Start Up: Citymapper gets bussy, the vanishing tablet, how French defeated the alt-right, and more


What if playing games becomes a substitute for having a job? Photo by ouvyt on Flickr.

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

Even Apple can’t make the Internet of Things tolerable • The Verge

The person behind the @internetofshit Twitter account:

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The companies behind our devices, both big and small, must make hardware changes to be accepted into HomeKit, must add authentication chips that are only available from Apple, must choose an Apple-approved manufacturer, must send free samples for certification, and must not talk about the certification while hoping they don’t go bankrupt while waiting for the entire process to complete.

Here’s an example of the frustration HomeKit creates: I bought Philips Hue lights a few years ago, and had been happily using them via the app provided by Philips. But if I wanted to get them working with HomeKit and the Home app I’d need to go out and buy an upgraded $59.99 bridge with Apple’s special chip just to get them talking — a change that could normally be done via a software upgrade. The same goes for other existing devices. If it didn’t ship with HomeKit support, you’ll have to replace it at your own cost to get it working later on. With Google Home, all I had to do was pair my existing Hue bridge and it worked immediately with my voice — no weird naming or specific phrases like “Siri, turn off Office Lights 2” required.

I must concede that this rigor is a net positive: Apple’s approved HomeKit devices are presumably the least likely to suffer from IoT plagues like the Mirai botnet that famously took down millions of connected cameras. For many IoT manufacturers and their customers, the last thing they’re thinking about is security, as we’ve all seen. What frustrates me is that HomeKit ignores all previous work done to standardize the Internet of Things, leaving thousands of useful products incompatible.

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Don’t let Facebook make you miserable • The New York Times

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz:

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Think of the aphorism quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Of course, this advice is difficult to follow. We never see other people’s insides.

I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.

Sometimes the contrasts in different data sources are amusing. Consider how wives speak about their husbands.

On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase “My husband is …” are “the best,” “my best friend,” “amazing,” “the greatest” and “so cute.” On Google, one of the top five ways to complete that phrase is also “amazing.” So that checks out. The other four: “a jerk,” “annoying,” “gay” and “mean.”

While spending five years staring at a computer screen learning about some of human beings’ strangest and darkest thoughts may not strike most people as a good time, I have found the honest data surprisingly comforting. I have consistently felt less alone in my insecurities, anxieties, struggles and desires.

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Tablet ownership rates falling • GlobalWebIndex

Felim McGrath:

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Back in 2014, it was almost half of digital consumers who said they personally owned a tablet. Fast forward to 2016 and those figures have dropped to 42%. Across the same period, we have seen usage of tablets drop across a range of metrics, giving a strong indication that many users are reaching for their devices less frequently and are choosing not to upgrade/replace them.

One obvious reason why tablets have struggled to convince their owners that they are essential devices is the rise of smartphones, which continue to offer ever more complex functionalities and, crucially, larger and larger screens. Indeed, over the same period that we have seen tablet ownership decline, smartphones have seen clear growth.

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This is quite something. It’s incredibly broad – just a single top-line number – but that’s a notable shift. When ownership rates fall, it indicates substitution.
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Harman Kardon’s Cortana speaker revealed • Thurrott.com

Paul Thurrott:

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The premium speaker has a cylindrical design and does look similar to an Amazon Echo. At the top of the device is the familiar light ring that looks like Cortana. The speaker offers 360 degree sound, the ability to make and receive calls with Skype, and all of the other features currently available with Cortana.

As expected, this device is going to ship with the release of Redstone 3 which will arrive this fall.

I’m not quite sure how long this page has been online but considering that Microsoft will talk more about Cortana next week at Build and it is expected that they will make the Cortana Skills Kit available to everyone, we may get an early look at this new hardware. With that being said, hopefully we will see other vendors jump into the Cortana boat and release speakers as well.

Based one the images on the pre-release page, it looks like the device will come in silver and black.

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Will only be in the US, work with Windows/Android/iOS. So would you choose this, or an Amazon Echo, or a Google Home? What’s the point in a Microsoft one? It’s even less applicable than the others.
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Introducing the Citymapper Smartbus • Medium

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First we built an app to help you get around town, using open data. But we found the data needed fixing, so we built tools to do so. We also built tools to analyse the data and learned a lot about how people are moving around. When we studied the existing public transit routes, we realised that they don’t always serve people best, nor evolve quickly enough to accommodate changes in the city.


Simcity: Route Creation

We built an ultimate tool (codenamed: Simcity) to evaluate routes utilising our demand data and routing. We found we can figure out how to improve existing routes in all of our cities. We can also identify new and better routes. London is actually not that badly served, but other cities have major gaps. We will write in more detail about Simcity later.


Simcity: Route Evaluation

We also feel buses haven’t evolved enough. They still roam around cities utilising old systems of operations and inefficient technology. If we’re going to solve urgent problems of congestion and infrastructure, we need buses to improve, to operate smarter. In the era of smartphones we can have responsive buses that react to realtime needs.

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This is a smart idea – and it’s working with Transport For London, which offers open data.
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The meaning of life in a world without work • The Guardian

Yuval Noah Harari:

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You don’t need to go all the way to Israel to see the world of post-work. If you have at home a teenage son who likes computer games, you can conduct your own experiment. Provide him with a minimum subsidy of Coke and pizza, and then remove all demands for work and all parental supervision. The likely outcome is that he will remain in his room for days, glued to the screen. He won’t do any homework or housework, will skip school, skip meals and even skip showers and sleep. Yet he is unlikely to suffer from boredom or a sense of purposelessness. At least not in the short term.

Hence virtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world. Maybe these virtual realities will be generated inside computers. Maybe they will be generated outside computers, in the shape of new religions and ideologies. Maybe it will be a combination of the two. The possibilities are endless, and nobody knows for sure what kind of deep plays will engage us in 2050.

In any case, the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles. Eighteenth-century English country squires, present-day ultra-orthodox Jews, and children in all cultures and eras have found a lot of interest and meaning in life even without working. People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.

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That “at least in the short term” in the first paragraph might make you pause. But as he points out, there are people – well, men – in sects in Israel who don’t do anything but essentially play in virtual worlds (religions) all day.
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A complete timeline of how Trump supporters tried — and failed — to hijack the French election • Buzzfeed

Ryan Broderick:

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After the successes of both the UK’s Brexit referendum and President Trump’s campaign, many in the far-right corners of social media — on sites like 4chan and Reddit — expected and tried to help orchestrate a big win in France.

…The main lesson here is once France’s mainstream media decided to ignore the trolls, nothing they did managed to actually make it out, ironically, of the far-right filter bubble…

…Users suggested spreading a rumor that Macron was having an affair with his wife’s daughter. They hunted Google for images of Macron standing too close to his 30-year-old step-daughter, Tiphaine Auzière. Several French users did try to point out that probably none of this would work because historically French voters have cared very little about the personal lives of their presidents…

This kind of weaponized fake news didn’t really have much traction in France, for three main reasons:

First is that it doesn’t appear that anyone on 4chan actually bothered to translate the fake news into French. Second is that the purveyors thought fake news tricks that worked in the US would work in France — not taking cultural differences into account. And third, the French simply don’t use Facebook — the engine that drives fake news in the US and in other parts of the world — that much.

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That’s very reassuring. Though what’s it going to be like in four years’ time?

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Parrot is creating a new ‘prosumer’ drone division after cutting a third of its workforce • Recode

April Glaser:

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French drone maker Parrot is starting a new division to bridge the gap between its extremely expensive commercial line, which cost upward of $11,000, and its extremely inexpensive consumer drones, which can cost as little as $100.

The new division, dubbed Parrot Professional, is now making drones that fall into the “prosumer” category, the $1,000-$5,000 price range. Drones in this new division are intended to support construction and agriculture with a new work tool without the need for a professional pilot.

Earlier this year, Parrot announced it was laying off nearly 300 employees, about a third of its entire drone operation, and reorganizing the company to focus more on aircraft for commercial applications.

Poor performance in the fourth quarter of 2016 caused the company to miss its sales estimates by 15%, and Parrot projected that sales in its consumer drone business were unlikely to improve enough to generate “profitable growth … over the medium and long term.”

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“Prosumer” is a terrible word, and products made with that idea in mind usually fail to find a market. There is though a market for midrange drones. The problem is that China’s DJI, with 50% of the non-cheap market, is already there.
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Candid, comedic and macabre YouTube stars feel an advertising pinch • The New York Times

Sapna Maheshwari:

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[Tim] Wood, 39, has amassed a small but loyal following by making online videos of ghost hunts and paranormal activity, using YouTube to broadcast his work since about 2013. Automatically placed advertisements on his channel, LiveScifi, which has about 470,000 subscribers, have allowed him to turn the videos into a full-time job.

But in the wake of a recent advertiser exodus from YouTube, prompted by major brands discovering they were showing up on videos promoting hate speech and terrorism, his earnings have plunged.

Mr. Wood, who lives in San Francisco with his fiancée and their infant, said his channel had brought in at least $6,000 a month in revenue last year — which helped pay for travel to site locations, the production of his videos and his other day-to-day bills. In January, his estimated revenue was about $3,900.

In February and March, he was alarmed to see that drop below $3,000. Last month, he saw around $1,600 and has been using crowdfunding to cover his shooting costs.

“We’ve never had problems with being told we’re not advertiser-friendly,” said Mr. Wood, who said he did not use profanity or offensive material in his videos. He suspects that algorithms scanning for words like “satanic” or “murder” may be limiting ads from running with his content, but can’t be sure as discussions with YouTube product managers have yielded little information.

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YouTube seems to be great at the “little information” game. Its revenues (and more importantly profits) are never broken out in Google results. So they’re either coining it, or struggling to make it profitable (due to the costs of streaming and, to a lesser extent, hardware). Perhaps with Facebook chasing video advertising, it has to protect its (near?) profitability as carefully as possible.

Note too:

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Hank Green, who is best known for the VlogBrothers channel he runs with his brother, the author John Green, said, “This is the first substantial volatility I’ve seen in about 10 years of having my content monetized by YouTube.”

He said it was difficult to assess how many people were affected, noting, “It’s a big, complicated space with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people making substantial amounts of money.” But he said the disruption was extra tough on niche creators.

“We look at our bottom line, and if we lose 30% of our YouTube revenue, we might say yes to some brand deals we would have otherwise said no to in order to not lay anybody off,” he said of his channels. “But if somebody’s making an extra $1,000 a month and that’s helping them pay the grocery bills, those people might not have access to that.”

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This dystopia is completely ridiculous • TechCrunch

Jon Evans, with quite the rant:

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Inside our bubble, modern medical research is doing amazing things; outside our bubble, modern medical policy is disappearing into a horrific maw of venal cruelty. In the same week, scientists announced they can cure HIV in mice, courtesy of CRISPR — and the wealthiest nation in the world, again apparently trying to recapitulate the 19th century, stripped healthcare from 24 million of its poorest citizens in favor of tax cuts for its wealthiest residents.

Inside our bubble, ordinary ponds are apparently now “organic pools.”

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Inside our bubble, smug executives, professors, and venture capitalists argue against a universal basic income, claiming it will rob people of the “fundamental dignity of work” — while people who actually work jobs which are worse than those of executives, professors, and venture capitalists, like, say, building an iPhone, are mostly too tired, too beaten down, and insufficiently famous to call them on their bullshit. Why, it sounds … like the early days of the labor movement. When was that again? Oh yes.

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It seems like we need an updated version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. (Dave Eggers’s The Circle is close, but it doesn’t get outside the, well, circle.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: the Brexit hijack?, Schiller on app pricing, the smartphone squeeze, YouTube’s lost ads, and more


Macron’s team stayed ahead of the hackers – but only just. Photo by villenevers on Flickr.

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

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

Did Macron outsmart campaign hackers? • The Daily Beast

Christopher Dickey:

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Wikileaks jumped on the document dump, but didn’t seem to be familiar with the material in it. Responding to the Macron statement that some of the items were bogus, Wikileaks tweeted, “We have not yet discovered fakes in #MacronLeaks & we are very skeptical that the Macron campaign is faster than us.”

Ah, but there’s the rub. As reported by The Daily Beast, part of the Macron campaign strategy against Fancy Bear (also known as Pawn Storm and Apt28) was to sign on to the phishing pages and plant bogus information.

“You can flood these [phishing] addresses with multiple passwords and log-ins, true ones, false ones, so the people behind them use up a lot of time trying to figure them out,” Mounir Mahjoubi, the head of Macron’s digital team, told The Daily Beast for its earlier article on this subject.

In the end, whoever made the dump may not have known what is real and what is false, which would explain in part the odd timing. After the disruptive revelations of the Democratic National Committee hacks in the United States, the public is conditioned to think that if there’s a document dump like this, it has to be incriminating. By putting it out just before the news blackout, when Macron cannot respond in detail, the dump becomes both the medium and the message.

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Terribly odd how it’s only the candidates who support the continuance of existing western organisation who get hacked. Seems Macron’s team were one step ahead of that, though. One document was wonderfully fake: it referred to a bitcoin transaction on a block number that doesn’t yet exist. Didn’t stop the alt-right loons from celebrating what they thought it revealed. Fact-checking isn’t much of a thing nowadays.
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The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked • The Guardian

Carole Cadwalladr:

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The Electoral Commission has written to AggregateIQ. A source close to the investigation said that AggregateIQ responded by saying it had signed a non-disclosure agreement. And since it was outside British jurisdiction, that was the end of it. Vote Leave refers to this as the Electoral Commission giving it “a clean bill of health”.

On his blog, Dominic Cummings [campaign strategist for Vote Leave, the official Leave group] has written thousands of words about the referendum campaign. What is missing is any details about his data scientists. He “hired physicists” is all he’ll say. In the books on Brexit, other members of the team talk about “Dom’s astrophysicists”, who he kept “a tightly guarded secret”. They built models, using data “scraped” off Facebook.

Finally, after weeks of messages, he sent me an email. We were agreed on one thing, it turned out. He wrote: “The law/regulatory agencies are such a joke the reality is that anybody who wanted to cheat the law could do it easily without people realising.” But, he says, “by encouraging people to focus on non-stories like Mercer’s nonexistent role in the referendum you are obscuring these important issues”.

And to finally answer the question about how Vote Leave found this obscure Canadian company on the other side of the planet, he wrote: “Someone found AIQ [AggregateIQ] on the internet and interviewed them on the phone then told me – let’s go with these guys. They were clearly more competent than any others we’d spoken to in London.”

The most unfortunate aspect of this – for Dominic Cummings – is that this isn’t credible. It’s the work of moments to put a date filter on Google search and discover that in late 2015 or early 2016, there are no Google hits for “Aggregate IQ”. There is no press coverage. No random mentions. It doesn’t even throw up its website. I have caught Dominic Cummings in what appears to be an alternative fact.

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This is a complex tale; Cadwalldr is wrestling with people who don’t want things to be known, and who seem to have done questionable things.
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Global smartwatch OS market share by region, Q1 2017 • Strategy Analytics

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Global smartwatch shipments at 6.2m units in Q1 2017 were up 48% YoY. Apple’s watchOS maintained the top spot with 57% market share.  Tizen with 19% share took second place from Android Wear this quarter for the first time since Q4 2015. Android Wear vendors together accounted 18% share and took the #3 rank.

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That makes it 3.5m Apple Watch units, Tizen at 1.2m, Android Wear 1.1m. My data from Google Play suggests only 0.6m or so Android Wear devices activated in that period, though possibly quite a few were connected to iPhones (where data isn’t easily available).
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Phil Schiller on App Store upgrade pricing, Amazon Echo-like devices, Swift, and more • NDTV Gadgets360.com

Kunal Dua:

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Gadgets 360: With all the recent changes in the App Store, can developers expect to see upgrade pricing next?

Phill Schiller: The reason we haven’t done it is that it’s much more complex than people know, and that’s okay, it’s our job to think about complex problems, but the App Store has reached so many successful milestones without it because the business model makes sense to customers. And the upgrade model, which I know very well from my days of running many large software programmes, is a model from the shrink-wrapped software days that for some developers is still very important, for most, it’s not really a part of the future we are going.

I think for many developers, subscription model is a better way to, go than try to come up with a list of features, and different pricing for upgrade, versus for new customers. I am not saying it doesn’t have value for some developers but for most it doesn’t, so that’s the challenge. And if you look at the App Store it would take a lot of engineering to do that and so would be at the expense of other features we can deliver.

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And on voice-driven assistants (re Google Home and Amazon Echo specifically: “My mother used to have a saying that if you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all”):

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there’s many moments where a voice assistant is really beneficial, but that doesn’t mean you’d never want a screen. So the idea of not having a screen, I don’t think suits many situations. For example if I’m looking for directions and I’m using Maps, Siri can tell me those directions by voice and that’s really convenient but it’s even better if I can see that map, and I can see what turns are coming up, and I can see where there is congestion, I understand better my route, and what I’m going to do.

Or, for example, with photography, and one of the most popular reasons for our products is photography now, and photography requires a screen. So the idea of a device without a screen, well it’s not really useful for that whole category of photos that we all share.

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Given that some are suggesting Amazon’s next iteration of the Echo will have a screen, this could get edgy. Except isn’t an Echo with a screen just… a tablet?

The point on pricing has lots of developers quietly agreeing.
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One year later, Google’s vision of Android apps on Chrome has collapsed • Thurrott.com

Paul Thurrott:

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Google originally promised that Android apps would be broadly available on Chromebooks by the end of 2016. And media reports throughout last year were perhaps overly positive about Google’s expected impact on Windows PCs and Macs. This was supposed to be game-changing.

To be clear, if Google can pull this off, Android apps on Chrome will indeed be disruptive, as I openly pondered a year ago in Can Google and Apple Pull the Plug on the PC Market? A June 2016 video described the wonders of this solution.

And then things got silent. As I wrote in January, in Still Waiting for the Chromebook Revolution that Never Came (Premium), Google’s late 2016 promise was smoke, and only a very slim selection of devices ever got Android app support, and then only in pre-release form.

The back-to-back releases of the Samsung Chromebook Plus and Chromebook Pro in early 2017 were supposed to turn things around. These Surface-like hybrid PCs offer touch screens and pens, and can be used like a traditional laptop or like a tablet.

There’s just one problem: Samsung has only released the Chromebook Plus so far, and this expensive device hasn’t moved the needle at all. The Pro, which features an ARM processor instead of an Intel processor, was delayed from March to April. And then to May.

And now we’re told that this new version of the device will ship sometime “this spring.” And according to many reports, the reason for the delay is, yep, you guessed it, that Google actually cannot figure out how to combine Android apps and Chrome OS. This attack that Google announced a year ago is effectively vaporware.

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Fair comment, but if Google is taking the time to get this right, rather than rushing it out of the door half-done, that’s got to be a good thing.
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Smartphone industry consolidation accelerated in Q1 2017 • Strategy Analytics

Linda Sui:

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A huge number of second-tier “microvendors” are playing a meaningful role in the global smartphone market. However, industry consolidation is underway. The “top 30+” vendors worldwide, like OPPO, together grew +8% YoY in Q1 2017, in contrast, the next “top 100+” microvendors combined posted -8% YoY decline.

We believe supply constraint and component price hikes hurt microvendors’ performance over recent quarters. All microvendors together made up 11% of global smartphone volumes during Q1 2017. Microvendors, like Lefeng and Xiaolajiao in China, Reliance Jio in India and INNJOO in Africa, are growing faster than average. However, we tracked some small vendors have been pushed out of market over the past few quarters, due to lack of scale to counter price hikes.

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“Microvendors” is a great word. But one can imagine them mostly being in China, and getting squashed there as the smartphone tide goes out a little. Europe and the US don’t offer much chance.
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MediaRadar: YouTube lost 5% of top advertisers in April • CNBC

Michelle Castillo:

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MediaRadar — which works with more than 1,600 publishers including The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Bloomberg — uses artificial intelligence to track advertising and sells that data to companies.

The 5% were customers of Google Preferred, YouTube’s program for advertising on its top-tier videos. It is bought in an “upfront” style, meaning companies commit advertising money before programming runs. But that doesn’t mean they can’t back out.

“Securing ad space in advance is not a promise to run ads no matter what,” MediaRadar CEO Todd Krizelman said. “Advertisers and their agencies can immediately cancel or put campaigns on hold if they are worried about brand safety.”

Five% is not insignificant, but it would require more defections for the company to really feel the impact. Mizuho said if 10% of brands pulled their ads, it would decrease the company’s earnings per share by $0.15 cents this year or a little under 1% of the value.

(Google’s most recent earnings report, on April 27, would not reflect April’s decline in advertising since it covered the first quarter of 2017.)

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

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You’d imagine if they’re the top 5% that they’d be bigger spenders than, say, the bottom 5%. Which in turn implies that it lost more than 5% of its revenues (assuming MediaRadar is correct). Which makes this a problem Google needs to get on top of – but the only way to do that might be to stop ads on some videos. That might increase CPMs (price per ad space), but will it increase revenue?
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Google was warned about the mass phishing email attack six years ago • Motherboard

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

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On October 4, 2011, a researcher speculated in a mailing list that hackers could trick users into giving them access to their accounts by simply posing as a trustworthy app.

This attack, the researcher argued in the message, hinges on creating a malicious application and registering it on the OAuth service under a name like “Google,” exploiting the trust that users have in the OAuth authorization process. OAuth is a standard that allows users to grant websites or applications access to their online email and social networking accounts, or parts of their accounts, without giving up their passwords. It is commonly used throughout the web, and typically shows up as a menu that lets you select which of your personal accounts (such as your Google or Facebook account) you want to use to sign into or connect to another service.

“Imagine someone registers a client application with an OAuth service, let’s call it Foobar, and he names his client app ‘Google, Inc.’. The Foobar authorization server will engage the user with ‘Google, Inc. is requesting permission to do the following,'” Andre DeMarre wrote in the message sent to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the independent organization responsible for many of the internet’s operating standards.

“The resource owner might reason, ‘I see that I’m legitimately on the https://www.foobar.com site, and Foobar is telling me that Google wants permission. I trust Foobar and Google, so I’ll click Allow,'” DeMarre concluded.

If that sounds really familiar, is because that’s pretty much exactly how someone tricked around one million people into giving up full access to their Google accounts to a malicious app named “Google Doc.”

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Very good find. Nothing is really new under the hacking sun. This was probably rediscovered by the perpetrator last week, rather than filed away for reused. But Google should have noted it in the OAuth threat model – it was added, according to a later message in the thread.
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Jeff Bezos explains Amazon’s artificial intelligence and machine learning strategy • GeekWire

Todd Bishop on what Bezos said at the Internet Association:

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“Machine learning and AI is a horizontal enabling layer. It will empower and improve every business, every government organization, every philanthropy — basically there’s no institution in the world that cannot be improved with machine learning. At Amazon, some of the things we’re doing are superficially obvious, and they’re interesting, and they’re cool. And you should pay attention. I’m thinking of things like Alexa and Echo, our voice assistant, I’m thinking about our autonomous Prime Air delivery drones. Those things use a tremendous amount of machine learning, machine vision systems, natural language understanding and a bunch of other techniques.

“But those are kind of the showy ones. I would say, a lot of the value that we’re getting from machine learning is actually happening beneath the surface. It is things like improved search results. Improved product recommendations for customers. Improved forecasting for inventory management. Literally hundreds of other things beneath the surface.”

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How a small group of pro-Corbyn websites built enormous audiences on Facebook • Buzzfeed

Jim Waterson:

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[Thomas] Clark doesn’t have much of an inside track on what’s going on in Westminster and he’s not even particularly aligned with any single political party – with the exception of holding strong anti-Tory views. In fact, he’s a thirtysomething part-time English tutor originally from the Yorkshire Dales who has never previously spoken to the media and was quite happy to keep a relatively low profile until BuzzFeed News got in touch.

He’s also, measured by Facebook shares per article in the first week of the election campaign, the most viral political journalist in the entire country.

Clark’s site, Another Angry Voice, is attracting a readership that most mainstream news sites would kill for. Despite still being hosted on an old-fashioned Blogspot account and relying on donations for funding, it’s reaching millions of people with a combination of endearingly homemade memes, Facebook-friendly headlines, and a regular output of relentlessly anti-Conservative takes on the news. Recent mega-viral hits include “How many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies do you actually disagree with?”, “30 things you should know about the Tory record”, and “The systematic Tory abuse of disabled people”.

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That thing about “the most viral political journalist” in the UK is where you should pause. Electoral results from the council elections saw Labour trounced and the Tories ascendant. Being a viral political journalist is nice, but there’s no evidence – if anything, this is counter-evidence – that it affects how people vote.

Waterson spoke to one Labour MP who despairs:

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The Labour MP suggested the sites were the modern equivalent of “the six nutters who sell the Socialist Workers Party newspaper in any town centre” but they were being boosted by an online echo chamber.

“Both sides feed off each other like the drug dealer and the junkie,” they told BuzzFeed News. “Technology has given them the wider reach, though there’s no evidence that they are getting any more traction with the vast majority of normal, sensible people in this country.”

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link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: tablets detach from growth, how cities change, what’s an engineer?, no phones home, and more


A Met Gala outfit isn’t as easy to make as it might look. Photo by eventphotosync on Flickr.

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

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

What a physicist sees when she looks at a fancy gown • Racked

Mike McKinnon:

»

Every year, I’m blown away by the intricate gowns at the Met Gala. I’m impressed not just by the creativity, but by how much math, physics, and engineering is lurking beneath the layers of silk and lace.

The gowns live at the perfect intersection of my interests: I’m a physicist and geophysicist, but I also love textile arts. For my graduate work, I crunched statistics on millions of data points, and my next big project is investigating the mechanics of landslides on asteroids and comets. I’ve invented internally-consistent imaginary physics frameworks for science fiction television series. But I also got my first sewing machine when I was six years old, and my stash of yarn is both a treasured collection and raw material to feed my weaving and knitting. I’ve dabbled in crochet, flirted with needle felting, and have a complete set of tools for hooking rugs. I’ve yet to meet a textile art I don’t want to try at least once.

This pairing of interests has given me insight into how textile arts are another application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Sometimes it’s blatant — I knit a hat featuring the home mountain range of the first landslide I studied, and my big brother burst out laughing when I gave him a binary-encoded scarf — but all of it is essential to understanding what’s going on in the creation of a gorgeous couture gown.

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link to this extract


60 years of urban change: midwest • University of Oklahoma

Shane Hampton at the Institute for Quality Communities:

»

60 years has made a big difference in the urban form of American cities. The most rapid change occurred during the mid-century urban renewal period that cleared large tracts of urban land for new highways, parking, and public facilities or housing projects. Fine-grained networks of streets and buildings on small lots were replaced with superblocks and megastructures. While the period did make way for impressive new projects in many cities, many of the scars are still unhealed.

We put together these sliders to show how cities have changed over half a century.

«

Lots of fascinating pictures of how things have changed – and there are more regions.
link to this extract


Damage • Matt Gemmell

On the App Store’s effect on peoples’ expectations of pricing:

»

One measure of the value of a person’s creative output is what another person is willing to pay for it. Low prices actively court those who place less value on work. That’s not an admonishment; it’s just a simple fact. And no, you can’t balance the price-point and the sales figures to achieve the same income: there are far, far more people who will only buy at $1 (or free, if you’re trying to sell in-app purchases). If you sell at $3 instead, your number of sales will go down by much more than the factor of three that you increased the price by.

If your goal is just to make money temporarily (which is up to you), then the race to the bottom — with all its attendant risks, and its environmentally corrosive effect — is probably your best bet. You also need to acknowledge that you’ve marked your work as being essentially worthless, and that it’ll be discarded just as quickly. Your most vocal supporters will turn on you the minute you ask for more money (remember the extra levels for Monument Valley?). They simply won’t value you enough to even consider paying again, because you’ve already taught them that your work isn’t worth it.

«

Umm, sort of. Except when the App Store first opened, prices were a *lot* higher, for games such as Super Monkey Ball. Nobody could force them to drop their prices. But there was competition for attention. The culprit is the internet, which exposes anything that depends on attention (via price) to competition from the rest of the world. If you can’t defend your niche against that, you’ll be forced to lower your price – perhaps to destructive effect.

I’d also observe that average prices on Google Play are lower than on the App Store, due to advertising.
link to this extract


Engineering and yellow lights • All this

“Dr Drang” on that story (it was going around) about Mats Järlström, who was fined by Oregon’s State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying for describing himself as an engineer; Drang wonders if Järlström is a “doofus”, or baiting the board:

»

The [NY] Times article included this nugget in support of baiting: Järlström’s lawsuit is being driven by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian outfit that styles itself as “the National Law Firm for Liberty.” It’s a sad state of affairs that I find myself suspicious whenever I see the words justice and liberty being self-applied to a privately funded organization.

Järlström had an opportunity to dispute the fine at a hearing, but he didn’t appear and paid the fine in full. Was he already in contact with the Institute, preparing his lawsuit? With a strong defense at his hearing, he might have avoided the fine, but then he wouldn’t have standing for his lawsuit, would he?

This backstory on Järlström’s motivations wasn’t explored by Motherboard or the Times, as they preferred to put their efforts into writing clever headlines. Motherboard’s was “Man Fined $500 for Crime of Writing ‘I Am An Engineer’ in an Email to the Government.” The Times went with “Yellow-Light Crusader Fined for Doing Math Without a License.” Funny.

Here’s the thing: the licensing of engineers who do work that affects the public is a social good (It’s not a panacea—there are no panaceas—but it does enforce a baseline of competence in those who design our factories, roads, bridges, and buildings). I suspect, though, that the Institute for Justice doesn’t believe that. To them minimum standards of competence are “barriers to entrepreneurship,” entrepreneurship—economic liberty—being the highest social good in the Institute’s eyes.

So if Järlström and the Institute win the lawsuit, will Oregon’s statutes concerning engineering licensure be slightly adjusted to permit more use of the word engineer or will they be gutted? I wouldn’t mind the former—Järlström’s casual use of the word wasn’t the same as if his business was called “Järlström Engineering”—but I worry about the latter. Unfettered entrepreneurship has never been good for public safety. (Yes, I am a licensed engineer, which means I’m dedicated to the guild and spend much of my time squelching competition through regulation and preventing others from jumping on the engineering gravy train.)

«

When I began reading the piece, I thought Järlström was in the right. Now I’m less sure – and agree with Drang.
link to this extract


8,400 new Android malware samples every day • G DATA

»

G DATA security experts discovered over 750,000 new Android malware apps in the first quarter of 2017. That represents almost 8,400 new malware instances every day.

Following a new negative overall record of over 3.2 million new Android malware files in 2016, the year 2017 was off to a slower start in comparison with same quarter of the previous year. G DATA security experts counted 750,000 new malware files in the first quarter of 2017. The malware figures remained the same in the fourth quarter of 2016. The threat level for users with smartphones and tablets with an Android operating system remains high. In all, the G DATA security experts expect around 3.5 million new Android malware apps for 2017…

…A comprehensive security solution is becoming more and more important for smartphones and tablets. The security app should include a virus scanner that checks the mobile device for Trojans, viruses and other malware. Furthermore it should include surfing and phishing protection to secure users against dangerous emails and websites.

«

Hmm. A huge flow of Android malware, but very little evidence of infections. How many people run antivirus on their Android phone? (I’m guessing close to zero.) How many get infected? I’m guessing ditto on that. The risks are real, but tiny.


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Digital Economy Act: UK Police could soon disable phones, even if users don’t commit a crime • The Independent

Aatif Sulleyman:

»

UK police could soon have the power to remotely disable mobile phones, even before the user actually commits a crime.

The Digital Economy Act, which has just passed into law, contains a section stating that officers will be able to place restrictions on handsets that they believe are being used by drug dealers.

The Home Office has told The Independent that UK police haven’t gained the powers yet, as “the introduction of powers included within Acts are often staggered and further details will be developed by the next Government”.

The next Secretary of State needs to make regulations, which then have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, before officers can start targeting phones.

Police also wouldn’t be able to disable devices directly.

Instead, the Director General or Deputy Director General of the National Crime Agency, or a police officer of the rank of superintendent or above, would have to apply for a court order that would then be sent to a telecommunications provider.

The government wants to crack down on so-called “deal-lines” used by gangs to remotely deal drugs in rural areas.

According to the government, these gangs exploit children and vulnerable people as couriers, using “specific” mobile phone numbers.

«

Basically, targeting the setup as seen in The Wire – except this is before it’s sure a crime has occurred.
link to this extract


Americans hang up on landlines as cellphone homes dominate • Associated Press

Anick Jesdanun:

»

Deborah Braswell, a university administrator in Alabama, is a member of a dwindling group — people with a landline phone at home.

According to a U.S. government study released Thursday, 50.8% of homes and apartments had only cellphone service in the latter half of 2016, the first time such households attained a majority in the survey. Braswell and her family are part of the 45.9% that still have landline phones. The remaining households have no phone service at all.

More than 39% of U.S. households — including Braswell’s — have both landline and cellphone service. The landline comes in handy when someone misplaces one of the seven cellphones kicking around her three-story house in a Birmingham suburb. “You walk around your house calling yourself to find it,” she says.

It’s also useful when someone breaks or loses a cellphone and has to wait for a replacement.

Renters and younger adults are more likely to have just a cellphone, which researchers attribute to their mobility and comfort with newer technologies.

The in-person survey of 19,956 households was part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, which tracks landline use in order to assure representative samples in ongoing health studies. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

«

Full data here. The percentage of households only with mobiles has gone from a couple of% in spring 2003 to over 50%. (One takes it their internet is “bare cable” where the ISP doesn’t tie provision to having a landline phone contract – as is effectively obligatory in the UK.)

However the data show that poorer households are less likely to have a landline (66% v 49%); ditto for renters v homeowners (71% v 41%).
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Worldwide tablet shipments decline 8.5% in the first quarter as the slow migration from slates to detachables continues • IDC

»

The tablet market is comprised of two different product categories, which are headed in very different directions as noted by IDC in the past. Devices offering a first-party keyboard, which IDC refers to as detachable tablets, continue to grow for the most part. Many of these devices have quickly grown to resemble products that IDC refers to as traditional notebook PCs or laptops. The other product category is slate tablets (those lacking this keyboard option), which saw shipments peak in 2014 and is now in a steep decline that IDC believes will continue throughout the forecast period…

…Fast forward to 1Q17 and traditional PCs have returned to growth, albeit relatively flat growth, for the first time since 1Q12.

“A long-term threat to the overall PC market lies in how the market ultimately settles on the detachable versus convertible debate,” said Linn Huang, research director, Devices & Displays at IDC. “To date, detachable shipments have dwarfed those of convertibles, but growth of the former has slowed a bit. In IDC’s 2017 U.S. Consumer PCD Survey, fielded over the previous two months, detachable owners held slightly more favorable attitudes towards their detachables than convertible owners did for their convertibles. However, owners of both were far more likely to recommend a convertible over a detachable.”

«

“Flat growth” is a lovely phrase for “dead”. IDC doesn’t include “convertibles” in its tablet segment; they’re PCs which can be tablet-y (eg Lenovo’s Yoga). IDC says Apple, whose share is settling down to about 25% of the whole tablet segment, is top of the “detachable” market with the iPad Pro. (I love the 9.7in version – perfect weight and portability.) Samsung meanwhile is backing into the Windows PC market through the same route.

Android slates are the low-price, zero-profit (unsustainable) end; Strategy Analytics says Windows was 15% of tablet shipments, ie 6.3m units on its larger measure of 42.1m for the market. IDC puts the market at 36.2m units.
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Alex Jones will never stop being Alex Jones • Buzzfeed

Charlie Warzel in a wonderful writeup of the indescribably terrible Infowars host, on an early encounter in which Jones was beaten up after challenging someone to a fight:

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In the end, no one pressed charges. Later, when he spoke about the incident to a local reporter, Jones first suggested he’d been the one who was attacked, and then denied the incident ever took place. In a statement to Austin Police Detective Dusty Heskew, Jones said he was unfairly “taunted” by four to five men, one of whom had “eyes that look like a goat’s…and pasty white green skin” and wielded “a double edged military type killing knife.” According to Jones, Counts was dangerously “obsessed” with him. “I am not an easy person to scare, but I believe that he bears me incredible malice,” he said at the time. “I am in fear of losing my life.”

Though that statement predates by decades the Infowars media empire Jones would later create, it now looks like an early playbook for his wildly successful libertarian- and conspiracy-news juggernaut: take a kernel of truth, warp it and its context in a funhouse mirror, and set it against a heavy backdrop of conspiracy, while raising the stakes with a generous dose of fear. The strategy has made Jones — a stocky central Texan with a penchant for clamorous outbursts, fanciful digressions, and meandering stream-of-consciousness monologues — a celebrity. It’s also made Infowars — his broad kingdom of media properties, including a website, webstore, and four-hour daily broadcast — a required part of the far right’s media diet.

«

In most other countries, that “take a kernel of truth, wrap it in a funhouse mirror..” clause would end with “…made him an obvious choice for treatment for mental illness”. But America is different.
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How does Alex Jones make money? • NY Mag

Seth Brown:

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He established Infowars.com, began making and selling his own conspiracy-oriented documentary films, and then launched PrisonPlanet.tv, a subscription-only streaming-video service that offered instant access to his films. By 2013, he had built a media empire: web, radio, subscription video, and DVD and T-shirt sales. At the time, Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald estimated that Jones was pulling in as much as $10m a year between subscriptions, web and radio advertising, and sales.

But sometime later that year, his business model changed completely. Since late 2013, Jones has been pushing a collection of dietary supplements designed to prey on the paranoias and insecurities of his listeners: Infowars Life Silver Bullet Colloidal Silver. Infowars Life Brain Force Plus. Infowars Life Super Male Vitality. Infowars Life Liver Shield. In a recent BuzzFeed profile of Jones, Charlie Warzel writes that the launch of Infowars dietary supplements “completely transformed” Infowars into a “media empire,” but this might even be underselling it — if not mischaracterizing the natures of Jones’s business.

«

Or as the subtitle of the article has it, “Alex Jones’s Media Empire Is a Machine Built to Sell Snake-Oil Diet Supplements”. Brown does some calculations which suggest Jones is *raking* it in – easily matching what he used to.

As ever in these things, follow the money.
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Why J. Crew’s vision of preppy America failed • New Yorker

Joshua Rothman visits a store of the clothes company which is $2bn in debt and might go bankrupt:

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The most striking thing about the store was, for lack of a better term, its pervasive, all-encompassing J. Crewness. Every item—critter shorts, pocket squares, the Frankie sunglasses—represented a facet of a familiar, imagined life. The names of the products—the Ludlow and Crosby jackets for men; the Rhodes and Maddie pants and Campbell and Regent blazers for women—fixed J. Crew in a certain place and milieu. Once, this was comforting. Now it felt odd to be told by a company that I was, or wanted to be, a certain kind of person. I didn’t want to be a member of the J. Crew Crew, or any crew.

Later the same day, I logged onto Facebook. My newsfeed was, as usual, full of ads for streamlined, nondescript clothing that might be described as “normcore”: sneakers from Allbirds, T-shirts from Buck Mason, crowdfunded trousers from Taylor Stitch. A few friends, I noticed, “liked” Bonobos. The ads rejected, or claimed to reject, the whole idea of “life style.” In many cases, they showed products without models, just floating in space. The implication was that I was a self-defining, self-sufficient person. I didn’t need to aspire to some other life; I could build one myself, without entering some bubble-like subculture. In theory, these clothes said almost nothing about me. (In practice, of course, they say as much as clothes always do.) It’s this insistence upon independence that, more than anything, may have dethroned J. Crew. These days, we prefer the subtle manipulation of the algorithm to the overt glamour of the “style guide.” It’s luxurious to think that we are choosing for ourselves.

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link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: AR for cyclists, “Google Docs” phishing attack, Facebook staffs up, save Energy Star!, and more


A tricorder, like in Star Trek! Soon we might have a real-life one. Photo by MikeBlogs on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. May the fourth, it is. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Coming soon: cyclist goggles with fighter pilot technology • Bloomberg

Gwen Ackerman:

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Elbit Systems Ltd., the Israeli drone maker, is gearing up to sell its first consumer product in nearly a quarter-century – augmented reality goggles for bicycle riders, equipped with technology developed for fighter-pilot helmets.

Made by Everysight, an Elbit spinoff, the glasses have a map-projection overlay that helps riders navigate new terrain, gives real-time performance metrics and allows cyclists to receive notifications, calls and text messages. Chief Financial Officer Joseph Gaspar said the solution is similar to obstacle-avoidance technology for autonomous cars developed by Mobileye NV, an Israeli company that Intel Corp. bought in March for $14.7bn.

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Looks fun.
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New Google Docs phishing scam, almost undetectable : google • Reddit

Jake Steel:

»

I received a phishing email today, and very nearly fell for it. I’ll go through the steps here:
• I received an email that a Google Doc had been shared with me. Looked reasonably legit, and I recognized the sender.
• The button’s URL was somewhat suspicious, but still reasonably Google based.
• I then got taken to a real Google account selection screen. It already knew about my 4 accounts, so it’s really signing me into Google.
• Upon selecting an account, no password was needed, I just needed to allow “Google Docs” to access my account.
• If I click “Google Docs”, it shows me it’s actually published by a random gmail account, so that user would receive full access to my emails (and could presumably therefore perform password resets etc).

Shortly afterwards I received a followup real email from my contact, informing me: “Delete this is a spam email that spreads to your contacts.”

«

Uses Google’s login system, and you only realise it’s fake if you hit “Google Docs” while you grant permission; bypasses 2-factor authentication. Scary stuff. (The original post contains screenshots too.) It would be able to “read, send, delete and manage your email” and “manage your contacts”.

Essentially, it’s an app – but by calling it “Google Docs” it fools people, very effectively. Google blocked that, but other versions are popping up. (And expect them with Unicode variations on “Google” using weird “o”s and so on. If you got one of the emails and clicked on it, here’s the place to revoke its access.)
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Apple looks to face down Watch critics • FT

Tim Bradshaw:

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For some, it has excelled where other smartwatches have failed, seducing consumers with its classy design and posing a threat to Swiss watchmakers. Others claim it is a clunky dud that never lived up to its fashionista billing, failed to create the promised new app platform and barely registered financially next to the iPhone.

Entangled with both perspectives are questions of whether Apple can still innovate or if it will find another hit product as profitable as its smartphone.

Apple’s refusal to reveal Watch sales figures has only fuelled the argument. On Tuesday, Apple finally took its first steps towards revealing the Watch’s performance by indicating that total sales for its “wearable” products exceeded $5bn over the past 12 months.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, told analysts on Tuesday’s earnings call that revenue from “wearable products”, including Apple Watch and its headphones, Beats and AirPods, “in the past four quarters was the size of a Fortune 500 company”.

Discount clothing retailer Burlington Stores, the lowest-ranked member of the Fortune 500 by revenues, posted $5.6bn in sales for its most recent fiscal year, according to regulatory filings, giving analysts at least a hint of the figure Mr Cook had in mind.

«

Gene Munster (Whom Saints Preserve) reckons about $4.7bn is Watch revenue. And the wearables total puts it in spitting distance of Swatch ($7.6bn).

It’s not the phone. But nothing is. Drawing level with Swatch would have been a dream 15 years ago.
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Xiaomi’s guardian angel is India • CNET

Daniel van Boom:

»

The past year has seen Xiaomi fall from grace in its homeland of China, dropping from the top spot at the end of 2015 to just making the top 5 in 2016. But the company is now back to making a splash – only this time, it’s in India.

Xiaomi scored a valuable silver medal over the weekend, with Counterpoint Research showing the company to be the second highest selling smartphone brand in India, behind only Samsung.

That’s a growth of 200% from the year prior, according to Counterpoint Research analyst Tarun Pathak. “India has come to Xiaomi’s rescue by adding an extra couple of million units to its quarterly numbers,” he said.

“India is the most important and the largest market for Xiaomi outside of China,” Manu Jain, managing director of Xiaomi India, said to CNET in a statement…

…Still, it’s too early for Xiaomi to soak in a victory lap. Oppo and Vivo, the same competitors to displace it in China, are hot on its heels in India. Xiaomi owned 13% of the market in Q1, while Vivo and Oppo took 12% and 10% respectively.

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One gets the feeling this is like Temple Run, where Xiaomi is pursued by the monkeys and one wrong turn will bring calamity.
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Initial thoughts on the design of the Surface Laptop • Tech Specs

Daniel Matte:

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The company is comparing its new laptop directly to the 13″ MacBook Pro, particularly emphasizing how the Laptop weighs 0.26 pounds less than the Pro. Part of the weight difference is due to the Laptop’s Alcantara surface, which I find to be the most interesting engineering decision. This material choice trades off structural rigidity and thermal dissipation efficiency for lower weight and greater comfort.

It is critical to note, though, that the Laptop only offers 15W U-series Core CPUs from Intel, while the 13″ MacBook Pro also offers 28W CPUs for its more expensive configurations. In other words, the Surface Laptop has been aimed at a lower TDP, and thus lower performance, target than the 13″ Pro. An eventual 15” Surface Laptop with H-series CPUs now seems likely, and many would be excited by such a product. Microsoft’s concession to its OEM partners is that it is once again only competing at the very high end of the market.

First, the bad news. The Laptop features one “full-size” USB Type-A port and one Mini DisplayPort, but no Type-C ports. At this point, Microsoft’s affinity for legacy ports and eschewing of any and all progress in connector standards is comical. Enterprise usage isn’t even a real concern, so there’s really no excuse.

I also strongly recommend not buying the base configuration with only 4GB of RAM. That makes the real starting price $1,299, in my opinion…

…The combination of lower frequency targets, the Alcantara, and the size of its singular fan make me somewhat skeptical about the energy and thermal efficiency of the case design. I would expect conservative DVFS tuning. Public testing will have to wait on a review by AnandTech. Panay did weirdly seem to suggest that the keyboard feels warm during normal use.

Even though much of this article has been criticism and concerns, overall I have a very positive impression of the product.

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Windows 10 S won’t let you change the default browser or switch to Google search • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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In a FAQ for Windows 10 S, Microsoft admits “you are able to download another browser that might be available from the Windows Store, but Microsoft Edge will remain the default if, for example, you open an .htm file.” This means if you click a link from another app, or open a link from an email then you’ll be thrown into Microsoft Edge, even if you wanted to use another browser. It’s not clear if Google will even bring Chrome to the Windows Store, but if it does then it might be a pointless venture as it won’t be fully functional without being the default browser on Windows 10 S.

Likewise, Microsoft is also crippling its own Edge browser. The default search provider in Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer in Windows 10 S cannot be changed. Bing will be the default, and Microsoft is preventing users from switching to Google or other search providers for some unknown reason. This isn’t the type of choice Windows users are typically used to, and it will be interesting to see if Microsoft is willing to alter this based on feedback from Windows 10 S users.

«

So $50 (from next year) to be able to use Google as the default? But it’s a smart move. Also notable in the FAQ:

»

Windows 10 S was inspired by students and teachers and it’s the best Windows ever for schools. It’s also a great choice for any Windows customer looking for consistent performance and advanced security.

«

Basically, it’s Windows as ChromeOS. (You can’t change the default browser in that either, I think.)
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Free software to reveal how Facebook election posts are targeted • The Guardian

Robert Booth:

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A tool exposing how voters are targeted with tailored propaganda on Facebook has been launched in response to what is likely to be the most extensive social media campaign in general election history.

Experts in digital campaigning, including an adviser to Labour in 2015, have designed a program to allow voters to shine a light into what they describe as “a dark, unregulated corner of our political campaigns”.

The free software, called Who Targets Me?, can be added to a Google Chrome browser and will allow voters to track how the main parties insert political messages into their Facebook feeds calibrated to appeal on the basis of personal information they have already made public online.

«

I remember when it was Internet Explorer that got all the fun tools, and those of us on Safari got nothing. Now it’s Chrome.

Almost worth the trouble of using Chrome and Facebook to see what happens here. But: desktop-only, and as we know, mobile is becoming a majority of use, especially for Facebook.
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This thermostat wants to put Alexa in every room of your house • Buzzfeed

Nicole Nguyen:

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Ecobee’s new smart thermostat now has an edge over its competition: a speaker, microphone, and Alexa built-in. The Ecobee4, a Wi-Fi–enabled device similar to Google’s Nest and Honeywell’s Lyric, is the first thermostat with Amazon’s voice-enabled Alexa software on board. It can understand “Alexa, turn down the temperature,” “Alexa, read me the news,” and hundreds of other prompts primed for Amazon’s voice assistant.

Another feature that sets Ecobee apart from other smart thermostats is that it works with small, floss-sized individual room sensors (up to 32). The sensors, which can be affixed to a wall or stand on their own, detect each room’s occupancy and temperature so Ecobee can better manage a home’s hot and cold spots. The central thermostat and its sensors communicate with each other to determine whether you’re actually at home and where you are in your house — better than other thermostats with a single hub, according to Ecobee — and adjusts the temperature accordingly. That way, you can save money on your energy bill by not running the AC or heat while you’re away.

In addition to the Ecobee4, the company is also launching new smart light switches that double (triple?) as an Ecobee room sensor and Alexa speaker in one. The light switches, which will be available later this year and are sold separately (price has not been announced), connect to Wi-Fi, so you can turn off your kitchen lights remotely with your phone.

«

Ecobee’s CEO points out that very few of the many things promised at CES to work with Alexa have actually reached the market: integration is difficult.

Also see Terence Eden’s struggles to create a “skill” for Alexa, which opens with the phrase “a pain in the arse to get anything done”. And note that Eden has to program every single possible query phrase for the task he wants to trigger. “This isn’t AI,” as he comments.
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Companies decry Trump plan to eliminate Energy Star program • Associated Press

Matthew Daly:

»

Companies including United Technologies Corp., Ingersoll Rand and Staples call the program a model for successful collaboration between the public and private sectors.

In a letter to the Trump administration and congressional leaders, the companies say Energy Star “should be strengthened, not weakened” to encourage businesses and consumers to conserve energy.

United Technologies is the parent company of Carrier heating and cooling, Otis elevators and Pratt & Whitney engines, while Ingersoll Rand is the parent of Trane heating and cooling. Other companies signing the letter include LG Electronics USA, Panasonic Corp. of North America, Samsung Electronics America and Nest thermostats, owned by Google.

Energy Star, begun in 1992, is known for its blue-and-white star logo that appears on hundreds of products from washing machines to furnaces and computers. The program costs about $50m per year to administer, while saving consumers more than $34bn per year in reduced energy costs.

The White House proposed eliminating the program, along with other programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, in its 2018 budget plan.

“I don’t know who recommended shutting down this program to the president, but I can assure you it was bad advice that would hurt American businesses, consumers and our overall economy,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington-based advocacy group.

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I’m guessing that the argument for eliminating is that, hey, the companies can do their snowflake-y energy efficiency stuff themselves. The argument against eliminating is that it provides an independent verification, encouraging and demonstrating energy efficiency.
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An ER doctor’s final frontier: tricorders could be coming to a sick bay near you • Salon.com

Angelo Young:

»

in 2012, [ER doctor Basil] Harris urged his siblings to found Philadelphia-based Final Frontier Medical Devices and help him design a device that could more easily enable people to regularly collect their vital signs and other health data and to store and compile the data in a way that could assist doctors in prescribing treatments.

A year into his project, Harris had an epiphany while reading an article about the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize contest, which challenged innovators in the medical community to build a device similar to the medical tricorder, the fictional hand-held scanner used by the cantankerous Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (originally played by DeForest Kelley) in the “Star Trek” franchise.

It was a no-brainer.

Harris, who comes from a self-described family of sci-fi geeks, entered the contest and his team continued to work nights and weekends on DxtER (pronounced Dexter), a tablet-based system that uses several biological sensors and analytic software that can track vital signs and uncover medical conditions — 34 in all, from diabetes and pulmonary diseases to tuberculosis and Hepatitis A.

The work on DxtER paid off this month when Harris and his brother George, a computer network engineer, led the seven-member team to victory in the international contest, beating runner up Dynamical Biomarkers Group., a Taiwan-based team led by Harvard Medical School professor Chung-Kang Peng.

The Pennsylvania-based team walked away with $2.6m in prize money as well as extra cash to further develop DxtER for the marketplace with the help of University of California, San Diego’s Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute.

«

This contest has been a long time coming: I recall speaking to some of the funders back in 2013. It’s way harder than it looks – partly because, to quote another TV doctor, everyone lies (about their symptoms) – but the physical data alone don’t tell the whole story. The interview with Harris in the story is enlightening on this front.
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Mark Zuckerberg – Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen… • Facebook

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Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen people hurting themselves and others on Facebook — either live or in video posted later. It’s heartbreaking, and I’ve been reflecting on how we can do better for our community.

If we’re going to build a safe community, we need to respond quickly. We’re working to make these videos easier to report so we can take the right action sooner — whether that’s responding quickly when someone needs help or taking a post down.

Over the next year, we’ll be adding 3,000 people to our community operations team around the world — on top of the 4,500 we have today — to review the millions of reports we get every week, and improve the process for doing it quickly.

These reviewers will also help us get better at removing things we don’t allow on Facebook like hate speech and child exploitation. And we’ll keep working with local community groups and law enforcement who are in the best position to help someone if they need it — either because they’re about to harm themselves, or because they’re in danger from someone else.

In addition to investing in more people, we’re also building better tools to keep our community safe.

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Maths: they’re going from 4,500 people to 7,500 people. That roughly halves the workload for each person. Millions of reports per week means a minimum (1m/wk) of 143,000 per day; if 10m, then 1.43m per day; if 100m, then 14.3m per day.

1m per day among 4,500 is an average of 32 per day, or 4 per hour. 10m is 40 per hour (two every three minutes). 100m is 400 per hour. Though the number of reports might be “bursty” – quieter when Asia is awake, busier when the US is awake. Maybe it peaks at twice or three times the mean.

Upping the workforce is going to roughly halve that, in theory. (Though there might be more complaints.) And the workforce is being upped because, clearly, they aren’t getting to reports fast enough. Which suggests that the reports are more towards the upper end than the lower.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Microsoft’s Laptop surfaces, Facebook’s ad power, un-appy Watch, and more


Rice modified by the CRISPR process. It’s going to change our lives. Photo by Penn State News on Flickr.

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

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

Meet CRISPR: our genetic superweapon • Geek.com

Daniel Starkey:

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That’s where CRISPR comes in. My earlier analogy of a genetic scalpel isn’t too far off. This system (and it is sort of a system) works mind-bogglingly well. It is laser-precise and can be made self-correcting, so if it does tinker with DNA too much, it’ll go back and fix its mistakes. Together we’re talking about one of the most incredible tools in human history. And that’s no exaggeration. Many in the field have said we’ve left the Information Age for the Genetic Age, others have claimed that it could be the single most important discovery of the 21st century.

CRISPR can be modified to attack or protect or fix anything in the DNA. And yeah, I’m getting repetitive here, but it’s only because you really need to grasp how big this is. I’m betting you don’t CRISPR is our cure for cancer (as in scientists are literally doing that right now in China), it can wipe out the flu or AIDS or anything. We could engineer it to wipe out at all mosquitoes or create hyper-intelligent babies. We can even modify genetic code in living plants and animals. It is entirely possible (though by no means guaranteed) that we could fix our telomeres and make the human race practically immortal. We, as in you and I, could very well live forever. And again, if it sounds like I’m exaggerating… I’m really not.

These treatments will need a lot of testing to make sure they are safe, but the technology is here today. It’s all a matter of refinement from here. It’s like we’ve just discovered the concept of genetic surgery or metallurgy. Once the idea is there, your options are practically limitless.

For now, we’re still in the stages of playing with our new tool. We won’t be curing aging just yet, but the first few projects are, again, cancer cures and one that keeps mosquitos from transmitting malaria.

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CRISPR (pron “crisp-er”) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. It is going to change what we think of disease and inheritance. Expect to hear stories – perhaps strange stories – coming out of China in the next couple of years,.
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I’m an ex-Facebook exec: don’t believe what they tell you about ads • The Guardian

Antonio Garcia-Martinez:

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Facebook deploys a political advertising sales team, specialized by political party, and charged with convincing deep-pocketed politicians that they do have the kind of influence needed to alter the outcome of elections.

I was at Facebook in 2012, during the previous presidential race. The fact that Facebook could easily throw the election by selectively showing a Get Out the Vote reminder in certain counties of a swing state, for example, was a running joke.

Converting Facebook data into money is harder than it sounds, mostly because the vast bulk of your user data is worthless. Turns out your blotto-drunk party pics and flirty co-worker messages have no commercial value whatsoever.

But occasionally, if used very cleverly, with lots of machine-learning iteration and systematic trial-and-error, the canny marketer can find just the right admixture of age, geography, time of day, and music or film tastes that demarcate a demographic winner of an audience. The “clickthrough rate”, to use the advertiser’s parlance, doesn’t lie…

…The hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable. Which is what happened with Trump and the “fake news” accusation: even the implacable Zuck had to give in and introduce some anti-fake news technology. But they’ll slip that trap as soon as they can. And why shouldn’t they? At least in the case of ads, the data and the clickthrough rates are on their side.

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Major apps abandoning Apple Watch, including Google Maps, Amazon & eBay • Apple Insider

Neil Hughes:

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In the last few weeks, the latest update for Google Maps on iOS ditched support for the Apple Watch. Its removal was not mentioned in the release notes, and Google has not indicated whether support for watchOS will be reinstated.

It’s the same story with Amazon and eBay, both of which previously included Apple Watch support in their iOS apps. Both were updated in late April, and as of Monday, neither includes an Apple Watch app.

While shopping on Amazon from your wrist may seem somewhat superfluous, the eBay app for Apple Watch did allow users to track bid statuses. And obviously the utility of glanceable directions from Google Maps —a service many believe is better than Apple Maps —on the watch is apparent.

There are other, scattered examples of Apple Watch apps being removed from iOS updates, including retailer Target (which does still offer watchOS integration with its Cartwheel app).

The fact that these high-profile removals have gone largely unnoticed could be a sign that the apps simply were not widely used. In contrast, removing iPad support from an iOS app, for example, would likely be noticed immediately and generate headlines.

«

Google later said it will restore support. But one can see that smartwatch “apps” generally don’t make sense if they aren’t about fitness, maps or messaging, and aren’t accessible via Siri.
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Leaked photos: Fitbit’s new headphones and troubled smartwatch • Yahoo Finance

JP Mangalindan:

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Yahoo Finance has obtained photos of Fitbit’s (FIT) first “proper” smartwatch and first-ever pair of Bluetooth headphones due out this fall.

As Yahoo Finance previously reported in April, the San Francisco-based fitness tracker company is gearing up to release both devices later this year after a series of production snafus delayed the smartwatch project.

“It was originally planned for this spring to likely get ahead of whenever Apple plans their normal fall announcement,” a source familiar with the matter told Yahoo Finance. “Fitbit always likes to try and get in front of it.”

As you can see in the photo [in the article], the watch resembles a somewhat more evolved version of a product in the company’s current product line, the Blaze.

“It was very retro-looking with the lines and stuff — definitely not sexy,” another source previously told Yahoo Finance of the upcoming smartwatch. “Several employees who saw the design complained about it.”

The smartwatch, codenamed “Higgs” internally, will sport a color display with 1,000 nits of brightness similar to the Apple Watch Series 2, a built-in GPS chip, heart-rate monitoring, the ability to make touchless payments, the ability to store and play music from Pandora (P), and four days of battery life between charges, according to the two sources familiar with the matter.

All those features will come housed in an aluminum unibody design, which will let users swap watch bands when it eventually hits shelves this fall for around $300.

«

So it’s got a smartwatch that’s being described as “troubled” and some Bluetooth headphones. It doesn’t feel like this story is going well. Meanwhile, Fitbit announces its Q1 results later on Wednesday.
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Acer unveils new 2-in-1 devices • Digitimes

Aaron Lee and Joseph Tsai:

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Acer has announced two new 2-in-1 devices under its Switch series, the Switch 5 and 3, both using Windows 10. Both 2-in-1 devices feature Acer’s Active Pen, allowing users to input in a stylus method via the Windows Ink function.

Acer Switch 5 is equipped with Acer’s LiquidLoop fanless cooling system, supporting up to an Intel Core i7 processor. The device also features a 12-inch FHD+ IPS touch panel and supports up to a 2,160 by 1,440 resolution.

Acer’s Switch 3 is equipped with a 12.2-inch display, an Intel Pentium or Celeron processor and also a fanless cooling design. The Switch 3 is mainly targeting price-oriented customers such as students.

Both Acer Switch 5 and Switch 3 come with a detachable keyboard and dual-cameras. Enterprise users can also choose to upgrade their Switch 5 to feature USB Type-C interface.

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They look OK. But – Pentium or Celeron processors? Isn’t that somewhat low-powered?
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Introducing Surface Laptop, powered by Windows 10 S • Microsoft Devices Blog

Panos Panay:

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Surface Laptop is made for and powered by Windows 10 S. The hardware and software are blended so flawlessly you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. And for a limited time, Surface Laptop comes with an offer for one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal and 1TB of free storage on OneDrive****, giving you full access to Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

All your documents will be protected, secure, and stable. You won’t have to worry about losing a paper again because everything will automatically save to the cloud, and Windows 10 S means your Surface is always up to date providing superior performance and streamlined security.

Every app in the Windows Store is verified for security by Microsoft so you get an experience you can trust. And we’re adding new apps every day. Spotify will come to the store early this summer with new experiences that will light up on Surface including using the Surface Dial***** to run your Spotify playlist.

If you need to use an app that isn’t in the Windows Store, in just a few clicks can go to the Windows Store and switch to Windows 10 Pro. But you shouldn’t. This device, this OS, they’re made for each other, and together they offer so much. It’s everything you love about Windows, Office, and Surface, made pure and elegant in an unbelievably thin and light package.

Availability: Surface Laptop starts at $999 USD and will be available beginning on June 15th.

«

Windows 10 S is an interesting idea: essentially, limited to what Microsoft allows in its app store. (So no Google Chrome.) I don’t think Apple would ever allow the phrase “But you shouldn’t” in any marketing or other literature.
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Apple can’t ignore Microsoft’s slick, new laptop • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Dina Bass:

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Microsoft has already cracked the professional and creative markets with inventive tablets and a desktop that turns into a virtual drafting table. Now it’s chasing another category many believe is Apple’s to lose: the $1,000 laptop for everyone. 

Microsoft, a company once derided for buggy software, unstable hardware and indifferent design, debuted the Surface Laptop on Tuesday. The machine boots up in seconds, has a touch screen and gets a claimed 14 hours of battery life (two better than Apple’s MacBook Air). Weighing in at 2.76 pounds, about a quarter-pound less than the Air, the Surface Laptop boasts a 13.5in screen and is one of the thinnest and lightest products in its class.

Microsoft is targeting the education market—and even threw laptops inside backpacks stuffed with textbooks, notepads and keys to simulate college-kid wear-and-tear. Yet the Surface Laptop’s affordable price, portability and features could appeal to a far broader audience—including Mac loyalists.

«

Where is the evidence exactly that Microsoft has “cracked” the professional and creative markets? And what’s the basis for the assertion that the Surface Laptop could appeal to Mac loyalists? The story was written ahead of the launch (one or both writers got a tour for background colour, in the article) so there’s no way in the world they could know this.

The fact of the low sales in the just-gone quarter is skimmed over (perhaps 1m Surfaces sold). Meanwhile Apple sells millions of Macs and iPads, quarter after quarter.

The real focus should have been on education – where Microsoft is trying to hold off the advance of Chromebooks with Windows 10 S. An informative piece on that might have helped understand Microsoft’s broader strategy. Instead we get techno-porn about speakers in keyboards and anechoic chambers.
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Super Free Music Player in Google Play is malware: a technical analysis • Naked Security

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SophosLabs has identified the following characteristics of Super Free Music Player:

• The dropper downloaded from Google Play is named com.superfreemusic.songapp. 
• The payload is decrypted and planted on Android devices by the dropper.

First, the dropper starts a service called com.hole.content.Erpbiobuft to decrypt and drop the payload. It will continues running this service every hour.

It decrypts and drops the payload. It then continues running this service every hour. The dropper then uses dynamic code and reflection to load the payload method (com.fb.content.core.enter).

To avoid detection from Google Play, the payload will verify if a device is an emulator by checking several properties such as the emulator phone number (15555215554, 15555215556…) and specific strings such as (/system/lib/libc_malloc_debug_qemu.so, /sys/qemu_trace …). Moreover, it is able to check if a popular Android research sandbox, TaintDroid, is used. Also, another time bomb is used to avoid detection.

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It’s that last point which is the eye-opener: if Google Play’s detection systems all work on emulation, then this is a problem.
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Sandy Hook father Lenny Pozner on death threats: ‘I never imagined I’d have to fight for my child’s legacy’ • The Guardian

Hadley Freeman:

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[Noah] Pozner himself used to be into conspiracy theories. When he lived in Connecticut, he often had to commute to New York and would listen to rightwing radio hosts such as Alex Jones and Michael Savage on the long drives. “I’m self-employed, an entrepreneur. I was always looking for more information so I could get an edge on the next guy, to get a better idea of the geopolitical perspective,” Pozner says. Once he got used to Jones’s “raspy voice” he liked him especially: “Alex Jones appears to think out of the box. He’s entertaining.”

Arguably, more than anyone, Jones is responsible for spreading the theory that the Sandy Hook massacre was fake. His radio shows and website, InfoWars.com, have an audience of more than eight million, and they specialise in the kind of conspiracies that had intrigued Pozner: was 9/11 an inside job? Was the US government involved in the Oklahoma City bombing?

On 27 January 2013, Jones told his audience: “In the last month and a half, I have not come out and said this was clearly a staged event. Unfortunately, evidence is beginning to come out that points more and more in that direction.”

“I wasn’t very verbal at that point, but I managed to send Alex Jones an email,” says Pozner. He wrote: “Haven’t we had our share of pain and suffering? I used to enjoy listening to your shows. Now I feel that your type of show created these hateful people and they need to be reeled in!”

He got a reply from Jones’s assistant, who said: “Alex has no doubt this was a real tragedy.” But Jones’ thinking seemed to change. In 2015, he told his audience: “Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors; in my view, manufactured. I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids, and it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.”

«

Pozner’s child was the youngest killed at Sandy Hook. Donald Trump went on Jones’s show in 2015 and complimented him: “I just want to finish by saying your reputation’s amazing”.

(I did once guest on Jones’s show, via Skype, to talk about my book Digital Wars; I had no idea who he was, and it was set up by his assistants. I gradually realised the show was bonkers because of the adverts. Then I began enjoying winding him up by not playing along with – and trying to contradict – the conspiracy ideas he threw out.)
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The ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Netflix hack was a terrible idea • WIRED

Brian Barrett:

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Consider that in 2011, BitTorrent accounted for 23% of daily internet traffic in North America, according to network-equipment company Sandvine. By last year, that number sat at under 5%. “There’s always going to be the floor of people that are always going to be torrenting,” says Sandvine spokesperson Dan Deeth. That group will surely enjoy whatever Piper’s up to in season five. But the idea that so small a cohort might prompt Netflix to negotiate with hackers seems absurd…

…Yes, Game of Thrones provides what seems like an obvious counterpoint; hundreds of thousands of people torrent it every year, suggesting a healthy appetite for the practice. But it proves less instructive on closer examination.

“Even though you can get HBO Now in the US, in Canada and most of the world you would still need a premium television subscription,” Deeth says. Game of Thrones‘ torrenting popularity stems in part from the fact torrenting is the only way to watch it in many parts of the world. Netflix, on the other hand, is available in 200 countries. That speaks to another reason why plopping Orange Is the New Black online early didn’t pay off: The joy of binge-worthy TV hinges on knowing that other people also binge. A water cooler that only the Pirate Bay gathers around defeats the purpose.

“It’s not an experience,” says Rayburn. “People want to watch it with friends.”

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Confirming what I wrote yesterday. If the hacker was inside HBO’s system, that would be quite different. (And I bet HBO is on red klaxons checking that possibility right now.)

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Twitter announces more live video deals • WSJ

Jack Marshall:

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The social network unveiled partnerships with companies such as BuzzFeed, Vox Media, MLB Advanced Media and Live Nation to produce or provide live-streaming content for the platform.

BuzzFeed will create a news and current events show to be broadcast live on Twitter each morning, for example, while Vox Media will create a weekly live show dedicated to gadgets called Circuit Breaker, Twitter executives said.

In the sports arena, WNBA will live-stream 20 regular-season games via the platform, and MLBAM will produce a new 3-hour weekly MLB program featuring game “look-ins” and highlights.

The announcements come as Twitter attempts to reposition itself as a venue for professionally-produced live video content and tap into advertising budgets typically reserved for TV.

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I can’t put it better than Ben Thompson did in his daily Stratechery newsletter ($):

»

Twitter is (again, presumably) paying for content about business and financial markets even as the most valuable business and financial market information is being posted for free on Twitter. That the company cannot build a business on that fact is certainly a disappointment.

«

Sometimes Twitter reminds me of the Escher engraving of the twin sets of monks on the staircases. It keeps going around endlessly, but nothing really changes. (Side note: Escher only produced his picture in 1960. I had thought it was much, much older.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Facebook’s new problems, who works in the ‘gig economy’?, airport Wi-Fi passwords, and more


Pollution from ships in some gases hugely outnumbers that from cars. Photo by MBarendse on Flickr.

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

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

Social media firms must face heavy fines over extremist content – MPs • The Guardian

Owen Bowcott:

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The largest and richest technology firms are “shamefully far” from taking action to tackle illegal and dangerous content, according to a report by the Commons home affairs committee.

The inquiry, launched last year following the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a far-right gunman, concludes that social media multinationals are more concerned with commercial risks than public protection. Swift action is taken to remove content found to infringe copyright rules, the MPs note, but a “laissez-faire” approach is adopted when it involves hateful or illegal content.

Referring to Google’s failure to prevent paid advertising from reputable companies appearing next to YouTube videos posted by extremists, the committee’s report said: “One of the world’s largest companies has profited from hatred and has allowed itself to be a platform from which extremists have generated revenue.”

In Germany, the report points out, the justice ministry has proposed imposing financial penalties of up to €50m on social media companies that are slow to remove illegal content.

“Social media companies currently face almost no penalties for failing to remove illegal content,” the MPs conclude. “We recommend that the government consult on a system of escalating sanctions, to include meaningful fines for social media companies which fail to remove illegal content within a strict timeframe.”

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It’s quite possible that a British government of either colour will have the will to go after Google and Facebook over this after the election.
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Report: Facebook helped advertisers target teens who feel “worthless” [Updated] • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:

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Facebook’s ability to predict and possibly exploit users’ personal data probably isn’t news to anybody who has followed the company over the past decade, but this leak may be the first tacit admission by any Facebook organization that younger users’ data is sorted and exploited in a unique way. This news follows stories about Facebook analyzing and even outright manipulating users’ emotional states, along with reports and complaints about the platform guessing users’ “ethnic affinity,” disclosing too much personal data, and possibly permitting illegal discrimination in housing and financial ads.

Update, 5/1 12:12 p.m.: Facebook has issued a statement disputing The Australian’s report. “The premise of the article is misleading,” the company wrote in its authorless statement. “Facebook does not offer tools to target people based on their emotional state. The analysis done by an Australian researcher was intended to help marketers understand how people express themselves on Facebook. It was never used to target ads and was based on data that was anonymous and aggregated.”

Just like the company said in its original apology, it repeated this vague explanation: “Facebook has an established process to review the research we perform. This research did not follow that process, and we are reviewing the details to correct the oversight.” However, the statement didn’t acknowledge why Facebook did not make any distinction clear to The Australian. As of press time, The Australian has not updated its report, nor has it printed or disclosed full pages of the quoted to either confirm or dispute Facebook’s response.

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Clearly need to hear a bit more for this to be clear.
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Technology-enabled gig workers and labor • Pew Research Center

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Participation in technology-enabled gig work varies by a number of factors, with age being among the most prominent. Some 16% of 18- to 29-year-olds have earned money from online gig work platforms in the last year – roughly five times the share among those ages 50 and older (3%). The median age of U.S. adults who are gig platform earners is just 32 years old. When it comes to the specific types of work that they do, young adults are especially likely to gravitate towards online task work. Fully 12% of 18- to 29-year-olds have earned money doing online tasks, but that share falls to 4% for Americans ages 30 to 49 and just 1% among those 50 and older.

Along with these differences by age, platform work is also more prevalent among blacks and Latinos than among whites. Some 14% of blacks and 11% of Latinos have earned money in the last year from online gig work platforms, but just 5% of whites have done so.

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Around 8% of American adults have done some sort of gig work. You can interpret the above paragraphs two ways: gig work is producing new opportunities for work; or it’s simply providing a new method to exploit people who didn’t have rights before and don’t get them now.
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Light at the end of the funnel: green finance for dirty ships • The Economist

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Shipping may seem like a clean form of transport. Carrying more than 90% of the world’s trade, ocean-going vessels produce just 3% of its greenhouse-gas emissions. But the industry is dirtier than that makes it sound. By burning heavy fuel oil, just 15 of the biggest ships emit more of the noxious oxides of nitrogen and sulphur than all the world’s cars put together. So it is no surprise that shipowners are being forced to clean up their act. But in an industry awash in overcapacity and debt, few have access to the finance they need to improve their vessels…

…A new report from the Carbon War Room (CWR), an international NGO, and UMAS, a consultancy, highlights the threat that new environmental regulations pose to the industry. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN’s regulatory agency for shipping, has agreed to cap emissions of sulphur from 2020. Last month the European Parliament voted to include shipping in the EU’s emissions-trading scheme from 2021. Without any retrofitting of ships to meet the new rules, many firms may be forced out of business. That also imperils banks across the world, which have lent $400bn secured on smoke-spewing ships.

Tens of billions of dollars are needed to pay for upgrades to meet the new rules, according to James Mitchell at CWR. But the industry can hardly pay even its existing debts.

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That statistic about the 15 dirtiest ships is stunning. But shouldn’t the argument about debt be answered with a simple “raise the price you charge customers”?
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A map of wireless passwords from airports and lounges around the world • foXnoMad

Anil Polat:

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Finding an open wireless connection in many airports isn’t always easy, or possible, without a password (or local phone number which is stupid). The difficulty of getting online is why I asked you for and created an always-up-to-date list of airport wireless passwords around the world. You’ve been sending me your tips regularly and I post on the foXnoMad Facebook page when there’s a new password or airport added.

Recently, reader Zach made a great suggestion that will make it easier for you to search, add, and keep up with this airport wireless password list.

Below is a regularly updated map of all the airport wireless and lounge passwords you send and I come across on my travels. I’ll still be updating the original how to get wireless passwords from airports page with this information as well but now you can search around on the map directly.

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Now also available as an app for iOS or Android.
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The death of the smartphone is further away than you think. And there is no ‘Next Big Thing’ • ZDNet

Jack Schofield:

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Earlier this month, Ben Wilson, an analyst who covers emerging technologies for Pacific Crest, wrote a private research note called “There Is No ‘Next Smartphone'”. He described the smartphone revolution as “a singular event in compute platform history that is unlikely to repeat.” The huge shift that we have seen over the past decade simply isn’t going to happen again.

I asked Wilson about a potential shift to smartwatches or some other wearable. He replied: “It would certainly be folly to propose that compute interfaces won’t evolve, and wearables of various flavors seem almost certain to increase their share of future usage patterns. But I do think we’re unlikely to see another wholesale platform shift like that of PC-to-smartphone in any reasonable timeframe. What’s more likely is a move to several fragmented platforms that lever artificial intelligence to demand user attention only when necessary, letting us interact with compute in a more passive fashion.”

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I agree: the smartphone is, as Schofield says, the endpoint of the computer revolution that began with personal logins to mainframes, then went through personal computers, and now reached our pockets.
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How Trump could get fired • The New Yorker

Evan Osnos:

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Only one Administration is known to have considered using the Twenty-fifth Amendment to remove a President. In 1987, at the age of seventy-six, Ronald Reagan was showing the strain of the Iran-Contra scandal. Aides observed that he was increasingly inattentive and inept. Howard H. Baker, Jr., a former senator who became Reagan’s chief of staff in February, 1987, found the White House in disarray. “He seemed to be despondent but not depressed,” Baker said later, of the President.

Baker assigned an aide named Jim Cannon to interview White House officials about the Administration’s dysfunction, and Cannon learned that Reagan was not reading even short documents. “They said he wouldn’t come over to work—all he wanted to do was watch movies and television at the residence,” Cannon recalled, in “Landslide,” a 1988 account of Reagan’s second term, by Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus. One night, Baker summoned a small group of aides to his home. One of them, Thomas Griscom, told me recently that Cannon, who died in 2011, “floats this idea that maybe we’d invoke the Constitution.” Baker was skeptical, but, the next day, he proposed a diagnostic process of sorts: they would observe the President’s behavior at lunch.

In the event, Reagan was funny and alert, and Baker considered the debate closed. “We finish the lunch and Senator Baker says, ‘You know, boys, I think we’ve all seen this President is fully capable of doing the job,’ ” Griscom said. They never raised the issue again. In 1993, four years after leaving office, Reagan received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s…

…As an example of “pathological inattention,” [Harvard law professor Laurence] Tribe noted that, on April 11th, days after North Korea launched a missile, Trump described an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, as part of an “armada” advancing on North Korea, even though the ship was sailing away from North Korea at the time. Moreover, Tribe said, Trump’s language borders on incapacity. Asked recently why he reversed a pledge to brand China a currency manipulator, Trump said, of President Xi Jinping, “No. 1, he’s not, since my time. You know, very specific formula. You would think it’s like generalities, it’s not. They have—they’ve actually—their currency’s gone up. So it’s a very, very specific formula.”

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One gets the impression – in the other elements Osnos brings to bear – that there is an undercurrent of concern among politicians and Trump staff about quite what they’re dealing with.
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Facebook and Google were victims of $100m payment scam • Fortune.com

Jeff John Roberts:

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In 2013, a 40-something Lithuanian named Evaldas Rimasauskas allegedly hatched an elaborate scheme to defraud U.S. tech companies. According to the Justice Department, he forged email addresses, invoices, and corporate stamps in order to impersonate a large Asian-based manufacturer with whom the tech firms regularly did business. The point was to trick companies into paying for computer supplies.

The scheme worked. Over a two-year span, the corporate imposter convinced accounting departments at the two tech companies to make transfers worth tens of millions of dollars. By the time the firms figured out what was going on, Rimasauskas had coaxed out over $100 million in payments, which he promptly stashed in bank accounts across Eastern Europe.

These allegations first appeared in a sealed indictment filed by federal prosecutors in New York last December. In a press release announcing the arrest of Rimasauskas three months letter, the feds hailed cooperation among international law enforcement, and said they had recovered much of the money.

Rimasauskas, however, denies the allegations. Currently facing extradition proceedings in Lithuania, he and his lawyer denounced the charges and the U.S.-led investigation.

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Apple halts license payments to Qualcomm in ‘all-out war’ • Bloomberg

Ian King:

»

Apple Inc. cut off billions of dollars in payments to Qualcomm Inc., turning a contract dispute into what one analyst called an “all-out war” that forced the chip supplier to slash forecasts given only days ago.

The world’s largest publicly-traded technology company and one of the main suppliers of components to the iPhone, its most important product, have traded accusations of lying, making threats and trying to create an illegal monopoly. The fight involves billions of dollars of technology licensing revenue that, if permanently cut off or reduced, would damage Qualcomm’s main source of profit and help bolster Apple’s margins.

Apple told Qualcomm it will stop paying licensing revenue to contract manufacturers of the iPhone, the mechanism by which it’s paid the chipmaker since the best-selling smartphone debuted in 2007, the San Diego, California-based company said in a statement. Qualcomm removed any assumption it will get those fees from its forecast for the current period. Apple doesn’t have a direct license with Qualcomm, unlike other phone makers…

…Patents controlled by Qualcomm cover the basics of all high-speed data capable mobile phone systems. It charges a percentage of the total selling price of the phone regardless of whether the device uses a Qualcomm chip or not.

«

Qualcomm has cut its forecast for the next quarter by about $500m – just under 10% of the previous expected revenue.

The arrangement whereby the size of the patent payment depends on the end price of a device doesn’t make sense to me. Functionality is functionality. I can see that it’s an advantage to Qualcomm, but this also goes against the principle set out in the US Supreme Court verdict – where Apple lost against Samsung – that a patent’s value has to be determined separately of the price of the product.
link to this extract


Hacker leaks stolen ‘Orange Is the New Black’ season 5 episodes to piracy network • Variety

Todd Spangler:

»

According to “thedarkoverlord,” the hacker or hackers also have obtained unreleased shows from ABC, Fox, National Geographic and IFC. The content appears to have been stolen in an attack on post-production studio Larson Studios in late 2016, according to piracy-news site TorrentFreak. “Thedarkoverlord” explained in an online post that they obtained only the first 10 of the 13 episodes of “OITNB” season 5 because the cyberattack was carried out before the final three installments were available.

In a statement Friday, Netflix said: “We are aware of the situation. A production vendor used by several major TV studios had its security compromised and the appropriate law enforcement authorities are involved.”

It’s not clear what impact the theft and piracy of one of Netflix’s top shows will have. The hacker (or hacker collective) behind the heist has claimed to have made an extortion demand to the company, asking for an unspecified sum of money. However, the motive for purloining and leaking “OITNB” could be more about bragging rights in the cybercrime underworld.

In a message posted early Saturday, “thedarkoverlord” was arrogant and even scolding.

“It didn’t have to be this way, Netflix. You’re going to lose a lot more money in all of this than what our modest offer was,” the hacker wrote. “We’re quite ashamed to breathe the same air as you. We figured a pragmatic business such as yourselves would see and understand the benefits of cooperating with a reasonable and merciful entity like ourselves.”

«

Maths: Netflix has more than 100m subscribers. There’s plenty of content for them all to watch. How many of them are eager to watch nothing other than OITNB on a pirate network (which will involve all sorts of unknowns) rather than on Netflix? Very few, I’d guess.

How many non-Netflix users will watch this and think “maybe it’s worth subscribing to Netflix”? If that number is more than zero, then Netflix hasn’t lost out overall.

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Fyre Festival screwup foretold, Chromebook v iPad, how many Surfaces sold?, and more


Greenland’s ice cap is melting – and there could be a positive feedback loop driving it. Photo by Stig Nygaard on Flickr.

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

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

The man behind Fyre Festival comes with a list of expensive, unfulfilled promises • Buzzfeed

Salvador Hernandez:

»

Billy McFarland’s company promised two luxurious weekends of music in the Bahamas, lush accommodations, and delectable food. What they got was the fiasco people now know as the Fyre Festival, where they were instead given disaster relief tents and lunches served in styrofoam boxes.

“It’s a very, very tough day for all of us,” McFarland told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview Friday.

McFarland described what he said was an ambitious project that quickly grew to be bigger than what the 300-person staff could handle on the island of Exumas.

But the college dropout from New Jersey has a knack for promising lavish and luxurious services aimed at rich and elite clientele, often falling short on what was pledged.

Three years before the disastrous Fyre Festival, McFarland launched a credit card company and private club dubbed Magnises, taking cues from the exclusive American Express black card. But with wealthy young socialites years away from the spending power of the black AmEx, the Magnises card was aimed at a younger audience.

The card, launched in 2014, promised tickets for hard-to-get-in-to shows, clubs, and events with the social elite for a $250 annual fee, but members told Business Insider the company often delivered tickets late, for the wrong date, or not at all.

«

If you didn’t drink deep on Friday or over the weekend, this is all the schadenfreude you’ll need for the week ahead. More reading at Vulture and NYMag (“I worked at Fyre Festival. It was always going to be a disaster”).
link to this extract


Uh oh, Chromebook… meet the new iPad • Swift Teacher

Brian Foutty has a number of interesting takes on what iPads can do that Chromebooks can’t; this though is a new one on me:

»

Students who did want to be active in the class would use the iPad cover and stand up the iPad so as to create a wall between me and them. After repeatedly observing this behavior with one particular student I had, I implemented a “screen down” policy where the iPad had to be lying flat on the desk or at most could be at an incline using the iPad cover. This subtle change made a huge difference in my classes. I no longer felt as though my students could hide behind their iPads and mentally “check out” from the lesson. The feeling I had about the screens was confirmed for me when I attended the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in Boston in fall 2013. Dr. Ruben Puendetura was the Keynote speaker and part of his presentation that day covered this topic. What his research had found[^3], which can be found on Dr. Puendetura’s blog, with mobile devices (to include any laptops, iPad devices, and Chromebooks) was that when there is a screen that folds up to a 90-degree angle to a keyboard, it creates a barrier between the student and teacher that negatively impacts learning.

«

He also tackles the “Chromebooks are cheaper” differential.
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Greenland is melting • The New Yorker

Elizabeth Kolbert:

»

The ice sheet [that covers Greenland] is a holdover from the last ice age, when mile-high glaciers extended not just across Greenland but over vast stretches of the Northern Hemisphere. In most places—Canada, New England, the upper Midwest, Scandinavia—the ice melted away about ten thousand years ago. In Greenland it has—so far, at least—persisted. At the top of the sheet there’s airy snow, known as firn, that fell last year and the year before and the year before that. Buried beneath is snow that fell when Washington crossed the Delaware and, beneath that, snow from when Hannibal crossed the Alps. The deepest layers, which were laid down long before recorded history, are under enormous pressure, and the firn is compressed into ice. At the very bottom there’s snow that fell before the beginning of the last ice age, a hundred and fifteen thousand years ago.

The ice sheet is so big—at its center, it’s two miles high—that it creates its own weather. Its mass is so great that it deforms the earth, pushing the bedrock several thousand feet into the mantle. Its gravitational tug affects the distribution of the oceans.

In recent years, as global temperatures have risen, the ice sheet has awoken from its postglacial slumber. Melt streams like the Rio Behar have always formed on the ice; they now appear at higher and higher elevations, earlier and earlier in the spring. This year’s melt season began so freakishly early, in April, that when the data started to come in, many scientists couldn’t believe it…

…An ice cube left on a picnic table will melt in an orderly, predictable fashion. With a glacier the size of Greenland’s, the process is a good deal more complicated. There are all sorts of feedback loops, and these loops may, in turn, spin off loops and sub-loops. For instance, when water accumulates on the surface of an ice sheet, the reflectivity changes. More sunlight gets absorbed, which results in more melt, which leads to still more absorption, in a cycle that builds on itself. Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, calls this “melting cannibalism.” As moulins form at higher elevations, more water is carried from the surface of the ice to the bedrock beneath. This lubricates the base, which, in turn, speeds the movement of ice toward the ocean. At a certain point, these feedback loops become self-sustaining. It is possible that that point has already been reached.

«

link to this extract


EPA website removes climate science site from public view after two decades • The Washington Post

Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin:

»

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday evening that its website would be “undergoing changes” to better represent the new direction the agency is taking, triggering the removal of several agency websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information.

One of the websites that appeared to be gone had been cited to challenge statements made by the EPA’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt. Another provided detailed information on the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan, including fact sheets about greenhouse gas emissions on the state and local levels and how different demographic groups were affected by such emissions…

…“As EPA renews its commitment to human health and clean air, land, and water, our website needs to reflect the views of the leadership of the agency,” J.P. Freire, the agency’s associate administrator for public affairs, said in a statement. “We want to eliminate confusion by removing outdated language first and making room to discuss how we’re protecting the environment and human health by partnering with states and working within the law.”

«

I’m very hopeful that karma will be visited on those involved in a manner so befitting their actions that it sets a lesson to the world. This is censorship: action by a government to suppress information useful to its citizens.
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Russian-controlled telecom hijacks financial services’ Internet traffic • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

On Wednesday, large chunks of network traffic belonging to MasterCard, Visa, and more than two dozen other financial services companies were briefly routed through a Russian government-controlled telecom under unexplained circumstances that renew lingering questions about the trust and reliability of some of the most sensitive Internet communications.

Anomalies in the border gateway protocol—which routes large-scale amounts of traffic among Internet backbones, ISPs, and other large networks—are common and usually the result of human error. While it’s possible Wednesday’s five- to seven-minute hijack of 36 large network blocks may also have been inadvertent, the high concentration of technology and financial services companies affected made the incident “curious” to engineers at network monitoring service BGPmon. What’s more, the way some of the affected networks were redirected indicated their underlying prefixes had been manually inserted into BGP tables, most likely by someone at Rostelecom, the Russian government-controlled telecom that improperly announced ownership of the blocks.

“I would classify this as quite suspicious,” Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at network management firm Dyn, told Ars. “Typically accidental leaks appear more voluminous and indiscriminate. This would appear to be targeted to financial institutions. A typical cause of these errors [is] in some sort of internal traffic engineering, but it would seem strange that someone would limit their traffic engineering to mostly financial networks.”

«

Just making a note of that for future reference.
link to this extract


How technology created a global village — and put us at each other’s throats • The Boston Globe

Nick Carr:

»

If our assumption that communication brings people together were true, we should today be seeing a planetary outbreak of peace, love, and understanding. Thanks to the Internet and cellular networks, humanity is more connected than ever. Of the world’s 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to a mobile phone — a billion and a half more, the United Nations reports, than have access to a working toilet. Nearly 2 billion are on Facebook, more than a billion upload and download YouTube videos, and billions more converse through messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat. With smartphone in hand, everyone becomes a media hub, transmitting and receiving ceaselessly.

Yet we live in a fractious time, defined not by concord but by conflict. Xenophobia is on the rise. Political and social fissures are widening. From the White House down, public discourse is characterized by vitriol and insult. We probably shouldn’t be surprised.

For years now, psychological and sociological studies have been casting doubt on the idea that communication dissolves differences. The research suggests that the opposite is true: free-flowing information makes personal and cultural differences more salient, turning people against one another instead of bringing them together. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is one of the gloomiest of proverbs. It is also, the evidence indicates, one of the truest.

In a series of experiments reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2007, Harvard psychologist Michael Norton and two colleagues found that, contrary to our instincts, the more we learn about someone else, the more we tend to dislike that person. “Although people believe that knowing leads to liking,” the researchers wrote, “knowing more means liking less.”

«

link to this extract


The myth of a superhuman AI • Backchannel

Kevin Kelly:

»

buried in this scenario of a takeover of superhuman artificial intelligence are five assumptions which, when examined closely, are not based on any evidence. These claims might be true in the future, but there is no evidence to date to support them. The assumptions behind a superhuman intelligence arising soon are:

• Artificial intelligence is already getting smarter than us, at an exponential rate.
• We’ll make AIs into a general purpose intelligence, like our own.
• We can make human intelligence in silicon.
• Intelligence can be expanded without limit.
• Once we have exploding superintelligence it can solve most of our problems.

In contradistinction to this orthodoxy, I find the following five heresies to have more evidence to support them.

• Intelligence is not a single dimension, so “smarter than humans” is a meaningless concept.
• Humans do not have general purpose minds, and neither will AIs.
• Emulation of human thinking in other media will be constrained by cost.
• Dimensions of intelligence are not infinite.
• Intelligences are only one factor in progress.

If the expectation of a superhuman AI takeover is built on five key assumptions that have no basis in evidence, then this idea is more akin to a religious belief — a myth.

«

link to this extract


How Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency changed games • Venturebeat

Dean Takahashi on Anita Sarkeesian’s decision to stop making her Feminist Frequency videos critiquing video games:

»

Sarkeesian was important because she forced us to take a look at battles that we thought had already been won. And she did it during Gamergate, one of the most vitriolic periods in game industry history as the power the Internet and hatred came together to silence critics.

One of the more interesting Feminist Frequency videos for me was about how men can end sexism. It listed five things men can do to help. First, it says listen to women. Educate yourself. Challenge other men. Don’t get defensive. And learn from mistakes. Those are simple suggestions for changing any behavior, but it took Sarkeesian to make us look harder at sexist behavior and think about it more.

I’m the father of three daughters. I’m not sure where they will wind up working. I hope they will choose whatever makes them happy, but I hope nobody else — or the greater forces of society — nudges them into traditional choices or actively pushes them away from roles in technology or games.

To do my part, I draw attention to the issue of sexism within games. I actively seek out women to write about, and I also seek out women to speak at our conferences. Some criticize me because we don’t have enough, and I agree with them. But awareness of the importance of finding more diverse people to speak is always on my mind.

«

link to this extract


Microsoft: Surface revenues lower than expected in its latest quarter • ZDNet

Mary Jo Foley:

»

Microsoft’s third quarter fiscal 2017 Surface performance came in lower than company officials had been expecting.

Surface revenue decreased $285m or 26%, compared to the year-ago quarter, primarily due to a reduction in volumes sold, according to Microsoft’s 10-Q for the quarter. Surface revenues this quarter were $831m, down from $1.1bn in the same quarter a year ago.

That decline is not simply because Microsoft didn’t launch any new Surface tablets or laptops in that quarter (which ran from January 2017 to March 2017). Officials already were well aware that the successor to Surface Pro 4 wasn’t coming then, nor was the Surface Book 2.

Microsoft may launch an Intel Kaby Lake-based Surface Pro 5, a successor to its Surface Pro 4 tablet, some time relatively soon (though not on May 2), according to sources. There’s also been some speculation that Microsoft may introduce soon another new Surface device running its Windows 10 Cloud release – a possible successor to its now-discontinued Surface 3 tablet – aimed at the education market on May 2.

Microsoft did begin selling in earnest the Surface Studio, Microsoft’s first all-in-one PC launched in the Fall of 2016, and the updated Surface Book with Performance Base. But neither of those niche products was expected to be a huge seller.

«

If Surface revenues were $831m, you can estimate the number of sales by attaching an average selling price. If the ASP is $831, it sold a million.

Prices: on Microsoft’s site the gigantic Surface Studio is $3,000 (base config) to $4,100 (top-end), which compared to $831 is 3.6x-4.9x.
The Surface Book is $1,499-$3,199 (1.8x-3.8x).
The Surface Book with Performance Base is $2,399-$3,299 (2.9x-4x).
The Surface Pro 4 is $799 – $1,549 (1x-1.9x).

Given that data, it’s very hard to see Microsoft having sold more than 1m Surface devices in the quarter. (My best guess, with a spreadsheet, suggested about 0.6m.)

IIt depends too on what price you think it sold them at, rather than the “advertised” price: if you assume the “wholesale” price is 50% of the advertised price, you double the number sold. So let’s be generous: total Surface device sales could have hit a million in the quarter.
link to this extract


A very false narrative: Microsoft Surface vs Apple iPad, Mac • Apple Insider

Daniel Eran Dilger:

»

We definitely do know that those “missing” iPad buyers didn’t run out and get Surface Pro machines to run the Full Windows. Microsoft simply hasn’t sold enough of them. Across nearly five years, Microsoft has only sold about 14-17 million in total. Across 16 quarters, that’s only about a million per quarter.

At its peak, Apple was selling more than 14 million iPads every quarter, consistently for two years. Apple’s rapid sales of iPads created an installed base of about 300 million users. So while iPad is “down dramatically” and Surface is in certain quarters “up” compared to its previous performance, iPad is still leading global sales of tablets and servicing a large installed base, while Surface is barely moving units.

Microsoft’s Surface business isn’t really growing. Like Apple’s Mac and iPad sales, Microsoft’s Surface sales are more cyclical than typical commodity PC or phone sales, peaking in the holiday quarter. Unlike Apple’s sales, Microsoft Surface hardware revenues (blue) have only hovered around $1 billion quarterly since it launched, with its two best quarters hitting $1.3 billion.

Compared to Apple’s $5 to $7bn quarterly Mac revenues (gold), that’s not much. Alternatively, it’s not much compared to iPad sales, which have ranged between $4 and $9bn per quarter (green). However, Surface straddles the business of both, making the really fair comparison Apple’s total Mac and iPad businesses together.

Surface revenue not only pales in comparison to Apple’s hardware, but its best quarterly performance has still remained $1bn shy of the $2.3bn in quarterly revenues that Windows Phone hit back in 2015. Remember what a great business Windows Lumia phones were?

«

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: a number of peoeople have asked which UK carrier I’m with which offers unlimited data and free roaming in a number of countries (including the US). I’m with Three UK, which used to offer a £15 per month SIM-only unlimited data/texts contract. That is now £24 per month, but the plans are generous by UK terms – especially with the roaming.

Start Up: smartphone market solidifies, Uber iPhone protest, a new Apple screen?, educating Donald, and more


Toshiba’s PCs used to be iconic; now they’re almost invisible. Photo by Jon Callow Images on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Worldwide smartphone market gains steam in the first quarter of 2017 with shipments up 4.3% • IDC

»

When breaking down precisely where the first quarter growth came from, IDC continues to see the largest catalysts being a handful of Chinese OEMs. The clear leaders are Huawei, OPPO, and vivo, which have all well outpaced market growth for over a year now. And as these companies gain share in new territories the potential to continue this trend is high.

“Although we have seen an abundance of premium redesigned flagships that just entered the market, moving forward, we still expect most of the growth to come from more affordable models in a variety of markets” said Anthony Scarsella, research manager with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. “Despite all the popularity and media hype around premium devices, we continue to witness a shift in many companies’ portfolios geared towards affordable devices with premium-type styling compared to flagship models. Companies have started to implement a single premium design language that ultimately blurs the lines between the high-end and the low-end, allowing the average consumer to jump on the brand without a hefty upfront investment.”

«

Preliminary (ahead of Apple’s numbers) suggesting that Samsung and Apple are static, while Huawei, OPPO and vivo are all up by 20% or more. Others are getting squeezed. (LG is now an also-ran, though it managed to slightly increase shipments, while ekeing out a tiny loss.)

Outside this, though, and China’s eagerness to buy phones, it looks like thin pickings for everyone who isn’t one of those five.
link to this extract


Uber’s ‘fingerprinting’ of iPhones after users delete app has sparked an FTC complaint • The Washington Post

Steven Overly:

»

An advocacy group known for challenging the tech industry on privacy called on the Federal Trade Commission Thursday to investigate media reports that Uber could identify specific iPhone devices even after users deleted the ride-hailing app.

In a letter submitted Thursday, California-based Consumer Watchdog alleged that Uber’s practice would be considered “unfair or deceptive” to its users and therefore violates a statute in the Federal Trade Commission Act designed to protect consumers from substantial and avoidable harm.

«

link to this extract


Apple is already using a screen technology that’s better than OLED, report says • BGR

Chris Smith:

»

According to Business Korea, the Apple Watch Series 3 will have a micro-LED display rather than an OLED screen as its predecessors. If micro-LED sounds familiar that’s because a flurry of reports in late 2015 and early 2016 claimed that an Apple team is working on this particular technology in a secret lab in Taiwan.

Micro-LED screens should be smaller than alternatives, and more energy-efficient. Business Korea notes that micro-LED displays would also be thinner and lighter than OLED or LCD screens. LG, the exclusive provider of OLED screens for the Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2 is expected to take a financial hit to the tune of over $200 million when Apple makes the switch from OLED to micro-LED. The report says that Apple will actually begin mass production of micro-LED for the next Apple Watch in Taiwan at the end of the year.

The worry here is that once the technology is further perfected, Apple might fully make the jump from OLED to micro-LED. The report says that Samsung and LG would lose around $1 billion a year should they lose Apple’s business. It’s not clear when Apple would be ready to use micro-LED display tech in bigger devices like the iPhone. The report says that Apple is likely to use OLED displays for the iPhone 9 that will be launched next year, but these panels would be manufactured by Chinese company BOE. Even in such a case, South Korean suppliers would lose some of Apple’s business.

«

Interesting idea that the Watch could be the testing ground for technologies that would eventually get scaled up to the phone. Faintly related question: if Apple does an OLED phone, will it do OLED iPads?
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You probably shouldn’t forge a judge’s signature to solve your SEO problems • Motherboard

Sarah Jeong:

»

In 2011, sapphire jewelry company CEO Michael Arnstein was desperate to salvage the Google results for his company. According to a lawsuit for defamation he filed in 2011, a former contractor for the Natural Sapphire Company who was fired for selling them buggy software launched a personal crusade to destroy the Natural Sapphire Company’s Google search results. The defendant never showed up in court, so in 2012, a federal judge in New York granted Arnstein a default judgment along with an injunction to de-index 54 Google results.

But more fake reviews kept popping up. So Arnstein did something extremely ill-advised. According to the feds, Arnstein rounded up the bad Google results and forged new court orders to send to Google.

«

See if you can guess what happened next. He’s facing five or 15 years max, depending on whether he gets the maximum concurrently or consecutively.
link to this extract


Facebook says it will act against ‘information operations’ using false accounts • Reuters

Joseph Menn:

»

Facebook acknowledged on Thursday that it has become a battleground for governments seeking to manipulate public opinion in other countries and outlined new measures it is taking to combat what it calls “information operations” that go well beyond the phenomenon known as fake news.

In a report and summary of response plans on its website on Thursday, Facebook describes well-funded and subtle efforts by nations and other organizations to spread misleading information and falsehoods for geopolitical goals.

These initiatives go much further than posting fake news stories to include amplification – essentially widening the circulation of posts through a variety of means – carried out by government employees or paid professionals, often using fake accounts.

Reuters reviewed an advance copy of the 13-page report, which was written by two veteran security analysts who joined Facebook from cyber security firms FireEye Inc and Dell SecureWorks, along with Facebook’s chief security officer.

Facebook said its security team would now fight information operations, which it regards as a more complex problem than traditional hackers and scammers, by suspending or deleting false accounts after identifying them with a combination of machine learning and intelligence agency-level analysis.

«

link to this extract


I’m returning the Samsung Galaxy S8+ • Thurrott.com

Paul Thurrott:

»

It’s not you, Samsung. It’s me.

And I want to be very clear about this. Yes, there are some weird and obvious issues with the Galaxy S8+, like the inexcusably-positioned fingerprint reader. But this handset is a milestone, and it will change smartphone design permanently going forward. This device is arguably as a big a deal as the original iPhone, and I write that knowing that it sounds like hyperbole. It’s not.

For me, however, the future is still, well, in the future. I’m drowning in electronics as it is, and with smartphones in particular, my situation is such that the Galaxy S8+ just doesn’t make sense. Especially when you factor in the nearly $1000 it costs to buy one outright with a protective case.

In fact, that’s what this is really about. The money.

«

The money, because he’s already got two insanely expensive carrier contracts (for a Pixel and an iPhone) and only the Pixel gets international free roaming (via Google Fi, which the Galaxy doesn’t get). The US doesn’t know how badly off it is for carrier contracts (I get unlimited data, texts and minutes and ditto for roaming in multiple countries for £15 per month, or about $20.)

Thurrott really also doesn’t like the position of the fingerprint reader, which seems to be the opinion of almost everyone who has reviewed the phone.
link to this extract


India market: Xiaomi facing increasing competition from Oppo, Vivo, says report • Digitimes

Wang Chuan-chiang and Steve Shen:

»

Xiaomi Technology is facing increasing competition from rival vendors Oppo and Vivo in India’s smartphone market, according to a China-based tech.qq.com report.

Xiaomi shipped over 10 million smartphones in India in 2016 and ranked as the second largest vendor in the market, trailing after Samsung. However, Xiaomi took the top spot for selling smartphones through online channels.

In order to maintain its leading market position in India, Xiaomi is building a second handset plant in India in cooperation with Foxconn Electronics, the report noted.

However, rivals Oppo and Vivo have also been expanding their share in India at a rapid pace by duplicating Xiaomi’s business model, leveraging local factories, expanding online and offline retail channels, and building up brand image through advertisements, indicated the report.

«

I can’t find numbers that suggest that Xiaomi’s shipments grew in 2016 from 2015, and its first quarter in 2017 seems to have been smaller than the same time in 2016. Xiaomi needs something special, soon.
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It took Toshiba 70 years to reach its peak—and just a decade to fall into an abyss • Quartz

Josh Horwitz:

»

Starting in the early 2000s, thanks to the internet’s growing popularity, more ordinary consumers wanted a computer than ever before. This created an opportunity for lower-end contract manufacturers from Taiwan, like Acer and Asus, to begin selling house-branded laptops and other electric components. Later, Lenovo and a bevvy of no-name brands from China offered rival products at even lower prices.

Toshiba, Sony, and other Japanese companies were once synonymous with sought-after consumer electronics. But nowadays, consumer electronics—even laptops—aren’t any more exciting than a microwave or washing machine. That means consumers usually want the cheapest brand, not the most prestigious one.

The competitive squeeze, coupled with the 2008 recession, caused the company to take a hit on its bottom line. According to its revised financials, revenues from its PC division shrank over 80% between its 2007 and 2015 fiscal years, while losses for the division deepened.

In 2010 Toshiba began outsourcing manufacturing of its TVs, and by 2015 it had withdrawn from the non-Japanese market. Last year the company announced it would exit the consumer PC market outside of Japan altogether, instead selling only to businesses. Toshiba’s share of the global PC market dropped from nearly 20% in 1996 to about 5% in 2016, according to research firm IDC.

«

It’s not just Toshiba, but all the Japanese PC manufacturers which fell. I’ve been digging in to the numbers: I’ll post something about them on The Overspill presently. Toshiba is the poster child for the failure.
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The education of Donald Trump • Politico

Josh Dawsey:

»

White House aides have figured out that it’s best not to present Trump with too many competing options when it comes to matters of policy or strategy. Instead, the way to win Trump over, they say, is to present him a single preferred course of action and then walk him through what the outcome could be – and especially how it will play in the press.

“You don’t walk in with a traditional presentation, like a binder or a PowerPoint. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t consume information that way,” said one senior administration official. “You go in and tell him the pros and cons, and what the media coverage is going to be like.”

Downplaying the downside risk of a decision can win out in the short term. But the risk is a presidential dressing-down—delivered in a yell. “You don’t want to be the person who sold him on something that turned out to be a bad idea,” the person said.

Advisers have tried to curtail Trump’s idle hours, hoping to prevent him from watching cable news or calling old friends and then tweeting about it. That only works during the workday, though—Trump’s evenings and weekends have remained largely his own.

«

Fascinating. And worrying, of course. As a record of how someone struggled with the job, it’s amazing.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: US phone sales slow, Unrolling.me, Facebook Live and the dead, and more


“Your honour, I’d like to present the next witness for the prosecution.” Photo by Ian D on Flickr.

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

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

The rhythm is broken • CCS Insight

Raghu Gopal:

»

Yesterday, in its results for the first quarter of 2017, AT&T stated: “The company is no longer providing consolidated revenue guidance primarily due to the unpredictability of wireless handset sales.”

Not long ago, some things in the US handset market were certain: Apple released a flagship smartphone in September and the average US mobile subscriber updated their phone every two years. The support mechanism was in place to move devices along in 24-month waves and it worked smoothly.

In contrast to AT&T’s statement, we believe the US market is changing exactly as we expected, with people holding on to their phones for longer than in the past. Our latest forecast projects sales of mobile phones in the US to drop by more than 2% in 2017.

As the subsidized-handset model that once created a reliable bond between carriers and subscribers fades into memory, much of the comfort of the relationship is gone. The device financing model that T-Mobile normalised a few years ago has thoroughly spread across the US market. Consumers in the US now pay for the device separately from the service plan, changing the nature of the financial arrangement. T-Mobile’s Un-carrier strategy offered a way for a second-tier player to leave a mark on the market. It has.

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Saturation brings subtle changes. Apple is aiming to pull people into upgrading and tempt the last of the featurephone holdouts. And so is Samsung.
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My comments on the Unroll.Me // Uber situation • Medium

Perri Chase, who co-founded Unroll.me:

»

Believe me we came up with this product to rid your inbox of unwanted emails, AND the reason it is used by millions of people for FREE is because we figured out how to monetize it.

Data is pretty much the only business model for email and Unroll.me is not the only company that looks at, collects and sells your data. What exactly do you think is going on in your FREE gmail inbox? And honestly, anonymized and at scale why do people care? Do you really care? Are you really surprised? How exactly is this shocking?

Or maybe you just hate yourselves because you think Uber is gross but you use them anyway and “why are these tech founders such assholes” that they have to ruin your experience where you need to delete your apps? And you love Unroll.me and you feel righteous and you have to delete that now too because you need to take a stand against these plain-as-day-in-the-terms-of-service practices.

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Just to reiterate, I can’t find anywhere on its FAQ that Unroll.me explains that its monetisation model is to sell your data. The terms of service don’t either. Or the features.

Nobody objects if they can understand what’s going on. But discovering that your data is being sold without your clear consent? That’s something people get upset about.
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Live and death: Facebook sorely needs a reality check about video • The Guardian

Olivia Solon:

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Despite a wide-reaching advertising campaign urging people to use the feature to share heartwarming life moments, [Facebook Live has] gained a reputation for much grittier subject matter: the torture of a young man with disabilities in Chicago, the musings of a spree killer being chased by police, child abuse, rape, and now murder [in two separate occasions in the past week].

When these atrocities happen, Facebook’s response is woefully inadequate, typically stating that such “content” is not allowed by Facebook’s terms of service (as if that should give pause to a suicidal murderer) or pointing out that nobody reported the video to its moderation teams.

Jacqueline Helfgott, professor and chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, thinks it is only going to get worse. Criminals have always sought to amplify their actions through the media, but social media makes it easier than ever before to attract an audience.

“A medium like Facebook where a person can instantly achieve celebrity or notoriety can be a risk factor for certain types of criminal behavior,” she said, explaining how violent images travel rapidly across the network without any need for translation, encouraging copycat behavior among people with the proclivity to commit crime.

Facebook has pledged to review its moderation practices and use artificial intelligence to speed up its response to such videos, but there was no formal acknowledgement at F8.

“It was a moment when many social critics, academics, journalists and policymakers were keen for Mark Zuckerberg to address the murder and the social implications of the platform in a substantive, meaningful non-glib way,” said Roberts. “But that did not happen.”

That didn’t stop the company from moving into new social and political minefields, including augmented and virtual reality.

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Never quite stopping long enough to focus on one thing or another.
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Google’s ‘Project Owl’ — a three-pronged attack on fake news & problematic content • Search Engine Land

Danny Sullivan on Google’s changes to search to try to combat “fake news”:

»

A search for “did the Holocaust happen” today sees no denial sites at all in the first page of Google’s results. The results had been dominated by them last December, when the issue was first raised. In contrast, at the time of this writing, half of Google rival Bing’s top 10 results are denial listings.

Success for Google’s changes! Well, we don’t really know conclusively. Part of the reason that particular search improved on Google is that there was so much written about the issue in news articles and anti-denial sites that sprang up. Even if Google had done nothing, some of that new content would have improved the results. However, given that Bing’s results are still so bad, some of Google’s algorithm changes do appear to have helped it.

For a similar search of “was the holocaust fake,” Google’s results still have issues, with three of the top 10 listings being denial content. That is better than Bing, where six of the top 10 listings contain denial content, or eight if you count the videos listed individually. At least with both, no denial listing has the top spot.

The takeaway from this? As I said, it’s going to be very much wait and see. One reason things might improve over time is that new data from those search quality raters is still coming in. When that gets processed, Google’s algorithms might get better.

Those human raters don’t directly impact Google’s search results, a common misconception that came up recently when Google was accused of using them to censor the Infowars site (it didn’t; they couldn’t). One metaphor I’m using to help explain their role — and limitations — is as if they are diners at a restaurant, asked to fill out review cards.

Those diners can say if they liked a particular dish or not. With enough feedback, the restaurant might decide to change its recipes to make food less salty or to serve some items at different temperatures. The diners themselves can’t go back into the kitchen and make changes.

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The problem with WikiTribune • The Atlantic

Adrienne Lafrance:

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The larger problem with WikiTribune is this: Someone who is paid for doing journalistic work cannot be considered “equals” with someone who is unpaid. And promoting the idea that core journalistic work should be done for free, by volunteers, is harmful to professional journalism. The difference between a professional and a hobbyist isn’t always measurable in skill level, but it is quantifiable in time and other resources necessary to complete a job. This is especially true in journalism, where figuring out the answer to a question often requires stitching together several pieces of information from different sources—not just information sources but people who are willing to be questioned to clarify complicated ideas.

The project raises many other questions. For starters, what are WikiTribune subscribers actually paying for? It’s not yet clear what kinds of stories Wales’s 10-person team will cover other than “global news stories,” he told Nieman Lab. That’s an awfully broad focus for such a small team. (For comparison: The New York Times has about 1,300 newsroom staffers—reporters, editors, fact-checkers, copy editors, photographers, and so on.)

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Fact-checkers and copy editors are available at zero cost (that’s basically what Wikipedia does) but the reporting, especially on tricky subjects needing good contacts, are very different.
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Ten-year futures • Benedict Evans

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It’s useful to compare physical retail with newspapers, which face many of the same problems: a fixed cost base with falling revenues, the near-disappearance of a physical distribution advantage, and above all, unbundling and disaggregation. Everything bad that the internet did to media is probably going to happen to retailers. The tipping point might now be approaching, particularly in the US, where the situation is worsened by the fact that there is far more retail square footage per capita than in any other developed market. And when the store closes and you turn to shopping online (or are simply forced to, if enough physical retail goes away), you don’t buy all the same things, any more than you read all the same things when you took your media consumption online. When we went from a corner store to a department store, and then from a department store to big box retail, we didn’t all buy exactly the same things but in different places – we bought different things. If you go from buying soap powder in Wal-Mart based on brand and eye-level placement to telling Alexa ‘I need more soap’, some of your buying will look different. 

In parallel to this, TV, which so far has not really been touched by the internet, is also starting to look unstable. Again, this is especially important in the USA, which is very over-served by pay TV: almost everyone has it and the average spend is much more than people in other developed markets typically pay, so there’s a lot of pent-up desire for change. The US TV market reminds me of those diagrams of three gear wheels interlocked such that none of them can turn: Netflix and Amazon (and others) are trying to unlock them.

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There is a lot of noise around the collapse of physical retail in the US – and something similar is happening in the UK – but quite how it’s going to pan out is hard to see. As ever, simply: follow the money.
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Man suspected in wife’s murder after her Fitbit data doesn’t match his alibi • The Guardian

Jamiles Lartey:

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Officials say that the timeline given by Richard Dabate, accused of killing his wife in the couple’s Ellington, Connecticut, home in 2015, is at odds with data collected from her Fitbit, a wearable device that tracks physical activity.

“To say it is rare to use Fitbit records would be safe,” Lancaster, Pennsylvania, district attorney Craig Stedman told the Hartford Courant.

Dabate told police that a masked assailant came into the couple’s suburban home at around 9am on 23 December 2015 and subdued Dabate with “pressure points” before shooting his wife, Connie Dabate, with a gun that Richard Dabate owned. He said that the man killed his wife as she returned through their garage from a workout at the local YMCA. Dabate claimed that he eventually chased the assailant off with a blowtorch.

But the Fitbit tells a different story. According to data from the device, which uses a digital pedometer to track the wearer’s steps, Connie Dabate was moving around for more than an hour after her husband said the murder took place. Not just that – it also showed she had travelled more than 1,200ft after arriving home, contrary to Dabate’s story that she was killed as she arrived. The distance from her vehicle to the location she died is “no more than 125ft”, according to police documents…

…The arrest warrant shows a detailed breakdown of all her movements and locations from waking up through the time she was killed. From the sync locations and activity monitor, investigators were able to produce a timeline down to the minute of when she left for the gym, the duration of her trip home, when she walked into the garage, her intermittent moving around in the home, and when her body stopped moving.

The Fitbit is far from the only challenge Dabate faces in his legal fight. Computer records show that he lied about where he was when he sent an email to his employer that morning. He said he was on the road when he was really at home.

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Amazon wants to put a camera and microphone in your bedroom • Motherboard

Jason Koebler:

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Amazon is giving Alexa eyes. And it’s going to let her judge your outfits. 

The newly announced Echo Look is a virtual assistant with a microphone and a camera that’s designed to go somewhere in your bedroom, bathroom, or wherever the hell you get dressed.

 Amazon is pitching it as an easy way to snap pictures of your outfits to send to your friends when you’re not sure if your outfit is cute, but it’s also got a built-in app called StyleCheck that is worth some further dissection. 

• You cool with an algorithm, machine learning, and “fashion specialists” deciding whether you look attractive today? What sorts of built-in biases will an AI fashionista have? It’s worth remembering that a recent AI-judged beauty contest picked primarily white winners.
• You cool with Amazon having the capability to see and perhaps catalog every single article of clothing you own? Who needs a Calvin Klein dash button if your Echo can tell when you need new underwear? Will Alexa prevent you from buying a pair of JNCOs? 
• You cool with Amazon putting a camera in your bedroom?
• Amazon store images and videos taken by Echo Look indefinitely, the company told us. Audio recorded by the original Echo has already been sought out in a murder case; to its credit, Amazon fought a search warrant in that case. 

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Of course it will store the images indefinitely: it needs them to train its machine learning. They’re not your images any more. It’s not your data any more.
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Microsoft cuts off 40% of Windows phones with Creators Update shift • PCWorld

Mark Hachman:

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Our review of the Creators Update for Windows 10 Mobile may have shown it to be a half-hearted update at best, but a substantial portion of Microsoft’s base of installed phones won’t even have a chance to experience it.

A report by AdDuplex, an ad network running on top of Windows devices, found that four of the top ten Windows phones won’t be allowed to upgrade to Microsoft’s latest feature update. That works out to about 40% of all Windows phones already in the hands of users.

Just 13 phones are eligible for the Windows 10 Mobile Creators Update: some recent Lumias (the 550, 640/640XL, 650, and 950/950XL), two Alcatel phones (the IDOL 4S and OneTouch Fierce XL), the HP Elite x3, and a few others.

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Translated: people aren’t buying new Windows Phones; the population is dwindling through attrition. Not surprising, but it’s always useful to have new data points.
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The Next to be Left Behind • commentary magazine

Noah Rothman:

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The decline of retail has coincided with the decline of America’s official unemployment rate, which is today lower than at any point since April of 2007 (at 4.5%). This industry isn’t disappearing entirely, and its employees are being absorbed by other sectors of the economy or by firms that fulfill the demand for online retail. But the visibility of a vibrant physical retail sector is as critical to America’s sense of place and purpose as are the steel mills of legend. Retail’s labor force may not be as displaced as were the manufacturers who worked in America’s blue-collar businesses, but the public spaces their industry created and the daily interactions they facilitated will not be so easily replaced. There will always be someone, somewhere willing to promise the restoration of that which was lost to progress.

Dreamy reminiscence is a useful political tool when wielded by a skilled polemicist, and the evolving American vending landscape will have repercussions that extend well beyond the local outlet mall. The impulse to freeze existing employment conditions in place is, however, unrealizable. Politicians may promise to reverse the tides of history, ease the pressures on employers to automate rote labor, and repeal the Internet. Even if retail venues are more limited, Americans should recognize when they’re being sold a bill of goods.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: the coming tech equity crash?, Trump’s wall collapse, ‘wireless iPhone charging’, and more


How do you decide a road’s ideal speed limit? The answer’s complicated. Photo by papanooms on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. That’s news. To someone. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Is every speed limit too low? • Priceonomics

Alex Mayyasi:

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Every year, traffic engineers review the speed limit on thousands of stretches of road and highway. Most are reviewed by a member of the state’s Department of Transportation, often along with a member of the state police, as is the case in Michigan. In each case, the “survey team” has a clear approach: they want to set the speed limit so that 15% of drivers exceed it and 85% of drivers drive at or below the speed limit. 

This “nationally recognized method” of setting the speed limit as the 85th percentile speed is essentially traffic engineering 101. It’s also a bit perplexing to those unfamiliar with the concept. Shouldn’t everyone drive at or below the speed limit? And if a driver’s speed is dictated by the speed limit, how can you decide whether or not to change that limit based on the speed of traffic?

The answer lies in realizing that the speed limit really is just a number on a sign, and it has very little influence on how fast people drive. “Over the years, I’ve done many follow up studies after we raise or lower a speed limit,” Megge tells us. “Almost every time, the 85th percentile speed doesn’t change, or if it does, it’s by about 2 or 3 mph.” 

As most honest drivers would probably concede, this means that if the speed limit on a highway decreases from 65 mph to 55 mph, most drivers will not drive 10 mph slower. But for the majority of drivers, the opposite is also true. If a survey team increases the speed limit by 10 mph, the speed of traffic will not shoot up 10 mph. It will stay around the same. Years of observing traffic has shown engineers that as long as a cop car is not in sight, most people simply drive at whatever speed they like. 

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There’s a lot more to it.
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Retailers foreshadow tech debt carnage • Bloomberg Gadfly

Shira Ovide and Lisa Abramowicz:

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US retailers are dropping like flies. And it’s worth wondering whether the retail implosion could be a preview of potential pain for the technology industry. 

This year has brought a surge of retailers that are closing stores, slashing jobs and filing for bankruptcy protection in record numbers. The boom of online shopping and a glut of stores are common factors for the retail carnage.

The tipping point, however, was the private equity buyouts in recent years that left many retailers with debt that they couldn’t repay. Of the 19 companies on a Moody’s list of distressed retailers in February, 15 are owned or part-owned by private equity firms. Private equity didn’t kill these retailers, but they helped make the hangman’s noose. 

Some of the same ingredients that created the retail carnage are now present in technology, which became a surprise darling of private equity buyouts. Dell, BMC Software, Rackspace, Informatica and Marketo were among the tech companies purchased in recent years with private equity money and debt.

In the first quarter, about one in five private equity buyouts in the U.S. involved tech companies, according to data from PitchBook. That is far above the industry’s typical 10% to 15% share of U.S. private equity deals.

Silver Lake and other private equity firms have raised billions of dollars for even more technology buyouts. And the tech industry’s share of loans related to acquisitions and leveraged buyouts has risen by a factor of six since 2007, according to Barclays research published last fall.That’s not to say some of the buyouts in technology will blow up as they have in retail, but the industries have echoes.

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Squeaky bum time for Dell, one might have thought.
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Real-time expression transfer for facial reenactment • YouTube

Sounds mundane: you get a consumer-grade PC, a consumer-grade camera, and you can get the expressions of an actor to be mapped on to the TV picture of your target “speaker”.

The video has all sorts of nice ideas about how this could be used, but anyone with any scepticism will be seeing this as a tool for all sorts of misinformation and “watch the video if you don’t believe what this evil politician said”. And mis-misinformation, of course.

(Via Giuseppe Sollazzo.)
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How Trump gave up on his border wall • The New Yorker

Ryan Lizza:

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Last night, Trump officially gave up. During a White House reception with representatives from conservative media outlets, the President said that he could wait for the next spending battle, in September, to try to win financing for a real wall, rather than risk shutting down the government the week of his hundredth day in office. Late on Tuesday, Republicans in Congress followed Trump’s cue: according to a congressional aide with knowledge of the negotiations, the latest offer from Republicans to Democrats does not include money for the wall.

From a policy perspective, Trump’s reversal is welcome. There is no credible evidence that a twenty-two-hundred-mile physical wall is the best use of federal funds to deter unauthorized border crossings—never mind the message that a giant wall would send to the rest of the world. The members of Congress who know the issue the best think it’s a bad idea. The Wall Street Journal recently reported, “Not a single member of Congress who represents the territory on the southwest border said they support President Donald Trump’s request for $1.4 billion to begin construction of his promised wall.” And if Trump’s retreat from insisting on wall money helps keep the government open, he should be applauded for being flexible.

But, from a political perspective, Trump has given members of Congress another reason not to trust his word.

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Sure, he can put it off to September. The question is, will anything have changed by then that will enable him to get anything through? Or will he be aiming much, much lower, and the talk of the wall will have subsided?
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‘Phony numbers and front groups’: Trump’s inaugural donor list contains massive evidence of fraud • Raw Story

Elizabeth Preza:

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In one case, Marion Forcht of Corbin, KY donated $50,000 to the president’s inaugural committee. His wife Terry also donated $50,000. Forcht owns Forcht Insurance Agency, with an estimated annual revenue of $134,500. In another, “GLM Development” donated $100,000 to the president—with an estimated revenue of $146,000. In yet another, Isabel T. John of Englewood, NJ donated $400,000. The problem? There’s no record she exists.

As the Intercept reports, Trump’s inaugural committee claimed it received $25,000 from NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson—a claim her power of attorney denies.

The Intercept also notes the filings reveal a $1m donation from American Action Network, which NBC describes as a “dark money power player”—an organization used to funnel money to campaigns while masking the identity of the donor. It also lists a $300,000 donation from Bennett LeBow, a businessman who partnered with Trump on a failed Moscow real estate venture.

Wilkie, with the help of a Twitter call to action, transferred the inaugural committee’s FEC filing to an open-source spreadsheet. Volunteers are working to verify the identities of Trump’s donors, and leaving comments on the document.

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This is very interesting – and looks like Christina Wilkie, who is leading the investigation through a giant open-sourced Google spreadsheet, is on to something.

Another example of crowdsourcing political action to shine light on what’s going on.
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Powermat CEO calls wireless charging a ‘standard feature in the next iPhone’ • 9to5Mac

Zac Hall:

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Wireless charging is widely expected to be on one if not all new iPhone models later this year, and the CEO of a prominent wireless charging technology company appears to consider it a done deal. Powermat CEO Elad Dubzinski called wireless charging ‘a standard feature in the next iPhone’ ahead of any official iPhone 7s or iPhone 8 announcement.

Powermat’s CEO made the comment in an unrelated news release about the company gaining a new board chairman:

“With the recent announcement by Apple that wireless charging will become a standard feature in the next iPhone, we are finally at the threshold of mainstream adoption,” said Mr. Dubzinski.

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If Steve Jobs were still alive, Dubzinski would now be in the foundations of the new Apple building.
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Building something no one else can measure • [sriramk.com]

Siram Krishnan:

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Any large system picks a metric to goal itself on. Entire books and way-too-long Medium posts have been written on the importance of said metric – it influences everything from people’s incentives to how quickly you can optimize your business. In an organizational equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat, picking the metric itself can cause weird cultural distortion (see Goodhart’s Law).

Since it is near impossible to perfectly measure human behavior, most large teams/products pick a proxy metric to measure underlying behavior. For example – ‘clicks’ are a proxy for “did I read this?” and “will I buy this product sometime in the future?”, ‘time spent’ is a proxy for “did I enjoy this content?” and NPS is often a substitute for “do I love this company?”. You convert a nebulous human emotion/behavior to a quantifiable metric you can align execution on and stick on a graph and measure teams on. Engineers and data scientists can’t do anything with “this makes people feel warm and fuzzy”. They can do a lot with “this feature improves metric X by 5% week-over-week”. Figuring out the connection between the two is often the art and science of product management.

This is where opportunities arise for startups and insurgents.

These metrics never really capture the underlying human emotion or behavior they are trying to measure. To make things more interesting, they almost always create secondary behavior which makes the metric go up but in a way the system designers didn’t anticipate or want.

For example, in terms of what designers wanted, what they built/measured and what they unintentionally caused:

• Quality journalism → Measure Clicks → Creation of click-bait content
• Whether an ad resonates with a human being → measure how long someone saw an ad → varied tactics to game people into seeing an ad.

If you take this outside tech, you could vaguely apply this framework to broader issues.

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The Guardian is getting 60% of its Google mobile traffic from AMP – Digiday

Lucia Moses:

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AMP has gradually been taking over the Guardian’s mobile traffic; today, 60% of its Google mobile traffic is AMP, well above the 10% to 15% that publishers have been getting from AMP, according to a recent estimate by SEO consulting company Define Media.

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Note that the first clause in the sentence isn’t backed up by the second. We don’t know how much of the Guardian’s mobile traffic is Google mobile traffic.

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…implementing AMP hasn’t been without hiccups, which [Guardian developer Natalia] Baltazar also detailed. Developer glitches can lead AMP pages to be invalid, which costs them the speed benefit of AMP pages. In one example, the Guardian added a Facebook Messenger share button to pages before that feature had been AMP-approved.

“You can’t imagine how easy it is to invalidate an AMP page,” she said.

Pages can also become invalid when journalists embed elements that aren’t AMP-ready in articles. This happened during the U.S. presidential election, when, on the Guardian’s biggest traffic day of the year, its top story was invalid. “We have limited control over what a journalist might embed,” Baltazar said.

The AMP development team now keeps track of whether AMP traffic drops suddenly, which might indicate pages are invalid, and it can react quickly.

All this adds expense, though. There are setup, development and maintenance costs associated with AMP, mostly in the form of time. After implementing AMP, the Guardian realized the project needed dedicated staff, so it created an 11-person team that works on AMP and other aspects of the site, drawing mostly from existing staff.

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That seems like a big effort for something finicky. But the Guardian has pulled out of Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News; it’s all in on Google AMP.
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Wikitribune: evidence-based journalism

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In most news sites, the community tends to hang at the bottom of articles in comments that serve little purpose. We believe the community can play a more important role in news. Wikitribune puts community at the top, literally.

Articles are authored, fact-checked, and verified by professional journalists and community members working side by side as equals, and supported not primarily by advertisers, but by readers who care about good journalism enough to become monthly supporters.

Wikitribune is transparent about the way it operates and will publish its financials regularly. With Wikitribune your support will have more impact as most of the funds are used for paying journalists rather than expensive offices.

On that note, if we don’t reach our goal, of 10 journalists hired, we will refund all our supporters (minus transaction fees).

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As has been pointed out elsewhere, Jimmy Wales (who is behind this) is also on the board of The Guardian’s parent group – which is also calling for voluntary contributions to help pay its journalists. The writing at The Guardian isn’t crowdfunded, but it’s pretty well known.

The puzzle is why Wikipedia can’t be the news source, since it gets updates to events very fast, and does that without journalists. Also, news is short-lived; its value vanishes within moments, whereas Wikipedia’s value lies in its longevity.
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“Mindless Eating,” or how to send an entire life of research into question • Ars Technica

Cathleen O’Grady:

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Things began to go bad late last year when [Brian] Wansink posted some advice for grad students on his blog. The post, which has subsequently been removed (although a cached copy is available), described a grad student who, on Wansink’s instruction, had delved into a data set to look for interesting results. The data came from a study that had sold people coupons for an all-you-can-eat buffet. One group had paid $4 for the coupon, and the other group had paid $8.

The hypothesis had been that people would eat more if they had paid more, but the study had not found that result. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, publishing null results like these is important—failure to do so leads to publication bias, which can lead to a skewed public record that shows (for example) three successful tests of a hypothesis but not the 18 failed ones. But instead of publishing the null result, Wansink wanted to get something more out of the data.

“When [the grad student] arrived,” Wansink wrote, “I gave her a data set of a self-funded, failed study which had null results… I said, ‘This cost us a lot of time and our own money to collect. There’s got to be something here we can salvage because it’s a cool (rich & unique) data set.’ I had three ideas for potential Plan B, C, & D directions (since Plan A had failed).”

The responses to Wansink’s blog post from other researchers were incredulous, because this kind of data analysis is considered an incredibly bad idea. As this very famous xkcd strip explains, trawling through data, running lots of statistical tests, and looking only for significant results is bound to turn up some false positives. This practice of “p-hacking”—hunting for significant p-values in statistical analyses—is one of the many questionable research practices responsible for the replication crisis in the social sciences.

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O’Grady’s article is not short. But it is very, very informative.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified