Start Up: the really world wide web, new gTLDs in trouble, voice’s uncanny valley, Pixel problems, and more


Some of Soundcloud’s money went on its rooftop tiles. How much would you pay for them – and the company? Photo by unfolded 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 13 links for you. Perfectly shaped. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

World wide web, not wealthy western web (part 1) • Smashing Magazine

Bruce Lawson:

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Take Ignighter, a dating website set up by three Jewish guys in the US, with a culturally targeted model: Instead of a boy and girl going out on a date, 10 guys and 10 girls would go out together on organized group dates.

Ignighter got 50,000 registrations, but it wasn’t enough to reach critical mass, and the founders considered abandoning their business. Then, they noticed they were getting as many sign-ups a week from India as they did in a year in the USA.

Perhaps the group-dating model that they anticipated for Jewish families really resonated with conservative Muslim, Hindu and Sikh families in India, Singapore and Malaysia, so they rebranded as Stepout, relocated to Mumbai and became India’s biggest dating website.

I’d bet that if you had asked them when they set up Ignighter, “What’s your India strategy?,” they would have said something like, “We don’t have one. We don’t care. We are focusing on middle-class New York Jewish people.” It’s also worth noting that if Ignighter had been an iOS app, they would not have been able to pivot their business, because iOS use in subcontinental Asia is very low. The product was discovered by their new customers precisely because they were on the web, accessible to everybody, regardless of device, operating system or network conditions.

You can’t predict the unpredictable, but, like, whatever, now I’m making a prediction: Many of your next customers will come from the area circled below, if only because there are more human beings alive in this circle than in the world outside the circle.

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link to this extract


Voice and the uncanny valley of AI • Benedict Evans

On the topic of voice:

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when I said that voice input ‘works’, what this means is that you can now use an audio wave-form to fill in a dialogue box – you can turn sound into text and text (from audio or, of course, from chatbots, which were last year’s Next Big Thing) into a structured query, and you can work out where to send that query. The problem is that you might not actually have anywhere to send it. You can use voice to fill in a dialogue box, but the dialogue box has to exist – you need to have built it first. You have to build a flight-booking system, and a restaurant booking system, and a scheduling system, and a concert booking system – and anything else a user might want to do, before you can connect voice to them. Otherwise, if the user asks for any of those, you will accurately turn their voice into text, but not be able to do anything with it – all you have is a transcription system. And hence the problem – how many of these queries can you build? How many do you need? Can you just dump them to a web search or do you need (much) more?

…fundamentally, you can’t create answers to all possible questions that any human might ever ask by hand, and we have no way to do it by machine. If we did, we would have general AI, pretty much by definition, and that’s decades away.

In other words, the trap that some voice UIs fall into is that you pretend the users are talking to HAL 9000 when actually, you’ve just built a better IVR, and have no idea how to get from the IVR to HAL.

Given that you cannot answer any question, there is a second scaling problem – does the user know what they can ask? I suspect that the ideal number of functions for a voice UI actually follows a U-shaped curve: one command is great and is ten probably OK, but 50 or 100 is terrible, because you still can’t ask anything but can’t remember what you can ask.

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This captures the problem with voice services that so many are getting excited about in the home: Alexa and Google Home can do a couple of things. But without heroic measures, they’re not things you couldn’t just do yourself anyway, and probably faster.
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Google’s Android close to surpassing Microsoft as top OS for internet usage • TheStreet

Natalie Walters:

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The Android operating system from Alphabet’s Google is inching extremely close to passing Microsoft (MSFT) as the most popular operating system (OS) for Internet usage, according to February 2017 data collected by StatCounter from usage across desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile.

“This is hugely significant for Microsoft,” StatCounter CEO Aodhan Cullen told TheStreet. “It’s coming close to the end of an era with Microsoft no longer having the dominant operating system. It took the lead from Apple in the 80s and has held that title ever since.” This new development is coming after Google’s Chrome browser has already beat out Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Edge, he added. 

According to last month’s data, Windows took 38.6% of the OS market share worldwide, vs. a close 37.4% grabbed by Android. This numbers are significant considering Windows held 82% of the global Internet usage share in 2012, vs. a measly 2.2% held by Android.

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Sign o’ the times.
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SoundCloud needs more money, or it may sell at a fire-sale price • Recode

Peter Kafka:

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SoundCloud’s stall has been out in the open for some time. Investors pegged its value at $700m in 2014, and since then it has raised money twice — including last year’s $70m Twitter investment — at the same valuation.

The service says it has 175 million monthly unique users, but it hasn’t updated that number since 2014, either.

A SoundCloud spokesperson would only say the company is talking to potential investors and strategic partners. The spokesperson added that the conversations, led by new CFO Holly Lim, “reflect the market interest in our differentiated platform, unmatched user reach and strong outlook for 2017 and beyond.”

Meanwhile, efforts to boost revenue by adding a paid subscription model to its free, core service, don’t seem to have generated much traction.

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What do we think – end of the year? Can’t quite see Spotify wanting to buy it, because of the price; it isn’t that flush. Apple wouldn’t quite want it; the fit isn’t good with its down-the-line aim at the full commercial business. That’s a problem.
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Alaska’s big problem with warmer winters • Bloomberg

Christopher Flavelle:

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The wind that comes off the mountains across Cook Inlet in southern Alaska still feels plenty cold in February. But lately it’s not quite cold enough. From 1932 to 2017, the daily minimum temperature in Homer, a city on the eastern shore of the inlet, averaged 19F in February. Narrow that to the past 10 years and the average rises to 21F; for the past five years, 25F. Last February, Homer’s daily low averaged 30F—just two degrees colder than in Washington, D.C., 1,200 miles closer to the Equator.

As warmer winters arrive in Alaska, this city of 5,000 offers a glimpse of the challenges to come. Precipitation that used to fall as snow lands as rain, eroding the coastal bluffs and threatening the only road out of town. Less snow means less drinking water in Homer’s reservoir; it also means shallower, warmer streams, threatening the salmon that support Cook Inlet’s billion-dollar fishing industry.

Heavier storm surges are eating away at Homer’s sea wall, which no insurance company will cover and which the city says it couldn’t pay to replace. Warmer water has also increased toxic phytoplankton blooms that leach into oysters and clams. When eaten by humans, the toxins can cause amnesia, extreme diarrhea, paralysis, and death.

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Loss of permafrost in some cases means loss of roads and houses. Yet:

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Alaska was once at the vanguard of states trying to deal with global warming. In 2007, then-Governor Sarah Palin established a climate change subcabinet to study the effects of warmer weather and find policies to cope with them. Over three years, the legislature provided about $26 million in funding. But Palin’s successor, Republican Sean Parnell, disbanded the group in 2011. That year, Alaska withdrew from a federal program that provides funds for coastal management because of concern the program might restrict offshore oil extraction. Since then, lower oil prices, combined with dwindling production, have left the state with a budget crisis that’s among the worst in the U.S. Just when climate change is having real impact, Alaska has less and less capacity to deal with it.

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I remain convinced that the US is slowly committing a form of hari-kiri through its leaders’ disbelief in inconvenient scientific reality.
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Schilling: big price increases needed to keep new gTLDs alive • Domain Incite

Kevin Murphy:

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Uniregistry is to massively increase the price of some of its under-performing new gTLDs in an effort to keep them afloat.

Sixteen TLDs from the company’s portfolio of 27 will see price increases of up to 3,000% starting September 8, CEO Frank Schilling confirmed to DI today.

“We need more revenue from these strings, especially the low volume ones, without question,” he said. “We can’t push on a string and stoke demand overnight. So in order for that string to survive as a standalone it has to be profitable.”

While domainers have taken to new gTLDs in greater numbers than Schilling anticipated, demand among worldwide consumers has been slower than expected, Schilling said.

“If you have a space with only 5,000 registrations, you need to have a higher price point to justify its existence, just because running a TLD isn’t free,” he said.

The alternative to repricing would be to sell the TLD in question to a competitor, which in turn would then be forced to reprice anyway, he said.

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This needs, as they say, some unpacking. gTLDs are global top-level domains: a huge number of them went live back in October 2013 (here’s a list of those purchased). They’re domain suffixes such as “.xyz” (operated by Google) or “.win” or “.wang”.

But who wants those? People just want good old dot-coms, or dot-their-country. So the registrars, who have stumped up huge amounts, had to get a return on investment. When nobody new is entering the market, you have to put up rents.

Oddly, data shows that it’s Google’s .xyz which is the busiest new gTLD, with more than 6m registrations, giving it 23% share. It falls off pretty fast after that. Expect more stories like this at the next domain registrar dinner party you go to.
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Some Google Pixel owners are reporting failing microphones, warranty replacement may be the only fix • 9to5Google

Ben Schoon:

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The Google Pixel and Pixel XL easily became our picks for the best smartphones of 2016, but they’ve not been without faults ─ and a lot of them. Since release, Google has been dealing with issues such as battery hiccups, speaker popping, camera bugs, and much more. Now, some Pixel owners are reporting a new issue with their microphones.

This issue is apparently affecting both Pixel and Pixel XL owners and causes the microphone to completely stop working, at least at certain times. It seems like audio tends to work and then not work depending on the conditions affecting the phone, but regardless, this is a pretty serious issue for Pixel owners, especially those who need to make regular phone calls.

A massive thread is going on Google’s support forums regarding this issue…

…One Google employee, Brian Rakowski, offered up a possible cause for the issue. He explains:

»

The most common problem is a hairline crack in the solder connection on the audio codec. This will affect all three mics and may result in other issues with audio processing. This problem tends to be transient because of the nature of the crack. Based on temperature changes or the way you hold the phone, the connection may be temporarily restored and the problems may go away. This is especially frustrating as a user because, just when you think you’ve got it fixed, the problem randomly comes back. We believe this problem is occurring << 1% of phones and often happens after a few months of use (it could be triggered by dropping the phone that may not cause any visible external damage).

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OK, it may be a tiny proportion of phones – but add to those other problems people have reported? That doesn’t seem good.
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Nearly 48 million Twitter accounts could be bots, says study • CNBC

Michael Newberg:

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A big chunk of those “likes,” “retweets,” and “followers” lighting up your Twitter account may not be coming from human hands. According to new research from the University of Southern California and Indiana University, up to 15% of Twitter accounts are in fact bots rather than people.

The research could be troubling news for Twitter, which has struggled to grow its user base in the face of growing competition from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others.

Researchers at USC used more than one thousand features to identify bot accounts on Twitter, in categories including friends, tweet content and sentiment, and time between tweets. Using that framework, researchers wrote that “our estimates suggest that between 9% and 15% of active Twitter accounts are bots.”

Since Twitter currently has 319 million monthly active users, that translates to nearly 48 million bot accounts, using USC’s high-end estimate.

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This isn’t necessarily bad; lots of accounts simply tweet links to formal organisations, or notice things. It’s the humans who add value. The “how many users?” factor fails to recognise is how much value the human users generate, or derive, from that.
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MAC randomization: A massive failure that leaves iPhones, Android mobes open to tracking • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

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stores can buy Wi-Fi equipment that logs smartphones’ MAC addresses, so that shoppers are recognized by their handheld when they next walk in, or walk into affiliate shop with the same creepy system present. This could be used to alert assistants, or to follow people from department to department, store to store, and then sell that data to marketers and ad companies.

Public wireless hotspots can do the same. Transport for London in the UK, for instance, used these techniques to study Tube passengers.

Regularly changing a device’s MAC address is supposed to defeat this tracking.

But it turns out to be completely worthless, due to a combination of implementation flaws and vulnerabilities. That and the fact that MAC address randomization is not enabled on the majority of Android phones.

In a paper published on Wednesday, US Naval Academy researchers report that they were able to “track 100% of devices using randomization, regardless of manufacturer, by exploiting a previously unknown flaw in the way existing wireless chipsets handle low-level control frames.”

Beyond this one vulnerability, an active RTS (Request to Send) attack, the researchers also identify several alternative deanonymization techniques that work against certain types of devices.

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It isn’t enabled on about 70% of Android phones (including most Samsung devices). And Apple broke it (if you know where and how to look) in iOS 10, having enabled it well before, possibly for HomeKit compatibility.
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Caption contest: What are Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai discussing in this image? • 9to5Google

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While often made out to be fierce competitors, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently shared dinner and a conversation together in Sillicon Valley. Images of the meal were shared on Facebook and discovered on MacGeneration.

The TMZ-like spy shot shows Cook and Pichai talking to one another over dinner, but not much else is known about the conversation. The two powerful executives have traded blows in the past, with Tim Cook calling Android a “toxic hell stew” and Pichai responding by saying Android is just a more popular operating system than iOS.

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Some suggest Cook is drinking wine; I don’t think so. Looks like water to me. I wonder if they’re discussing something to do with Trump and the immigration ban: they have common cause there, and it’s a current topic which affects a lot of their staff.

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March security update for Nexus 6 pulled after breaking Android Pay for many • 9to5Google

Stephen Hall:

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This all started with reports across the web that the update was breaking Android Pay for users, including a handful in the Nexus 6 subreddit. The real situation here, though, is that the update seems to be breaking SafetyNet, which is software that makes sure that unlocked or otherwise modified phones aren’t able to run certain apps with sensitive data — like Android Pay.

In response, Google has been replying to plenty of Nexus 6 owners on Twitter saying that they’re “aware of this issue and our team is investigating.” The update has also been pulled from Google’s factory image website and the OTA website.

If you’re a Nexus 6 owner and your Android Pay app recently broke, this is probably why.

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The Nexus 6, released in 2014, but which was still on sale in 2015? The stunning part here is that an update to a Google phone could kill core functionality. This doesn’t speak well to the narrative of Google’s awesome l33t s0ftwar3 ski11z.
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Google’s reCAPTCHA turns “invisible,” will separate bots from people without challenges • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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Google’s reCAPTCHA is the leading CAPTCHA service (that’s “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”) on the Web. You’ve probably seen CAPTCHAs a million times on sign-up pages across the Web; to separate humans from spam bots, a challenge will pop up asking you to decipher a picture of words or numbers, pick out objects in a grid of pictures, or just click a checkbox. Now, though, you’re going to be seeing CAPTCHAs less and less, not because Google is getting rid of them but because Google is making them invisible.

The old reCAPTCHA system was pretty easy—just a simple “I’m not a robot” checkbox would get people through your sign-up page. The new version is even simpler, and it doesn’t use a challenge or checkbox. It works invisibly in the background, somehow, to identify bots from humans. Google doesn’t go into much detail on how it works, only saying that the system uses “a combination of machine learning and advanced risk analysis that adapts to new and emerging threats.” More detailed information on how the system works would probably also help bot-makers crack it, so don’t expect details to pop up any time soon.

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OK then. So we’ll have robots watching us to make sure that we aren’t robots, and when it thinks it sees a robot the robot will challenge the robot, or perhaps human, to prove they’re aren’t a robot, but a human.
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Media the enemy? Trump sure is an insatiable consumer • AP News

Jonathan Lemire:

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the power of Trump’s media diet is so potent that White House staffers have, to varying degrees of success, tried to limit his television watching and control some of what he reads.

The president’s cable TV menu fluctuates. Fox News is a constant, and he also frequently watches CNN despite deriding it as “fake news.” Though he used to watch “Morning Joe,” a Trump aide said the president has grown frustrated with his coverage on the MSNBC program and has largely stopped.

For Trump, watching cable is often an interactive experience. More than dozen times since his election, he has tweeted about what he saw on TV just minutes before.

On Nov. 29, he posted about instituting potentially unconstitutional penalties for burning the American flag 30 minutes after Fox ran a segment on the subject. On Jan. 24, he threatened to “send in the Feds!” to Chicago a short time after watching a CNN segment on violence in the city. On Feb. 6, after CNN reported about a “Saturday Night Live” skit on the increasing power of the president’s advisers, Trump just 11 minutes later tweeted, “I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data, and everyone knows it!”

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted five different times about the news of the day being discussed on his preferred morning show, “Fox & Friends.”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a frequent Trump critic, told The Associated Press that she finds it “unsettling” that Trump “may be getting most of his understanding of the world based on whatever he stumbles upon on cable.”

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That first sentence is concerning, though. They know it’s crap. They just can’t persuade him of the fact.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: the Tinder trap, UK v US on solar, DeepMind mines more health, Android v the CIA, and more


Facial recognition systems might be in the next top-end iPhone – and might delay its introduction. Photo by nicolasnova 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.

How to access the secret ‘success rate’ hidden in all your Tinder photos • Business Insider

James Cook:

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Another value that Tinder tracks is the date of birth of its users. That’s perfectly normal, of course, as the app needs to figure out how old its users are. But every time you use Tinder’s share function to share a profile with a friend, that friend is able to access your full date of birth, regardless of your Tinder or Facebook privacy settings.

Rentify also found that it’s possible to find the exact number of Facebook friends of the person sharing the profile, but not the profile shared. So if I were to share a profile with someone, that person would be able to see my date of birth and the total number of my Facebook friends.

Tinder also stores all of its users’ photos in an unsecured format, meaning that anyone with the URL for one of your photos could enter it into a web browser and see the image.

Rentify found all of this by connecting a smartphone running Tinder to a computer using a man in the middle proxy. That meant all data sent to and from the phone went through the computer, and the company was able to see what Tinder sends back to its servers.

The screenshot above shows the data Tinder sends back to its servers (we’ve blurred out identifying information and photo URLs). The photo selected has a 0.58 success rating, which equals 58%, above average for a heterosexual female.

Tinder did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.

Wondering why a London startup was digging around into Tinder? Here’s an explanation from Rentify on why it was experimenting with the app:

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The reason we were working on this is because Tinder serves its images over http not https with a predictable file format. We’re setting up a redirect so that every time a new profile loads, and Tinder on our office WiFi asks for the images, we redirect it to a local folder filled with photos of me. So the profile of Jonny, 19, likes tattoos and interesting stories about your cat will load, but the photos will all be of George Spencer, 30, wants you to get back to work. I can’t think of a better way to remove the incentive for being on Tinder in the workplace than all the photos being of your boss frowning.

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Brilliant.
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Google’s DeepMind plans bitcoin-style health record tracking for hospitals • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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DeepMind has been working in partnership with London’s Royal Free Hospital to develop kidney monitoring software called Streams and has faced criticism from patient groups for what they claim are overly broad data sharing agreements. Critics fear that the data sharing has the potential to give DeepMind, and thus Google, too much power over the NHS.

In a blogpost, DeepMind co-founder, Mustafa Suleyman, and head of security and transparency, Ben Laurie, use an example relating to the Royal Free Hospital partnership to explain how the system will work. “[An] entry will record the fact that a particular piece of data has been used, and also the reason why, for example, that blood test data was checked against the NHS national algorithm to detect possible acute kidney injury,” they write.

Suleyman says that development on the data audit proposal began long before the launch of Streams, when Laurie, the co-creator of the widely-used Apache server software, was hired by DeepMind. “This project has been brewing since before we started DeepMind Health,” he told the Guardian, “but it does add another layer of transparency.

“Our mission is absolutely central, and a core part of that is figuring out how we can do a better job of building trust. Transparency and better control of data is what will build trust in the long term.”

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I feel obliged to point out that adding layers inevitably makes things less, not more, transparent. The criticisms of DeepMind have broadly been shrugged off, and the NHS doesn’t seem to have any incentive to engage with those critics. But whose data is it? And why does Google get it and not the NHS, since it’s public money that enables this?
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Apple’s Siri learns Shanghainese as voice assistants race to cover languages • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

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With the broad release of Google Assistant last week, the voice-assistant wars are in full swing, with Apple, Amazon.com, Microsoft Corp and now Alphabet Inc’s Google all offering electronic assistants to take your commands.

Siri is the oldest of the bunch, and researchers including Oren Etzioni, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, said Apple has squandered its lead when it comes to understanding speech and answering questions.

But there is at least one thing Siri can do that the other assistants cannot: speak 21 languages localized for 36 countries, a very important capability in a smartphone market where most sales are outside the United States.

Microsoft Cortana, by contrast, has eight languages tailored for 13 countries. Google’s Assistant, which began in its Pixel phone but has moved to other Android devices, speaks four languages. Amazon’s Alexa features only English and German. Siri will even soon start to learn Shanghainese, a special dialect of Wu Chinese spoken only around Shanghai.

The language issue shows the type of hurdle that digital assistants still need to clear if they are to become ubiquitous tools for operating smartphones and other devices.

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Plenty of detail about how Apple does this; what’s notable is how many languages Apple can handle, especially compared to Google. This seems underappreciated. Also, it seems like a lead “squandered” in a market where there isn’t a huge amount of interest yet; and Siri does fine (in my experience) at that.
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Apple, Google, and the CIA • News from the F-Secure Lab

Sean Sullivan on the exploits shown to be available against earlier versions of Android:

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Google is “confident that security updates and protections in […] Android already shield users from many of these alleged vulnerabilities.” But here’s the big problem – while the latest version of Android OS might be secure – the version of Android actually installed on the vast majority of phones is not. Not by a long shot.

Based on our Freedome VPN telemetry, we can say that it takes a significant amount of time for Android updates to arrive on customers’ devices.

Here’s a breakdown by a selected set of countries.

The Nordics have a relatively high percentage of Android versions 6 and 7. But the majority of the world? Versions 4 and 5 still dominate.

Bottom line: if you run Android and care at all about your device’s security… choose your hardware with care. Only a few select vendors are currently focused on providing Google’s monthly security updates to end users.

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What I’d love to know – but is obscured in the Google platform stats – is how many phones that people already own get significant OS updates (ie a full digit, not a decimal), rather than the growth in new versions being from people buying new phones. I can’t see any way to back that out easily from any published data. (Hints welcomed.)
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Monopoly as the Uber business model • ON LABOR

Benjamin Sachs:

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Uber’s business model consists of: predatory pricing, underwritten by venture capital, aimed at securing a monopoly position in the urban car service industry.

To unpack that a bit, the argument proceeds as follows:

• Uber is unprofitable. It has grown and succeeded to date by engaging in below-cost pricing and subsidizing that pricing scheme with $13 billion in venture capital investments.  As the post put it: “Uber is a fundamentally unprofitable enterprise, with negative 140% profit margins.”  And, “Uber’s ability to capture customers and drivers from incumbent operators is entirely due to predatory competition funded by massive investor subsidies – Uber passengers were only paying 41% of the costs of their trips, while competitors needed to charge passengers 100% of actual costs.”

• Far from the popular image of technology-enabled low-cost superstar, Uber is in fact “the industry’s high cost producer, with a significant cost disadvantage in every cost category except fuel and fees where no operator could achieve any advantage.”…

…• Once Uber succeeds in securing monopoly power (or, “industry dominance”) it will exercise that power by: reducing driver pay to levels below those paid by traditional operators; requiring “anyone who might ever want a cab to carry Uber’s app;” and “imposing much higher prices for peak period[s] and low density neighborhood service” which would “effectively eliminate taxi service for a major segment of (mostly lower income) users.”

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All technology companies – all companies, really – aspire to monopoly power. A few get it, and their behaviour once they do is pretty consistent. No reason why Uber would be any different.
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Budget 2017: UK solar industry facing devastating 800% tax increase • The Independent

Ian Johnston:

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Britain’s solar industry is facing devastation and consumers could see energy bills rise after the Chancellor Philip Hammond refused to listen to pleas to cancel a planned tax hike of up to 800% on rooftop solar schemes.

The Solar Trade Association described the Government’s refusal to bend over the increase – due to come into force in April – as “nonsensical” and “absurd”.

Bizarrely, state schools with solar panels will be forced to pay, while private schools will remain exempt.

Mr Hammond barely mentioned the energy sector in his speech – apart from a promise to help the oil and gas industry “maximise exploitation” of the remaining reserves in the North Sea.

According to the Government’s own figures, solar power is expected to become the cheapest form of electricity generation sometime in the 2020s.

But the UK solar industry lost 12,000 jobs last year and there has been an 85% reduction in the deployment of rooftop solar schemes.

So the sector had hoped the Government would listen to their request to drop the huge increase in business rates affecting rooftop solar from next month.

Some 44,000 solar “microgenerators” who are currently exempt from business rates could be faced with a bill of hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds. 

Speaking after reading the detail of the Budget in Treasury documents, Leonie Greene, of the Solar Trade Association, told The Independent: “Fair to say we are dismayed. We are facing an extreme business rate rise of up to 800%. Listening to what the Chancellor said today, there was no mention of energy apart from oil and gas. I have to say we are astonished because deployment of solar is at a six-year low… What he is doing is advantaging old technology and disadvantaging new ones. It’s nonsensical.”

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It is utterly stupid. Businesses that install solar benefit everyone because they (a) provide jobs for fitters (b) contribute surplus energy to the grid which reduces non-baseline demand for fossil fuels at CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine) stations, which are the ones brought on and off line quickly when demand shifts.

The alternative? You don’t have solar, and so you’re reliant both on big power companies building gigantic power plants in time to meet estimated future demand, and the import of energy – two points of potential failure. Plus the fact that raising tax bills in that way could put some companies out of business. Raising it for schools will squeeze already tight budgets even further.

It doesn’t affect domestic solar – thankfully. And if you’re wondering why it doesn’t affect private schools: it’s because they’re constituted as charities.

Now contrast this with the next link…
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Tesla completes Hawaii storage project that sells solar at night • Bloomberg

Mark Chediak:

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Tesla Inc. has completed a solar project in Hawaii that incorporates batteries to sell power in the evening, part of a push by the electric car maker to provide more green power to the grid.

The Kapaia installation includes a 13-megawatt solar system and 52 megawatt-hours of batteries that can store energy during the day and dispatch it after the sun goes down, the Palo Alto, California-based company said Wednesday. Tesla has a 20-year contract with the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative on the island of Kauai to deliver electricity at 13.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s lower than the utility’s cost for power from diesel plants of 15.48 cents, and about half the 27.68 cents that consumers paid in December for electricity in the state.

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On a 20-year contract, Tesla is going to be making some good money towards the end. Yet everyone will benefit from it.
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Report: 3D sensor production ramp suggests iPhone 8 to launch later than September • 9to5Mac

Benjamin Mayo:

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Recent reports have suggested that the iPhone 8 may launch later than the other two models, as some of the innovative components will not be ready for September …

Specifically today, iGeneration is reporting that STMicroelectronics will be making sensors for the front 3D camera system, expected to be a major feature for the OLED iPhone.

The 3D camera will apparently be able to detect depth of objects held in front of the iPhone and may play a big role in rumored iPhone 8 facial recognition features.

The report says STMicroelectronics is now committed to providing such components for the next iPhone; in its financial report it alluded to major investment in new products without mentioning Apple by name. The CEO said it expects “a contract recently taken [will lead to] substantial revenues expected in the second half of 2017.”

However, the iGeneration report suggests that ramping to mass production of the technology will take time and the supplier may not be ready for September, the month Apple typically unveils its new iPhone lineup.

This all comes together to suggest that the iPhone 8 will not be available to buy in September. A report from Macotakara last night corroborated this line of thinking, predicting the high-end iPhone will launch much later than the other two ‘iPhone 7s’ devices.

«

Given the supply constraints that usually apply to the top models, this wouldn’t be surprising; and if it became available in October, that would put it in the fourth calendar quarter, which would be fine by Apple, which has big numbers to live up to.

Quite whether the world wants facial recognition is another question.
link to this extract


Nest adds a security feature it should have had all along • Gizmodo

Christina Warren:

»

Nest has finally added support for two-factor authentication to help give its user accounts greater security. On the surface, this is a good idea—and plenty of people have said as much—but it also begs a very obvious question: what the hell took them so long?

Two-factor authentication (2FA) requires users to get a secondary code (sometimes sent via SMS, sometimes accessed through an app like Google Authenticator or Authy) before they can access their account. It adds extra security, because it forces the user to have possession of a secondary device like a smartphone, in addition to the account password. While it’s not the end-all-be-all of security—especially if served over text messages—it’s better than nothing.

Which is why it’s so curious that Nest, a division of Alphabet, didn’t have this feature already.

«

Point of order: it doesn’t beg the question. It raises the question. To beg the question is to assume its answer – “is it popular because everyone wants one?” ( find that I’m quoted in a reference on how to use this phrase correctly. I can tell you it’s quite a weird feeling.)
link to this extract


Peter Thiel: why Google never talks about search • CNBC

Matt Rossoff:

»

why invest in a complicated business that goes up against some of the biggest and most cash-rich names in technology, both old — like Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle — and new, like Amazon?

For a cynical take, one might turn to investor Peter Thiel’s comments at CERAWeek, an energy industry conference, on Tuesday night.

Thiel – who is a board member and early investor in Facebook, one of Alphabet’s fiercest competitors – noted that he only wants to invest in monopolies. Then he talked about a hypothetical search company in Silicon Valley:

»

If you have a monopoly, you will tell people you are in a super-competitive business. And if you are in a super-competitive business, you will tell people that you have a monopoly of sorts.

So for example, if you have a search company in Silicon Valley that I will not name, if you were to go around to CEOs saying, ‘We have a bigger share of the market and higher profit margins than Microsoft ever had in the 1990s,’ you wouldn’t do that…You don’t even talk about search. You say, ‘We are a technology company with an enormous space called technology, and we’re competing with Apple on smartphones, and we’re competing on self-driving cars, and there’s competition in everything we’re doing except this one thing called search, and we never talk about that.'”

«

A slightly less cynical take: Investing billions in cloud computing might not make sense on a standalone basis, but if Alphabet is already investing billions in data center technology for its actual business, why not try and leverage some that technology into a whole new area as well, by selling it to other businesses? It’s a low-risk bet.

«

It is, though I like Thiel’s explanation. He’s no fool when it comes to business analysis.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Nest tries again (but smarthomes don’t), Windows Server on ARM, Facebook’s anti-science, and more


What if the genders had been reversed but the characters retained in the US presidential race? Photo by chuckp 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.

What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders? • New York University

Eileen Reynolds:

»

After watching the second televised debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in October 2016—a battle between the first female candidate nominated by a major party and an opponent who’d just been caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women—Maria Guadalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD, had an idea. Millions had tuned in to watch a man face off against a woman for the first set of co-ed presidential debates in American history.

But how would their perceptions change, she wondered, if the genders of the candidates were switched? She pictured an actress playing Trump, replicating his words, gestures, body language, and tone verbatim, while an actor took on Clinton’s role in the same way. What would the experiment reveal about male and female communication styles, and the differing standards by which we unconsciously judge them?

«

This is absolutely fascinating. Watching it with roles reversed, you realise how bad a candidate Clinton was; it explains why she lost twice (once to Obama, once to Trump). What people want from a leader is leadership; they want force, and they want drive.

All the punditry was that a woman who was forceful would turn voters off. I think they’d be fine with it. The audience reactions – this was shown as a play – are also noted in the article. Sometimes you need to turn things upside-down to see how they really are.
link to this extract


Alphabet’s Nest working on cheaper thermostat, home security system • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

Alphabet’s Nest, seeking a bigger share of the connected home market, is developing a cheaper version of its flagship thermostat and new home security products, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

The company is working on a version of its “learning thermostat,” which adjusts the temperature based on usage patterns, that would sell for under $200, the person said. The current version sells for $249. The cheaper model would include less expensive components and at least one internal prototype lacks the flagship model’s metal edges, the person said. 

A home-security alarm system, a digital doorbell and an updated indoor security camera are also in the works, representing potential good news for a company that has struggled to release many new products. 

Co-founded by Tony Fadell, a former Apple Inc. executive who helped create the iPod, Nest was acquired by Google for $3.2bn in 2014 after the first version of its thermostat sold well. Fadell left last year after some employees complained publicly about his aggressive management style. The business is now run by Marwan Fawaz, a former executive vice president of Motorola Mobility. 

«

A digital doorbell. The giant minds at Nest really are breaking new ground, aren’t they? You can hardly move on Kickstarter for digital doorbells, locks and security cameras. And offering them cheaply isn’t going to help their margins, though it might make the “Other Bets” revenue look more healthy.
link to this extract


What’s wrong with the smart home? • Stacey on IoT

Stacey Higginbotham:

»

I’ve been thinking for the last few months that we’ve misled people about the promise of the smart home, and perhaps as an industry, we need to focus on the basics before promising these intuitive homes of the future.

I recently built a presentation to this effect (which also digs into the reasons voice won’t save us) and was excited to see others discussing this topic as well.  Scott Jenson, a designer who works at Google, and Kai Kreuzer who works on the OpenHab smart home platform, both did a great job digging into the current state of the industry to explain why it’s not awesome.

Jenson’s point is that we’ve screwed up by not building the internet of things on the same principles of the open web. Instead, companies force consumers into their own apps and refuse to share data. The result of this is that nothing works together and the onboarding experience is terrible for most consumer devices.

He argues that we are missing essential underpinning technology to get the level of distributed intelligence the smart home needs. So not only do things need to be open, but we also need to think about how to make trusted, distributed systems.

«

“Trusted, distributed systems”? Sounds a bit like blockchain, or something similar. Equally, the reason companies force consumers into their own apps is that that’s the only way to make the business model work.
link to this extract


ARMing the cloud; Qualcomm’s Centriq 2400 platform will power Microsoft Azure instances • PC Perspective

Jeremy Hellstrom:

»

Last December Qualcomm announced plans to launch their Centriq 2400 series of platforms for data centres, demonstrating Apache Spark and Hadoop on Linux as well as a Java demo.  They announced a 48 Core design based on ARM v8 and fabbed with on Samsung’s 10nm process, which will compete against Intel’s current offerings for the server room.

Today marks the official release of the Qualcomm Falkor CPU and Centriq 2400 series of products, as well as the existence of a partnership with Microsoft which may see these products offered to Azure customers.  Microsoft has successfully configured a version of Windows Server to run on these new chips, which is rather big news for customers looking for low-powered hosting solutions running a familiar OS.

«

Some understatement in that. “ARM servers” has been a promise for years; I recall talking to HP which said it was working on it about five years ago. Now it is becoming a reality. This is very dangerous for Intel – especially with Microsoft breaking away like this. If servers become commoditised on ARM architecture, Intel’s chip business – which lately has looked to servers to keep it going – doesn’t have a floor.

It might not happen overnight, but this is the thin end of a giant wedge in Intel’s most profitable business.
link to this extract


Google isn’t actually tackling ‘fake news’ content on its ad network • Marketing Land

Ginny Marvin:

»

Why are my Google display campaigns running on “XYZ-Hyperpartisan-Site” with less-than-accurate or altogether false articles? That’s the polite version of a question I’ve heard in various forms over the past several weeks.

Isn’t Google taking steps against fake news on the Display Network? they ask. Why are sites that spread misinformation still able to earn ad revenue through Google’s AdSense publisher network? they wonder. I’ve heard these questions over and over again recently. In a nutshell, the answer comes down to semantics, namely the difference between “misrepresentation” and “misinformation.” Yes, Google is addressing fake publishers that impersonate well-known news outlets or make up clickbait headlines to drive users to articles that push diet pills or other products. Google’s not looking at misinformation, hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

Last fall, Google earned a lot of press, including on this site, for updating its AdSense “Misrepresentative content” policy to ostensibly “take aim at fake news,” as The New York Times put it. In its most recent Bad Ads Report, Google said it kicked out 200 sites permanantly and blacklisted 340 sites — out of some 2 million AdSense publishers — from the network for violations including misrepresentation. There has been a trend to capitalize on hyperpartisanship — because people are clicking.

Google continues to profit from ads served on hundreds if not thousands of sites promoting propaganda, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and flat-out lies.

«

link to this extract


How anti-science forces thrive on Facebook • BuzzFeed News

Stephanie Lee:

»

In January, Natural News shared a big story on Facebook: A federal scientist had affirmed Donald Trump’s belief that vaccines cause autism.

According to this researcher, the government had supposedly suppressed study data showing that African-American boys had a “340% increased risk for autism” after being vaccinated. “Despite being cast to the lunatic fringe by the mainstream media for his remarks,” the article said, the scientist “has confirmed Trump’s suspicions.”

The claim was false — but the story was an enduring hit. Since it was first published in November 2015, the link has popped up in alternative-health and anti-vaccine communities with names like “Vaccination Information Network” and “Healing ADHD & Asperger’s Without Hurting.” It’s been shared by Trump supporters, a fan account for the hacking group Anonymous, the conspiracy theory subreddit, and a former X Factor contestant on Twitter. All told, it’s garnered more than 141,000 likes, shares, and (overwhelmingly positive) comments on Facebook, according to the social media–tracking tool CrowdTangle. Meanwhile, a Time story that poked holes in the claim got 3,300.

«

You’re probably able to hum this one already; you’ve heard the chorus enough times. People share stupidity; sense struggles even to get out of its chair before stupidity has got a plane ticket around the world.
link to this extract


Apple captures 79% of global smartphone profits in 2016 • Korea Herald

Quoting Strategy Analytics research:

»

Samsung Electronics Co.’s smartphone business posted an operating profit of $8.3bn last year, accounting for 14.6% of the global profits.

Samsung is still reeling from the global recall of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, which was discontinued in October last year over safety concerns. The South Korean tech giant’s operating profit margin stood at 11.6% last year, while its annual sales of smartphones fell to $71.6bn from $75.2bn in 2015.

Profitability at Chinese smartphone makers is still low, although their cheaper handsets are rapidly gaining market share.

Huawei posted an operating profit of $929m last year, accounting for 1.6% of global profits. OPPO took 1.5% of the global profits, while its rival Vivo accounted for 1.3%, according to the research.

«

Hadn’t seen the Huawei figures before; it also shows how there’s (almost) no profit outside China. Apart from Apple, Sony and Samsung, everyone outside China is losing money.
link to this extract


The need for a Digital Geneva Convention • Microsoft On The Issues blog

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s chief legal officer:

»

Just as the Fourth Geneva Convention has long protected civilians in times of war, we now need a Digital Geneva Convention that will commit governments to protecting civilians from nation-state attacks in times of peace. And just as the Fourth Geneva Convention recognized that the protection of civilians required the active involvement of the Red Cross, protection against nation-state cyberattacks requires the active assistance of technology companies. The tech sector plays a unique role as the internet’s first responders, and we therefore should commit ourselves to collective action that will make the internet a safer place, affirming a role as a neutral Digital Switzerland that assists customers everywhere and retains the world’s trust.

«

Dream on with that one, Brad.
link to this extract


Autonomous cars must learn to drive the Italian way, the German way and every way in-between • IB Timeds

Alistair Charlton:

»

Another challenge faced by autonomous cars is how to navigate different countries and around humans using different forms of etiquette.

Callegari explained how self-driving cars will need to be taught how human driving and behaviours differ by country, and adapt accordingly.

“Blatting down the Autobahn at 250km/h (155mph) is quite common in Germany, then you’ll get chased down by a Mercedes or a Porsche. Then in Italy you’ll have someone in a Punto doing the same thing, but the driving conditions and the expectations there are quite different.”

In other words, autonomous cars will need to be comfortable with moving quickly in Germany, where lane discipline is generally very good, but in Italy they will need to deal with far more erratic driving from locals.

Callegari went on: “People don’t really tailgate in the UK; you think it’s bad there but it’s not that bad. But here [Switzerland] people tailgate, it’s just part of the way you drive. They sit two metres off your bumper and the conditions are very, very different in those cases…also how people drive, how aggressive they are, how casual they are is very different. In [rural] US it’s very relaxed but around the M25 [motorway around London] it’s completely different.”

«

link to this extract


Some comments on the Wikileaks CIA/#vault7 leak • Errata Security

Rob Graham:

»

I thought I’d write up some notes about the Wikileaks CIA “#vault7” leak. This post will be updated frequently over the next 24 hours.

• The CIA didn’t remotely hack a TV. The docs are clear that they can update the software running on the TV using a USB drive. There’s no evidence of them doing so remotely over the Internet. If you aren’t afraid of the CIA breaking in an installing a listening device, then you should’t be afraid of the CIA installing listening software.

• The CIA didn’t defeat Signal/WhattsApp encryption. The CIA has some exploits for Android/iPhone. If they can get on your phone, then of course they can record audio and screenshots. Technically, this bypasses/defeats encryption — but such phrases used by Wikileaks arehighly misleading, since nothing related to Signal/WhatsApp is happening. What’s happening is the CIA is bypassing/defeating the phone. Sometimes. If they’ve got an exploit for it, or can trick you into installing their software.

• There’s no overlap or turf war with the NSA. The NSA does “signals intelligence”, so they hack radios and remotely across the Internet. The CIA does “humans intelligence”, so they hack locally, with a human. The sort of thing they do is bribe, blackmail, or bedazzle some human “asset” (like a technician in a nuclear plant) to stick a USB drive into a slot. All the various military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies have hacking groups to help them do their own missions.

• The CIA isn’t more advanced than the NSA. Most of this dump is child’s play, simply malware/trojans cobbled together from bits found on the Internet. Sometimes they buy more advanced stuff from contractors, or get stuff shared from the NSA. Technologically, they are far behind the NSA in sophistication and technical expertise…

«

And there’s plenty more where that come from. His quick conclusion: the CIA isn’t spying on us. (For some variant of “us”. Depends who you are, I guess.)

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Facebook’s video and child problem, ZTE swallows huge fine, trolls dissected, and more


North Korean missiles are misfiring. Cyberwar, or chance? Probably cyberwar. Photo by danielkfoster437 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 14 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook, rushing into live video, wasn’t ready for its dark side • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman:

»

The live-video rush left unanswered many questions with which Facebook is still wrestling, especially how to decide when violence on camera needs to be censored. According to a tally by The Wall Street Journal, people have used Facebook Live to broadcast at least 50 acts of violence, including murder, suicides and the beating in January of a mentally disabled teenager in Chicago.

The company was sharply criticized last July for removing live video from Minnesota woman Diamond Reynolds, who showed her boyfriend, Philando Castile, dying after being shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. Facebook said the removal was due to a technical glitch and restored the video.

Mr. Zuckerberg, eyeing Snap Inc.’s Snapchat and Twitter Inc.’s Periscope, also budgeted more than $100m to pay media organizations and celebrities to post live videos, according to a person familiar with the rollout.

Nearly a year later, many publishers say Facebook Live viewership is lackluster. Facebook is still tinkering with ways for them to earn money from their broadcasts. Facebook doesn’t disclose viewer data or financial results for Facebook Live.

The bad and good consequences reflect the inherent tension in Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision of Facebook as a crucial part of the world’s “social infrastructure,” a term he used in a nearly 6,000-word manifesto last month.

«

Zuckerberg is repeatedly amazed that the world is more complicated than a PHP script.
link to this extract


Facebook users warned not to share posts of missing children • Daily Telegraph

Cara McGoogan:

»

Facebook users have been warned not to share pictures of missing children as publicising their image could do more harm than good. 

Although it may seem like the best thing to do when a child is missing is to spread the word and a picture of them, law enforcement have urged users to avoid doing so.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has warned Facebook users that missing child posts could end up assisting people who want to cause the child further harm. 

“By sharing these photos you may be putting a life at risk,” the Kindersley RCMP warned. “Sometimes the missing children in the posts that you share are not actually missing. They may actually be hiding for their own safety.” 

«

As the RCMP explain, it can be that a malicious parent who has been forbidden access puts up the photo, claims they’re missing, tries to get at the child or other parent. Bad things can happen.

Getting confusing, isn’t it? Now read on..
link to this extract


Facebook failed to remove sexualised images of children • BBC News

Angus Crawford:

»

Facebook has been criticised for its handling of reports about sexualised images of children on its platform.

The chairman of the Commons media committee, Damian Collins, said he had “grave doubts” about the effectiveness of its content moderation systems.

Mr Collins’ comments come after the BBC reported dozens of photos to Facebook, but more than 80% were not removed. They included images from groups where users were discussing swapping what appeared to be child abuse material.

When provided with examples of the images, Facebook reported the BBC journalists involved to the police and cancelled plans for an interview.

It subsequently issued a statement: “It is against the law for anyone to distribute images of child exploitation.”

Mr Collins said it was extraordinary that the BBC had been reported to the authorities when it was trying to “help clean up the network”.

«

This sounds like two parts of Facebook completely failing to coordinate. And failing to work too.
link to this extract


Spies do spying, part 97: shock horror as CIA turn phones, TVs, computers into surveillance bugs • The Register

John Leyden:

»

WikiLeaks has dumped online what appears to be a trove of CIA documents outlining the American murder-snoops’ ability to spy on people.

The leaked files describe security exploits used to hack into vulnerable Android handhelds, Apple iPhones, Samsung TVs, Windows PCs, Macs, and other devices, and remote-control them to read messages, listen in via built-in microphones, and so on. The dossiers discuss malware that can infect CD and DVD disc file systems, and USB sticks, to jump air-gaps and compromise sensitive and protected machines – plus loads more spying techniques and tools.

Yes, government surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom of expression. But, no, none of this cyber-spying should be a surprise. Meanwhile, tech giants keep putting exploitable microphone-fitted, always-connected devices into people’s homes.

The tranche of CIA documents – a mammoth 8,761 files dubbed “Year Zero” – accounts for “the entire hacking capacity of the CIA,” WikiLeaker-in-chief Julian Assange boasted today. He said the documents show the intelligence agency had lost “control of its arsenal” of exploits and hacking tools, suggesting they were passed to the website by a rogue operative.

«

You’re wondering where the Russian leaks are? Seems Julian Assange likes doing that thing – what’s it called, breathing.
link to this extract


ZTE to pay $892m to US, plead guilty in Iran sanctions probe • WSJ

Aruna Viswanatha, Eva Dou and Kate O’keeffe:

»

Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corp. has agreed to pay $892m and plead guilty to violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and obstructing a federal investigation, ending a five-year probe that has raised trade tensions between the U.S. and China.

The penalties, among the largest ever in a sanctions case, were imposed on ZTE for a six-year-long plan to obtain technology products from the U.S., incorporate them into ZTE equipment and ultimately ship the equipment to Iran, U.S. officials said.

Still, the company avoided a more devastating outcome: a supply cutoff of U.S. components, which the Commerce Department slapped on ZTE in March 2016, prompting the company to come forward to negotiate the eventual settlement, according to U.S. authorities. The Commerce Department suspended the sanctions during the talks and, in conjunction with the settlement agreement, it will now move to fully remove them, officials said.

«

Dodged a bullet there.
link to this extract


Spammergate: the fall of an empire • MacKeeper™ blog

Chris Vickery:

»

A cooperative team of investigators from the MacKeeper Security Research Center, CSOOnline, and Spamhaus came together in January after I stumbled upon a suspicious, yet publicly exposed, collection of files. Someone had forgotten to put a password on this repository and, as a result, one of the biggest spam empires is now falling.

Additional coverage can be seen over at CSOOnline.

The leaky files, it turns out, represent the backbone operations of a group calling themselves River City Media (RCM). Led by known spammers Alvin Slocombe and Matt Ferris, RCM masquerades as a legitimate marketing firm while, per their own documentation, being responsible for up to a billion daily email sends.

«

This might even give MacKeeper some redemption. It knows all about leaking millions of user records from unsecured databases. Though it’s still ahead on losing lawsuits from the FTC where it pays a $2m settlement.
link to this extract


Nintendo Switch review • Polygon

Polygon staff:

»

there is something remarkable about seeing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild running in portable mode, followed by that “wow” moment of docking the console and continuing on a television. It’s hard not to wonder if we’re staring at the future of portable gaming, with Nintendo and the Switch promising to bridge the gap between mobile and console.

While Nintendo has corrected much of what doomed the Wii U on the hardware front, its success on the software front is not only less clear, it’s in many cases entirely opaque. As with the Wii U, the Switch’s entire online infrastructure is being patched into the system on the same day it reaches consumers. None of these features, or even a clear understanding of what they will be, were made available to reviewers. This … is not a good litmus test for Nintendo’s future success in this arena.

Since Nintendo’s Game Boy, the desire has been to play games — real games — wherever you are. The Switch offers that promise, but the details — or absence of detail — leave a lot to be desired.

«

It has rocketed off the shelves, unlike the Wii U. It’s not the most amazing industrial design, but seems to satisfy those who like Nintendo. And it does seem to have managed to be a hybrid – both a portable console and something you can use with a dedicated TV.
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Lithium-Ion battery inventor introduces new technology for fast-charging, noncombustible batteries • The University of Texas at Austin

»

A team of engineers led by 94-year-old John Goodenough, professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, has developed the first all-solid-state battery cells that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries for handheld mobile devices, electric cars and stationary energy storage. 

Goodenough’s latest breakthrough, completed with Cockrell School senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga, is a low-cost all-solid-state battery that is noncombustible and has a long cycle life (battery life) with a high volumetric energy density and fast rates of charge and discharge. The engineers describe their new technology in a recent paper published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

“Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries,” Goodenough said.

The researchers demonstrated that their new battery cells have at least three times as much energy density as today’s lithium-ion batteries. A battery cell’s energy density gives an electric vehicle its driving range, so a higher energy density means that a car can drive more miles between charges. The UT Austin battery formulation also allows for a greater number of charging and discharging cycles, which equates to longer-lasting batteries, as well as a faster rate of recharge (minutes rather than hours).

«

Braga’s contribution seems significant, but she strangely doesn’t get a mention in the headline or first paragraph.
link to this extract


We’re all internet trolls (sometimes) • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

»

Admit it: At one point or another, you have probably said something unpleasant online that you later regretted—and that you wouldn’t have said in person. It might have seemed justified, but to someone else, it probably felt inappropriate, egregious or like a personal attack.

In other words, you were a troll.

New research by computer scientists from Stanford and Cornell universities suggests this sort of thing—a generally reasonable person writing a post or leaving a comment that includes an attack or even outright harassment—happens all the time. The most likely time for people to turn into trolls? Sunday and Monday nights, from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Trolling is so ingrained in the internet that, without even noticing, we’ve let it shape our most important communication systems. One reason Facebook provides elaborate privacy controls is so we don’t have to wade through drive-by comments on our own lives.

«

link to this extract


Uber employees lose faith and explore exit • FT

Leslie Hook:

»

Recruiters in the Bay Area and executives at rival companies say they have seen an uptick in job applications from Uber employees, as its workers lose faith in the company’s leadership and start to doubt the value of their stock options.

Uber has gone from crisis to crisis over the past five weeks, prompting increasing numbers of employees to explore the idea of leaving a start-up that was once considered one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious and lucrative workplaces.

“I have seen quite a few people who have been looking to leave Uber,” said one recruiter, who previously worked at the car-hailing company. “One of the main reasons is lack of faith in senior leadership.”

«

link to this extract


Collection of 13,500 nastygrams could advance war on trolls • MIT Technology Review

Tom Simonite:

»

Misogyny, racism, profanity—a collection of more than 13,500 online personal attacks has it all.

The nastygrams came from the discussion pages of Wikipedia. The collection, along with over 100,000 more benign posts, has been released by researchers from Alphabet and the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit behind Wikipedia. They say the data will boost efforts to train software to understand and police online harassment.

“Our goal is to see how can we help people discuss the most controversial and important topics in a productive way all across the Internet,” says Lucas Dixon, chief research scientist at Jigsaw, a group inside Alphabet that builds technology in service of causes such as free speech and fighting corruption (see “If Only AI Could Save Us From Ourselves”).

Jigsaw and Wikimedia researchers used a crowdsourcing service to have people comb through more than 115,000 messages posted on Wikipedia discussion pages, checking for any that were a personal attack as defined by the community’s rules. The collaborators have already used the data to train machine-learning algorithms that rival crowdsourced workers at spotting personal attacks. When they ran it through the full collection of 63 million discussion posts made by Wikipedia editors, they found that only around one in 10 attacks had resulted in action by moderators.

«

Because we might not be able to change how people are.
link to this extract


Trump inherits a secret cyberwar against North Korean missiles • The New York Times

David Sanger and William Broad on a US scheme to make North Korean missiles fail on liftoff:

»

The Times inquiry began last spring as the number of the North’s missile failures soared. The investigation uncovered the military documents praising the new antimissile approach and found some pointing with photos and diagrams to North Korea as one of the most urgent targets.

After discussions with the office of the director of national intelligence last year and in recent days with Mr. Trump’s national security team, The Times agreed to withhold details of those efforts to keep North Korea from learning how to defeat them. Last fall, Mr. Kim was widely reported to have ordered an investigation into whether the United States was sabotaging North Korea’s launches, and over the past week he has executed senior security officials.

The approach taken in targeting the North Korean missiles has distinct echoes of the American- and Israeli-led sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, the most sophisticated known use of a cyberweapon meant to cripple a nuclear threat. But even that use of the “Stuxnet” worm in Iran quickly ran into limits. It was effective for several years, until the Iranians figured it out and recovered. And Iran posed a relatively easy target: an underground nuclear enrichment plant that could be attacked repeatedly.

In North Korea, the target is much more challenging. Missiles are fired from multiple launch sites around the country and moved about on mobile launchers in an elaborate shell game meant to deceive adversaries. To strike them, timing is critical.

Advocates of the sophisticated effort to remotely manipulate data inside North Korea’s missile systems argue the United States has no real alternative because the effort to stop the North from learning the secrets of making nuclear weapons has already failed. The only hope now is stopping the country from developing an intercontinental missile, and demonstrating that destructive threat to the world.

«

Consider next what happens if North Korea does attain a nuclear ICBM capability. And who would be negotiating.
link to this extract


Mobile internet prices in Nigeria are dropping, so why are its user numbers falling too? • Quartz Africa

Yomi Kazeem:

»

At the start of last year, Nigeria seemed on course to clock an important milestone: hitting 100 million mobile internet users. But that’s no longer the case. New data from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) shows a steady decline the country’s internet user numbers, despite a fall in mobile internet data prices.

Since mid-2016, mobile internet prices in Nigeria have fallen to less than a third of what they were in 2015 after the regulator removed a data floor price, leaving telcos to set prices as low as possible.

The most obvious reason for the continuing slide is the clampdown on unregistered sim cards by NCC, the telecoms industry regulator. Unregistered sim cards, Nigeria’s government has previously claimed, have allowed Boko Haram terrorists and other criminals communicate undetected by the country’s mobile networks.

MTN, Nigeria’s largest operator, felt the brunt of the clampdown on unregistered sim cards when it was slapped with a record N$5.1bn fine in a long-running dispute which it later settled for N$1.7bn. Since Oct. 2015, when NCC announced it was fining MTN for not deactivating unregistered sim cards, the operator has lost over 10.8 million internet subscribers.

«

link to this extract


What it feels like to be an open-source maintainer • Nolan Lawson

Nolan Lawson:

»

Outside your door stands a line of a few hundred people. They are patiently waiting for you to answer their questions, complaints, pull requests, and feature requests.

You want to help all of them, but for now you’re putting it off. Maybe you had a hard day at work, or you’re tired, or you’re just trying to enjoy a weekend with your family and friends.

But if you go to github.com/notifications, there’s a constant reminder of how many people are waiting.

When you manage to find some spare time, you open the door to the first person. They’re well-meaning enough; they tried to use your project but ran into some confusion over the API. They’ve pasted their code into a GitHub comment, but they forgot or didn’t know how to format it, so their code is a big unreadable mess.

Helpfully, you edit their comment to add a code block, so that it’s nicely formatted. But it’s still a lot of code to read.

Also, their description of the problem is a bit hard to understand. Maybe this person doesn’t speak English as a first language, or maybe they have a disability that makes it difficult for them to communicate via writing. You’re not sure. Either way, you struggle to understand the paragraphs of text they’ve posted.

Wearily, you glance at the hundreds of other folks waiting in line behind them. You could spend a half-hour trying to understand this person’s code, or you could just skim through it and offer some links to tutorials and documentation, on the off-chance that it will help solve their problem. You also cheerfully suggest that they try Stack Overflow or the Slack channel instead.

«

And so it goes on, and on – Lawson’s account makes you understand how bugs can stay hidden or unfixed for years in open source projects: one person can’t scale.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: AI’s indifferent control, inside the Indian scam call centres, Google breaks own Captcha, and more


Is your electricity meter telling the truth about your power use? Photo by benswing 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. Loooovely.. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why nothing works anymore • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost, in a tour de force:

»

No matter its ostensible function, precarious technology separates human actors from the accomplishment of their actions. They acclimate people to the idea that devices are not really there for them, but as means to accomplish those devices own, secret goals.

This truth has been obvious for some time. Facebook and Google, so the saying goes, make their users into their products—the real customer is the advertiser or data speculator preying on the information generated by the companies’ free services. But things are bound to get even weirder than that. When automobiles drive themselves, for example, their human passengers will not become masters of a new form of urban freedom, but rather a fuel to drive the expansion of connected cities, in order to spread further the gospel of computerized automation. If artificial intelligence ends up running the news, it will not do so in order to improve citizen’s access to information necessary to make choices in a democracy, but to further cement the supremacy of machine automation over human editorial in establishing what is relevant.

There is a dream of computer technology’s end, in which machines become powerful enough that human consciousness can be uploaded into them, facilitating immortality. And there is a corresponding nightmare in which the evil robot of a forthcoming, computerized mesh overpowers and destroys human civilization. But there is also a weirder, more ordinary, and more likely future—and it is the one most similar to the present.

«

The coda is remarkable, though you should take in the whole article from the start. In effect: “First we shape our tools, then our tools shape us, then our tools find more interesting things to do.”
link to this extract


Researcher breaks reCAPTCHA using Google’s speech recognition API • Bleeping Computer

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

A researcher has discovered what he calls a “logic vulnerability” that allowed him to create a Python script that is fully capable of bypassing Google’s reCAPTCHA fields using another Google service, the Speech Recognition API.

The researcher, who goes online only by the name of East-EE, released proof-of-concept code on GitHub.

East-EE has named this attack ReBreakCaptcha, and he says he discovered this vulnerability in 2016. Today, when he went public with his research, he said the vulnerability was still unpatched.

The researcher was not clear if he reported the bug to Google. Bleeping Computer has reached out to the researcher to inquire if Google was, at least, aware of the issue.

The proof-of-concept code the researcher released allows attackers to automate the process of bypassing reCAPTCHA fields, currently used on millions of sites to keep out spam bots.

«

Oops. But logical. Only works against the latest version of reCAPTCHA. But even so.
link to this extract


Inside the TalkTalk ‘Indian scam call centre’ • BBC News

Geoff White:

»

TalkTalk customers are being targeted by an industrial-scale fraud network in India, according to whistleblowers who say they were among hundreds of staff hired to scam customers of the British telecoms giant.

The scale of the criminal operation has been detailed by the three sources, who say they were employed by two front-companies set up by a gang of professional fraudsters.

The sources describe working in “call centres” in two Indian cities.

They say as many as 60 “employees” work in shifts in each office, phoning TalkTalk customers and duping them into giving access to their bank accounts.

The whistleblowers say they were given a script in which they were told to claim they were calling from TalkTalk. They say they then convinced victims to install a computer virus.

«

Everything’s exactly as I discovered in researching this stuff in 2012 – though White also has screenshots of the (perhaps intentionally incoherent) scripts that the scammers are given.
link to this extract


Snap tumbles for first time since IPO after analysts say sell • Bloomberg

Shelly Hagan:

»

After a euphoric public market debut, Snap Inc. shares dropped for the first time in three days after analysts began weighing in with their thoughts on the company’s true valuation.

The parent company of disappearing-photo app maker Snapchat priced shares in its initial public offering last Wednesday and they surged 44% on the first day of trading. On Friday the stock climbed a further 11%. By Monday, five of the seven analysts who cover the company had a sell rating on it while two said hold.

No analyst recommends buying the stock, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Not all analysts are able to give their opinion on the stock yet, since those who work at banks involved in the IPO are prevented from doing so for a while.

Snap fell as much as 9%, to $24.61 and was trading at $25.41 at 11:47 a.m. in New York. That values the company at about $29bn.

“Academic literature suggests that the sexier and more glamorous a company’s IPO, the more likely it is to be overpriced at its IPO date and to suffer meaningful downwards earnings and valuation revisions in the first eight quarters after it goes public,” wrote Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham & Co., in a note to investors. She said Snap’s value is more like $19 to $23 a share.

«

There’s no sensible way to value Snap. And no point in owning its shares beyond speculation on a rise or fall.
link to this extract


Wearables as a platform, new 2017 and 2018 Apple Watch sales estimates, deep dive into 4q16 wearables market • Above Avalon members

From Neil Cybart’s paid-for daily news analysis of things Apple-y and related, in which he goes to town on IDC’s estimates for the wearables market (excluding AirPods) in 4Q 2016:

»

I have significant issues with IDC’s report and commentary. 

For example: 
• Who are these low-cost wearables competitors in the U.S. eating Fitbit’s market share in 2H16? IDC doesn’t name them. In reality, Fitbit’s troubles are increasingly found with consumers embracing higher-priced wearables containing additional utility. This is why Fitbit is running upmarket as fast as they can.

• Xiaomi is using a low-cost wearables strategy? The company is selling $15 plastic step and sleep trackers. This is like saying a phone company selling a $20 pay as you go phone with no apps is using a low-cost smartphone strategy. Xiaomi should not be included in the same discussion as Apple Watch or Fitbit. 

• While Apple Watch sales hit a record during 4Q16, unit sales were up 20% year-over-year. Calling this a “magnificent success” seems a bit hyperbolic, as if the Watch was a complete flop in 4Q15. 

• We discussed Garmin’s 4Q16 results a few weeks ago. I don’t know how IDC reached their estimate of Garmin selling 2.1M wearables at an ASP of $258 during 4Q16. Even if we assumed every dollar found in Garmin’s Fitness and Outdoors segments was related to wearables, which wasn’t the case, Garmin would have sold at most 1.4M to 1.5M wearables. In reality, Garmin likely sold less than 1M wearables. In addition, IDC says Garmin customers moved to higher-end devices that are able to do more than fitness tracking – this is the exact opposite of IDC’s main thesis for the wearables market. 

• IDC positions cellular smartwatches as a key to smartwatch sales success. Yet Samsung is the only company shipping cellular smartwatches at volume and they aren’t selling well compared to Apple Watch. 

«

In particular, IDC only quoting Xiaomi’s unit sales figures, and not revenue, seems unhelpful for understanding what’s going on. (And this is why you should subscribe to the Above Avalon newsletter, to get information like this.)
link to this extract


Electronic energy meters’ false readings almost six times higher than actual energy consumption • University of Twente

»

For quite some time now, rumours have been rife about electronic energy meters that give excessively high readings in practice. This prompted Prof. Leferink to investigate electronic meters, to see whether they can indeed give false readings. Together with co-workers Cees Keyer and Anton Melentjev from AUAS, he tested nine different electronic meters in this study. The meters in question were manufactured between 2004 and 2014. The meters were connected, via an electric switchboard, to a range of power-consuming appliances, such as energy saving light bulbs, heaters, LED bulbs and dimmers. The researchers then compared the actual consumption of the system with the electronic energy meter’s readings.  

In the experiments (which were entirely reproducible), five of the nine meters gave readings that were much higher than the actual amount of power consumed. Indeed, in some setups, these were up to 582% higher. Conversely, two of the meters gave readings that were 30% lower than the actual amount of power consumed.

The greatest inaccuracies were seen when dimmers combined with energy saving light bulbs and LED bulbs were connected to the system. According to Mr Keyer (lecturer Electrical Engineering at the AUAS and PhD student at the UT)  “OK, these were laboratory tests, but we deliberately avoided using exceptional conditions. For example, a dimmer and 50 bulbs, while an average household has 47 bulbs.” 

The inaccurate readings are attributed to the energy meter’s design, together with the increasing use of modern (often energy-efficient) switching devices. Here, the electricity being consumed no longer has a perfect waveform, instead it acquires an erratic pattern. The designers of modern energy meters have not made sufficient allowance for switching devices of this kind.

When they dismantled the energy meters tested, the researchers found that the ones associated with excessively high readings contained a ‘Rogowski Coil’ while those associated with excessively low readings contained a ‘Hall Sensor’. Frank Leferink (Professor of Electromagnetic Compatibility at the UT) points out that “The energy meters we tested meet all the legal requirements and are certified. These requirements, however, have not made sufficient allowance for modern switching devices”.

«

I think 582% is actually nearly seven times higher. (100% higher = 2x, 200% = 3x, and so on.) Moral: use percentages over 100 with great care, and never use those over 199; you’ll confuse yourself and everyone else.

Meanwhile, the findings are a concern. LEDs typically turn on and off incredibly fast. Standard meters maybe can’t deal with it.
link to this extract


BMW says ‘nein’ to Android Auto • TechCrunch

Frederic Lardinois:

»

I sat down with Dieter May, BMW’s senior vice president of Digital Services and Business Models (in an i3, of course).

During our conversation, we touched upon quite a few topics, ranging from self-driving cars, to the future of car ownership and the new business models that in-car technology enables. “We offer [Apple’s] CarPlay as an option but not Android Auto,” he said. “We believe the changes that are coming to the inside of the car and the user experience — like self-driving cars — you have to control the customer interface. That’s part of the brand experience and for that, I don’t want to have an Android screen and I especially want to be able to deeply integrate these systems.”

He expects that the car of the future (especially when we’re talking about autonomous cars) will offer far more personalization options, which in turn will enable new business models, too.

“If you have six screens in the car, you also get gesture control, voice control with a personal assistant, etc.,” May said. “You need to have control over that user experience — maybe you can get away with it if you’re a ‘mass producer,’ but not in the premium segment.”

«

Writing note: I don’t need to know that Lardinois sat down with May. It might be nice for Lardinois to say so, but the rest of us really don’t care. (“Told me” will do fine.) And I’d hope that he’d “touch upon quite a few topics” as a matter of course. It’s like a boring chef explaining how they cooked chips. Too much web “news” writing, never having had to cope with print’s strict wordcount tyranny, is flabby, slow and self-regarding.
link to this extract


Your understanding of the size of countries and continents is completely wrong • Relatively Interesting

»

The Mercator projection is a cylindrical map projection of a sphere to a two dimensional surface created by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. It became the standard map projection for nautical purposes, and although the linear scale is equal in all directions around any point, the Mercator projection distorts the size of objects as the latitude increases from the Equator to the poles, where the scale becomes infinite.

As a result of these distortions…

• Greenland appears larger than Africa, but in reality Africa’s area is 14 times greater and Greenland’s is comparable to Algeria’s alone.
• Africa also appears to be roughly the same size as Europe, when in reality Africa is nearly 3 times larger.
• Alaska takes as much area on the map as Brazil, when Brazil’s area is nearly 5 times that of Alaska.
• Finland appears with a greater north-south extent than India, although India’s is greater.
• Antarctica appears as the biggest continent (and would be infinitely large on a complete map), although it is actually the fifth in area.

«

You already knew that Mercator was a convenient lie, but it’s nice to be reminded how much of a lie. (When it’s shown to children for the first time, is that fake news?) There’s a clever infographic accompanying the article, with questions and answers to: which is bigger, the US (inc. Alaska) or Russia? Is Colombia smaller or bigger than the UK? Is Tanzania the same size as Germany, smaller, or bigger?
link to this extract


Google’s “One True Answer” problem: when featured snippets go bad • Search Engine Land

Danny Sullivan says that he was happy when Google Home answered his question about whether guinea pigs can eat grapes:

»

I remember distinctly when this question first came to my mind. I had my refrigerator open. My guinea pig, hearing me in the kitchen, started squeaking for a treat. I saw the grapes in the fridge and wondering if he could eat them. Normally, that would mean shutting the fridge and finding my phone or computer to type a query. But I called out this question to the Google Home in my kitchen and got an immediate answer.

That is an incredible competitive advantage that Google has over Amazon, as well as Apple and Microsoft, when it comes to providing answers. The others are far more tightly curtailed in providing direct answers from databases and vetted resources. That makes them less prone to problematic results but also less helpful for a wide range of queries that people have.

Turning off featured snippets means Google will lose its competitive advantage with Google Home, as well as with spoken queries to smartphones. That’s why I think it’s unlikely this will happen. Google will likely tolerate the occasional bad attention for its problematic One True Answers for what it considers the greater good to its users and its competitive standing in keeping them.

Is there a way for Google to keep the good that featured snippets provide without causing problematic results? Not perfectly. Google processes over 5 billion queries per day, and even if featured snippets appear in only 15% of those at the moment (according to the Moz SERP features tracker), that’s nearly a billion One True Answers per day. Humans can’t vet all those.

But Google could consider not showing featured snippets in its web search results, when queries are typed. There’s no particular need for it to elevate one answer over the others in this way. By losing this display, it might force users to better use their own critical thinking skills in reviewing 10 possible answers that they are provided.

For spoken queries, having a One True Answer repeated — when it’s correct — is undoubtedly helpful. To better improve there, Google might revisit the sites it allows to appear as resources. This could include vetting them, as it does with Google News. Or, it could make use of some algorithm system to determine if a site is deemed to have enough authority to be featured.

«

I think “incredible competitive advantage” is wildly overstating things. Google Home and Amazon Echo are at the Californian Early Adopter stage. Giving the wrong (wildly, racistly, Nazist-y) answer is a competitive disadvantage, unless you’re trying to tap into the Californian Nazi Early Adopter market, which really *is* small.

As for “enough authority to be featured”, isn’t that meant to have already happened before it appears in the search results? Google “tolerating” things might seem like a good plan, until the bad publicity buries it. And it is really not going to be popular with any but the Californian Nazi Early Adopter market at this rate.

The mission statement of “organising the world’s information and making it accessible” might not include “showing you what’s true”. But people assume that. If they think Google isn’t doing that, bad things could follow for Google.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start up: economists v robots, the trouble ahead for bots, night of the zombie smartphones, and more


Google’s “One True Answer” system is spouting racism and falsehoods; does Google want to fix it, and can it if so? Photo by kalleboo 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 12 links for you. None visited by the Russian ambassador. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Should economists be more concerned about artificial intelligence? • Bank Underground

Mauricio Armellini and Tim Pike, writing on the Bank of England’s blog:

»

Hermann Hauser argues there were nine new General Purpose Technologies (GPTs) with mass applications in the first 19 centuries AD, including the printing press, the factory system, the steam engine, railways, the combustion engine and electricity. GPTs by definition disrupt existing business models and often result in mass job losses in the industries directly affected. For example, railways initiated the replacement of the horse and carriage, with resultant job losses for coachmen, stable lads, farriers and coach builders. Most of these GPTs took several decades to gain traction, partly because of the large amounts of investment required in plant, machinery and infrastructure. So there was sufficient time for the economy to adapt, thus avoiding periods of mass unemployment.

But the pace of technological progress sped up rapidly since the 19th century. Hermann identifies eight GPTs in the 20th century alone, including automobiles, aeroplanes, the computer, the internet, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Most recent innovations have been scalable much more quickly and cheaply. They have also been associated with the emergence of giant technology corporations — the combined market capitalisation of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook is currently about $2½ trillion. The faster these new waves of technology arise and the cheaper they are to implement, the quicker they are deployed, the broader their diffusion, the faster and deeper the rate of job loss and the less time the economy has to adapt by creating jobs in sectors not disrupted by GPTs.

And some technologies are evolving at lightning speed, such as the ongoing exponential increase in computing power. Computers have evolved in the past 40 years or so from initially being merely calculators to having applications that include smartphones and, in conjunction with the internet and big data, driverless cars, robots and the “Internet of Things”.

Looking to the future, how might these new GPTs affect the economy? The retail and distribution sector currently has over five million jobs. In the not too distant future, most consumer goods could be ordered online and delivered by either autonomous vehicles or drones. The warehouses in which the goods are stored could be almost entirely automated. Bricks and mortar stores might largely disappear.

«

TL:DR: robots and automation could overwhelm what we think of as work a lot more quickly than we expect.
link to this extract


How YouTube is changing our viewing habits • NPR

Zeynep Tufekci, talking on NPR:

»

A platform like YouTube has algorithms designed to recommend to you things that it thinks will be more engaging. And what I’ve found is that whatever I watched, it would push a more hardcore version of whatever it was I was watching across the political spectrum. So something that I found really striking was that if I watched Donald Trump rallies, I would get recommended white supremacist conspiracy theories. And you have examples from radicalized, you know, extremists when, some of their interviews, they talk about going down the rabbit hole of YouTube.

Scott Simon: I remember somebody once sent me a video purporting to show that man never landed on the moon. And there – for a couple of days thereafter, I had eight or 10 similar videos, each of them more convincing than the other, showing me why man never landed on the moon. Now, I don’t mind crawling out on a limb and saying, that is false, man landed on the moon. But at the same time, it makes you wonder, you know, people, who don’t consider themselves dumb will watch some of those videos and say, see, this proves it. I mean, that was the case of the person who sent it to me. Does YouTube or any other platform have some kind of responsibility not to put misinformation on their site?

TUFEKCI: So there’s two things going on. On the one hand, we do have freedom of speech. So if somebody wants to claim we never landed on the moon, I can see that as freedom of speech. But there’s no freedom to necessarily be recommended by YouTube, right? So what I see happening and what I see as troublesome is that if you watch something like that, YouTube could recommend to you something debunking falsehoods saying hey, check this out, right? Or…

SIMON: I mean, after seeing that video, I got a lot of stuff saying 9/11 never happened.

«

This is the other side of the Google result problem: YouTube’s “relevance” algorithm pushes people off towards mad stuff because it’s “more engaging” – that is, people (without critical faculties) watched it for longer than the stuff people know about, which is that 9/11 was perpetrated by Al Qa’ida and people have walked on the moon.
link to this extract


“And here’s what happens if you ask Google Home “is Obama planning a coup?” • Twitter

Rory Cellan-Jones is the BBC’s longstanding technology correspondent; he made a short video:

»

And here’s what happens if you ask Google Home “is Obama planning a coup?”

https://twitter.com/i/videos/tweet/838445095410106368?embed_source=clientlib&player_id=0&rpc_init=1

«

(I hope the video plays.)

There’s also this article at The Outline by Adrianne Jeffries:

»

Many of Google’s direct answers are correct. Ask Google if vaccines cause autism, and it will tell you they do not. Ask it if jet fuel melts steel beams, and it will pull an answer from a Popular Mechanics article debunking the famous 9/11 conspiracy theory. But it’s easy to find examples of Google grabbing quick answers from shady places.
Would you trust an answer pulled from the anti-vaccine alternative health content farm Mercola.com?

How about an answer from the Facebook page of a white nationalist group in Australia?

Would you trust a system that falls for a Monty Python joke?

What about a system that thinks Barack Obama is the current king of America — first because of an answer sourced from a Breitbart article, and now because of an article criticizing that answer?

«

It’s clear that Google’s “One True Answer” responses are woefully wrong in many important ways (The Outline offers another relating to whether any US Presidents have been members of the Ku Klux Klan). It really is time to kill it: it’s not working (because like YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, it relies on what people click, not what’s true), and it’s not fixable without a colossal human effort that Google won’t be willing to make.
link to this extract


Five AI startup predictions for 2017 • Bradford Cross

Cross is a founding partner at a venture capital company that has invested in machine learning startups. His prediction list is short:

»

1. Bots go bust

2. Deep learning goes commodity

3. AI is cleantech 2.0 for VCs [and hence ripe for a bust from disappointed overinvestment; it isn’t a separate feature but part of a stack]

4. MLaaS [machine learning as a service] dies a second death

5. Full stack vertical AI startups actually work

«

He goes on to explain them in more detail.
link to this extract


As Messenger’s bots lose steam, Facebook pushes menus over chat • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

»

Instead of forcing users to talk with a bot, developers can choose to create a persistent menu that allows for multiple, nested items as a better way of displaying all the bots’ capabilities in a simple interface.

The new persistent menus are limited to three items at the top-level, and its sub-menus are now limited to five. Before, if users wanted to engage with a menu like this, they often had to engage in conversations with the bot to discover the various sections and items.

Now, Facebook suggests to developers that they “consider stripping such exchanges down and cutting to the chase by putting the most important features in your menu.”

For example, a retailer’s bot might offer menu options that let you “go shopping,” “ask questions,” or “send messages.” If you clicked into the shopping section, the menu could update with a list of items to drill down into, like tops, bottoms, shoes and accessories.

«

This feels like it’s heading towards something that isn’t a bot.
link to this extract


Hidden backdoor found in Chinese-made equipment. Nothing new! Move along! • Bleeping Computer

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

DblTek stands for DBL Technology, a Hong Kong-based company that manufactures IP phones, SIM servers, various types of VoIP equipment and cross-network gateways. According to a report from cyber-security firm Trustware, GoIP GSM gateways allows hidden remote Telnet access via an account named “dbladm” that provides root-level access to the device.

Unlike the default “ctlcmd” and “limitsh” Telnet accounts, the “dbladm” account is not included in the product’s documentation.

While the first two use user-set passwords, the backdoor account uses a challenge-response authentication scheme. This scheme presents users with a string, on which they can perform various operations and deduce the password.

Backdoor password can be easily computed
Trustwave researchers said this scheme is very easy to reverse engineer. An attacker can create automated scripts that read the challenge, compute the response, and authenticate on the device.

Once they log in, because users have root privileges, they can take full control of the device, listen to ongoing traffic, or use the equipment for other actions, such as DDoS attacks or for relaying malicious traffic.

Researchers say they tested GoIP 8-port GSM gateways, but they suspect that GoIP 1, 4, 16 and 32-port devices are affected as well since they use the same login binary in their firmware images.

«

Also linked in the story: 2012 report from a former Pentagon analyst saying China had backdoors in the equipment of 80% of the world’s telecoms.

link to this extract


An Android review for iOS users: conclusion (day 5) • BirchTree

Matt Birchler tried out Android, rather than iOS, for a month, and summed up his views of the differences over five days, culminating in this:

»

I think at the crux of my position can be best summed up by how fans of each platform talk about “power” features. If you asked me to give examples of the “power” of iOS, I would bring up:

• Extensive library of app extensions that let you share data nicely between apps.
• iMovie is a full consumer-grade video editing app.
• Ferrite is a shockingly powerful audio editor.
• Apps like Workflow and Launch Center Pro enable automations unlike anything we’ve seen on any computing platform before, and they make that power accessible to everyone.
• A rich third party ecosystem of apps built on powerful APIs are enabling people to slowly ditch their PCs for iPhones and iPads full time.

And when you ask me about the “power” of Android, this is what comes to mind:

• Ability to side-load apps not available on the Play Store.
• Custom launchers let you have a custom home screen
• Tasker allows me to make my phone do things based on the time of day, location, or other trigger.
• Ability to change default apps.
• Access to the file system.
• Ability to flash custom ROMs onto your device.

The notable difference in my two lists is that the iOS advantages have to do with you actually getting things done with your mobile device, while Android’s list is more about customizing the look of your device, as well as bringing over some more traditional PC features (file system and non-store software).

«

All four other posts are linked at the top of this piece, though the one on notifications differences is probably the most finely balanced in showing up the contrasts where both have strengths.
link to this extract


The night zombie smartphones took down 911 • WSJ

Ryan Knutson:

»

On a Tuesday night last October in Olympia, Wash., 911 operator Jennifer Rodgers stared at the list of incoming calls on her screen.

Normally, one or two calls at a time would trickle in at this hour. At 9:28 p.m., they began stacking up by the dozens like lines on an Excel spreadsheet.

An alarm alerting operators to unanswered 911 calls filled the room. It almost never sounds more than once. Tonight, it was going off constantly.

Ms. Rodgers had no idea what was happening. People in Olympia, a city of about 50,000 an hour’s drive south of Seattle, and the surrounding county were dialing 911 and hanging up before their calls were answered. Then they were dialing 911 again.

After about 15 minutes, a girl stayed on the phone long enough for Ms. Rodgers, a 911 operator for 15 years, to say through her headset: “Don’t hang up! Don’t hang up!”

“We didn’t mean to call 911!” the operator recalls the girl saying. “I’m not touching the phone! I’m not doing anything! I don’t know how to make it stop!”

For at least 12 hours on Oct. 25 and Oct. 26, 911 centers in at least a dozen U.S. states from California to Texas to Florida were overwhelmed by what investigators now believe was the largest-ever cyberattack on the country’s emergency-response system.

«

It transpires this attack works only against iPhones: it’s a shortcut leading to a link that is a “call” link, but rather than giving you a “cancel” option (as you get for a normal text string interpreted as a phone number) the iPhone assumes you must want to call the emergency number without delay.

Don’t try to copy it; the perpetrator may be facing a jail term. Meticulously reported.
link to this extract


How to keep messages secure • Teen Vogue

Nicole Kobie:

»

Heading to a protest, organizing with activists, or suddenly concerned about the politics of your parents? Don’t use SMS or Snapchat to chat about it – you need something safer.

To help you pick the right messaging app, Teen Vogue talked to a trio of security experts: Zeynep Tufekci, an associate sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, and the author of a book about networked protest; Alec Muffett, a software engineer who previously worked on security at Facebook; and Moxie Marlinspike, the security researcher who founded Open Whisper Systems, which developed the encryption used by WhatsApp and other messaging tools.

To secure your messaging, they advise three steps. First, update your apps and Android or iOS to the latest version. Second, set a long PIN of at least eight characters to unlock your handset. And third, avoid SMS for texting, instead using a secure messaging app – whether it’s Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or a stronger tool such as Signal.

«

A sign of the times, surely, that it’s a feature in Teen Vogue which clearly explains why and how to use secure messaging. (The article is by a freelance rather than a staff writer; next – no joke! – she’s going to be writing about antivirus.)
link to this extract


How Uber deceives the authorities worldwide • The New York Times

Mike Isaac on Uber’s “Greyball” system:

»

When Uber moved into a new city, it appointed a general manager to lead the charge. This person, using various technologies and techniques, would try to spot enforcement officers [who might try to block UberX drivers, on the basis they were essentially unregulated cab drivers].

One technique involved drawing a digital perimeter, or “geofence,” around the government offices on a digital map of a city that Uber was monitoring. The company watched which people were frequently opening and closing the app — a process known internally as eyeballing — near such locations as evidence that the users might be associated with city agencies.

Other techniques included looking at a user’s credit card information and determining whether the card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union.

Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations meant to catch Uber drivers would sometimes buy dozens of cellphones to create different accounts. To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees would go to local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones for sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials working with budgets that were not large.

In all, there were at least a dozen or so signifiers in the VTOS program that Uber employees could use to assess whether users were regular new riders or probably city officials.

If such clues did not confirm a user’s identity, Uber employees would search social media profiles and other information available online. If users were identified as being linked to law enforcement, Uber Greyballed them by tagging them with a small piece of code that read “Greyball” followed by a string of numbers.

When someone tagged this way called a car, Uber could scramble a set of ghost cars in a fake version of the app for that person to see, or show that no cars were available. Occasionally, if a driver accidentally picked up someone tagged as an officer, Uber called the driver with instructions to end the ride.

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Isaac, it should be noted, has been doing especially amazing work in the past few months.
link to this extract


#UberLove • LinkedIn

Kelly Snodgrass worked at Uber for two and a half years, though she now works at Snap:

»

I found myself advocating for my male counterparts as objectively, the contributions put forth by the female individuals were not as valuable as the contributions of their male counterparts… but this wasn’t because they were female. The interesting context behind this is that as you may have heard, Uber is a company where the best ideas win…where you have to both come up with the best idea, AND execute on that idea in the best way. It’s a damn hard place to be successful! But the key here is that gender does not play a role, rather talent does. Uber tries really hard to fairly reward individuals…regardless of gender, and I was lucky enough to experience this first hand. I am a woman and had a great experience and wild success at Uber.

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The best ideas win, eh? By definition, that means that identifying officials who might sic the regulations on Uber was a “best idea”, which tells you a great deal about Uber’s view of the outside world.
link to this extract


Uber’s VP of product and growth Ed Baker has resigned • Recode

Kara Swisher and Johana Bhuiyan:

»

Ed Baker, Uber’s VP of product and growth, has informed his team that he’s leaving the car-hailing company after more than three years.

In an email, the former Facebook exec wrote: “I have always wanted to apply my experience in technology and growth to the public sector. And now seems like the right moment to get involved.”

Before Uber — which he joined in 2013 along with former CFO Brent Callinicos and Uber SVP Emil Michael — Baker headed international growth at the social media giant for two years after the company acquired his dating app called Friend.ly in 2011.

With Baker’s leaving, marketplace head Daniel Graf will take over as acting head of product and growth. In addition, Uber has hired well-regarded Facebook product exec Peter Deng as head of its rider product. Also key in Graf’s organization is Aaron Schildkrout, who will be head of driver products.

But, because it is Uber, the Baker departure is complex: His resignation also comes at a time when Uber employees have complained about questionable behavior on his part.

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link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: iPhones will keep Lightning, AI for tennis linecalls, Counter-Strike’s gambling market, and more


What happened at Amazon? Imagine these are Amazon S3 servers. Now, knock one over… Photo by Tim Cummins 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.

Summary of the Amazon S3 Service Disruption in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region • Amazon

»

We’d like to give you some additional information about the service disruption that occurred in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region on the morning of February 28th. The Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) team was debugging an issue causing the S3 billing system to progress more slowly than expected. At 9:37AM PST, an authorized S3 team member using an established playbook executed a command which was intended to remove a small number of servers for one of the S3 subsystems that is used by the S3 billing process.

Unfortunately, one of the inputs to the command was entered incorrectly and a larger set of servers was removed than intended. The servers that were inadvertently removed supported two other S3 subsystems.  One of these subsystems, the index subsystem, manages the metadata and location information of all S3 objects in the region. This subsystem is necessary to serve all GET, LIST, PUT, and DELETE requests. The second subsystem, the placement subsystem, manages allocation of new storage and requires the index subsystem to be functioning properly to correctly operate.

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Can you spell “domino effect”? There’s also this deathless admission:

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From the beginning of this event until 11:37AM PST, we were unable to update the individual services’ status on the AWS Service Health Dashboard (SHD) because of a dependency the SHD administration console has on Amazon S3.

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Might want to think about that one. Host it on Azure? Google Cloud?
link to this extract


Ming-Chi Kuo Says all 2017 iPhones will have Lightning connectors with USB-C fast charging • Mac Rumors

Joe Rossignol:

»

All three iPhones rumored to be launched in 2017 will retain Lightning connectors with the addition of USB-C Power Delivery for faster charging, including an all-new OLED model with a larger L-shaped battery and updated 4.7in and 5.5in models, according to KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.

An excerpt from his latest research note obtained by MacRumors:

»

New 2H17 models may all support fast charging. We believe all three new iPhones launching in 2H17 will support fast charging by the adoption of Type-C Power Delivery technology (while still retaining the Lightning port). A key technical challenge lies with ensuring product safety and stable data transmission during a fast charge. In order to achieve that goal, we think Apple will adopt TI’s power management and Cypress’s Power Delivery chip solutions for the new iPhone models. We note the OLED version may have a faster charging speed thanks to a 2-cell L shaped battery pack design.

«

Kuo expects Apple to retain the Lightning port given it has a slightly slimmer design compared to a USB-C port, to sustain MFi Program licensing income from Lightning accessories, and because he believes USB-C’s high-speed data transmission is “still a niche application” for iPhone.

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The internet was briefly convulsed yesterday when rumours suggested the next iPhone would use a USB-C port, leading to much headscratching and pre-post-justification for why Apple obviously needed to do it in order to [insert nebulous reason here]. In reality, it always sounded much more likely that it was a supply chain rumour gone wrong.
link to this extract


Apple declares second-gen Apple TV ‘obsolete,’ halts most hardware support • Apple Insider

Roger Fingas:

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Apple this week added the second-generation Apple TV to its list of “vintage” and “obsolete” products, rendering it ineligible for repairs in most parts of the world.

The only places where service and parts may still be available are in Turkey and California, where the “vintage” label is in effect, according to an Apple support document. Vintage devices are defined as being made over 5 but less than 7 years ago, and the category typically excludes products from support except where required by law.

In the rest of the world the set-top has been declared “obsolete,” which normally refers to products discontinued over seven years ago.

The second-gen Apple TV is actually a more recent device however, having launched in Sept. 2010 with production ending only in 2012, when the third-gen model went on sale.

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I guess the 4K model is on the way. The five-year lifespan would be OK, but it has still been selling them until very recently.
link to this extract


This $200 AI will end tennis club screaming matches • Bloomberg

Ashlee Vance:

»

[Grégoire] Gentil, 44, now lives in Palo Alto and built the In/Out in his living room lab. The device monitors both sides of a tennis court using a pair of cameras similar to those found in smartphones. After attaching the In/Out to the net with a plastic strap, a player pushes a button on its screen, and it scans the court to find the lines using open-source artificial intelligence software. AI also helps the device track the ball’s flight, pace, and spin. “This would not have been possible five years ago,” Gentil says.

In a test at Stanford, Gentil and I played for an hour, and the In/Out beeped whenever one of his shots sailed long or wide. (I don’t remember missing any.) On close calls, we rushed over to watch a video replay on the In/Out screen. At hour’s end, Gentil whipped out a tablet and connected to the In/Out app, which showed where all our shots had landed and provided some other stats.

Although equipment like the In/Out has been around for years, Gentil’s is the only one that costs about as little as a decent racket. Top tournaments, including the Grand Slams, use Hawk-Eye, a Sony Corp.-owned system of superaccurate cameras that customers say costs $60,000 or more to set up on each court. Given the price, it’s typically reserved for show courts. Sony didn’t respond to requests for comment.

PlaySight Interactive Ltd., a startup in Israel, makes a six-camera system that’s less accurate than Hawk-Eye but costs a mere $10,000 per court, plus a monthly fee to collect data that can be reviewed online or in an app. PlaySight’s setup also includes a large screen that lets players see line calls and ball speed without interrupting the game. The company has sold its gear mostly to tennis clubs and universities.

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Fun tale; though the device is too quiet at present. Nobody would hear such a quiet thing on a noisy court. Also, it’s not clear if it knows about service boxes – what happens with serves, which are hotly disputed?
link to this extract


How Counter-Strike turned a teenager into a compulsive gambler • ESPN

Shaun Assel:

»

The first-person-shooter game pits terrorists against counterterrorists and was played by an average of 342,000 people at once in 2016. Its biggest tournaments, such as the ELeague Major scheduled for Jan. 22-29 in Atlanta, can have million-dollar prize pools and as many as 27 million streaming viewers. An estimated 26m copies of the $15 game have been downloaded since its debut four years ago, helping make its manufacturer, Valve, the world’s leading distributor of PC titles.

While other titles such as Call of Duty offer similar gameplay, one distinctive feature has helped fuel Counter-Strike’s growth: collectible items in the game called “skins.” Although they don’t improve anyone’s chances of winning, the skins cover weapons in distinctive patterns that make players more identifiable when they stream on services like Twitch. Users can buy, sell and trade the skins, and those used by pros become hotly demanded. Some can fetch thousands of dollars in online marketplaces.

Valve controls the skins market. Every few months, it releases an update to Counter-Strike with new designs. It decides how many of each skin get produced and pockets a 15% fee every time one gets bought or sold on its official marketplace, called Steam. Valve even offers stock tickers that monitor the skins’ constantly shifting values.

But Valve also leaves a door open into the programming of its virtual world, one that allows skins to move out of Steam and into a murky constellation of gambling websites, where they’re used as currency. Some $5bn was wagered in skins in 2016, according to research by the firms Eilers & Krejcik Gaming and Narus Advisors. While about 40% of them are bet on esports matches and tournaments, says Chris Grove, who authored a study for the companies, roughly $3bn worth flows to a darker corner of the internet – one populated by fly-by-night websites that accept skins for casino-style gaming. Here, the games are simple, the action is fast and new sites open as soon as others close. Plenty of adults visit these sites, but with virtually no age restrictions, kids are also able to gamble their skins — often bought with a parent’s credit card – on slots, dice, coin flips or roulette spins. At least one site even has pro sports betting.

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Remarkable reporting.
link to this extract


News use across social media platforms 2016 • Pew Research Center

»

A majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often, according to a new survey by Pew Research Center, conducted in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In 2012, based on a slightly different question, 49% of U.S. adults reported seeing news on social media.1

But which social media sites have the largest portion of users getting news there? How many get news on multiple social media sites? And to what degree are these news consumers seeking online news out versus happening upon it while doing other things?

As part of an ongoing examination of social media and news, Pew Research Center analyzed the scope and characteristics of social media news consumers across nine social networking sites. This study is based on a survey conducted Jan. 12-Feb. 8, 2016, with 4,654 members of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel.

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If I’m reading this correctly, it’s saying that Reddit and Facebook users particularly live inside news bubbles created by the site. Reddit isn’t algorithmic (though people self-select into silos); Facebook is, and that’s a concern: people won’t realise that their news tastes are being tailored to them.

link to this extract


Data from connected CloudPets teddy bears leaked and ransomed, exposing kids’ voice messages • Troy Hunt

The security researcher explains:

»

firstly, put yourself in the shoes of the average parent, that is one who’s technically literate enough to know the wifi password but not savvy enough to understand how the “magic” of daddy talking to the kids through the bear (and vice versa) actually works. They don’t necessarily realise that every one of those recordings – those intimate, heartfelt, extremely personal recordings – between a parent and their child is stored as an audio file on the web. They certainly wouldn’t realise that in CloudPets’ case, that data was stored in a MongoDB that was in a publicly facing network segment without any authentication required and had been indexed by Shodan (a popular search engine for finding connected things).

Unfortunately, things only went downhill from there. People found the exposed database online. Many people and the worrying thing is, it’s highly unlikely anyone knows quite how many. The first I knew of it was when earlier last week, someone sent me data from the table holding the user accounts, about 583k records in total (this subsequently turned out to be a subset of the total number in the CloudPets service). I started going through my usual verification process to ensure it was legitimate and by pure coincidence, I was in the US running a private security workshop at the time and one of the guys in my class had a CloudPets account. Sure enough, his email address was in the breach and it was time-stamped Christmas day, the day his daughter had been given the toy. His record looked somewhat like these, the first few in the data I was given:

The password was stored as a bcrypt hash and to verify it was legitimate, he gave me his original password (I asked him to change it on CloudPets first) and I successfully validated that the hash against his record was the correct one (I’d previously validated the Dropbox data breach by doing the same thing with my wife’s account). The data was real.

CloudPets left their database exposed publicly to the web without so much as a password to protect it.

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link to this extract


Flotilla of tiny satellites will photograph the entire Earth every day • AAAS

Mark Strauss:

»

On 14 February, earth scientists and ecologists received a Valentine’s Day gift from the San Francisco, California-based company Planet, which launched 88 shoebox-sized satellites on a single Indian rocket. They joined dozens already in orbit, bringing the constellation of “Doves,” as these tiny imaging satellites are known, to 144. Six months from now, once the Doves have settled into their prescribed orbits, the company says it will have reached its primary goal: being able to image every point on Earth’s landmass at intervals of 24 hours or less, at resolutions as high as 3.7 meters—good enough to single out large trees. It’s not the resolution that’s so impressive, though. It’s getting a whole Earth selfie every day.

The news has already sparked excitement in the business world, which is willing to pay a premium for daily updates of telltale industrial and agricultural data like shipping in the South China Sea and corn yields in Mexico. But scientists are realizing that they, too, can take advantage of the daily data—timescales that sparser observations from other satellites and aircraft could not provide.

“This is a game changer,” says Douglas McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who wants to use Planet imagery to map coral bleaching events as they unfold. At present, coral researchers often rely on infrequent, costly reconnaissance airplane flights. “The previous state of the science was, for me, like taking a family photo album and shaking out all the photos on the floor and then being asked to haphazardly pick up three images and tell the story of the family.”…

…Matt Finer, a researcher at the Amazon Conservation Association in Washington, D.C., gets weekly deforestation alerts based on Landsat images, but says they are too course to determine whether the damage is natural or human-caused. He now turns to Planet data to decide whether an event is concerning. He recalls one incident when his group spotted 11 hectares of forest loss in Peru, accompanied by extensive dredging—signs of an illegal gold mining operation. “The Peruvian government was on the ground within 24 to 48 hours, kicking the miners out,” he says. In previous years, Finer says, hundreds of hectares might be lost before anyone acted.

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The benefits this can provide to scientists are immense – once people get used to the amount of data they’re going to have to learn to process.
link to this extract


This site is “taking the edge off rant mode” by making readers pass a quiz before commenting • Nieman Journalism Lab

»

Two weeks ago, NRKbeta, the tech vertical of the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, published an explainer about a proposed new digital surveillance law in the country.

Digital security is a controversial topic, and the conversation around security issues can become heated. But the conversation in the comments of the article was respectful and productive: Commenters shared links to books and other research, asked clarifying questions, and offered constructive feedback.

The team at NRKbeta attributes the civil tenor of its comments to a feature it introduced last month. On some stories, potential commenters are now required to answer three basic multiple-choice questions about the article before they’re allowed to post a comment. (For instance, in the digital surveillance story: “What does DGF stand for?”)

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Wow. This could revolutionise commenting. Well, there’s always hope, right?
link to this extract


Samsung’s bill to take on Apple’s Siri topped $200 million • Axios

Ina Fried:

»

Samsung spent 238.9bn Korean Won ($209m) for last year’s acquisition of Viv Labs, a 30-person voice AI startup from the creators of Apple’s Siri. The figure was confirmed in a regulatory filing this week.

Viv’s technology, or at least a version of it, is expected to show up in the Galaxy S8, due to be unveiled in New York next month.

«

The regulatory filing is quite a slog. Apple paid roughly the same to buy Siri, but that was back in 2010 or so. A lot more has been put into it since then. And Samsung is plunging into a competitive market – Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa. It really risks having egg on its face.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: we previously referred to Paul Nuttall of UKIP as a Martian explorer and polar astronaut. This should have said that he likes Mars bars and Polo mints. We regret the error.

Start Up: strawberry green, Twitter cracks down on eggs, the smartphone squeeze, smarter Word?, and more


“Do those count as sedans?” Let machine learning decide whether it’s a prosperous town. Photo by swainboat 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 14 links for you. It’s that “started, can’t stop” thing. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This picture has no red pixels — so why do the strawberries still look red? • Motherboard

Kaleigh Rogers:

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This weekend marked the two-year anniversary of The Dress: the unfathomably viral photo of a dress that divided the internet for more than a week in 2015 over whether it was blue and black, or white and gold. So it’s appropriate that, on this auspicious date, an equally maddening photo recently started making the rounds online:

The photo was created by Akiyoshi Kitaoka, a Professor of Psychology at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, who specializes in creating optical illusions (his twitter feed will blow your mind). As you can see in the tweet above, this photo has no red pixels in it, even though the strawberries pictured clearly appear red. Though plenty of twitter users tried to argue this fact, another person demonstrated that the pixels we’re seeing as red are really grey (and a little green).

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Rogers said that she felt compelled to write the story after seeing the picture. A key part of it is that we recognise the objects as strawberries; if they were something that we’d never seen before, we wouldn’t know what colour they were meant to be.
link to this extract


US appeals court tosses patent verdict against Apple • Reuters

Jan Wolfe:

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A federal appeals court has thrown out a jury verdict that had originally required Apple to pay $533m to Smartflash LLC, a technology developer and licenser that claimed Apple’s iTunes software infringed its data storage patents.

The trial judge vacated the large damages award a few months after a Texas federal jury imposed it in February 2015, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said on Wednesday the judge should have ruled Smartflash’s patents invalid and set aside the verdict entirely.

A unanimous three-judge appeals panel said Smartflash’s patents were too “abstract” and did not go far enough in describing an actual invention to warrant protection.

The decision likely ends a case that had attracted wide attention when the verdict was rendered but had gone against the plaintiff ever since.

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Judges ruled the patents invalid. That’s a bust for Smartflash.
link to this extract


Twitter ramps up abuse controls as it lets users silence anonymous ‘eggs’ • Daily Telegraph

Sam Dean:

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Twitter users will now be able to automatically bar anonymous trolls from their timelines as the social media giant steps up its fight on abuse.

Twitter has introduced new filtering options that allow users to mute accounts without profile pictures, unverified email addresses and phone numbers.

Accounts that do not have profile pictures – also known as ‘Twitter eggs’ – have long been associated with abusive behaviour on the site, which has been criticised for not doing more to clamp down on the problem.

The platform also said that it is working on identifying abusive accounts even in cases where they have not been reported. It can then limit the accounts for a certain amount of time so that only their followers can see their tweets.

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Improvement, and only a couple of years overdue.
link to this extract


Apple deleted server supplier after finding infected firmware in servers [Updated] • Ars Technica

Sean Gallagher, first repeating and then updating a story from The Information about Apple dumping SuperMicro Systems over dodgy firmware:

»

Apple has used a variety of other companies’ server hardware—since the company got out of the server business itself and never used its own in datacenters—including servers from HP and storage from NetApp. A few years ago, Apple added Supermicro as a supplier for some of its development and data center computing infrastructure.

But Apple has been squeezing the cost of its data center supply chain and moving toward more custom hardware much like the other cloud giants. In August of 2016, Digitimes reported Apple was increasing its orders for full-rack systems from the integrator ZT Systems and adding the China-based Inspur as a server supplier.

Leng told The Information that Apple was the only company to report the firmware issue, and he said the servers are used by thousands of customers. He asserted that when his company asked Apple’s engineers to provide information about the firmware, they gave an incorrect version number—and then refused to give further information.

Update: A source familiar with the case at Apple told Ars that the compromised firmware affected servers in Apple’s design lab, and not active Siri servers. The firmware, according to the source, was downloaded directly from Supermicro’s support site—and that firmware is still hosted there.

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Wonder how the infection was spotted. Did it phone home?
link to this extract


YouTube, the world’s biggest video site, wants to sell you TV for $35 a month • Recode

Dan Frommer:

»

YouTube used to be the place you could watch almost anything you wanted, for free. Now YouTube wants to be the place that sells you TV.

Google’s video site is taking the wraps off YouTube TV, its new $35-a-month TV service that will package a bundle of channels from the broadcast networks and some cable networks.

YouTube says the service, which will sit in a new, standalone app, will launch later this spring. It’s separate from YouTube Red, the ad-free subscription service the company launched last year, which hasn’t had much success.

YouTube TV is supposed to be “mobile first” — that is, YouTube expects that subscribers will spend most of their time watching on phones, though they’ll also be able to watch on devices like laptops and traditional TVs, via Google’s Chromecast devices.

Like other new digital TV services, YouTube TV won’t offer every network that cable TV services provide; instead it will feature a “skinny bundle,” composed of the four broadcast networks — Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC — along with some of the cable channels related to the broadcasters. Which means you’ll also get networks like Fox News, ESPN and Bravo; YouTube execs say the base package will include about three dozen channels.

«

Neither Google nor Facebook is a media company, of course. Google is touting “cloud DVR” (replayable programs? How cute) and an AI-powered recommendation system. TiVo has offered the latter since 2000.

Plenty of analysis is saying this is a terribly milquetoast offering: none of the sports channels people really do want, but including tons of other things they don’t want. YouTube wants to be the destination for everything video, but it’s hard to see this being the breakthrough.
link to this extract


UK Digital Strategy: 7. Data – unlocking the power of data in the UK economy • GOV.UK

This is now official UK government policy:

»

The true potential of data can only be harnessed if it is open for use by others. The UK leads the world in open data, and the government is committed to building on this and being open by default. All official statistics are now published under the open government licence and we have made over 40,000 government datasets available through our data.gov.uk web-portal.

We also lead the world in the quality of our openly available geospatial data and we will continue to support innovators and businesses to use this data. This includes through the Ordnance Survey’s GeoVation programme which runs competitions to help entrepreneurs use geospatial data and technology to develop their ideas, and provides a Hub where new start-ups can access desk-space, mentoring, and legal and professional support.

But government still holds data that could be opened up for researchers, campaigners, established companies and entrepreneurs to use. It is our ambition to ensure data is shared wherever appropriate. This will help businesses and government to innovate, generate maximum economic value and help create new digital products and services that enhance citizens’ lives.

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11 years ago, Michael Cross and I started the Free Our Data campaign in the Guardian’s Technology section:

»

Britain’s public sector information is held by some 400 government departments, agencies and local authorities. Assets range from wills dating back to 1858, house values recorded in the Land Registry, maps and the risk of flooding to individual homes. Much is of great commercial interest, especially when it can be presented on innovative websites such as upmystreet.com. These sets of data are the modern crown jewels – but instead of treating them as a resource to boost national wealth, the government locks them up, restricting access to those who pay.

«

What was once controversial is now government policy.
link to this extract


Are China’s smartphone OEMs falling behind Apple on features upgrades? • Barrons.com

Shuli Ren:

»

according to Ken Hui at Huatai Securities, a mainland Chinese brokerage, smartphone manufacturers in China are struggling to sell phones that cost more than 3,000 yuan ($440), and they have started to remove expensive features such as dual cameras.

Hui’s bearish outlook does not bode well for Sunny Optical, which has rallied over 50% this year.

And it is not just dual cameras –  Chinese OEMs are foregoing 3D glass, waterproofing, and haptic technology too as they preserve margins. While Hui has a Sell rating on Sunny Optical, he has a Hold position on haptics supplier AAC Technologies, which has gained 19.5% this year. Haptics, or feedback technology, on smartphones enables the user to feel a tactile sensation when interacting with an application.

«

Notable that after Huawei’s headline-grabbing 3D Touch-style phone launched ahead of Apple’s 6S in 2014, there hasn’t been a sign of haptic Android phones. Too expensive, too little benefit. (Apple, meanwhile, has broader plans for haptics.)

link to this extract


Soaring prices of key components are starting to squeeze the margins of smartphone makers • TrendForce

»

The markets for key components used in smartphones have experienced rising prices since the second half of 2016 because of tightening supply. TrendForce’s latest analyses indicate that prices of mobile DRAM, mobile NAND Flash products and AMOLED panels will continue to climb through 2017. As smartphone brands will be raising hardware specifications of their products, they are also revealing their intentions to build up their inventories in advance. High prices of AMOLED panels and memory components during this entire year will constrain smartphone makers’ ability to attain greater profits…

…Samsung Display (SDC) this year will divide most its AMOLED panel capacity between its group company Samsung and Apple. The panel maker has very limited ability to satisfy the rising demand from other brands. Therefore, TrendForce believes that prices of AMOLED panels will most likely stay on an uptrend in the second half of 2017 because of persisting undersupply. On the other hand, prices of LTPS LCD panels for smartphones will begin to drop gradually starting in the second quarter on account of the overall production capacity expansion.

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The squeeze is beginning.

link to this extract


Watch Tesla Autopilot 2.0 drive like a drunk old man • Jalopnik

Ryan Felton:

»

The video from Tesla owner “Scott S.” shows his Model S driving with Autosteer and Traffic-aware cruise control (TACC) engaged while driving. It doesn’t go well. At times, the car veers toward curbs and merges across the double yellow line. Scott wrote in the comment section that he has driven that particular road at least 30 times, making the Autopilot failure seem even more strange.

A commenter hypothesized that the Model S sensors hadn’t been calibrated properly, but Scott replied that it’s likely not the hardware, rather a software issue “because I have two AP2.0 Teslas.”

The slow rollout of Autopilot 2.0 included a caveat from Tesla founder Elon Musk to exercise some caution when driving on the road. Musk also said some HW2 cars may require being serviced.

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Watching this, one’s thought tends to be: it looks like a big hassle. What’s so great about letting the car drive if you have to be constantly alert to the possibility that it’s going to veer off and you’ll have to wrestle with the steering wheel? And given how often updates in software involve bugs, who’d want to rush into installing x.0 of any self-driving software?
link to this extract


Pre-roll ads motivate 1 in 3 blockers to stop ads • GlobalWebIndex

Katie Young:

»

To provide a better advertising experience for its users, Google announced last week that by 2018 it will stop supporting 30-second unskippable ads on YouTube and will instead focus on shorter formats.

Such an approach makes absolute sense for YouTube and shows a proactive response to users’ ad preferences. If we take a look at the top reasons why Ad-Blocker Users deploy these tools, they’re most likely to be doing so out of frustration – believing that ads are annoying, take up too much screen space or simply get in the way. Above all, though, particularly relevant here is that a third say they don’t like seeing video ads before watching video content.

«

link to this extract


Using Deep Learning and Google Street View to estimate the demographic makeup of the US • Arxiv

Timnit Gebru, Jonathan Krause, Yilun Wang, Duyun Chen, Jia Deng, Erez Lieberman Aiden, and Li Fei-Fei:

»

The United States spends more than $1bn each year on the American Community Survey (ACS), a labor-intensive door-to-door study that measures statistics relating to race, gender, education, occupation, unemployment, and other demographic factors. Although a comprehensive source of data, the lag between demographic changes and their appearance in the ACS can exceed half a decade.

As digital imagery becomes ubiquitous and machine vision techniques improve, automated data analysis may provide a cheaper and faster alternative. Here, we present a method that determines socioeconomic trends from 50 million images of street scenes, gathered in 200 American cities by Google Street View cars. Using deep learning-based computer vision techniques, we determined the make, model, and year of all motor vehicles encountered in particular neighborhoods. Data from this census of motor vehicles, which enumerated 22M automobiles in total (8% of all automobiles in the US), was used to accurately estimate income, race, education, and voting patterns, with single-precinct resolution.

«

Though of course Google still has to do the Street View work, which quite possibly costs around $1bn; how often is GSV updated?

But there are some amazing correlations in there:

»

The resulting associations are surprisingly simple and powerful. For instance, if the number of sedans encountered during a 15-minute drive through a city is higher than the number of pickup trucks, the city is likely to vote for a Democrat during the next Presidential election (88% chance); otherwise, it is likely to vote Republican (82%).

«

If they do this as a time series (with Google’s help?) this could become a very valuable dataset.
link to this extract


Xiaomi launches its own chip, with an assist from Beijing • WSJ

Eva Dou:

»

Chinese government funding helped Xiaomi Corp. produce its first smartphone processor, the company’s chairman said as he unveiled the chip at a packed launch event in the China National Convention Center here Tuesday.

The support is the latest sign of China’s push to develop its semiconductor industry, which has included attempts to buy overseas chip companies for their technology. Xiaomi is the second Chinese smartphone maker, after Huawei Technologies Co., able to develop its own processors.

Xiaomi Chairman Lei Jun disclosed the government funding as he described development of the new Pinecone Surge S1 chip, which will power the company’s new budget smartphone, the Mi 5C. The phone goes on sale in China Friday, with a starting price of 1,499 yuan ($218).

The Beijing-based smartphone company typically thanks private-sector partners during its product launches. But on Tuesday, it flashed a slide that read: “Thanks for the government’s support.”

«

The question is quite what difference this can make for Xiaomi. Given that it runs its own OS inside China, it’s possible it might yield some benefit – but it’s a long road. It took Apple years, and a huge integrated system, to reap the value of buying PA Semi.
link to this extract


In video, Uber CEO argues with driver over falling fares • Bloomberg

Eric Newcomer:

»

the gig has gotten harder for longtime drivers. In 2012, Uber Black cost riders $4.90 per mile or $1.25 per minute in San Francisco, according to an old version of Uber’s website. Today, Uber charges $3.75 per mile and $0.65 per minute. Black car drivers get paid less and their business faces far more competition from other Uber services.

Kalanick has a reputation for being ferociously competitive and hard-charging. He’s the guy who has bragged about having earned the second-highest rank on Nintendo’s Wii tennis game. He’s still dogged by the fact that he once referred to Uber as “Boob-er” because it improved his dating prospects. Current and former employees say he can be empathetic when the mood strikes—or tyrannical when it doesn’t. Kalanick loves fighting over a good idea, which sometimes means admitting that his isn’t the best one. “Toe-stepping” is one of Uber’s cultural values.

Kalanick is trying to be a better listener.

«

But as the cab video shows, he’s not that great at it. Uber’s toxic culture is starting to seep out and create problems in its interactions with the world.

Also notable: one gets videoed everywhere these days. (A car on a public road is a public space in American law, apparently.)
link to this extract


Machine learning in Microsoft Word’s new editor gave me the frights • Venturebeat

John Brandon:

»

I’ve been writing professionally since 2001 (around 10,000 published articles now), but I’m still learning, I guess. The new Editor announced today (and available [in the US – ed] immediately if you select the Fast Insider option within Word under Settings) is like hiring a grammar nanny. The Editor scans all of your prose, alerting you to passive voice and jargon. It can identify words that “express uncertainty” (the suckers, it flagged dozens of instances). For example, in a document that’s 50,000 words (long story on that one, but you should buy it next year), I kept using words like “basically” and “maybe” over and over again. I zapped them because, now that I look back at the text, they add clutter.

How does Word know when to flag words? That’s where the AI comes into play. It’s interesting, because a simple AI would scan for all instances of the word “really” and flag them. Really? If it was that dense, it would have flagged the word in that last question, but it knows enough about language, context, and even one-word questions to know not to flag them.

Another interesting discovery: I’m a champion of active voice. I was educated about the problem long ago. (Oh crap, there it is again.) Word kept reminding me about it, over and over again, until I had some of the passivity beat out of me. Fixing these problems takes time, editing them for better phrasing, but the Editor shows up in a pane to the right when you select the “See More” option when you right-click. It often makes suggestions that save time.

«

Wonder how it copes with the usual impenetrable jargon that MS Word is asked to produce, such as air conditioning regulations. Will it rebel and demand more interesting stuff?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Amazon’s big outage, Google kills Pixel laptop, a USB-C iPhone?, the US’s new war on pot, and more


This might be the shape of future Alexa-powered call centres. But first you’d have to get it to work. Photo by Costa Rica Call Centres 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 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon AWS S3 outage is breaking things for a lot of websites and apps • TechCrunch

Darrell Etherington:

»

The S3 outage is due to “high error rates with S3 in US-EAST-1,” according to Amazon’s AWS service health dashboard, which is where the company also says it’s working on “remediating the issue,” without initially revealing any further details.

Affected websites and services include Quora, newsletter provider Sailthru, Business Insider, Giphy, image hosting at a number of publisher websites, filesharing in Slack, and many more. Connected lightbulbs, thermostats and other IoT hardware is also being impacted, with many unable to control these devices as a result of the outage.

Amazon S3 is used by around 148,213 websites, and 121,761 unique domains, according to data tracked by SimilarTech, and its popularity as a content host concentrates specifically in the U.S. It’s used by 0.8% of the top 1 million websites, which is actually quite a bit smaller than CloudFlare, which is used by 6.2% of the top 1 million websites globally – and yet it’s still having this much of an effect.

«

Be very interested to know what the cause is; it’s not clear at the moment. Some Apple services, Netflix, Expedia, The Verge and the US Securities and Exchange Commission also affected. Amazon S3 has quietly become the circulatory system of the internet.
link to this extract


JPMorgan software does in seconds what took lawyers 360,000 hours • The Independent

Hugh Son:

»

At JPMorgan, a learning machine is parsing financial deals that once kept legal teams busy for thousands of hours.

The program, called COIN, for Contract Intelligence, does the mind-numbing job of interpreting commercial-loan agreements that, until the project went online in June, consumed 360,000 hours of lawyers’ time annually. The software reviews documents in seconds, is less error-prone and never asks for vacation… [UK readers will note that this must be an American writing; a Brit would say ‘holiday’. – CA]

…As for COIN, the program has helped JPMorgan cut down on loan-servicing mistakes, most of which stemmed from human error in interpreting 12,000 new wholesale contracts per year, according to its designers.

JPMorgan is scouring for more ways to deploy the technology, which learns by ingesting data to identify patterns and relationships. The bank plans to use it for other types of complex legal filings like credit-default swaps and custody agreements. Someday, the firm may use it to help interpret regulations and analyze corporate communications.

«

link to this extract


Trump tweets and the TV news stories behind them • CNNMoney

Tom Kludt and Tal Yellin:

»

Whether from Trump Tower, his resort at Mar-a-Lago, or the White House Trump has reportedly spent a significant amount of time glued to the television screen, often firing out a response in nearly real-time to his millions of followers on Twitter.

Below, a running tally of each instance since Election Day in which the president’s tweet appears to have been prompted by something he had just seen on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN or another channel.

«

There are quite a few of them. This is a smart idea. You could also predict what’s going to happen day by day.

Also: watching that crap isn’t what a president should do. He’s either too easily distracted or not doing the job.
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Google calls ‘time’ on the Pixel laptop • TechCrunch

Frederic Lardinois:

»

In a small meeting with journalists at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, Google’s senior vice president for hardware Rick Osterloh dropped a little bit of news: It looks like the Pixel laptop — Google’s premium Chromebook and the original product bearing the Pixel name — has hit the end of the line after just two iterations.

The Pixel brand these days is now being used for Google’s new line of smartphones, which have done pretty well in the market, although the company has had some issues with supply and keeping up with demand, Osterloh said.

There may be future products that use the Pixel name and concept of building Google products from the ground up, integrating Google’s software into Google’s own hardware, but he hinted that laptops are not likely to be one of those categories.

«

Astonishing. So Google is giving up on its own products. Given that it is bringing Google Assistant to all Android phones, not just the Pixel phone – taking away its differentiation – how long does the latter have? This looks suspiciously like a change in strategy that has been decided quite recently.

Who’s going to trust a new Google product now?
link to this extract


Amazon Echo may get Voice ID feature • Time.com

Lisa Eadicicco:

»

The Seattle-based technology giant has been developing a feature that would allow the voice assistant that powers its Echo line of speakers to distinguish between individual users based on their voices, according to people familiar with Amazon’s Alexa strategy. The sources declined to be identified by name because they are not authorized to talk about the company’s future product plans. An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.

Alexa, like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, can interpret and respond to voice commands such as “How’s the weather?” or “What movies are playing tonight?” So far, though, none of the mainstream voice-enabled smart speakers have been able to distinguish who in a household is asking for something. Amazon’s new feature would match the person speaking to a voice sample, or “voice print,” to verify a person’s identity, according to a source. A primary account holder would be able to require a specific voice print to access certain commands. A user would, for example, be able to set it so that a parent’s voice would be required to make a credit card purchase or turn on the coffee machine through the Echo.

«

Completely logical development, though tricky to make work. (So much depends on the acoustics of a location, apart from anything.) As Jan Dawson points out, this is the sort of thing you’d expect Google to have done first – but Amazon is lapping it (and Apple) on this.

Also notable: Amazon is either leakier than it used to be, or is briefing more than it used to do because it sees it as important to get Echo into as many homes as possible before Google.
link to this extract


Google’s E2Email Gmail encryption looks a lot like vaporware • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

»

[Cryptography expert Matthew] Green, who has spoken to Google engineers about the project, says the End-to-End initiative never received the staffing necessary to push it forward. Today, he says, the total attention Google devotes to the project equates to a fraction of a single full-time staffer. “The upshot is that Google won’t be doing much more on end-to-end encryption,” Green says.

Google’s own security engineers, meanwhile, say that they’ve hardly abandoned their encryption push. But making email encryption easy, argues Google privacy and security product manager Stephan Somogyi, is far harder than it might seem to the public. Unlike WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, Gmail’s End-to-End project sought to bolt encryption onto email, an old protocol that still has to interoperate with billions of clients outside of Google’s control. And Somogyi points out that his engineers have also had to build and refine an entirely new library of crypto code in javascript, a necessary stepping stone for secure web-based encryption tools, and one widely believed to be unworkable a few years ago.

More recently, he says, the team has focused on the larger problem of key management—the tricky task of securely distributing, tracking, and looking up the unique encryption keys that allow users to decrypt encrypted messages and prove their identities. That problem has for decades dogged PGP, the encryption scheme Google bases its Gmail encryption project on. Google’s engineers are now working to solve it with a project called Key Transparency, along with researchers at Princeton, Yahoo, and Open Whisper Systems.

«

Plus there’s the problem of people just forwarding unencrypted stuff, or replying without the encryption turned on. It’s colossally hard; Google seems to have been wildly overconfident in announcing it in 2014.
link to this extract


This is how your hyperpartisan political news gets made • BuzzFeed News

Craig Silverman:

»

The websites Liberal Society and Conservative 101 appear to be total opposites. The former publishes headlines such as “WOW, Sanders Just Brutally EVISCERATED Trump On Live TV. Trump Is Fuming.” Its conservative counterpart has stories like “Nancy Pelosi Just Had Mental Breakdown On Stage And Made Craziest Statement Of Her Career.”

So it was a surprise last Wednesday when they published stories that were almost exactly the same, save for a few notable word changes.

After CNN reported White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was “sidelined from television appearances,” both sites whipped up a post — and outrage — for their respective audiences. The resulting stories read like bizarro-world versions of each other — two articles with nearly identical words and tweets optimized for opposing filter bubbles. The similarity of the articles also provided a key clue BuzzFeed News followed to reveal a more striking truth: These for-the-cause sites that appeal to hardcore partisans are in fact owned by the same Florida company.

«

I had been wondering if there weren’t hyperpartisan sites for the left. And of course, those enraged by Trump will be lured to them. (Reality might continue to disagree with what they read, though.)
link to this extract


Apple’s next iPhone will have a curved screen • WSJ

Takashi Mochizuki with the (confirmed, now) revelation that there will be an OLED iPhone with a curved edge, a la Samsung Galaxy Edge, this year:

»

The anticipation of an anniversary iPhone with OLED technology helped Apple’s share price climb to a record in February. The phone is expected to be priced at roughly $1,000, bringing the average selling price of an iPhone in Apple’s next fiscal year to $684 from $666, according to BMO Capital Markets.

So far, all iPhones have used liquid-crystal displays, long the standard for mobile devices and television sets.

People familiar with Apple’s plans said the iPhone releases this year would include two models with the traditional LCDs and a third one with the OLED screen.

They said Apple would introduce other updates including a USB-C port for the power cord and other peripheral devices, instead of the company’s original Lightning connector. The models would also do away with a physical home button, they said. Those updates would give the iPhone features already available on other smartphones.

«

I don’t think it will be a USB-C port. I agree with Nati Shochat – it’s more likely that it’s a USB-C-to-Lightning cable, so it’s a USB-C charger. Going with USB-C for the port would mean disrupting the millions of Lightning-compatible ports out there, and kill the licensing fees for the “MfI” (Made for iOS) stuff.

Then again, every year it doesn’t change the Lightning port it becomes a little harder to switch to USB-C, if that is indeed its long-term aim.

link to this extract


Sessions: Legal pot drives violent crime, statistics be damned • Thinkprogress

»

On Monday, days after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters to expect stricter enforcement of federal pot law, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recycled discredited drug war talking points in remarks of his own.

“I believe it’s an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that,” Sessions said. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”

In reality, violent crime rates tend to decrease where marijuana is legalized.

Denver saw a 2.2% drop in violent crime rates in the year after the first legal recreational cannabis sales in Colorado. Overall property crime dropped by 8.9% in the same period there, according to figures from the Drug Policy Alliance. In Washington, violent crime rates dropped by 10% from 2011 to 2014. Voters legalized recreational marijuana there in 2012.

«

The violent crime rate change doesn’t sound significantly different, but the property crime one does. Overall, there’s no link, broader data suggests. But we should maybe expect that Trump’s team won’t be interested in data, more just feelings.
link to this extract


AWS takes aim at call centre industry • The Information

Kevin McLaughlin:

»

Alexa is coming to customer call centers.

Amazon Web Services is preparing to sell software to help companies manage their call centers, based on software Amazon developed for its retail call centers, according to a person who’s been briefed on the plans. The new services also incorporate Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant to respond to questions from people on the phone, or sent via text, the person said.

AWS has begun pitching the new software, code-named Lily, to large insurance and health care customers, said the person. AWS is telling customers it may announce the product as early as mid-March. An AWS spokesman declined to comment.

The new product represents one of the biggest steps AWS has taken into enterprise apps—and the first big showcase for Alexa in the enterprise market. Thousands of companies around the world use call centers—called customer contact centers in industry jargon—to communicate with their customers via phone, email, instant messaging and other formats.

«

Lots and lots of call centres already use voice recognition, though; you can make calls where you never deal with a human. (And lots where the human is more like a machine, and knows less.) What’s Alexa going to bring to this? To quote the article:

»

How well Alexa will be able to understand the variety of questions coming from customers is sure to be a question facing AWS as it pitches the new service.

«

Well, yes.
link to this extract


Huawei staff fear cuts as smartphone profits disappoint • Reuters

Sijia Jiang and Harro Ten Wolde:

»

Huawei, which rose rapidly to become the world’s third largest smartphone maker, is aiming to narrow the gap with leaders Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics. But the company faces challenges after losing its top spot in China, the world’s biggest market, to new contender Oppo last year.

Huawei’s mobile unit missed an internal profit target for 2016 even though revenues exceeded targets, Richard Yu, head of its consumer business division that includes mobile device operation, told Reuters in an interview at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress this week.

“It is still profitable but the profit margin is very low,” Yu said of the unit that contributes around one third to the group’s revenue.

In an internal memo sent last Friday, Huawei Group founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei urged all employees to work hard, saying the company would otherwise “fall apart”.

“Thirty-something strong men, don’t work hard, just want to count money in bed, is that possible?,” Ren said in the memo seen by Reuters. “Huawei will not pay for those that don’t work hard.”

The remarks have unnerved some of Huawei’s 170,000-strong workforce, 45% of which are in research and development, a division said by Huawei staff in online communities to be most insecure.

“Everybody is nervous,” said a 36-year old engineer in Huawei’s consumer business unit who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“We are now all thinking more of the next steps, realizing permanent employment with the company is no longer a given.”

«

45% in R&D? That implies either that the networking business is super-profitable, or that the company is badly unbalanced.
link to this extract


Mozilla acquires Pocket to gain a foothold on mobile devices • The Verge

Casey Newton:

»

Mozilla has acquired Pocket, a kind of DVR for the internet, for an undisclosed sum. The nine-year-old company, which makes tools for saving articles and videos to view them later, is Mozilla’s first acquisition. It represents a homecoming of sorts for Pocket, which began life as a Firefox extension before eventually expanding its team and building a suite of apps for every major platform. Pocket has been Firefox’s default read-it-later service since 2015.

Mozilla said Pocket, which it will operate as an independent subsidiary, would help bring the company to mobile devices, where it has historically struggled to attract users. Best known for its Firefox web browser, Mozilla has faltered in the mobile era, spending years on its failed Firefox phone project and waiting until 2016 to release Firefox on iOS globally. Meanwhile, the slow decline of the desktop web has made Mozilla’s broader future uncertain.

Pocket comes to the table with 10 million monthly active users and a set of existing and potential businesses new to Mozilla, including advertising, a premium subscription service, and analytics for publishers. And unlike Mozilla’s existing mobile products, people seem to enjoy using it. “We love the way that they have the user-first mentality, very similar to the way we drive our products,” said Denelle Dixon, Mozilla’s chief business and legal officer. “It hasn’t just been about how much revenue they can glean from their product.”

«

Which is a good thing, because it doesn’t glean much revenue, and it’s unclear how it can. Mozilla has a problem: if the Yahoo search deal ends, it’s going to struggle to find revenues comparable with the good days when Google paid plenty to be its default search engine.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: a previous Start Up referred to Paul Nuttall of UKIP as “the polar explorer and Martian astronaut”. This should have read “Martian explorer and polar astronaut.” We regret the error.

Start Up: YouTube’s extreme views, the US travel solution, Singhal out at Uber, the tablet conundrum, and more


Sony should be able to capture moments like this with its new smartphone camera – if you’re quick enough. Photo by nebarnix 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 13 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How YouTube serves as the content engine of the internet’s dark side • BuzzFeed News

Joseph Bernstein:

»

All this is a far cry from the platform’s halcyon days of 2006 and George Allen’s infamous “Macaca” gaffe. Back then, it felt reasonable to hope the site would change politics by bypassing a rose-tinted broadcast media filter to hold politicians accountable. As recently as 2012, Mother Jones posted to YouTube hidden footage of Mitt Romney discussing the “47%” of the electorate who would never vote for him, a video that may have swung the election. But by the time the 2016 campaign hit its stride, and a series of widely broadcast, ugly comments by then-candidate Trump didn’t keep him out of office, YouTube’s relationship to politics had changed.

Today, it fills the enormous trough of right-leaning conspiracy and revisionist historical content into which the vast, ravening right-wing social internet lowers its jaws to drink. Shared widely everywhere from white supremacist message boards to chans to Facebook groups, these videos constitute a kind of crowdsourced, predigested ideological education, offering the “Truth” about everything from Michelle Obama’s real biological sex (760,000 views!) to why medieval Islamic civilization wasn’t actually advanced.

Frequently, the videos consist of little more than screenshots of a Reddit “investigation” laid out chronologically, set to ominous music. Other times, they’re very simple, featuring a man in a sparse room speaking directly into his webcam, or a very fast monotone narration over a series of photographs with effects straight out of iMovie. There’s a financial incentive for vloggers to make as many videos as cheaply they can; the more videos you make, the more likely one is to go viral.

«

The mystery to me is why there aren’t gigantic left-wing conspiracy video makers. Or are there, and we just haven’t heard about them? (Which would imply they aren’t gigantic, wouldn’t it?)

YouTube’s role in all this has been overlooked, though, I think. Fake news sites are one thing, but YouTube’s “related” links and built-in automatic play is the sort of thing that can take you quite far afield very quickly. (That might be worth an experiment.)
link to this extract


Uber’s SVP of engineering is out after he did not disclose he left Google in a dispute over a sexual harassment allegation • Recode

Kara Swisher:

»

Amit Singhal has left his job at Uber as its SVP of engineering because he did not disclose to the car-hailing company that he left Google a year earlier after top executives there informed him of an allegation of sexual harassment from an employee that an internal investigation had found “credible.”

Singhal was asked to resign by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick this morning.

Uber execs found out about the situation after Recode informed them of the chain of events between Singhal and the search giant this week.

Sources at Uber said that the company did extensive background checks of Singhal and that it did not uncover any hint of the circumstances of his departure from Google. Singhal disputed the allegation to Google execs at the time.

«

Of course this story would be by Swisher: she is basically Silicon Valley’s router, via whom every bit of information eventually travels. This is an astonishing tale. Singhal’s departure from Google in February 2016 was a surprise. There sure isn’t anything about assault claims, unfounded or otherwise, in his goodbye letter.
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Donald Trump’s ‘shadow president’ in Silicon Valley • POLITICO

»

“Once Election Day came and went, Peter Thiel was a major force in the transition,” said a senior Trump campaign aide. “When you have offices and you bring staff with you and you attend all the meetings, then you have a lot of power.” At the Presidio, the old Army fort in San Francisco where Thiel’s investment firms are housed, many of his employees have taken to calling him “the shadow president.”

The notion is not entirely absurd. If Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, is one ideological pillar of the Trump White House, Thiel, operating from outside the administration, is the other. Bannon’s ideology is a sort of populist nationalism, while Thiel’s is tech-centric: He believes progress is dependent on a revolution in technology that has been largely stymied by government regulation.

Thiel is a contrarian by nature, and his support for Trump was a signature long-shot bet that is paying big dividends in terms of access to and influence on the new administration.

Trump’s surprise victory in November also gave Thiel a renewed faith in the possibilities of politics, and he has worked around the clock to push friends and associates into positions that will give them sway over science and technology policy, an area he believes has been routinely neglected under previous administrations.

That helps to explain why Jim O’Neill, a managing director at Thiel’s venture capital firm, Mithril Capital Management, is now being considered to run the Food and Drug Administration. O’Neill served at the Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration but has no medical background. He has argued that drugs should not have to go through clinical trials to prove their efficacy before they are sold to consumers.

«

Could we instead test them on Thiel? Or O’Neill. I’m not fussy.
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Trump administration re-evaluating self-driving car guidance • Reuters

David Shepardson:

»

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said on Sunday she was reviewing self-driving vehicle guidance issued by the Obama administration and urged companies to explain the benefits of automated vehicles to a skeptical public.

The guidelines, which were issued in September, call on automakers to voluntarily submit details of self-driving vehicle systems to regulators in a 15-point “safety assessment” and urge states to defer to the federal government on most vehicle regulations.

Automakers have raised numerous concerns about the guidance, including that it requires them to turn over significant data, could delay testing by months and lead to states making the voluntary guidelines mandatory…

…Chao said she was “very concerned” about the potential impact of automated vehicles on employment. There are 3.5 million U.S. truck drivers alone and millions of others employed in driving-related occupations.

«

That last bit suggest that self-driving vehicles might not get the clear road they’re hoping for.
link to this extract


Samsung’s disjointed OS strategy poses a hurdle for users • PCWorld

Agam Shah:

»

Samsung has taken a siloed approach to product development, said Werner Goertz, lead Samsung analyst at Gartner. The strategy is deeply rooted in the company’s flawed organizational structure, in which divisions often compete instead of cooperating, producing products that don’t work the same way.

Unlike at Apple, Goertz said, “there is a lack of coherence, consistency, and a comprehensive user experience. Over time it’ll be important to have a consistent user experience.”

The new Galaxy Books, for example, highlight the lack of unity in the company’s VR strategy. Samsung’s Gear VR headset works with some Android Galaxy handsets, but the company has no Windows-based VR device that connects to the new Galaxy Books.

Samsung declined to comment on whether it is developing a VR headset for its Windows devices. But the company’s goals appear to include the development of a multipurpose headset that could work with Windows as well as Android devices, and possibly a separate, untethered headset.

«

link to this extract


The tablet computer is growing up • Tech.pinions

Ben Bajarin:

»

In a research study we did in the second half of 2016 on consumers usage and sentiment around PCs and tablets, 67% of consumers had not even considered replacing their PC/Mac with an iPad or Android tablet.

As you may have seen, the tablets trend line is not encouraging.

While it is true the PC trendline isn’t much better, over the past year or so a fascinating counter-trend has been happening in the PC industry. The average selling price of PCs is actually increasing. In the midst of the tablet decline, many consumers are realizing they still need a traditional laptop or desktop and are spending more on such computers than in many years past. Our research suggests a key reason is because consumers now understand they want a PC which will last since they will likely keep it for 6 years or more. They understand spending to get a quality product, one that won’t break frequently or be a customer support hassle, is in their best interests and they are spending more money on PCs than ever before. This single insight is a key source of my concern for the tablet category.

«

As he notes, anyone who has a workflow set up on a PC is probably going to be reluctant to set up a new one on an iPad.
link to this extract


Stop fabricating travel security advice • Medium

“The Grugq” (who is, convincingly, an information security researcher):

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Recently travel to the US has become even more stressful as CBP have been more aggressively exercising their authority to examine digital devices. Their theory goes something like “we can open a cargo container to check whats inside therefore we can open a digital device to check whats inside.” Along with the apparent increase in searching traveller’s laptops and phones, there has been a rise in amateur smuggling suggestions (seemingly by US citizens who aren’t exposed to any risk at the border.) This advice is terrible, dangerous and possibly endangers anyone reckless enough to follow it.

Rather than collecting the garbage advice, I’ll bundle it all into a generic set of terrible ideas and the flawed beliefs that underpin them. To be absolutely crystal clear — DO NOT DO THESE THINGS!

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His suggestion of what you should do is simpler: “Use travel hardware: laptop, iPad, iPhone. Take only the data you need. Create accounts for travel gear. Use different user/pass.”
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Sony Xperia XZ Premium announced: 4K HDR screen, memory-stacked camera, and Snapdragon 835 • The Verge

Vlad Savov:

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Beside the (very) nice display, Sony’s new flagship phone also has a new camera system called Motion Eye. The curious thing with this setup is that Sony has embedded fast memory right into the camera stack, allowing it to produce another world first for phones: super-slow motion of 960fps at 720p resolution. This rapid burst lasts for only 0.18 seconds, so technically you’re only capturing something closer to 180 frames, but the effect is still quite compelling when stretched out to a regular 30fps. I can imagine myself capturing water splashes and other blink-of-an-eye moments just for fun. And fun is, after all, what modern cameras are primarily about.

The addition of the extra memory also helps Sony to start buffering shots as soon as the camera detects motion in the frame — so that when you press the shutter button, there’s absolutely no lag, the camera will just pull the image it was already taking at that moment. This is the sort of system that will rely heavily on good autofocus, and Sony is bringing back the triple-sensor system from the Xperia XZ: there’s laser AF, an RGBC infrared sensor for adjusting white balance on the fly, and an updated ExmorRS image sensor. The latter now has 19% larger pixels, stepping down resolution to 19 megapixels. Sony’s Bionz image processing engine has also been upgraded with better motion detection and noise reduction.

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A fifth of a second? That’s really going to require amazingly precise timing. Mistime your button press, and you’ve missed it. Notable that Sony is going after the camera element, though.

Of note: Sony is the only Android OEM beside Samsung that I know is making an operating profit on its phones. (Huawei might be, but it’s unlikely.)
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Intel on the outside: the rise of artificial intelligence is creating new variety in the chip market, and trouble for Intel • The Economist

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This unipolar world [of Intel processors] is starting to crumble. Processors are no longer improving quickly enough to be able to handle, for instance, machine learning and other AI applications, which require huge amounts of data and hence consume more number-crunching power than entire data centres did just a few years ago. Intel’s customers, such as Google and Microsoft together with other operators of big data centres, are opting for more and more specialised processors from other companies and are designing their own to boot.

Nvidia’s GPUs are one example. They were created to carry out the massive, complex computations required by interactive video games. GPUs have hundreds of specialised “cores” (the “brains” of a processor), all working in parallel, whereas CPUs have only a few powerful ones that tackle computing tasks sequentially. Nvidia’s latest processors boast 3,584 cores; Intel’s server CPUs have a maximum of 28.

The company’s lucky break came in the midst of one of its near-death experiences during the 2008-09 global financial crisis. It discovered that hedge funds and research institutes were using its chips for new purposes, such as calculating complex investment and climate models. It developed a coding language, called CUDA, that helps its customers program its processors for different tasks. When cloud computing, big data and AI gathered momentum a few years ago, Nvidia’s chips were just what was needed.

Every online giant uses Nvidia GPUs to give their AI services the capability to ingest reams of data from material ranging from medical images to human speech. The firm’s revenues from selling chips to data-centre operators trebled in the past financial year, to $296m.

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Just who are these 300 ‘scientists’ telling Trump to burn the climate? • The Guardian

John Abraham:

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If you read the headlines, it might have seemed impressive: “300 Scientists Tell Trump to Leave UN Climate Agreement.” Wow, 300 scientists. That’s a lot right? Actually, it’s a pitiful list.

First of all, hardly anyone on the list was a climate scientist; many were not even natural scientists. It is almost as though anyone with a college degree (and there are about 21 million enrolled in higher education programs just in the USA) was qualified to sign that letter.

Okay but what about the signers of the letter? Surely they are experts in the field? Not so much. It was very difficult to find the list of signers online however I was able to acquire it with some help. See for yourself – Google “300 scientists letter climate change” in the past week. You will see many stories in the press, but try finding the actual letter or the list of names. The version I obtained was dated February 23, 2017 which helps narrow your searching. In an era of Dr. Google, it is unbelievable that the letter itself was not made more available.

Okay but let’s get to the central issue. These 300 scientists must be pretty good at climate science, right? Well let’s just go through the list, alphabetically.

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This is excellent journalism – the sort that is so rare. WattsUpWithThat, a climate change denial site, has the letter and the list of signatories. Would be wonderful to crowdsource the precise qualifications of all the signatories. The letter includes the deathless phrase “carbon dioxide is not a pollutant”. Imagine your own experiments to persuade them otherwise.
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Popcorntime offers victims a choice: pay the ransom or infect your friends • Security TC

Eric Vanderburg:

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PopcornTime is a newly-discovered form or ransomware that is still in the development stages but operates off a disturbing principle: Victims who have their files encrypted by PopcornTime can agree to pay the ransom, or they can choose to send the ransomware to friends. If two or more of those friends become infected and pay the ransom, the original victim gets their files decrypted for free.

The process is reminiscent of the movie, “The Ring,” where victims who had watched a film had seven days to make a copy of a killer movie, or they would die.

Researchers on the MalwareHunterTeam discovered PopcornTime, which shouldn’t be confused with another application with the same name that is used for streaming and downloading movie torrents.

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Confusion is probably part of the plan, though. It feels like an awful psychological experiment.
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FCC to halt rule that protects your private data from security breaches • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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The Federal Communications Commission plans to halt implementation of a privacy rule that requires ISPs to protect the security of its customers’ personal information.

The data security rule is part of a broader privacy rulemaking implemented under former Chairman Tom Wheeler but opposed by the FCC’s new Republican majority. The privacy order’s data security obligations are scheduled to take effect on March 2, but Chairman Ajit Pai wants to prevent that from happening.

The data security rule requires ISPs and phone companies to take “reasonable” steps to protect customers’ information—such as Social Security numbers, financial and health information, and Web browsing data—from theft and data breaches.

“Chairman Pai is seeking to act on a request to stay this rule before it takes effect on March 2,” an FCC spokesperson said in a statement to Ars. 

The rule would be blocked even if a majority of commissioners supported keeping them in place, because the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau can make the decision on its own.

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Amazing. Just amazing.
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Fitbit defends step goal after experts criticise 10,000 a day target as meaningless • Daily Telegraph

James Titcomb:

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“Fitbit’s mission to help people lead healthier, more active lives by empowering them with data, inspiration, and guidance to reach their goals,” a spokesman said.

“We understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ option in fitness, so our users are able to customize all of their health and fitness goals, including steps.”

It comes after experts said many apps and fitness devices have no real evidence base, and that the 10,000 steps a day goal was based on a small study of Japanese men dating back to 1960.

“Some of you might wear Fitbits or something equivalent, and I bet every now and then it gives you that cool little message ‘you did 10,000 steps today’,” Dr Greg Hager, an expert in computer science at Johns Hopkins University, told delegates at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston.

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There are steps, and there are steps.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified