deeply annoyed to be told by AppleCard representatives, “It’s just the algorithm,” and “It’s just your credit score.” I have had credit in the US far longer than David. I have never had a single late payment. I do not have any debts. David and I share all financial accounts, and my very good credit score is higher than David’s. I had a career and was successful prior to meeting David, and while I am now a mother of three children — a “homemaker” is what I am forced to call myself on tax returns — I am still a millionaire who contributes greatly to my household and pays off credit in full each month. But AppleCard representatives did not want to hear any of this. I was given no explanation. No way to make my case.

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Unpacking the Apple Card credit limit fiasco • FinTech Today

Ian Kar follows up on the original post of the above:

»

we just gotta get this outta the way: There’s no way Goldman Sachs nor Apple — two of the biggest companies in the world — didn’t vet the shit outta their cobranded credit card prior to launch. Goldman’s not made up of idiots that just skirt regulation whenever they want. And Apple isn’t the type of company to just allow gender discrimination (or any other type) on a financial product they put their name to. And, as Aaron Suplizio pointed out, that’s also very illegal. [You can’t use gender/age/ethnicity as an input for a credit line amount in the US.]

How likely do you think it is that Apple and Goldman Sachs rolled out an illegal credit card?

…Also, discrimination is a tricky thing of course, but there have been a few instances (also on Twitter) that show that the opposite of DHH’s experience, namely from my buddy Alex Cohen [who got a lower credit limit than his wife]. 

The second bit: I’m not DHH’s accountant nor am privy to his financial situation but it’s safe to assume that the founder of a successful software company is more wealthy than the average person. But the Apple Card was designed to be a mass market credit card for the average American. Retrofitting that for the ultra-wealthy—like DHH, Steve Wozniak, and others—is difficult and something that’s not really scalable. And yelling at GS customer support people won’t do much—they’re not privy to all the details, (like, you know most customer service teams.)  

The most likely issue here is around spending behavior: credit card limits are designed to enable spending within your means. If you spend $5,000 a month, what the hell are you going to do with a credit card with a spending limit of $30,000? If anything, those credit card systems would be irresponsibly: they’d be enabling users to potentially fall into debt. These are also unsecuritized credit lines. A bank isn’t and doesn’t want to be in the business of repoing assets to pay back credit card debt, so its unlikely things like assets matter that much. 

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That “spending per month” point seems the best one. But: it would still be good to know.
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A Chinese digital currency is the real threat, not Facebook’s Libra • The Guardian

Professor Kenneth Rogoff (economics and public policy at Harvard U):

»

China’s burdensome capital controls, its limits on foreign holdings of bonds and equities, and the general opaqueness of its financial system leave the yuan many decades away from supplanting the dollar in the legal global economy.

Control over the underground economy, however, is another matter entirely. The global underground economy, consisting mainly of tax evasion and criminal activities, but also terrorism, is much smaller than the legal economy (perhaps one-fifth the size), but it is still highly consequential. The issue here is not so much whose currency is dominant, but how to minimise adverse effects. And a widely used, state-backed Chinese digital currency could certainly have an impact, especially in areas where China’s interests do not coincide with those of the west.

A US-regulated digital currency could in principle be required to be traceable by US authorities, so that if North Korea were to use it to hire Russian nuclear scientists, or Iran were to use it to finance terrorist activity, they would run a high risk of being caught, and potentially even blocked. If, however, the digital currency were run out of China, the US would have far fewer levers to pull. Western regulators could ultimately ban the use of China’s digital currency, but that wouldn’t stop it from being used in large parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, which in turn could engender some underground demand even in the US and Europe.

…Just as technology has disrupted media, politics, and business, it is on the verge of disrupting America’s ability to leverage faith in its currency to pursue its broader national interests.

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Libra worries me, because of its potential to become a completely out-of-control global currency. A Chinese cryptocurrency could, as he points out, be equally bad, but in different ways.
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Facebook claims we’re ‘clickbait.’ and it won’t explain why • Truth or Fiction?

Arturo Garcia:

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Even as Facebook hides behind “free speech” concerns to justify a lack of action against the spread of far-right content, it does reserve the right to determine what constitutes “clickbait” with no explanation as to how that decision is reached and who makes decisions when affected outlets file an appeal.

In August 2019, we were notified that our fact-checking site — which is made up entirely of reporters who once worked for a former Facebook partner, Snopes.com — has been deemed by the platform several times as engaging in “clickbait” practices. In each case, the notices contain vague advisories about “misleading or sensational headlines”.

As we can confirm from speaking to two other legitimate outlets tagged as “clickbait” in Wonkette and KTOO-FM, Facebook’s appeals process does not provide an opportunity to speak with an actual person behind the platform’s rationale for limiting the reach of our posts and with that our ability to make money through pageviews and reader engagement.

Rebecca Schoenkopf, owner and publisher of the often acerbic news and commentary site Wonkette, told us that being docked as “clickbait” had not affected her site’s reach, because she believed that Facebook had already been throttling the site — since at least January 2018.

“We’re getting 2,000 visitors from Facebook a day across a dozen posts, with [having] 100,000 followers on Facebook,” she said. “Now they have an official excuse to do it, though.”

According to Schoenkopf, her site also began getting “clickbait” notices in August 2019. An appeal on their part was denied. “They just tell us that we have been clickbaity and we will be throttled and we can appeal, and then we appeal and it just says, ‘Your appeal is the same, you are clickbait,” Schoenkopf told us. She called it “aggravating” for right-wing blogs like the Daily Wire and Breitbart to receive consistent boosts from Facebook.

“I can’t imagine there’s no clickbait in any of their headlines,” Schoenkopf said. “It really feels like we’re being scapegoated.”

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I bet there’s a Facebook moderator saying “ehh, this site gets people sharing it when a meme comes up. Must be clickbait.”
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Netflix, HBO and cable giants are coming for password cheats • Bloomberg

Gerry Smith:

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Programmers and cable-TV distributors are considering an array of tactics to cut off people who borrow credentials from friends and relatives to access programming without paying for it. The possible measures include requiring customers to change their passwords periodically or texting codes to subscribers’ phones that they would need to enter to keep watching, according to people familiar with the matter.

Some TV executives want to create rules governing which devices can be used to access a cable-TV subscription outside the home. While someone logging in from a phone or tablet would be fine, someone using a Roku device at a second location could be considered a likely freeloader, one person said.

If none of those tactics work, pay-TV subscribers could someday be required to sign into their accounts using their thumbprints.

“I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall,” Tom Rutledge, the chief executive officer of Charter Communications Inc., said during an earnings call last month. “It’s just too easy to get the product without paying for it.”

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How is Netflix going to organise it for its family accounts, where you have multiple users who might legitimately be in multiple locations (parents, students, older children)? Will thumbprints be de rigeur there too? What if you don’t have a thumb-enabled device, or any biometrically-capable device? There’s a very “bell the cat” approach here: everyone wants it to have happened, but nobody wants to actually do it.
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The ham-handed, money-driven mangling of Sports Illustrated and Deadspin • The New Yorker

Louisa THomas:

»

Former Deadspin staffers have strongly disputed G/O Media’s contention that non-sports posts did not attract the highest traffic. In fact, they have claimed the opposite. (A story in the Los Angeles Times looked at the numbers and backed up the former staffers.) On another level, though, that argument doesn’t matter: it has long been a fundamental tenet of the site that in order to understand what happens in sports you have to look outside of them. You have to understand power, money, and the broader culture in which athletes—and the people in their orbit—operate. If you want to understand the flaws in the way the major sports leagues address domestic violence, for instance, you need to understand the problems with zero-tolerance policies. To understand anything in America right now, you have to talk about the context that has created Donald Trump, and the context that Trump, in turn, has helped to create. And another of Deadspin’s central themes has been that human beings should be allowed to talk about important things, and joke about ridiculous things, regardless of what their job is—not because they have a platform or a mandate but just because they’re human beings.

I don’t doubt that ESPN’s audience research suggested that many people, as they eat their Cheerios, prefer not to read about anything more controversial than going for a two-point conversion. That’s a human impulse, too. But the anxiety around preserving sports as a carefully insulated and entertaining distraction may be as damaging as treating them merely as a vehicle for short-term profits—and may not be entirely unrelated.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,185: the tech crash risk, the wonders of ‘Chi-fi’, how AirBnB screwed its New Jersey vote, and more


Who can control the algorithm that decides how much credit you get? Who can query it? Who can change it? CC-licensed photo by Jeff Geerling on Flickr.

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

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

How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash • The Guardian

Rana Foroohar:

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[the wealth divide has been emphasised by] the rise of intangibles such as intellectual property and brands (both of which [Apple] has in spades) relative to tangible goods as a share of the global economy. As Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake show in their book Capitalism Without Capital, this shift became noticeable around 2000, but really took off after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. The digital economy has a tendency to create superstars, since software and internet services are so scalable and enjoy network effects (in essence, they allow a handful of companies to grow quickly and eat everyone else’s lunch). But according to Haskel and Westlake, it also seems to reduce investment across the economy as a whole. This is not only because banks are reluctant to lend to businesses whose intangible assets may simply disappear if they go belly-up, but also because of the winner-takes-all effect that a handful of companies, including Apple (and Amazon and Google), enjoy.

This is likely a key reason for the dearth of startups, declining job creation, falling demand and other disturbing trends in our bifurcated economy. Concentration of power of the sort that Apple and Amazon enjoy is a key reason for record levels of mergers and acquisitions. In telecoms and media especially, many companies have taken on significant amounts of debt in order to bulk up and compete in this new environment of streaming video and digital media.

Some of that debt is now looking shaky, which underscores that the next big crisis probably won’t emanate from banks, but from the corporate sector. Rapid growth in debt levels is historically the best predictor of a crisis. And for the past several years, the corporate bond market has been on a tear, with companies in advanced economies issuing a record amount of debt; the market grew 70% over the past decade, to reach $10.17tn in 2018. Even mediocre companies have benefited from easy money.

But as the interest rate environment changes, perhaps more quickly than was anticipated, many could be vulnerable.

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If it all goes tits up, then the tech companies will get the blame, rather than the banks.
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Global smartwatch shipments leap to 14 million units in Q3 2019 • Strategy Analytics

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According to the latest research from Strategy Analytics, global smartwatch shipments grew an impressive 42% annually to reach 14m units in the third quarter of 2019. Apple Watch maintained first position with 48% global smartwatch marketshare, while Samsung held second place, and Fitbit clung on to third.

Steven Waltzer, Senior Analyst at Strategy Analytics, said, “Global smartwatch shipments grew an impressive 42% annually from 10.0 million units in Q3 2018 to 14.2 million in Q3 2019. Smartwatch growth continues to soar, as consumers increasingly accessorize their smartphones with fitness-led and health-focused wearables.”

Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics, added, “Apple shipped 6.8 million smartwatches worldwide in Q3 2019, rising an above-average 51% from 4.5 million in Q3 2018. Apple Watch remains a long way ahead of the chasing pack and its global smartwatch marketshare has grown from 45% to 48% in the past year. Apple Watch continues to fend off strong competition from hungry rivals like Fitbit and Samsung. Apple Watch owns half the worldwide smartwatch market and remains the clear industry leader.”

Steven Waltzer, Senior Analyst at Strategy Analytics, added, “Samsung shipped 1.9 million smartwatches worldwide in Q3 2019, almost doubling from 1.1 million a year ago. Samsung’s global smartwatch marketshare has jumped from 11% to 13% during the past year. Samsung is firmly established as the world’s number two smartwatch vendor. Recent new models, such as Galaxy Watch Active 2, should enable Samsung to improve its global smartwatch presence during the upcoming Q4 holiday season.”

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This is a long, long way from a mature market. Though it’s looking a lot like the tablet market, or the iPod market: Apple collects all the money and has a sizeable share; everyone else scrabbles for scraps.
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This solar farm has to switch off every second day due to negative prices • RenewEconomy

Giles Parkinson:

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When Australia’s renewable energy portfolio reached its important milestone on Wednesday of providing 50% of the main grid’s demand for the first time, one solar farm couldn’t be part of the fun, and had to look on from the sidelines.

The sight of wind and solar farms being switched off when wholesale electricity prices fall into negative territory has become increasingly common over the last few months, particularly in Queensland and South Australia.

But the facility that appears to have been affected the most has been the 95MW Tailem Bend solar farm in South Australia, owned by Vena Energy and operating since earlier this year.

Tailem Bend has an off-take agreement with Snowy Hydro that broadly requires it to switch off when wholesale electricity prices go into negative territory, although the details are likely to be more complex than that.

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It’s bizarre that Australia is such a huge user of solar power, and yet its politicians are so indifferent to the risks posed by climate change.
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The wonderful world of Chinese hi-fi • The Verge

Dan Nosowitz on the rise of the surprisingly cheap, surprisingly hi-quality “Chi-fi”:

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Chinese brands cut out all of that [branding/marketing/testing] stuff. Only the biggest and most ambitious of these companies even bother with a website; most of them have little more than a vendor page on AliExpress. Some of these companies buy their drivers — the actual speakers — from the same factories that provide Sennheiser and Beats with theirs. Tin Audio uses Knowles balanced armature drivers for its T3 model; those are the most important thing inside this product. Those same drivers, or at least very similar ones, can also be found in Ultimate Ears IEMs that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The factories that make the drivers don’t care who they sell to; they maintain a certain level of quality because their clients depend on that. And once you’ve sourced the parts, it’s not expensive at all to put them together. “If you have a van and a bottle of glue,” Klasco says, “you can be in the business.”

What you sometimes end up with is a headphone with shockingly high-end internals, meaning excellent sound quality, from a company that has essentially no overhead. Those companies can still make a solid profit — if anyone can find their stuff.

It’s difficult to say how much intellectual property theft is in the mix. There’s rampant counterfeiting going on in these same Chinese tech hub cities, and you can often find homegrown Chinese brands sitting alongside counterfeit Western products at the markets and conventions around China (and on AliExpress and Amazon, for that matter). Klasco told me that he’ll often just ask vendors at these conventions for a tour of their facilities. If they make excuses for why he can’t come visit, the company might be doing something they want to keep quiet — reselling, or counterfeiting, or worse.

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EU unhappy with changes to Google’s Shopping service • Mediapost

Laurie Sullivan:

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Google’s efforts to drive more traffic to European comparison shopping rivals have failed, Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s Competition Commissioner, told attendees at a conference.

Two years ago, Vestager fined Google $2.65bn (€2.4bn) for favoring its own price-comparison shopping service, citing anti-competitive business practices.

Google then offered to allow competitors to bid for advertising space at the top of a search page, giving them the opportunity to compete on equal terms.

“We may see a show of rivals in the shopping box,” she told attendees, according to one report. “We may see a pickup when it comes to clicks for merchants. But we still do not see much traffic for viable competitors when it comes to shopping comparison.”

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The problem has always been that Google could put its own shopping adverts for free on top of any organic SEO, so it wins from those. If rivals have to buy adverts, it wins from those (and sees the data on what succeeds). It can’t be made fair without wholesale reform.
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I ranked every UK constituency by deprivation and then coloured them by party affiliation – for fun! • CityMetric

Alasdair Rae:

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What would it look like if we made a map of UK politics that wasn’t a map at all? What if we mapped out all 650 UK constituencies based on their level of deprivation, ranked them in ten equal groups of 65 and then coloured them by the party who won in each area in 2017?

Well, we’d have something that looks quite like a patchwork quilt of UK politics, as you can see below. The most deprived constituencies are in the left hand column, the least deprived are in the right hand column. In each column, constituencies towards the top are more deprived than the ones at the bottom.


[Click for larger version]

I originally attempted this in 2017 and with a new election looming and UK politics very much in a state of flux, I thought it would be interesting to do it again. Constituencies are coloured by who won in 2017, not the medley of party affiliations we ended up with at the end of the current parliamentary session.

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That’s interesting enough, but then you get into Remain/Leave by deprivation per constituency, which turns out to have no clear correlation apart from a lot of Remain at the least deprived end.

This is one of the more interesting ways to slice and dice the data on parties and constituencies. (Via Sophie Warnes’s Fair Warning newsletter.)
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Financial crime through video games is on the rise; counter-terrorists win • The Economist

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On October 28th Valve announced it was stopping the trading between players of “container keys”—an in-game gambling device that players can buy (with real money) to try to win (virtual) rewards such as special weapons or clothing. The firm says “nearly all” of the trades of such keys were “believed to be fraud-sourced”. It is a rare admission of the growing problem of using video games to facilitate financial crime.

The company has released no further details, and did not reply to a request for information from The Economist. But it seems likely that the keys, which were bought with stolen credit cards, were then traded between accounts on Steam’s marketplace. Players cannot withdraw real money from their accounts, but in-game credit can be used to buy new virtual rewards or games. There is a burgeoning market (on third-party websites) for accounts already loaded up with virtual cash. Criminals can cash out by selling to gamers keen to acquire games or virtual items cheaply.

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You’ll need to register to read more, but it’s quite a move that Valve is taking this seriously.
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Child abusers run rampant as tech companies look the other way • The New York Times

Michael Keller and Gabriel Dance:

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Approaches by tech companies are inconsistent, largely unilateral and pursued in secret, often leaving pedophiles and other criminals who traffic in the material with the upper hand.

The companies have the technical tools to stop the recirculation of abuse imagery by matching newly detected images against databases of the material. Yet the industry does not take full advantage of the tools.

Amazon, whose cloud storage services handle millions of uploads and downloads every second, does not even look for the imagery. Apple does not scan its cloud storage, according to federal authorities, and encrypts its messaging app, making detection virtually impossible. Dropbox, Google and Microsoft’s consumer products scan for illegal images, but only when someone shares them, not when they are uploaded.

And other companies, including Snapchat and Yahoo, look for photos but not videos, even though illicit video content has been exploding for years. (When asked about its video scanning, a Dropbox spokeswoman in July said it was not a “top priority.” On Thursday, the company said it had begun scanning some videos last month.)

The largest social network in the world, Facebook, thoroughly scans its platforms, accounting for over 90% of the imagery flagged by tech companies last year, but the company is not using all available databases to detect the material. And Facebook has announced that the main source of the imagery, Facebook Messenger, will eventually be encrypted, vastly limiting detection.

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How Airbnb’s fight to overturn a New Jersey law imploded • Ars Technica

Paris Martineau:

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In 2015, Mayor Steve Fulop entered into an agreement with Airbnb that was estimated to potentially earn the city up to $1m in occupancy tax revenue a year. In exchange, Airbnb worked to get Jersey City officials to implement rules legalizing short-term rentals. Airbnb touted its work with Jersey City as an exemplary partnership, highlighting it at length in PR materials concerning regulations in the following years. At the time of the agreement, Jersey City officials lauded Airbnb and explicitly encouraged the use of the platform generally in statements issued at the time.

City officials now say that the legalization of short-term rentals was a grave mistake. When the deal was struck in 2015, there were around 300 active Airbnb listings in Jersey City. Within one year, that number had grown to roughly 2,000, according to an Airbnb press release from December 2016. At present, there are upward of 3,000 Airbnb listings in Jersey City, the majority of which are whole-home rentals—where the owner isn’t present during the guests’ stay—and are operated by hosts that run multiple properties, according to data from Inside Airbnb, an independent site tracking the company. (Airbnb questioned the methods used to collect the data, but did not provide WIRED with any evidence disputing the claims.)

Officials say that the boom converted precious housing stock into de facto hotels, resulting in higher rents, quality of life issues in neighborhoods plagued by transient occupants, and an exacerbated housing crisis. It’s a concern echoed by many cities, as local government officials around the nation grapple with how best to handle the increasing popularity of short-term rental platforms like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO in high-tourism areas.

In June 2019, the Jersey City council introduced a new ordinance aimed at remedying these issues. Starting in January 2020, rentals of a whole home or apartment where the owner isn’t present are capped at 60 days a year; renters are largely barred from listing their homes on platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway; and short-term rentals are banned in many multifamily buildings, among many other provisions. The ordinance passed, but Airbnb poured money into the city to gather resident signatures in opposition. Within 20 days of the ordinance’s passage, the company gathered more than 20,000 signatures, forcing a referendum.

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The referendum went 70% against AirBnB (on a pretty small turnout; 26,000 votes total, and only 8,000 pro-AirBnB, which makes the 20,000-signature thing look a bit odd). Neighbours tend not to like short-term lets, and until you get a city to being 50% AirBnB “hosts”, there’ll always be more neighbours than hosts.
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“The @AppleCard is such a fucking sexist program… • Thread Reader App (via Twitter)

David Hansen found his wife assigned a different credit limit on her Apple/Goldman Sachs credit card, even though he and she are essentially the same financially – though she, it turned out, has a higher credit score than him:

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So let’s recap here: Apple offers a credit card that bases its credit assessment on a black-box algorithm that 6 different reps across Apple and GS have no visibility into. Even several layers of management. An internal investigation. IT’S JUST THE ALGORITHM!

So nobody understands THE ALGORITHM. Nobody has the power to examine or check THE ALGORITHM. Yet everyone we’ve talked to from both Apple and GS are SO SURE that THE ALGORITHM isn’t biased and discriminating in any way. That’s some grade-A management of cognitive dissonance.

Apple has handed the customer experience and their reputation as an inclusive organization over to a biased, sexist algorithm it does not understand, cannot reason with, and is unable to control. When a trillion-dollar company simply accepts the algorithmic overlord like this…

What’s even worse is how complete and unquestioned the faith of these Apple reps were in the wisdom of THE ALGORITHM. To be point of essentially credit shaming my wife, assuming her score must have been lower than mine, and roping us into a TransUnion shakedown to check.

So yeah, I completely stand by my original charge: @AppleCard is a sexist program. It does not matter what the intent of individual Apple reps are, it matters what THE ALGORITHM they’ve placed their complete faith in does. And what it does is discriminate. This is fucked up.

It’s also fucked up how they chose to raise my wife’s limit without ever addressing the root of the issue. Let’s just, essentially, bribe one loud mouth on Twitter, then we don’t have to actually examine our faulty faith in THE ALGORITHM…

This is the soft undermining of people’s sense of self. The algorithm might discriminate out of biased historical training data, faulty but uncorrectable inputs, programming errors, or malicious intent. You’ll never be able to know.

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Lots (and I mean LOTS) of people on Twitter thought this was (a) simply about gender discrimination (b) were happy to say “well, I’m sure that the banks must have good reasons, who are we to argue?”, thus demonstrating that they’d entirely missed his point – and also reinforcing it.

(Thread Reader App, by the way, creates a page of a thread: you respond to any tweet in a single person’s thread with “@threadreaderapp unroll” and it puts them onto a single page. Very useful.)
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British electricity since 2012 by Andrew Crossland • Infogram

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The charts below show the energy mix each year. Note how coal is being squeezed out by gas and renewables.

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I’d say that the thing to note is that consumption has gone down enormously – from 318TWh in 2012 to 272TWh in 2018, a fall of 15% – even while GDP has risen. Obvious question: is that due to a decline in manufacturing (especially steel) output, which is especially reliant on electricity? Hard to find clear data immediately, but it looks like output has stayed essentially the same.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,184: Twitter tries to dump the dunk, Microsoft’s lost bet, ‘personal CRM’, misunderstood marginalia, and more


The good news: all this is now open source. The bad news: it’s effectively dead. Or maybe that’s the good news. CC-licensed photo by sndrv on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Friday! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter is trying to fix the dunk and ratio with new product tweaks • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz:

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Twitter knows we treat each other terribly on Twitter. We dunk, ridiculing friends and strangers via quote-tweets. We ratio, piling on replies to bad tweets. We retweet without a second thought, spreading outrage and misinformation at warp speed.

But within the next two weeks, Twitter will debut a series of experiments meant to calm us down — subtly motivating us to use the quote-tweet, reply, and retweet in nondestructive ways.

“Everything on our platform incentivizes some form of behavior,” David Gasca, a senior director of product management at Twitter, told BuzzFeed News. Amid the company’s push for healthier conversations, he’s wondering “if we modify how people can do retweets, or how people can reply, or how people can engage, how does that change conversation on the platform?”

Twitter hopes to find out. In a meeting at its San Francisco headquarters in late October, Gasca and Suzanne Xie, director of product management at Twitter, showed off two experiments among several that will go live in the coming weeks: In the first, Twitter will add an emoji to a retweet, giving people a chance to quote-tweet without going into the compose field. Gasca and Xie want to find out if this feature might encourage people to express more nuanced emotions, putting a damper on dunking and mindless retweeting.

In the second experiment, Twitter will automatically suggest people use an emoji in their replies. If you like something, you could use the heart-eyes emoji. If you don’t, you could use the red circle with a line going through it. But if you pick a negative emoji, Twitter will ask, “Why do you disagree?” — which it hopes will prompt a more thoughtful reply, rather than a flame war.

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Good luck with that. (Alternatively: 🙄) A good idea, but there’ll surely be a lot of resistance.
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DxOMark scores shouldn’t be your definitive camera rating system • Android Authority

Robert Triggs:

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DxO Labs, the company which runs the DxOMark testing suite, is primarily a consultancy company. In other words, the company charges fees to advise camera hardware companies on how to improve their photography products. This is based on its own analysis and expertise in the camera industry.

No review site is guaranteed to be free from bias, but DxO’s business revolves around attracting big companies to it to make use of its expertise, which adds a lot of baggage to their reviews. Ranking test results in a way that encourages consumers to buy certain phones over others complicates everything.

The company claims to run an independent test, but is that really possible when it offers for-profit consultancy at the same time? There’s no reason to believe DxOMark is in anyway rigging results. After all, the company’s business model depends on its reputation and its results tend to roughly fit with the broader consensus on camera hardware.

However, manufacturers that tune their cameras against the testing suite are likely to score higher than those who don’t. We have heard that a few smartphone manufacturers don’t think DxO’s consultancy fees are worthwhile. These manufacturers don’t score highly on DxO’s tests, if the company even reviews these phones at all.

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I’ve never understood DxOMark’s number-specific testing; how does one slice up photo quality in the way that they do and hope ever to keep it sensible? Corralling all that into a single number seems even worse. Personally, I ignore these figures. Smartphones are long past this point, at least at the top end.
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Microsoft bet against Intel with its new Surfaces — and lost • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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The focus on non-Intel chips was a big part of Microsoft’s 2019 Surface announcement. The company went out of its way to highlight the new, co-engineered Ryzen Surface Edition processor for the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, which was optimized specifically for Microsoft’s design. And the ARM-powered Surface Pro X, with a next-generation design and a custom variant of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx chip, was supposed to represent the future of the Surface.

Unfortunately, the reviews are in, and experience has shown that neither of those custom chips have panned out quite like Microsoft had hoped.

Let’s start with the Surface Laptop 3’s Ryzen Surface Edition chip from AMD. Microsoft said that the new chip was meant to offer faster speeds and improved graphics performance in particular, thanks to an extra core. But as my colleague Dan Seifert noted in his review, the AMD chipset still struggled with most games and even basic 4K video playback. More importantly, the AMD chip was crushed in a head-to-head contest when it came to exporting video against the 13-inch, Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3, which has more thermal limits due to its size and is cheaper than the larger model.

…Unfortunately, the Surface Pro X seems to prove once again that the dream of an ARM-based Windows laptop is still a half-baked idea. App compatibility is still a big issue, performance isn’t great, and the much-vaunted battery life doesn’t always hold up as well as promised. A lot of this is down to 32-bit app emulation: when apps are designed to run on ARM, the Surface Pro X actually does pretty well. But those apps are still few and far between — the hardware may be here, but the software isn’t. And if past history is anything to go by, Microsoft may have a hard time getting developers on board.

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Wonder how that ARM Mac laptops are doing in their tests.
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How Google edged out rivals and built the world’s dominant ad machine: a visual guide • WSJ

Keach Hagey and Vivien Ngo:

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Nexstar Media Group, the largest local news company in the US, recently tested what would happen if it stopped using Google’s technology to place ads on its websites.

Over several days, the company’s video ad sales plummeted. “That’s a huge revenue hit,” said Tony Katsur, senior vice president at Nexstar. After its brief test, Nexstar switched back to Google.

Alphabet’s Google is under fire for its dominance in digital advertising, in part because of issues like this. The US Justice Department and state attorneys general are investigating whether Google is abusing its power, including as the dominant broker of digital ad sales across the web. Most of the nearly 130 questions the states asked in a September subpoena were about the inner workings of Google’s ad products and how they interact.

We dug into Google’s vast, opaque ad machine, and in a series of graphics below, show you how it all works—and why publishers and rivals have had so many complaints about it.

Much of Google’s power as an ad broker stems from acquisitions of ad-technology companies, especially its 2008 purchase of DoubleClick. Regulators who approved that $3.1bn deal warned they would step in if the company tied together its offerings in anticompetitive ways.

In interviews, dozens of publishing and advertising executives said Google is doing just that with an array of interwoven products. Google operates the leading selling and buying tools, and the biggest marketplace where online ad deals happen.

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It would take a huge lawsuit by the US DOJ to reverse this. It might be possible, but proving it would be hellish – and what would replace it?
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UpHabit, Dex, and the stilted rise of the personal CRM • The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:

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“When life gets busy, sometimes we need to be reminded to enjoy our most meaningful relationships,” the creators of Garden write on their website. “Your relationships are secured for today!” the activity-completion page on Ryze announces once you’ve taken care of all your “following up.” Ntwrk promises to make its users into better friends, mentors, siblings, salespeople, and networkers; reminders to reach out also come with a summary of “what you last chatted about.” Social Contact Journal provides anniversary reminders and prewritten message templates.

While many of the apps have an explicit professional-networking utility, the Irish company Monaru, one of the Y Combinator companies, is focused specifically on users’ 10 to 15 closest relationships. Not only will Monaru remind you of a loved one’s birthday, but it will also suggest specific gifts to buy her. It can help you plan a date night, or remember to call your parents regularly. “Millennials are four times lonelier than seniors,” the company’s homepage reads, probably erroneously. The service costs $20 a month, and its tagline is “Be the most thoughtful person you know.” (The creators declined to be interviewed, saying they were “heads down” on the product.)

The idea of people as self-contained collections of data points is not a new one—the Quantified Self movement has been booming and busting since 2007. The idea of offloading your brain into a computer is not new either, though it’s a little more controversial now that we’re more aware of what happens to our personal information after we do so. But quantifying other people is different, and mediating relationships with software isn’t a purely personal decision.

All these apps released their first version in 2018 or 2019 (though Monaru is in private beta and Clay has a waitlist). They appear in the “Productivity” section of the App Store. They are, on their surface, another blurring of work and life, another viral tweet about how modern life is like a dystopian Mad Lib, and while you can fill in whatever nouns you like, the overarching story will be about exploitation, isolation, and capitalism run wild. Is that all they are?

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Scary.
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Misunderstanding nonlinear prices: evidence from a natural experiment on residential electricity demand • American Economic Association

Blake Shaffer:

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This paper examines how consumers respond to nonlinear prices. Exploiting a natural experiment with electricity consumers in British Columbia, I find evidence that some households severely misunderstand nonlinear prices| incorrectly perceiving that the marginal price applies to all consumption, not simply the last unit. While small in number, the exaggerated responses by these households have a large effect in aggregate, masking an otherwise predominant response to average price. Previously largely unexplored in the literature, this type of misunderstanding has important economic, policy and methodological implications beyond electricity markets.

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The full paper isn’t yet available except to AEA members. But as Paul Kedrosky (via) points out, this isn’t really about BC Hydro’s electricity pricing; it’s about how bad we are mentally at understanding marginal rates, where you pay (say) 10% tax on your first $1m of earnings, and then 90% for anything above it.

Quick: how much tax does someone who earns $1m pay? And someone who earns $2m, who is into the 90% tax bracket? Who ends up with more money? Our mental models work on linear maths, but this crucial tax system isn’t. (A human cognitive bias of sorts, perhaps?)
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Amazon’s Fire TV to carry Disney+ • WSJ

Dana Mattioli and Ethan Smith:

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Amazon has reached a deal with Walt Disney Co. to carry the Disney+ streaming-video service on Fire TV devices, according to people familiar with the matter.

The two companies had been at loggerheads over terms for carrying Disney’s apps on Amazon’s Fire TV devices, the Journal reported last month. At the time, Fire TV wasn’t listed as a partner that would carry Disney’s new streaming service as a result of those disputes, The Journal reported.

Amazon was pushing for the right to sell a substantial percentage of the ad space on Disney apps. It is unclear if Disney agreed to Amazon’s terms. Disney+ launches on Tuesday. Disney is set to report earnings Thursday afternoon.

…Disney+, which will include franchises such as “The Simpsons,” “Frozen” and “Star Wars,” has been a draw for providers. Last month, Verizon Communications Inc. said it would offer its wireless customers on unlimited data plans a year of free access to Disney+, giving the cellphone carrier a fresh way to hold on to customers.

Under that agreement, Disney and Verizon would share the cost of providing the content to the carrier’s subscribers, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

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The subtle push and pull of platforms v content is playing out all over again; we saw it before with smartphones and services. What sort of deal – if any – did Apple make with Amazon to get Apple+ onto Fire sticks, one wonders?


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‘Fake News’ isn’t easy to spot on Facebook, according to new study • University of Texas News

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In the study, participants fitted with a wireless electroencephalography headset were asked to read political news headlines presented as they would appear in a Facebook feed and determine their credibility. They assessed only 44% correctly, overwhelmingly selecting headlines that aligned with their own political beliefs as true. The EEG headsets tracked their brain activity during the exercise.

“We all believe that we are better than the average person at detecting fake news, but that’s simply not possible,” said lead author Patricia Moravec, assistant professor of information, risk and operations management. “The environment of social media and our own biases make us all much worse than we think.”

Moravec, along with Randall K. Minas of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Alan R. Dennis of Indiana University, authored the study, “Fake News on Social Media: People Believe What They Want to Believe When it Makes No Sense at All,” published today in Management Information Systems Quarterly.

The researchers worked with 80 social media-proficient undergraduate students who first answered 10 questions about their own political beliefs. Each participant was then fitted with an EEG headset. The students were asked to read 50 political news headlines presented as they would appear in a Facebook feed and assess their credibility. Forty of the headlines were evenly divided between true and false, with 10 headlines that were clearly true included as controls: “Trump Signs New Executive Order on Immigration” (clearly true), “Nominee to Lead EPA Testifies He’ll Enforce Environmental Laws” (true), “Russian Spies Present at Trump’s Inauguration — Seated on Inauguration Platform” (false).

The researchers randomly assigned fake news flags among the 40 noncontrol headlines to see what effect they would have on the participants’ responses…

…As they worked through the exercise, the participants spent more time and showed significantly more activity in their frontal cortices — the brain area associated with arousal, memory access and consciousness — when headlines supported their beliefs but were flagged as false. These reactions of discomfort indicated cognitive dissonance when headlines supporting their beliefs were marked as untrue.

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Love that last bit. Also: explains why Facebook would be so lairy of labelling news content. It doesn’t want readers feeling uncomfortable.
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Google open-sources Cardboard SDK to keep it alive • Android Police

Manuel Vonau:

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Long before Google introduced Daydream and subsequently left it dead in the water, the company created the Cardboard platform. You can use the carton headsets as an ultra-low-budget entry to VR to this day, and they’re compatible with almost any regularly shaped phone on the market. Google has now open-sourced the underlying VR SDK which will allow interested developers to create their own VR experiences on Cardboard viewers and improve and enhance the project as they see fit.

Google says that it still wants to contribute to the project and plans to release a Unity SDK package, but it hasn’t actively developed the Google VR SDK for some time already. Still, it sees “consistent usage around entertainment and education experiences,” so it didn’t want to shut down the platform altogether. Google states that “an open source model will enable the community to continue to improve Cardboard support and expand its capabilities, for example adding support for new smartphone display configurations and Cardboard viewers as they become available.”

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Alternative headline: “Google puts Cardboard into back of car to drive to the mountains for a long refreshing walk.” It’s dead, Jim. All the signs are that virtual reality is heading for another winter.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified