Start Up: Trump’s cybersecurity firing, Twitter’s ongoing failure, the Titanic smartwatch?, and more


The service bit might be OK, the sales part less so this year. Photo by Jeremy Brooks on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Available at all good stores! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Secrecy surrounds White House cybersecurity staff shakeup • ZDNet

Zack Whittaker:

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The chief information security officer for the White House’s Executive Office of the President has been removed from his position, sources have confirmed.

Cory Louie was appointed to the position by former President Obama in 2015, charged with keeping safe the staff closest to the president — including the president himself — from cyber-threats posed by hackers and nation-state attackers.

But circumstances surrounding his departure, weeks after President Donald Trump took office, remain unclear.

It’s thought he was either fired or asked to resign last Thursday evening, and he was escorted out from his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street from the West Wing.

His LinkedIn profile remains unchanged at the time of writing.

Since then, there has been a near-absolute wall of silence from the White House — from both the staff, which up until last week worked for Louie, and spokespeople for the Trump administration.

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I feel much safer now, don’t you?
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Twitter: not even Donald Trump can help it make a profit • The Guardian

I wrote:

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Twitter doesn’t seem to have a knack for making money from what it does, even though millions wait breathlessly to see what will pop up on it next. Its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation figures show a profit – $215m, up from $191m a year before – but that excludes stock compensation, restructuring and various other expenses.

The reality is that Twitter has too many employees for what it does (and their stock options drag down profits by $158m a quarter). And what it does to make money – ie show ads to people – isn’t done well enough. However, its returning chief executive and co-founder Jack Dorsey seems reluctant to make the deep cuts needed to focus on profit.

Compare it with Facebook, founded just two years earlier, in 2004. Mark Zuckerberg’s company had fourth-quarter revenues of $8.81bn, 13 times greater than Twitter, and profits of $3.56bn. Twitter, on the other hand, has never made a profit.

Dorsey managed to throw in some buzzwords on the analysts call – machine learning, artificial intelligence – but the company is a wounded bird and arguably has been ever since it decided its model should be about showing people adverts. That’s a fight that it was always going to lose to Google and Facebook, which started earlier and do it better. News publishers aren’t the only ones losing to those two giants.

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Automated adverts place big brands on extremist and porn websites, Times investigation reveals • Press Gazette

Dominic Ponsford:

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The Times found that an authorised Nissan dealer’s adverts appeared on the official Youtube page of the far right English Defence League, Argos appeared on sexually explicit Youtube videos and advert for Marie Curie appeard over a video fora  racist song posted by Combat 18.

The Times also warned that advertising agencies are exploiting the complexity of online advertising to exploit clients and make huge profits

The findings mirror those of The Guardian which found last year that when it bought its own online advertising space via the programmatic method as much as 70% of the total spend went to agencies in between the publisher and the ad buyer.

Associate professor of media design at the New School David Carroll told The Times: “Oneof the problems with programmatic advertising is that ads don’t know where they appear. That makes it extremely easy and lucractive for extremely partisan and fringe medio to succeed widely.”

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Question is, will those big brands pause or even withdraw their advertising from adtech networks, or do they feel satisfied with what they’re getting? That decision will make a huge difference.
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PC industry expected to stabilize and see less than 5% shipment drop in 2017 • Digitimes

Monica Chen and Joseph Tsai:

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With AMD ready to release Ryzen CPUs and Vega GPUs, sources from the upstream supply chain expect the PC industry to stabilize and see a less than 5% on-year shipment drop in 2017, while PC and related component sales in the first quarter are also expected to perform better than the same period a year ago, according to Taiwan-based supply chain makers.

Worldwide PC shipments reached around 260m units in 2016, down 6% from 2015 and the volume has been dropping for five consecutive years. Among PC vendors, Dell and Hewlett-Packard (HP) were able to maintain their shipment performances thanks to strong orders from the enterprise sector and their leaderships in Europe and the US.

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Only a 5% fall! Break out the champagne!
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In which, alas, I must rattle a tin cup • Armed and Dangerous

Eric Raymond – you know, of The Cathedral and The Bazaar – is married, but his lawyer wife was laid off by her law firm. (He blames the Affordable Care Act, but it’s unclear quite how that is its fault):

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So now it’s been five months since either of us has been drawing anything like a salary. We’re burning savings, and Cathy – who grew up poor and thus finds a state of no income viscerally terrifying in a way I do not – has started to look like a shell-shock victim. This is damaging my morale.

The only bright spot is my Patreon feed. Right now it’s pulling $1,392 a month, which is actually rather a lot for Patreon but nowhere near enough to cover our living expenses. That would take about $3,000 a month; the big items are mortgage and medical insurance driven stratospherically up in cost by the same disastrous government bungling that cost my wife her job. Then, of course, there’s income tax; with that I figure we’d need $5K a month to be sure of keeping our heads above water.

Thus, even with the Patreon, we’re fast approaching the point where if someone were to offer me a day job, I’d have to take it. And that would be unfortunate for the long term; the infrastructure work I’m doing and expect to do in the future is tremendously important. Somebody’s going to need to design and field NTPv5 to fully cover the IPv6 transition, and it looks increasingly like that somebody needs to be me.

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Reality bites. The comments make for your entertaining morning’s reading.
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We’re witnessing the slow-motion collapse of the smartwatch • Business Insider

Steve Kovach:

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This is a make-or-break moment for Google’s smartwatch experiment, and I’m not confident it’s going to work.

Google is making a weak case for Android Wear. It’s not building its own products, and instead relying on fashion brands like Michael Kors and Fossil to carry the torch. This is despite Google’s increased investment in excellent hardware, like the new Pixel phone and Google Home connected speaker that are designed to push the Android ecosystem forward.

A member of the Android Wear team told me last week that the reason why Google isn’t making its own smartwatch is because Google sees smartwatches as more of an open ecosystem driven by personal style, so it wants to let in as many partners as possible.

That’s one way to look at it.

The other way to look at it is Google sees the same writing on the wall many of its other partners have, and time is running out to prove Wear is a viable platform. Instead of investing the resources in building its own smartwatch, it put more of the burden on its partner LG instead. (Google did say Android Wear momentum is growing, with holiday activations up 70% from the year before, but declined to provide hard numbers. Take that stat with a healthy dose of skepticism.)

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I agree with everything Shead says on Android Wear. The problem isn’t the software per se, but the business model: unlike Android on phones, there’s no way for OEMs to make any money beyond the hardware, which gets commoditised to hell and – even worse – sells in low volumes. Result: low return on investment. Secondary result: companies such as Motorola get out.

However Shead is down on the entire category, including Fitbit (isn’t quite a smartwatch) and the Apple Watch. The latter is specifically different from Android Wear, though: it’s designed as an extension of the existing iOS ecosystem, and the tight integration means that it’s not just a dumb lump. (Kovach was taken to task by a number of analysts on Twitter over this point. His defence was that he didn’t mean all smartwatches – just those that weren’t Apple Watches, though that logically calls the article’s headline into question.)

Also worth reading: Jan Dawson on the same topic from the same day. Some wonderful wearable forecasts from 2014 about 2016. Soooo far off. Bonus: Ron Amadeo pointing out that the new Android Wear devices are using two-year-old CPUs.
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Spotify needs to face the music • Bloomberg Gadfly

Leila Abboud:

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Spotify raised $1bn in convertible debt a year ago from private equity funds TPG Growth and Dragoneer Investment Group LLC, among others. It came with strict terms linked to the IPO timing, setting a stopwatch on a listing and offering the funds a sweet deal.

In the first year the debt carried a 5% interest rate, so Spotify has a $50m interest bill coming. The coupon then increases 1 percentage point every six months until IPO, up to a 10% limit. So Spotify would owe another $65m if it waited another 12 months. This isn’t chump change. To put it in context, Spotify’s R&D budget was €143m ($153m) in 2015.

Plus the longer Spotify waits to IPO, the more shares it must accord to TPG and Dragoneer at listing. The creditors would’ve been able to convert their debt into equity at a 20% discount to the IPO price had Spotify listed in year one. That discount will now increase by 2.5 percentage points every six months.Of course, if Spotify’s enterprise value outpaces what it’s paying out in interest and extra equity, then a delay could be manageable. But it would have a cost.

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I made precisely the same point about Spotify when it raised the $1bn in March 2016:

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I think it’s safe to say that with this debt deal, Spotify can never make an operating profit if the debt payment is included.

In other words, this is a financing deal aimed at getting Spotify over the IPO finish line as soon as possible so that it can get a giant cash injection, and its future losses become public shareholders’ problem, not those of the venture capitalists or music labels that have funded it so far.

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Wikipedia bans Daily Mail as ‘unreliable’ source • The Guardian

Jasper Jackson:

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The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia but does not control its editing processes, said in a statement that volunteer editors on English Wikipedia had discussed the reliability of the Mail since at least early 2015.

It said: “Based on the requests for comments section [on the reliable sources noticeboard], volunteer editors on English Wikipedia have come to a consensus that the Daily Mail is ‘generally unreliable and its use as a reference is to be generally prohibited, especially when other more reliable sources exist’.

“This means that the Daily Mail will generally not be referenced as a ‘reliable source’ on English Wikipedia, and volunteer editors are encouraged to change existing citations to the Daily Mail to another source deemed reliable by the community. This is consistent with how Wikipedia editors evaluate and use media outlets in general – with common sense and caution.”

The proposal was made by an editor known as Hillbillyholiday early in January, and fellow editors had weighed in with arguments for and against the ban over the past month. Those who opposed the move said the Daily Mail was sometimes reliable, that historically its record may have been better, and that there were other publications that were also unreliable.

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Speaking as a journalist… when it comes to factual stories which have checkable facts, the Mail is often unbeatable. It drives its journalists to find things out and to get them absolutely correct. Whether you agree with the facts that it tries to get (the house price of the person who killed three people, say), or the way that it spins them, is a different question.

There’s also a distinction to be made between the website, which churns stories at a colossal rate and doesn’t always check facts first, and the newspaper, which (in my experience, going up against its writers) does. The problem is that you can’t see which derives from which when all you do is go for the online one.
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Dyson’s perfectionists invent a future beyond vacuum cleaners • FT

Michael Pooler and Peggy Hollinger:

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[James Dyson] is relying on the company’s culture of innovation to take its reputation beyond domestic products and into the wider world of cutting-edge technology, including areas such as battery storage, robotics, artificial intelligence and, possibly, even automobiles.

“In 15 years’ time what you will see from Dyson will be something very unusual . . . and across quite a broad range of technologies,” says Sir James, speaking to the Financial Times from the Malmesbury campus that is home to 3,000 employees.

“We are a technology company and we’re passionate about developing technologies that are going to be very important in the future.”

Even so, there are questions over whether the company, sometimes described as “the UK’s Apple”, risks overreaching itself as it moves from the home into frontier technologies. Privately held, it remains under the control of its founder, whose influence risks being diluted as the company’s 8,000-strong workforce expands by more than one-third over the next five years.

Max Conze, chief executive, may run the business but Sir James decides which research projects get the green light for commercialisation, which are extended and which are shut down.

“In some companies you get design by committee,” says one former Dyson researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Dyson is very much the opposite — you just have to convince one person . . . He makes all the calls.”

Steve Carden, technology and innovation expert at PA Consulting, believes that Dyson can achieve its goals but that its culture might have to change.

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If its culture does change.. well, it’s hard to predict. Dyson is an odd company which proceeds, like Apple, at its own particular pace, making its own innovations, pricing at a premium. And James Dyson rules it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: the asymmetric media war, defending Uber, Best Buy retreats from VR, iPhone booms, and more


It’s a robot – for you! Photo by Images Of Money on Flickr.

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

A selection of 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I am going to eradicate the inbound Windows Support scam • Jolly Roger Telephone

“Roger”:

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I’m getting ready for a major initiative to shut down Windows Support. It’s like wack-a-mole, but I’m getting close to going nuclear on them. As fast as you can report fake “you have a virus call this number now” messages to me, I will be able to hit them with thousands of calls from bots. It’s like when the pirate ship turns “broadside” on an enemy in order to attack with all cannons simultaneously. I’ll calling it a “Broadside” campaign against Windows Support and the fake IRS.

There are A LOT of moving pieces to getting this working. One of them is letting you hear the calls as they happen. This is a little post to test the html for the posted recordings. I really need to write a WordPress plugin to do it. For now, I have a script that generates this raw HTML for me to post here. Anyway, please enjoy these experimental calls and we can anticipate the day when these call centers are all gone because of one pirate attacking them safely from off-shore.

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He’s pretty determined. His about page is quite a read too.
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Defending Uber • Tom Forth


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For decades people like me we have asked for the right to regulate bus services in places like Leeds and Birmingham. We think that our cities, if given the freedom to, could deliver innovations like the Oyster card and the excellent services and low fares enjoyed in London. But it remains illegal under a UK law from which the capital is exempt.

We have also argued constantly for a level of investment in public transport comparable to London, and never received it. Now in Leeds, 30 years after the first plans to build a tram network, the city has the money to build a trolleybus system and is barred from doing so by the UK government. Leeds is the largest city in Europe with no public transport system. The situation is farcical.

And so while I can imagine the logic — if not the practicality — behind fears that Uber might undercut public transport in a city like London, I cannot share those fears in Leeds and Birmingham. Since there is almost no public transport to displace, it cannot be displacing it.

But there’s another argument that clinches my support for Uber.

The best data we have on the demography of taxi use comes from the 2011 census, in the methods of travel to work section. This shows that in London taxis are a luxury used by the rich. But in Leeds they are a connection to employment for the poor. For many, taxis are the only real competition that exists to restrain private bus companies’ price rises. Most people in Leeds that for many trips, especially with more than one person, a taxi is just as cheap and much more convenient than the bus.

And so, while good public transport remains an option that is unavailable to England’s large cities, I will continue to support Uber. I’m not sure why a multinational chooses to lose money helping poor people in Leeds get to work, but I’m glad that it does.

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Facebook is closing 200 of its 500 Oculus VR pop-ups in Best Buys after some stores went days without a single demo • Business Insider

Alex Heath:

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Oculus first partnered with Best Buy to demo and sell its Rift headset in April 2016. Only 48 Best Buy stores carried the headset initially, but the retailer later expanded the demos to 500 stores in August.

“It’s going to be really cool and fun for our customers,” Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly said at the time. “Virtual reality has the potential to contribute to our growth.”

Multiple “Oculus Ambassador” workers BI spoke with said that, at most, they would sell a few Oculus headsets per week during the holiday season, and that foot traffic to their pop-ups decreased drastically after Christmas.

“There’d be some days where I wouldn’t give a demo at all because people didn’t want to,” said one worker at a Best Buy in Texas who asked to remain anonymous. Another worker from California said that Oculus software bugs would often render his demo headsets unusable.

“They didn’t press on selling,” the worker from Texas said of Oculus. “Their main thing was to have us do demonstrations and get people talking about Oculus.”

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Fixing our broken housing market • Department for Communities and Local Government

From the DCLG white paper:

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Alongside the improved registration of land, the Government proposes to improve the availability of data about wider interests in land. There are numerous ways of exercising control over land, short of ownership, such as through an option to purchase land or as a beneficiary of a restrictive covenant. There is a risk that because these agreements are not recorded in a way that is transparent to the public, local communities are unable to know who stands to fully benefit from a planning permission. They could also inhibit competition because SMEs and other new entrants find it harder to acquire land. There is the additional risk that this land may sit in a ‘land bank’ once an option has been acquired without the prospect of development.

Therefore, the Government will consult on improving the transparency of contractual arrangements used to control land. Following consultation, any necessary legislation will be introduced at the earliest opportunity. We will also consult on how the Land Register can better reflect wider interests in land with the intention of providing a ‘clear line of sight’ across a piece of land setting out who owns, controls or has an interest in it.

In addition, HM Land Registry will make available, free of charge, its commercial and corporate ownership data set, and the overseas ownership data set. These data sets contain data on 3.5 million titles to land held under all ownership categories with the exception of private individuals, charities and trustees.

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“Free of charge” is the key word there. Terrific to see that the government has completely reversed its previous position where it seemed to be looking to sell off the Land Registry, or its function. This is a fitting win after the death of Hans Rosling, who campaigned hard for open government datasets.
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Who’s behind the Kodi crackdown? • The Register

Andrew Orlowski:

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On its own, the open-source Kodi media software, formerly known as XBMC (and before that, Xbox Media Center), isn’t illegal. The team behind it said they’ll use their own trademark IP to disassociate themselves from copyright infringement operations. Kodi allows plugins, and a black economy of streaming networks and resellers has sprung up to allow users to dodge subscription fees. What’s changed in the last year, say industry sources, is that previously, configuring the USB sticks needed patience and advanced technical knowledge, with Tor and VPNs. Now it’s “plug and play,” and the unlicensed streaming services even have a slick EPG (TV guide).

Selling the hardware can land the seller in hot water. [Brian] Thompson [of Cut Price Tomo’s TV in Middlesborough] was selling Android TV boxes with the plugins configured – now he says he doesn’t. Geeky Kit, a neighbouring store to Thompson also selling Android boxes which boasted subscription-free access to Sky and BT Sports channels, was raided in 2015. According to TorrentFreak, Thompson acquired Geeky Kit’s business and its inventory.

Nick Matthew, operations manager at FACT, told us the Kodi crackdown had its roots in meetings between FACT, the Intellectual Property Office, Northumbria and City of London Police, and regional Trading Standards agencies in the North East of England. Teesside was highlighted, as it’s a “hotbed” of infringement.

“This is in criminal terms an epidemic worldwide now. It’s causing huge losses to rightsholders. That’s clearly recognised now. It’s affecting investment,” said Matthew.

“Three or four cases have gone to prosecution,” Matthew confirmed.

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OK, but there can’t be any money in the hardware. What’s in it for the streaming services which provide the sidestep around the subscription fees? (I’m assuming there’s money in it.)
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Alexa comes to your car with Logitech ZeroTouch, but this might not be the experience you’re looking for • Pocket-lint

Chris Hall:

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Looking to free drivers from the danger of fiddling with their phone while driving, you waken the phone with a wave or high five gesture in front of your mounted phone. You then speak your commands and the phone responds.

Generally, it’s a reasonable system. It’s simple in many regards in that it uses an app that’s free, but you need to be connected to one of the company’s docks to get it working. That’s a Bluetooth connection, meaning ZeroTouch only works when docked in the car.

We’ve used it, but the need to use a hand gesture to activate the phone sets it at a disadvantage compared to something like Android Auto’s app, which comes to life with a hotword – Ok Google. 

(There’s juncture for an admission here: we still use the ZeroTouch mount, but have been using it with the Android Auto app, because it’s a better overall experience.)

Android Auto app: Bringing connectivity to all cars
Alexa’s simplicity comes from the fact that your Amazon Echo is always listening. You are shuffling around the kitchen with your hands full and you can tell Alexa to turn off the heating, set a timer for 10 minutes, play some experimental jazz and add flax seeds to your shopping list. 

Transport this friendly AI to your car and you’ve got much of that Alexa experience in the car. You can ask your weight from Fitbit, you can turn your home lights off and you can ask all manner of questions, but you still have to use the wake gesture.

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Can’t play music and can’t navigate, which are the two things you generally really want to do in a car. This is the dumbest thing ever, especially given that it needs a difficult-to-discover easy-to-accidentally-trigger gesture to activate it.
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Journalism is losing the culture war, because it’s fighting last century’s battles • One Man & His Blog

Adam Tinworth:

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Too many saw the #GamerGate battle as a side issue, relevant only to techies and geeks. But it was the testing ground for the techniques that the alt-right are using on a much wider scale right now.

This is a classic piece of asymmetric warfare, with a small, but highly-distributed but well-ordinated group of people punching far above their weight because they are focusing on a central narrative, and are using more powerful digital techniques than their sluggish, divided mainstream competitors. The newspapers and broadcast media have very big guns, but they’re all firing them at the same place – and it’s not where the opposition really are.

Don’t believe me? Look at this analysis of Breitbart’s use of Facebook:

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[…] although Breitbart posted 12 times more links out of Facebook than images and videos combined, images and videos account for 79% of the total shares out of these top 100 posts. This disparity is even greater when you sum up the total shares of those 100 posts.

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And this is the most shared post:

Such a simple message. So central to the alt-right narrative. So easily spread. So easily assimilated into your thinking. This is the propaganda power of Facebook at its most might.

These are the digital tools of narrative warfare. Use of memes – and this is what this is – is a fundamental part of the new language of communication. But we’re still fighting with the tools of the last century – the 1000 word article, debunking the lies, but which reaches a tiny fraction of the people as that simple meme above.

Are we prepared to step up and use these tools? Or will be as the French at Agincourt, cut down by the new technology of the age? Then, it was longbows. In the culture wars, it’s memes.

Even when Spicer, Conway and the others use the traditional media, it’s to spread messages that will be picked up and repeated through digital – and especially social media – by their base. They are subverting the mainstream, and turning it into an additional and reinforcing distribution challenge even as they subvert trust in it.

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I don’t think I’ve seen what’s going on portrayed as asymmetric warfare before, but it’s absolutely correct. The traditional media is like the US army invading Iraq – it thinks it is making fantastic progress. And it is, on its terms. But that’s not the same as winning.
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Apple, top smartphone brand in GB and US in 2016 • Kantar Worldpanel


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In the US, iOS accounted for 44.4% of smartphone sales in the fourth quarter of 2016, up from 39.1% in the same period of 2015. Android took 54.4% of sales, down 4.7% points from 4Q 2015.

“iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus were the top sellers for the holiday period, netting their highest share since their release in mid-September, and representing 28% of smartphones sold in the fourth quarter,” Guenveur added. “Despite the expected fallout from Samsung’s problems with the Galaxy Note 7, the company maintained a share of 28.5%, down only 0.9% from one year earlier. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 flagship device, announced at Mobile World Congress 2016, was the third best-selling phone in the fourth quarter. Samsung’s decision to not announce the Galaxy S8 at Mobile World Congress 2017 is not expected to have a large impact on sales, as rumors circulate that the launch will be close to the traditional April date that customers have come to anticipate.”

Android accounted for 50.6% of smartphone sales in Great Britain in the fourth quarter of 2016 vs. iOS at 47.6%. This marked a slight decline for Android from 51.9% in the same period the previous year, while iOS grew nine percentage points.

“Apple achieved its highest loyalty ever in Britain, with 96% of those Apple owners who replaced their phones buying another iPhone,” reported Dominic Sunnebo, Business Unit Director for Kantar Worldpanel ComTech Europe.

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In 2014 I wrote about a survey which suggested that Android had “weak gravity” compared to the iPhone – that is, people stuck with the iPhone but could drift away from Android. Certainly the “strong gravity” of the iPhone is playing out. Any drift away from Android is less clear; but the market is saturated for sure.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: hating Alexa, the Atom killer, sayonara Photosynth, how Vizio kept its promise, and more


The in-flight screen: an endangered species on internal US flights? Photo by idivilayil on Flickr.

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

A selection of 12 links for you. But you don’t see them report that, do you? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon’s Alexa isn’t the future of AI—it’s a glorified radio clock and, otherwise, stupid • Quartz

Alexander Aciman:

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I can’t imagine that the designers at Amazon would have been thrilled with the minor achievement of having assembled the world’s foremost clock radio when they built the Amazon Echo, a smart home hub that came out in 2015. But what else could they possibly have expected after packing this little device with a prodigious number of useless easter eggs and yet somehow overlooking a glaring, Death Star-level flaw: the Echo uses Bing instead of Google. Which is to say, it can read you the prime directive from Star Trek and can tell you who is the fairest of them all, but it can’t tell you what the Packers’ record is this year. If in 2001 at the age of 11 I learned to use Google, I should like to think that Alexa in 2016 should be able to do the same.

Although this sleek, feminine robot was meant to be an outstanding piece of smart home technology, the slow evolution of home automation and the dearth of smart home products in the average household has made devices like the Echo or Google Home—Google’s voice controlled smart hub, similar to Alexa—much better suited for being asked to look things up on the internet than anything else. This reality doesn’t bode well for Alexa, because her response to 95% of basic search queries is “I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.” It is a phrase that Alexa owners are all too familiar with. It is a phrase you hear again, and again, and again, and soon you will feel that time has stopped, and you will never want to look up anything on the internet ever again.

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I’m always waiting for someone to come up with a ton of compelling uses for the Echo. Playing music isn’t quite enough. And the smart home stuff requires your home to already be, well, smart. Very few are.
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AI ‘can replace 250,000 public sector workers’ • UK Authority

Mark Say:

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Automating more administrative roles in public services with artificial intelligence (AI) systems could remove almost 250,000 employees from payrolls, according to a new report on the future of the workforce.

Right-leaning think tank Reform makes the argument for the approach in Work in progress: Towards a leaner, smarter public sector workforce. It takes in a range of factors affecting the issue, but makes clear that the more advanced forms of digital technology could have a disruptive effect on the way the public sector is organised over the next few years.

It advocates the increased use of “diamond shaped” workforce, in which there are more staff in middle ranks while many of the tasks for lower ranking jobs are automated.

This could be supported by the growing sophistication of government websites and the use of chat bots – a form of artificial intelligence that can simulate a human conversation – a move that Reform says could remove the need for nearly 90% of central government’s administrators by 2030. It claims this would save Whitehall £2.6bn per year.

Taking a similar approach in the NHS could replace 90,000 administrators and 24,000 GP receptionists, it says.

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Savings from the top line, perhaps, but the cost in annoyance to users trying to get bots to understand them could be substantial.
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Dying Intel Atom processors take out network equipment • iTnews

Juha Saarinen:

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A serious flaw with Intel’s Atom C2000 product family can cause processors to fail completely, rendering the devices they power inoperable after just 18 months of operation.

The low-power Atom C2000 Silvermont processor range was introduced three years ago, and is found in popular network switches and routers, microservers, and network accessible storage systems.

Kit vendor Cisco has issued an advisory for the problem, noting the failures start appearing after a unit has been in use for around 18 months.

Once the processor fails, “the system will stop functioning, will not boot, and is not recoverable”.

Cisco optical networking, routing, security, and switching gear – including the ASA and ISA3000 family – are affected.

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Microsoft Photosynth has been shut down • Photosynth Blog

The Photosynth team:

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Key parts of the Photosynth code live on in other Microsoft products, and we’re proud of the influence Photosynth had on photo technology across the industry during its nine-year life.

We hope that everyone who wanted to recover their synths and panoramas from the site were able to do so before the shutdown. As we announced earlier, Microsoft is not keeping a copy of them going forward. These were yours, and we had a license to them while the service was running.

Photosynth changed the way some of us went about capturing a memorable place.

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Would like a little more clarity on quite how it changed things.
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Your in-flight movie screen is going extinct • Bloomberg

Justin Bachman:

»

Book a domestic flight on any of the Big Three U.S. airlines, and you won’t be sure whether the seat in front of you has a screen. Some do, while most don’t. Eventually maybe none will.

The proliferation of iPhones, iPads, and Android devices, in tandem with increasingly reliable inflight Wi-Fi, has led to a profound shift by many airlines, which now view entertainment on shorter flights as best delivered wirelessly, without the expense or hassles posed by screens.

As with most things on an airplane, the determining factor is poundage. Planting a screen in each seat adds weight, which burns additional fuel, which costs more money. On top of that, the screens have a tendency to break as people poke and punch them—often to the annoyance of the passenger in front of them. Today, the new kid on the block for in-flight entertainment, or IFE, is personal-device entertainment—the ability to stream TV and movies to passenger gadgets from a server on the plane. This video is typically free, although United still charges as much as $7.99 to watch live television channels on planes equipped with DirecTV.

“For domestic flights, I really do see the industry trending toward streaming IFE,” said Jason Rabinowitz, director of airline research at Routehappy Inc., a New York company that tracks airline amenities. “It’s cheap for airlines to install, there’s no wiring, no weight penalty. These systems can be installed virtually overnight, and the costs to maintain these things are virtually nothing.”

«

link to this extract


Trump says terror attacks ‘under-reported’: Is that true? • BBC News

Betteridge’s Law applies.
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VIZIO, INC. (Form: S-1/A, Received: 08/31/2015 16:54:34) • Nasdaq

Remember yesterday’s link about Vizio being fined $2m by the FTC for grabbing viewer data and selling it to advertisers? Here’s a bit of its S-1 (the document it files for prospective investors ahead of an IPO) under the “Risk Factors” section:

»

The use of Automatic Content Recognition, or ACR, technology to provide viewing behavior data to advertisers and media content providers is an emerging industry. Our Inscape data services are in an early stage of development and its success depends on various factors. Our failure to successfully monetize our Inscape data services could materially and adversely harm our growth prospects.

We recently began offering to advertisers and media content providers our Inscape data services, which provide viewing behavior data collected using our ACR technology from our Smart TVs. We are in the early stages of commercializing our Inscape data services and it has not yet resulted in meaningful revenue. Moreover, the utilization of viewing behavior data collected using ACR technology through Smart TVs to inform digital advertising and content delivery is an emerging industry, and future demand and market acceptance for this type of data is uncertain…

…growth in our Inscape data services may require changes to our existing business model and cost structure, modifications to our infrastructure and exposure to new regulatory and legal risks, any of which may require expertise in areas in which we have little or no experience. These risks pose a material adverse risk to our growth prospects and in the future, may pose a material risk to our results of operations and financial condition.

«

At least they got it right about the regulatory bit.
link to this extract


Channeling Steve Jobs, Apple seeks design perfection at new ‘spaceship’ campus • Reuters

Julia Love:

»

Time and time again, Apple managers spent months perfecting minute features, creating a domino effect that set back other parts of the project, former construction managers say.

Signage required a delicate balancing act: Apple wanted all signs to reflect its sleek, minimalist aesthetic, but the fire department needed to ensure the building could be swiftly navigated in an emergency.

Dirk Mattern, a retired deputy fire chief who is representing the Santa Clara County Fire Department on the project, estimated he attended 15 meetings that touched on the topic.

“I’ve never spent so much time on signage,” he said.  

When Apple tapped general contractors Holder Construction and Rudolph & Sletten to finish the main building in 2015, one of the first orders of business was finalizing a door handle for conference rooms and offices.

After months of back and forth, construction workers presented their work to a manager from Apple’s in-house team, who turned the sample over and over in his hands. Finally, he said he felt a faint bump.

The construction team double-checked the measurements, unable to find any imperfections – down to the nanometer. Still, Apple insisted on another version.

The construction manager who was so intimately involved in the door handle did not see its completion. Down to his last day, Apple was still fiddling with the design – after a year and a half of debate.

«

You sort of guessed it would be like this.
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Apple Watch has its best quarter and takes nearly 80% of total smartwatch revenue in Q4 • Canalys


»

Apple set a new quarterly shipment record in Q4 2016, contributing to total smartwatch shipments exceeding 9 million units. This global market figure was largely driven by Apple’s 6 million shipments, representing year-on-year growth of 12%. It was the Apple Watch’s best quarter despite being significantly handicapped by supply constraints, even though Apple simultaneously expanded its supply chain. According to Canalys estimates, the Apple Watch generated more than US$2.6 billion in revenue for Apple in Q4 2016, making up nearly 80% of total smartwatch revenue…

…Xiaomi also enjoyed a record quarter of its own for basic band shipments, reaching 5.5 million Mi Bands. “New batches of Mi Band 2s were shipped in time for the Singles’ Day shopping festival in China,” according to Analyst Jason Low. “Building on the success of its first-generation Mi Band, Xiaomi quickly expanded the availability of the Mi Band 2 across Asia Pacific and Central and Eastern Europe. India, Poland and Russia were key markets where the device was introduced alongside the company’s Mi and Redmi smartphones through direct and third-party online channels.”

«

Maybe Xiaomi will do a reverse Fitbit and move from smartphones (losing money) into fitness bands.
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Politics have turned Facebook into a steaming cauldron of hate • Backchannel

Jessi Hempel:

»

“Whelp,” my mother began our weekly phone conversation. “Marge and I aren’t speaking.” Marge is one of my mom’s best friends. When she moved houses, Marge showed up with curtains and a lamp and had her grown son heave boxes in from the car. When my mom found herself alone on Christmas one year, Marge set an extra spot at her table.

But here’s the thing: Marge is a Republican. My mom, a Democrat.

This hasn’t mattered for the better part of the last decade. Their friendship is built on warm conversations over lunches, shared confidences, and favors exchanged. But then, several weeks ago, Mom became so outraged by current events that she began posting a series of anti-Trump memes and quotes.

Marge’s daughter commented on a post, saying the sentiments were all lies. Mom responded. The daughter responded. The posts continued and the comments continued. Marge jumped in. And by the end of the string of messages, no one was friends anymore. I’m not talking about Facebook friends — I mean IRL.

«

The US is going to tear itself apart, or Trump will vacate the office. I can’t see a compromise.
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Sad to announce: Hans Rosling passed away this morning • Gapminder

Anna Rönnlund and Ola Rosling:

»

We are extremely sad to announce that Professor Hans Rosling died this morning. Hans suffered from a pancreatic cancer which was diagnosed one year ago. He passed away early Tuesday morning, February 7, 2017, surrounded by his family in Uppsala, Sweden.

Eleven years ago, the three of us, Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Rönnlund founded Gapminder. In 2007 Hans decided to “drop out” of university to work only 5% as professor at Karolinska Institute. That was a great decision. The 95% he worked for Gapminder made him a world famous public educator, or Edutainer as he liked to call it.

Across the world, millions of people use our tools and share our vision of a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We know that many will be saddened by this message. Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!

«

I wrote about Rosling’s work in January 2007 at The Guardian. He had already done so much – discovering a new disease – before he decided to challenge governments’ reluctance to make their data open. He inspired me. Anyone who does data journalism is in his debt.
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Fashion gets a digital upgrade with the Google Awareness API • Android Developers blog

Jeremy Brook of The Zoo:

»

Currently under development, the Android app specifically uses the Snapshot API within the platform to passively monitor each user’s daily activity and lifestyle with their permission. Where do you regularly eat out for dinner or hang out with friends? Are they more casual or formal meetups? What’s the usual weather when you’re outside? After the course of a week, the user’s context signals are passed through an algorithm that creates a digitally tailored dress design for the user to purchase.

The Android app is launching in closed alpha stage, and is currently being tested by selected global style influencers including Ivyrevel’s co-founder Kenza Zouiten.

«

“Global style influencers”.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: the wall the British built (not Hadrian’s), Echo v VR, how Russians beat US casinos, and more


They’re watching you, and probably selling it to advertisers who’ll use it to identify you. Photo by Ryan Finnie on Flickr.

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

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

I am the scholar caught in Trump inauguration crowd controversy • Times Higher Education

Keith Still explains his (extensive) experience, which meant that…

»

in the run-up to the inauguration, we were asked to provide an estimate of how many people were at the Abraham Lincoln inauguration and a comment on the historical analysis of the crowds at inaugurations down the years. We turned this around in less than a day, which led to the question: “Can you guys do this in real-time?”

At that time, there were various claims that 3 million people would attend the 2017 inauguration.

Hmmm…let me see. Three million people would need between 750,000 and 1,500,000 square metres. There isn’t enough space. To give you some idea of how this would look, I’ve marked out 1,200,000 in the diagram below.

We knew this would be extremely dangerous if the area was packed to this density. There needs to be provision for emergency services, infrastructures, media village, barriers to prevent forward surges and potential crushing. Consequently, this gave birth to our live inauguration analysis, which would later fuel the media fire – Marcel and me giving minute-by-minute crowd updates for the NYT.

 

As the minutes ticked towards noon in Washington and the oath of office, we watched the crowds arrive, monitoring the build-up and the areas the crowds were occupying. At 11am, we had a comparison image from the 2009 inauguration and were capturing images from seven live broadcast feeds, assessing the metro data and comparing this with previous inaugurations.

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link to this extract


TV maker VIZIO fined $2M for no-consent tracking of consumer viewing habits • Marketing Land

Greg Sterling:

»

Smart TV maker VIZIO will pay a $2.2m penalty based on the improper collection of consumer viewing habits and data without consent. The settlement comes after an action brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General.

The undisclosed data collection was “deceptive” and in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 53(b) and the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. VIZIO captured viewing habits and then married that data with demographic information, including sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level and home ownership. The combined data sets were then sold to third parties for audience measurement, ad effectiveness tracking and targeting.

«

Just amazing. “None of this was disclosed to consumers.” Not that the third parties who now have the data will give it up. And Vizio blithely says it was doing something about it, sorta kinda. Couldn’t happen in Europe because of tougher data protection rules.
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Building a wall to save the economy? Britain has already done that (not Hadrian’s, no) • Medium

Dave Birch:

»

The American President recently reiterated his plans to build a “beautiful” wall along the border with Mexico, for no reason that I can fathom except to provide stimulus to the Mexican economy at a difficult time. As a good friend of mine says, we should not get too exercised about what is after all nothing more than a harmless public works project of the kind often undertaken by national leaders to secure a place in the national imagination.

I don’t think it will become an object of awe and admiration, though. This 1,000 mile long, 40 foot high barrier, a vanity project of unusual cost and complexity, may never become a tourist attraction to rival the Great Wall of China (the most astonishing man-made object that I have ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve been to the City of Manchester Stadium) but it may become a new Maginot Line for future generations to study.

Who knows. All I can say with absolute certainty is that it will make no long term difference to smuggling, immigration or the security of American citizens.

How do I know this?

Well, we Brits have been there and done that. We built a wall. We built a wall that was twice as long as Mr. Trump’s wall. And there is nothing left of it today. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

«

This is a wonderful, wonderful story. And it contains such lessons for the present. Such a pity Trump won’t ever read it. (No, not Hadrian’s Wall. I thought that. It isn’t.)
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A tale of two technologies: the narrative and the numbers for VR and voice • Midia Research

Zach Fuller:

»

whilst VR and Voice are both pivot technologies representing different new paradigms to what consumers have experienced before, their public personas have been worlds apart. VR’s public image has been one of bombast and exclamation, yet the Echo arrived quietly, building its public profile by word of mouth and through Amazon’s established sales channels. 2016 was the year that these technologies finally saw their wider release (VR headsets were previously limited to developer kits and Echo exclusively in the US until September 2016), therefore it is interesting to map them against each other to see what the numbers have to say on what the overall public reaction has been thus far:

At 5.2m sales, 3.64m more Amazon Echos were shipped than the total number of mainstream VR headsets combined worldwide, despite the fact that it was only released outside of the US (to the UK and Germany) in the final three months of 2016. Additionally, although Playstation VR was released in October, it saw 750,000 sales into a total of PS4 ownership market (the requisite for PSVR use) of 50m, revealing an adoption rate of only 1.5%.

To give further context, the iPhone sold 3.7m in its first full year of release in 2007 – meaning Echo’s 5.2m has had a 40% higher growth rate for its first year than arguably the defining tech product of the last decade had in its initial release. That voice control quietly became the tech product of the year should also serve as an interesting case study for future adoption patterns.

«

Whooaa horsey. I don’t think you can reasonably compare the consumer tech landscape of 2007 with 2017; and the iPhone’s first year didn’t really show its potential since it was available on a single carrier, with limited production.

That said, the Echo is – so far – a word of mouth (haha) hit. I still wonder at what uses most people would find for them, though.
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A Russian slot machine hack is costing casinos big time • WIRED

Brendan Koerner with a terrific writeup of how some Russians beat the pseudo-random number generators used by casino slot machines:

»

By interviewing colleagues who had reported suspicious slot machine activity and by examining their surveillance photos, he was able to identify 25 alleged operatives who’d worked in casinos from California to Romania to Macau. Hoke also used hotel registration records to discover that two of Bliev’s accomplices from St. Louis had remained in the US and traveled west to the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California. On July 14, 2014, agents from the California Department of Justice detained one of those operatives at Pechanga and confiscated four of his cell phones, as well as $6,000. (The man, a Russian national, was not indicted; his current whereabouts are unknown.)

The cell phones from Pechanga, combined with intelligence from investigations in Missouri and Europe, revealed key details. According to Willy Allison, a Las Vegas–based casino security consultant who has been tracking the Russian scam for years, the operatives use their phones to record about two dozen spins on a game they aim to cheat. They upload that footage to a technical staff in St. Petersburg, who analyze the video and calculate the machine’s pattern based on what they know about the model’s pseudorandom number generator. Finally, the St. Petersburg team transmits a list of timing markers to a custom app on the operative’s phone; those markers cause the handset to vibrate roughly 0.25 seconds before the operative should press the spin button.

«

But since then they have become even smarter.
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Jawbone looks to drop consumer wearables for clinical services • TechCrunch

Ingrid Lunden:

»

Make way for one more pivot from Jawbone. The fitness band maker that originally started out in headsets and later made speakers, has abandoned selling and supporting consumer hardware following a deluge poor reviews and media reports that it has run out of money.

TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Jawbone is preparing to shift its business yet again — moving from a focus on low-margin fitness bands sold directly to consumers, to a high-margin business to business to consumer model: a health product and accompanying set of services sold primarily to clinicians and health providers working with patients.

As part of that change, Jawbone is trying to raise more money. Sources tell us that it’s been in conversations with its current roster of backers, plus potentially new strategic investors in the wider medical sector, along with new investors outside the U.S.

«

Having raised just shy of $1bn over the years, it’s hard to see why you’d back Jawbone to make it into the highly-regulated world of clinical services, where others have been dug in for years and aren’t going to make ex-consumer insurgents feel welcome. It would be sending good money after bad.
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As a conservative Twitter user sleeps, his account is hard at work • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg:

»

For the first new tweet on this day, [68-year-old Daniel Sobieski wants to opine on the spiking murder rate in Chicago and the alleged failings of the city’s Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel (or, to Sobieski, “Rahmbo”). He navigates to a conservative online magazine for which he occasionally writes, American Thinker, and copies a link to one of his articles about crime.

To reach beyond his own 78,900 followers, Sobieski adds a few more adornments, typing #MAGA to surface the tweet to the president’s supporters online and “.@realDonaldTrump” in hopes of getting the attention of Trump or those who track messages to him. The last six characters are #PJNET, for the Patriot Journalist Network, a coalition of conservative tweeters who amplify their messages through coordination, automation and other online tactics.

Last, Sobieski adds what he calls “the coup de grace,” plucking an image from his ever-growing digital library of illustrations. For this tweet he chooses a photograph of bloodied Iraqi men carrying what appear to be clubs, along with the caption, “BAGHDAD IS SAFER THAN CHICAGO.”

In the time it takes to compose this tweet, his schedulers have sent out several others. Some planes, meanwhile, have taken off from Chicago Midway Airport a few blocks away, sending muted roars through the house he shares with his wife, a Lebanese immigrant and fellow Catholic to whom Sobieski has been married for 39 years. He will stay in front of the computer for another two, maybe three hours before quitting for the day, but his Twitter accounts never stop working.

«

Fabulous that he’s married to an immigrant. But the real weight is in automated accounts – bots. Accounts like Sobieski’s are called “cyborgs”.
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Anxiety and surveillance: pillars of the new economy • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr on the difference between addiction (the seeking of repeated pleasure) and compulsion (the repeated avoidance of anxiety-causing things) and what we’re driven by in this smartphone world:

»

The concept of surveillance capitalism helps explain the dynamics of a growing part of the economy. But it doesn’t explain everything. It focuses on the supply side (what motivates companies) while largely ignoring the demand side (what motivates consumers). I’d suggest that the secret to understanding the demand side may lie in the anxiety-compulsion cycle. What motivates consumers is anxiety — not just the fear of missing out, but also the dread of becoming invisible or losing status, the worry that others might know something that you don’t know, the nervousness that a message might have been misconstrued, and so on — and this anxiety spurs the compulsive behavior that generates ever more personal data for surveillance capitalists to harvest. We divulge our secrets because we can’t help ourselves.

This powerful, compulsion-fuelled business model may have emerged by accident — I’m pretty sure that Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t found Google with the intent of spreading social anxiety and then capitalizing on it through surveillance systems — but it is now sustained by design.

«

We’re not addicted to our phones so much as behaving compulsively around them.
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PageFair 2017 ad blocking report: Usage up 30% • Business Insider

Lara O’Reilly:

»

The largest geographical driver of mobile ad blocker use has been in the Asia-Pacific, where 94% of mobile ad blocking takes place.

There hasn’t yet been mass adoption of a mobile ad blocking app in North America or Europe yet, but PageFair predicts mobile ad blocking would accelerate in those regions if device manufacturers or distributors began to pre-configure ad blocking software as standard.

PageFair
Security was the main reason cited for downloading an ad blocker among consumers polled in the US for the report. 30% of those surveyed said virus and malware concerns drove them to download an ad blocker.

The next most-cited reason for getting ad blocker software was “interruption” (29%), according to the report.

Dr Johnny Ryan, PageFair’s head of ecosystem, said in the company’s previous reports, privacy has been the primary motivation to downloading an ad blocker.

«

Full report. Growth faster on mobile than desktop, but pretty big in both.
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From fake news to fake opinion • Atlantic Council

Brian Medford:

»

A few weeks ago, a colleague asked why I was a part of an organization called the Center for Global Strategic Monitoring (also known as the CGS Monitor). Despite working in foreign policy for seventeen years, I had never heard of this organization. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my photograph and biography listed on the CGS Monitor website as one of their “experts.”

I immediately began searching the website for contact information to request that my name be removed. However, it became clear that there was something fishy about this website. Not only was no mailing address given; the only email contact to be found was a ubiquitous “info@” address. My email requesting that my name be removed has never been answered and the website continues to list me as one of their experts.

As a political consultant in Kyiv and a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, I follow politics in Eastern Europe closely. I also maintain a blog on Ukrainian politics and provide political risk analysis for personal clients. Over the last three years, I have witnessed the massive Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine, and have seen firsthand the effects of the war in eastern Ukraine. Like everyone else, I have observed the recent “fake news” phenomenon. But the CGS Monitor website takes fake news and introduces a new element: “fake opinion.”

The Center for Global Strategic Monitoring website appears to be an impressive and thoughtful news and opinion site at first glance. However, one does not have to dig deep to discover that the organization is phony.

«

Disinformation takes many forms. (The Atlantic Council seems to be something related to Nato, but you could easily create fake sites just like it without anyone being any the wiser.)
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Trump’s FDA pick could undo decades of drug safeguards • NY Times

Katie Thomas:

»

At an anti-aging conference in 2014, Mr. O’Neill advocated something he called “progressive” approval, in which drugs that were proved safe, but not yet proven effective, could be allowed on the market. “Let people start using them, at their own risk,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Let’s prove efficacy after they’ve been legalized.”

Companies have been required to prove that their drugs work since 1962, when Congress passed legislation requiring that licensing for sale be based not just on safety but also on “substantial evidence” of a drug’s efficacy. That law, and others passed since, forced companies to rigorously test their products, running them through a gantlet of clinical trials whose results are then vetted by the F.D.A. before any sales to consumers. Ninety% of drugs that enter clinical development fail these trials. (The F.D.A. also regulates medical devices, but they undergo a separate approval process.)

As a result, newly discovered drugs can take years to reach the market, a period that Mr. Trump said last week was too lengthy.

“When you have a drug, you can actually get it approved if it works, instead of waiting for many, many years,” he told the pharmaceutical executives. “We’re going to be cutting regulations at a level that nobody’s ever seen before, and we’re going to have tremendous protection for the people.”

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Adding this to my growing folder of “ways in which the US is being rolled back to the 1950s, and not in any good sense”.

Also: you can’t cut regulation and make people safer. The two are obviously in contradiction.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: the risk of company health data, GoPro slumps, iMDb shutters its forums, and more


The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has a lot of opponents – but economics might be the one that really kills it. Photo by Overpass Light Brigade on Flickr.

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

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

Neuroscience explains why we get hacked so easily • MIT Technology Review

Tom Simonite:

»

Multitasking is partly to blame. [Associate professor at Brigham Young University Anthony] Vance’s collaboration with Google grew out of experiments that showed when people reacted to security warnings while also performing another task, brain activity in areas associated with fully engaging with a warning was significantly reduced. People were three times less likely to correctly interpret a message when they reacted to security warnings while also performing another task.

Vance’s lab teamed up with Google to test a version of [its browser] Chrome modified to deliver warnings about a person’s computer possibly being infected by malware or adware only when they weren’t deeply engaged in something. For example, it would wait until someone finished watching a video, or was waiting for a file to download or upload, to pop up the message.

Testing showed that people using the interruption-sensitive version of Chrome ignored the message only about a third of the time, compared to about 80% of the time without it.

Other studies in Vance’s lab have shown that people very rapidly become habituated to security warnings—he’s shown how the brain’s response to a message drops significantly even on just the second time someone sees it.

The researchers also did follow-up experiments in which people were asked to download mobile apps that asked for alarming permissions (for example, “Can delete your photos”). By breaking the usual rules of software design and having the security-related messages change in appearance slightly each time—for example, with different colors—it was possible to reduce the habituation effect.

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link to this extract


What The Verge can do to help save web advertising • Aloodo

Don Marti:

»

Publishers can’t enforce ad standards when an original content site is in direct competition with bottom-feeder and fraud sites that claim to reach the same audience. As Aram Zucker-Scharff mentions in an interview on the Poynter Institute site, the number of third-party trackers on a site grows as new advertising deals bring new trackers along with them. Those trackers leak audience data into the dark corners of the Lumascape until the same data re-emerges, attached to a low-value or fraudulent site that can claim to reach the same audience as the original publisher. Deceptive and extremist sites are part of a larger problems. They’re just especially good at playing the same adtech game that all low-value sites do.

So how to turn web advertising from a race to the bottom into a sustainable revenue source, like print or TV ads? How can the web work better for high-reputation brands that depend on costly signaling?

The good news for cash-crunched news sites is that the hard work of web-ad-saving software development must happen, and is happening, on the browser side. Every time a user turns on a protection tool such as Better by ind.ie, EFF Privacy Badger, or the experimental Firefox Tracking Protection, a little bit of problematic ad inventory goes away.

«

The suggestions that follow make sense, but will publishers follow it?
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Thought your data was safe outside America after the Microsoft ruling? Think again • The Register

Iain Thomson:

»

Google has to hand over to the FBI suspects’ email regardless of where it is held. The ad giant had previously refused to comply with two court orders.

The timing of this ruling is rather interesting. Last month, Microsoft won a crucial privacy battle in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case. Microsoft was ordered to hand over emails stored on cloud systems in Ireland to American investigators probing drugs trafficking. The Windows giant refused to comply, bagged a landmark appeal, and is able to take the matter all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Specifically, Microsoft was served a Stored Communications Act (SCA) warrant by a court in New York. The corporation successfully argued that US investigators should have gone to the Irish authorities to request access to files on the Irish servers. The DoJ’s lawyers saw it another way: that Microsoft is an American corporation and thus must always yield to American courts.

On Friday, in a separate case, a district court in eastern Pennsylvania ruled that Google must obey two SCA search warrant and cough up emails stored overseas to the Feds. The judge’s decision [PDF] is seemingly at odds with the appeals court: it doesn’t matter that Google distributes its file systems across the world, it’s still an American corporation. And that means an American court can order it to give up customers’ private information.

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GoPro stock crashes more than 10% after failing to meet Wall Street’s expectations • TechCrunch

Matt Burns:

»

The company reported $540m in fourth-quarter revenue, with a net income loss of $.082 a share. That’s under what analysts expected. And the company didn’t fare much better in yearly reporting either, netting just $1,185m in 2016, down 26.8% from 2015.

The company notes the $0.82 per share loss includes charges of $102m for a full valuation allowance on U.S. deferred tax assets and nearly $37m for restructuring costs.

GoPro’s stock is currently trading down more than 10% on the day. The stock previously saw modest gains in the early days of 2017 and had climbed 23% in January alone.

There are some bright spots for GoPro. The company notes that the previous quarter generated the second-most revenue in the company’s history and the new Hero5 Black was the best-selling digital imaging device in units and dollars. And just yesterday, the company relaunched the Karma drone that was previously pulled from the market.

«

First Fitbit, now GoPro. (It isn’t much to say your revenue was “second-highest ever” when you’re meant to still be on the way up.)
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How Trump could kill his pipeline • Bloomberg

Peter Coy:

»

Donald Trump is convinced the Keystone XL oil pipeline [which would run from western Canada to US refineries] that he revived with an executive order on Jan. 24 will gush money. “I want it built, but I want a piece of the profits,” he said last year at a campaign stop in North Dakota. “That’s how we’re going to make our country rich again.”

He could be in for an unpleasant surprise. Market changes since the $8bn cross-border pipeline was proposed in 2008 have lowered its profit potential. US oil production has jumped by more than 60%, to around 9m barrels a day, undercutting the need for the kind of imported crude the Keystone XL would bring from Western Canada. At the same time, oil prices have fallen by about 40%, to about $50 a barrel, raising questions over the viability of Canada’s reserves of heavy oil sands, which are among the most expensive types of crude to produce relative to their market value.

«

Can’t repeal the laws of economic gravity. If he taxes it – as he has said he would – it makes it too expensive to import. This is where one expects he’ll be confounded by the way he can’t get what he wants to happen. This usually makes him angry.
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Dinosaur bones • net.wars

Wendy Grossman:

»

Fei has told her own story eloquently and at length; each of the others on her panel had a harrowing tales. For anyone who lives in a non-US industrialized country, their stories are less about medical privacy and more about the iniquity of tying health insurance to employment. One had lost her job when she was diagnosed with cancer for the third time and is living in her car because she can’t afford both rent and medical care. “We’re not worth much,” she said. All of the Europeans present shook their heads and agreed: you would never hear this story in Europe. Nationalized health insurance, living in Britain has taught me, is essential for keeping a reasonable balance of power between employers and employees: otherwise, you create a nation of frightened peasants.

Exacerbating this whole deal, as Fei pointed out, is the fact that many larger American companies now self-insure rather than buying insurance for their staff. Employees are often not fully aware of this because their companies will contract with a known insurer to handle administration. The result, however, is to give employers even more access to employees’ data. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a recent trend toward wellness programs, which sound benign but often require employees to answer extensive quesionnaires and download data-collecting apps. These programs are typically bought in, and if the vendor is not a medical company, the data so collected is not subject to HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which regulates the use and disclosure of patients’ medical information.

Ultimately, the harm in all this is the loss of recognition of the simple fact that being alive is a high-risk proposition. Individuals can certainly weight the odds (becoming a heavy drinker if you had liver failure as a child isn’t a great strategy, for example), but catastrophic illness is not just another lifestyle choice. All the talk of data as this era’s oil loses sight of the people the data connects to.

«

Being alive definitely is high-risk. I’ve heard it’s got a 100% fatality rate. Grossman’s ongoing net.wars column at pelicancrossing.net is worth subscribing to.
link to this extract


Message boards announcement • IMDb


»

As part of our ongoing effort to continually evaluate and enhance the customer experience on IMDb, we have decided to disable IMDb’s message boards on February 20, 2017. This includes the Private Message system. After in-depth discussion and examination, we have concluded that IMDb’s message boards are no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide. The decision to retire a long-standing feature was made only after careful consideration and was based on data and traffic.

Increasingly, IMDb customers have migrated to IMDb’s social media accounts as the primary place they choose to post comments and communicate with IMDb’s editors and one another. IMDb’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/imdb) and official Twitter account (https://twitter.com/imdb) have an audience of more than 10 million engaged fans. IMDb also maintains official accounts on Snapchat (https://www.snapchat.com/add/imdblive), Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/imdbofficial/), YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/imdb), and Tumblr (http://imdb.tumblr.com/).

Because IMDb’s message boards continue to be utilized by a small but passionate community of IMDb users, we announced our decision to disable our message boards on February 3, 2017 but will leave them open for two additional weeks so that users will have ample time to archive any message board content they’d like to keep for personal use.

«

Aaaaand another one gone. Notice how closing the comment section (for that’s what it is) down is portrayed as “enhancing the customer experience”. Why? Obviously, because of trolls.

Maybe it would be educative to correlate the closure of comments sections with the rise of fake news. I wonder if the same people like both.
link to this extract


The biggest host of Dark Web sites got hacked and shut down • Forbes

Lee Mathews:

»

Just how big is Freedom Hosting II? Anonymity and privacy researcher Sarah Jamie Lewis estimates that it was hosting somewhere between 15 and 20% of all sites on the Dark Web. The impact of this attack could be quite far-reaching, and while you might think that would mean that the ransom demand would be sky high that’s definitely not the case.

Whoever was behind the attack was asking for a paltry .1 Bitcoin. That’s about $100 at today’s exchange rate. That seems insanely cheap given that they were offering to safely return a whopping 75GB of files and another 2.6GB of databases.

Why would a hacker ask for such a small ransom for so much data? The answers might be that the attacker(s) planned to dump the data online from the moment they extracted it. At around noon Eastern, the Freedom Hosting II database was posted to a site on the Tor network. At the time of publishing this post, their site was still inaccessible.

Security researcher Chris Monteiro has been investigating the situation, and one discovery he posted to his Twitter feed is good news for all of us. Monteiro notes that the attack on Freedom Hosting II will likely have disrupted a number of botnets. Given the number of times the word “botnet” appears in the data, that seems like a strong possibility. A reduction in the number of active botnets or a reduction in their capabilities would be a very good thing.

«

Definitely.
link to this extract


Mobile app helps China recover hundreds of missing children • Reuters

Ryan Woo:

»

A mobile app helped Chinese authorities recover hundreds of missing children last year, Xinhua news agency reported on Saturday, in a country where child trafficking is rampant.

The Ministry of Public Security said 611 missing children were found last year, Xinhua said.

The “Tuanyuan”, or “reunion” in Chinese, app developed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd was launched in May and has allowed police officers to share information and work together.

Users near the location where a child has disappeared receive push notifications, including photos and descriptions. Notifications are sent to users farther and farther from the location of the disappearance if the child is still not found.

«

In case you were wondering if the internet and mobile has delivered any benefit at all lately.
link to this extract


Why Apple hasn’t build an Apple 5K Cinema Display yet • Verschoren

Thomas Verschoren:

»

Imagine a new 2017 iMac doesn’t only has Night Shift mode via software, but also gets a True Tone display. That combined with Thunderbolt 3 and USB C would make it a great update that builds on technologies that exist in their current lineup. 

Now, if they release such an iMac it would immediately make any 5K display that doesn’t support True Tone look old and lower specced. 

So:

• Apple’s Displays have a slow refresh rate.
• They don’t make an Apple 5K Cinema Display (yet).
• They don’t sell any True Tone desktop Macs (yet). 

If you were Apple and you could choose:

Release an Apple 5K Cinema Display in 2016 and sell it for a few years unchanged. 
Push an LG display in 2016, and release an Apple 5K True Tone display sometime in 2017.
Which one would be the most logical?

«

Ben Thompson has a theory that the Mac Pro was in some way a gigantic manufacturing screwup – that it couldn’t be updated or cost too much to make or something. (He describes it in the Talk Show with John Gruber, but has no info beyond that.) This might be the way forward for Apple.
link to this extract


The FCC is stopping nine companies from providing federally subsidized internet to the poor • Washington Post

Brian Fung:

»

The program, known as Lifeline, provides registered households with a $9.25-a-month credit, which can then be used to buy home Internet service. As many as 13 million Americans may be eligible for Lifeline that do not have broadband service at home, the FCC has found. Roughly 900 service providers participate in the Lifeline program.

For Kajeet Inc., one of the companies that was initially granted permission to provide service through Lifeline, the news comes as a blow.

“I’m most concerned about the children we serve,” said Kajeet founder Daniel Neal. “We partner with school districts — 41 states and the District of Columbia — to provide educational broadband so that poor kids can do their homework.”

Since becoming chairman last month, Pai has made closing the digital divide a central axis of his policy agenda. Although the vast majority of Americans have access to Internet service, there remain distinct gaps in U.S. broadband penetration, particularly among seniors, minorities and the poor. In his first address to FCC staff, Pai singled out the digital divide as one of the signature issues he hoped to address.

«

Providing this access cost the government nothing; it came from a surcharge on every internet access bill. “Pure spite” is the way it was described by one observer.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Snap filed for IPO, Windows 10’s woes, Mozilla cuts jobs, beating Kickstarter and more


Don’t set fires if you wear a pacemaker. We’ll explain why. Photo by elviskennedy on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. And…. Friday! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Snapchat parent Snap Inc. files for IPO • WSJ

Maureen Farrell, Austen Hufford and Jack Marshall:

»

The parent of the popular Snapchat disappearing-message app, which had previously filed IPO papers confidentially with the Securities and Exchange Commission, made its so-called S-1 public Thursday, ahead of a share sale that could take place as early as the first week of March. It could be the biggest U.S. IPO in more than two years and help reignite a moribund new-issue market.

Among the revelations, the five-year-old company posted revenue last year of $404.5m, up nearly sevenfold from 2015, as advertisers flocked to its vast audience of 158 million daily users in the fourth quarter, which is concentrated in the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. The company’s net loss, meanwhile, expanded to $514.6m as it spent heavily on everything from data storage to marketing and research.

A successful IPO could bolster Snap’s position as a rival to established tech players including Facebook Inc. and cement Snap co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy’s status as paper billionaires. Each held stock worth about $3.7 billion based on the company’s estimate of its own value as of December—an amount that could rise if the company prices its shares higher in the IPO.

To maintain revenue growth and eventually become profitable, though, Snap made clear that it must keep existing users on the service often and add new ones. If it doesn’t, “our business would be seriously harmed,” the filing says.

«

The revenue is impressive. The daily users, ditto. It might never be a direct threat to Twitter’s existing users, but likely prevents younger ones entering because they’re engrossed in Snapchat. And Snap has big ambitions beyond that.
link to this extract


The surprising link between air pollution and Alzheimer’s disease • LA Times

Melissa Healy:

»

With environmental regulations expected to come under heavy fire from the Trump administration, new research offers powerful evidence of a link between air pollution and dementia risk.

For older women, breathing air that is heavily polluted by vehicle exhaust and other sources of fine particulates nearly doubles the likelihood of developing dementia, finds a study published Tuesday. And the cognitive effects of air pollution are dramatically more pronounced in women who carry a genetic variant, known as APOE-e4, which puts them at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

In a nationwide study that tracked the cognitive health of women between the ages of 65 and 79 for 10 years, those who had the APOE-e4 variant were nearly three times more likely to develop dementia if they were exposed to high levels of air pollution than APOE-e4 carriers who were not.

Among carriers of that gene, older women exposed to heavy air pollution were close to four times likelier than those who breathed mostly clean air to develop “global cognitive decline” — a measurable loss of memory and reasoning skills short of dementia.

«

Particulates such as PM25 (2.5 microns or so in size) have long been under suspicion in this, because they can – in theory – cross the blood-brain barrier.
link to this extract


The woes of Windows 10 • The Economist

The anonymous correspondent points out that 75% of existing PCs have not been updated to Windows 10, despite it having been free for a year (now over):

»

There is no question that Windows 10 is an impressive piece of software, and quite the most secure operating system ever devised. But it is still very much a work in progress—even the program’s troubleshooter needs a troubleshooter. In its current form, Windows 10 demands serious expertise when it comes to knocking it into shape so ordinary users can work they way they prefer. It is also guilty of trampling far too much on people’s privacy, by keeping tabs of all their comings and goings. Given the tales of woe doing the rounds, a number of Windows 7 holdouts who have the choice could jump ship to the user-friendliness of a Macintosh or Chromebook—and no one would blame them for doing so.

For Microsoft, the obvious answer is to focus primarily on getting enterprises to upgrade. Rather than offer incentives, the company has resorted to spreading FUD (fear, uncertainly and doubt) among its corporate customers—as IBM did back in the 1970s whenever customers threatened to desert Big Blue for rival suppliers. Since the start of the year, Microsoft’s corporate users have been warned that, even with security updates, Windows 7 simply does not have the architecture to cope with today’s threats. The remedial work needed to recover from malware attacks can only drive up operating costs. The message to sceptical systems managers: postpone the inevitable upgrade at your peril.

The scaremongering does not stop there. Microsoft researchers cite two recent “zero-day” incidents (exploits that have never been seen before) by the Strontium hacker group—said to be affiliated with Russian intelligence—that broke into various American computer systems during the recent presidential campaign, including those of the Democratic National Committee, the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, and other political groups. Both exploits would have been stopped dead in their tracks by the heavy armour deployed by Windows 10 since its Anniversary Update (effectively Windows 10.1) last August, say the researchers.

«

What might have been, eh?
link to this extract


Firefox fail: layoffs kill Mozilla’s push beyond the browser • CNET

Stephen Shankland:

»

So much for Mozilla’s quest to bring Firefox to new and different places.

The nonprofit organization told employees Thursday that it is eliminating the team tasked with bringing Firefox to connected devices, according to people familiar with the situation. The cuts affect about 50 people. Ari Jaaksi, the senior vice president in charge of the effort, is leaving, and last week, Bertrand Neveux, director of the group’s software, told coworkers he’s departing, too. Mozilla had about 1,000 employees at the end of 2016.

Mozilla confirmed the cuts to the gadget group Thursday.

“We have shifted our internal approach to the internet-of-things opportunity,” Mozilla said in a statement, “to step back from a focus on launching and scaling commercial products to one focused on research and advanced development, dissolving our connected devices initiative and incorporating our internet-of-things explorations into an increased focus on emerging technologies.”

«

Inevitable after the failure of FFOS on mobile (which was always hugely hopeful). Will Yahoo renew its hugely expensive search contract for Firefox? If not, Mozilla will need some funding very quickly. (But it’s unclear how long the Yahoo contract is for, or when it ends.)
link to this extract


Uber CEO bows out of Trump advisory council after users boycott • The Guardian

Julie Carrie Wong:

»

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is stepping down from Donald Trump’s economic advisory council following intense criticism and an online boycott of the company over its ties to the new administration, the company confirmed Thursday.

“Earlier today I spoke briefly with the president about the immigration executive order and its issues for our community,” Kalanick wrote in an email to Uber staff obtained by the Guardian. “I also let him know that I would not be able to participate on his economic council. Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”

The company faced a viral boycott campaign in the wake of Trump’s executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Uber’s non-participation in a work stoppage called by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, in addition to Kalanick’s position in the economic advisory group, led many users to pledge to #DeleteUber, a hashtag that trended on Twitter and Facebook over the weekend.

Uber has not revealed how many users deleted their accounts, but it was enough that the company implemented an automated process to handle the demand.

«

These days, cooperating with Trump can be sufficient to torpedo your reputation. Initially Kalanick was indifferent – whatever was good for Uber was good enough. Now he’s been forced into a different position. Will it get those lost installs back, though? (Mike Isaac in the New York Times puts the number deleted at over 200,000.)
link to this extract


A 24-year-old made $345,000 by beating Kickstarters to market • CNBC

Zack Guzman:

»

For Jack, this all started with an inflatable chair.

After graduating from college in Canada, Jack found himself bored of working on behalf of yet another social app hoping to one day garner a billion-dollar valuation.

“I started realizing I wanted to run a company that actually sold something,” he recalls.

Around the same time he noticed a start-up that appeared poised to do that faster than anyone. It was an Indiegogo campaign for KAISR, an inflatable lounge chair made of parachute material that had surpassed its goal by raising $18,500 in 12 hours last March (and eventually over $4 million).


Indiegogo screenshot | KAISR.
KAISR shut down its operations and refunded most of the $4 million it raised after settling a lawsuit with Lamzac’s parent company Fatboy.

As the Indiegogo gained in popularity, Jack’s research led him to realize that the idea was far from unique. In fact, the Lamzac inflatable lounge chair had already gone viral, five years after the idea was presented by its Dutch inventor on Holland’s TV show “Best Idea of Holland.”

The only thing that was new about this chair was the buzz from the crowdfunding campaign.

Jack wondered if he might be able to produce his own successful knockoff. A cursory search on Alibaba revealed manufacturers based in China that were offering product samples, and after minor sampling fees and a little back and forth with the winning factory, Jack had his product: The Cozy Bag.

«

Some Kickstarters are astonishingly slow. When the idea’s simple, as in these examples, you get the feeling they’re losing in a Darwinian race with China’s factories and those on the outside.
link to this extract


Cops use pacemaker data to charge man with arson, insurance fraud • Network World


»

There were additional “conflicting statements” given to the 911 operator; [houseowner Ross] Compton had said “everyone” was out of the house, yet the 911 operator also heard him tell someone to “get out of here now.” In the 911 call published by WLWT5, an out-of-breath Compton claimed he had “grabbed a bunch of stuff, threw it out the window.” He claimed to have packed his suitcases, broken the glass out of bedroom window with his walking stick, and tossed the suitcases outside.

Compton also told the dispatcher he had “an artificial heart.”

After this, things really get interesting because police investigators used data from Compton’s electronic heart device against him. Isn’t that self-incrimination? Can a person “plead the Fifth” when it comes to self-incriminating data collected from their medical device?

Police set out to disprove Compton’s story about the fire by obtaining a search warrant to collect data from Compton’s pacemaker. WLWT5 reported that the cops wanted to know “Compton’s heart rate, pacer demand and cardiac rhythms before, during and after the fire.”

«

This happened in the wonderfully named Middletown, Ohio. How soon before it’s your smartwatch or fitness band giving the lowdown on what you’ve been doing?
link to this extract


All in a glance • mmitII

Matt Ballantine, writing as a cyclist, picks up the discussion about self-driving vehicles and the risks to cyclists:

»

Taking a right turn North out of the top of [my] street at most times is a complex process, involving a number of tacit rules…

There are hundreds of ways in which that manoeuvre at that junction can pan out, and most of them don’t strictly follow to the letter of the Highway Code. If one were to wait for both lanes to be clear to be able to turn right, you could be there for hours.

In urban and suburban areas, there are thousands of spots that have similar tacit rules and constant negotiation between road users for them to work effectively…

…the amount of subtle interaction between people who make up the users of the road means that we are a very, very long way from the steering wheel-less motorcars of “the future”. Without being able to switch everyone over to driver-free cars at the same instant and removing all non-autonomous road users at the same time the extent to which road use is a constant form of human interaction is, it seems, lost on the robot car evangelists.

«

link to this extract


MIT built a wearable app to detect emotion in conversation • The Verge

Natt Garun:

»

How a person tells a story could be interpreted in a multitude of ways — telling your friend about your awesome new car can come across as excitement or a brag, depending on the listener. To help detect the sentiment behind speech, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology built a wearable app that can parse conversation to identify the emotion behind each part of the story.

The app, built into a fitness tracker for this research, collects physical and speech data to analyze the overall tone of the story in real time. Using artificial intelligence, the app can also figure out which part of the conversation was happy or sad, and tracks emotional changes in five-second intervals.

«

One gets the feeling this is meant for officials who are interviewing people about things they shouldn’t have done. Such “emotion detection” systems have historically been absolutely rubbish:

»

In the research, participants were asked to wear a Samsung Simband with the app installed and tell a story. The band also monitored the participants’ physical changes, such as increased skin temperature, heart rate, or movements such as waving their arms around or fidgeting. Overall, the neural networks were able to determine tone with 83% accuracy — though it is unclear whether the research has been peer-reviewed.

«

I get the feeling this isn’t that different. Humans might still be the device of choice for doing this work.

link to this extract


Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft draft a joint letter opposing Trump’s travel ban • Recode

Kara Swisher:

»

Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Uber and Stripe, along with a consumer packaged goods company and others, have been working together on a letter opposing U.S. President Trump’s travel ban, according to sources.

Tech companies are leading the effort, but are working to involve other industries, the sources say, such as media companies, manufacturing giants and consumer product outfits. The letter will be the first major push from big U.S. businesses to try to support immigration in the wake of a recent travel restriction order by Trump.

Here’s a draft of the letter…

«

…which really is the most milquetoast thing, including the phrase “we stand ready to identify ways of helping to achieve your stated goal of bringing clarity to the future of the 750,000 Dreamers in this country under the protections of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in a way “that will make people happy and proud.” (Dreamers are children of illegal immigrants born in the US.) I doubt anyone in the administration will take the least bit of notice of it. Letters written by committee are generally junk.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: Apple tops Samsung, dying desktops, Google v the spammer, how streaming burns money, and more


Solar is a big employer in the US – bigger than coal, new data shows. Photo by OregonDOT on Flickr.

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

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

The high-tech war on science fraud • The Guardian

Stephen Buranyi:

»

One morning last summer, a German psychologist named Mathias Kauff woke up to find that he had been reprimanded by a robot. In an email, a computer program named Statcheck informed him that a 2013 paper he had published on multiculturalism and prejudice appeared to contain a number of incorrect calculations – which the program had catalogued and then posted on the internet for anyone to see. The problems turned out to be minor – just a few rounding errors – but the experience left Kauff feeling rattled. “At first I was a bit frightened,” he said. “I felt a bit exposed.”

Kauff wasn’t alone. Statcheck had read some 50,000 published psychology papers and checked the maths behind every statistical result it encountered. In the space of 24 hours, virtually every academic active in the field in the past two decades had received an email from the program, informing them that their work had been reviewed. Nothing like this had ever been seen before: a massive, open, retroactive evaluation of scientific literature, conducted entirely by computer.

«

Fascinating read; the ethics of publicly calling out peoples’ errors is upsetting scientists.
link to this extract


Mobile 2.0 • Benedict Evans

This is a somewhat rambling post (unusually) in which this seems a key point:

»

The smartphone’s image sensor, in particular, is becoming a universal input, and a universal sensor. Talking about ‘cameras’ taking ‘photos’ misses the point here: the sensor can capture something that looks like the prints you got with a 35mm camera, but what else? Using a smartphone camera just to take and send photos is like printing out emails – you’re using a new tool to fit into old forms. In that light, simple toys like Snapchat’s lenses or stories are not so much fun little product features to copy as basic experiments in using the sensor and screen as a single unified input, and in creating quite new kinds of content. Meanwhile, the emergence of machine-learning-based image recognition means that the image sensor can act as input in a more fundamental way – translation is now an imaging use case, for example, and so is maths. Here it’s the phone that’s looking at the image, not the user. Lots more things will turn out to be ‘camera’ use cases that aren’t obvious today: computers have always been able to read text, but they could never read images before. 

«

When this becomes continually true, what changes? When your phone knows what it’s seeing, what can it do?
link to this extract


Google is battling a Russian spammer over the use of the letter ‘G’ • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:

»

Google is probably pretty pissed off. An alleged Russian spammer recently used a domain strikingly similar to Google.com to flood websites’ analytics with unwanted pro-Trump messages, and Google is now trying to wrest control of the URL.

But Vitaly Popov, the site’s owner, is not giving up without a fight, no matter how unlikely he is to win.

Late last month, Google filed a complaint with an arbitration forum over Vitaly’s ɢoogle.com domain. As you might notice, the “G” in ɢoogle.com looks a little off. That’s because Popov registered the website back in March 2016 with the Latin version of the letter, meaning he can produce a URL that looks very similar to Google.com, but that sends visitors elsewhere. Popov has done the same for the “K” in lifehacĸer.com.

“Google requests that the Panel issue a decision that the Domain Name registration be transferred to Google,” the company’s complaint, provided to Motherboard by Popov, reads. (A member of the arbitration forum, called ADR Forum, confirmed that there was an ongoing dispute between Google and Popov).

In its complaint, Google claims that Popov’s phony domain redirects visitors to a landing page with a slew of dodgy pop-ups, including one that asks for a Windows username and password.

«

Spam has moved on a bit.
link to this extract


It’s time to admit Apple Watch is a success • iMore

Rene Ritchie:

»

the narrative around Apple Watch was so lost that when Google delayed Android Wear 2, vendors like Motorola/Lenovo exited the market, and Pebble sold itself off, hot takes tripped over each other claiming the “smartwatch market” might be dead.

Fitbit, which makes a wide range of fitness-focused wearables, also didn’t face the same kind of pessimism from the tech community. Indeed, they were promoted as incredibly popular and far more flexible thanks to their greater diversity of styles and price-points. Yet their last quarter painted a very different picture.

Apple Watch, meanwhile, just had its best quarter ever. Which, when you combine Apple Watch Series 2’s improved hardware, Apple Watch Series 1’s lower cost of entry, and watchOS 3’s greater coherence, performance, and fitness focus, pretty much anyone could see coming. (Interest in Apple Watch purchases briefly peaked even higher than iPhone on iMore, based on Black Friday and holiday pageviews.)

It could be that there is no real “Smartwatch market”, just an Apple Watch market. Much like there’s no real “tablet market”, just an iPad market. Since it’s such a new product category and most of the existing products are still bound to phones, it could also simply be too soon to tell.

«

I don’t see Android Wear 2 making any difference to this dynamic, and I don’t see Fitbit’s attempts to escape into the smartwatch space being a huge success.
link to this extract


Desktop dies on weekends • Axios

Sara Fischer:

»

Web traffic from desktop computers plummets on weekends as people spend most of their time on mobile once they leave the office on Fridays, according to a Parse.ly study.

The ratio of mobile to desktop traffic stays somewhere near 1:1 throughout the week, but on weekends, the ratio changes dramatically — nearing closer to 2:1. Check out the grey dips in the chart below.


Data: Parse.ly; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Parse.ly estimates that this change accelerated most from 2015-2016. Their findings also show that the mobile ratio tends to increase late at night, even supporting an 11:00 p.m. EST “reading activity peak” for mobile visitors.

«

Speaks to the importance of office PCs for use of sites like Facebook and online shopping.
link to this extract


The self-driving car’s bicycle problem • IEEE Spectrum

Peter Fairley:

»

when it comes to spotting and orienting bikes and bicyclists, performance drops significantly. Deep3DBox is among the best, yet it spots only 74% of bikes in the benchmarking test. And though it can orient over 88% of the cars in the test images, it scores just 59% for the bikes.

Košecká says commercial systems are delivering better results as developers gather massive proprietary datasets of road images with which to train their systems. And she says most demonstration vehicles augment their visual processing with laser-scanning (ie lidar) imagery and radar sensing, which help recognize bikes and their relative position even if they can’t help determine their orientation.

Further strides, meanwhile, are coming via high-definition maps such as Israel-based Mobileye’s Road Experience Management system. These maps offer computer vision algorithms a head start in identifying bikes, which stand out as anomalies from pre-recorded street views. Ford Motor says “highly detailed 3D maps” are at the core of the 70 self-driving test cars that it plans to have driving on roads this year.

«

How long before the first bicycle knockover?
link to this extract


Apple tops Samsung in the fourth quarter to close out a roller coaster year for the smartphone market • IDC


»

The holiday quarter of 2016 capped off another positive year of smartphone growth despite concerns about the overall market slowing. According to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, smartphone vendors shipped a total of 428.5m units during the fourth quarter of 2016 (4Q16), resulting in 6.9% growth when compared to the 400.7m units shipped in the final quarter of 2015. For the full year, the worldwide smartphone market saw a total of 1.47bn units shipped, marking the highest year of shipments on record, yet up only 2.3% from the 1.44bn units shipped in 2015. Large markets like China, the United States, and Brazil all ended the year on a strong note helping to keep worldwide volumes in positive territory.

“There’s no question that 2016 marked a memorable year for the smartphone industry in many ways,” said Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. “This was a year that brought us the first down year for iPhone, yet Apple closed out the holiday quarter by surpassing Samsung for the top spot in the smartphone industry. We also witnessed year-over-year declines in some emerging regions like the Middle East and Latin America where high growth was expected. To round it all off, we now have a three horse race at the top of the market as Huawei cracked the double-digit share mark for the first time ever.”

«

Apple beating Samsung is surprising – suggests that the Note 7 debacle really did hurt sales. Meanwhile, it’s Apple, Samsung, and then Huawei, OPPO and vivo – three Chinese makers taking 23% share. The “others” are being squeezed, down from 46% to 40%.
link to this extract


HTC executive vice president Jason Mackenzie leaves after 12 years • UploadVR

Jamie Feltham:

»

Last week HTC lost its VP of Design to Google. This week, the company’s Global Executive Vice President has also departed.

Jason Mackenzie yesterday announced that he is leaving the company after nearly 12 years. The executive did not give a reason for his departure, nor does he know where he’s heading next, as one tweet reveals. We’ve reached out to HTC to ask why he left the role and who the company plans to replace him with.

«

Good luck with getting an answer. I doubt HTC itself knows.
link to this extract


Universal Music and Spotify talk music-streaming in 2017 • Musically

Start Dredge:

»

[Universal Music Group’s SVP of digital strategy and business development Jonathan Dworkin] hailed the potential impact of devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, in the way they are powering new ways to access music. “Speakers and music go together like guns and drugs… It’s yet another swell that will help connect artists with fans, and drive consumers to migrate to legal services.”

He also talked about China being transformed into “one of the world’s leading music markets” thanks to local streaming services, and perhaps global players. “In the next ten years, China may well become the world’s largest recorded-music market,” he said, talking of the potential for a cultural knock-on effect that “rivals the 1960s in the west”.

Dworkin warned that “two of the industry’s top five accounts are operating with negative margins funded by other people’s money… we ned to find ways to ensure we have a balanced ecosystem of partners: platforms and pureplays… At Universal we are very mindful of the digital ecosystem’s fragility.”

He reiterated Universal’s support for both free and paid models in the streaming world. “The truth is, as these swells continue to propagate, we don’t know how far paid streaming will go,” he said, while arguing that it must offer features over and above free rivals to create value.

«

That “two of the top five.. on other peoples’ money” sounds like Spotify and Deezer to me.
link to this extract


Solar employs more people in U.S. electricity generation than oil, coal and gas combined • Forbes

Niall McCarthy:

»

In the United States, more people were employed in solar power last year than in generating electricity through coal, gas and oil energy combined. According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy, solar power employed 43% of the Electric Power Generation sector’s workforce in 2016, while fossil fuels combined accounted for just 22%. It’s a welcome statistic for those seeking to refute Donald Trump’s assertion that green energy projects are bad news for the American economy.

Just under 374,000 people were employed in solar energy, according to the report, while coal, gas and oil power generation combined had a workforce of slightly more than 187,000. The boom in the country’s solar workforce can be attributed to construction work associated with expanding generation capacity.

«

Damn facts. (Are the solar panels still in place on the White House? Shouldn’t there be a coal mine underneath it instead now?)
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: fast food fat figures, inaugural ransomware, Isis’s drones, Nexus updates end, and more


A New York taxi: its owner might be under financial duress, and it’s Uber’s and Lyft’s fault. Photo by tinfrey on Flickr.

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

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

Fast food menu of calories • FlowingData

Nathan Yau:

»

In my younger days, I used to eat fast food all of the time. So cheap. So delicious. But these days, it’s all about moderation. My metabolism no longer supports the same amount of fried food. The hours I spend in front of a computer instead of moving probably don’t help either. In any case, I have to pay attention to the calories.

I was curious: How does the distribution of calories vary by fast food restaurant?

Here’s a chart that shows all the menu items for ten of the biggest national fast food chains. Each square represents an item, and each row represents a restaurant. Items farther to the right are higher in calories and items to the far left are probably a side of apple slices.

«

Go to the original for a much bigger version.
link to this extract


Taxi medallion prices are plummeting, endangering loans • Bloomberg


»

There’s a good reason your cab driver is so cranky: His livelihood might be teetering on the edge of default. According to a recent presentation prepared for Capital One Financial Corp. investors, some 81% of its $690m in loans for taxi medallions are at risk of default.

Medallions, the small metal shields affixed to the hoods of taxi cabs, are issued by the local taxi authority and effectively allow the cabs to operate legally. Owning one used to be akin to owning a gas-guzzling, money-printing machine. Medallions in New York City traded at more than $1m in 2014, but today’s prices are about half of that.

Now the share of taxi medallion loans Capital One thinks its borrowers won’t be able to repay in full has nearly tripled over the past year, to 51.5%. (Another 29% of loans are to stressed borrowers who could be in trouble soon.)

«

This resembles the mortgage collapse of 2007-8, though the reasons are somewhat different. But it will create huge problems: if taxi drivers go bust, Uber and Left clean up and prices rise without limit.
link to this extract


DC police surveillance cameras were infected with ransomware before inauguration • Ars Technica

Sean Gallagher:

»

Networked digital video recorders have been harnessed for all sorts of ill intent over the past few months, including use in a botnet that disrupted large swaths of the Internet. But a different sort of malware hit the DVRs used by the District of Columbia’s closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance system just one week before Inauguration Day. The Washington Post reports that 70% of the DVR systems used by the surveillance network were infected with ransomware, rendering them inoperable for four days and crippling the city’s ability to monitor public spaces.

The CCTV system, operated by the District’s Metropolitan Police Department and supported by the DC Office of the Technology Officer (OCTO), began to be affected on January 12. Police noticed they could not access video from four DVRs. Washington DC Chief Technology Officer Archana Vemulapalli told the Post that two forms of malware were found on the four systems, and a system-wide sweep discovered additional DVR clusters that were infected.

The infections were limited to the local networks that the DVRs ran on, and this ransomware did not extend to the District’s internal networks.

«

(Gallagher’s report has more detail than the WaPo one, which is why I used it.) Surprised the White House press secretary hasn’t used this as an excuse for the tiny inauguration numbers yet.
link to this extract


A review of my new Samsung curved TV: I hate it so much • The Verge

Nilay Patel of The Verge bought a new Samsung curved-screen TV. His wife contributed this review:

»

Several years ago I asked Nilay for a new suitcase for Christmas, expecting a sturdy Samsonite or Tumi. You know, a suitcase. Instead, I received what he had deemed the “prettiest one.” It was subsequently destroyed both aesthetically and functionally after its very first journey in the hands of American Airlines.

That is the Samsung curved TV he brought home from Walmart. “I bought the prettiest one,” he said. Again. Those were the words uttered by my in-house technology expert, who quit his job as a lawyer for a new career writing technology reviews. A gamble which I fully supported at the time, and only question when he justifies a purchase by telling me “it was the prettiest.”

So, this Samsung television. (Ed. note: it is a Samsung UN40K6250AF.) The screen is curved, which means that it picks up and seemingly magnifies every glimmer of light in the room. Because that’s what you want in a television screen. The curved screen demands that you sit dead center of the TV unless you want to observe the equally frustrated facial expressions of the person sitting opposite you on the couch trying in vain to see through the glare. The glare is ridiculous. It’s so completely terrible that I give up after watching something for 30 seconds and walk away whisper-yelling swears at my sucker of a husband for bringing this piece of shit into my home. This television makes me hiss in anger.

«

Notice the focus on functionality rather than specs. This is effective reviewing.
link to this extract


Nexus 6 and 9 won’t be updated to Android 7.1.2 Nougat • AndroidAuthority

John Callahan:

»

it’s not much of a surprise. Both products were released in November 2014, and Google’s own support page indicated that they were not guaranteed to get OS updates after October 2016. In fact, the company released Android 7.1.1 Nougat for the Nexus 9 in early December, followed by the Nexus 6 in early January, so it actually rolled out one more update than it originally was supposed to do for both devices.

If you are still using either one or both of these products, the good news is that Google will continue to offer security updates for the devices until at least October 2017. While you won’t be getting the latest and greatest Android version on the Nexus 6 or 9, both should continue to be secure to use for some time.

«

It’s maybe not much of a surprise in Android-land, but telling someone who bought a new iPad in November 2014 that it wasn’t going to get iOS 11 wouldn’t be a popular move. It’s the continuing puzzle: Apple makes its money on hardware, but does far better at software updates even than Google for Google’s own hardware.
link to this extract


Instagram Stories is stealing Snapchat’s users • Techcrunch

Josh Constine:

»

Good enough and convenient. That’s proved a winning strategy for Instagram’s clone, according to a dozen analytics providers, social media celebrities, and talent managers who told TechCrunch they’ve seen a decline in Snapchat Stories usage since Instagram Stories launched on August 2nd.

Most reported declines in Snapchat Stories view counts ranging from 15 to 40 percent, and a reduction in how often they or those they monitor post to Snapchat Stories. Meanwhile, our sources report rapidly growing view counts on Instagram Stories, and engagement-to-follower rates one social influencer talent agent called “Insanely f*cking high”.

The success of Instagram Stories, the decline in Snapchat usage we’ve heard from a wide array of sources, and Facebook’s relentless drive to compete with the startup could spell trouble for Snapchat’s IPO on the NYSE market that’s expected in March. Snap Inc declined to comment for this story.

«

Could be a problem though: declining engagement is the kiss of death for social networks of any hue.
link to this extract


The drones of Isis • Defense One

Ben Watson:

»

A U.S. military official who recently returned from Iraq offered a bit more detail on the ISIS drones.

“Most of what they have is very primitive, bought from hobby shops, modified,” this official said. “They’re also shot down quite a bit. The Peshmerga and [Iraqi security forces] love shooting at those things.”

“The regional joke is the Iraqi forces are defending themselves as if they’re at a wedding,” said Peter Singer, an analyst with the New America Foundation. “You see them blasting AK-47s into the air like they do at weddings. That’s not optimal.”

U.S. officials are pursuing a few options for defeating improvised, weaponized drones. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker has reported on precision cameras, drones that detect drones, and “a directed-energy weapon that can disrupt a drone’s control link and GPS navigation at a distance of 400 meters.”

The U.S. military has also taken to flying EC-130H aircraft “jamming the radio signals used by insurgents to trigger bombs on the ground,” Vice News reported in November.

It’s not enough, Singer said.

“The drone defender gun is not part of the regular kit,” he said. Soldiers are “going to face this potential threat across the world, in anything from battles to doing an embassy evacuation. And that’s not good. We should have seen this coming and developed a plan and equipment, not just for us, but for allied forces.”

«

Low-end disruption comes to the process of killing people. The many photos in the article are quite eye-opening.
link to this extract


Machine learning is going mobile • Deloitte

David Schatsky:

»

It’s impossible to enumerate all of the applications we will see for mobile devices capable of performing sophisticated perceptual tasks involving vision, speech, or other sensory input. But they are likely to be found in every industry and have one or more of the following capabilities:

• Analysis or diagnosis of sensory data
• Perceptual interfaces or interactivity
• Navigation and motion control
A few examples follow.

In health care, we envision a wide range of diagnostic applications, including some aimed at consumers. Imagine, for instance, a smartphone app that can diagnose skin conditions and insect bites by analyzing digital photos without transmitting the image data over a network.

We imagine mobile architecture and design applications that use computer vision to generate accurate 3D models of interior spaces quickly and easily.

An ever more powerful and resilient Internet of Things will include self-monitoring industrial equipment that uses machine learning to predict maintenance needs and self-diagnose failures.

«

Relevant because TensorFlow (Google’s preferred ML framework, which is being widely adopted) is beginning to be available to run independently on smartphone-level devices. AI on your phone, even without connectivity: it’s coming.
link to this extract


Nextbit’s Robin phone will be no more as new owner Razer steps in • CNet

Jessica Dolcourt:

»

Having hatched its cloud-based Robin phone with a Kickstarter campaign, it’s time for hardware startup Nextbit to find its next nest. And it’s a move that may surprise you.

On Monday, gaming hardware maker Razer announced that it acquired all 30 members of the Nextbit team. Razer wowed this year’s CES with a gaming laptop fitted with three screens whereas the Robin was intentionally stripped-down; the two companies are hardly birds of a feather. Still, Razer’s deeper pockets will give Nextbit’s team, which includes veterans of Google and HTC, more resources to develop and distribute products.

“Joining up with Razer will allow us to reach much further,” said Nextbit cofounder Tom Moss. Moss will continue as Nextbit’s CEO under Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan.

While Nextbit will remain an independently operated unit that designs and develops products, don’t hold your breath for another round of Robin anytime soon. Although Razer plans to hang on to the Nextbit and Robin names, Moss said, another Robin phone isn’t on the radar for now. In fact, Nextbit has since stopped direct sales (it sold out of inventory through its website), though you can still buy the phone on Amazon.

«

And good luck getting any kind of support for it in the future.
link to this extract


December 2016: There must have been a lot of Fitbit trackers under the Christmas tree • Recode

Ina Fried:

»

Fitbit may have reason for some holiday cheer.

Its app rose to be No. 1 among free apps on Apple’s iOS app store on [Christmas day] Sunday, suggesting a lot of the company’s fitness trackers were unwrapped on Christmas morning.

Amazon’s Echo also appears to have been popular, with its Alexa app coming in at No. 4.

The other top spots were filled by apps not associated with Christmas presents, such as Snapchat, Super Mario Run and YouTube.

«

Given that Fitbit just warned of a terrible quarter, with soft sales in Asia and the US, one can determine that position on the App Store on Christmas day is not necessarily an indicator of, well, anything useful.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: tech survivalists, predicting product success, Facebook v China, forecasting Apple, and more


Got a Fitbit for Christmas? You’re one of a smaller number than the company expected. Photo by janitors on Flickr.

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

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

The Bad Product Fallacy: Don’t confuse “I don’t like it” with “That’s a bad product and it’ll fail” • andrewchen

The aforementioned Chen:

»

In the end, we all love to use our own personal judgement to quickly say yes or no to products. But the Bad Product Fallacy says our own opinions are terrible predictors of success, because tech is changing so quickly.

So instead, I leave you with a couple questions to ask when you are looking at a new product:

• If it looks like a toy, what happens if it’s successful with its initial audience and then starts to add a lot more features?
• If it looks like a luxury, what happens if it becomes much cheaper? Or much better, at the same price?
• If it’s a marketplace that doesn’t sell anything you’d buy, what happens when it starts stocking products and services you find valauble?
• If none of your friends use a social product, what happens when they win a niche and ultimately all your friends are using it too?

It’s hard to ask these questions, since they mostly imply nonlinear trajectories in product innovation. However, technology rarely progresses in a straight line – they grow exponentially, whether in utility, price/performance, or in network effect.

«

link to this extract


Doomsday prep for the super-rich • The New Yorker

Evan Osnos on the rich techies who are getting ready for the apocalypse, just, y’know, in case:

»

How did a preoccupation with the apocalypse come to flourish in Silicon Valley, a place known, to the point of cliché, for unstinting confidence in its ability to change the world for the better?

Those impulses are not as contradictory as they seem. Technology rewards the ability to imagine wildly different futures, Roy Bahat, the head of Bloomberg Beta, a San Francisco-based venture-capital firm, told me. “When you do that, it’s pretty common that you take things ad infinitum, and that leads you to utopias and dystopias,” he said. It can inspire radical optimism—such as the cryonics movement, which calls for freezing bodies at death in the hope that science will one day revive them—or bleak scenarios. Tim Chang, the venture capitalist who keeps his bags packed, told me, “My current state of mind is oscillating between optimism and sheer terror.”

In recent years, survivalism has been edging deeper into mainstream culture. In 2012, National Geographic Channel launched “Doomsday Preppers,” a reality show featuring a series of Americans bracing for what they called S.H.T.F. (when the “shit hits the fan”). The première drew more than four million viewers, and, by the end of the first season, it was the most popular show in the channel’s history. A survey commissioned by National Geographic found that forty% of Americans believed that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter was a wiser investment than a 401(k). Online, the prepper discussions run from folksy (“A Mom’s Guide to Preparing for Civil Unrest”) to grim (“How to Eat a Pine Tree to Survive”).

«

Apparently New Zealand is the place to be.
link to this extract


Facebook is trying everything to re-enter China—and it’s not working • WSJ

Alyssa Abkowitz, Deepa Seetharaman and Eva Dou:

»

Facebook’s chances of getting back into China appeared to take a rare turn for the better when an employee noticed an official posting online: Beijing authorities had granted it a license to open a representative office in two office-tower suites in the capital.

Such permits typically give Western firms an initial China beachhead. This one, which Facebook won in late 2015, could have been a sign Beijing was ready to give the company another chance to connect with China’s roughly 700 million internet users, reopening the market as the social-media giant’s U.S.-growth prospects dimmed.

There was a catch. Facebook’s license was for three months, unusually short. Facebook executives found the limitation unexpected and frustrating, people familiar with the episode said.

Facebook never opened the office. The official posting disappeared and now exists as a ghost in cached versions of the government website. “We did, at one point in time, plan to have an office,” said Facebook spokeswoman Charlene Chian, “but we don’t today.”…

…After Google’s departure and declarations about human rights, government officials publicly called Google “unfriendly” and “irresponsible.” Within Facebook, said people familiar with the company, the view is Chinese leaders remain wary that, were they to grant Facebook access, the company might leave after deciding it can’t tolerate censorship after all—that Facebook, said one, might “pull a Google.”

While Facebook can’t be a social network in China just now, its top executives continue to urge Chinese companies to use it as an advertising platform.

«

Still can’t crack it.

link to this extract


The data that turned the world upside down • Motherboard

Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus:

»

Remarkably reliable deductions could be drawn from simple online actions. For example, men who “liked” the cosmetics brand MAC were slightly more likely to be gay; one of the best indicators for heterosexuality was “liking” Wu-Tang Clan. Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts. While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate.

Kosinski and his team tirelessly refined their models. In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95% accuracy), their sexual orientation (88% accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.

«

From there, it goes on to a company called Cambridge Analytica which did work for Ted Cruz, and Vote Leave, and Donald Trump. Long; involved; scary, in part because the US is so loose with data that anything can be known about anyone.
link to this extract


Trump wants to downplay global warming. Louisiana won’t let him • Bloomberg

Christopher Flavelle:

»

On a recent morning in Baton Rouge, a thousand miles from where Senate Democrats were jousting with Donald Trump’s nominee to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about whether humans are warming the planet, the future of U.S. climate policy was being crafted in a small room in the east wing of the Louisiana Capitol. The state’s 7,700-mile shoreline is disappearing at the fastest rate in the country. Officials had gathered to consider a method of deciding which communities to save—and which to abandon to the Gulf of Mexico.

Bren Haase, chief of planning for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), was presenting his team’s updated Coastal Master Plan. Five years in the making and comprising 6,000 pages of text and appendices, the document details $50 billion in investments over five decades in ridges, barrier islands, and marsh creation. Tucked into the plan was a number whose significance surpasses all others: 14 feet, the height beyond which Haase’s agency has concluded homes couldn’t feasibly be elevated.

In areas where a so-called 100-year flood is expected to produce between 3 feet and 14 feet of water, the plan recommends paying for homes to be raised and communities preserved. In places where flood depths are expected to exceed that height, residents would be offered money to leave.

«

Physics is so relentlessly indifferent to your petty dogma.
link to this extract


There are too many ways to Google on Android • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

»

After agitating to get Google to bring its best apps from iOS to Android, I was gratified to see last month that Gboard, Google’s excellent iPhone keyboard, made the jump. Then I used it on my Pixel and discovered that it’s inferior to the iOS version. Google, on its own phone, built a bad Google experience.

Which got me to thinking and made me realize something: the Google experience on Google’s phone is confusing and often bad. Back when I reviewed the Pixel, I noted that there are four different ways to do a basic Google search on it — all of which have slightly different behaviors. But I undercounted! Now, with Gboard, there are at least seven different ways to do a broad Google search on the Pixel. And that doesn’t count other searches — like Maps or Email or YouTube — that are also technically using Google’s search engine.

So I documented all these different ways of searching Google on Android, to point out their various foibles. The TL;DR is this: there are a lot of ways to search Google on Android but they all give you slightly different results, which means the whole thing can make you feel a little lost.

«

It’s a neat observation, and possibly indicative of a problem within Google – what Benedict Evans calls “shipping the org chart”, i.e. including stuff because manager in a position to insist their stuff is included say it should be, and nobody ever overrules them.
link to this extract


Apple 1Q17 Expectations • Above Avalon

Neil Cybart on Apple’s first financial quarter (which runs from October to the end of December):

»

There will be a few numbers holding extra importance when Apple reports 1Q17 results on Tuesday.

iPhone ASP. There has been a notable amount of evidence from the past three months pointing to the iPhone 7 Plus selling well. This has major implications for Apple’s iPhone strategy going forward as a strong-performing iPhone 7 Plus suggests there is demand for higher-priced iPhones driven by feature differentiation. In addition, Apple’s new iPhone storage configurations likely boosted iPhone ASP. Given that the $399 iPhone SE was not on sale during 1Q16, an iPhone ASP close to or exceeding the $691 reported in 1Q16 would confirm iPhone 7 Plus popularity. 

Other Products revenue. Apple will likely report record Apple Watch sales. Similar to previous quarters, Watch results are expected to be lumped in with “Other Products” revenue. The major difference with 1Q17 results is that AirPods revenue will now be included in “Other Products” given the December 2016 launch. This will make it a bit trickier to back out Apple Watch revenue. Accordingly, one should expect a wider variation in Apple Watch sales estimates. In addition, the “Other Products” line item contains revenue from Beats headphones, a good seller during the holiday quarter. Taking into account AirPods and Beats revenue, “Other Products” revenue exceeding $4.5B will bode extremely well for strong Apple Watch sales (5M+ units). 

«

There’s more, but those are the top two lines. He also thinks iPads have turned the corner – the worst is over in terms of sales dips, and that revenue could return to growth as pricier models become popular.

Wonder how much bigger it could have been if AirPods had come through in sufficient numbers before Christmas.
link to this extract


Fitbit to cut jobs after weak Q4 • The Information

Reed Albergotti:

»

Fitbit is to cut between 5% and 10% of its employees, the company will announce on Monday, while disclosing that its fourth-quarter results were below expectations. The disclosures are the latest sign of a slowdown in the wearables market, according to two people briefed on the news.

About 1,600 people work at Fitbit so the job cuts affect between 80 and 160 people, across multiple departments. Fitbit is also undertaking a reorganization which, along with the job cuts, will reduce costs by about $200m. The company’s board voted on the job cuts on Wednesday, one of these people said.

«

Fitbit confirmed the numbers after the story was published: expected revenue for Q4 at $572m-$580m, well below its previous forecast of $725m-$750m. (That’s about 25% down.) Cutting 110 staff. Sales particularly poor in Asia – where it probably has more competition from cheap Chinese products. Fitbit shares fell to leave it valued at $1.2bn – below GoPro (which has often looked troubled) at $1.5bn. So people see some future value in it, but how much?

Separately, The Information also reported that Jawbone was a week late paying staff. That’s a sign of a company under severe financial stress. (It couldn’t make a $1m payment last August.) Expect a firesale or closure by the middle of the year.
link to this extract


Ransomware infects electronic door locking system at Austrian hotel • Bleeping Computer

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

Fire code regulations all over the globe mandate that electronic key locks to open manually from the inside, which means no guest was locked inside their rooms.

Additionally, electronic key systems are also created to handle power failures, so there was a way to open the doors from the outside, meaning no one was locked out either.

According to Austrian news site ORF, the hotel was fully-booked with 180 guests. According to hospitality news site Allgemeine Hotel- und Gastronomie-Zeitung, at the time the ransomware took root, all the hotel’s guests were on the local ski slopes.

The hotel’s management, opted to pay the ransom, which was 2 Bitcoin, around €1,500 ($1,600) at the time, both sources reported.

Hotel manager plans to replace “smart locks” with “classic locks”

“We were hacked, but nobody was locked in or out,” said the hotel’s Managing Director Christopher Brandstaetter. “For one day we were not able to make new keycards.”

“Since the locking system must work even in the event of power failure, the guests in the hotel almost did not notice the incident,” the manager also added. “We simply could not issue new keycards because the computers were encrypted.”

Brandstaetter said the hotel plans to replace the electronic key system with classic keys in the upcoming future.

According to Brandstaetter, shortly after the ransomware incident, someone tried to infect the hotel once more, but they took their systems offline.

«

Does this story look familiar? That’s because there was a (slightly wrong) version here yesterday. Key point: rooms weren’t locked. Notable point: attempted reinfection. (Via Graham Cluley, via Steve.)
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: well, that ransomware-in-hotel link from yesterday, now corrected in that link above.

Start Up: tech reacts to Trump, the voices in noise, VPN Android risks, the app misers, and more


A view of the Turracher Hoehe Pass: can you hear the hotel guests locked out of their rooms by ransomware? Photo by Christiane Jodl on Flickr.

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

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

VPN on Android means ‘voyeuristic peeper network’ in many cases • The Register


»

A worrying number of VPN apps for Android mobile devices are rife with malware, spying, and code injection, say researchers.

A study [PDF] from the University of New South Wales in Australia and the University of California at Berkeley found that Android apps advertising themselves as VPN clients often contain poor security protections, and in some cases engage in outright malicious activities.

“Many apps may legitimately use the VPN permission to offer (some form of) online anonymity or to enable access to censored content,” the researchers write. “However, malicious app developers may abuse it to harvest users’ personal information.”

That sort of malicious activity is shockingly common, the researchers found. They studied the activity of 283 VPN apps on the Google Play store and catalogued the various risky and malicious activities they found:

82% of the VPN apps requested permission to access sensitive data on the device, such as SMS history
• 38% of the apps contained some form of malware
16% routed traffic through other devices, rather than a host server
16% use in-path proxies to modify HTML traffic in transit
Three of the 283 analysed apps specifically intercept bank, messaging, and social network traffic.

«

That’s not good. (It’s because it can break app sandboxing on Android; not sure whether this applies to iOS.)
link to this extract


Why we hear voices in random noise • Nautilus

Philip Jake:

»

Neil Bauman is an audiologist who runs a center in Pennsylvania called The Hearing Loss Help Center. He’s created a discussion forum for those experiencing a wide range of anomalous auditory perceptions including auditory pareidolia. Commenters detail their experiences, often believing they are symptomatic of mental illness. For example, one commenter writes: “I thought I was going crazy. When my air conditioner is on, I wake up and hear light conversations. I would go to the window to see if anyone was outside, or I would turn the air conditioner off [and] it would stop. Sometimes it sounds like a radio.”

Another, more at-ease commenter, writes about her similar experience of hearing voices from the sound of central air control: “I would hear faint voices—whispering, conversing, singing, or chanting! It sounded like a crowded room, full of people at a party in a distant room somewhere in the building. After a while I came to enjoy the sound, as they seemed to be enjoying themselves at the ‘party,’ and it helped lull me to sleep at night.”

«

This is the converse to the one the other day where you hear something like “blargh blargh” and your phone hears “open that malicious URL!”
link to this extract


Hotel ransomed by hackers as guests locked in rooms • The Local

NOTE: elements of this story have been shown to be wrong. (Update tomorrow.) Koen Berghuis:

»

One of Europe’s top hotels has admitted they had to pay thousands in Bitcoin ransom to cybercriminals who managed to hack their electronic key system, locking hundreds of guests in or out of their rooms until the money was paid.

Furious hotel managers at the Romantik Seehotel Jaegerwirt, a luxurious 4-star hotel with a beautiful lakeside setting on the Alpine Turracher Hoehe Pass in Austria, said they decided to go public with what happened to warn others of the dangers of cybercrime.

And they said they wanted to see more done to tackle cybercriminals as this sort of activity is set to get worse. The hotel has a modern IT system which includes key cards for hotel doors, like many other hotels in the industry.

Hotel management said that they have now been hit three times by cybercriminals who this time managed to take down the entire key system. The guests could no longer get in or out of the hotel rooms and new key cards could not be programmed.

The attack, which coincided with the opening weekend of the winter season, was allegedly so massive that it even shut down all hotel computers, including the reservation system and the cash desk system.

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Apple strategy in ‘smart home’ race threatened by Amazon • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

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Developers can ask Apple to certify an unlisted factory they want to use. But the limited selection means that device makers can’t always get the best prices or work with their preferred factories. The founder of one startup that considered pursuing HomeKit approval for a device that helps control home temperatures said the company picked a factory with 40,000 employees that was making well known “Star Wars” toys, but it couldn’t use that factory for HomeKit products.

“They’re a huge company, a legitimate manufacturer that makes tech household brands. And yet they’re not [Apple] certified,” said the founder, who declined to speak on the record because of non-disclosure agreements with Apple.

Manufacturers also have to send product samples to Cupertino, where Apple tests them extensively for compatibility. The whole process can take three to five months. During that time, device makers aren’t allowed to say publicly that they’re pursuing HomeKit certification.

Some developers say it’s worth it. “They found issues with our product before we released it that we didn’t find in our testing,” said Gimmy Chu, CEO of Nanoleaf, a smart lighting system. “We know that after we have the certification that it’s rock solid.”

Alexa, by contrast, only requires smart home companies to write software code and submit it to Amazon for review. There are no special chips. To earn the “Works with Alexa” label -which isn’t required to function with Alexa but does help promote products on Amazon’s website – startups must have their products physically tested. Amazon does allow that to happen in a third-party lab, however.

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Which makes one wonder if a real problem with Amazon’s approach will be found rather later.
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Automating power: Social bot interference in global politics • First Monday

Samuel Woolley:

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Until roughly six years ago, technologically adept marketers used social bots to send blatant spam in the form of automatically proliferated social media advertising content (Chu, et al., 2010). A growing collection of recent research reveals, however, that political actors worldwide are beginning to make use of these automated software programs in subtle attempts to manipulate relationships and opinion online (Boshmaf, et al., 2011; Ratkiewicz, et al., 2011a; 2011b; Metaxas and Mustafuraaj, 2012; Alexander, 2015; Abokhodair, et al., 2015). Politicians now emulate the popular twitter tactic of purchasing massive amounts of bots to significantly boost follower numbers (Chu, et al., 2012). Militaries, state contracted firms, and elected officials use political bots to spread propaganda and flood newsfeeds with political spam (Cook, et al., 2014; Forelle, et al., 2015).

Political bots are among the latest, and most unique, technological advances situated at intersection of politics and digital strategy…

…Many computer scientists and policy makers treat bot-generated traffic as a nuisance to be detected and managed. System administrators at companies like Twitter work to simply shut down accounts that appear to be running via automatic scripts. These approaches are too simplistic and avoid focusing on the larger, and systemic, problems presented by political bot software. Political bots suppress free expression and civic innovation through the demobilization of activist groups and the suffocation of democratic free speech. They subtly work to manipulate public opinion by giving false impressions of candidate popularity, regime strength and international relations. The disruption to public life caused by political bots is enhanced by innovations in parallel computation and innovations to algorithm construction.

Political bots must, therefore, be better understood for the sake of free speech and the future of digitally mediated civic engagement.

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To say the least.
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Most smartphone users spend nothing on apps • Gartner


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Over half of smartphone users spend no money on smartphone apps (paid-for downloads and in-app transactions), according to a new survey by Gartner, Inc. (see Figure 1)*. However, end-user spending on in-app transactions continues to rise.

“Where users are prepared to pay for apps, spending on in-app transactions is on the rise — up 26% from 2015 — while spending on paid-for downloads only increased 4% in 2016,” said Stéphanie Baghdassarian, research director at Gartner. In this year’s survey, mean spending on in-app transactions was $11.59, while mean spending on paid-for downloads reached $7.67.

Paid-for downloads are more likely to be associated with smaller amounts of spending. Respondents who spent $15 or more over a three-month period were more likely to have done so through in-app transactions. “This is largely because the vast majority of paid-for mobile apps have a price tag of $1.99 or less, while the activation of in-app transactions usually means that the user has found value in an app and will be happy to spend more on it,” Ms, Baghdassarian added.

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Not surprising; I think the same applies for many things, including searches and app downloads. But it does show how reliant app developers are on the “whales” who spend big: those people on the right-hand side may not be a big percentage, but they’re worth far more (obviously) than those on the left.
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Apple, Google, Uber, Tesla, and others react to Trump’s refugee ban • BuzzFeed News

Charlie Warzel and Sheera Frankel:

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Apple, Google, Uber, Tesla, and others react to Trump’s refugee ban; Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Oracle CEO Safra Catz serves on a Trump administration advisory committee.

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You can guess most of it. They’re against it – though Uber seems to have a problem, because its CEO spoke out in favour of Trump (early in the administration, i.e. more than a week ago) while its CTO came out strongly against.

Oracle’s position is… let’s say compromised.
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Google recalls staff to US after Trump immigration order • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen:

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Alphabet Inc.’s Google delivered a sharp message to staff traveling overseas who may be impacted by a new executive order on immigration from President Donald Trump: get back to the US now.

Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai slammed Trump’s move in a note to employees Friday, telling them that more than 100 company staff are affected by the order.

“It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues,” Pichai wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News. “We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so.”

The comments underscore a growing rift between the Trump administration and several large U.S. technology companies, which include many immigrants in their ranks and have lobbied for fewer immigration restrictions. Pichai’s note echoed similar statements from tech peers voicing concerns about the harm such policies could have on their businesses.

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So Larry Page (and all the others) going along to that tech summit had a big impact, eh? Learn the lesson: you can’t reason with this sort of person.
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Fake news is about to get even scarier than you ever dreamed • Vanity Fair

Nick Bilton:

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At corporations and universities across the country, incipient technologies appear likely to soon obliterate the line between real and fake. Or, in the simplest of terms, advancements in audio and video technology are becoming so sophisticated that they will be able to replicate real news—real TV broadcasts, for instance, or radio interviews—in unprecedented, and truly indecipherable, ways. One research paper published last year by professors at Stanford University and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg demonstrated how technologists can record video of someone talking and then change their facial expressions in real time. The professors’ technology could take a news clip of, say, Vladimir Putin, and alter his facial expressions in real time in hard-to-detect ways. In fact, in this video demonstrating the technology, the researchers show how they did manipulate Putin’s facial expressions and responses, among those of other people, too.

This is eerie, to say the least. But it’s only one part of the future fake-news menace. Other similar technologies have been in the works in universities and research labs for years, but they have never really pulled off what computers can do today.

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This is worrying. An even bigger worry: this would probably be in the hands of governments first.
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China turns to blockchain to make markets clearer and cleaner • Reuters

Engen Tham:

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Chinese banks are hiring blockchain experts as the government pushes use of the technology behind bitcoin to increase transparency and combat fraud in its financial sector.

Lenders have struggled for years with outdated and disparate technology. While four Chinese banks rank among the world’s five largest by capital, many still use paper, faxes and traditional chop stamps to verify documents.

Now, spurred by regulators, they are looking to use blockchain to leapfrog a generation of technology and clean up the system, bankers and blockchain experts say.

Demand from Chinese banks for experience in blockchain more than doubled last year and will grow further this year, headhunters and blockchain professionals say, as lenders scramble to catch up with Western counterparts that have already invested $1.5 billion in the technology.

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Trump sold America a miracle cure. It will fail. He’ll get off for free • Slate

Alan Levinotivz has studied snake oil salesmen and medical confidence tricksters:

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The kinship between Trump and peddlers of scientifically questionable medical advice couldn’t be clearer. Our president actively seeks out their company—from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., noted vaccine alarmist, to Dr. Oz, on whose show Trump pretended to be transparent about his health. It was a perfect match: Trump embodies the dubious therapies that Oz has endorsed—“miracle” diet beans, energy healing—and resembles Oz himself, a showman slinging half-truths and magical thinking to a hope-starved audience.

For those who reject such men, the appeal never fails to astonish. A doctor named Oz who wants you to believe in miracles? Come on. That’s like a pastor named Dollar who wants congregants to pay for his jet, or an unhinged narcissist who lives in a gold-plated apartment running as a populist president. Who, after weighing all the evidence, could actually take them seriously? Only credulous fools, right?

I used to think so, until about a decade ago, when my father called to ask if I knew anything about “zapping.” He told me that a close family friend, plagued by chronic health issues, had turned to a therapeutic machine named, incredibly, the Zapper. The contraption was designed by Hulda Clark, a naturopathic doctor who authored books with titles such as The Cure for All Diseases and The Cure for All Cancers, only to die in 2009 of blood and bone cancer.

This family friend was a trained nurse and the widow of a physician. Sharp, articulate, educated, nobody’s fool—and there she was, zapping herself with a machine invented by someone who died of what it supposedly prevented. I remember feeling the same punch-in-the-gut disbelief about her decision that I do today about people who voted for Trump. How could you fall for it?

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I hope he’s wrong, but fear he’s right. Who’s going to pay for the wall? If it gets built, American consumers. What’s going to happen to healthcare? It won’t be available to all. The signs aren’t good.
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What ad tests on Messenger tell us about Facebook’s plan to monetize messaging • MIDiA Research

Karol Severin:

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There are 50 million business pages and approximately 3 million advertisers on Facebook. Its advertising revenue in 2015 was $17bn (across all platforms). Messenger now has a billion active users, which is a comparable audience size to Facebook’s audience. Through opening the advertising floodgates the messaging platform presents a multi-billion dollar opportunity- however, Facebook must be careful not to alienate its users in doing so. Pushing ads into private conversations could be the threshold.

Facebook knows this. It says that ads in Messenger will only be featured on home screens and not within conversations. Indeed, it makes all the sense for Facebook not to let traditional banner ads flood private conversations anytime soon – if ever.

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But it will happen. Ad inventory must be filled.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified