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


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

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

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

Alex Kantrowitz:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Triggs:

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

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

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

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

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

Chaim Gartenberg:

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

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

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

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

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

Keach Hagey and Vivien Ngo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaitlyn Tiffany:

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

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

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

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

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

Blake Shaffer:

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

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

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

Dana Mattioli and Ethan Smith:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manuel Vonau:

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

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

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

Start Up No.1,183: Saudi moles inside Twitter, Facebook docs show data plan, Uber ignored jaywalkers (fatally), Xerox + HP = ?, and more


Another dose of PM25 pollution, brought to you by the piston effect. All aboard! CC-licensed photo by ben.snider on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Accept notifications Yes/Agree/OK? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima and Greg Bensinger:

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The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing the company’s information on dissidents who use the platform, marking the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused the kingdom of running agents in the United States.

One of those implicated in the scheme, according to court papers, is an associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who the CIA has concluded likely ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.

The case highlights the issue of foreign powers exploiting American social media platfoms to identify critics and suppress their voices. And it raises concerns about the ability of Silicon Valley to protect the private information of dissidents and other users from repressive governments.

The charges, unveiled Wednesday in San Francisco, came a day after the arrest of one of the former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen who is alleged to have spied on the accounts of three users — including one whose posts discussed the inner workings of the Saudi leadership — on behalf of the government in Riyadh.

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People getting access to inner workings is a classic method of espionage; the other is blackmail, so maybe Twitter (and Facebook…) could think about how they might discover that happening among their staff. The stakes are so high for nation states that a bit of light national destabilisation (or national boosting) goes with the territory.
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Xiaomi’s Apple Watch clone removes everything good about the Apple Watch • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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Xiaomi has gone back to its roots as a purveyor of shameless Apple ripoffs, and hot off the photocopier is the Xiaomi Mi Watch, a new wearable that is decidedly Cupertino-inspired. The Mi Watch is an Apple Watch clone, but the design is pretty much the only thing that’s cloned here. You won’t get a good SoC, a good operating system, good battery life, good haptics, or a good app ecosystem. From a distance, though, some people might mistake the Mi Watch for an Apple Watch, and maybe that’s enough.

The Mi Watch is a Wear OS device powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 3100, a combination that makes any wearable device pretty much dead on arrival. Qualcomm has been neglecting the smartwatch market since basically its inception and has never produced a serious competitor to the chips Samsung and Apple regularly put out. The Snapdragon Wear 3100 features a quad-core, 1.2GHz Cortex A7 CPU, a CPU design that is just barely from this decade, having been originally introduced in 2011. This 28nm chip doesn’t stand a chance against its faster, smaller, more battery-efficient rivals, but Qualcomm’s monopoly ensures it is basically the only game in town for smartwatch chips.

Surrounding the museum piece of a CPU is a 1.78-inch, 448×368 OLED display, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, and a 570mAh battery.

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I’m getting the feeling that Ron isn’t a fan.
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Amazon testing workout tracking in Echo Buds • CNBC

Todd Haselton:

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Amazon sent us a version of the Echo Buds to review a few weeks ago. While writing a review of the Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet on Tuesday, I paired the review unit Echo Buds to listen to some music. As I was moving through the Alexa app on the tablet, which is how you manage the Echo Buds connected to a device, I saw something I didn’t see when I first reviewed the Echo Buds a couple of weeks ago.

Inside the Alexa app, under where you would normally manage the equalizer settings for the Echo Buds, was a whole new “Fitness” section.

The section included the option to track a workout, a fitness profile that included only a space for my height, and a Workouts heading.

Under the Workouts heading, it suggested I could start tracking a workout by speaking “Alexa, start a workout.”

I said this and it said “OK, starting your workout.” I walked around the office with the Echo Buds in my ears, and it appeared to have tracked my movement, telling me, “You’ve worked out for 1 minute and 37 seconds. You’ve logged 0.04 miles with an average pace of 44 minutes and 13 seconds per mile. You took 114 steps.”

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So that’s “workout” as in “running or walking”. But a clever way to annexe the fitness-oriented user; it’s pretty primitive, but sufficient as an add-on. I don’t honestly see this as a giant rival for the Apple Watch; it’s more likely to gain users on Android, for ecosystem reasons. Pity that Haselton didn’t try running, or going up and down some stairs, as part of his testing.
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Twitter Topics: follow subjects automatically in the timeline • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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Recently, a friend told me he wanted to spend more time using Twitter, but he didn’t quite know how. His primary interest is comedy, he told me, and he hoped to find a way to see comedians’ best jokes on Twitter as they were posted. But when he followed comedians, he mostly saw a lot of self-promotion — tour dates, late-night appearances, and that sort of thing. No matter your personal interests, there are countless good and relevant tweets on Twitter. But where are they?

Topics, a new feature from Twitter that is starting to roll out this week, represents a significant effort to answer that question. You will be able to follow more than 300 “topics” across sports, entertainment, and gaming, just as you are currently able to follow individual accounts. In return, you’ll see tweets from accounts that you don’t follow that have credibility on these subjects.

Twitter executives hope that Topics will make the platform more approachable for new and intermittent users and make it easier for heavier users to discover new accounts and conversations. The feature, which began testing on Android in August, is set to roll out globally on November 13th.

“We know that the main reason that people come to Twitter is to keep up on the things that they’re interested in,” said Rob Bishop who leads Topics team. “The challenge is it’s really quite difficult to do that on Twitter day to day.”

The idea of letting people follow topics in addition to (or instead of) individual accounts dates back to the earliest days of the company. But it took the development of machine learning tools and the hiring of a human editorial team, among other things, to make it happen.

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Every formless machine-mediated system used by humans tends towards a human-curated system: discuss. Examples: Facebook’s News Tab; Twitter Trends and Moments.
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Leaked documents show Facebook leveraged user data to fight rivals and help friends • NBC News

Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar:

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A cache of leaked Facebook documents shows how the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, oversaw plans to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip. The documents were obtained and are being published by NBC News.

This trove comprises approximately 7,000 pages in total, of which about 4,000 are internal Facebook communications such as emails, web chats, notes, presentations and spreadsheets, primarily from 2011 to 2015. About 1,200 pages are marked as “highly confidential.”

Taken together, they show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook users’ data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over the companies it partnered with. In some cases, Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.

For example, Facebook gave Amazon special access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising. In another case the messaging app MessageMe was cut off from access to data because it had grown too popular and could compete with Facebook.

All the while, Facebook planned to publicly frame these moves as a way to protect user privacy, the documents show.

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Links to the documents on the page. (Might take a little while to skim them.) More fallout from the Six4Three lawsuit, where Facebook preemptively yanked its access – unfairly, the smaller company says.
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London Underground: the dirtiest place in the city • Financial Times

Camilla Hodgson, Leslie Hook and Steven Bernard:

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If you are one of the 4.8m passengers who uses the London Underground every day, you might think you are escaping the pollution dangers from road travel, with its exhaust fumes and soot.

The reality is very different. Although its health risks have been little studied and little publicised, other than a handful of recent scientific papers, the Tube is by far the most polluted part of the city. Fine particles of dust, metal, skin and clothing fibre have built up in the tunnels over a century of use, leaving a toxic miasma that is stirred up by passing trains and inhaled by passengers.

A Financial Times investigation has mapped the air quality in the carriages of the London Underground. Using hundreds of measurements covering 75 tunnel segments inside Zone 1 in central London, the investigation found that levels of pollution on the Underground are dangerously high — as much as 10 times above the guidelines set by the World Health Organization in some parts of the network.

Commuters travelling on the Central, Victoria and Northern lines are most at risk, according to the analysis by the Financial Times.

“These are shocking, worrying findings. We know particulates are the most dangerous of the air pollutants,” says Jenny Bates, an air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “We must sort out this terrible level of bad air. It’s absolutely essential for the health of anybody using the Tube.”

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The World Has Gone Mad and the System Is Broken • LinkedIn

Ray Dalio is co-chief investment officer and co-chairman of Bridgewater Associates, L.P.:

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investors lending to those who are creditworthy will accept very low or negative interest rates and won’t require having their principal paid back for the foreseeable future. They are doing this because they have an enormous amount of money to invest that has been, and continues to be, pushed on them by central banks that are buying financial assets in their futile attempts to push economic activity and inflation up. The reason that this money that is being pushed on investors isn’t pushing growth and inflation much higher is that the investors who are getting it want to invest it rather than spend it. This dynamic is creating a “pushing on a string” dynamic that has happened many times before in history (though not in our lifetimes) and was thoroughly explained in my book Principles for Navigating Big Debt Crises…

…At the same time, pension and healthcare liability payments will increasingly be coming due while many of those who are obligated to pay them don’t have enough money to meet their obligations. Right now many pension funds that have investments that are intended to meet their pension obligations use assumed returns that are agreed to with their regulators. They are typically much higher (around 7%) than the market returns that are built into the pricing and that are likely to be produced. As a result, many of those who have the obligations to deliver the money to pay these pensions are unlikely to have enough money to meet their obligations. Those who are recipients of these benefits and expecting these commitments to be adhered to are typically teachers and other government employees who are also being squeezed by budget cuts. They are unlikely to quietly accept having their benefits cut.

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Flippantly: can’t we got those investors to lend their money to the pension and healthcare liabilities?

More seriously: Dalio also points to growing government deficits as pointing towards rising interest rates, but the world economy is too overleveraged, and so can’t bear that. Something’s got to give.
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Xerox considers takeover offer for HP • WSJ

Cara Lombardo:

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A deal would join two household names with storied pasts that have been scrambling to retool their businesses as the need for printed documents declines. Both companies are in cost-cutting mode and a union could afford new opportunities to shed expenses—to the tune of more than $2bn, the people said.

Xerox, based in Norwalk, Conn., primarily makes large printers and copy machines and most of its almost $10bn in annual revenue comes from renting and maintaining them for businesses. HP, based in Palo Alto, Calif., sells mainly smaller printers and printing supplies and is also one of the largest PC makers in the world. It posted revenue of more than $58bn for its most recent fiscal year, ended in October 2018.

HP is what remains after Hewlett-Packard Co. split off Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which sells servers, data-storage gear and related services to corporate clients, in 2015. Before a decline in its printing-supplies business in recent quarters, it had grown faster than expected as a stand-alone company.

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This is two bald men fighting over a parachute or something, isn’t it?
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Remember the Uber self-driving car that killed a woman crossing the street? The AI had no clue about jaywalkers • The Register

Katyanna Quach:

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the code couldn’t recognize her as a pedestrian, because she was not at an obvious designated crossing. Rather than correctly anticipating her movements as a person moving across the road, it ended up running right into her.

“The system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians,” the [National Traffic Safety Board] stated [PDF] in its write-up. “Instead, the system had initially classified her as an ‘other’ object which are not assigned goals.”

The computer-vision systems in self-driving cars are trained to identify things, such as other vehicles, trees, sign posts, bicycles, and so on, and make decisions on what to do next using that information. It appears Uber’s software wasn’t able to identify Herzberg since there was no classification label for a person not using a proper crossing point, and it wasn’t able to make the right decisions.

Some 5.6 seconds before hitting her, the car’s radar detected Herzberg, and at 5.2 seconds, she was picked out by the Lidar. However, the machine-learning system more or less ignored her, figuring her to be a non-moving object not in the vehicle’s way.

As the robo-vehicle drew nearer, it categorized her variously as a vehicle, a bike, or some other thing that was not, or was only partially, in its way.

Just 1.2 seconds before hitting her, it identified her not only as a bicycle but also clearly in the path of its travel, by which point it was far too late to change course.

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Forget trolley problems – this ought to be the most obvious problem of all. Shouldn’t the system recognise small moving objects?
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This is a horror story: how private equity vampires are killing everything • The Nation

Kim Kelly:

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This wrongheaded corporate plundering did not start and will not stop with Deadspin; vampires are forever in need of new hosts. Private-equity firms have quietly taken over a large swath of the American economy: buying up companies, selling them off for parts, then stealing away unscathed. There’s a reason presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has been so outspoken against them. Private equity is a danger to the free press, and a scourge upon the already weakened state of journalism. In just under two years, these firms have turned LA Weekly into a lifeless husk, ravaged The Denver Post, gutted Sports Illustrated, and silently strangled dozens of local newspapers across the country.

Media is far from their only target, though private equity does have a taste for the most vulnerable. Over the past decade, they have killed 1.3 million retail jobs, and the Los Angeles Times reports that 10 of the 14 largest retail chain bankruptcies since 2012 were at private equity-acquired chains. A famous example of their brutal negligence is Toys “R” Us, which was driven into bankruptcy after being acquired in 2014 by a pair of private equity firms, KKR and Bain Capital. Some 33,000 workers were laid off, and it took months—and a class-action lawsuit—before workers got the severance payouts they were owed. Today, Bain Capital holds over $100bn in assets, and continues to seek new victims.

Not even the ill and injured are safe from this particular strain of supernatural avarice. The Carlyle Group, a massive private equity firm, came under fire in 2018 when conditions at ManorCare, a nursing home chain that it had purchased in 2007 and driven into bankruptcy, were revealed to have been so understaffed that residents were frequently left to wallow in their own filth.

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All aboard for late-stage capitalism, I guess.
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Start Up No.1,182: US cops get big genetics warrant, who wins a meal with Trump?, AirPods Pro compared, and more


Does this 1977 Exxon advert count as political, or non-political? What about the modern ones? CC-licensed photo by Classic Film on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Observation: common sense generally isn’t. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

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

‘Game-changer’ warrant let detective search genetic database • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill and Heather Murphy:

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For police officers around the country, the genetic profiles that 20 million people have uploaded to consumer DNA sites represent a tantalizing resource that could be used to solve cases both new and cold. But for years, the vast majority of the data have been off limits to investigators. The two largest sites, Ancestry.com and 23andMe, have long pledged to keep their users’ genetic information private, and a smaller one, GEDmatch, severely restricted police access to its records this year.

Last week, however, a Florida detective announced at a police convention that he had obtained a warrant to penetrate GEDmatch and search its full database of nearly one million users. Legal experts said that this appeared to be the first time a judge had approved such a warrant, and that the development could have profound implications for genetic privacy.

“That’s a huge game-changer,” said Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University. “The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out, and that’s been overridden by a court. It’s a signal that no genetic information can be safe.”

DNA policy experts said the development was likely to encourage other agencies to request similar search warrants from 23andMe, which has 10 million users, and Ancestry.com, which has 15 million. If that comes to pass, the Florida judge’s decision will affect not only the users of these sites but huge swaths of the population, including those who have never taken a DNA test.

«

Sleepwalking into a surveillance age. Mission accomplished. Yes: it’s always good to solve more crime. But: you don’t know what sort of government you might get in the future: what if you get one which declares that certain DNA characteristics are illegal, and that people with them should be ejected from the country?
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Why you shouldn’t fear the gray tsunami – MIT Technology Review

David Rotman:

»

The aging of the world is happening fast. Americans 65 and older are now 16% of the population and will make up 21% by 2035. At that point, they will outnumber those under 18. In China the large numbers of people born before the one-baby policy was introduced in 1979 are swelling the ranks of older people, even as younger age groups shrink. Other countries are even older. Japan leads—more than a quarter of its population is 65 or older—but Germany, Italy, Finland, and much of the rest of the European Union aren’t far behind. A quarter of the people in Europe and North America will be 65 or older by 2050…

…The conventional wisdom is that an aging population is toxic for economic growth. Who will do all the work? How will we pay for all those old people’s medical and welfare programs? Economists like to call it the dependency ratio: the size of the working-age population relative to those too old (or too young) to have a job. And they like to show scary projections of how this demographic crisis is coming to get us.

The warnings sound ominous. The gray tsunami. The demographic cliff. The demographic time bomb. But maybe what’s truly not aging well is all the fretting about an inevitable crisis.

The truth is that economists don’t know much about how an aging population will affect us.

“There has been a productivity hit,” says Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard. “It’s big, and it’s economically meaningful.” She and her colleagues have calculated, on the basis of data from 1980 to 2010, that a 10% increase in the population age 60 and older has decreased growth in GDP per capita by 5.5%. It means, if the past is any lesson, that the aging US population could slow economic growth by 1.2 percentage points this decade and 0.6 percentage points in the next. Some of this will be because fewer people are working, but two-thirds of it will be because the workforce is less productive on average.

«

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The Trump campaign holds a lot of contests. Does anyone win? • Popular.info

Judd Legum:

»

Most contests run by the Trump campaign follow a pattern — messages over email and Facebook, promoting a meal with Trump at a location that Trump will be visiting soon. 

But for several weeks in August and September of 2018, the Trump campaign bought hundreds of Facebook ads about a contest for a dinner with Trump with no designated location. This contest, unlike the others, does not appear to be promoted over email. 

But like all the other contests, there was no announced winner.

Is it a scam? Are these contests, which promise a meal with Trump, a scam? Is the Trump campaign swindling its own supporters? We don’t know. 

In one respect, failing to go through with the meals makes little sense. The estimated value of each meal, including transportation and accommodations, is $3,000. For a campaign that is raising tens of millions of dollars every quarter, this is a pittance. 

But this is a campaign that has been willing to scam its supporters before. As Popular Information documented in May, the Trump campaign held a campaign to give away “the 1 millionth MAGA hat,” signed by Trump. On May 23, the Trump campaign ran a Facebook ad claiming that the deadline to enter was midnight. 

It ran that same ad, claiming a midnight deadline, for 12 days: May 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, June 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Here, the Trump campaign is telling an obvious lie to its supporters about a midnight deadline to gain a small advantage. Falsely claiming a deadline was midnight likely encouraged people to enter at a higher rate.

«

I’m not a lawyer, and all that, but isn’t this what the legal eagles call “fraud”?
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Exxon climate ads aren’t “political,” according to Twitter • HEATED.world

Emily Atkins, in her newsletter about climate:

»

in recent days, it’s become clear that there are some problems with Twitter’s new policy. For example: It’s easy to determine which ads are about specific candidates. But what is Twitter’s definition of a political “issue ad,” exactly? How does Twitter plan to enforce what is one, and isn’t one?

These questions have serious implications for the climate fight. For example, a HEATED investigation identified more than a dozen tweets from ExxonMobil related to climate change that are not currently labelled by Twitter as political “issue” ads. Under the new policy, these ads will be permitted to run after November 22, while environmental groups’ climate-related ads will be banned.

Asked to explain why Exxon’s climate-related ads are not political, Twitter declined to comment. A Harvard researcher who studies Exxon for a living, however, did not hold back.

“Mobil and ExxonMobil have pioneered issue advertising for decades,” said Geoffery Supran, who co-authored a peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications. “I’ve studied this historical record in detail, and it couldn’t be clearer to me that Twitter ads like these are its twenty-first century extension.

“These Twitter ads aren’t just any political issue ads—they epitomize the art.”

«

This has already been cited by Elizabeth Warren, and Jack Dorsey says he’s going to look again at Twitter’s policy on “issue” ads.
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AirPods Pro vs. Powerbeats Pro vs. WF-1000XM3 (Bonus: vs. WH-1000XM3) : Reddit

“frumpy_cat” decided to do an actual head-to-head (or maybe ear-to-ear) comparison of some noise-cancelling headphones:

»

I know a lot of people have been wondering how the AirPods Pro stack up against some other competitors. Now that I have the 3 mentioned in the title and have been able to compare, I thought I would do so. Throwing in the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM3’s just for comparison on the ANC, since they’re in a completely different category.

«

This is all fine, except the APPs have a third function, besides “no ANC” and “ANC”, called “Transparency”, which provides pass-through for certain frequencies and sound spikes. That isn’t dealt with here, but people really seem to like it.
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RIP OG Pixel: Google ends support after just three years • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

»

The Pixel 1 launched in 2016 with a promised two years of major update support and three years of security updates. It was Google’s first self-branded smartphone, ending the cheap, value-oriented Nexus line and ushering in an era of expensive—probably too-expensive—Google phones. Major OS support was eventually extended to three years, which is now standard across the Pixel line, and the original device was updated to Android 10 in September.

Three years of support is pretty weak compared to the manufacturer Google has most modeled the Pixel line after: Apple. iPhones typically get five years of major OS updates, which Apple can do partly thanks to its end-to-end control over the hardware and software. Google, if it even wanted to support the Pixel line for that long, would need to drag along Qualcomm and other chip partners to make it work. The longer update support is a major reason why iPhones hold their value much better than Pixel phones in the phone resale market, even if you go by Google’s own trade-in program.

«

Gotta juice that market somehow.
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Internet Wayback Machine adds historical textdiff • SEO Book

Aaron Wall:

»

The Wayback Machine has a cool new feature for looking at the historical changes of a web page.

The color scale shows how much a page has changed since it was last cached & you can select between any two documents to see how a page has changed over time.

You can then select between any two documents to see a side-by-side comparison of the documents.

That quickly gives you an at-a-glance view of how they’ve changed their:
• web design
• on-page SEO strategy
• marketing copy & sales strategy

«

Even more useful. And of course it means you can see when someone has erased the embarrassing contents of a page they wish they could forget.
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Twitter hates me. The Des Moines Register fired me. Here’s what really happened • Columbia Journalism Review

Aaron Calvin:

»

As I began writing [a profile of “Des Moines local hero” Carson King], an editor requested that I run a background check on King. This is standard practice at the Register, as it is for many newspapers, when reporting on public figures. I looked at King’s court records as well as his public social media, and found a few racist jokes he’d tweeted in high school. In context, I could see that these had been references to sketches by the comedian Daniel Tosh. I told my editor about the tweets and was asked to reach out to King for comment.

I believe this was the right thing to do. Performing background checks on public figures is part of a journalist’s responsibility. If I had found the tweets, others would, too. I approached King with an understanding that what you tweet in high school is not necessarily representative of your beliefs as an adult, and he duly apologized.

I included a brief mention of the offensive tweets and King’s apology toward the end of my profile. It was a small moment placed in context at the end of a positive story. The tweets were part of a narrative of growth, maturity, and compassion—not an accusatory, “gotcha” moment.

When I asked King about his tweets, I tried to communicate that I was not trying to bring him harm. It’s clear to me now, though, that he was worried about personal blowback. As is common in the world of celebrity PR, he moved to get ahead of the details that would be revealed in the profile.

The evening before the profile was scheduled to be published, King held a press conference to confess to the existence of his tweets and to make a public apology.

«

Incredibly, Calvin suffered the blowback from the unimportant tweets in King’s past. It’s a bizarre story of the ourouboros of the American blame game.
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Fifty years ago, I helped invent the internet. How did it go so wrong? • Los Angeles Times

Leonard Kleinrock:

»

We could try to push the internet back toward its ethical roots. However, it would be a complex challenge requiring a joint effort by interested parties — which means pretty much everyone.

We should pressure government officials and entities to more zealously monitor and adjudicate such internet abuses as cyberattacks, data breaches and piracy. Governments also should provide a forum to bring interested parties together to problem-solve.

Citizen-users need to hold websites more accountable. When was the last time a website asked what privacy policy you would like applied to you? My guess is never. You should be able to clearly articulate your preferred privacy policy and reject websites that don’t meet your standards. This means websites should provide a privacy policy customized to you, something they should be able to do since they already customize the ads you see. Websites should also be required to take responsibility for any violations and abuses of privacy that result from their services.

Scientists need to create more advanced methods of encryption to protect individual privacy by preventing perpetrators from using stolen databases. We are working on technologies that would hide the origin and destination of data moving around the network, thereby diminishing the value of captured network traffic.

«

I think the answer to the headline’s question is “we let humans use it”.
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Why didn’t Google and Fitbit think of this before? • CIRP

»

CIRP analysis indicates 35% of US iPhone buyers have a smartwatch, compared to only 16% of US Android buyers. Among iPhone buyers, 19% have an Apple Watch, while 10% own a Fitbit. Among Android buyers, 4% own a Samsung watch, while 5% own a Fitbit.

“Among the relatively small share of all smartphone buyers that have any kind of smartwatch, iPhone buyers are twice as likely to own one than Android buyers,” said Josh Lowitz, CIRP Partner and Co-Founder. “Not surprisingly, Apple Watch is the leading smartwatch for iPhone buyers, while about half as many own a Fitbit. Until now, Fitbit was a neutral brand, but now becomes part of the Google-Android-Pixel-Nest universe. This creates an interesting new Android entry point into the Apple ecosystem, with a decent percentage of iPhone owners now using a wearable that becomes a more Android-friendly device. Also, among the small percentage of Android owners that have a smartwatch, Samsung and Fitbit have roughly equal shares.”

«

I’m surprised that the figure for US iPhone owners is so high. I’m amazed if 7% of US Android phone owners actually use a Wear OS watch, which seems to be the implication.
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Back to Windows after 20 years • Signal v. Noise

David Hansson:

»

What this experiment [buying a Surface Laptop 3 and trying to run the Linux tools now provided in Windows] taught me, though, was just how much I actually like OSX. How much satisfaction I derive from its font rendering. How lovely my code looks in TextMate 2. How easy it is to live that *nix developer life, while still using a computer where everything (well, except that fucking keyboard!) mostly just works.

So the Surface Laptop 3 is going back to Microsoft. Kudos to them for the 30-day no questions return policy, and double kudos for making it so easy to wipe the machine for return (again, another area where Apple could learn!).

Windows still clearly isn’t for me. And I wouldn’t recommend it to any of our developers at Basecamp. But I kinda do wish that more people actually do make the switch. Apple needs the competition. We need to feel like there are real alternatives that not only are technically possible, but a joy to use. We need Microsoft to keep improving, and having more frustrated Apple users cross over, point out the flaws, and iron out the kinks, well, that’s only going to help.

I would absolutely give Windows another try in a few years, but for now, I’m just feeling #blessed that 90% of my work happens on an iMac with that lovely scissor-keyed Magic Keyboard 2. It’s not a real solution for lots of people who work on the go, but if you do most of your development at a desk, I’d check it out. Or be brave, go with Windows, make it better, you pioneer, you. You’ll have my utter admiration!

Also, Apple, please just fix those fucking keyboards. Provide proper restitution for the people who bought your broken shit. Stop gaslighting us all with your nonsense that this is only affecting extremely few people. It’s not. The situation is an unmitigated disaster.

«

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,181: YouTube accused on Hong Kong video, spiders and insects decline, Fitbit’s forced finale, a Valve-Apple headset?, Polish troll farming, and more


Now using them an average of 4.5 hours per day for “digital entertainment”. CC-licensed photo by Esther Vargas on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. Don’t mention the health! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Did YouTube help China’s anti-Hong Kong propaganda go viral? • Quartz

O Goldhill:

»

A Chinese-made propaganda video about the Hong Kong protests went viral, apparently thanks to YouTube’s algorithm. The video—called “Who’s behind Hong Kong protests?”—argues that US agents are stirring protests in Hong Kong, and has more than half a million views on YouTube. It was created by China’s state broadcaster, China Global Television Network.

On August 24th, YouTube recommended it six times more than the average video when users searched for “Hong Kong protestors,” according to AlgoTransparency, making it one of the most-recommended videos on that subject.  The most-viewed video on Hong Kong protests by the Wall Street Journal, BBC, and New York Times all had fewer views as of October 31st 2019.

The Chinese government has repeatedly claimed that the US is behind protestors, though it has failed to present any evidence. Attempts to present Hong Kong protests as an American uprising often involve outright falsehoods, such as Chinese media reports that a toy weapon was a US army grenade launcher.

AlgoTransparency, created by former YouTube engineer Guillaume Chaslot, analyzes videos recommended on thousands of channels daily. The data is based on blank profiles; as YouTube recommends videos based on users’ history, different individuals may have different recommendations. Overall, YouTube’s algorithm was created to optimize for watch time which, Chaslot has shown, often leads to YouTube recommending more extreme videos in a bid to capture attention. “You can go from more radical video to more radical video,” says Chaslot. “There’s a rabbit-hole effect.”

YouTube said it disagreed with Algotransparency’s methodology, data, and conclusions, and was unable to reproduce Algotransparency’s results.

«

How surprising, given that you can just look at the number of times the video has been watched, and note that it’s not available inside China.
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‘Alarming’ loss of insects and spiders recorded • BBC News

Helen Briggs:

»

Insects and spiders are declining in forests and grasslands across Germany, according to new research.

Scientists have described the findings as “alarming”, saying the losses are driven by intensive agriculture.

They are calling for a “paradigm shift” in land-use policy to preserve habitat for the likes of butterflies, bugs and flying insects.

Recent studies have reported widespread declines in insect populations around the world.

The latest analysis, published in the journal, Nature, confirms that some insect species are being pushed down the path to extinction. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the drivers of insect decline are related to farming practices, said Dr Sebastian Seibold of the Technical University of Munich in Freising, Germany.

“Our study confirms that insect decline is real – it might be even more widespread then previously thought considering, for example, that also forests are experiencing declines in insect populations,” he told BBC News.

«

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Consumers spend 4.5 hours per day on digital entertainment • Midia Research

»

The average consumer now spends an estimated 30.73 hours per week on digital entertainment. This works out to approximately 4.5 hours per day.

Allocating eight hours of work and seven hours of sleep, consumers then have about 4.5 hours per day left to do things like eat, commute, socialise, run errands, and conduct general life admin.

Watching TV/ streaming is the most prevalent activity among consumers, followed by ‘doing nothing’ and then ‘listening to music’.

With every minute of spare attention competing brands and interests are fighting for, consumers with the available spend are choosing to use it to enable their own choice and control over when and what they see, do, and listen to.

There is nowhere else to grow, engagement-wise, other than fighting for digital attention share amongst existing propositions.

«

A data point; they’re holding a conference to discuss how best to do this on November 20 in London.
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Apple Watch forced Fitbit to sell itself • Above Avalon

Neil Cybart:

»

Apple didn’t just steal customers away from Fitbit. In such a scenario, Fitbit may actually have had a chance to survive as the company could have had a means to respond competitively. Apple ended up doing something that ultimately proved far worse for Fitbit. The Apple Watch altered the fundamentals underpinning the wrist wearables industry. This left Fitbit unable to remain relevant in a rapidly-changing marketplace.

Apple placed a bet that wrist real estate was being undervalued. The Swiss had dropped the ball and were primarily selling the wrist as a place for intangibles with high-end mechanical watches. Instead of following Fitbit and selling a $99 dedicated fitness tracker, Apple looked at the wrist as being a great place for additional utility beyond just telling time or tracking one’s fitness and health. Apple turned health and fitness tracking from a business into a feature. The Apple Watch redefined utility on the wrist.

This change led to consumers wanting more from wrist wearables. Apple Watch established a stronghold at the premium end of the market. Taking a page from its product strategy playbook, Apple then methodically began to lower entry-level Apple Watch pricing, which had the impact of removing oxygen from increasingly lower price segments. Fitbit was squeezed as the company had no viable way to compete directly with Apple Watch.

«

The point about the Swiss essentially selling intangibles – “you’ll be able to pass it to your kids!” – is a good one. And turning someone’s USP into just another feature is, yes, a great way to kill them. (Dropbox has so far managed to avoid that, but it’s close.)
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Apple said to partner with Valve to make AR headset • Apple Insider

William Gallagher:

»

Citing supply chain reports, Digitimes claims that Apple has partnered with the game developer, Valve, in order to produce an Augmented Reality headset. As well as developing the headset with Steam, Apple is said to be using familiar suppliers Pegatron and Quanta Computer to assemble the device. It’s not expected to be released before the second half of 2020 at the earliest.

Valve wouldn’t be providing the VR experiences itself, but could use the Steam distribution system to distribute them. Back in 2017, Valve leveraged Apple’s macOS High Sierra’s eGPU and virtual reality support to bring a beta version of its SteamVR to the Mac.

Then for macOS Mojave, Apple worked with both Valve and HTC to support their HTC Vive Pro headset for VR.

This timescale reported by Digitimes is later than previously predicted by analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.

«

Or as 9to5 Mac calls it, “the ever-questionable Digitimes”. This sounds like supply chain noise, but – to mix metaphors – probably not smoke without some fire in there. The timing sounds about right too. The big question remains whether there’s anything compelling there. I’m not sure games quite cut it.
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Samsung is shutting down its custom CPU division • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:

»

Samsung filed a Worker Adjustment and Retraining (WARN) letter in Texas, according to The Statesman, notifying the state that 290 employees will be laid off as part of its CPU unit being shut down. The layoffs reportedly go into effect from December 31.

The Korean manufacturer confirmed the news to Android Authority, while also explaining the reasoning behind the decision.

“Based upon a thorough assessment of our System LSI [large scale integration – ed] business and the need to stay competitive in the global market, Samsung has decided to transition part of our US-based R&D teams in Austin and San Jose,” the company told us in a statement, adding that it remained committed to its US workforce.

It’s unclear what exactly this means for Samsung’s custom CPU plans for 2020 and beyond. Samsung’s Mongoose CPU cores were mostly used in its flagship Exynos processors, starting with 2016’s Exynos 8890 in the Galaxy S7. But our own testing with the Galaxy S10 series revealed that while the Exynos chipset offered better single core performance than the Snapdragon variant, the Snapdragon version beat it in most other key areas.

If Samsung is indeed abandoning its custom CPU cores for flagship phones, then it’s likely that the firm will adopt Arm CPUs or semi-custom versions of these CPUs for future devices. Huawei currently uses Arm CPUs in its flagships, while Qualcomm uses tweaked versions of these cores in its Snapdragon 800-series of high-end processors. Qualcomm in particular previously used fully custom CPU designs for several years before transitioning to a semi-custom model instead.

«

Surprising: this means that Apple and Huawei would be the only companies designing their own CPU cores rather than using the ARM basics. Samsung is doing a fair bit of retrenching lately, though. Perhaps it decided it could never get ahead of Qualcomm.

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Releasing Spleeter: Deezer Research source separation engine • Deezer

Manuel Moussallam:

»

While not a broadly known topic, the problem of source separation has interested a large community of music signal researchers for a couple of decades now. It starts from a simple observation: music recordings are usually a mix of several individual instrument tracks (lead vocal, drums, bass, piano etc..). The task of music source separation is: given a mix can we recover these separate tracks (sometimes called stems)? This has many potential applications: think remixes, upmixing, active listening, educational purposes, but also pre-processing for other tasks such as transcription.


From a Mix of many instruments, a source separation engine like Spleeter outputs a set of individual tracks or stems.

Interestingly, our brain is very good at isolating instruments. Just focus on one of the instrument of this track [the Rolling Stones’s ‘Angie’] (say the lead vocal for instance) and you will be able to hear it quite distinctively from the others. Yet that’s not really separation, you still hear all the other parts. In many cases, it may not be possible to exactly recover the individual tracks that have been mixed together. The challenge is thus to approximate them the best we can, that is to say as close as possible to the originals without creating too much distortions.

«

Open source and fast. Look forward to more remixes!
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Undercover reporter reveals life in a Polish troll farm • The Guardian

Christian Davies:

»

It is as common an occurrence on Polish Twitter as you are likely to get: a pair of conservative activists pouring scorn on the country’s divided liberal opposition.

“I burst out laughing!” writes Girl from Żoliborz, a self-described “traditionalist” commenting on a newspaper story about a former campaign adviser to Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron coming to Warsaw to address a group of liberal activists.

“The opposition has nothing to offer. That’s why they use nonsense to pull the wool over people’s eyes,” replies Magda Rostocka, whose profile tells her almost 4,400 followers she is “left-handed with her heart on the right”.

In reality, neither woman existed. Both accounts were run by the paid employees of a small marketing company based in the city of Wrocław in southwest Poland.

But what the employee pretending to be Magda Rostocka did not know is that the colleague pretending to be Girl from Żoliborz was an undercover reporter who had infiltrated the company, giving rare insight into the means by which fake social media accounts are being used by private firms to influence unsuspecting voters and consumers…

…The accounts produced both leftwing and rightwing content, attracting attention, credibility and support from other social media users, who could then be rallied in support of the company’s clients.

“The aim is to build credibility with people from both sides of the political divide. Once you have won someone’s trust by reflecting their own views back at them, you are in a position to influence them,” said Wojciech Cieśla, who oversaw the investigation in collaboration with Investigate Europe, a consortium of European investigative reporters.

“Reading these communications, you can see how the leftwing and rightwing accounts would receive their daily instructions, how they would be marshalled and directed like two flanks of the same army on a battlefield.”

«

Which sort of explains why Twitter doesn’t need to turn down political ads: they’re already there, earning it money from fake accounts run by real people which attract other ad money. But here’s a neat twist to this story: “A majority of Cat@Net’s employees are understood to be disabled, allowing the company to derive substantial public subsidies from Poland’s National Disabled Rehabilitation Fund.”
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Did Bitcoin price manipulation fuel 2017 surge? Study says yes • Bloomberg

Matthew Leising and Matt Robinson:

»

A Texas academic created a stir last year by alleging that Bitcoin’s astronomical surge in 2017 was probably triggered by manipulation. He’s now doubling down with a striking new claim: a single market whale was likely behind the misconduct, seemingly with the power to move prices at will.

One entity on the cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex appears capable of sending the price of Bitcoin higher when it falls below certain thresholds, according to University of Texas Professor John Griffin and Ohio State University’s Amin Shams. Griffin and Shams, who have updated a paper they first published in 2018, say the transactions rely on Tether, a widely used digital token that is meant to hold its value at $1.

“Our results suggest instead of thousands of investors moving the price of Bitcoin, it’s just one large one,” Griffin said in an interview. “Years from now, people will be surprised to learn investors handed over billions to people they didn’t know and who faced little oversight.”

Tether rejected the claims, with General Counsel Stuart Hoegner arguing in a statement that the paper is “foundationally flawed” because it is based on an insufficient data set. The research was probably published to back a “parasitic lawsuit,” the general counsel added…

…The authors examined Tether and Bitcoin transactions from March 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018, concluding that Bitcoin purchases on Bitfinex increased whenever Bitcoin’s value fell by certain increments. Griffin and Shams didn’t name the entity on Bitfinex that they think was responsible. They shared their updated research with Bloomberg News.

“This pattern is only present in periods following printing of Tether, driven by a single large account holder, and not observed by other exchanges,” they wrote in their new peer-reviewed paper, set to be published in a forthcoming Journal of Finance. “Simulations show that these patterns are highly unlikely to be due to chance. This one large player or entity either exhibited clairvoyant market timing or exerted an extremely large price impact on Bitcoin that is not observed in aggregate flows from other smaller traders.”

«

In other words: lots of people got really, really suckered. And those who cling to it are still being suckered due to the lack of transparency in those exchanges.
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The trillion dollar lawsuit, part one • (Two Truths and a Take) Substack

Alex Danco:

»

In terms of monetary evaporation, the accusations here are ten times the size of WeWork, and at least ten times as interesting.

In my opinion, this is the most interesting story in tech this year and nothing else comes close. 

In this and next week’s newsletter, I’m going to walk you through the accusations being made in this complaint, along with context from others in the community who’ve been paying attention, so you can understand how truly shocking this all is. It’s a complex story, so I’ve broken down the allegations into three parts. The first two we’ll talk about today, and the third next week:

Allegation #1: The 2017 Bitcoin Bubble was market manipulation, and Tether was how they did it

Allegation #2: Tether became a systemically important, money laundering conduit for the crypto ecosystem

Allegation #3: They might’ve gotten away with it, too, if they hadn’t gotten robbed while busy scamming

To be clear: everything I’m about to talk about in the next two weeks are allegations.

«

The mechanism he explains for how it works is simple, and persuasive.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,180: Amazon’s devices problem, a new CF drug?, a search in a million, the Netflix sinkhole, what does Trump see?, and more


Fitbit: no longer left on the shelf. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

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

A selection of 12 links for you. Just over a month. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A stranger’s TV went on spending spree with my Amazon account – and web giant did nothing about it for months • The Register

Shaun Nichols:

»

A fraudster exploited a bizarre weakness in Amazon’s handling of customer devices to hijack a netizen’s account and go on multiple spending sprees with their bank cards, we’re told.

If you have weird fraudulent activity on your Amazon account, this may be why.

In short, it is possible to add a non-Amazon device to your Amazon customer account and it won’t show up in the list of gadgets associated with the profile. This device can quietly use the account even if the password is changed, or two-factor authentication is enabled.

Thus if someone can get into your account, and add their own gizmo to your profile, they can potentially persistently retain this access and continue ordering stuff using your payment cards, even if you seemingly remove all devices from your account, and change your login credentials.

Redditor fidelisoris this week shared their experience of this security hole, and how it appeared to be exploited by a crook to buy gift cards using their account’s payment information. The Reg got in touch with the netizen and Amazon to dig into the fraud.

Rewind a few months, and our protagonist discovered unauthorized purchases on their account. They swiftly protected the profile: removed computers and other devices from the account, changed passwords, refreshed the multi-factor login, and so on. They also got the charges on their card reversed.

“I immediately did what any professional IT/IS guy does: I began the lockdown. All associated devices get removed from the account,” fidelisoris, who asked us to use their internet handle, recounted.

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Didn’t help. It’s quite scary.
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Million Short – What haven’t you found in search?

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Million Short started out as an experimental web search engine that allows you to filter and refine your search results set. The thinking was that web searches yield the same popular sites. Million Short makes it easy to discover sites that just don’t make it to the top of the search engine results for whatever reason – whether it be poor SEO, new site, small marketing budget, or competitive keywords. The Million Short technology gives users access to the wealth of untapped information on the web.

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The tour page gives a bit more detail – you can include or exclude sites based on their popularity, on being in e-commerce, whether they have paid ads, and so on. Could be good for some deep research, or finding serendipitous content.
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Cystic fibrosis drug could make disease a manageable condition • Irish Times

Paul Cullen:

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The drug, Trikafta, significantly improves lung function in most patients with the disease, according to newly published clinical studies. As a result, cystic fibrosis (CF) could change from a disease that can be life-threatening to a manageable condition for patients who can be treated with this therapy.

Last week the US Food and Drug Administration approved Trikafta for 90% of CF patients who have the most common gene mutation and are 12 or older. The manufacturer, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, has now submitted a marketing authorisation application to the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

“These findings indicate that it may soon be possible to offer safe and effective molecularly targeted therapies to 90% of persons with cystic fibrosis,” said the director of the US National Institutes of Health, Dr Francis Collins, who led the team that identified the gene that causes the disease in 1989.

“This should be a cause for major celebration,” he wrote in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr Collins described the improvement in lung function of patients treated with the triple-combination therapy in the Vertex-funded trial as “striking”.

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CF has been the disease that’s always just out of reach of gene therapy trials and treatments. If this sorts it out, that’s a huge breakthough.

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WhatsApp confirms Israeli spyware was used to snoop on Indian journalists, activists • India News, The Indian Express

Seema Chishti:

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Facebook-owned platform WhatsApp, in a startling revelation, has said journalists and human rights activists in India have been targets of surveillance by operators using Israeli spyware Pegasus.

The disclosure follows a lawsuit filed Tuesday in a US federal court in San Francisco in which WhatsApp alleged that the Israeli NSO Group targeted some 1,400 WhatsApp users with Pegasus.
While WhatsApp declined to reveal the identities and “exact number” of those targeted for surveillance in India, its spokesperson told The Indian Express that WhatsApp was aware of those targeted and had contacted each one of them.

“Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

It is learnt that at least two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists and journalists in India were contacted and alerted by WhatsApp that their phones had been under state-of-the-art surveillance for a two-week period until May 2019.

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More fun: the Indian government said it wasn’t told about this; WhatsApp pointed out that it had been, twice – in May and September – at which the government said it was too vague.

One gets a strange feeling the Indian government isn’t entirely shocked by the news.
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The real reason Facebook won’t fact-check political ads • The New York Times

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia:

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Might Facebook ban political ads altogether, like Twitter has? Mr. Zuckerberg could concede that it’s not an easy task. What’s not political? If an ad calling for a carbon tax is political, is an ad promoting the reputation of an oil company political? In an effort to provide transparency to political ads in the United States, Facebook has already shown how bad it is at distinguishing between political accounts and apolitical accounts, often mislabeling news outlets, think tanks and university departments as political entities. Those are the false positives we know of. We have no idea how many false negatives Facebook has let slip through.

Twitter, as the communication scholars Shannon McGregor, Daniel Kreiss and Bridget Barret have shown, is also bad at segregating the political from the apolitical. They found Twitter ads funded by foreign governments were not included in Twitter’s political ad archive. So there is a good chance that Twitter will fail at its declared task.

Facebook could also defend political ads by conceding that it must continue the practice to maintain its status and markets. Besides Mr. Trump, who spent $70m on Facebook ads in 2016 (far more than his main rival, Hillary Clinton), the pro-Brexit Conservative Party in Britain, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in India, President Jair Bolsonaro’s party in Brazil and President Rodrigo Duterte’s party in the Philippines all relied on Facebook and Facebook-owned WhatsApp to achieve and maintain power. All of those countries are major Facebook markets, and they all could threaten Facebook with regulatory backlash if the company disappointed their leaders.

Over all, Facebook has no incentive to stop carrying political ads. Its revenue keeps growing despite a flurry of scandals and mistakes. So its leaders would lose little by being straight with the public about its limitations and motives. But they won’t. They will continue to defend their practices in disingenuous ways until we force them to change their ways…

…The key is to limit data collection and the use of personal data to ferry ads and other content to discrete segments of Facebook users — the very core of the Facebook business model.

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Enjoy Netflix while it lasts. It can’t keep going like this forever • The Washington Post

Sonny Bunch:

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Unprofitable businesses are currently offering up great deals to urbanites who otherwise would be unable to afford their fancy city-living in large part because of losses incurred as the cost of buying up market share.

“If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year,” [Derek] Thompson wrote of the “Millennial Lifestyle Sponsorship” [in The Atlantic this month]. “If you use Lime scooters to bop around the city, download Wag to walk your dog, and sign up for Blue Apron to make a meal, that’s three more brands that have never recorded a dime in earnings, or have seen their valuations fall by more than 50 percent.”

He doesn’t mention it, but there’s another key player in the MLS field: Netflix. As Richard Rushfield has noted in his excellent newsletter on Hollywood business, The Ankler, Netflix is in a tricky position. The vast majority of Netflix’s viewers (upwards of 80%, according to him) watch licensed content (“Friends” and the like) and in order to create a library of programming audiences will pay for, they’ve gone massively in debt: “Netflix is currently in the hole for about $20 billion in debt and obligations and still operating at a loss.”

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This certainly seems on the face of it as though billionaires (or billionaires’ funds) are subsidising peoples’ lifestyles, which would be welcome. But it obscures that the aim is to push out of business the nominally profitable companies which employ people on a sustainable (one hopes) basis, rather than by throwing money into a furnace, and thus leave the billionaires (‘s funds) free to raise prices much higher to recoup their losses. Would Schumpeter think it was just right, or would he think it was just pedalling in place?
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Google’s new anti-smartphone apps, ranked • Gizmodo

David Nield:

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We know that we’re all spending too much time glued to our phones, rather than looking at the person we’re talking to, the movie we’re watching, the sunset we’re missing, or the children we’re ignoring, and Google and Apple know it too. Google has pushed out six ‘experimental’ apps to try and curb our collective smartphone addiction—and here’s what we think of them.

1) Paper Phone
Paper Phone is a fantastic idea and the experimental app we enjoyed using the most. It challenges you to print out a customized ‘paper phone’ every day, and leave your actual phone at home—it sounds a little weird, but it actually works.

Your paper phone can include your tasks for the day, a weather report, items from your calendar, and even directions to a particular place. Google has thrown in some fun extras too, like puzzles and origami instructions you can use to fold up your paper phone when the day is over. We were actually amazed at how useful the paper phone idea was.

Sure, it’s not really practical or environmentally friendly—we’re not going to go to the effort of printing out a new paper phone every day, and on top of that, the app has a couple of annoying bugs. But it’s an intriguing and diverting experiment, and if you only try one of these experimental apps, we’d encourage you to try this one.

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Riiight. Google has invented the diary, the newspaper and the Rolodex. *golf clap* (Thanks stormyparis for the link.)
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How Trump reshaped the presidency in over 11,000 tweets • The New York Times

Michael Shear, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Confessore, Karen Yourish, Larry Buchanan and Keith Collins:

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It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty how many of Mr. Trump’s more than 66 million followers are fake. Some studies of his followers have estimated that a high proportion are likely to be automated bots, fake accounts or inactive. But even a conservative analysis by The Times found that nearly a third of them, about 22 million, included no biographical information and used the service’s default profile image — two signs the accounts may be rarely used or inactive. Fourteen% have automatically generated user names, another indication that an account may not belong to a real person.

Even if Mr. Trump is not shouting into the void on Twitter, he is often preaching to the converted. Data from Stirista, an analytics firm, shows that his followers tend to be the kind of users who are most likely to be his supporters — disproportionately older, white and male compared with Twitter users over all.

And they constitute just a fraction of the electorate. According to the Times analysis of Pew data, only about four% of American adults, or about 11 million people, follow him on Twitter. Those followers represent less that one-fifth of his total, the analysis shows.

According to data from YouGov, which polls about most of the president’s tweets, some of the topics on which Mr. Trump got the most likes and retweets — jabs at the N.F.L., posts about the special counsel’s investigation, unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud — poll poorly with the general public.

But people close to Mr. Trump said there was no dissuading him that the “likes” a tweet got were evidence that a decision or policy proposal was well received.

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Gosh, a narcissist wouldn’t believe that a metric that seems to show applause wasn’t real? Shocked, I tell you, shocked. (Data point: 2,026 praising himself – more than praising anyone else.) The only real thing this tells us is that Twitter has whiffed on the chance to take a stand, because advertising dollars are far more important than having a platform that isn’t used as the biggest bully pulpit in the world. There is another fun element in this story, about Trump’s vanity over his failing eyesight, but that was originally done elsewhere…
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August 2019: what if Donald Trump is just blind? • Slate

Ashley Feinberg:

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The question of Trump’s ocular health isn’t an entirely new one. In July of 2016, an ophthalmologist told Vice that Trump’s constant squinting could be him “trying to compensate for some blurry vision,” or, perhaps, chronic dry eye. And as someone who’s been told I can never wear contacts due to insufficiently productive tear ducts, I sympathize with both.

Based on the available evidence, and by Donald Trump’s own admission, it’s safe to assume that, like me, our president also walks around in a world made almost entirely of blurs and soft-edged shapes. And in fact, it would explain quite a lot.

Consider the teleprompter question again. Here’s Barack Obama’s prompter from 2009:

A teleprompter used by Barack Obama shows thinner, slightly smaller text than that used by Donald Trump. Paul J. Richards/Getty Images

And here’s Trump’s:

A teleprompter shows the speech being delivered by Trump during the swearing-in ceremony of Brett Kavanaugh. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The screen itself is significantly larger, and the font appears to be a few notches bigger, too. It’s the sort of adjustment a White House might make for a president with poor eyesight. But if that president also refuses to wear corrective lenses, there’s only so much a teleprompter can do…

…This, too, would explain Trump’s aggressively large signature. And his insistence that all information fed to him include as many pictures and as few words as humanly possible. It also might explain one of the most chilling lines ever published about Melania Trump:

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According to a pool report, President Trump responded by pointing to a window in the White House residence, and said: “She’s doing great. She’s looking at us right there.”

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Reporters turned to look at the spot he indicated, but there was no sign of the first lady.

Sure, it wouldn’t be out of character for the president to tell a brazen, immediately disprovable lie. But when your family only exists to you as a series of vague, oval-like shapes in varying shades of beige, anything could be Melania. Even an empty window.

If you spent your days unable to see, constantly unsure of what you were doing and to whom you were speaking, wouldn’t you be agitated too? Wouldn’t you also probably resent being asked about details? And wouldn’t all of this result in a general state of surliness and short-temperedness?

There’s no question that our president’s brain is broken, and that his mental acuity isn’t anywhere near what it once was. But perhaps it all isn’t quite as bad as we thought. Perhaps Donald Trump just needs to wear his goddamn glasses.

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Labour calls for halt to Google’s acquisition of Fitbit • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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The Labour Party has written to the UK competition regulator calling for Google’s reported acquisition of Fitbit to be halted, at least until a wider inquiry into anticompetitive practices in the technology sector is completed.

Google made an offer to purchase the fitness tracking company on Monday for an undisclosed price, according to Reuters.

Tom Watson, the shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, has written to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to request it halt the acquisition pending a full investigation of its effect on the competitive landscape.

“I have long been concerned about the data monopolies that dominate our tech market, including Google,” Watson writes. “These companies hold and gather an unprecedented amount of data on users which is then monetised through micro-targeting and advertising to amass huge profits and power. Meanwhile, the digital giants themselves remain unaccountable, unregulated, and see themselves as above the law. They have run rings around regulation for far too long.

“This is not just a business deal, it’s a data grab – and that should worry us all. Any such proposal must be subjected to the most rigorous possible scrutiny and must be fully investigated by the CMA.”

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Not sure whether the UK, post-Brexit, objecting to the merger would make any difference – what happens? Do the companies have to remain separate in a territory that objects? – but it gives Labour a slight lever of difference as the general election plays out.
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Facebook held talks to buy Fitbit before Google struck deal • The Information

Alex Heath says Facebook offered about $1bn for Fitbit, which to me implies the talks took place in the summer when Fitbit’s share price made its market value about that – ie below $3 (it’s over twice that now):

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Facebook’s growing investments in hardware are driven by CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to own the next computing platform after smartphones eventually become less relevant, people familiar with his thinking have told The Information. Inside Facebook, Fitbit’s team would have reported to Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s executive leading its hardware efforts.

Facebook recently announced that it had acquired CTRL-labs, a startup developing technology that can interpret human brain signals through an armband, in a deal that people familiar with the matter said was worth roughly $750m. Facebook first signaled its interest in hardware with its 2012 purchase of Oculus, the virtual reality headset-maker, for roughly $2bn. 

Since the Oculus purchase, Facebook has also begun making a line of video calling devices for the home called Portal. And the company is currently developing more far-flung augmented reality glasses that will be capable of overlaying virtual objects into the physical world. In addition, Facebook recently struck a deal with the eyewear firm Luxottica to develop camera-equipped glasses with Rayban that will function similarly to Snapchat’s Spectacles glasses

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Pixel Watch or not, Fitbit can’t save Google’s failing Wear OS • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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hardware is what Google is after: the company has gone on the record stating its acquisition of Fitbit is about future Wear OS devices, meaning you can probably kiss Fitbit’s unloved smartwatch OS goodbye.

So, that means we can count on Google leveraging Fitbit’s renowned hardware to finally give Wear OS the horsepower and capabilities it needs to compete with Apple, right? Well, no. Fitbit’s smartwatches have been most lauded for their long battery life, battery life which has historically been enabled by extremely slow but highly power-efficient processors. The latest Versa 2 allegedly has brought significant performance improvements, but as a smartwatch, it just isn’t very… smart.

As Michael Fisher points out in his review, the Versa 2’s near week-long life on a single charge is only impressive when context is removed from that number. The Versa 2 doesn’t have GPS, the battery only lasts that long when not using the always-on display (with AoD, it’s closer to 3 days), the watch itself doesn’t work for almost anything but fitness tracking on its own, and most of your interactions with it end up happening on your smartphone anyway. And I can tell you from experience that the Apple Watch Series 5 lasts about two days on a charge with always-on display enabled (and Samsung’s watches last even longer), so Fitbit managing a day more isn’t exactly a game-changing technology.

In short, Fitbit’s products are not ones Google should be excited about buying.

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In the immortal words of Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story 2, confronted with crossing a road teeming with traffic: “oh well, we tried.”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,179: politics v Twitter v Facebook, California’s next century, Rudy Guiliani – too cybersecure!, the WhatsApp hack, and more


“Exclusive detached property, close to park and amenities.” What if your AirBnB rental turns out to be a scam? CC-licensed photo by Carl Campbell on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Soviet-style, including the gulags. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I accidentally uncovered a nationwide scam on Airbnb • VICE

Allie Conti:

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The call came about 10 minutes before we were set to check into the Airbnb. I was sitting at a brewery just around the corner from the rental on North Wood Street in Chicago when the man on the other end of the line said that our planned visit wouldn’t be possible. A previous guest had flushed something down the toilet, which had left the unit flooded with water, he explained. Apologetic, he promised to let us stay in another property he managed until he could call a plumber.

I had flown with two friends to the city in hopes of a relaxing end-of-summer getaway. We had purchased tickets to attend the September music festival Riot Fest, where Blink-182 and Taking Back Sunday were scheduled to perform. The trip had gotten off to a rough start even before the call. Around a month before, a first Airbnb host had already canceled, leaving us with little time to figure out alternative housing. While scrambling to find something else, I stumbled upon a local Airbnb rental listed by a couple, Becky and Andrew. Sure, the house looked a little basic in the photos online, but it was nice enough, especially considering the time crunch—light-filled, spacious, and close to the Blue Line.

Now, we were facing our second potential disaster in 30 days, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly suspicious of the man on the phone, who had called me from a number with a Los Angeles area code. Hoping to talk in person, I asked him if he was in the area. He said that he was at work and didn’t really have time to chat. Then he added that I needed to decide immediately if I was willing to change my reservation.

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It’s just that tiny detail – demanding that you act immediately – which is the clue that it’s a scam. And AirBnB doesn’t know who to believe, of course, but it has fewer people looking for lodging than it does people offering lodgings, so it’s probably going to side with the lodging owners.

Meet the new boss…
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Unpopular decisions • BuzzMachine

Jeff Jarvis:

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Mark Zuckerberg has said definitively that Facebook will not fact-check political ads. That, I agree with, but not for the reason you might assume. Truth is the wrong standard. If truth were so easy then we wouldn’t need countless journalists to find it. No one will trust Facebook to decide truth. But I do think that Facebook should set and uphold standards of dignity, decency, and responsibility in the public conversation and hold everyone — politicians and citizens, users and advertisers — accountable. If Facebook wants to leave up noxious speech by pols so we can see and judge it, OK, but it should add a disclaimer disapproving of the behavior. (Twitter has said that will be its policy, but I’ve yet to see it in action.) If a politician uses a racial slur in political ad — say, calling Mexicans rapists and murderers — Facebook must condemn that behavior, or its Oversight Board likely will. If Facebook accepts such words without comment or caveat, then it must be presumed to condone them. I’d find that unacceptable.

In the end, both Facebook and Twitter — and let’s throw Google and all the other platforms in now — refuse to make judgments. They cannot get away with that anymore. They are hosts to conversation and communities. They have an impact on that conversation and thus on democracies and nations. They are private companies. They are going to have to make judgments according to public principles, no matter how allergic they are to that idea.

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I like Jeff, but I think he’s unaware of how hand-flapping this stuff actually is in the face of people who are very determined to do what they want. He’d find it “unacceptable” if Dan Scavino or Dominic Cummings were to buy ads which used racial slurs? Oh mercy me. But what would you DO about it? What would that CHANGE? It’s the same pusillanimous approach that bedevils almost all of American media: an unwillingness to prevent, and to let harms happen first, and then tut afterwards. That lets bad actors act, and get away with things that should be stopped first.
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It’s the end of California as we know it • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo:

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lately my affinity for my home state has soured. Maybe it’s the smoke and the blackouts, but a very un-Californian nihilism has been creeping into my thinking. I’m starting to suspect we’re over. It’s the end of California as we know it. I don’t feel fine.

It isn’t just the fires — although, my God, the fires. Is this what life in America’s most populous, most prosperous state is going to be like from now on? Every year, hundreds of thousands evacuating, millions losing power, hundreds losing property and lives? Last year, the air near where I live in Northern California — within driving distance of some of the largest and most powerful and advanced corporations in the history of the world — was more hazardous than the air in Beijing and New Delhi. There’s a good chance that will happen again this month, and that it will keep happening every year from now on. Is this really the best America can do?

Probably, because it’s only going to get worse. The fires and the blackouts aren’t like the earthquakes, a natural threat we’ve all chosen to ignore. They are more like California’s other problems, like housing affordability and homelessness and traffic — human-made catastrophes we’ve all chosen to ignore, connected to the larger dysfunction at the heart of our state’s rot: a failure to live sustainably.

Now choking under the smoke of a changing climate, California feels stuck. We are BlackBerry after the iPhone, Blockbuster after Netflix: We’ve got the wrong design, we bet on the wrong technologies, we’ve got the wrong incentives, and we’re saddled with the wrong culture. The founding idea of this place is infinitude — mile after endless mile of cute houses connected by freeways and uninsulated power lines stretching out far into the forested hills. Our whole way of life is built on a series of myths — the myth of endless space, endless fuel, endless water, endless optimism, endless outward reach and endless free parking.

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This is a terrific piece: a recognition that what has worked for the past 100 years isn’t going to work for the next. There’s a response from Alissa Walker, essentially saying “but muh climate action!”. But I think she misses, and Manjoo hits, the point.
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Obama on call-out culture: ‘that’s not activism’ • The New York Times

Emily Rueb and Derrick Taylor:

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“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Mr. Obama said [during an hour-long interview about youth activism]. “You should get over that quickly.”

“The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he continued. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

Mr. Obama spoke repeatedly of the role of social media in activism specifically, including the idea of what’s become known as “cancel culture,” which is much remarked upon, but still nebulously defined. It tends to refer to behavior that mostly plays out on the internet when someone has said or done something to which others object. That person is then condemned in a flurry of social media posts. Such people are often referred to as “canceled,” a way of saying that many others (and perhaps the places at which they work) are fed up with them and will have no more to do with them.

Mr. Obama talked about conversations he’s had with his daughter Malia, who is a student at Harvard with Ms. Shahidi.

“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’” he said, “and that’s enough.”

“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb,” he said, “then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”

Then he pretended to sit back and press the remote to turn on a television.

“That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

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In the same way, breaking news: changing your Twitter avatar to include [topic of current concern] has zero effect.
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Black Salve is a dangerous fake cancer cure, but Facebook Groups allow it to flourish • Buzzfeed News

Katie Notopoulos:

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Even as Facebook has cracked down on anti-vaxxers and peddlers of snake oil cure-alls, a particularly grotesque form of fake cancer treatment has flourished in private groups on Facebook. Black salve, a caustic black paste that eats through flesh, is enthusiastically recommended in dedicated groups as a cure for skin and breast cancer — and for other types of cancer when ingested in pill form. There’s even a group dedicated to applying the paste to pets.

A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that these groups don’t violate its community guidelines. This summer, it launched an initiative to address “exaggerated or sensational health claims” and will downrank that content in the News Feed, similar to how it handles clickbait. But it’s not clear how it defines what a “sensational” health claim is. Citing user privacy, Facebook would not say whether or not it had downranked the black salve groups in the News Feed.

Other platforms have taken a different approach. When BuzzFeed News asked YouTube about several videos where people discussed using black salve, YouTube said the videos were in violation and removed them. Amazon, which does not sell the salve itself, removed a book about black salve when BuzzFeed News asked about it.

Doctors and medical literature are clear that black salve is not a safe or effective cure for cancer. The FDA does not allow the sale of the product in the US. But tech platforms are not in sync about how to handle it. And in the meantime, people are getting disfigured or dying.

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On the plus side, the tech companies can say they’re not colluding.
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Rudy Giuliani needed Apple genius help to unlock his iPhone after being named Trump cybersecurity adviser • NBC News

Rich Schapiro:

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Less than a month after he was named President Donald Trump’s cybersecurity adviser in 2017, Rudy Giuliani walked into an Apple store in downtown San Francisco.

He wasn’t looking for a new gadget. Giuliani was looking for help.

He was locked out of his iPhone because he had forgotten the passcode and entered the wrong one at least 10 times, according to two people familiar with the matter and a photo of an internal Apple store memo obtained by NBC News.

“Very sloppy,” said one of the people, a former Apple store employee who was there on the day that Giuliani stopped by in February 2017.

“Trump had just named him as an informal adviser on cybersecurity and here, he couldn’t even master the fundamentals of securing your own device.”

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That “entered the wrong passcode 10 times” detail is strange. Usually when that’s turned on, the phone wipes – but it takes ages to enter it wrong that many times, because the pause in between entry attempts gets longer and longer. Which implies that he didn’t have “wipe after 10 failed attempts” turned on. Quite the cyber czar. And phone czar – he has repeatedly butt-dialled Schapiro and accidentally left voicemails about financial topics.

Though as Farhad Manjoo (him again!) points out, it’s a bad security failing by Apple that a customer of any sort had personal details leaked. In Europe, it would face a big GDPR fine. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Why ‘Medicare for All’ could both raise taxes and lower costs • The New York Times

Margot Sanger-Katz and Josh Katz:

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The charts above compare two leading sets of health care proposals advocated by Democrats running for president. The first, a “public option” plan, is similar to proposals from Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and other candidates. It would allow most Americans to buy insurance from the government and make other changes that would enable fewer people to go without coverage, but it would preserve much of the existing health insurance system.

The second, a “Medicare for all” plan introduced by Bernie Sanders and endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, would replace most Americans’ current health insurance with a generous government-run plan that covers more benefits. (Kamala Harris wants to replace the existing system with a mix of new public and private options, but there are not yet rigorous cost estimates for such a plan.)

When critics say that a single-payer system will be expensive, they are usually talking about the increase in federal spending — the size of the red box above. When Medicare for all enthusiasts say it would not increase spending much, they are talking about the size of the entire chart.

[Interactive: the size of the entire chart doesn’t change, no matter which option you go for.]

That’s why it could be true both that Medicare for all would require substantial tax increases and that it would leave many or most American families better off financially.

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I’m constantly amazed that Americans can’t grasp this. If the government pays for your health care, then you cut out the insurance companies and all the other middlemen who are happily taking a profit. Presently it’s a “distorted market that involves larger transfers from taxpayers to insurers”, to quote the White House in 2018. Health insurance companies made $47bn of profit on $545bn of revenues in just the second quarter of 2018. They benefit from people not getting the best service, or from maximising their charges. That’s not aligned with what people, or government, wants.
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Exclusive: WhatsApp hacked to spy on top government officials at US allies • Reuters

Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter:

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Senior government officials in multiple US-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook’s WhatsApp to take over users’ phones, according to people familiar with the messaging company’s investigation.

Sources familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation into the breach said a “significant” portion of the known victims are high-profile government and military officials spread across at least 20 countries on five continents.

The hacking of a wider group of top government officials’ smartphones than previously reported suggests the WhatsApp cyber intrusion could have broad political and diplomatic consequences.

WhatsApp filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Israeli hacking tool developer NSO Group. The Facebook-owned software giant alleges that NSO Group built and sold a hacking platform that exploited a flaw in WhatsApp-owned servers to help clients hack into the cellphones of at least 1,400 users…

…Some victims are in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan and India, said people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether victims from these countries included government officials.

«

Principal suspects of doing the hacking: China, Russia, Israel. The US might have, but hasn’t had much motive lately.
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Editorial: Apple isn’t revamping its HomeKit team, but maybe it should • Apple Insider

William Gallagher disputes Bloomberg’s report that Apple is “revamping” its HomeKit team:

»

Bloomberg is right that HomeKit devices lag far behind Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home ones. We might wish that both of those companies were more privacy and security conscious as Apple is, but if you pick up a smart device, it’s certainly going to work with them.

And whatever the smart device is that you want, there will be an Amazon and a Google one, there may well not be an Apple HomeKit one. That’s particularly true internationally, but even within the US, your range of products is quite limited.

Apple has made a move that could be designed to help this. It’s announced HomeKit Secure Video as part of iOS 13, which will store your security footage on Apple’s servers. That will unquestionably make HomeKit cameras more appealing to buyers because it will doubtlessly be convenient, plus it’s easier to trust Apple with your footage than it is an unknown third-party.

Yet although firms such as Logitech have said that they will support HomeKit Secure Video, it’s not likely to see a rush of vendors. That’s because home security firms don’t just rely on selling you a camera, they need you to buy services such as footage storage and retrieval.

If Apple made a camera, you’d call HomeKit Security Video a killer feature, especially as a certain amount of the storage will be free if you already pay for extra iCloud storage.

What it needs is HomeKit evangelism, like how it sold Macs back in the day.

Where Apple could make a killer feature that made HomeKit more appealing and yet didn’t drive away other vendors, is in its existing products.

The Apple TV and HomePod, for instance, are already able to act as a HomeKit hub in your house. It’s there, it’s plugged in, it’s working with HomeKit. What would it take for Apple to embed a mesh Wi-Fi system into that same hardware.

«

Either Apple has some 3D-chess strategy here, or it’s got nothing. But it’s making it impossible to tell which. Soon though it won’t be able to catch up; people will have plumped for one of the rival ecosystems. (Thanks Clive H for the link.)
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Google Pixel 4 XL review: not quite ready for primetime • The Guardian

Samuel Gibbs:

»

for every feature that’s good, there’s a problem that needs fixing. The screen’s great, but not always at 90Hz and not always bright enough, and the battery life just isn’t long enough for a top-end phone in 2019.

The fact that the new Assistant doesn’t work when you have a G Suite account on your phone – a product made and sold to companies by Google – is frankly embarrassing. As is the oversight that some may want to make sure they’re actually looking at their phone with their eyes before it unlocks – Apple knew this and has had it in Face ID for three years.

The biggest issue for me, however, is that the Android app ecosystem just isn’t ready for a phone that has dumped the fingerprint sensor. Face Unlock is genuinely great. A transformational leap just as Face ID was three years ago on the iPhone X, but only when it works. And it doesn’t work in my banking apps, my security apps or Evernote. Only one app I routinely use a fingerprint with supports Face Unlock.

That situation will change once all the apps have been updated, but I’m not holding my breath for the very slow-moving banks to support Face Unlock any time soon, and that’s a real problem.

The Pixel 4 XL is therefore a very hard phone to grade. Once Google fixes the problems and apps have been updated, the only thing really holding the phone back is below-average battery life. If that’s something you can live with, and you trust Google to fix things, then by all means buy the Pixel 4 XL.

«

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Huawei Mate 30 set to be launched in Europe in mid-November • Techgarage

Pascal Landolt:

»

According to our own well-informed sources based in China, Huawei seems to be gearing up to launch the Mate 30 and Mate 30 pro in Europe starting mid-November, possibly on November 15th.

A complete list of included countries hasn’t been released yet but according to our contact we can expect “the usual suspects” – meaning countries often involved in the first wave of Huawei launches. Which would mean that the Mate 30 Series will launch mid-November in the following countries: Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain and Switzerland.

Could it even be possible that Huawei‘s own foldable phone, the Mate X, might be launched around the same time? Both models are already available in China’s domestic market and the Mate X especially is overdue in Europe by now, especially seeing that competitor Samsung has already launched its foldable Galaxy Fold a few weeks ago on the old continent.

What else do we know about the Mate 30 Series from Huawei? For one, it is confirmed that the devices will be shipping with Android 10 as OS and a preloaded HMS (Huawei Mobile Services) Suite instead of the more traditional GMS (Google Mobile Services). Which means you’re not getting Google Maps, the Chrome Browser or other Google Apps straight out of the box.

«

Can’t see how this will possibly be anything other than a huge burden for any carrier that sells it because of the customer support (“no, there isn’t Google Maps..”). And it’s not cheap – €799 to €1,199.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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

Start Up No.1,178: inside the gangster smartphone company, the new digital divide, political ad meltdown, Prime ad slapped, and more


Even the threat of being eaten won’t make Twitter un-ban this ad. CC-licensed photo by runran on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Happy un-Brexit day (again). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Inside the phone company secretly run by drug traffickers • VICE

Joseph Cox:

»

Hughes and Kok spent the evening in Boccacio, a sex club on the outskirts of Amsterdam. After their session, and as the puffer-jacket wearing Kok stepped into a Volkswagen Polo, a hooded figure jumped from the dense shrubbery around the parking lot and fired into the Polo, killing Kok. Hughes walked away from the scene, according to CCTV footage previously published by the Dutch police.

MPC, it turned out, was not an ordinary phone company.

All over the world, in Dutch clubs like the one Kok frequented, or Australian biker hangouts and Mexican drug safe houses, there is an underground trade of custom-engineered phones. These phones typically run software for sending encrypted emails or messages, and use their own server infrastructure for routing communications.

Sometimes the devices have the microphone, camera, and GPS functionality removed. Some also have a dual-boot mode, where powering on the device as normal will show an innocuous menu screen with no sensitive information. But if certain buttons are held down when turning the phone on, it will reveal a secret file system containing the user’s encrypted text messages and other communications.

With these tweaks, the ordinary methods for law enforcement to intercept messages are cut off—police can’t simply get an ordinary phone tap or subpoena messages from a company; the texts are typically only available in a readable form on the users’ devices.

A handful of these so-called “encrypted phone” companies exist. Many of them cater and sell to criminals. As Kok, the murdered blogger, wrote on his website in 2015, “I see on various crime sites these things [encrypted phones] are offered for sale because many of their future clients are also criminals. Advertising on a site where bicycles are offered does not make sense for this type of company.”

«

Hell of a story.
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Apple working on new HomeKit devices after HomePod, Apple TV • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

Apple Inc. is ramping up hiring for a team that is working on new smart-home software and devices in an effort to catch up in a field where Google and Amazon.com Inc. have dominated, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The company is seeking engineers to work in its Cupertino, California, headquarters and in San Diego as part of a group revamping Apple’s smart-home platform. The overhaul is designed to spur more outside accessory and appliance makers to connect smart-home products such as lights and garage doors with the iPhone and Apple’s voice-activated digital assistant, Siri. The team also is exploring the possibility of building new home devices beyond the HomePod speaker.

The effort is headed by Andreas Gal, the former Mozilla chief technology officer who joined Apple last year when his company Silk Labs was acquired by the iPhone maker. Gal is leading the software side of the team reporting to Arun Mathias, a lieutenant to software chief Craig Federighi, who oversees wireless software engineering. Silk Labs developed an artificial intelligence-based platform for linking together internet-connected devices.

Apple has posted 15 job listings on its website since last month for engineers to work on the company’s platform, called HomeKit, smart-home devices and related software…

«

They could always do routers. They used to be pretty good at that. Apple’s problem in the home is that unlike every other product category, it can’t decide which product(s) to focus on, nor which is the key. Is it the Apple TV? (But who really uses that for home control?) HomePod? (Too low a penetration.) Should they make their own? (Why not?)
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The failure of advertising is creating a greater digital divide • ZDNet

Tom Foremski:

»

Traditionally, more eyeballs mean more advertising revenues, and media companies have been getting larger and larger audiences. But there’s something wrong; their advertising revenues continue to fall. It’s because their audience is too slow to outpace the deflationary effects of the internet. 

Whenever something is abundant it has a lower value. The web created a huge abundance of formerly limited resources: Pages and places to advertise. A low-cost web page now competes for the same advertisers as a page on a news site that employees hundreds of professionals. 

It’s called programmatic advertising, and it is problematic for the traditional media industry because it means its investments in high-quality media are not rewarded. 

This deflationary advertising trend affects everyone including Google. The more Google expands its reach and its audience – the less revenue it gets from each click. 

Every financial quarter for more than a decade, Google reports around 15 to 20% less revenue per click (cost-per-click) from the prior year. Every quarter, year after year, it makes less money per click. 

Google has been able to outrun this steep deflation in its advertising business because it manages to grow its paid clicks two to three times faster than what it loses per click.

It’s not realistic or sustainable for traditional media to grow at such rates. It’s not sustainable for Google either. How many more ads can it find places to show especially on tiny mobile screens?

«

Google’s search results now are essentially a slew of ads on many topics, especially on mobile; I long ago gave up on it, and I’m horrified by what it has become every time I go back.

Foremski argues that media outlets, which can’t do the same, are being driven to subscription solutions because ad revenue cannot cover the costs of quality journalism. Which means you shut out people who can’t pay for it. A different digital divide.
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Key election safeguards won’t be ready for December poll • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe:

»

Six months after announcing a range of new measures to “safeguard elections” and “crack down on intimidation, influence and disinformation”, the government has failed to introduce any protections.

“Hostile states, foreign lobbyists, and shadowy third parties” could jeopardise the integrity of any election or referendum in the UK, according to the government statement when these safeguards were announced.

But a cabinet office spokesperson confirmed to Sky News that despite this risk, the safeguards will not be in place for the general election in December.

At the time the safeguards were announced the government said it would introduce new laws making it an offence to intimidate candidates or campaigners during the period before an election, both in person and online.

It was also set to clarify the offence of “undue influence of a voter” which has proved difficult for enforcement agencies to interpret, and it would have extended real-world laws about election material to material published online.

Currently, any candidate, political party or non-party campaigner is required to have an imprint on any of their printed election material to show that they have produced it.

A digital imprint regime would have introduced a similar requirement for Facebook, YouTube and similar social media platforms used by campaigners.

«

Of course the excuse is going to be that they were busy with Brexit. Except governments can do more than one thing at a time, if they’re competent.
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Twitter to ban all political ads in 2020 amid election uproar • The Washington Post

Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker:

»

Twitter on Wednesday said it would ban all advertisements about political candidates, elections and hot-button policy issues such as abortion and immigration, a significant shift that comes in response to growing concerns that politicians are seizing on the vast reach of social media to deceive voters ahead of the 2020 election.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced the move in a series of tweets, stressing that paying for political speech has the effect of “forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people.” The ban marks a break with Twitter’s social-media peers, Facebook and Google-owned YouTube, which have defended their policies around political ads in recent weeks.

“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” Dorsey said.

Twitter’s announcement covers ads intended to influence elections including ballot measures, as well as those that address “issues of national importance.” The new rules will be applied globally, published by mid-November and take effect later in the month, Dorsey said.

But the change drew a mixed reception, with some critics highlighting that it would not affect what users can tweet and share on their own. Teddy Goff, who served as President Obama’s digital director in 2012 and as senior adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2016, said any update by Twitter that does not address the “organic and algorithmic spread of hate speech and discrimination and dishonesty” is insufficient.

«

Bans “ads that refer to an election or a candidate; ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes).” Starts out good, quickly becomes a mess.
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He’s running for Governor so he can run false Facebook ads to stop false Facebook ads • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan:

»

Adriel Hampton, a political activist who runs his own marketing firm in San Francisco, registered at his local post office on Monday morning as a candidate for governor of California.

…Hampton is the treasurer of “The Really Online Lefty League” PAC, which last Thursday began running a false ad on Facebook claiming that Senator Lindsey Graham backed the Green New Deal.
The ad spliced together different audio of Graham speaking to make it sound like he said, “Simply put, we believe in the Green New Deal.” Graham never said that.

The ad was eventually flagged by Facebook’s fact-checkers and was removed. While Facebook allows politicians to lie in ads, it does not allow PACs or other political groups to do so.

Hampton hopes that by being a candidate he will be able to run false ads without Facebook stopping him.

“The genesis of this campaign is social media regulation and to ensure there is not an exemption in fact-checking specifically for politicians like Donald Trump who like to lie online,” he told CNN Business.

Hampton unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2009, but was credited at the time as being the first congressional candidate to announce his campaign on Twitter.

“I think social media is incredibly powerful,” he said Monday. “I believe that Facebook has the power to shift elections.”

«

Facebook said on Tuesday night that it won’t allow Hampton’s ads. “This person has made clear he registered as a candidate to get around our policies so his content, including ads, will continue to be eligible for third-party fact-checking.” Facebook’s policy is about to collapse in a black hole of ridiculousness: all the next Hampton needs to do is not declare that’s their intent.
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Amazon Europe Core Sarl ‘Prime’ signup • UK Advertising Standards Authority

»

Ad description: A page on Amazon.co.uk, seen in May and June 2019, which formed part of the checkout process. Text stated, “… we’re giving you a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime! Starting with this order …”. A gold box included text which stated, “Order Now with Prime”. That box was contained within a larger grey box. Text underneath the gold box, but within the grey one, stated, “Continue with FREE One-Day Delivery Pay later”. An option to the left in blue text stated, “Continue and don’t gain Amazon Prime benefits”. Small print at the bottom of the page stated, “By signing up you acknowledge that you have read and agree to the Amazon Prime Terms and Conditions and authorise us to charge your credit card … after your 30-day free trial …”.

Issue: Ten complainants, who believed the presentation of the options was unclear, challenged whether the ad was misleading…

The option to sign up for the trial of Amazon Prime was a grey box with a gold box inside. Text in the gold box stated “Order Now with Prime”, and we considered that the average consumer was likely to understand that to be one discrete option. Directly beneath that, and still within the larger grey box, text stated, “Continue with FREE One-Day Delivery Pay later”. We considered that the presentation and wording of that text meant it was likely to be seen by the average consumer as a separate option. However, we understood that, in fact, both boxes were part of the same option. The option to continue without signing up for the trial was presented as text stating “Continue and don’t gain Amazon Prime benefits”, which was small and placed in a position which could easily be missed by consumers. It was also in a faint colour, and compared to the option presented in the grey and gold boxes it was significantly less prominent.

«

Conclusion: breaches the UK advertising code. OK, now let’s get them onto Facebook. (Pity this had to take nearly six months.)
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China handset market undergoes structural changes • Digitimes

Max Wang and Steve Shen:

»

The rising penetration rate of handsets, slow market demand and looming commercial operations of 5G networks has ushered in a structural change in China’s handset market where sales are moving to focus more on branded products and fewer new models are being launched.

Data from China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) showed that handset shipments totaled 251m units in China in the first eight months of 2019, down 5.5% from a year earlier. Among them, 4G models accounted for 240m units and 5G ones 291,000 units.

It also showed that the number of new handsets launched during the eight-month period declined 37% on year to 343 models. Excluding new ones released by Samsung Electronics and Apple, Chinese vendors launched only 304 new models in that period, decreasing 39% from a year ago.

The tallies also indicated that some Chinese second-tier handset makers are withdrawing from the market due to keen competition, while first-tier brands are funneling their resources to focus on fewer premium models.

«

This sounds like a repeat of what happened with Android tablets: Chinese companies piled in to make them, sold them by the cartload, and then got the hell out when the market turned down. Though 304 new models is a lot (down from 422).

Samsung decided in 2014 that its own trajectory of 56 models per year was too many, though I can’t find a count for what it is now.
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Russia tests new disinformation tactics in Africa to expand influence • NY Times

Davey Alba and Sheera Frenkel:

»

Russia has been testing new disinformation tactics in an enormous Facebook campaign in parts of Africa, as part of an evolution of its manipulation techniques ahead of the 2020 American presidential election.

Facebook said on Wednesday that it removed three Russian-backed influence networks on its site that were aimed at African countries including Mozambique, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya. The company said the online networks were linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who was indicted by the United States and accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Unlike past influence campaigns from Russia, the networks targeted several countries through Arabic-language posts, according to the Stanford Internet Observatory, which collaborated with Facebook to unravel the effort. Some of the posts promoted Russian policies, while others criticized French and American policies in Africa. Russians also worked with locals in the African countries to set up Facebook accounts that were disguised as authentic to avoid detection.

The effort was at times larger in volume than what the Russians deployed in the United States in 2016. While the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency posted on Facebook 2,442 times a month on average in 2016, one of the networks in northern and central Africa posted 8,900 times in October alone, according to the Stanford researchers.

«

So now we, or at least Russia, move on to the next stage of the global disinformation war.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,177: Facebook staff revolt on political ads, Normal’s ransomware fixer, deja Vue, Oz’s face plan for porn, and more


Crumbling infrastructure in the US is a “technical debt” that needs repaying – which will cost trillions. CC-licensed photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr.

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

Dissent erupts at Facebook over hands-off stance on political ads • The New York Times

Mike Isaac:

»

The letter was aimed at Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and his top lieutenants. It decried the social network’s recent decision to let politicians post any claims they wanted — even false ones — in ads on the site. It asked Facebook’s leaders to rethink the stance.

The message was written by Facebook’s own employees.

Facebook’s position on political advertising is “a threat to what FB stands for,” the employees wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. “We strongly object to this policy as it stands.”

For the past two weeks, the text of the letter has been publicly visible on Facebook Workplace, a software program that the Silicon Valley company uses to communicate internally. More than 250 employees have signed the message, according to three people who have seen it and who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation.

While the number of signatures on the letter was a fraction of Facebook’s 35,000-plus work force, it was one sign of the resistance that the company is now facing internally over how it treats political ads.

Many employees have been discussing Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision to let politicians post anything they want in Facebook ads because those ads can go viral and spread misinformation widely. The worker dissatisfaction has spilled out across winding, heated threads on Facebook Workplace, the people said…

…The letter… laid out product changes and other actions that Facebook could take to reduce the harm from false claims in advertising from politicians. Among the proposals: changing the visual design treatment for political ads, restricting some of the options for targeting users with those ads, and instituting spending caps for individual politicians.

«

Restricting targeting would go a long way. Don’t allow targeting, except as well as TV or print allows (ie not very)? Microtargeting is a serious problem, allied to the lies told in ads. This topic is not going away.
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Alex Stamos on Facebook, politics and design • CJR

Alex Stamos, ex-Facebook security, in conversation with Mathew Ingram:

»

Some of the core issues at the company around both data protection and speech come from decisions made in the 2009-2012 era of Facebook, when the company was struggling for revenue in the run-up to the IPO. Those decisions might have been appropriate when a core use of the product was as a life-support system for Farmville, but they needed to be revisisted by the time Facebook had become the most important medium for political speech in much of the world.
I would have rather seen Mark said “I started this thing in my dorm room and things have really changed. We are going to be better at understanding those changes and trying to predict what will happen instead of reacting.”

My second problem with his speech is that he did the same thing that a lot of Facebook’s critics do: he compressed all of the different products into this one blob he called “Facebook”. That is not a useful frame for pretty much any discussion of how to handle speech issues.

Facebook, Inc., a Delaware corporation, operates a product called Facebook along with WhatsApp and Instagram. If you dive into the product called “Facebook”, you will find that it is actually something like a dozen different products strung together. Those products share the same backend and code base, but they are designed and developed by different teams and, more importantly, have very different safety, security and trust models.

«

Both the format and the content is worth looking at.
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The ransomware superhero of Normal, Illinois • ProPublica

Renee Dudley:

»

There are almost 800 known types of ransomware, and [27-year-old Michael] Gillespie, mostly by himself but sometimes collaborating with other ransomware hunters, has cracked more than 100 of them. Hundreds of thousands of victims have downloaded his decryption tools for free, potentially saving them from paying hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom.

“He took that deep dive into the technical stuff, and he just thrives on it,” said Lawrence Abrams, founder of a ransomware assistance website called BleepingComputer.com. “Every time a new ransomware comes out, he checks it out. ‘Can it be decrypted? Yes, it can be decrypted. OK, I’ll make the decryptor.’ And it’s just nonstop. He just keeps pumping them out.”

Gillespie downplays his accomplishments. “IT moves so fast, there’s always something to learn, and there’s always someone better than you,” he said.

Gillespie’s tools are available on BleepingComputer.com, and they can be accessed through a site he created and operates, called ID Ransomware. There, victims submit about 2,000 ransomware-stricken files every day to find out which strain has hit them and to obtain an antidote, if one exists.

«

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Sony Interactive Entertainment to shut down Playstation Vue • PlayStation.Blog

»

Over four years ago, we made a bold decision to change the rules and revolutionize the traditional TV-viewing experience in the U.S. with PlayStation Vue. We set the bar high and sought to innovate an established industry by delivering a modern TV experience. By completely rethinking live and on demand television, we offered an incredible user experience that allowed viewers to discover and watch content in completely new ways.

Today we are announcing that we will shut down the PlayStation Vue service on January 30, 2020. Unfortunately, the highly competitive Pay TV industry, with expensive content and network deals, has been slower to change than we expected. Because of this, we have decided to remain focused on our core gaming business.

«

“It’s all everyone else’s fault that you wouldn’t buy our $50-per-month package that was like everyone else’s but pricier.” Disappointed customers reckoned to number about half a million.
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Sea-level rise could flood hundreds of millions more than expected • MIT Technology Review

James Temple:

»

By the end of this century, rising oceans will almost certainly flood the lands where tens of millions of people live as accelerating climate change warms the waters and melts ice sheets.

But precise estimates of the vulnerable populations depend on precise measurements of the planet’s topography, to understand just how close to sea level communities have settled.

A new study that seeks to correct for known errors in earlier elevation models finds that researchers might have been undercounting the number of people exposed to rising tides by hundreds of millions. That’s three to four times more people than previously projected, depending on the specific scenarios.

If these higher estimates prove correct, it will dramatically increase the damages and casualties from sea-level rise, swell the costs of adaption efforts like constructing higher seawalls, and escalate mass migration away from the coasts.

«

All this is important, and the research is impressive. But any story that begins “by the end of this century” – ie, in just over 80 years – is going to struggle to enthrall the average reader, I think.
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California’s fires and PG+E’s toxic debt • The Atlantic

Alexis C. Madrigal:

»

Almost everywhere you look in the built environment, toxic technical-debt bubbles are growing and growing and growing. This is true of privately maintained systems such as PG&E’s and publicly maintained systems such as that of Chicago’s Department of Water Management. It’s extremely true of roads: Soon, perhaps 50% of Bay Area roads will be in some state of disrepair, not to mention the deeper work that must occur to secure the roadbeds, not just the asphalt on top.

Then there are the sewers and the wastewater plants. Stormwater drains. Levees. And just regular old drinking water. Per capita federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen precipitously since the 1970s. Cities are forced to make impossible decisions between funding different services. And even when they do have the money they need, officials make bad or corrupt decisions. So, water systems in the United States have built up a $1trn technical debt, which must be paid over the next 25 years. The problem is particularly acute in the Great Lakes states. One investigation, by American Public Media, found that from 2007 to 2018 Chicago residents’ water bills tripled, and Cleveland residents’ doubled. In Detroit, a city with a median income of less than $27,000, the average family paid $1,151 for water.

At these rates, poor residents are far more likely to have their water shut off, and the systems still aren’t keeping up with the maintenance they need. Runaway technical debt makes it nearly impossible to pay the “interest,” which is just keeping the system running, let alone to start paying down the principal or start new capital projects.

All told, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6trn to get Americans back to an acceptable level of technical debt in our infrastructure.

«

Remember all the “infrastructure weeks” that Trump had? How he promised that he’d sort it out? Yet another bleak lie. Instead, the US got a rising deficit and tax cuts for the rich.
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Australia proposes face scans for watching online pornography • The New York Times

Jamie Tarabay:

»

The Australian government has proposed using a facial recognition system it is developing to verify that people who seek to watch pornography online are of legal age.

Current law in Australia does not prohibit minors from viewing pornography. But the federal government is considering proposals that would require people to prove their age before watching the material.

Under the proposal from the Department of Home Affairs, a computer user’s face would be matched to images from official identity documents. It does not say how the user would submit a facial image at the beginning of each online session.

The proposal drew immediate objections as a potential infringement of Australians’ privacy. “I think people should be very concerned about any government department that’s seeking to store this kind of information,” said Senator Rex Patrick, a centrist lawmaker from the state of South Australia.

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to questions about the proposal, and the attorney general’s office, when asked to comment on the legal ramifications of the system, directed all questions to Home Affairs…

…This is not the first time the department has proposed a use for facial recognition systems. Last year, it pushed facial verification as a way to crack down on online identity fraud. It also rejected suggestions that warrants would be necessary for access to the country’s facial recognition database.

«

There’s no way at all that this could possibly be spoofed or go horribly wrong, is there. None at all.
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AirPods Pro unboxing videos: design, sound, ear tip fit test, and more • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

»

The first AirPods Pro unboxing videos have surfaced on YouTube from tech reviewers Marques Brownlee, Justine Ezarik, and Safwan Ahmedmia.

The reviewers were all impressed with sound quality and active noise cancellation, with Brownlee saying noise cancellation on the AirPods Pro is roughly on par with the new Beats Solo Pro. As for fit, Ahmedmia found the AirPods Pro with in-ear tips to be more comfortable than the regular AirPods.

Brownlee’s video provides a first look at the new Ear Tip Fit Test, a feature that checks the fit of the AirPods Pro in your ear to determine which size ear tips provides the best seal and acoustic performance. Ear Tip Fit Test can be accessed by tapping the info icon next to your AirPods Pro in Settings > Bluetooth.

Apple says advanced algorithms work together with the inward-facing microphones in each AirPod to measure the sound level in the ear and compare it to what is coming from the speaker driver. In just seconds, the algorithm detects whether the ear tip is the right size and has a good fit, or should be adjusted.

AirPods Pro come with a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box, compared to USB-A for the regular AirPods. Also included in the box is a wireless charging case, silicone ear tips in three sizes, and documentation.

«

The choice of USB-C is interesting: does it charge if you use USB-A? Or is this because more of the chargers Apple is selling are USB-C? Also notable that Apple’s media approach now is so focussed on early access to YouTubers.
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New 13.2 update bricking some HomePods [update pulled by Apple] • MacRumors

Juli Clover:

»

We thought that the perceived HomePod issues may have been linked to an Apple Music outage lasting for a few hours today right after the 13.2 software came out, but that may not be the case.

Some people with affected HomePods have already contacted Apple Support and have been able to arrange replacement devices. From Reddit:

»

My update worked but the voice recognition wasn’t working so I removed it from Apple home. Then I tried to factory reset it and boom. Hit a brick wall. Quite literally. Home pod is now bricked. Been into support earlier this evening and they are sending me a box to send it in for repair.

«

Given the multitude of reports about malfunctioning HomePods, those that have not updated to the new software should avoid doing so. If you have updated, you should avoid resetting your HomePod at the current time or removing it from the Home app.

Update: It appears that Apple has pulled the 13.2 update, and in a support document, is recommending that those who have already upgraded to 13.2 avoid resetting their HomePod or removing it from the Home app. Those who have reset their HomePods will need to contact Apple support for help.

«

I’ve got a HomePod software update which has been “requested” for the past 24 hours and hasn’t gone away, but hasn’t installed either. No idea what to do. Resetting sounds dangerous. Pray to the update gods that it will sort itself out?
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Dark energy: new experiment may solve one of the universe’s greatest mysteries • The Conversation

Bob Nichol is professor of astrophysics at the University of Portsmouth:

»

the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) was the first dedicated redshift survey telescope to measure over a million galaxy redshifts, mapping the large scale structure in the universe to unprecedented detail.

The SDSS maps included hundreds of superclusters and filaments and helped make an unexpected discovery – dark energy. They showed that the matter density of the universe was much less than expected from the Cosmic Microwave Background, which is the light left over from the Big Bang. That meant there must be an unknown substance, dubbed dark energy, driving an accelerated expansion of the Universe and become increasingly devoid of matter.

The combination of all these observations heralded a new era of cosmological understanding with a universe consisting of 30% matter and 70% dark energy. But despite the fact that most physicists have now accepted that there is such a thing as dark energy, we still do not know its exact form.

There are several possibilities though. Many researchers believe that the energy of the vacuum simply has some particular value, dubbed a “cosmological constant”. Other options include the possibility that Einstein’s hugely successful theory of gravity is incomplete when applied on the huge scale of the entire universe.

New instruments like DESI will help take the next step in resolving the mystery. It will measure tens of millions of galaxy redshifts, spanning a huge volume of the universe up to ten billion light years from Earth. Such an amazing, detailed map should be able to answer a few key questions about dark energy and the creation of the large scale structures in the universe.

For example, it should be able to tell us if dark energy is just a cosmological constant. To do this it will measure the ratio of pressure that dark energy puts on the universe to the energy per unit volume. If dark energy is a cosmological constant, this ratio should be constant in both cosmic time and location. For other explanations, however, this ratio would vary. Any indication that it is not a constant would be revolutionary and spark intense theoretical work.

«

Still surprised that dark energy isn’t a staple plot Macguffin of thriller/action/superhero/SF films.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,176: Facebook’s worsening political ad mess, China’s cryptocurrency?, AirPods Pro!, how to get RCS, and more


Google probably offered a bit more money than this for Fitbit. Though, who knows? CC-licensed photo by Jason Coleman on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Situation: roomy. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook removes pro-Trump ads it said violated its policies • The Washington Post

Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker :

»

Thousands of Facebook users in Arizona may have been startled to see a strange warning appear in their social feeds earlier this month.

“Official records show that your voter registration is incomplete,” began the post. “Follow the link below to complete your voter registration NOW!”

But the message didn’t come from local government officials or civic groups that encourage people to vote. Rather, it was an ad from a super PAC supporting President Trump — part of an effort by allies of the Trump White House to mobilize users on Facebook and harness their personal data, in a way that’s left some experts and voting-rights advocates spooked.

The Arizona ad, paid for by The Committee to Defend the President, is one of roughly two dozen such ads that two pro-Trump super PACs have purchased on Facebook over the past five months, according to an analysis of Facebook’s advertising archive by The Washington Post. Some of the ads falsely suggest that Democrats are purging voter rolls; others direct viewers to some version of a voter-registration form, but only after they submit information, such as their names, email addresses and political affiliations.

Responding to an inquiry from The Post, Facebook said this weekend that it was removing four of the voting-related ads for violating its policies. A spokesperson for the tech giant said it would send other ads purchased by another pro-Trump group, Great America PAC, to third-party fact-checkers to verify their assertions about states purging voter rolls.

«

So Facebook won’t allow ads that might lead to voter suppression. Apart from the ones it allows. It’s exhausting; Facebook says it won’t allow something, journalists find multiple examples of it allowing something, repeat. The simple solution would be to ban political ads.
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CCIEE Vice Chairman says People’s Bank of China will be first to roll out digital currency • Pandaily

David Lee:

»

Huang Qifan, vice chairman of CCIEE (China Center for International Economic Exchanges), has expressly stated that he does not believe Facebook’s digital currency Libra will be successful. He firmly holds that China’s central bank is close to developing its blockchain-based financial technology and will be the first in the world to officially roll out a usable digital currency.

Huang spoke at the Inaugural Bund Financial Summit of 2019 in Shanghai where financial leaders across the world gathered between October 27 – 29 and discussed a wide variety of issues focused on financial inclusion, fintech and wealth management.

Huang pointed out in his speech that in the current digital age, the payment and settlement methods between enterprises and countries need to be reshaped.

He stressed that the cross-border liquidation of China’s renminbi (RMB) is highly dependent on the US SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) system and CHIPS (Clearing House Interbank Payments System). He added that the two financial instruments that are gradually becoming effective tools for the US to exercise global hegemony and carry out widespread jurisdiction control.

“SWIFT is an outdated, inefficient and costly payment system. Since the establishment of SWIFT 46 years ago, the technology has been updated slowly and the efficiency has been relatively low. International wire transfers usually take 3-5 business days to arrive. Large remittances usually require paper documents, which presents additional difficulty for processing large-scale transactions effectively,” Huang expressed throughout his speech. “At the same time, SWIFT usually charges a fee of one ten-thousandth of the settlement amount, and has obtained huge profits by virtue of the monopoly platform.”

«

Hmm. A cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. If the Chinese state launches a cryptocurrency…
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Parts suppliers fear about Samsung’s phone production outsourcing to China • Korea Times

Nam Hyun-woo:

»

Small- and medium-sized enterprises supplying smartphone parts to Samsung Electronics are increasingly concerned about the firm’s accelerating moves to hire Chinese manufacturers to produce its phones, according to industry officials Monday.

Outsourcing the production of 60 million phones to Chinese makers is seen as a move to lower productions costs and more effectively compete with Chinese smartphone makers in emerging markets, they said.

According to industry sources, Samsung Electronics will outsource the manufacturing of more than 60 million Galaxy M and Galaxy A series smartphones to Chinese original design manufacturers (ODMs) next year. This will account for 20% of the company’s annual smartphone delivery of 300 million.

ODM refers to a company that designs and manufactures a product, to be rebranded and sold by another company. Unlike original equipment manufacturers, which manufacture products based on the ordering firm’s design and specifications, ODMs design the products to be manufactured.

Samsung Electronics has been expanding its ODM smartphone business in recent years. Last year, the company outsourced 3 million smartphones including the Galaxy A6s to Chinese ODMs and is expanding the volume to anywhere between 30 million and 40 million this year, the sources said

«

I’m confused by this. Samsung shut down its factories in China at the end of September. Now it’s effectively reopening them?
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Apple announces AirPods Pro • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

»

AirPods Pro will sync with Apple devices in exactly the same way as AirPods, and they will use the H1 chip found in the second-generation AirPods and some Beats headphones. The H1 is a successor to the W1, a chip that allowed for some creative workarounds for the limitations of Bluetooth for easier syncing with devices. H1 moves from Bluetooth 4.2 to Bluetooth 5, and it enables “Hey Siri” hands-free voice commands.

The new headphones will include an additional feature called “Adaptive EQ,” which will tune low and mid frequencies to match the shape of your ear—similar to how speakers like the Sonos One scan the room and adapt their output accordingly.

Whereas AirPods were external earbuds, AirPods Pro will be in-ear headphones. They will come with interchangeable tips in three sizes: large, medium, and small. Apple will include an audio-testing tool to help users determine which size is best for them. And the headphones will use a “vent system” to “equalize pressure” and “minimize discomfort,” Apple’s release claims.
The key pitch, though, is active noise cancelation. Previously a feature of expensive, over-ear headphones, noise cancelation has been getting into in-ear headphones more recently. The microphones in AirPods Pro will listen to external sound and work to block it in the user’s ear, updating up to 200 times per second.

Users will be able to swap between this active noise cancelation and a “Transparency” mode, which allows more external sound, either with a new force sensor on the hardware itself or by bringing up a software menu on the iOS, watchOS, or iPadOS device with which the AirPods Pro are synced.

«

Pricey at $249/£249, though that includes the wireless charging case which costs $40/£40. So Apple now has a stratification – these at the top end, ordinary AirPods with wireless charging at $199, ordinary AirPods without wireless charging at $159.

The rumours of lots of different colours came to nothing. Can’t see that happening. But might Apple release/announce its new MacBook Pro and pricing for the Mac Pro in the same way over the next two days?
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Exclusive: Google owner Alphabet in bid to buy Fitbit • Reuters

Greg Roumeliotis and Paresh Dave:

»

While Google has joined other major technology companies such as Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd in developing smart phones, it has yet to develop any wearable offerings.

There is no certainty that the negotiations between Google and Fitbit will lead to any deal, the sources said, asking not to be identified because the matter is confidential. The exact price that Google has [formally] offered for Fitbit could not be learned.

Google and Fitbit declined to comment. Fitbit shares rose 27% on the news, giving the company a market capitalization of $1.4bn. Alphabet shares rose 2% to $1,293.49.

A deal for Fitbit would come as its dominant share of the fitness tracking sector continues to be chipped away by cheaper offerings from companies such as China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and Xiaomi Corp.

Fitbit’s fitness trackers monitor users’ daily steps, calories burned and distance traveled. They also measure floors climbed, sleep duration and quality, and heart rate.

Fitbit, which helped pioneer the wearable devices craze, has been partnering with health insurers and has been making tuck-in acquisitions in the healthcare market, as part of efforts to diversify its revenue stream. Analysts have said that much of the company’s value may now lie in its health data.

Fitbit cut its 2019 revenue forecast in July, blaming disappointing sales of its newly launched cheapest smartwatch Versa Lite. The watch is priced at $160, compared with $200 for the full version. It can track workouts and heart rate but lacks features such as the ability to store music directly.

«

Google beat Apple to the wearable space with Android Wear – five years ago now! – but thought the Android model of leaving it to OEMs would work as it did with phones. It didn’t. So now it’s putting all the pieces together to do it properly.
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Update your iPhone 5 to continue using App Store, iCloud, email, web, and other services • Apple Support

»

Starting just before 12:00 a.m. UTC on November 3, 2019,* iPhone 5 will require an iOS update to maintain accurate GPS location and to continue to use functions that rely on correct date and time including App Store, iCloud, email, and web browsing. This is due to the GPS time rollover issue that began affecting GPS-enabled products from other manufacturers on April 6, 2019. Affected Apple devices are not impacted until just before 12:00 a.m. UTC on November 3, 2019.

«

At a guess, the iPhone 5 used a different timing and GPS chip from every other model, which somehow doesn’t allow for the rollover. (The support note seems to suggest there’s a timing issue too.) The iFixit teardown doesn’t name any GPS chip, but perhaps a differential between the chips used in the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S would highlight it. (Thanks Stormyparis for the link.)
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Space satellite crashes in front yard of Michigan home • ABC News

Libby Cathey:

»

A Samsung pseudo space satellite parachuted from the sky and fell to the ground on a farm in Merrill, Michigan, on Saturday morning.

Nancy Welke of Merrill told the Gratiot County Herald that she and her husband, Dan, were preparing to let their horses out around 8:45 a.m. when they heard a loud crash in their front yard. Welke looked out the window and couldn’t recognize what she was seeing – but some might have characterized it as out of this world.

Outside, Welke found a four-legged object with an aluminum foil-wrapped box and solar panels attached to the top of it. Inside the box were two large cameras and one Samsung cellphone, according to Welke. The contraption had several Samsung plaques on it and wording on the sides of the box read “Space Selfie.” It was still humming and flashing when Welke decided to share the strange event on Facebook.

“Unbelievalbe [Unbelievable],” she wrote. “Look what just fell out of the sky and 911 is baffled and it’s caught up in our tree.”

Around the same time, Gratiot Central Dispatch warned motorists to avoid a nearby area in Wheeler, Michigan, where the “fire department has (the) roadway closed due to a large object caught in live power lines.” Some local residents including Welke had their power cut off for a couple of hours while crews removed the large, deflated balloon.

The split space contraction turned out to be a high altitude balloon system – officially known as a pseudo satellite.

A Samsung spokesperson released a statement Saturday to explain the incident: “Earlier today, Samsung Europe’s SpaceSelfie balloon came back down to earth,” the statement read. “During this planned descent of the balloon to land in the US, weather conditions resulted in an early soft landing in a selected rural area. No injuries occurred and the balloon was subsequently retrieved. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.”

«

Could easily have landed on the house, or an animal. Samsung might want to think about how close this PR stunt came to being properly disastrous, in a way that would have made the Note 7’s inflammability look like a tea party.
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How to enable RCS messaging on your phone, regardless of carrier • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:

»

RCS messaging is meant to be the next evolution of SMS, bringing a variety of nifty features to the table to rival Apple’s iMessage. But the truth is that many carriers around the world are dragging their feet in implementing the feature.

Now, a tutorial on reddit has shown users how to enable RCS on almost any smartphone, regardless of carrier. It’s worth noting however that RCS doesn’t apparently support dual-SIM phones though.

In any event, the solution requires the Android Messages beta, and Activity Launcher app. Once you’ve got those apps, you should then turn off Wi-Fi and follow the reported steps listed below.

«

Use at own risk, etc, and doesn’t seem to work for some people in some places on some phones. (And here’s a reminder of what RCS is: basically, WhatsApp but without the Facebook ownership.)
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The Trump Vs. Obama situation room photos • Reading The Pictures

Michael Shaw compares those two:

»

At this point, it remains unclear when during the raid this [Trump] photograph was taken. It’s important to emphasize however that the way the White House is compelled to pose and perform everything largely minimizes the difference.

For example, it’s incredible they would even think to turn this into a portrait, especially at or near the moment when Bagdadi blew himself up.

As we discussed above, the photo — as compared to the bin Laden raid photo — is about the team and the act of management and witnessing. But there are clearly two or three more people at the table. There seems to be someone on the near right. And there are at least two more near left, based on the papers and notepads, a hand, and then someone reflected in the monitor. So this photo is also weird for cutting off those other participants.

I’m also concerned about the expression of Joint Chiefs Chair General Milley (middle right). He doesn’t show the typical serious/concerned frown of the others. Those eyes make me think something else is going on. If the photo wasn’t staged in the formal way we tend to understand that term, his discomfort in (or with?) the portrait is also troubling.

And finally, why would they bother to set up nameplates?

«

The latter photo is utterly devoid of the intensity and dynamism of the Obama sitroom photo – even if you only look at the seated people, there’s far more emotion on show (particularly through Hillary Clinton’s hand over her mouth). The newer one is so, so strange.

The overall site itself is certainly worth keeping tabs on.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1,175: a social network that helps democracy, Facebook’s News problem, who is Mike Pompeo exactly?, the trouble with dark mode, RCS’s mess, and more


An electric kettle: reducing the grid voltage saves a lot of energy, but doesn’t cost much time. CC-licensed photo by Lee Haywood on Flickr.

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

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

How a social network could save democracy from deadlock • BBC News

Carl Miller:

»

It began in 2014, when Taiwan was split by a trade bill. As in Hong Kong today, many feared the law would bring their country closer to China. Protestors entered its parliament and started a weeks-long occupation that became known as the Sunflower Revolution because they used the flower to represent a symbol of hope.

“I was there the night before they burst in,” Audrey Tang told me. She was a leading member of Taiwan’s burgeoning scene of civic hackers who joined the protests. And in the wake of the occupation, the government asked for their help.

Some of the civic hackers were invited to join the government and Tang became Taiwan’s digital minister.
Their aim was to design a new process that people from across political divides could join and express their views. But crucially, the process had to produce a consensus that the government could turn into new laws and regulations.

Their creation was called vTaiwan – with the “v” standing for virtual – a platform where experts and other interested parties can deliberate contentious issues. It works by first seeking to crowdsource objective facts from those involved. Then users communicate with each other via a dedicated social media network called Pol.is, which lets them draft statements about how a matter should be solved, and respond to others’ suggestions by either agreeing or disagreeing with them.

Once a “rough consensus” has been reached, livestreamed or face-to-face meetings are organised so that participants can write out specific recommendations.

The platform’s first test was to regulate Uber.

«

Yes, of course they should have done this before Brexit, and really ought to do it now.
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iPadOS’s discoverability trouble • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée:

»

Without getting into the embarrassing details about the klutziness that makes me a good product tester because I tend to do things that knowledgeable users already know how to do, I’m confused and frustrated by all of these “possibilities”. For relatively simple tasks such as using multiple apps side by side or opening more than one window for an app such as Pages, the iPad support site is cryptic and, in some cases, just plain wrong. As just one example, the on-line guidance advises: “go to Settings > General > Multitasking & Dock…”. Trouble is, the General section of Settings on my iPad Pro doesn’t have a Multitasking & Dock section. A little bit of foraging gets me to the Home Screen & Dock section where, yes, the Multitasking adjustments are available.

On the positive side, one now has a real Safari browser, equivalent in most regards to the “desktop” version, and the ability to open two independent windows side by side.

Because I feel self-conscious about my mental and motor skills, I compared notes with a learned friend, a persistent fellow who forced himself to learn touch typing by erasing the letters on his keyboard. He, too, finds iPadOS discoverability to be severely lacking. There are lot of new and possibly helpful features but, unlike the 1984 Mac, not enough in the way of the hints that menu bars and pull-down menus provide. It all feels unfinished, a long, long list of potentially winning features that are out of the reach of this mere mortal and that I assume will remain undiscovered by many others.

«

Yup. It can be really confusing, and I speak as one who has used an iPad Pro for years. Touch interfaces ought to be simpler; the absence of a menu bar system creates a problem.
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Why will Breitbart be included in ‘Facebook News’? • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:

»

Facebook’s decision to include Breitbart among its select publishers is clarifying, though perhaps not in the way many critics have suggested. It’s not an indicator of secret political bias; instead, it’s a small window into how Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook see the world. Here, the realms of government and media aren’t levers to achieve some ideological goal — they’re mere petri dishes in which to grow the Facebook organism. And when it comes to Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg’s end game, nothing is more important than growth.

Growth has always been the end game for Facebook. The company’s onetime internal credo, “Move fast and break things,” was about a need for rapid, sometimes reckless innovation in service of adding more users, market share and ad dollars, while its early mission statement, “Make the world more open and connected,” was a friendly way of expressing a desire for exponential growth. The company’s new mission statement, “Bring the world closer together,” is a friendlier way of saying the same thing — after all, you can’t bring people closer together if you don’t acquire them as active users first. Growth at any cost is a familiar mantra inside Facebook as well, as an internal memo surfaced last year by BuzzFeed News revealed; subsequent investigations by The Times detailed a company “bent on growth.”

But the costs of this growth — election interference, privacy violations — are passed on to users, not absorbed by Facebook, which takes a reputational hit but generally maintains, if not increases, market share and value. The real threat to Facebook isn’t bad P.R., it’s alienating its user base.

Through this lens, it makes perfect sense that Facebook should want to publicly court conservative audiences that seethe at what they perceive as Facebook’s liberal bias. And while the outcomes of Facebook’s decisions have serious political consequences, Mr. Zuckerberg and his fellow decision makers at the company view their decision to choose both publishers and off-the-record dining partners in terms of user acquisition strategy.

«

Smart take. (Though it might also be user retention strategy. Breitbart appeals to the old and jaded; Facebook wants to keep them tuned in.)
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Mark Zuckerberg struggles to explain why Breitbart belongs on Facebook News • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

»

Breitbart has been criticized for repeated inaccurate and incendiary reporting, often at the expense of immigrants and people of color. Last year, Wikipedia declared it an unreliable source for citations, alongside the British tabloid Daily Mail and the left-wing site Occupy Democrats.

That’s led to questions about why Breitbart belongs on Facebook News, a feature that will supposedly be held to far tougher standards than the normal News Feed. In a question-and-answer session after the interview, Zuckerberg told Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan that Facebook would have “objective standards” for quality.

“Most of the rest of what we operate is helping give people a voice broadly and making sure that everyone can share their opinion,” he said. “That’s not this. This is a space that is dedicated to high-quality and curated news.”

But when New York Times reporter Marc Tracy asked how including Breitbart served that cause, Zuckerberg emphasized its politics, not its reporting. “Part of having this be a trusted source is that it needs to have a diversity of views in there, so I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives,” he said. Zuckerberg reiterated that these perspectives should comply with Facebook’s standards, and he was cagey about Breitbart’s presence, saying that “having someone be possible or eligible to show up” doesn’t guarantee frequent placement. “But I certainly think you want to include a breadth of content in there,” he said.

«

Wikipedia serves as the useful arbiter here. Let’s not pretend that Breitbart produces high-quality and curated news. Zuckerberg seems to be scared of right-wing complaints.
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Wait eight seconds longer for your kettle – and cut your carbon bill • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:

»

Under plans to lower the voltage of energy grids across the north-west of England, about 45,000 homes can expect to shave £60 from their annual electricity bills. The scheme could save millions of pounds on energy a year and cut carbon emissions without people noticing any difference, says the local network company.

During “Smart Street” trials over four years, engineers for Electricity North West found they could carefully lower the grid’s voltage by enough to save on energy without noticeably slowing household appliances or causing light bulbs to flicker.

“Nobody noticed the changes until they were given their bill and suddenly found out they’d been using less electricity,” said Steve Cox, the company’s engineering director.

“If we reduced the voltage by a few percent, then a full kettle might take eight seconds longer to boil. If we boost the voltage, it might boil eight seconds faster. But within the typical time it takes to boil a kettle, say two minutes, this really isn’t noticeable.”

“Voltage control” is well established in some states in the US, but Electricity North West will be the first network in the UK to reduce its voltage towards the lower end of the normal 220V to 240V range.

«

The only issue I’m particularly aware of is that some cheaper LED bulbs might flicker (as they note). Otherwise, seems like a clever idea.
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The FTC fosters fake reviews, its own commissioners say • Ars Technica

Paris Martineau:

»

Saoud Khalifah, CEO of the fraudulent-review tracking company FakeSpot, says the number of companies padding their online ratings using reviews generated by bots, ghostwriters, or other schemes has increased dramatically over the past four years.

“When I started [looking into] this in 2015, it wasn’t as big as it is today,” said Khalifah. “Today, it has reached epidemic proportions—whether you’re looking at Sephora, Walmart, Amazon—it’s like a plague right now.”

Commissioners Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter of the Federal Trade Commission say it’s about to get a lot worse, and they know who to blame: their own agency. The FTC this week brought its first case against a company for enlisting its employees in a coordinated fake-review campaign to boost sales. Chopra and Slaughter say the decision reached by their fellow commissioners could usher in even more review fraud. The settlement did not require the company to admit fault, notify customers of the fraud, or turn over any ill-gotten gains.

“Dishonest firms may come to conclude that posting fake reviews is a viable strategy, given the proposed outcome here,” Chopra said in a statement dissenting from the FTC’s decision, joined by Slaughter. “Honest firms, who are the biggest victims of this fraud, may be wondering if they are losing out by following the law. Consumers may come to lack confidence that reviews are truthful.”

«

News flash: consumers already lack that confidence.
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Identification of anonymous MRI research participants with face-recognition software • New England Journal of Medicine

»

With the use of publicly available software, reconstructed facial images from deidentified cranial MRI scans were matched to photographs of individual study participants 83% of the time as the first choice from a panel of photographs. This raises the possibility of identifying anonymous research participants.

«

This is the summary of the article. I don’t have access to read the whole thing, but it seems worth noting as a staging point: you’re recognisable in all sorts of places.
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The human cost of your smartphone • OneZero

Aimee Pearcy:

»

Cobalt is primarily produced by reducing the byproducts of copper and nickel mining. It’s expensive, and manufacturers have spent a long time searching for an alternative, but for the foreseeable future, it remains an essential component in all lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.

The copper belt found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and its neighboring country Zambia yields most of the world’s cobalt production, and it is where most companies source the chemical. This is also where the worst human rights violations occur because many of the mines are controlled by armed groups.

The DRC alone produces at least 50% of the world’s cobalt. Around 20% of the DRC’s cobalt is extracted by hand in a process called “artisanal mining.” The remainder is produced by large industrial mines that are typically owned by foreign companies — many of which are Chinese. China also owns most of the companies that buy products from the children who work at these mines. The hours are long, the conditions are bad, and the wages are very low.

A 2016 investigation by Amnesty International revealed that several major electronics brands were not even attempting to carry out the most basic inspections to make sure child labour wasn’t used to mine the cobalt for phones. These brands included Apple (which has a net worth of more than $1trn), Samsung (also with a net worth of more than $1trn), and Sony (with a net worth of about $74bn).

«

So it would be better if all the mines were industrial, yes?
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If you have any of these 17 dangerous apps on your iPhone, delete them right now • BGR

Andy Meek:

»

Mobile security company Wandera issued a report Thursday afternoon identifying 17 apps in Apple’s App Store infected with clicker Trojan malware, all of which are tied to the same India-based developer.

By Friday morning, Apple confirmed they’d been booted from the App Store.

Apple told at least one news outlet that 18 apps were removed following the report, but Wandera appears to believe that double-counts one of the apps, with the firm noting in its findings that its “initial list of infected apps included two instances of cricket score app ‘CrickOne’ that were hosted on different regional App Stores and contain distinct metadata.” Upon review, Wandera found that those apps use the same codebase.

This comes one day after we noted that another security company had uncovered the existence of some 42 adware-filled Android apps that racked up millions of downloads before Google kicked them off the Google Play Store.

«

The story does have a list of the apps, so it’s worth clicking through just in case. Adware (or Trojan adware, which does the work invisibly) is the E.coli of the app world: it indicates you’ve got a functioning ecosystem. If nobody bothers to make it for your platform, you’re basically dead. (It was always an indicator of the poor health of Windows Phone.)
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AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have finally agreed to replace SMS with a new RCS standard • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

»

RCS, if you don’t know, is wickedly complicated on the backend from both a technical and (more importantly) a political perspective. But the CCMI’s goal [the CCMI is the “Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative”, involving the four major US carriers] is to make all that go away for US consumers. Whether or not it can actually pull that off is more complicated.

First and foremost, CCMI intends to ship a new Android app next year that will likely be the new default messaging app for Android phones sold by those carriers. It will support all the usual RCS features like typing indicators, higher-resolution attachments, and better group chat. It should also be compatible with the global “Universal Profile” standard for RCS that has been adopted by other carriers around the world.

Garland says the CCMI will also work with other companies interested in RCS to make sure their clients are interoperable as well — notably Samsung and Google. That should mean that people who prefer Android Messages will be able to use that instead, but it sounds like there may be technical details to work out to make that happen.

Google is a fascinating and perhaps telling omission from the press release.

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Which is odd given that Google has been pushing RCS as hard as it can as a kinda-sorta iMessage competitor for Android. As Bohn points out, carriers in the UK and France haven’t been interested, so Google did it there itself using its own servers (for Android). But if you can’t offer cross-platform communication, ie no adoption by Apple too, RCS becomes just another messaging service option on Android – of which there are gazillions, and WhatsApp the most popular.
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Pompeo was riding high—until the Ukraine Mess exploded • WIRED

Garrett Graff:

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[Mike] Pompeo’s life as secretary of state is carefully plotted, his days planned to the minute and fueled at all hours by Diet Coke. In military precision, he typically runs a few minutes early. The first time we spoke, he told aides to extend our interview by three minutes, then used precisely two minutes and 48 seconds of that additional time.

While he has gained brownie points for engaging internally with career foreign-service diplomats, Pompeo normally inhabits such a small world of aides that they fret over even telling banal stories about him lest they be identified easily. (My request for an example of his storied behind-the-scenes sense of humor resulted in two separate conference calls with multiple officials, and yielded no publishable anecdote.) The Pompeos socialize little in Washington; among other Trump administration figures, they spend the most time with Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, one of the few other cabinet officials to have stayed in Trump’s administration since the beginning.

Inside the State Department, Pompeo’s approach to the mission at hand has been to bring partisan politics into day-to-day diplomacy, seeming to castigate and reverse nearly every policy of Trump’s predecessors, from climate change and Iran to even the policy on South America. He often appears to go out of his way to score political points and denigrate the approach of the Obama administration. In interviews he has described his work on Hezbollah as “cleaning up for what the previous administration failed to do,” and the Trump administration’s support of Venezuela’s opposition leader as “precisely the opposite of the way that the Obama administration behaved” during the 2009 pro-democracy protests in Iran, known as the Green Movement.

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As Graff points out, Pompeo is one of the last men standing: only Steven Mnuchin (Treasury) and Stephen Miller (vile immigration policies and spray-on hairdos for TV) have lasted as long in the administration. Pompeo has no politics of his own any more. It’s just Trump’s words coming out of his mouth – which makes the Ukraine compromise somehow appropriate. (And he’s a really slippery customer.)

Also noted: Pompeo’s resolve to reverse all those former policies has backfired colossally, in Iran, North Korea and South America.
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Is dark mode good for your eyes? Here’s why you may want to avoid it • Android Authority

Adamya Sharma offers a few reasons why you might want to avoid Dark Mode (if you have astigmatism, as 30% of people do, which makes it harder to read light-on-dark text; because it makes the iris muscles work harder) and also this:

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You know the feeling when you’re comfortably sleeping in a dark room and someone suddenly draws open the curtains to flood the room with sunlight? You feel a sudden shock in that moment because your iris hasn’t adjusted to the amount of light it needs to take in.

When you view things in dark mode for a prolonged period of time, say a few months, your eyes get accustomed to letting in less light. Because of this, when you do look at a bright screen from time to time, you feel a sense of discomfort.

This comes from personal experience. I’ve been using dark mode across my phone, PC, and tablet for about three months now. When I described my growing aversion to bright screens to a surgeon friend, he explained that this is a pretty common phenomenon when the eyes get conditioned to dark mode.

Thankfully, he told me that this increase in sensitivity to brightness isn’t a permanent issue and will resolve itself if I start using white screens more often. It’s just a matter of striking the right balance.

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I’m picturing a growing number of optometrists sighing as another “dark mode” patient comes in.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified