Start Up No.963: the headphones vulnerable to hacking, Amazon gets chippy, tracking a novel’s progress, AutoCAD malware?!, and more


Amazon’s new Textract might be able to OCR the text – and tables – if you can scan it. CC-licensed photo by Thom Watson on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How restaurants got so loud • The Atlantic

Kate Wagner:

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Other sounds that reach 70 decibels include freeway noise, an alarm clock, and a sewing machine. But it’s still quiet for a restaurant. Others I visited in Baltimore and New York City while researching this story were even louder: 80 decibels in a dimly lit wine bar at dinnertime; 86 decibels at a high-end food court during brunch; 90 decibels at a brewpub in a rehabbed fire station during Friday happy hour.

Restaurants are so loud because architects don’t design them to be quiet. Much of this shift in design boils down to changing conceptions of what makes a space seem upscale or luxurious, as well as evolving trends in food service. Right now, high-end surfaces connote luxury, such as the slate and wood of restaurants including The Osprey in Brooklyn or Atomix in Manhattan.

This trend is not limited to New York. According to Architectural Digest, mid-century modern and minimalism are both here to stay. That means sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears. No soft goods and tall ceilings mean nothing is absorbing sound energy, and a room full of hard surfaces serves as a big sonic mirror, reflecting sound around the room.

The result is a loud space that renders speech unintelligible. Now that it’s so commonplace, the din of a loud restaurant is unavoidable. That’s bad for your health—and worse for the staff who works there. But it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.

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link to this extract


Sennheiser headset software could allow man-in-the-middle SSL attacks • Bleeping Computer

Lawrence Abrams:

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When users have been installing Sennheiser’s HeadSetup software, little did they know that the software was also installing a root certificate into the Trusted Root CA Certificate store. To make matters worse, the software was also installing an encrypted version of the certificate’s private key that was not as secure as the developers may have thought.

Similar to the Lenovo SuperFish fiasco, this certificate and its associated private key, was the same for everyone who installed the particular software. Due to this it could allow an attacker who was able to decrypt the private key to issue fraudulent certificates under other domain that they have no control over. This would allow them to perform man-in-the-middle attacks to sniff the traffic when a user visits these sites.

While these certificate files are deleted when a user uninstalls the HeadSetup software, the trusted root certificate was not removed. This would allow an attacker who had the right private key to continue to perform attacks even when the software was no longer installed on the computer.

According to a vulnerability disclosure issued today by security consulting firm Secorvo these certificates were discovered when doing a random check of a computer’s Trusted Root Certificate CA store.

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Whaaaat. Some time later:

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Now that they had access to the private key for the root certificate, they were able to generate a wild card certificate that signs traffic from google.com, sennheiser.com, and for fun, some of the headset maker’s competitors – jbl.com, harmankardon.com, and bose.com.

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link to this extract


Amazon Textract: extract text and data • AWS

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Amazon Textract is a service that automatically extracts text and data from scanned documents. Amazon Textract goes beyond simple optical character recognition (OCR) to also identify the contents of fields in forms and information stored in tables.

Many companies today extract data from documents and forms through manual data entry that’s slow and expensive or through simple optical character recognition (OCR) software that is difficult to customize. Rules and workflows for each document and form often need to be hard-coded and updated with each change to the form or when dealing with multiple forms. If the form deviates from the rules, the output is often scrambled and unusable.

Amazon Textract overcomes these challenges by using machine learning to instantly “read” virtually any type of document to accurately extract text and data without the need for any manual effort or custom code.

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Ooo. There’s a free tier. Or $1.50 per thousand pages. Now in preview. (Is that Amazonese for “beta”?)
link to this extract


Amazon Web Services introduces its own custom-designed Arm server processor, promises 45% lower costs for some workloads • GeekWire

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After years of waiting for someone to design an Arm server processor that could work at scale on the cloud, Amazon Web Services just went ahead and designed its own.

Vice president of infrastructure Peter DeSantis introduced the AWS Graviton Processor Monday night, adding a third chip option for cloud customers alongside instances that use processors from Intel and AMD. The company did not provide a lot of details about the processor itself, but DeSantis said that it was designed for scale-out workloads that benefit from a lot of servers chipping away at a problem.

The new instances will be known as EC2 A1, and they can run applications written for Amazon Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and Ubuntu. They are generally available in four regions: US East (Northern Virginia), US East (Ohio), US West (Oregon), and Europe (Ireland).

Intel dominates the market for server processors, both in the cloud and in the on-premises server market. AMD has tried to challenge that lead over the years with little success, although its new Epyc processors have been well-received by server buyers and cloud companies like AWS.

But lots of companies have tried and failed to build attractive server processors using the Arm architecture, which enjoys the same market share in mobile phones as Intel does in the data centre.

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Amazon bought its own company to do this. It’s able to figure out the cost-benefit because it knows precisely what it needs the chips to do, rather than the generalised ones that other companies have tried to sell it. That’s what the ARM architecture tends to be about.
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C M Taylor on ‘keystroke logging project’ with British Library • English and Drama blog

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Re-entering the academic world after starting work as an Associate Lecturer on the Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University, I began speculating about writers’ archives. Did previous scholars have access to more hand-written and typed drafts of works in progress – actual objects showing the shaping of works of art – but with the normalisation of computerized authorship, were these discrete drafts abolished in the rolling palimpsest of write and digital rewrite?

Plus, I was considering a new novel myself, but as I have written elsewhere, emotionally I was daunted by the long-haul loneliness of novel writing, a process I considered in my most despairing moments as like wallpapering a dungeon.

I spoke to my friend Mark about these two things – the lost drafts and the loneliness – and in a flash he had the answer: ‘Put a piece of malware on it.’

He meant that if I put some malware, or spyware, on my computer to note everything I did, it would record all changes made to an evolving manuscript, plus it might offer a weird kind of company for me in my wallpapered dungeon.

It was worth a shot.

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Generated 222GB of data across 108,318 files.
link to this extract


Bloomberg is still reporting on challenged story regarding China hardware hack • The Washington Post

Eric Wemple is the WaPo’s media critic:

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In emails to employees at Apple, Bloomberg’s Ben Elgin has requested “discreet” input on the alleged hack. “My colleagues’ story from last month (Super Micro) has sparked a lot of pushback,” Elgin wrote on Nov. 19 to one Apple employee. “I’ve been asked to join the research effort here to do more digging on this … and I would value hearing your thoughts (whatever they may be) and guidance, as I get my bearings.”

One person who spoke with Elgin told the Erik Wemple Blog that the Bloomberg reporter made clear that he wasn’t part of the reporting team that produced “The Big Hack.” The goal of this effort, Elgin told the potential source, was to get to “ground truth”; if Elgin heard from 10 or so sources that “The Big Hack” was itself a piece of hackery, he would send that message up his chain of command. The potential source told Elgin that the denials of “The Big Hack” were “100% right.”

According to the potential source, Elgin also asked about the possibility that Peter Ziatek, senior director of information security at Apple, had written a report regarding a hardware hack affecting Apple. In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Ziatek says that he’d never written that report, nor is he aware of such a document. Following the publication of Bloomberg’s story, Apple conducted what it calls a “secondary” investigation surrounding its awareness of events along the lines of what was alleged in “The Big Hack.” That investigation included a full pat-down of Ziatek’s own electronic communications. It found nothing to corroborate the claims in the Bloomberg story, according to Ziatek.

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Still wonder how Bloomberg is going to reverse the ferret on this one.
link to this extract


I’ve got a bridge to sell you: why AutoCAD malware keeps chugging on • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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The attacks aren’t new. Similar ones occurred as long ago as 2005, before AutoCAD provided the same set of robust defenses against targeted malware it does now. The attacks continued to go strong in 2009. A specific campaign recently spotted by security firm Forcepoint was active as recently as this year and has been active since at least 2014, an indication that malware targeting blueprints isn’t going away any time soon.

In an analysis expected to be published Wednesday, company researchers wrote:

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CAD changed our modern life and, as an unfortunate side effect, industrial espionage also changed along with it. Design schemes, project plans, and similar vital documents are being stored and shared between parties in a digital manner. The value of these documents–especially in new and prospering industries such as renewable energy–have probably never been this high. All this makes it attractive for the more skilled cybercriminal groups to chip in: instead of spamming out millions of emails and waiting for people to fall for it, significantly more money can be realized by selling blueprints to the highest bidder.

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Forcepoint said it has tracked more than 200 data sets and about 40 unique malicious modules, including one that purported to include a design for Hong Kong’s Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. The attacks include a precompiled and encrypted AutoLISP program titled acad.fas. It first copies itself to three locations in an infected computer to increase the chances it will be opened if it spreads to new computers. Infected computers also report to attacker-controlled servers, which use a series of obfuscated commands to download documents.

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link to this extract


Are you sitting down? Standing desks are overrated • The New York Times

Aaron Carroll:

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Let’s start with what we know about research on sitting, then explain why it can be misleading as it relates to work. A number of studies have found a significant association between prolonged sitting time over a 24-hour period and increased risk for cardiovascular disease. A 2015 study, for instance, followed more than 150,000 older adults — all of whom were healthy at the start of the study — for almost seven years on average. Researchers found that those who sat at least 12 hours a day had significantly higher mortality than those who sat for less than five hours per day.

A 2012 study in JAMA Internal Medicine followed more than 220,000 people for 2.8 years on average and found similar results. Prolonged sitting over the course of a day was associated with increased all-cause mortality across sexes, ages and body mass index. So did a smaller but longer (8.6 years on average) study published in 2015 in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health.

Another study from 2015, which followed more than 50,000 adults for more than three years, also found this relationship. But it found that context mattered. Prolonged sitting in certain situations — including when people were at work — did not have this same effect.

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I’m not going to take this news… sitting down. No, wait.

Why might that be? Sitting itself may not be the problem; it may be a marker for other risk factors that would be associated with higher mortality. Unemployed or poorer people, who would also be more likely to have higher mortality, may be more likely to spend large amounts of time sitting at home. For some, sedentary time is a marker, not the cause, of bad outcomes.
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Nintendo Switch loses shine with shipments seen missing target • Bloomberg

Yuji Nakamura:

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With few attractive titles for the holiday shopping season and shipments on track to fall short of the company’s targets, doubts are growing whether Nintendo Co.’s Switch can ever become a mass-market product.

When the device debuted last year as a hybrid console that could be carried around, it was classic Nintendo — a new gadget that broke the norms of conventional video games. Equipped with a built-in screen and hypersensitive controllers, the Switch was billed as a worthy successor to the Wii, Nintendo’s rule-breaking blockbuster console.

The goal was to make the gaming experience as seamless as possible, while letting people use the product in new ways, such as turning it into a virtual piano or motorcycle. But so far, the Switch has struggled to find customers beyond a core fan base. The Switch is on track to reach 35 million unit shipments by March, according to the average of eight analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg, short of Nintendo’s target of 38 million.

After cramming its best franchises — Super Mario, Zelda and Splatoon — into the first 12 months, the Kyoto-based company was left with fewer games to show off in the second year, hurting hardware sales. Cardboard accessories introduced in April, called Nintendo Labo, have mostly failed to expand interest beyond those who were already planning to pick up a Switch.

“All great consoles need a great second year, and Nintendo hasn’t delivered one for the Switch,” said Cornelio Ash, an analyst at William O’Neil & Co. in Los Angeles. “Investors thought over five years they could sell maybe 90 million units. But after this year, that’s looking pretty much impossible.”

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link to this extract


KodakOne allegedly owes developers over $100K in unpaid invoices • The Next Web

“Mix”:

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In a series of email exchanges reviewed by Hard Fork, a group of contractors has accused KodakOne for failing to pay up their contracting fees in the agreed timeframe. The contractors are collectively seeking to receive over $125,000 in accumulated invoices, according to an email sent by a UK-based law firm on their behalf.

“Unfortunately apologies and unfulfilled promises of a payment proposal are not enabling my client to pay the people that did the work for [KodakOne],” the email shared with Hard Fork read. “Time is short and in the absence of any meaningful payment proposal, court proceedings will be commencing in [seven] days.”

The email was sent on behalf of European recruiting agency iFindTech, which purportedly helped KodakOne find talent to build its platform. The email was sent by law firm London Law Practice on October 26.

Indeed, the email exchanges show that at some point iFindTech reps advised contractors to cease work on KodakOne until all owed funds have been paid out.

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Kodak has some problems.
link to this extract


Killing 3ve: how the FBI and tech industry took down a massive ad fraud scheme • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

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In August 2017, the FBI organized a secret meeting of digital advertising and cybersecurity experts in a secure room in a Manhattan federal building. The roughly 30 people in attendance met to create a coordinated response to a massive ad fraud scheme that posed a risk to the global digital advertising industry and sparked a criminal investigation.

After an introduction by FBI agents, representatives from Google and bot-detection firm White Ops outlined the details of what the tech employees say is one of the largest and most sophisticated digital ad fraud operations they’d encountered.

Sandeep Swadia, the CEO of White Ops, called it a “very complex, ever-shifting maze,” while Scott Spencer, a Google product manager, labeled it a “multiheaded beast” in exclusive interviews with BuzzFeed News.

Eventually, they gave it a name: 3ve (pronounced “eve”).

Today the Department of Justice announced it has unsealed a 13-count indictment against eight men for charges including wire fraud, computer intrusion, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering for their alleged role in masterminding and operating 3ve. The government alleges they stole tens of millions of dollars by using “sophisticated computer programming and infrastructure around the world to exploit the digital advertising industry through fraud.”

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link to this extract


US iOS users targeted by massive malvertising campaign • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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A cyber-criminal group known as ScamClub has hijacked over 300 million browser sessions over 48 hours to redirect users to adult and gift card scams, a cyber-security firm has revealed today.

The traffic hijacking has taken place via a tactic known as malvertising, which consists of placing malicious code inside online ads.

In this particular case, the code used by the ScamClub group hijacked a user’s browsing session from a legitimate site, where the ad was showing, and redirected victims through a long chain of temporary websites, a redirection chain that eventually ended up on a website pushing an adult-themed site or a gift card scam.

These types of malvertising campaigns have been going on for years, but this particular campaign stood out due to its massive scale, experts from cyber-security firm Confiant told ZDNet today.

“On November 12 we’ve seen a huge spike in our telemetry,” Jerome Dang, Confiant co-founder and CTO, told ZDNet in an email.

Dangu says his company worked to investigate the huge malvertising spike and discovered ScamClub activity going back to August this year.

“The difference is the volume,” Dango told us. “One of the reasons for the November 12 spike is that they were able to access a very large ad exchange. Previously they only had access to lower reputation ad networks which limited their visibility on premium websites.”

Dangu said that during the 48 hours during which the malvertising spike was active, 57% of Confiant’s customers were affected, showing the malvertising campaign’s huge reach.

He said that the malicious ads were created to look like ads for official Android apps (play.google.com), but in reality, they were engineered to hijack iOS US-based users and redirect them to ScamClub’s adult and gift card scams, where crooks tried to collect users’ personal and financial data via deceitful offers.

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link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: OK, so: it is the null allele of the CCR5 gene (mentioned in the story about a Chinese scientist altering babies’ DNA with CRISPR) which is of recent origin, according to Wikipedia, not the CCR5 gene itself. The point being though that the null allele seems to confer resistance against HIV, but has no obvious drawbacks. Well, apart from higher risk of a tick-borne encephalitis. Thanks to Chris Wolverton for pointing that out.

Start Up No.962: Google staff get restive, how will each MP vote?, bitcoin’s mining exodus, Android tablet pro, and more


Iran’s currency has crashed – and the Telegram app isn’t helping. CC-licensed photo by David Stanley on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Not regulated by the SEC. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Read Google employees’ open letter protesting Project Dragonfly

Sara Salinas and Jillian D’Onfro:

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Google employees are calling on the company to cancel Project Dragonfly, an effort to create a censored search engine in China.

“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” an open letter signed by Google employees published Tuesday on Medium says. “After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case.”

Eleven Google employees had signed the letter as of its posting, and the number of signatures quickly grew, amounting to more than 100 several hours after it published.

Project Dragonfly has drawn criticism from human rights groups and US politicians since The Intercept first reported details about the internal effort this summer, and in August, thousands of Google employees signed a letter saying that it raised “urgent moral and ethical issues.”

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Is Google losing its soul or finding it? Drifting away from its roots or rediscovering them? I get the feeling that the restive employees are actually trying to align the company with to its original utopian vision, of constantly improving the world through its products.
link to this extract


How will your MP vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal? • The Guardian

Jessica Elgot and Dan Sabbagh:

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MPs may support or oppose the bill for a number of reasons: those on the government payroll, including cabinet ministers, must support the bill or resign. Those who have already resigned from government on this issue can be expected to vote against, as can those who have already submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister. Those of all parties who are campaigning for a “people’s vote” are also expected to vote against.

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This is great – you can search for your MP by name or constituency. Of course, what people say or indicate today could all change in the next couple of weeks.
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The app destroying Iran’s currency • Foreign Policy

Rohollah Faghihi:

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As soon as it became clear that the United States would reimpose sanctions, many middle-class and wealthy Iranians felt a temptation to engage in currency trading, having concluded that the value of the rial would soon decline. For all these Iranians, the goal was to buy dollars. Some Iranians even sold their homes and invested the proceeds in dollars to preserve the value of their assets—or, simply, to secure a profit.

The fire sale of Iranian rials weakened the rial even further, and the Iranian government tried to arrest it in various ways, including by banning the official sale of foreign currency. But this only served to make the currency-trading market less transparent—and, correspondingly, more exploitative.

There has always been a gap between the more sophisticated currency traders and those driven by ignorance and fear, but the informal marketplace widened it. That has become especially evident on Tehran’s Ferdowsi Boulevard, the center of Iran’s informal money-changing economy, where anyone can bring rials in cash and walk away with U.S. bills.

In one instance on Ferdowsi, I recall seeing one elderly women bring the equivalent of her entirely yearly income and exchange it at a rate of 170,000 rials to the dollar—an offer significantly below what the rial was then worth, even as the consensus was that the currency was probably undervalued at that moment. The rial has yet to weaken to the point that the woman’s bet would have paid off.

Iran’s professional money traders increasingly use Telegram to exploit the black market’s lack of transparency to maximize their own profits, at the expense of their Iranian clients—and to the distress of the Iranian government. As one of the few social media or messaging apps that the Iranian government doesn’t censor, Telegram—specifically, the news feeds on its “channel” function, which allow posts to be distributed to anyone who chooses to sign up for them—has become one of the most trusted sources of news for Iranians, displacing state media and even ostensibly independent newspapers.

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link to this extract


600K bitcoin miners shut down in last 2 weeks, F2Pool founder estimates • CoinDesk

Wolfie Zhao:

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Between 600,000 and 800,000 bitcoin miners have shut down since mid-November, amid declines in price and hashrate across the network, according to the third-largest mining pool.

In an interview with CoinDesk, Mao Shixing, founder of F2pool, said his firm’s estimate takes into account the total network hashrate drop and the average hash power of older mining machines that are having a hard time generating profits.

According to data from blockchain.info, the bitcoin network’s entire hashrate, which captures the aggregated computing power on the world’s first blockchain, has dropped from around 47m tera-hashes per second (TH/s) on Nov. 10 to 41m on Nov. 24 – an almost 13% decline.

Mao explained most miners that may have halted operations are likely those using older models, such as the Antminer T9+ made by Bitmain and AvalonMiner 741 by Canaan Creative. These miners have an average hash power of around 10 TH/s and are estimated to be losing money right now, according to F2pool’s miner revenue index

…Stepping back, Mao said there are multiple factors that contributed to the shakeout among miners, including the recent market decline that followed the bitcoin cash hard fork on Nov. 15; an increase in electricity costs in China; and the fact that Chinese manufacturers are still racing to upgrade their products, making older machines increasingly uncompetitive.

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The bitcoin cash hard fork increasingly looks like a key reason for the price crash of the past couple of weeks, by forcing some miners to liquidate large amounts of bitcoin in order to buy new kit. The question is whether once they have new kit they will find anyone interested in the processing they have to offer.
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Check your repos… Crypto-coin-stealing code sneaks into fairly popular NPM lib (2m downloads per week) • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

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A widely used Node.js code library listed in NPM’s warehouse of repositories was altered to include crypto-coin-stealing malware. The lib in question, event-stream, is downloaded roughly two million times a week by application programmers.

This vandalism is a stark reminder of the dangers of relying on deep and complex webs of dependencies in software: unless precautions are taken throughout the whole chain, any one component can be modified to break an app’s security. If your project uses event-stream in some way, and you should check to make sure you didn’t fetch and install the dodgy version during testing or deployment.

Here’s how it all started: a developer identified on GitHub as “right9control” volunteered to take over event-stream, which had been built by another dev. The JavaScript was then briefly updated to include another module, flatmap-stream, which was later modified to include Bitcoin-siphoning malware – prompting alarm yet again that those pulling third-party packages into their apps have no idea what that code may be doing.

A timeline can be found here, but in short: on September 9, right9control added flatmap-stream as a dependency to event-stream, and then on September 16, removed the dependency by implementing the code themselves. However, this latter change was not automatically pushed out to the library’s users. On October 5, flatmap-stream was altered by a user called “hugeglass” to include obfuscated code that attempted to drain Bitcoins from wallets using the software.

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As he says, the interdependencies and reliance on third-party code is becoming a serious problem. Recall that the British Airways hack earlier this summer occurred in a broadly similar way: BA’s site was hacked so that a small bit of code loaded from BA’s site for baggage checkin would send credit card details to a hacking group.
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Special report: little known to many investors, cryptocurrency reviews are for sale • Reuters

Anna Irrera:

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Earlier this year, Ukrainian startup Hacken was looking to promote its new coin after raising $3m online in late 2017. Chief executive Dmytro Budorin and his team identified a list of almost 200 cryptocurrency social media personalities they thought could help them, he said.

Hacken paid $7,500 for Christopher Greene, host of Alternative Media Television – a YouTube channel with more than 500,000 subscribers – to review its coin in a video, Budorin told Reuters. In the 25-minute video, published on June 22, Greene raved about Hacken’s coin and business, describing it as a “huge market opportunity” with “potential 1,000x returns.”

Nowhere in the video – which has more than 92,000 views – is Hacken’s payment to Greene mentioned. Greene, who used to work for wealth management firm Merrill Lynch, directs viewers in the first minute of the video to a disclaimer on his website that states he “may receive compensation for products and services” that he recommends. There is no specific mention of Hacken, or any specific cryptocurrency issuers, paying him.

Greene did not respond to emails and phone messages from Reuters asking about his work for Hacken.

Four days after the YouTube review was published, Greene turned to Twitter to brag that Hacken’s coin was up 14% on the day to $1.54 per coin.

Some people paid attention. Carter Zurawel, a yoga instructor in Calgary, Canada, replied to Greene’s tweet: “That Hacken video was great man! Made me buy a couple hundred.”

The token’s price has since fallen by more than 75% to 36 cents. Zurawel told Reuters in Twitter messages that he lost much of his initial investment, worth several hundred dollars. He said he was not aware that Greene was paid for his Hacken video, but he shrugged off the poor performance of the currency. “I will probably hold onto it because I strongly believe that the cryptocurrency market will rally in the future,” he told Reuters.

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🙄
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Fortnite hits 200 million registered users • Fortune

Chris Morris:

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If you’re a parent who’s tired of Fortnite, we’ve got some bad news for you. It’s not going anywhere.

Epic Games reports the number of registered users for the game has hit 200 million—up from 125 million in June and a mere 40 million in January.

That’s a phenomenal growth rate for the free-to-play game, which has turned into a cash machine for Epic and its part owner Tencent Games as players spend freely on in-game items.

The title, which crossed the $1 billion dollar sales threshold in July, has become a touchstone in the gaming world. New releases from competitors now need to include a battle royale multiplayer mode, offering their own take on the gameplay style. This is where players are dropped into an ever-shrinking area and the last one alive wins the game.

Both Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Take-Two Interactive Software’s Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, have competing modes.

While 200 million is an impressive number of registered users, it’s unclear how many of those users are actively playing the game. Earlier this month, Fortnite hit a record of 8.3 million concurrent players.

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Lots registered, but few active? Then again, wait for the school holidays.
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Facebook is failing its black employees and its black users • Mark Luckie on Facebook

Luckie sent this memo (excerpted here) Facebook-wide on his last day at the company earlier this month:

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Black people are one of the most engaged demographics on Facebook…

Black people are far outpacing other groups on the platform in a slew of engagement metrics. African Americans are more likely to use Facebook to communicate with family and friends daily, according to research commissioned by Facebook. 63% use Facebook to communicate with family, and 60% use Facebook to communicate with friends at least once a day, compared to 53% and 54% of the total population, respectively. 70% of black U.S. adults use Facebook and 43% use Instagram, according to the Pew Research Center. 55% of black millennials report spending at least one hour a day on social networking sites, 6% higher than all millennials, while 29% say they spend at least three hours a day, 9% higher than all millennials, Nielsen surveys found. Black people are driving the kind of meaningful social interactions Facebook is striving to facilitate.

…but their experiences are sometimes far from positive.

Black people are finding that their attempts to create “safe spaces” on Facebook for conversation among themselves are being derailed by the platform itself. Non-black people are reporting what are meant to be positive efforts as hate speech, despite them often not violating Facebook’s terms of service. Their content is removed without notice. Accounts are suspended indefinitely.

When these rulings are upheld with little recourse, it upends the communities of color Facebook claims to be supporting. It decreases the likelihood that people will continue to engage at the same level on our platform. Even high-profile figures who are plagued with these issues sometimes have to wait until it’s a major press story for it to be addressed.

There is a prevailing theory among many black users that their content is more likely to be taken down on the platform than any other group. Even though the theories are mostly anecdotal, Facebook does little to dissuade people from this idea. Black people continue to use the platform because for many it is still their best way to connect directly with the causes they care about. Our communities should be able to trust that we have their best interests at heart.

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link to this extract


Working on an Android tablet, 2017 edition • Henri Bergius

Bergius is a startup worker and programmer, and uses a Google Pixel C tablet with its keyboard for all his daily work:

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So, why work on Android instead of getting an iPad Pro? I’ve actually worked on both, and here are my reasons:

• Communications between apps: while iOS has extensions now, the ability to send data from an app to another is still a hit-or-miss. Android had intents from day one, meaning pretty much any app can talk to any other app
• Standard charging: all of my other devices charge with the same USB-C chargers and cables. iPads still use the proprietary Lightnight plug, requiring custom dongles for everything
• Standard accessories: this boils down to USB-C just like charging. With Android I can plug in a network adapter or even a mouse, and it’ll just work
• Ecosystem lock-in: we’re moving to a world where everything — from household electronics to cars — is either locked to the Apple ecosystem or following standards. I don’t want to be locked to a single vendor for everything digital
• Browser choice: with iOS you only get one web renderer, the rather dated Safari. On Android I can choose between Chrome, Firefox, or any other browser that has been ported to the platform

Of course, iOS has its own benefits. Apple has a stronger stance on privacy than Google. And there is more well-made tablet software available for iPads than Android. But when almost everything I use is available on the web, this doesn’t matter that much.

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link to this extract


Why do computers use so much energy? • Scientific American

David Wolpert:

»

Precise estimates vary, but currently about 5% of all energy consumption in the U.S. goes just to running computers—a huge cost to the economy as whole. Moreover, all that energy used by those computers ultimately gets converted into heat. This results in a second cost: that of keeping the computers from melting.
These issues don’t only arise in artificial, digital computers. There are many naturally occurring computers, and they, too, require huge amounts of energy. To give a rather pointed example, the human brain is a computer. This particular computer uses some 10–20% of all the calories that a human consumes. Think about it: our ancestors on the African savanna had to find 20% more food every single day, just to keep that ungrateful blob of pink jelly imperiously perched on their shoulders from having a hissy fit. That need for 20% more food is a massive penalty to the reproductive fitness of our ancestors. Is that penalty why intelligence is so rare in the evolutionary record? Nobody knows—and nobody has even had the mathematical tools to ask the question before.

There are other biological computers besides brains, and they too consume large amounts of energy. To give one example, many cellular systems can be viewed as computers. Indeed, the comparison of thermodynamic costs in artificial and cellular computers can be extremely humbling for modern computer engineers. For example, a large fraction of the energy budget of a cell goes to translating RNA into sequences of amino acids (i.e., proteins), in the cell’s ribosome.

But the thermodynamic efficiency of this computation—the amount of energy required by a ribosome per elementary operation—is many orders of magnitude superior to the thermodynamic efficiency of our current artificial computers. Are there “tricks” that cells use that we could exploit in our artificial computers? Going back to the previous biological example, are there tricks that human brains use to do their computations that we can exploit in our artificial computers?

More generally, why do computers use so much energy in the first place?

«

It’s not a “hissy fit” if your brain stops working, but I sort of see his point. Also it’s not 20% more food – it’s 20% more calories. Hence why fat is prized as a food by our poor, unevolved bodies, surprised by our ousting from the savannah to exile in the supermarket.
link to this extract


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Start Up No.961: China goes CRISPR?, wearables for good and bad, Brexit and the Prisoners’ Dilemma, another Android app fraud, and more


In many places, it’s quicker to stick on 4G rather than join this. CC-licensed photo by Jorge Cortell on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Fishing rights not included. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Supreme Court could allow suit over Apple iPhone apps’ sales • The New York Times

»

The issue before the high court at this early stage of the suit is whether the case can proceed at all. Justice Stephen Breyer, who used to teach antitrust law at Harvard Law School, said the consumers’ case seemed straightforward and in line with a century of antitrust law.

Apple argues it’s merely a pipeline between app developers and consumers, and that iPhone users have no claims against Apple under federal laws that prohibit unfair control of a market.

Tens of thousands of software developers set the prices and agree to pay Apple a 30% commission on whatever they sell, the lawyer representing Apple said in the courtroom. If anyone should be able to sue Apple, it’s a developer, Daniel Wall said. “There have been plenty of disputes, but none has ever gone to litigation,” he said.

Chief Justice John Roberts was alone among the nine justices who seemed prepared to agree with Apple.

Among the justices who appeared to be on the other side, Justice Elena Kagan said consumers appear to have a direct relationship with Apple. “I pick up my iPhone. I go to Apple’s App Store. I pay Apple directly with credit card information that I’ve supplied to Apple. From my perspective, I’ve just engaged in a one-step transaction with Apple,” Kagan said.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said if consumers are paying more than they should, then perhaps they should be able to sue. The relevant federal antitrust law says “any person injured” can sue, Kavanaugh said.

His comments could align him with justices who would allow the suit to proceed. In other cases, the court has ruled there must be a direct relationship between the seller and a party complaining about unfair, anti-competitive pricing.

«

Decision expected by late spring. In general, how difficult the judges’ questions are has an inverse or zero relationship to how the decision falls. But journalists love to think they’ve glimpsed a tell.
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EXCLUSIVE: Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies • MIT Technology Review

Antonio Regalado:

»

When Chinese researchers first edited the genes of a human embryo in a lab dish in 2015, it sparked global outcry and pleas from scientists not to make a baby using the technology, at least for the present.

It was the invention of a powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR, which is cheap and easy to deploy, that made the birth of humans genetically modified in an in vitro fertilization (IVF) center a theoretical possibility.

Now, it appears it may already be happening.

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses.

The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone, he declined to comment. 

«

The Wikipedia page for CCR5 notes that it’s of recent origin and seems to have had positive selection pressure. Sure, deleting it might prevent HIV incursion.. for now. But what is it allowing?

Later reports in the day have suggested there have been live births from this experiment.
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Not so big in Japan: Apple cuts price of iPhone XR to boost sales • WSJ

Takashi Mochizuki:

»

Apple has used marketing dollars before to discount certain iPhone models and drive sales, viewing it as a lever to manage inventory, according to people familiar with its sales and production tactics. During the iPhone 6s cycle, Apple cut production on one model then offered carrier and retailer discounts to help reduce excess inventory, one of these people said.

When extending discounts, Apple has typically chosen to do so on phones made for specific markets because the cost is less than having to reconfigure the device for resale in another market, this person said.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Apple has slowed production plans for all the three models released in recent months, with some drastic chops made on least-expensive XR models.

Though it has been done in the past, officials at Japanese carriers say it is rare for Apple to cut the price in their market on a recently launched handset.

“A price cut within a month of the release is rare not just for Apple but for smartphone makers in general,” said a senior official at a wireless operator, who monitors sales.

Analysts say weaker-than-expected demand for the iPhone XR may mirror what happened with the iPhone 5c in 2013, where sales picked up the following year. Apple’s higher-priced XS and XS Max models, released in September, appeal more to tech’s early adopters who typically fuel initial sales of new iPhones.

«

Price cuts might be rare in Japan, but they’re not rare among smartphone companies – look at Samsung, which has been doing exactly that for years. The fact that Apple has so few smartphone models and clearly set prices makes any cross-subsidisation or change in pricing easier to sniff out.
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Paul Massey and John Kinsella shot ‘in gangland assassination’ • BBC News

»

Massey was shot dead on 26 July 2015 outside his home in Clifton, Salford, by a gunman firing an Uzi sub-machine gun. Then at about 06:45 BST on 5 May this year, Kinsella was shot dead near his home in Rainhill, St Helens, by a man on a bike, the jury heard.

The prosecutor said a man, allegedly Mr Fellows, had cycled up behind Kinsella and shot him twice in the back with a handgun and then twice to the back of the head.

Mr Greaney said there were “clear parallels” which suggested the same people carried out both killings.
Police investigating Kinsella’s murder seized a GPS watch belonging to Mr Fellows, the court heard.

When detectives analysed this it showed a few months before the 2015 murder of Massey, the wearer had travelled to where the victim was killed. The prosecution claim this showed Mr Fellows on a “reconnaissance run” for the planned gangland hit. Mr Boyle had acted as a “spotter” for both killings, the court was told.

«

Wearables are such tattle-tales.
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What made me go to the doctor? • vowe dot net

Volker Weber:

»

I keep getting asked the same question: how could you possibly tolerate the pain for so long? This is a hard question to answer. It’s a combination of many factors and I am not going to try answering it. The more interesting question is why I decided to no longer tolerate it. The answer is easy: I could see that my body was failing.

Look at the two graphs above, both taken from Apple Health. The data originates from the heart rate sensor of my Apple Watch. I have been wearing it for years, 23 hours a day. That means I have a lot of data to compare against.

The left graph shows how my resting heart rate went from 62 to 85 over the course of only a few weeks. There is no good explanation. Your resting heart rate goes down over time as you exercise and your heart becomes stronger. Mine isn’t particularly strong. I walk a lot but I have little cardio fitness. 62 is pretty good for my fitness level and my age, but it should not suddenly go up, especially not continously. My heart was not allowed to rest, not even during sleep.

«

So wearables can be good for your health too.
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Mobile internet is faster than WiFi in 33 countries • Engadget

Jon Fingas:

»

It’s tempting to assume that a good WiFi hotspot will outpace modern cellular data, but that’s not necessarily true — in some countries, WiFi might be more of a pain. OpenSignal has conducted a study showing that mobile data is faster on average than WiFi hotspots in 33 countries, including multiple African, European, Latin American and Middle Eastern nations. And the differences are sometime gigantic. You’ll typically have an advantage of 10Mbps or more in places like Australia, Oman and the Czech Republic, while multi-megabit advantages are common in places like Austria, Iran and South Africa.

There are many countries where cellular and WiFi links are roughly competitive. And not surprisingly, WiFi has a clear advantage countries where home broadband is relatively fast, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and the US. However, LTE provides a consistent edge for download speeds in some areas — in Lebanon, your downstream speeds tend to be 25Mbps faster than on WiFi.

The findings led OpenSignal to suggest that users and device makers alike need to rethink the assumption that WiFi is usually best. While that might have been true when smartphones were young, it’s not so true any more in the LTE era — and WiFi has its own problems, such as overcrowded networks.

«

Related: XKCD from.. not long ago. For which the mouseover text – sometimes the best part of an XKCD cartoon (and the part you struggle to get on mobile without “view source”) – says: “According to the cable company reps who keep calling me, it’s because I haven’t upgraded to the XTREME GIGABAND PANAMAX FLAVOR-BLASTED PRO PACKAGE WITH HBO, which is only $5 more per month for the first 6 months and five billion dollars per month after that.”

But it is important for phones to look for the faster network, not the “strongest” one. Especially in my house where the Wi-Fi is noticeably slower than the 4G, except that’s weaker.
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Will Theresa May’s Brexit deal survive? Game theory has an answer • The Conversation

Nicos Georgiou is a lecturer in maths, probability and statistics:

»

The prisoner’s dilemma can be used to model many social and political situations. With the Brexit strategy, the role of the prisoners is played by the two Tory factions, the Remainers and Brexiteers. Each group has the option of voting for or against the deal – cooperating or not. The cost of each decision is a political one.

If both factions vote against the deal, there will be some political cost since the deal probably won’t pass. But it is completely unclear what will happen afterwards. This might trigger a leadership election, a general election, a new referendum or crashing out with no deal. All MPs like at least one of these options – so if everybody thinks there is a good chance they will get what they actually want (which is impossible), the political cost will be perceived as low.

If both factions vote in favour of this deal, it will have a high probability of passing (there are always willing Labour MPs to vote against their party line). Each of the Tory groups can blame the other for the “bad deal” that they were “forced” to sign, but it could arguably be a higher cost strategy as everybody fundamentally dislikes something about it. So it may seem the best bet would be for the two factions to cooperate to vote against it.

But the PM could place her MPs in a prisoner’s dilemma situation to make sure they don’t cooperate with each other to scupper her deal. She could do this by convincing both factions that voting in favour of her deal is good for them but bad for the others. To do that, she would need to rig the value of the perceived cost so that it will be higher if they vote against it than if they vote in favour – independent of what the political opponents in the other group choose to do.

«

This, indeed, feels like the tactics that Theresa May is pursuing: scare both sides by the potential outcome, even though the outcomes the two sides are scared of is the one that the other side likes. Herd them through the middle.
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Q3 2018: Mobile Market Monitor • Counterpoint Research

»

• Global smartphone shipments declined 5% annually reaching 380 million units in Q3 2018. Emerging markets growth could not offset the decline in developed markets.

• All the regions declined amidst the global slowdown. Latin America declined most at 7% YoY.

• India’s smartphone shipments surpassed those of the USA and reached an all-time high in 2018 Q3, while China’s smartphone market continued to decline for the fifth consecutive quarter.

• Top 10 OEMs contribute almost 79% of the global smartphone market, thereby leaving 600+ brands competing for the remaining 21% of the market.

• Samsung led the smartphone market by volume while HMD grew fastest at 73% YoY. Samsung recorded its highest ever shipment in India, even though its shipments declined for the fourth consecutive quarter.

«

And Huawei ahead of Apple, in 2nd position (14% market v 12%). Xiaomi coming up strongly at 9%. Though this is about sales, not installed base, of course.
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Android apps with more than 2bn total downloads are committing ad fraud • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

»

Eight apps with a total of more than 2 billion downloads in the Google Play store have been exploiting user permissions as part of an ad fraud scheme that could have stolen millions of dollars, according to research from Kochava, an app analytics and attribution company that detected the scheme and shared its findings with BuzzFeed News.

Seven of the apps Kochava found engaging in this behavior are owned by Cheetah Mobile, a Chinese company listed on the New York Stock Exchange that last year was accused of fraudulent business practices by a short-seller investment firm — a charge that Cheetah vigorously denied. The other app is owned by Kika Tech, a Chinese company now headquartered in Silicon Valley that received a significant investment from Cheetah in 2016. The companies claim more than 700 million active users per month for their mobile apps.

The allegations are the latest shock to a vast digital ad tech industry that remains dogged by a multibillion-dollar fraud problem and a mobile ecosystem rife with malicious ads and fraudulent practices. BuzzFeed News reported last month on an ad fraud scheme that tracked user behavior in dozens of Android apps to generate fake traffic and steal advertisers’ money. Google estimated close to $10m was stolen from it and its partners, and subsequently removed many of the apps from its Play store.

While the most immediate victims are brands who lose ad dollars to bots and other schemes, ad fraud also diverts revenue away from legitimate publishers and developers. In the case of mobile apps, it can cause frustration for users who may see their phone battery drained and data usage spike as a result of illegitimate ad transactions taking place without their knowledge.

This particular scheme exploits the fact that many app developers pay a fee, or bounty, that typically ranges from 50 cents to $3 to partners that help drive new installations of their apps. Kochava found that the Cheetah and Kika apps tracked when users downloaded new apps and used this data to inappropriately claim credit for having caused the download.

«

$10m sounds like a low estimate. The accused apps: Clean Master, CM File Manager, CM Launcher 3D, Security Master, Battery Doctor, CM Locker, and Cheetah Keyboard. I think Mary Branscombe’s comment on this is apposite.
link to this extract


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Start Up No.960: Facebook at bay, algorithms screw up, legally what is a bitcoin?, Pixel 3 camera trouble, and more


The US Supreme Court: Apple’s got a date there for Monday to talk about apps. CC-licensed photo by Justin on Flickr.

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

A selection of 15 links for you. That’s just how it is. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Parliament seizes cache of Facebook internal papers • The Guardian

Carole Cadwalldr:

»

[Damian Collins, chair of the Select Committee, said:] “We have followed this court case in America and we believed these documents contained answers to some of the questions we have been seeking about the use of data, especially by external developers.”

The documents seized were obtained during a legal discovery process by Six4Three. It took action against the social media giant after investing $250,000 in an app. Six4Three alleges the cache shows Facebook was not only aware of the implications of its privacy policy, but actively exploited them, intentionally creating andeffectively flagging up the loophole that Cambridge Analytica used to collect data. That raised the interest of Collins and his committee.

A Facebook spokesperson said that Six4Three’s “claims have no merit, and we will continue to defend ourselves vigorously”.

The files are subject to an order of a Californian superior court, so cannot be shared or made public, at risk of being found in contempt of court. Because the MPs’ summons was issued in London where parliament has jurisdiction, it is understood the company founder, although a US citizen, had no choice but to comply. It is understood that Six4Three have informed both the court in California and Facebook’s lawyers.

Facebook said: “The materials obtained by the DCMS committee are subject to a protective order of the San Mateo Superior Court restricting their disclosure. We have asked the DCMS committee to refrain from reviewing them and to return them to counsel or to Facebook. We have no further comment.”

It is unclear what, if any, legal moves Facebook can make to prevent publication. UK, Canada, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Singapore and Latvia will all have representatives joining what looks set to be a high-stakes encounter between Facebook and politicians.

«

An amazing story, using a Parliamentary power that hasn’t been used in hundreds of years. Facebook responded; Damian Collins answered back, robustly.
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How much for that app? U.S. top court hears Apple antitrust dispute • Reuters

Andrew Chung:

»

When iPhone users want to edit blemishes out of their selfies, identify stars and constellations or simply join the latest video game craze, they turn to Apple Inc’s App Store, where any software application they buy also includes a 30% cut for Apple.

That commission is a key issue in a closely watched antitrust case that will reach the US Supreme Court on Monday. The nine justices will hear arguments in Apple’s bid to escape damages in a lawsuit accusing it of breaking federal antitrust laws by monopolizing the market for iPhone apps and causing consumers to pay more than they should.

The justices will ultimately decide a broader question: Can consumers even sue for damages in an antitrust case like this one?

Apple, which is appealing a lower court decision that revived the proposed consumer class-action lawsuit, says no, citing a decades-old Supreme Court precedent. The Cupertino, California-based technology company said that siding with the iPhone users who filed the lawsuit would threaten the burgeoning field of e-commerce, which generates hundreds of billions of dollars annually in US retail sales.

«

Here’s a brief summary of the case at hand, which is called Apple Inc v Pepper, and is the first case on Monday.

“The question presented is: Whether consumers may sue for antitrust damages anyone who delivers goods to them, even where they seek damages based on prices set by third parties who would be the immediate victims of the alleged offense.”
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Airlines face crackdown on use of ‘exploitative’ algorithm that splits up families on flights • The Independent

Helen Coffey:

»

“They’ve had the temerity to split the passengers up, and when the family want to travel together they are charged more.”

It’s an issue that will be looked at by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, launched by the government this week to identify and address areas where clearer guidelines and regulation are needed in how data is used.

Passengers first started noticing they were being split up from their party if they didn’t pay more for allocated seating in June 2017, with Ryanair most commonly associated with the practice.

However, Europe’s biggest airline never admitted to changing the way seating was allocated, insisting there was no change and saying that those who don’t pay to choose a seat are “randomly” assigned one.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been investigating the issue of paid-for seat allocation for more than a year.

Its latest research, released in October 2018, stated that the likelihood of passengers being split up if they didn’t pay to sit together varied wildly between airlines.

In a survey of 4,296 people who had flown as part of a group, the CAA found that travellers were most likely to be split from their party when flying with Ryanair – 35% of those surveyed were separated having opted not to pay more for allocated seating.

«

Flybe and TUI Airways were the least likely to break up groups, with just 12% of people separated.
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AI mistakes bus-side ad for famous CEO, charges her with jaywalking • Caixin Global

»

Cities across China have debuted crime-fighting facial recognition technology to much fanfare over the past year. But some of these jaywalker-busting devices aren’t as impressive as they seem.

A facial recognition system in the city of Ningbo caught Dong Mingzhu, the chair of appliance-making giant Gree Electric, running a red light. Only it turned out not to be Dong, but rather an advertisement featuring her face on the side of a bus, local police said on Weibo Wednesday.

The police said they have upgraded their tech to avoid issues like this in the future. The real Dong, meanwhile, is embroiled in drama with an electric vehicle company.

«

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How credulous cranks made me the subject of their baseless conspiracy theory • CapX

Oliver Kamm:

»

The Scottish newspaper The Herald published a diary column by a freelance contributor called Ron McKay. He is a longstanding ally of, and aide to, George Galloway. McKay devoted a diary item to Mr Cross’s Wikipedia edits of far-left figures: “You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that there are common threads here. All of those [subjects edited by Cross] are… prominent campaigners on social media and in the mainstream media vigorously questioning our foreign policy. All have also clashed with Oliver Kamm… All have been edited on Wikipedia by Andrew Philip Cross whom the complainants believe, without conclusive evidence, to be Kamm after dark. He denies it.”

This is a straight fabrication. There was not only no conclusive evidence but literally no evidence at all for this preposterous thesis. Nor had McKay spoken to me, nor (as the tortuous syntax seems to suggest, though it may refer to Cross) had I denied the claim. As I’ve explained, I had deliberately made no comment at all on the subject.

Russia Today meanwhile weighed in with an article that began: “Wikipedia editor Philip Cross is still waging war against the left [i.e. posting factually sourced information that any other editor could themselves amend]. Some of those targeted by his vexatious edits have reported patterns between him and Times columnist Oliver Kamm.”

To my surprise, a BBC presenter and producer called Lee Kumutat emailed me to ask if I would be interviewed for an edition of a World Service radio programme called BBC Trending. She wrote: “We’re covering the story of Phillip [sic] Cross and routine targeted editing of some Wikipedia pages. Some people have suggested there may be an overlap of politics between yourself and Phillip [sic] Cross. Would you be prepared to be interviewed on this topic on the programme?”

«

Then it gets worse. (Wikipedia is completely innocent in all this.)
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Pixel 3 bug disables the phone’s camera • Engadget

Jon Fingas:

»

Pixel 3 owners are dealing with another software glitch, and this one could prove to be a showstopper for some. Owners on Google’s forums, Reddit and elsewhere (including an Engadget staff family member) report a flaw that prevents them from using the Pixel 3’s official camera app. Some get a “fatal error” message when they use the camera app, while others will get a “can’t connect to camera” message in a third-party app and lose access from then onward. Rebooting only temporarily fixes the issue, and it can occur even if you’ve factory-reset the phone or are using Safe Mode.

It’s not certain what’s causing the problem. Charged inspected the camera code and believes it might stem from Android not properly releasing a lock on the camera, leading other apps to think it’s still in use and prompting a crash. [Charged says using the official camera app is OK, but if any third-party app uses it then it cannot release the camera, requiring a reboot.]

We’ve asked Google if it can comment on the reports. Support representatives haven’t made it clear as to whether or not there will be a fix, though, and some owners said they were denied replacement units. Whatever the solution, it’s a serious issue – for all intents and purposes, this effectively renders the Pixel 3’s signature feature useless.

«

Given that it’s the camera which is meant to make the phone so desirable, that’s a hell of a bug.
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Wanted: the ‘perfect babysitter.’ Must pass AI scan for respect and attitude • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell:

»

When Jessie Battaglia started looking for a new babysitter for her 1-year-old son, she wanted more information than she could get from a criminal-background check, parent comments and a face-to-face interview.

So she turned to Predictim, an online service that uses “advanced artificial intelligence” to assess a babysitter’s personality, and aimed its scanners at one candidate’s thousands of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts.

The system offered an automated “risk rating” of the 24-year-old woman, saying she was at a “very low risk” of being a drug abuser. But it gave a slightly higher risk assessment — a 2 out of 5 — for bullying, harassment, being “disrespectful” and having a “bad attitude.”

The system didn’t explain why it had made that decision. But Battaglia, who had believed the sitter was trustworthy, suddenly felt pangs of doubt.

“Social media shows a person’s character,” said Battaglia, 29, who lives outside Los Angeles. “So why did she come in at a 2 and not a 1?”

Predictim is offering parents the same playbook that dozens of other tech firms are selling to employers around the world: artificial-intelligence systems that analyze a person’s speech, facial expressions and online history with promises of revealing the hidden aspects of their private lives…

…The systems depend on black-box algorithms that give little detail about how they reduced the complexities of a person’s inner life into a calculation of virtue or harm. And even as Predictim’s technology influences parents’ thinking, it remains entirely unproven, largely unexplained and vulnerable to quiet biases over how an appropriate babysitter should share, look and speak.

«

Evaluating these systems is becoming more important than ever; and more difficult than ever. And you just know this is going to turn out to be subtly racist.

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The foldable smartphone era is finally here and it will change everything • USA Today

Bob O’Donnell:

»

the introduction of Samsung’s Infinity Flex display-based devices and the Royole FlexPai make it clear that the long dreamed of idea for a pocket-sized smartphone that can unfold into a larger, tablet-like device is finally upon us.

The appeal of such a device is obvious, and I believe its impact – at least, eventually – will be enormous. Just as it’s hard to remember a world where mobile phones only made phone calls, so too will there come a time when it will be hard to imagine a world that didn’t have foldable, connected computing devices that fit into our pockets.

At the same time, while it’s easy to look back at the first iPhone and see its obvious shortcomings, so too will the limitations of first-generation foldable devices become apparent over time. That is the nature of technological developments. To be clear, however, I am convinced that 2019 will be remembered as the beginning of the foldable era.

One key reason is that foldable display technology enables the continuation of arguably the most important development in the evolution of smartphones: larger screens. From the early days of 3.5” displays to today’s common 6”+ sizes, the insatiable desire for screen real estate has driven the progressive design of smartphones.

«

If the fold isn’t particularly visible, then this could make a difference; notice how people love catching just a little bit more content on the move.

Going to be fun for app designers with a new set of screen sizes and configurations to design for.
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What do you legally “own” with Bitcoin? A short introduction to krypto-property • Preston Byrne

»

What hasn’t happened yet, and what invariably will happen as more and more cases  hit the courts, is that someone will ask the question, “what property classification do we apply to Bitcoin – WTF is it that Bob actually owns?” This is because, at its core, a bitcoin is really, in its purest essence, only a solution to a randomly-generated math problem. Because the problem is very hard, the combination of a UTXO plus the ability for a recipient to spend it, armed with the knowledge of the relevant private key, is treated by most of us today as property. That “property” creates a write permission on a massively distributed cryptographic ledger which nobody controls, although control of that write permission can be transferred to other users of that database by spending the associated coins to those other users.

Because the secret embodied by a private key one does not know is very difficult to obtain – and impossible to obtain on a commercial timescale with existing technology – people call Bitcoin a “digital bearer asset.” Bitcoin is most assuredly not a bearer asset or chattel, though. Nor is it a documentary intangible, as it is not a contract and is silent, apart perhaps from the provisions of the MIT Licence, as to what a court should do when presented with one (more on that below). Unlike physical goods which can only exist in one place at one time, it is conceivable that with a powerful enough computer, the solution could be found entirely honestly by a third party simply doing some math and stumbling upon the answer at random, or by asking the right questions and exploiting some as-yet-undiscovered weakness in the implementation.

«

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Killed by Google • The Google Graveyard

One programmer’s effort (though it’s open source; anyone can contribute to this). There’s a lot of things here. (I had a go back in 2013. Average lifespan then was about four years.)
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More Google abuse • The Hacker Factor Blog

Neal Krawetz:

»

While there are bots and hackers who will try to compromise your system, Google is the single most abusive entity on the Internet.

If Google just crawled web pages and links that it finds, then this really wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t even mind when Google discovers a bad link on my site and starts crawling it; it tells me that I have a bad link. However, Google does much more than just crawling.

For example: I used to have a search engine on my blog. Users could enter in text and find related blog entries. Unfortunately, I had to remove that feature because Google began submitting random dictionary words. Hundreds of thousands of them. I think Google was trying to index every possible search result that my blog’s search engine could produce. This was just too abusive. When it reached 50% of accesses to my blog (and 50% of my CPU resources), I removed the feature. (I can still search my blog, but the rest of the world can’t.) I’m not the only person to see this; lots of webmasters have reported Google submitting crap into text entry boxes.

When I first started FotoForensics, Google began submitting every URL from Imgur to my service. I’m not Google; I don’t have infinite resources and infinite bandwidth. And I’m pretty certain that this is a direct violation of Imgur’s terms of service. Yet, this is what Google did. Even when I modified my code to return 404 errors to Google, they continued trying to submit Imgur pictures for a month. (They didn’t stop until some Google admin noticed my complaints, tracked down the Google employee who was responsible for the abuse, and stopped it.)

I found that Google’s Feedfetcher often tries to access non-RSS feeds. I don’t think this is a case of users submitting bad URLs to Feedfetcher. Rather, I think this is Google automatically trying to add RSS feeds and failing miserably.

The latest abuse began right before Thanksgiving.

«

Which of course is an interesting time for them to do it. But: this perhaps wasn’t Google.
link to this extract

 


Why Theresa May’s Brexit deal is terrible for the UK • Forbes

Frances Coppola:

»

According to the Political Declaration, the UK still wants to end free movement of people, strike its own trade deals and control its own laws. And it also wants to preserve its own Single Market – the Union of the four countries, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This rules out keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union indefinitely. The Political Declaration effectively ends any possibility of the backstop becoming permanent.

Unfortunately, that is all it does. And that is why this deal is terrible for the UK.

Some time in the next few years, the backstop must end. Indeed, the EU is already trying to put a time limit on it. But the conundrum laid out in the Political Declaration is no more solvable than it ever was. The hard choice for Brexit remains the same. Either the UK gives up its goals of immigration restriction and independent trade policy for the sake of maintaining frictionless trade with the EU, or – since the Political Declaration rules out a permanent hard border between parts of the UK – there must eventually be a hard border on the island of Ireland.

By kicking the can across the Article 50 deadline of March 29th, 2019, the Withdrawal Agreement removes the UK’s third option, which is to change its mind about Brexit. Currently, if the deal fails to get through Parliament – which is looking extremely likely – the Government could call a second referendum with Remain as an option. But once the Article 50 deadline is past, the Withdrawal Agreement would lock the UK into “frozen Brexit,” with the EU holding the keys to the freezer.

«

OK, so it’s all crap.
link to this extract

 


Blow to Norway’s bitcoin industry as miners’ subsidies suddenly scrapped • Forbes

»From January of 2019 bitcoin miners in Norway will have to pay normal electricity tax in the country, after their discount was removed in the state budget agreement, local media has today reported.

The removal of electricity subsidies for bitcoin miners in Norway will add further pressure on to the burgeoning industry, which has seen its profits heavily hit by the recent bitcoin and cryptocurrency rout and resulted in reports of many smaller bitcoin miners around the world switching off their machines.

The average cost of bitcoin mining in Norway is $7,700 per coin, according to research from Germany-based bitcoin miner Northern Bitcoin, which has operations in Norway. It claims to be able to mine bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) at a discount through use of cheap renewable energy and fjord-based cooling systems.

“Norway can not continue to provide huge tax incentives for the most dirty form of cryptographic output as bitcoin. It requires a lot of energy and generates large greenhouse gas emissions globally,” Norwegian parliamentary representative Lars Haltbrekken said recently, it was reported by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Bitcoin miners and data centers in Norway currently enjoy the same discount as other power-intensive industries, meaning those with a capacity of more than 0.5 megawatts pay 0.48 øre ($0.056) per kilowatt. This will rise to 16.58 øre ($1.93) per kilowatt from January.

Northern Bitcoin, which uses the Lefdal mine in Norway’s Sandane to house its bitcoin mining rigs, found China has the lowest average bitcoin mining cost at $3,100, along with Saudi Arabia. In Canada, the average cost of bitcoin mining is almost $4,000. At the other end of the scale, bitcoin mining can cost almost $10,000 per bitcoin in Australia.«

That’s a 345x increase in the price. Not going to last long at that cost, and with the price still (at the time of writing) going down. Northern Bitcoin claims to be a “climate-neutral” bitcoin mining pool. Might be a closed one pretty soon.
link to this extract

 


Google has taken down more foreign disinformation pages • Axios

David McCabe:

»

Google on Tuesday quietly said it had taken down additional accounts implicated in online foreign influence operations aimed at least in part at the United States.

The big picture: The search giant has largely kept its head down even as Facebook and Twitter talked more publicly about online disinformation. The updated numbers posted Tuesday came in an update at the bottom of an August blog post, added two days before the Thanksgiving holiday.

«

Ah yeah, “taking out the trash” again. One thing I do like about the internet is that nothing escapes its beady eye when it comes to actions like this.
link to this extract

 


Chess, AI and Asia’s future • Nikkei Asian Review

James Crabtree:

»

“When I tell someone in finance that I’m a chess expert their eyes light up,” I was told by grandmaster Daniel King, a well-known commentator on YouTube. “They are just so fascinated by AI. All they see is dollar signs.”

AI engines play in adventurous new styles: neither like normal computers nor humans, but instead in what DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis calls “a third, almost alien, way.” By this he means the machines often play improbable moves that look peculiar to human eyes but turn out to be brilliant.

Oddly, this kind of machine skill has only increased interest in human competition. Chess computers help humans improve. They make the game more entertaining for analysts and spectators too. Former champion Garry Kasparov has even pioneered “cyborg chess,” a variant where a human and a computer work in tandem, playing against other man-and-machine teams. Typically, the result is better than either might manage on their own.

It is just this marriage of computers and people that holds wider economic lessons, given future productivity will grow most quickly where humans and machines collaborate. This could be physical “co-bots” supporting workers in factories or retail outlets. But it could also involve advanced algorithms providing unbiased data to improve human decision-making, or machines which takeover routine tasks to let humans focus on those involving advanced judgment.

Skills of this kind should bring advantages to Asia, with its youthful population and tech-savvy employees.

«

(A reminder of the AlphaZero v Stockfish match: 28-72-0 win/draw/loss.) I’d wonder about that “unbiased data to improve human decision-making” bit though.
link to this extract

 


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.959: US v Huawei, ranking Gmail’s answers, Wikitribune in view, the art of The Incredibles 2, Square Enix dumps loot boxes in Belgium, and more


Guess which top-selling band has the most repetitive lyrics of the past 50 years. CC-licensed photo by Andreas H on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Turkey sandwiches OK? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Washington asks allies to drop Huawei • WSJ

Stu Woo and Kate O’Keeffe:

»

The US government has initiated an extraordinary outreach campaign to foreign allies, trying to persuade wireless and internet providers in these countries to avoid telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies Co., according to people familiar with the situation.

American officials have briefed their government counterparts and telecom executives in friendly countries where Huawei equipment is already in wide use, including Germany, Italy and Japan, about what they see as cybersecurity risks, these people said. The US is also considering increasing financial aid for telecommunications development in countries that shun Chinese-made equipment, some of these people say.

One US concern centers on the use of Chinese telecom equipment in countries that host American military bases, according to people familiar with the matter, such as Germany, Italy and Japan. The Defense Department has its own satellite-and-telecom network for especially sensitive communications, but most traffic at many military installations travels through commercial networks.

The international effort pushes out the battle lines of a US campaign to keep Huawei electronics out of the US. Some officials see the initiative as part of a broader technological Cold War between US-led allies and China for control of a world that is increasingly digitally connected—and thus increasingly vulnerable to surveillance and malfeasance.

«

Wow. Huawei is deeply embedded in the UK’s communications network, and an analyst meeting this week heard that it’s the only company really doing 5G – everyone else is trying to catch up.

This story makes me think that Bloomberg’s story a little while back – about Apple and Amazon having subversive chips inserted in Chinese factories – was part of a US attempt to destabilise trust in Chinese factories and manufacturers.
link to this extract


Ranking Gmail’s AI-fuelled Smart Replies • NY Mag

Christopher Bonanos:

»

The most recognizable feature of Gmail’s newly rolled-out redesign is the so-called smart reply, wherein bots offer three one-click responses to each mail message. Say your email contains the words “you free for lunch?” The autoreplies Gmail presents will be something like “Sure!” and “Yes!” and “Looking forward to it!” The idea, especially on a small, one-hand phone screen, is that you can tap and send using one thumb, without typing. It’s not clear just how many of these prewritten options there are, or how sophisticated the machine learning behind them is. The AI is not yet sharp enough to offer genuinely useful responses like “Please, for the love of Christ, stop sending me these offers to buy those sandals whose ad I clicked on last month” or emotionally honest ones like “Hey, it would be wonderful if someone in our group cancels our drinks tonight because I would rather stay home and order dan dan noodles while watching Succession.” Until then, we’re stuck with the few dozen simple responses that appear regularly. Some are better than others. Shall we rank? 

«

≥ Ok, sounds good! ≤
≥ We should rethink this ≤
≥ I can see everything you type you know ≤

But the idea that the answers might change over time is rather interesting.
link to this extract


Wikipedia’s co-founder wanted to let readers edit the news. What went wrong? • Columbia Journalism Review

Mathew Ingram on the site which burnt through about $0.6m in a year:

»

Is it possible that news just isn’t a great fit for the wiki model where anyone can contribute? “That’s a legitimate question—is it suitable?” [Jimmy] Wales says. “Clearly there are certain types of news that are very difficult to do in a community setting, if you have to go somewhere to report and so on, but there are other things that are quite straightforward. People can do desk research, but they can’t drop everything and pursue the story for four days or be on the scene the way a reporter can. So we’re still exploring what are the things that work.”

So are more people using the site and contributing to the news since the most recent design changes? Wales says yes, although he wouldn’t provide specific numbers. “The main metrics are participation, that’s fundamental,” he says. “And the number of people editing things is up this month and up considerably from our redesign.”

Wales says he is still going through the site looking for language that might be intimidating. For example, he says he has made multiple changes to the introductory post on “How to write a piece of journalism for WikiTribune.” (The changes can be seen on the piece’s history page, which keeps track of every edit). Among other things, Wales removed references to things like “getting your copy out faster,” which is something traditional journalists think about, but not relevant to a wiki approach to the news, he says.

«

The real question is, what *is* a wiki approach to the news? How does that really work? Wikipedia does it effectively, but that’s almost an accident; Wikitribune doesn’t have a critical mass of users to make it happen.

link to this extract


Are Pop Lyrics Getting More Repetitive?

»

In 1977, the great computer scientist Donald Knuth published a paper called The Complexity of Songs, which is basically one long joke about the repetitive lyrics of newfangled music (example quote: “the advent of modern drugs has led to demands for still less memory, and the ultimate improvement of Theorem 1 has consequently just been announced”).

I’m going to try to test this hypothesis with data. I’ll be analyzing the repetitiveness of a dataset of 15,000 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017…

«

But how?

»

You may not have heard of the Lempel-Ziv algorithm, but you probably use it every day. It’s a lossless compression algorithm that powers gifs, pngs, and most archive formats (zip, gzip, rar…).

What does this have to do with pop music? The Lempel-Ziv algorithm works by exploiting repeated sequences. How efficiently LZ can compress a text is directly related to the number and length of the repeated sections in that text.

«

This is wonderful: the graphics are brilliantly done, and the discoveries (top 10 songs are always more repetitive than most) unexpected.
link to this extract


The graphic art of Incredibles 2 • Josh Holtsclaw

»

I remember seeing the first Incredibles film in college with a few friends. We went on opening night and the theater was packed. I remember thinking that the way the movie opened with the old film footage of a younger Mr Incredible, Elastigirl and Frozone being interviewed was such a different way to open an animated film, and it just got better from there. The whole thing was so stylized and just…cool. I loved the mid century aesthetic. When I got to Pixar and heard that they were working on a sequel, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

I joined the Incredibles 2 art department in the Fall of 2016 and one of the first things we did as a group was take a research trip to Palm Springs. At the time, the story was still in its early stages and a few of the sets were under way. There was still a lot left to do and Palm Springs was the perfect one-stop-spot for us to find design inspiration.

«

The photos of locations used to inspire the pictures, and the description of how The Incredibles aesthetic was created, is just… incredible.
link to this extract


After 20,000 workers walked out, Google said it got the message. The workers disagree • Recode

Shirin Ghaffary and Eric Johnson:

»

[Stephanie] Parker, a policy specialist at YouTube, initially read a prepared statement to her San Bruno, Calif., colleagues during the walkout, but then asked them a question she hadn’t written down. Where, she asked, did Google get the tens of millions of dollars it paid to Rubin and other senior executives accused of sexual misconduct?

“They got it from every time you worked late,” Parker said. “Every promotion you didn’t get because they said there’s not enough budget, you have to wait. It’s from every contractor who came to work sick because they have no paid time off. These are conscious decisions that the company is making, and abusers are getting rich off of our hard work.”

And the walkouts, the organizers agreed, have in some cases turned strangers into allies. People who had been raising red flags for years and felt they weren’t being heard suddenly realized that they were not the only ones who thought Google wasn’t hearing what it needed to hear.

“We’re giving our feedback about what’s wrong through all of the official channels,” Parker said. “We’re filling out the surveys every year. We are talking back in TGIF [all hands meetings] and asking these questions, and nothing is happening. But once we begin to find each other, and see each other all speaking out and all saying, fundamentally, the same thing, then the fear starts to go away. Once we start taking collective action, then we can’t be stopped.”

«

There’s a subtle dislocation happening at Google and Facebook – and others? – where the rank-and-file are disconcerted by things that the senior managers and/or founders aren’t aware of. How big can the disconnect get?
link to this extract


Square Enix pulls three games from Belgium after loot box ban • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

»

The games publisher Square Enix is pulling three mobile games from Belgium following the introduction of a law in the European nation that bans “loot boxes” as a form of gambling.

The games – Mobius Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts Union X and Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia – are some of largest titles in the publisher’s mobile roster, although it is better known for its console games such as Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy and Hitman.

In statements posted in the games, Square Enix confirmed that the new law was to blame for their removal, citing “the present uncertain legal status of ‘loot boxes’ under Belgian law” in a statement posted on the games.

Belgium first took action against “loot boxes”, digital reward packs which can be be bought with real or virtual money and contain a semi-random array of in-game items, back in April. The country’s gaming commission ruled that the mechanics, as implemented in three popular games – Overwatch, Fifa 18 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – were in violation of gambling legislation.

“Mixing games and gambling, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health,” the country’s justice minister, Koen Geens, said at the time. “That is why we must also ensure that children and adults are not confronted with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game.”

Other games have been similarly hit by the law, with the developers of popular online RPG Guild Wars 2 removing real-money purchases from the game back in September. But the economics of free-to-play mobile games, such as those pulled by Square Enix, means that they often feature no monetisation elements beyond loot boxes, leaving little reason for publishers to support them in the absence of the pseudo-gambling feature.

«

Good. Loot boxes are really insidious.
link to this extract


How Facebook’s PR firm brought political trickery to tech • The New York Times

Jack Nicas:

»

Definers quickly found plenty of business, from start-ups like Lyft, Lime and Juul to giants like Facebook and Qualcomm, the influential chip company that was in a nasty legal fight with Apple over royalties, according to five people with direct knowledge of Mr. Miller’s work who declined to be named because of confidentiality agreements.
While working for Qualcomm, Definers pushed the idea that Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, was a viable presidential candidate in 2020, according to a former Definers employee and digital records. Presumably, it was an attempt to chill the cordial relations that Mr. Cook had cultivated with the Trump administration.

The campaign by Definers signaled an escalation of Silicon Valley’s already brass-knuckled approach to public relations.

“This type of dirty P.R.? It’s always been there, but it’s definitely on the upswing,” said Jonathan Hirshon, who was a public relations representative for technology companies for three decades, including Apple and Sony. “The idealism is still there, but the truth is, the big companies have become a lot more authoritarian in their approach to the media.”

Facebook fired Definers last week after The New York Times detailed the work Mr. Miller’s firm had done on behalf of the social media company. Definers encouraged reporters to write about the financial connections between anti-Facebook activists and the liberal financier George Soros, drawing accusations that it was relying on anti-Semitic tropes.

Definers’s strategy played to a target’s pressure points. Most of what Definers produced for Qualcomm had nothing to do with its beef with Apple, which was a complex legal fight over the royalties Apple should pay for the Qualcomm chips it was using in iPhones.

Definers employees distributed anti-Apple research to reporters and would not say who was paying for it. Definers distributed a 13-page memo titled “Apple Bowing to Chinese Cyber Regulators” that detailed how Apple’s activity in China contradicted its public stance on privacy elsewhere. It also planted dozens of negative articles about Apple on conservative news sites, according to a person familiar with the work and emails reviewed by The New York Times.

«

Facebook coughed to all this in a news dump at 5pm before the US headed off for Thanksgiving. Talk about taking out the trash.
link to this extract


Google rivals claim product search remains unfair • BBC News

»

Google is not complying with European demands that it make the search for products fairer, rivals say.

In an open letter to the EU’s competition commissioner, 14 European shopping comparison services said the measures put in place by the search giant to improve things, actually make matters worse.

They urged the commission to demand a new remedy.

Google said it had complied with the European Commission demands.

The search giant has faced a seven-year long battle with the European Commission over its dominance in the search market.

In June 2017, European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager ruled that Google had abused its power by promoting its own shopping service at the top of search results, and demanded that it provide equal treatment to rival comparison sites in future.

She issued a record fine of €2.42bn ($2.7bn; £2.1bn) – the largest penalty the European Commission has ever imposed. She also demanded that Google end its anti-competitive practices within 90 days or face further costs.

Google is still appealing against the fine, but has come up with a system that it says makes shopping fairer.

It changed the shopping box, which is displayed at the top of search results, so that it is no longer populated with just Google Shopping ad results, but gives space to other shopping comparison services, who can bid for advertising slots.

«

The Google “solution” is unsatisfactory in so many ways, as the letter sets out. Its market dominance in Europe shuts out others; this “solution” just lets it charge them a door fee to reach people, instead of competing equally.
link to this extract


Leaning tower of Pisa is leaning less than before, say experts • The Guardian

Angela Giuffrida:

»

Stabilisation work means the Leaning Tower of Pisa is leaning slightly less than it used to, experts have said.

The tower, which has leaned to one side ever since it began to take shape in 1173, has lost 4cm of its tilt over the past two decades, according to a report from the surveillance group that meets every three months to give updates on the monument’s condition.

“Since restorative work began, the tower is leaning about half a degree less,” said Nunziante Squeglia, a geotechnics professor at the University of Pisa who works with the group. “But what counts is the stability of the tower, which is better than initially predicted.”

The structure, which was badly damaged during the second world war, was closed to the public in 1990 over safety fears and did not reopen for 11 years.

The surveillance group was set up in 2001 ago after Michele Jamiolkowski, an engineer of Polish origin, coordinated an international committee to save the landmark.

The bell tower, a symbol of the power of the maritime republic of Pisa in the Middle Ages, was defective from the beginning due to the porous clay soil beneath its foundations. After three floors were completed, construction stopped and did not resume until 90 years later when workers started building additional floors on a diagonal to offset the lean. But work was again disrupted before finally being completed in 1372.

«

I went up that thing in the 1980s. It’s fine when you’re on the “front”, with the tilt behind you. But when you’re on the down-tilt side, with only a thin metal rail between you and eternity, those few degrees feel like an invitation to gravity to eat you up.
link to this extract


Real time economics: what are markets telling us about the economy? • Wall Street Journal

Greg Ip:

»

The US economy is firing on all cylinders—job growth is strong, wages are climbing, factories are humming and inflation is on target. Yet stocks are sinking, yields on corporate bonds are rising and commodity prices are tumbling, all typical precursors of a slowdown or recession. The causes: Growth outside the US is deteriorating and the Federal Reserve is steadily withdrawing the unprecedented monetary stimulus that buoyed the economy and almost every asset class over the last decade.

The question is whether markets, in adjusting to these new realities, will overreact to the point that they endanger the expansion, on track to become the longest ever next summer. The answer for now appears to be no, but the trends are troubling.

Stan Druckenmiller is a legend among hedge fund managers, as lieutenant to George Soros and head of his own firm. The market has him worried. “The defensive stocks have been going straight up since May. All the economically sensitive stocks have been going down since May. They’re predicting we’re in a very, very late cycle,” he said Tuesday. The signs are the “same stuff I screamed about in 2007.” He’s not saying the Fed shouldn’t tighten, ever; but it should wait, and “see what happens.” The time to tighten was a few years ago; now, it’s more dangerous: “The leveraged loan market is two times what it was in 2007.” He pins the blame on the Fed’s quantitative easing which “encouraged more malinvestment…than at any time I can ever remember. We’re in the most economically disruptive period since the 1880s and there’s been no bankruptcies. As quantitative easing turns to quantitative tightening, all these zombies are going to be exposed.”

«

Such delightful news. Off to the shops now.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: reader feedback notes that, regarding mobile payments, some (but not all) payments systems have a “tip” option so that you can add a tip (though I’d observe this adds more friction than the simple method of overpaying and letting the recipient keep the change). Some places incorporate tips into the charge.

Also: CNBC’s article on Diane Greene said there was a struggle between Google and Microsoft for the lead in cloud; that should have been Amazon and Microsoft. Their mistake, since rectified.

Start Up No.958: Amazon hacked?, how bots spread lies, another bitcoin casualty, hello Mars!, and more


Mobile payments are growing fast in rapid-service locations – but what does that mean for tipping? CC-licensed photo by Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures on Flickr

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0700GMT each weekday). 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.

Study: it only takes a few seconds for bots to spread misinformation • Ars Technica

Jennifer Ouellette:

»

Shortly after the 2016 election, newly elected President Donald Trump—peeved at losing the popular vote to Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton—falsely claimed he would have won the popular vote if not for the supposed votes of three million illegal immigrants. The lie spread rapidly across social media—far faster than factual attempts to debunk it. And Twitter bots played a disproportionate role in spreading that false information.

That’s according to a new study by researchers at Indiana University, published in Nature Communications. They examined 14 million messages shared on Twitter between May 2016 and May 2017, spanning the presidential primaries and Trump’s inauguration. And they found it took just 6% of Twitter accounts identified as bots to spread 31% of what they term “low-credibility” information on the social network. The bots managed this feat in just two to 10 seconds, thanks in large part to automated amplification.

Why are bots so effective at spreading false information? Study co-author Filippo Menczer attributes their success to so-called “social bias:” the human tendency to pay more attention to things that seem to be popular. Bots can create the appearance of popularity or that a certain opinion is more widely held than it actually is. “People tend to put greater trust in messages that appear to originate from many people,” said Menczer’s co-author, Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia. “Bots prey upon this trust by making messages seem so popular that real people are tricked into spreading their messages for them.”

Their findings are consistent with those of an earlier study, published by MIT researchers this past March in Science. Those researchers concluded that false stories travel “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” The MIT study was based on analysis of 126,000 stories tweeted by around 3 million people more than 4.5 million times, from 2007-2017. The result: a false story only needs roughly 10 hours to reach 1,500 users on Twitter, compared to 60 hours for a true story.

“No matter how you slice it, falsity wins out,” said co-author Deb Roy, who runs MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines.

Roy and his colleagues also found that bots sped up the spread of both true and false news at equal rates. So he concluded that it’s the human factor, more than bots, that is responsible for the spread of false news.

«

Happy.. whatever day the bots have decided it is!
link to this extract


Amazon admits it exposed customer email addresses, but refuses to give details • Techcrunch

Zack Whittaker and
Josh Constine:

»

Users don’t know which of Amazon’s sites was impacted, who their email address could have been exposed to, or any ballpark figure of the number of victims. It’s also unclear whether it has or plans to contact any government regulatory bodies.

“We’re contacting you to let you know that our website inadvertently disclosed your email address due to a technical error,” said Amazon in the email with the subject line: “Important Information about your Amazon.com Account.” The only details Amazon provided were that: “The issue has been fixed. This is not a result of anything you have done, and there is no need for you to change your password or take any other action.”

The security lapse comes days ahead of one of the busiest retail days of the year, the post-Thanksgiving holiday sales day, Black Friday. The issue could scare users away from Amazon, which could be problematic for revenue if the issue impacted a wide number of users just before the heavy shopping day.

Amazon’s vague and non-specific email also sparked criticism from users — including security experts — who accused the company of withholding information. Some said that the correspondence looked like a phishing email, used to trick customers into turning over account information.

Customers in the US, the UK and Europe have reported receiving an email from Amazon.

«

Wait long enough, and everyone gets hacked. I think at this point only Apple and Google haven’t had a serious breach of their systems. (Users of both have been phished many, many times but the core systems haven’t.)

By the way, if you haven’t already turned on two-factor authentication for your Amazon account, this is a good time to do it. (Look under Account – Security.)
link to this extract


Harvesting in a trade war – US crops rot as storage costs soar • Reuters

Mark Weinraub:

»

U.S. farmers planted 89.1m acres of soybeans this year, the second most ever, expecting China’s rising demand to give them better returns than other bulk crops.

But Beijing slapped a 25% tariff on US soybeans in retaliation for duties imposed by Washington on Chinese exports. That effectively shut down U.S. soybean exports to China, worth around $12bn last year. China typically takes around 60% of US supplies.

The US government rolled out an aid programme of around the same size – $12bn – to help farmers absorb the cost of the trade war. As of mid-November, $837.8m had been paid out.

Some of that money will pass from farmers to grain merchants such as Archer Daniels Midland Co and Bunge Ltd, who are charging farmers more to store crops at elevators where there is limited space. Bunge and ADM did not respond to requests for comment on storage fees.

The storage crunch and higher fees have boosted revenues at grain elevator Andersons, Chief Executive Officer Pat Bowe said in an interview.

“It’s paying a grain handler to store – it’s the old-fashioned way to make money,” Bowe said.

These are also boom times for John Wierenga, president of grain storage bag retailer Neeralta. Sales of their bags – white tubes up to 300 feet now littering Midwest fields – are up 30% from a year ago.

“The demand has been huge,” Wierenga said. “We are sold out.”

Farmers are feeling the pinch. Those in central Illinois could pay up to 40% more than in previous years to store crops over the coming weeks, agricultural consultant Matt Bennett estimated.

«

Also: next year, China will go back to this year’s sources of soybeans – not the US.
link to this extract


You snooze, you lose: insurers make the old adage literally true • ProPublica

Marshall Allen:

»

[Tony] Schmidt, 59, has sleep apnea, a disorder that causes worrisome breaks in his breathing at night. Like millions of people, he relies on a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine that streams warm air into his nose while he sleeps, keeping his airway open. Without it, Schmidt would wake up hundreds of times a night; then, during the day, he’d nod off at work, sometimes while driving and even as he sat on the toilet.

“I couldn’t keep a job,” he said. “I couldn’t stay awake.” The CPAP, he said, saved his career, maybe even his life.

As many CPAP users discover, the life-altering device comes with caveats: health insurance companies are often tracking whether patients use them. If they aren’t, the insurers might not cover the machines or the supplies that go with them.

In fact, faced with the popularity of CPAPs, which can cost $400 to $800, and their need for replacement filters, face masks and hoses, health insurers have deployed a host of tactics that can make the therapy more expensive or even price it out of reach.

Patients have been required to rent CPAPs at rates that total much more than the retail price of the devices, or they’ve discovered that the supplies would be substantially cheaper if they didn’t have insurance at all.

Experts who study health care costs say insurers’ CPAP strategies are part of the industry’s playbook of shifting the costs of widely used therapies, devices and tests to unsuspecting patients.

«

It would be OK to check whether people are using them – but pricing them out of reach? Truly, US health insurers are the problem, not the solution.
link to this extract


UK sugar tax raises well under half forecast amount • FT

Madison Marriage:

»

Britain’s sugar tax has raised well under half the originally forecast amount in its first seven months, reflecting a huge shift by drinks manufacturers to cut the amount of sugar in their products.

The levy has raised £154m since it came into force in April. It will be used to tackle childhood obesity and to fund physical education activities and breakfast clubs in schools.

When former chancellor George Osborne announced the tax in 2016, he forecast it would raise around £520m a year. But manufacturers reduced the amount of sugar they use to avoid the levy — one of the government’s intended goals.

HM Revenue & Customs said on Tuesday that 457 traders had registered to pay the levy, which imposed an additional tax of 18p a litre on drinks that contain 5g of sugar per 100ml; and 24p a litre on drinks with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml.

It added that between the announcement and implementation more than 50% of drinks by volume had had enough sugar removed to no longer be affected by the levy. It now expects the levy to generate £240m annually.

«

The intro (lede; first paragraph) makes it sound as though it’s a failure. But it has had exactly the desired effect: there’s less sugar in drinks. Next step: ratchet down the amount of sugar allowed before the tax applies.
link to this extract


Bitcoin mining firm Giga Watt declares bankruptcy owing millions • Coindesk

Yogita Khatri:

»

US-based bitcoin mining firm Giga Watt has declared bankruptcy with millions still owed to creditors.

The firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at a court in the Eastern District of Washington on Monday, revealing that it still owes its biggest 20 unsecured creditors nearly $7m in court documents seen by CoinDesk.

Creditors include the utilities provider in its Douglas County base, having a claim of over $310,000, and electricity provider Neppel Electric, which is owed almost half a million dollars.

Giga Watt has estimated assets worth less than $50,000, whereas estimated liabilities are in the range of $10–50m, according to the court documents.

“The corporation is insolvent and unable to pay its debts when due,” read the minutes of a special meeting of the shareholders of Giga Watt, which was held on Nov. 18. “The corporation and its creditors would best be served by reorganization of the corporation under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code.”

The meeting was called by Andrey Kuzenny, a director owning more than 10% of the mining firm.

Giga Watt was founded by bitcoin miner Dave Carlson with the plan being to open up the industry to smaller scale miners by creating customized mining “pods” along with a cheap and stable electricity supply and round-the-clock maintenance at a facility in central Washington.

As part of a plan to allow investors to buy a stake in the company’s services, it held an initial coin offering (ICO) in May 2017 that raised about $22m-worth of cryptocurrency at the time.

However, this January, a group of plaintiffs sued Giga Watt for allegedly conducting an unregistered securities offering.

«

Oof. The fallout continues.
link to this extract


Google’s cloud business under Greene was plagued by internal clashes, missed acquisitions, insiders say • CNBC

Jillian D’Onfro:

»

[Google chief Sundar] Pichai wrote in his introductory blog post in November 2015 that “Diane [Greene, ex-VMWare, now appointed Google’s cloud chief – and already on Alphabet’s board.. before Pichai] needs no introduction.” She would get her own dedicated sales team, pulling cloud software sales out from under the control of the core advertising business.

On Friday, that plan came to an abrupt halt when Greene announced that she will leave her post in January. Greene will be replaced by Thomas Kurian, who recently left a top executive role at Oracle, where he spent 22 years.

During Greene’s tenure, Google increased its annual capital expenditures from $10bn to over $13bn, and went on a hiring spree — the cloud group has added more people than any other at Alphabet over the last two years. It got some key customer wins and built out several important functions for selling to enterprises, including professional services, training and marketing.

Despite all that, Google continues to struggle. People who follow the industry say it’s a two-horse race between Google and Microsoft, with Google failing to keep pace in a cloud infrastructure market that Gartner expects to grow to $39.5 billion next year from $31bn in 2018. In terms of market share, Google has yet to crack double digits.

“They figured out and monetized search like nobody probably ever will, but I don’t think they care about the enterprise,” said Tom Siebel, the co-founder of software company Siebel Systems, which Oracle acquired for almost $6bn in 2006. Siebel, who has known Greene for about 15 years and is now CEO of cloud software company C3, said that when it comes to helping big businesses solve their infrastructure problems, “Google is just not a factor.”

«

This is a mixed story: it sounds more like Greene was struggling with the whole Google culture, which isn’t tuned towards selling into enterprise, than failing on her own terms.
link to this extract


Mobile payments now account for 6% of all UK card transactions • NFC World

Sarah Clark:

»

The percentage of payments made with a mobile phone in UK stores has jumped from 1.3% in Q3 2016 to 5.6% in Q3 2018, an analysis of 190m card transactions has shown. Compared to this time last year, the volume of contactless mobile payments has increased by 60%.

For payments under the £30 contactless payments limit, the number of transactions accounted for by mobile payments increased from 1.8% in Q3 2016, to 4.6% in Q3 2017 and then 7% in Q3 2018, the analysis by Cardlytics found.

“The biggest beneficiaries of growing mobile payments are quick-service merchants who have introduced contactless payment methods,” the company says. “This includes quick-service-restaurants (11.3%), coffee shops (11%), public transport (11%) and bars and pubs (9.25%).

“This reflects that mobile payments are used more readily at merchants that people visit on a daily basis and wish to pay more expediently, while less popular amongst bigger-ticket, one off purchases.”

«

That’s roughly a doubling every year. One observation: for places where some staff might rely on or hope for tips, mobile payments preclude them. If this is repeated in the US, where tipping is pretty much essential as a salary topup for many service jobs, it’s going to create a big disjoint.
link to this extract


On November 26th, a mole will land on Mars • The Oatmeal

Matthew Inman:

»

«

Really can’t summarise Inman’s wonderful examination of this mission (which you’d probably all forgotten about). Enjoy it.
link to this extract


The land that failed to fail • NY Times

»

China’s Communist leaders have defied expectations again and again. They embraced capitalism even as they continued to call themselves Marxists. They used repression to maintain power but without stifling entrepreneurship or innovation. Surrounded by foes and rivals, they avoided war, with one brief exception, even as they fanned nationalist sentiment at home. And they presided over 40 years of uninterrupted growth, often with unorthodox policies the textbooks said would fail.

In late September, the People’s Republic of China marked a milestone, surpassing the Soviet Union in longevity. Days later, it celebrated a record 69 years of Communist rule. And China may be just hitting its stride — a new superpower with an economy on track to become not just the world’s largest but, quite soon, the largest by a wide margin.

The world thought it could change China, and in many ways it has. But China’s success has been so spectacular that it has just as often changed the world — and the American understanding of how the world works.

There is no simple explanation for how China’s leaders pulled this off. There was foresight and luck, skill and violent resolve, but perhaps most important was the fear — a sense of crisis among Mao’s successors that they never shook, and that intensified after the Tiananmen Square massacre and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even as they put the disasters of Mao’s rule behind them, China’s Communists studied and obsessed over the fate of their old ideological allies in Moscow, determined to learn from their mistakes. They drew two lessons: The party needed to embrace “reform” to survive — but “reform” must never include democratization.

China has veered between these competing impulses ever since, between opening up and clamping down, between experimenting with change and resisting it, always pulling back before going too far in either direction for fear of running aground.

Many people said that the party would fail, that this tension between openness and repression would be too much for a nation as big as China to sustain. But it may be precisely why China soared.

Whether it can continue to do so with the US trying to stop it is another question entirely.

«

A quietly important article: that China’s authoritarian rule has lasted longer than the USSR is a surprising but telling fact.
link to this extract


RBS customer lost thousands of pounds in scam • BBC News

David Quinn:

»

A Royal Bank of Scotland customer had more than £4,300 stolen from her account by a fraudulent caller who got one of her security questions wrong, BBC Watchdog Live has found.

The bank insisted for more than a year that Charlotte Higman was aware of the transaction and refused to refund her.

The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) agreed with the bank when a complaint was raised in October 2017.

But earlier this month, RBS apologised and issued Charlotte a full refund.

Charlotte, from Totnes in Devon, believes that RBS repeatedly failed to pick up on evidence, including warnings raised in its own security processes.

In a recording of the fraudulent phone call obtained by Watchdog Live, a woman can be heard incorrectly answering a security question relating to Charlotte’s occupation.

Despite this, a transaction of £4,318 is approved by the bank and it is only after the caller requests a second transaction, and is unable to answer additional security questions, that a warning is raised on Charlotte’s account.

The bank’s own records show that the phone call, in January 2017, was marked as a “potential account takeover” and the caller failed the bank’s voice recognition checks. Despite this, the initial transaction was not reversed.

«

Reading between the lines, the only reason the customer (Charlotte) was able to prove this was because she got hold of the recordings – presumably through data protection law (because it relates to “her”). The fraudster had already conned her landline provider to divert her number to a mobile phone – which the bank rang to confirm the transaction.

Clearly, humans aren’t good at spotting chained fraud.
link to this extract


Tech shoppers ditch desktop PCs and DVD players • Ofcom

»

Ownership of digital devices such as smart TVs, smart watches and smartphones has grown significantly in recent years, as more people need a constant connection to the internet – internet users say they spend an average of 24 hours a week online.

By contrast, MP3 players, DVD players and desktop computers seem to be falling out of favour as smartphone use continues to grow, particularly for browsing and streaming.

Meanwhile, the popularity of tablets and e-readers seems to have peaked. Ownership of both is significantly higher than it was seven years ago, but has levelled out in the last few years.

Ofcom now measures ownership of smart speakers (owned by 13% of households) and virtual reality (VR) headsets (5%). The first VR headset went on sale in the UK in 2015 – a year earlier than smart speakers, which have been quicker to capture the imagination of tech shoppers.

Other emerging trends include wearable tech, such as smart watches and fitness trackers. One in five households now owns these devices, and ownership has been doubling every year since 2016.

Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s Director of Market Intelligence, said: “As technology evolves and transforms how we live our lives, the devices we rely on are constantly changing.

“The growth in popularity of streaming services has created tremendous demand for connected TVs, which for many people are replacing DVD players, and the smartphone is replacing several other devices at once.

“The range of connected devices is expanding rapidly. Smart speakers really took off last year and along with other smart home devices will again be ones to watch this year.”

«

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

Start Up No.957: Facebook’s dark PR pitches, lots of bitcoin, Google to stop News?, Snap spectacles 2, and more

Bitcoin's fall in price on 20 November: down about $1,000
Bitcoin has been rivalling Theresa May’s Draft Withdrawal Agreement for popularity

A selection of 12 links for you. Look, it’s a tactical thing, you wouldn’t understand. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Read the mud-slinging pitches Facebook’s PR firm sent us  • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

»

Zooming out for a second, you do also have to pause and wonder at quite how radioactive the corporate culture must be when the “solution” to a string of hugely damaging disinformation scandals is to reach for whataboutery and even actual fake news, as the NYT has claimed, to try to muddy the waters in your favor.

It’s almost as if manipulation is in the corporate DNA.

Though, again, Facebook has decried knowledge of exactly what Definers was up to on its behalf. Yet not knowing isn’t any kind of defence when your business stands accused of defective oversight, self-serving opacity and having a vacuum where its moral compass should be…

…Since the NYT story broke, Facebook has claimed journalists were well aware that Definers was working on its behalf. But the truth is rather murkier there, too.

We checked our inboxes and none of the pitches Definers sent to TechCrunch made an explicit disclosure that the messages they contained had been paid for by Facebook to push a pro-Facebook agenda. They all required the recipient to join those dots themselves.

A proper journalist engaging their critical faculties should have been able to deduce Facebook was the paying customer, given the usually obvious skew.

But if Definers was also sending out this stuff (and indeed worse things than we were pitched) more widely, to content seeders and fencers that trade on framed outrage to drive online clicks, their tasty-sounding tidbits would not have been so critically parsed. And angles they were pushing likely still flowed where they could influence opinion — thanks to the “inverse” osmosis of social media.

(As far as we can tell none of the Definers’ oppo research pitches that we received ended up in a TechCrunch article — well, until now… )

«

And yes, some of the pitches do follow. I’d have lifted my weary eyes skywards at them too; they’re transparent whataboutery, and aren’t “stories”. Facebook was wasting its money.
link to this extract


Men behind TalkTalk data breach jailed • Out-law

»

Matthew Hanley, 23, and Conner Allsopp, 21, both of Tamworth in England, received their sentences at the Old Bailey in London on Monday. Hanley was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment and Allsopp to eight months.

The sentences were issued after both men had previously pled guilty to offences under the UK’s Computer Misuse Act.

Hanley was responsible for “hacking the TalkTalk database, obtaining files to enable the hack of websites and supplying these files to others”. He also supplied a spreadsheet of TalkTalk customer details for use in fraud, the Metropolitan Police Service said in a statement.

Allsopp was responsible for supplying an article for use in fraud and supplying a computer file to enable hacking intended for the commission of an offence under the Computer Misuse Act, the Met said.

«

This is quite weird: the breach was in October 2015, more than three years ago, and these two were arrested within a year. (The story of what they did is one of the chapters in my book Cyber Wars. Now we’ll need another edition..) What on earth has been going on for two years?
link to this extract


Google News may shut over EU plans to charge tax for links • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

»

Richard Gingras, the search engine’s vice-president of news, said while “it’s not desirable to shut down services” the company was deeply concerned about the current proposals, which are designed to compensate struggling news publishers if snippets of their articles appear in search results.

He told the Guardian that the future of Google News could depend on whether the EU was willing to alter the phrasing of the legislation [on copyright which could demand a “link tax” for large companies]. “We can’t make a decision until we see the final language,” he said.

He pointed out the last time a government attempted to charge Google for links, in 2014 in Spain, the company responded by shutting down Google News in the country. Spain passed a law requiring aggregation sites to pay for news links, in a bid to prop up struggling print news outlets. Google responded by closing the service for Spanish consumers, which he said prompted a fall in traffic to Spanish news websites.

“We would not like to see that happen in Europe,” said Gingras. “Right now what we want to do is work with stakeholders.”

Traditional news publishers have a difficult relationship with Google, which they blame for sucking up much of the advertising revenue which used to prop up print newspapers. However, many are also heavily dependent on Google News to send millions of readers to their websites, which can help boost digital revenues.

«

I’m actually a bit Brexit on this one. Google says it’s not a moneymaker for it? Fine – close it. Wouldn’t this create an opportunity for a new, European aggregator to replace it? Or would people just use apps and go to sites?
link to this extract


These secret settings instantly make any Android phone feel twice as fast • BGR

Zach Epstein:

»

When you switch apps or top around through pop-ups, the speed of the animations that transition you from one screen to the next actually have a huge impact on the speed of the user interface. They already seem to move so quickly that you barely notice them. But believe it or not, doubling the speed of these animations actually has a massive impact on how fast your Android phone feels. And as you might have surmised by now, that’s exactly what we’re going to teach you how to do in this post.

As we mentioned, each time you open an app, close an app, open or tap out of pop-ups, or switch between apps, your phone plays a transition animation. This way there’s a smooth transition from one screen to the next, rather than just an abrupt image change. Those animations might seem fast, but there’s an easy way to speed them up even more and the end result is a phone that feel much faster with a UI that seems much more fluid. And the best part is that it couldn’t be easier to adjust these settings.

There’s a secret Settings menu inside Android’s Settings app called “Developer options” and it’s filled with a wide range of advanced options. It’s hidden by default — it is a secret, after all — but it’s simple to gain access to it on your phone.

«

Including this because some people might not know it.
link to this extract


iPhone owners are losing their minds over this keyboard cursor trick • BGR

Jacob Siegal:

»

iPhone owners are appreciative of the fact that iOS allows them to tap or drag the cursor in order to change or delete a specific word in a text message, but it can be a surprisingly difficult task to perform. No matter how small your hands are, trying to tap the invisible gap between two letters can be maddening, and it often takes several tries to get it right. More often than not, I just hold down the backspace key until I reach the problem area.

But it turns out that it doesn’t have to be this way. While you can try to manually adjust the cursor with your fat fingers, Apple has also included an alternate control scheme that most people don’t know about.

On Sunday, food blogger Krissy Brierre-Davis shared a tip on Twitter which immediately went viral. It turns out that if you click and hold on the space bar when the keyboard appears, the keyboard turns into a touchpad which you can use to drag the cursor freely around the text box. This trick works for phones without 3D touch like the iPhone XR. On handsets with 3D Touch, you can press firmly and hold anywhere on the keyboard for a second or two to activate the touchpad, eliminating the need for tapping on words.

«

Including this just in case anyone didn’t know this already. Someone won’t. Been in iPhones since 2015. But discoverability is very low.
link to this extract


Samsung CEO seeks breakthrough with Galaxy 10, foldable phone • Korea Herald

Song Su-hyun:

»

[Samsung CEO Koh Dong-jin] recently said in a corporate message to executives and employees of the information technology and mobile communications division of Samsung that he felt “sorry about the currently struggling status of the Samsung smartphone business and will do my best to overcome the crisis with the upcoming Galaxy 10 and foldable phones.” 

The message comes amid rumors concerning his position, as the tech giant approaches its year-end personnel reshuffle and organizational restructuring.

Koh was reportedly criticized for weakening competitiveness of Samsung phones by Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, who ordered improvement in camera technology for the smartphones after personally visiting a shop in Europe. 

“Koh’s message appeared to show how much of a critical position Samsung’s mobile business is in at the moment. The atmosphere within the company is currently serious as we hear outside criticism toward the products,” said an insider.

Samsung recorded 2.2 trillion won ($1.95bn) in operating profit for mobile business in the third quarter, down more than 30% from the previous quarter.

«

Samsung is struggling? That’s news to me.
link to this extract


Snap to release new spectacles with two cameras for $350 • Cheddar

Alex Heath:

»

Snap is planning to release a new version of its Spectacles glasses with two cameras and a higher price point of $350 by the end of the year, Cheddar has learned.

The new Spectacles, internally codenamed Newport, will feature an all-new design with a more premium frame made of aluminum and cameras capable of producing augmented reality effects in videos, according to people familiar with the matter. With a $350 price point, the new glasses will be more than double the cost of the first iteration of Spectacles, which were released in 2016.

A Snap spokesperson declined to comment.

By utilizing two cameras, the Snapchat app will be able to overlay AR lenses and create 3D-like photo effects from footage taken by the Spectacles, the people said. The new hardware is intended to further CEO Evan Spiegel’s grand vision of eventually creating eyewear technology that seamlessly overlays virtual objects onto the real world.

Snap initially captivated the tech industry with the surprise release of Spectacles and its rebranding as a “camera company” in the fall of 2016. But early buzz around the glasses led Snap to widely overestimate demand, leading to a charge of roughly $40m in unsold inventory after the company ordered roughly 800,000 units from its Chinese supplier.

«

It’s almost a good idea, except you’d really want to be able to superimpose content from other social networks in there. In which case, why Snap? Or would Snap make enough profit from them even so? It’s not the price that’s an obstacle if they’re good enough; it’s the content.
link to this extract


Nvidia grapples with cryptocurrency miners’ exit • WSJ

Sarah Needleman:

»

At the height of the cryptocurrency boom, when even moms in British Columbia were stockpiling videogame graphics cards to generate digital currency, average gamers couldn’t get their hands on their favored hardware. Prices ballooned and inventory vanished.

Those days are over. But inflated prices have taken longer than expected to come down, says Nvidia Corp. , particularly for its moderately powerful chips built on an architecture it calls Pascal.

Nvidia misjudged how quickly prices for the graphics cards that those chips go into would normalize now that cryptocurrency mining isn’t as hot, and the company is now dealing with months of expensive inventory that price-conscious gamers won’t touch.

The company’s message to Wall Street: Videogaming is fine, and the crypto hangover is lasting longer than expected. Still, some analysts don’t see a quick fix.

“The real recovery won’t take place until the second, third and fourth quarters of fiscal 2020,” said Gary Mobley, analyst at Benchmark. “It’s 12 weeks of inventory out there we’re dealing with.”

«

The cryptocurrency crash – presently underway, because we’re just past the anniversary of the big runup in bitcoin’s “value” – is going to ripple out in all sorts of interesting directions. Nvidia is just a first-order one.
link to this extract


Taiwan chipmakers asked to defer mining ASIC shipments • Digitimes

Cage Chao and Willis Ke:

»

Taiwan IC designers capable of providing crypto mining ASIC solutions are feeling increasing pressure from customers postponing shipments and new product development amid Bitcoin plunging to a new low of under US$5,000 recently, and the waning mining fever is expected to undermine revenue performances of the chipmakers in the first half of 2019, according to industry sources.

The sources said that since the beginning of 2018, many new mining customers have moved to contract Taiwan chipmakers, including MediaTek, Global Unichip, Alchip, Faraday Technology and RDC Semiconductor, to design exclusive ASICS fabricated on advanced 7nm process to effectively save power consumption and better mining performance.

But the ever-declining prices of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies have not only built up record-high inventory levels of mining graphic cards at suppliers, but also sent mining ASIC clients asking Taiwan IC designers to delay shipments.

Among the designers, RDC Semiconductor has suspended development of ASIC solutions for mining customers; MediaTelk is not expected to enforce its 7nm mining ASIC plan until the first half of 2019; and other peer chipmakers Global Unichip, Alchip and Faraday do not have clear delivery schedules for such customers, the sources said. Even TSMC has directly scaled down mining ASIC foundry orders to near zero, according to industry sources.

«

link to this extract


Grifter journalist Jerry Ji Guo remanded in jail for alleged bitcoin long con • The Daily Beast

Kevin Poulsen:

»

He bounced right into New York’s “Silicon Alley” tech startup community, scoring YCombinator seed funding for a group-dating service called Grouper that lasted eight months.

In the years since, according to his LinkedIn profile, the Chinese-American Yale graduate has been owner and head chef of a burger bar in Beijing and founded a “growth hacking” marketing firm in Atlanta. Last year he finally landed in the field he seemed born to occupy, cryptocurrency, launching a $2m ICO for a content-sharing platform he claimed had deals in place with American Idol and The Voice.

Now Guo is on a new adventure, potentially his last for the next 63 to 78 months. On Nov. 9, FBI agents in Puerto Rico arrested the self-described “serial blockchain entrepreneur” on wire-fraud charges for allegedly stealing over $3.5m worth of cryptocurrency from startups that hired him as a consultant.

On Friday a federal judge in San Juan ordered Guo’s transfer to San Jose, California, to face the eight-count indictment, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison by statute, and at least five years, three months under federal sentencing guidelines.

At the center of the case is Guo’s career in the fast money world of initial coin offerings.

«

Say no more – ICOs are of course grifter central. But some of the detail here in the indictments is amazing.
link to this extract


Bitcoin-rigging criminal probe focused on tie to Tether • Bloomberg

Matt Robinson and Tom Schoenberg:

»

A focus of the Justice Department’s investigation is whether the dramatic rise of digital tokens in recent years was purely driven by actual demand, or was partially fanned on by market tricks. Along with the CFTC, prosecutors have been looking into a number of trading strategies, including spoofing — the illegal practice of flooding the market with fake orders to trick other traders into buying or selling, Bloomberg reported in May.

While not as well known as Bitcoin, Tether is widely used by traders to bet on price moves for other cryptocurrencies. That’s because the token is more stable than other digital coins but remains outside the traditional banking system, making it relatively easy to transfer between different crypto exchanges.

Tether’s stability, and it’s name, comes from the fact that its value is supposed to be tethered to the U.S. dollar. Tether Ltd. even says that for each digital coin issued, it has $1 in the bank. Some investors have questioned that claim. One reason the CFTC subpoenaed the company was to seek proof that tokens are backed by a reserve of U.S. dollars, Bloomberg reported in June.

Among the issues the Justice Department is examining is how Tether Ltd. creates new coins and why they enter the market predominantly through Bitfinex, the people said.

The probe follows allegations made in a June paper by University of Texas Professor John Griffin and co-author Amin Shams. Griffin and Shams wrote that trading in Tether shows a pattern of underpinning, and manipulating, Bitcoin.

They claimed that Tether was used to buy Bitcoin at pivotal periods, and that about half of Bitcoin’s 1,400% gain last year was attributable to such transactions. Griffin briefed the CFTC on his findings earlier this year, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.

«

link to this extract


ICOs and crypto fund managers are in trouble • Off The Chain

Anthony Pompliano:

»

The SEC announced two new enforcement actions and settlements against ICO projects last week. In the case materials, the regulatory body used language that (1) indicates most ICOs will be deemed sales of unregistered securities and (2) the projects that violated the law will have to comply and pay financial fines.

There is a nuance to the financial fines that could be devastating to the industry though. Regulators are requiring teams to issues refunds to investors (if the investors would like one), at the US dollar price when the investor invested. Almost every project raised capital in the form of cryptocurrency — for example, lets say investors contributed 50 BTC to a project at a price of $10,000 for a total of $500,000 raised. This example team would be on the the hook for returning $500,000 to investors on top of the financial fine levied by the SEC.

Normally this wouldn’t be a big problem, except crypto prices are down 50-90% since the all-time high. It is unlikely that an ICO project has enough funds, based in US dollars, to pay investors back (depending on when the ICO was raised — most were in Q3 & Q4 2017). In our example, if Bitcoin is down 50% since investors contributed the 50 BTC, the team would only have $250,000 on hand to repay investors (if the team didn’t spend any of the money yet either). The only options they have is to raise more capital (unlikely) or declare bankruptcy.

The current bear market is going to go from bad to worse very quickly for both crypto funds and ICO projects. The pain ahead is something that many of these entrepreneurs and fund managers have never had to deal with. Fortunately, some teams listened to folks like Keith Rabois as they warned against these future challenges, but not nearly as many as should have.

«

Uh-oh. So this is probably all going to start crashing down next year.
link to this extract


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Start Up No.956: the smartphone crunch begins, Apple cutting orders?, kill that dropdown menu!, flat earth dunces, and more


QWERTY: also known as EMBEDDED. CC-licensed photo by Dennis Wilkinson on Flickr.

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

A selection of 48 links for you. Links counted by the European Research Group. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Meitu leaves the dancefloor – and the brutal smartphone OEM crunch begins • Medium

I wrote a piece over at Medium:

»

“They shoot horses, don’t they?” asks the beautiful woman near the end of the film of the same name, as she and her partner consider their hopeless struggle to stay awake in a dance marathon – one of the US Depression’s little entertainments, where you could win a prize, and more importantly get food, if you could only stay on your feet.

The modern form of the dance marathon is the smartphone business. The latest to take one to the head is Meitu. It’s a Chinese smartphone company which previously attracted some attention for its “beauty shot” selfie system (and some more attention for its data-grabbing ways). The reason you probably haven’t heard of it is because it’s pretty small on a global scale: since launching in 2013, it has sold a total of just 3.5m smartphones. That’s about 0.7m per year. Apple sells about that many per day in a slow quarter.

Now, though, Meitu is interesting for a different reason: it’s an early casualty of the coming smartphone crunch. The whole business is in a recession, and small players are going to get squeezed out.

«

Meitu said that its full-year loss will be about $144m, up from half-year losses of $18.4m. It’s all going south. The Android OEM business is murderous.
link to this extract


Apple suppliers suffer with uncertainty around iPhone demand • WSJ

Yoko Kubota, Takashi Mochizuki and Tripp Mickle:

»

Lower-than-expected demand for Apple’s new iPhones and the company’s decision to offer more models have created turmoil along its supply chain and made it harder to predict the number of components and phones it needs, people familiar with the situation say.

In recent weeks, Apple slashed production orders for all three of the iPhone models that it unveiled in September, these people said, frustrating executives at Apple suppliers as well as workers who assemble the handsets and their components.

Forecasts have been especially problematic in the case of the iPhone XR. Around late October, Apple slashed its production plan by up to a third of the approximately 70 million units it had asked some suppliers to produce between September and February, people familiar with the matter said.

And in the past week, Apple told several suppliers that it cut its production plan again for the iPhone XR, some of the people said Monday, as Apple battles a maturing smartphone market and stiff competition from Chinese producers.

«

Neil Cybart (over at AboveAvalon) looked at this; he reckons that what is probably happening is that older models such as the iPhone 8 are selling better than Apple had expected compared to the newer models – because people don’t see the need to spend that much on an upgrade – and that the XR has been hardest-hit by that shift. Doesn’t mean that it’s selling fewer units overall, though; it’s just the suppliers for the old models haven’t got any complaints, so they would be hard to get to talk.
link to this extract


Drop-down usability: when you should (and shouldn’t) use them • Baymard Institute

Christian Holst:

»

If, for a particular input, there are many more than 10 options, but the input doesn’t have to be validated, an open text form field will often be simpler than a drop-down, as users don’t have to read and understand all options before making a choice.


A “Full Name” text field, seen here at Wayfair, eliminates the need for “Title”, “Middle Name”, and “Suffix” drop-downs.

For example, a “Full Name” field is a very flexible way of supporting optional “Title” and “Suffix” fields (inputs often wrongly displayed in a drop-down). Similarly, an optional text field for delivery instructions will often be simpler than an optional drop-down.

For some fields, such as the “Country Selection” field, where the input often does have to be validated, we observe that a well-performing alternative to a drop-down is an autocomplete field.

This addresses the issues of drop-down selectors by letting the user begin to type their country themselves. As they begin typing, the possible matches are suggested, which simplifies the task of locating and selecting a value, and is observed to greatly speed up the country-selection process altogether.


A country autocomplete solves the issue of having a massive drop-down that’s difficult to use, while it can also support typos and sequencing, synonyms, common names, local spellings, and abbreviations.

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Oh man country drop-downs are the WORST.
link to this extract


Why we can’t quit the QWERTY keyboard • MIT Technology Review

»

In 2011, Kyoto University researchers proposed that QWERTY stemmed from key rearrangements made to satisfy the habits of the typewriter’s earliest customers: telegraph operators, who used it to transcribe Morse code messages. (For instance, some letters that are often confused for one another in Morse are close together on the keyboard.) Those researchers were challenging the oft-invoked bit of folklore that QWERTY was chosen to prevent typewriters from jamming when people hit commonly used letters in quick succession. Either way, in 1893, several of the largest typewriter makers combined to form the Union Typewriter Company. By the turn of the century, QWERTY was the typing standard.

After that, it wasn’t long before children started learning QWERTY. These days, US kids are required to be able to type with a keyboard by third grade, and some schools are teaching kids as young as kindergarten basic keyboard skills.

QWERTY dominates not just in countries that use alphabets (with some regional variations), but in countries like China that developed their own systems, such as Pinyin, to type a vast array of characters with the same simple keyboard.

But the QWERTY keyboard’s success has not been due to lack of competition.

«

The biggest – and in many places still the most-used – competitor is T9, for mobile phone keyboards. Though this article looks at the many, many other possibilities.
link to this extract


China’s Orwellian social credit score isn’t real • Foreign Policy

Jamie Horsley:

»

Under the system, government agencies compile and share across departments, regions, and sectors, and with the public, data on compliance with specified industry or sectoral laws, regulations, and agreements by individuals, companies, social organizations, government departments, and the judiciary. Serious offenders may be placed on blacklists published on an integrated national platform called Credit China and subjected to a range of government-imposed inconveniences and exclusions. These are often enforced by multiple agencies pursuant to joint punishment agreements covering such sectors as taxation, the environment, transportation, e-commerce, food safety, and foreign economic cooperation, as well as failing to carry out court judgments.

These punishments are intended to incentivize legal and regulatory compliance under the often-repeated slogan of “whoever violates the rules somewhere shall be restricted everywhere.” Conversely, “red lists” of the trustworthy are also published and accessed nationally through Credit China.

The scope, scale, diversity, and language of the evolving system have caused a lot of confusion, particularly with respect to the existence of a single social credit score. There is no such thing as a national “social credit score. A few dozen towns and cities in China, as well as private companies running loyalty-type programs for their customers, do currently compute scores, primarily to determine rewards or access to various programs. That was the source of at least some of the confusion. Ant Financial’s Sesame Credit program, for instance, which gives rewards on various platforms and easier access to credit, was often cited as a precursor of a planned government program, despite being a private enterprise.

The government does assign universal social credit codes to companies and organizations, which they use as an ID number for registration, tax payments, and other activities, while all individuals have a national ID number. The existing social credit blacklists use these numbers, as do almost all activities in China. But these codes are not scores or rankings.

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For something that isn’t real, that seems pretty real to me.
link to this extract


Apple’s tools sneak into business • WSJ CIO Journal

Sara Castellanos:

»

This year, individual sellers have sold more than $10m worth of sneakers through GOAT’s app and the Flight Club consignment store, up from $2m a year ago. The companies have an inventory of 35,000 unique sneaker styles and hold over 200,000 pairs of sneakers at four warehouses around the country including one at the Flight Club store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York. A rare pair of sneakers such as the DJ Khaled Jordan 3 can sell for as much as $40,000.

The two companies combined have nearly 800 Apple devices deployed throughout their workforce including iPads and MacBooks. Apple’s Device Enrollment Program allows the companies to purchase laptops, iPads and other Apple products with company-specific security preferences and apps already installed.

When the device ships to an employee, it’s already configured with the appropriate business settings as soon as it’s turned on. The program has been a crucial component in the effort to accommodate growth, Mr. Arndt said, because it doesn’t require the device to be configured by an IT person before it gets to an employee, saving days worth of time.

“It’s fully configured without any interaction required, which is an easy transition in on-boarding (employees) and relieves some of that stress of first-day training,” Mr. Arndt said.

Flight Club uses Apple iPads in its brick-and-mortar SoHo store, where employees can look up and purchase inventory for customers using a sales floor application that was built in-house. Employees don’t need much training in the store because they’re familiar with the intuitive, easy-to-use Apple products they use in their consumer lives, Mr. Arndt said. “Everybody already knows what it’s like to use one of these devices,” he said.

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Isn’t marked as sponsored content, so I guess it’s just a CIO Journal thing. Will look out for the article on businesses using Android tablets for similar jobs – must be coming next week.
link to this extract


Inside the Flat Earth conference, where the world’s oldest conspiracy theory is hot again • The Daily Beast

Kelly Weill:

»

“In five years, everyone will know the Earth is flat,” Scott Simons tells me as we wait in line for the second annual Flat Earth Conference.

Scott, holding the Utah license plate “ITSFLAT,” is explaining how the Flat Earth revolution will bring “societal collapse” because the bulk of our knowledge comes from Round Earth institutions.

“It’s globalism,” his wife Julie interjects. The term, a favorite of President Donald Trump, has become an anti-Semitic euphemism, attached to a far-right conspiracy about Jews controlling the world. I make what must be a funny face, because Julie tries to clarify.

“Globalism,” she repeats, and draws a circle with her hands to illustrate.

Ah. Globe. Yes…

…On the first day of the conference, I ask Flat Earthers when they converted. When did they chuck out the globe, renounce outer space as fake, and decide we live on a flat plane covered by a dome?

The answer, for most, is three years ago. That’s when some of the movement’s biggest names launched YouTube channels with hours-long videos explaining not so much why the Earth is flat (it isn’t) but why elements of the “globe model” are suspicious, particularly when they clash with a literal reading of the Bible.

“August 2015,” Ginny, a California woman tells me. That’s when a friend forwarded her a video series on Flat Earth. “I spent like three nights wide awake and then I was hooked.”

This is the real currency in the Flat Earth community. Between speeches, everyone is showing each other YouTube videos on their phones. People reference each other by their YouTube names, and twice when I leave my seat I return to find advertisements for YouTube channels on the chair. A panel on Women in Flat Earth is more of a how-to on running a Flat Earth YouTube channel while female…

Conference speaker Joshua Swift tells me a popular Flat Earth video “woke him up” to the movement. “It came on autoplay,” he says. “So I didn’t actively search for Flat Earth. Even months before, I was listening to Alex Jones.”

«

link to this extract


Snap’s Spiegel flies high above Wall Street worries • The Information

Tom Dotan:

»

Although Android has been a longstanding issue—even an ongoing joke at the company—staffers are optimistic that the rebuilt app will help jumpstart user growth in markets like Western Europe and the Middle East where some Snapchat users dropped off, according to people familiar with the matter. There’s also a large cohort of potential users who don’t have Snapchat, but have friends who do, that Snap employees also see as low-hanging fruit. Insiders are less confident about some markets that Instagram has targeted, like Brazil.

Meanwhile, another facet of of Mr. Spiegel’s growth strategy—attracting older users— remains up in the air. Snapchat has always been most popular for people in their mid- 20s and younger; Mr. Spiegel has suggested a combination of product fixes and better outreach on the value of communicating through pictures will help bring along older users.

The optimist case that people see for Snap in the near term is to follow the same trajectory Twitter did after its stock crashed to a low of $14 in 2016 from $50 in early 2015: stabilize the leadership, slowly build the business and start turning a profit. While Twitter’s user base has been stagnant for the past few years, it is solidly profitable, thanks to steadily growing ad revenues. Twitter stock is up 73% in the last year to $33.

“No one says [Snap] need to be ubiquitous. They can still be a real business even if they’re not taking over the world,” said Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser. He says Snap can succeed, even at its current size, if it keeps being an essential advertising outlet for a small number of large industries, like entertainment.

To follow in Twitter’s footsteps, Snap has to survive—which means it needs to stop the losses before it runs out of cash. At the end of September, the company had $1.4bn in cash. But it is burning through cash, with spending overwhelming revenue, by $661m in the first nine months of this year.

Snap has reduced its cash burn in the past year and has a little over two years of cash left. In a recent memo to staff reported by Cheddar, Mr. Spiegel set becoming profitable in 2019 as a “stretch” goal.

«

Might be tight not running out of cash.
link to this extract


‘They’ll squash you like a bug’: how Silicon Valley keeps a lid on leakers • The Guardian

Olivia Solon:

»

Since [James] Damore’s [infamous] memo, Google has become much leakier, particularly around internal discussions of racial and gender diversity.

“It’s a cry for help internally,” said another former Googler, who now runs a startup.

He said people at Google had for years put up with covert sexism, internal biases or, in his case, a manager with anger management problems. “No one would do anything until one day a VP saw the guy yelling at me in the hallway.

“People have been dealing with this stuff for years and are finally thinking ‘if Google isn’t going to do something about it, we’re going to leak it’.”

For low-paid contractors who do the grunt work for big tech companies, the incentive to keep silent is more stick than carrot. What they lack in stock options and a sense of corporate tribalism, they make up for in fear of losing their jobs.

One European Facebook content moderator signed a contract, seen by the Guardian, which granted the company the right to monitor and record his social media activities, including his personal Facebook account, as well as emails, phone calls and internet use. He also agreed to random personal searches of his belongings including bags, briefcases and car while on company premises. Refusal to allow such searches would be treated as gross misconduct.

Following Guardian reporting into working conditions of community operations analysts at Facebook’s European headquarters in Dublin, the company clamped down further, he said.

Contractors would be questioned if they took photographs in the office or printed emails or documents. “On more than one occasion someone would print something and you’d find management going through the log to see what they had printed,” said one former worker.

Security teams would leave “mouse traps” – USB keys containing data that were left around the office to test staff loyalty. “If you find a USB or something you’d have to give it in straight away. If you plugged it into a computer it would throw up a flare and you’d be instantly escorted out of the building.”

“Everyone was paranoid. When we texted each other we’d use code if we needed to talk about work and meet up in person to talk about it in private,” he said.

«

Easy to overlook how difficult it must have been to gather the information for this story. Solon is doing really terrific work.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.955: all Amazon all the time!, busting tech’s mythology, SEC rolls ICOs, knitting in code, and more


Everest: the highest mountain, but not the furthest you can get from the Earth’s centre. CC-licensed photo by Jerome Bon on Flickr.

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

A selection of 14 links for you. Neither inflammable nor flammable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Everything on Amazon is Amazon! • The New York Times

John Herrman:

»

There are vanishingly few types of consumer goods that you can’t buy, in some form, on Amazon. But it is missing plenty of brands. In 2009, the company started selling products under its own name. It soon moved beyond the first AmazonBasics — items including budget electronics and batteries — to a wider range of Amazon-branded products. This was followed by an explosion of company-owned brands, including dozens with Amazon-free names.

Lark & Ro sells women’s wear, Buttoned Down sells men’s dress shirts; Pike Street sells linens; Strathwood sells furniture. These brands are intended to stand on their own, sort of. They are associated with Amazon, and listed on the site’s dozens of different contexts as “Our Brand” or “by Amazon” or “An Amazon Brand.” (Some new brands are undercover but then blow their cover, as in “Amazon Brand – Solimo Pasta, Thin Spaghetti, 16oz.”)

A lot of these brands — most explicitly the Basics products and various household staples — appear to be straightforward margin plays. Others, clothing brands in particular, fill gaps left by companies that have steered clear of the platform altogether. Others, well, who’s to say?

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link to this extract


What is the highest point on Earth as measured from Earth’s center? • NOAA

»

Mount Everest, located in Nepal and Tibet, is usually said to be the highest mountain on Earth. Reaching 29,029 feet at its summit, Everest is indeed the highest point above global mean sea level—the average level for the ocean surface from which elevations are measured. But the summit of Mt. Everest is not the farthest point from Earth’s center.

«

You’ll have to read on to find out. You’ve probably never heard of the mountain whose summit is the one. Remembering that the Earth is an oblate spheroid. And no, it’s not Kilimanjaro.
link to this extract


A leaky database of SMS text messages exposed password resets and two-factor codes • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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A security lapse has exposed a massive database containing tens of millions of text messages, including password reset links, two-factor codes, shipping notifications and more.

The exposed server belongs to Voxox (formerly Telcentris), a San Diego, Calif.-based communications company. The server wasn’t protected with a password, allowing anyone who knew where to look to peek in and snoop on a near-real-time stream of text messages.

For Sébastien Kaul, a Berlin-based security researcher, it didn’t take long to find.

Although Kaul found the exposed server on Shodan, a search engine for publicly available devices and databases, it was also attached to to one of Voxox’s own subdomains. Worse, the database — running on Amazon’s Elasticsearch — was configured with a Kibana front-end, making the data within easily readable, browsable and searchable for names, cell numbers and the contents of the text messages themselves.

«

Everyone gets hacked. Sometimes, they just do it to themselves.
link to this extract


Facebook, Google, Amazon, and the collapse of the tech mythology • The Atlantic

Alexis Madrigal:

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Where does this almost unbelievably bad news cycle end for these companies? And what if the news stays bad, but the people using their products can’t extract themselves from the platforms tech has built?

A historical analog for this fall from grace does exist. There was a time when Americans loved and talked about the transcontinental railroads the way we loved and talked about the internet. The steel lines spanning the nation were, as the Stanford historian Richard White put it, “the epitome of modernity.” “[Americans] were in love with railroads because railroads defined the age. The claims made for railroads by men who wrote about them were always extravagant,” White wrote in Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. “The kind of hyperbole recently lavished on the Internet was once the mark of railroad talk.”

Then the public turned on the transcontinental railroads. “The innovations entrepreneurs brought to the railroads—financial mechanisms, pricing innovations, and political techniques—were as harmful to the public, to the republic, and even to the corporation as they were profitable to many of the innovators,” White continued.

The railroads became some of the most despised institutions in the country and a core reason why monopoly became such a terrible word. When the railroad mythology collapsed, it helped create an entire political ideology: the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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link to this extract


SEC settles enforcement actions over two initial coin offerings – WSJ

Dave Michaels:

»

both settlements require the companies to file audited financial statements and other disclosures about their businesses, providing the information that investors typically need to decide if a stock is a good investment.

Paragon and CarrierEQ, which conducted unregistered coin offerings, each agreed to pay $250,000 in civil penalties and to notify investors they are eligible for refunds if they still own the token or can show they sold it at a loss. Paragon sold to 8,300 investors, while CarrierEQ’s coin offering reached 2,500 buyers, the SEC said.

Paragon, founded by Russian internet entrepreneur Egor Lavrov and former model Jessica VerSteeg, staged a widely noticed coin sale in August 2017 that raised about $12 million, according to the SEC. The company said it would fuse blockchain, the technology underpinning virtual currencies, with the marijuana industry.

The startup launched at a time when many initial coin offerings used athletes and other celebrities to generate buzz. Paragon enlisted The Game, a rapper, to tout its coin. The company said it could control the supply of its token in order to stabilize or raise its price, the SEC said in a settlement order.

Paragon was one of hundreds of coin issuers identified by The Wall Street Journal in May as displaying signs of possible fraud. The Journal’s analysis reviewed the companies’ marketing documents and identified red flags such as plagiarized language, promises of guaranteed returns and missing or fake executive teams.

«

First two of scores. The ICO joyride is over.
link to this extract


‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America – The Washington Post

Eli Saslow:

»

The only light in the house came from the glow of three computer monitors, and Christopher Blair, 46, sat down at a keyboard and started to type. His wife had left for work and his children were on their way to school, but waiting online was his other community, an unreality where nothing was exactly as it seemed. He logged onto his website and began to invent his first news story of the day.

“BREAKING,” he wrote, pecking out each letter with his index fingers as he considered the possibilities. Maybe he would announce that Hillary Clinton had died during a secret overseas mission to smuggle more refugees into America. Maybe he would award President Trump the Nobel Peace Prize for his courage in denying climate change.

A new message popped onto Blair’s screen from a friend who helped with his website. “What viral insanity should we spread this morning?” the friend asked.

“The more extreme we become, the more people believe it,” Blair replied.

He had launched his new website on Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign as a practical joke among friends — a political satire site started by Blair and a few other liberal bloggers who wanted to make fun of what they considered to be extremist ideas spreading throughout the far right. In the last two years on his page, America’s Last Line of Defense, Blair had made up stories about California instituting sharia, former president Bill Clinton becoming a serial killer, undocumented immigrants defacing Mount Rushmore, and former president Barack Obama dodging the Vietnam draft when he was 9. “Share if you’re outraged!” his posts often read, and thousands of people on Facebook had clicked “like” and then “share,” most of whom did not recognize his posts as satire. Instead, Blair’s page had become one of the most popular on Facebook among Trump-supporting conservatives over 55.

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Blair is himself astonished by peoples’ credulousness. He’s a Democrat, and earning thousands per month from it.

And then Saslow finds someone who does believe it. And then it all rolls around.
link to this extract


The wartime spies who used knitting as an espionage tool • Atlas Obscura

Natalie Zarrelli:

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During World War 1, A grandmother in Belgium knitted at her window, watching the passing trains. As one train chugged by, she made a bumpy stitch in the fabric with her two needles. Another passed, and she dropped a stitch from the fabric, making an intentional hole. Later, she would risk her life by handing the fabric to a soldier—a fellow spy in the Belgian resistance, working to defeat the occupying German force.

Whether women knitted codes into fabric or used stereotypes of knitting women as a cover, there’s a history between knitting and espionage. “Spies have been known to work code messages into knitting, embroidery, hooked rugs, etc,” according to the 1942 book A Guide to Codes and Signals. During wartime, where there were knitters, there were often spies; a pair of eyes, watching between the click of two needles.

When knitters used knitting to encode messages, the message was a form of steganography, a way to hide a message physically (which includes, for example, hiding morse code somewhere on a postcard, or digitally disguising one image within another). If the message must be low-tech, knitting is great for this; every knitted garment is made of different combinations of just two stitches: a knit stitch, which is smooth and looks like a “v”, and a purl stitch, which looks like a horizontal line or a little bump. By making a specific combination of knits and purls in a predetermined pattern, spies could pass on a custom piece of fabric and read the secret message, buried in the innocent warmth of a scarf or hat.

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And lots more examples; you can see why a male-oriented armed forces would completely overlook such communication. (Via Graham Cluley.)
link to this extract


Apple’s new map: has Apple closed the gap with Google’s map? • Justin O’Beirne

O’Beirne does periodic, incredibly detailed (and fascinating) updates comparing Apple’s maps with Google’s. This is no exception, looking at the space where Apple has introduced new maps in California, which turns out to have some gotchas in tiny towns:

»

It’s surprising that Apple mislabels the general store because TechCrunch said that Apple’s vans were capturing addresses and points of interest along the roads:

“After the downstream data has been cleaned up of license plates and faces, it gets run through a bunch of computer vision programming to pull out addresses, street signs and other points of interest.”

But what’s even stranger is that “Markleeville General Store” is written on both the front and the side of the building—and according to TechCrunch:

“The computer vision system Apple is using can absolutely recognize storefronts and business names.”

Yet the businesses that Apple is missing—but that Google has—all have signs along the road.

This suggests that Apple isn’t algorithmically extracting businesses and other places out of the imagery its vans are collecting.

Instead, all of the businesses shown on Apple’s Markleeville map seem to be coming from Yelp, Apple’s primary place data provider…

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It seems that while Google uses algorithms on visual data, Apple is using a lot of low-cost humans. Both have their advantages.
link to this extract


It’s easy to fact check Trump’s lies: he tells the same ones all the time • Washington Post

Daniel Dale is the Toronto Star’s correspondent in Washington, and fact-checks Trump all the time:

»

Even the best of Trump’s interviewers seldom challenge him when he lies to their faces — despite the fact that almost all of the lies have been fact-checked before.

Trump regularly makes 20 to 30 false claims in his rally speeches. But if you watched a network news segment, read an Associated Press article or glanced at the front page of the newspaper in the city that hosted him, you’d typically have no idea that he was so wholly inaccurate.

If a car salesman told you 36 untrue things in 75 minutes, that would probably be the first thing you told your friends about your trip to the dealership. It should have been the first thing we all told our readers about Trump’s August rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

This issue is so urgent because Trump is getting worse and worse. In 2017, he averaged three false claims per day. In 2018, it is about nine per day. In the month leading up to the midterms: a staggering 26 per day. By my count, he’s now at 3,749 false claims since his inauguration. The Post, which tracks both false and misleading claims, has tallied up to 6,420.

Meanwhile, the press continues to blast out the lies unnoted. Two weeks ago, Axios and the AP uncritically tweeted his nonsense about the United States being the only nation to grant birthright citizenship. (They updated after they were criticized.) It happened again Monday, when Trump earned credulous tweets and headlines from ABC, NBC and others for his groundless assertion about “massively infected” ballots in Florida.

There’s nothing especially strategic about much of Trump’s lying; he does it because that is what he has always done. But the president also knows the lies will be broadcast unfiltered to tens of millions of people — by some of the very outlets he disparages as “fake news.”

«

As he says, it’s important that people know *on what topics* Trump is being misleading – though it generally boils down to “all of them”.
link to this extract


Trump’s Iran oil export sanctions aren’t living up to the hype • Bloomberg

Julian Lee:

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These were billed as the “strongest sanctions in history,” intended to prevent the Persian Gulf country from exporting any oil at all. But the reality hasn’t quite lived up to the hype: In the six months before they fully took effect, the impact of the Trump sanctions looks remarkably similar to those of his predecessor in 2012.

With the November deadline looming, it became clear that buyers which agreed to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil might be able secure waivers from the sanctions. Back in August, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said these would be “few and far between.” This week, it emerged that the US has agreed to let eight countries keep buying Iranian oil.

Details of the deal are sketchy, although Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has promised they will be revealed on Monday. The eight include China and India, the biggest buyers of Iran’s oil, as well as other key U.S. allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea. Turkey will also be permitted to continue buying, but the softening doesn’t extend to Europe. It isn’t yet clear how frequently the waivers will need to be re-validated, or by how much buyers will need to reduce their purchases to avoid penalties.

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If China can still buy Iranian oil, the “sanctions” aren’t really going to hurt it much.
link to this extract


Never mind the iPad — where are the full-time Android tablet users? • Medium

I wrote a thing over at Medium:

»

It is absolutely true that Android-powered tablets sell in greater numbers than iPads. You can see that in this graph, sourced from IDC and Strategy Analytics (IDC for the total tablet numbers, Strategy Analytics for the Windows tablet figures):

If you go strictly on the number of tablets sold, then Androids have sold plenty more than iPads or Windows tablets (same sources as before):

They also tend to be cheaper than iPads (though that’s not necessarily true since Apple cut the price on the entry-level iPad earlier this year).

So given all that, here’s my question: why aren’t we talking about full-time Android tablet users, rather than discussing whether the iPad Pro can replace/supplant your laptop? After all, Android tablets have pretty much the same apps as iOS, and you can even access a file system if you want.

«

I also asked the folks over at Android Police for their input – which is in the piece too. It’s quite surprising.
link to this extract


Facebook and the age of manipulation • New Yorker

Evan Osnos:

»

The most disturbing revelation is that Facebook employed Definers Public Affairs, a conservative Washington-based consultant, to promote negative stories about Facebook’s competitors by pushing them on the NTK Network, which calls itself “a unique news website that brings together data points from all platforms to tell the whole story.” NTK is not, in fact, a news Web site; it shares offices and staff with Definers. As the Times reported, “Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies. While the NTK Network does not have a large audience of its own, its content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.” In other words, Facebook employed a political P.R. firm that circulated exactly the kind of pseudo-news that Facebook has, in its announcements, sought to prevent from eroding Americans’ confidence in fact versus fiction.

On another front, Definers also sought to discredit Freedom from Facebook, a nonprofit opposition group, by encouraging reporters to write about its ties to George Soros, the liberal financier who is a subject of obsessive, often conspiratorial attention in conservative circles. On Thursday, Sarah Miller, a spokesperson for Freedom from Facebook, told me, “Congress and the Federal Trade Commission should come to terms with the fact that Facebook will never change, unless they force it to—and they should, without delay, to protect our democracy.” (On Thursday, as the report of the P.R. firm’s activities stirred criticism, Facebook said that it had ended its relationship. The company said that it had not asked the firm to circulate false stories.)

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link to this extract


Alphabet Verily stops Smart Lens, glucose-measuring contact lens • CNBC

Christina Farr:

»

Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences arm, has paused work on its so-called “smart lens” program, which was aiming to put tiny sensors on contact lenses to measure blood sugar levels in tears.

If it worked, the lenses could help diabetics track their glucose levels in real time and in less invasive ways than the traditional meters that require piercing the skin. But in a blog post on Friday, Verily said that after four years of research it has determined that detecting blood sugar in tears is a massive — and potentially insurmountable — technical and scientific undertaking.

“Our clinical work on the glucose-sensing lens demonstrated that there was insufficient consistency in our measurements of the correlation between tear glucose and blood glucose concentrations to support the requirements of a medical device,” the company said.

«

This is a project with a long, long heritage going back to 2004 and which has gone from the University of Waterloo to Microsoft Research and on to Google (and hence to Verily). Another big PR scheme bites the dust.
link to this extract


Bitcoin giveaway scams are flourishing on Twitter. They’re probably coming from Russia • Buzzfeed News

Jane Lytvynenko:

»

A BuzzFeed News analysis of the Target and G Suite account hacks suggest the perpetrators may have been the same ones responsible for similar schemes back in March. BuzzFeed News examined the websites touted in the Target and G Suite promoted tweet scams and determined they share a web server that also hosts sites like btc-back.net, elonmusk.gift, and eth-giving.com.

While domain registration information for those scam sites is hidden, other sites hosted the server are registered to Russian names with associated emails, and Russian addresses. A QR posted in one of the tweets was hosted on a Russian domain. The server currently hosts 600 Russian and English-language websites for illegal pharmacies, escort services, and a business that promises to improve the levels of World of Warcraft characters. Many of them appear to be based in Russia.

“The phrasing of the tweet themselves seem to suggest a Russian or Ukrainian language actor,” Kalember said. The researcher has also examined phishing emails sent by scammers to marketing and social media managers, which ultimately help them post from verified accounts like @Target. According to Kalember, those emails also show strong connections to Eastern European actors.

Twitter declined a request for technical details on the promoted scam ads.

«

link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.954: the cyborg cockup, Google steps away from robots, quitting Instagram, hacking kids’ smartwatches, and more


Want to expense a visit here? An AI might be checking that. Photo by Joshua Ganderson on Flickr

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0700GMT each weekday). 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.

How I lost and regained control of my microchip implant • Motherboard

Daniel Oberhaus:

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The NFC chip I got injected in my hand was made by Dangerous Things, a biohacking company started by Amal Graafstra that has also pioneered DIY biometric guns. Graafstra has been selling these chips since he raised $30,000 in a crowdfunding campaign in 2014. The chip is encased in a small glass tube that’s a little under a half an inch in length and just two millimeters in diameter. This tube is injected into the soft flesh between your thumb and index finger just above the webbing. When you hold your hand in certain positions, the outline of the chip can just barely be seen pushing against the skin.

The actual process of getting the implant went off without a hitch, but things quickly devolved after that. The thing about NFC chips is that anyone with a reader can also write to the device if it is not protected. While this isn’t exactly a huge security threat, given that someone would have to get the reader within several centimeters of your hand to write to the chip, when you’re at the world’s largest hacker conference it’s better to play it safe.

So, at the urging of everyone at the implant station, the first thing I did with my implant was secure it with a four-digit pin. I hadn’t decided what sort of data I wanted to put on the chip, but I sure as hell didn’t want someone else to write to my chip first and potentially lock me out. I chose the same pin that I used for my phone so I wouldn’t forget it in the morning—or at least, I thought I did.

If I had a single piece of advice for anyone thinking about getting an NFC chip implant it would be to do it sober. For starters, the piercer probably won’t even give you the implant if they suspect you’re intoxicated for reasons involving consent and safety (alcohol thins your blood, which is also why you shouldn’t get a tattoo while drunk.) But more importantly, you won’t wake up the next morning with a splitting headache and absolutely no idea how to unlock your hand.

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It’s basically like getting a hi-tech tattoo, isn’t it? Except you set off airport security systems forever.
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Google parent to pull plug on bipedal robot development • Nikkei Asian Review

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Google entered the robotics business in 2013 by buying Schaft, a tech startup founded by University of Tokyo researchers, and other companies. But the company scaled back the business, due in part to the departure of Andy Rubin in 2014, who has led the robotics business.

SoftBank Group in June 2017 announced that it had agreed with Alphabet to purchase Schaft, but one or more Schaft employees refused to be part of SoftBank, according to people familiar with the matter. SoftBank’s attempt to buy Schaft apparently broke down.

“Following Softbank’s decision not to move forward with the Schaft acquisition,” an Alphabet spokesperson told Nikkei, “we explored many options but ultimately decided to wind down Schaft. We’re working with employees to help them find jobs elsewhere within or outside of Alphabet.”

Yuto Nakanishi, assistant professor of the University of Tokyo, and others established Schaft in 2012. The startup has developed bipedal robots, which can be used to save human lives at disaster sites.

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Does this mean the end of the quadripedal robots too?
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Quitting Instagram: she’s one of the millions disillusioned with social media. But she also helped create it • Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin:

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“In the early days, you felt your post was seen by people who cared about you and that you cared about,” said [early Instagram employee Bailey] Richardson, who left Instagram in 2014 and later founded a start-up. “That feeling is completely gone for me now.”

The catalyst for Richardson’s decision to quit Instagram came when its co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, unexpectedly announced that they were leaving the company. With their exit, Richardson and other former Instagram employees worried Facebook would squash whatever independent identity the company had managed to retain.

She sent her goodbye to Instagram the next day.

Even in Silicon Valley, where it’s common to hear start-up workers become frustrated with management after an acquisition, the disillusionment of the early Instagram employees is striking: People seldom swear off or criticize the product they built, particularly when it has enjoyed such remarkable success. Instagram reached 1 billion users this year.

The people who worked at social networks long saw the connection and free expression they facilitated as a powerful force for good and evidence of the contribution they were making to society. For them, the public questioning of the role social networks play in democracy and in individual lives, sparked by concerns over privacy and health, is deeply personal.

Three of the early Instagram employees, including Richardson, have deleted it — permanently or periodically, comparing it to a drug that produces a diminishing high. One of the people said he felt a little embarrassed to tell people that he worked there. Two of the other early employees said they used it far less than before.

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The story behind the story that created a political nightmare for Facebook • Huffington Post

John Cook was the editor-in-chief at Gawker and helped write the headline about Facebook ‘interfering’ with right-wing stories in the Newsfeed:

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For that system to work the way it was designed to, Facebook had to maintain a veneer of neutrality — i.e., non-complicity in the uses to which bad actors put Facebook’s engine — which is why you saw Zuckerberg recently trying to thread a needle on Holocaust denial. He wants to profit from its popularity on his platform without feeling bad about it.

The news curation story struck such a nerve both for the company and for its users because it put the lie to that posture of non-intervention. If people realized that Facebook did intervene in what stories it felt were worthy of a spot in the Trending Module, by using editors, then perhaps they might begin to interrogate the quieter interventions, too, the ones happening by way of the News Feed’s algorithm, which was privileging divisive, hateful and propagandistic content. The trending module was public, and as such, it needed to be handcrafted in order to reflect the values that the company wanted to project. The News Feed was a private flow, where Facebook’s actual values could be found in the sewage. Hiring editors to moderate that sewage in the trending module was the closest Facebook came in this whole mess to a noble act.

That’s the irony: This small, self-interested gesture at information hygiene alone rendered Facebook vulnerable to the right-wing outrage cycle. Not because Facebook sought to stifle conservative speech — it is by far the most extensive publisher and amplifier of Trumpist propaganda on the planet — but because the Fox News- and Breitbart-driven grievance brigades have been so successful that the mere imposition of value-based editorial standards is in itself an act of, ahem, suppression. Indeed, so successful that that vulnerability — the way that conservatives would inevitably seize on it, had already seized on it, within the organization — was part of what made the whole thing newsworthy to begin with. And so successful that a left-of-center tech site, in packaging its report, couldn’t resist trying to have it both ways by characterizing it as suppression in the headline and as editing in the story.

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People who live in smart houses shouldn’t throw parties • Terence Eden’s Blog

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I have friends. More than one! I also have a home full of smart-gadgets which are controlled by apps.

The two don’t mix.

This is yet another complaint about solipsistic app design.

Let’s take my Lifx bulbs. I have a friend staying for a few days, and he needs to be able to turn lights on and off. Lifx make this functionally impossible. The available options are…
• Give my full email address & password to him. This feels suboptimal.
• Allow him on to my main WiFi. Again, suboptimal.

This is why my ISP-provided router has a guest mode.

Bleugh. Neither is a good solution. Luckily I have an Amazon Alexa hooked up to the lights. But because Alexa’s “AI” is barely above the level of a speak-n-spell, that’s also unsatisfactory.

My guest tried to turn off the hall lights. Only he used the wrong invocation. “Alexa, turn off the landing light” just doesn’t cut it. Such AI, much recognition, big data mood.

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As he points out, the answer is obvious: guest accounts. “I know it is a cliche – but Silicon Valley geeks who are too anti-social to have friends and family is a right pain in the arse for everyone else.” See also his advice to commenters.
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MiSafes’ child-tracking smartwatches are ‘easy to hack’ • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

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A location-tracking smartwatch worn by thousands of children has proven relatively easy to hack.

A security researcher found the devices neither encrypted the data they used nor secured each child’s account. As a result, he said, he could track children’s movements, surreptitiously listen in to their activities and make spoof calls to the watches that appeared to be from parents.

Experts say the issues are so severe that the product should be discarded.

Both the BBC and the researcher involved tried to contact the makers of the MiSafes Kid’s Watcher Plus to alert them to the problem but received no reply.

Likewise, a China-based company listed as the product’s supplier did not respond to requests…

Pen Test Partner’s Ken Munro and Alan Monie learned of the product’s existence when a friend bought one for his son earlier this year. Out of curiosity, they probed its security measures and found that easy-to-find PC software could be used to mimic the app’s communications. This software could be used to change the assigned ID number, which was all it took to get access to others’ accounts.
This made it possible to see personal information used to register the product, including: a photo of the child;
their name, gender and date of birth; their height and weight; the parents’ phone numbers; and the phone number assigned to the watch’s Sim card.

“It’s probably the simplest hack we have ever seen,” he told the BBC. “I wish it was more complicated. It isn’t.”

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Securing the internet of things is all about business model. Security costs money.
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American executives are becoming China sceptics • Financial Times

Jamil Anderlini:

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Faced with worsening barriers to entry and pressure to hand over their prized technology in exchange for market access, western companies operating in China have become Mr Trump’s biggest cheerleaders in the trade war.

A speech last week in Singapore by former Goldman Sachs chief executive and the US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gives a sense of just how few American friends China has left.

“The American business community has turned from advocate to sceptic and even opponent of past US policies toward China,” Mr Paulson said. “How can it be that those who know China best . . . and have advocated for productive relations in the past, are among those now arguing for confrontation?”

Mr Paulson used to be one of the most ardent “old friends of China” — a group that includes people such as Henry Kissinger and Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman who see themselves as a bridge between Beijing and Washington. His uncharacteristically harsh words should serve as a wake-up call for Mr Xi.

Some people who know Mr Paulson believe his criticism was actually encouraged by senior members of Mr Xi’s own administration, who feel the Chinese president has over-reached but are too scared to say it to his face.

These remnants of the Communist party’s liberal, reform-minded faction are concerned that China’s teetering economy will not be able to withstand a full-blown trade war.

For all the hype surrounding companies like Alibaba and Tencent, China remains predominantly a low-margin, mass production economy that relies on imports for most high-tech components. Despite decades of effort and billions of dollars invested in developing homegrown semi-conductors, China still imports more than 95% of the high-end chips used in computers and servers. As a result, the world’s biggest energy importer spends more on buying foreign-made microchips than it does on imports of crude oil.

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Mark Zuckerberg reportedly ordered all Facebook executives to use Android phones • The Verge

Shannon Liao, given the task of filleting the NYT’s blockbuster article about Facebook from yesterday:

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ordered his management team to only use Android phones, according to The New York Times. The decision reportedly occurred after Apple CEO Tim Cook criticized Facebook in an MSNBC interview for being a service that traffics “in your personal life.”

In those comments made back in March, Cook dismissed a question asking him what he would do if he were in Zuckerberg’s shoes dealing with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal by saying, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.” Cook’s comments “infuriated” Zuckerberg, according to the NYT. In an interview with Recode, Zuck said he found Cook’s comments to be “extremely glib,” and that “I think it’s important that we don’t all get Stockholm syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me.”

“We’ve long encouraged our employees and executives to use Android because it is the most popular operating system in the world,” said Facebook in response to the New York Times article.

While it’s not clear from the NYT’s reporting that Cook’s aggressive comments directly provoked Zuckerberg into issuing his Android-only order, it’s still a rational decision to make American executives use Android. Android is the dominant operating system in many regions outside of the US, including South America, Europe, Russia, South Asia, and parts of the Middle East.

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Narrator’s voice: a number of Facebook executives ignored Zuckerberg’s order.
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Tempted to expense that strip club as a business dinner? AI is watching • Bloomberg

Olivia Carville:

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One employee traveling for work checked his dog into a kennel and billed it to his boss as a hotel expense. Another charged yoga classes to the corporate credit card as client entertainment. A third, after racking up a small fortune at a strip club, submitted the expense as a steakhouse business dinner.

These bogus expenses, which occurred recently at major U.S. companies, have one thing in common: All were exposed by artificial intelligence algorithms that can in a matter of seconds sniff out fraudulent claims and forged receipts that are often undetectable to human auditors—certainly not without hours of tedious labor.

AppZen, an 18-month-old AI accounting startup, has already signed up several big companies, including Amazon.com Inc., International Business Machine Corp., Salesforce.com Inc. and Comcast Corp. and claims to have saved its clients $40 million in fraudulent expenses. AppZen and traditional firms like Oversight Systems say their technology isn’t erasing jobs—so far—but rather freeing up auditors to dig deeper into dubious claims and educate employees about travel and expense policies.

“People don’t have time to look at every expense item,” says AppZen Chief Executive Officer Anant Kale. “We wanted to get AI to do it for them and to find things the human eye might miss.”

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Apple outgrew unit sales • Above Avalon

Neil Cybart:

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Apple management’s decision to no longer disclose unit sales makes plenty of sense. In recent years, it was becoming increasingly clear that unit sales weren’t as useful of a metric for analyzing Apple’s business now as it had been in the past. The primary problem found with unit sales was how the data provided a limited look inside the Apple machine.

Consider the following items:

• Despite iPhone unit sales being mostly flat for the past three years, Apple expanded the iPhone installed base by nearly 300m users.

Despite annual iPad unit sales contracting by 40% from the sales peak in 2013, Apple was able to expand the iPad installed base by more than 120m users over the same time period.

Despite Mac unit sales trending flat, Apple has been able to add approximately 10m new people to the Mac installed base each year.

Unit sales became a crutch for financial analysts. The quarterly numbers were telling us less about Apple’s business and were instead providing a false sense of security to outsiders. As it turned out, unit sales were painting a less attractive picture of Apple’s business fundamentals.

The primary reason unit sales data lost much of its value is Apple’s significant growth over the years. With an iPhone installed base of more than 750m people, quarterly iPhone unit sales were providing less information about the iPhone business. Unit sales went from a measure of the market’s reception to iPhone to a financial data point more likely to be misinterpreted than anything else. The same can be said about the iPad and its installed base of 240m people. Years of unit sales declines gave many the impression that iPad was a dead-end. In reality, iPad fundamentals have been improving for years. Unit sales data was masking the improvement.

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Those two links are paywalled; they go to Cybart’s own calculations about the user base. Certainly Apple doesn’t want Wall St to interpret a flat or falling unit sales figure as indicative of a shrinking base. The problem then is that you need some way to persuade people the base is expanding. The best way is to tell them the number. The second best is to point to an expanding Services business, ideally with ARPU (average revenue per user) data.
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The IoT needs a new set of eyes • IEEE Spectrum

Stacey Higginbotham:

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two challenges [are] driving the silicon shift. First, processing power: Many of these [IoT] cameras try to identify specific objects by using machine learning. For example, an oil company might want a drone that can identify leaks as it flies over remote oil pipelines. Typically, training these identification models is done in the cloud because of the enormous computing power required. Some of the more ambitious chip providers believe that in a few years, not only will edge-based chips be able to match images using these models, but they will also be able to train models directly on the device.

That’s not happening yet, due to the second challenge that silicon providers face. Comparing images with models requires not just computing power but actual power. Silicon providers are trying to build chips that sip power while still doing their job. Qualcomm has one such chip, called Glance, in its research labs. The chip combines a lens, an image processor, and a Bluetooth radio on a module smaller than a sugar cube.

Glance can manage only three or four simple models, such as identifying a shape as a person, but it can do it using fewer than 2 milliwatts of power. Qualcomm hasn’t commercialized this technology yet, but some of its latest computer-vision chips combine on-chip image processing with an emphasis on reducing power consumption.

But does a camera even need a lens? Researchers at the University of Utah suggest not, having invented a lensless camera that eliminates some of a traditional camera’s hardware and high data rates. Their camera is a photodetector against a pane of plexiglass that takes basic images and converts them into shapes a computer can be trained to recognize.

This won’t work for jobs where high levels of detail are important, but it could provide a cheaper, more power-efficient view of the world for computers fulfilling basic functions.

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If you know the lens’s distortion, you can adjust for it in software.
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Google Maps will let you chat with businesses • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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shall we make the easy joke that Google can’t seem to stop launching new messaging platforms while its primary messaging platform strategy is still a mess? Yes, yes we shall. Hangouts is dead for consumers and Allo is “paused” and RCS Chat still hasn’t launched here in the US across all major carriers. Neither AT&T nor Verizon will commit to a launch date. (I asked them both this week.)

I bring up RCS not just for the cheap shot, but also because it’s a good example of how “business messaging” is quickly becoming big business. It’s part of the plan for RCS Chat, it exists inside Facebook Messenger and iMessage, and it’s a big part of the eventual business plan for WhatsApp. So it makes sense that Google would want to be in this space and, honestly, it makes some sense to put it inside Maps instead of in another messaging app. As Google notes, it keeps your business chat messages separate from your personal messages.

So let’s leave messaging aside and give Google this one. It can’t push harder on business messaging inside Android Messages, because it can’t leverage RCS, because it ceded control of its message platform to the whims of its carrier partners. Putting business messaging inside Google Maps is a good solution in that context. And anyway, this messaging feature already existed and the news here is simply that you can get to it inside Google Maps.

But that leads me to my third feeling: what the heck is going on with Google Maps? It is becoming overburdened with so many features and design changes that it’s becoming harder and harder to just get directions in it. There’s Group Planning, there’s a social-esque “follow” button for local businesses, you can share your ETA, there’s a redesigned “Explore” section, and there’s almost no way to get the damn thing to show you a cross street near your destination without three full minutes of desperate pinching and zooming and re-zooming.

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Product hits maturity; revenue growth slows; team in charge still has old growth targets, plus needs to justify their existence. (To quote Ryan Ford, a product designer.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.