Start up: Adele v pirates, Alphabet’s challenge, Mayer’s end? and more


The authentic feel of everything from Shaft to.. everything else. Photo of a wah-wah pedal by Kmeron on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Handle with care. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Burma gives a big thumbs-up to Facebook » Foreign Policy

Christian Caryl:

As the vote count draws to a close, it’s clear that Burma’s long-suffering opposition has scored a landslide victory in Sunday’s historic national election. And the leader of that opposition knows whom to thank. As she was explaining the reasons for her party’s remarkable triumph in an interview with the BBC this week, Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said this: “And then of course there’s the communications revolution. This has made a huge difference. Everybody gets onto the net and informs everybody else of what is happening. And so it’s much more difficult for those who wish to commit irregularities to get away with it.”

She could have been a little more specific, though. When people here in Burma refer to the “Internet,” what they often have in mind is Facebook — the social media network that dominates all online activity in this country to a degree unimaginable anywhere else.

link to this extract


Inside the problem with Alphabet » The Information

Amir Efrati and Jessica Lessin:

[Larry] Page unveiled Alphabet in August as a way to empower entrepreneurs and strong CEOs to build new companies “with a long term view.” Mr. Page had already been creating new companies under Google, like Calico, the secretive life-extension startup that former Genentech CEO Art Levinson is leading.

Some of those companies wanted more autonomy from Google and its bureaucracy, on issues big and small; [Arthur] Levinson [in charge of Calico], for instance, bristled when Google’s food services staff tried to apply Google’s nutritional guidelines to dining areas that served Calico employees, according to several people Mr. Page told about it.

Many details about the new structure have yet to be figured out. They include whether and how Alphabet companies can raise outside capital; who will control the IP they create, especially if they borrowed some from the old Google; and how they will use Google’s technical infrastructure.

If Google’s world-class cybersecurity software extends to the new Alphabet companies and those companies are later spun out or sell a significant chunk of themselves to another party, will those companies still get to use the Google software? Does it make sense for people at an Alphabet company to get Alphabet stock as part of their compensation, given that the performance of Alphabet will be heavily influenced by the performance of Google Search ads?

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Wireless carriers are favouring the iPhone » The Motley Fool

Sam Mattera:

The gradual decline of contract plans has sparked a wave of innovation in the U.S. wireless industry. In the past, consumers mostly signed two-year agreements in exchange for heavily subsidized handsets. Today, they have a vast array of choices, including installment options and leasing programs. Most of these plans reduce upfront costs by doing away with down payments, and give consumers the ability to upgrade their smartphones more often.

But some of these plans – the most advantageous, in fact – are only available to buyers of Apple’s iPhone.

I could have sworn that the hot take on the end of subsidies (aka contract plans) was that it meant dire trouble for Apple.
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The last days Of Marissa Mayer? » Forbes

Miguel Helft goes into detail and finds many of the same stories we’ve been hearing for the past couple of years:

Mayer hired some executives without fully vetting them with her team, and some of those decisions proved costly. One of her first big hires was Google sales executive Henrique De Castro, brought on as chief operating officer. De Castro failed to meet sales goals and Mayer fired him after 15 months, but not before he reportedly pocketed as much as $109 million in compensation and severance. Mayer also spent a year without a chief information officer after her IT operations chief David Dibble quit for personal reasons in 2013. In August 2014 Mayer finally announced to her executive staff that she had found the right person in Netflix executive Mike Kail, who came recommended by her husband, the investor Zachary Bogue. Three months later Netflix sued Kail for fraud, after he allegedly collected kickbacks from vendors. Yahoo quietly let him go in May.

Mayer’s propensity for micromanaging also exasperated many of her executives. By her own admission, Mayer spent an entire weekend working with a team of designers to revamp the Yahoo corporate logo, debating such details as the right slant for the exclamation point (9 degrees from vertical). Mayer also insisted on personally reviewing even minor deviations from a compensation policy she had instituted. When managers wanted to give top performers a bonus or raise above the parameters she had set, they had to write her an e-mail explaining the circumstances and wait for an approval or denial. Some managers dispute that this was a hard-and-fast rule. Mayer also insisted on reviewing the terms given to hundreds of contractors and vendors on a quarterly basis, whether they were engineers or writers or makeup artists. “She would go line by line and decide on what date a contract should end,” says a senior executive. Adds another: “It was a colossal waste of time.”

There’s detail, and then there’s detail that doesn’t merit a chief executive’s very expensive time.
link to this extract


EE proposes restrictions on mobile adverts » Telegraph

Christopher Williams:

EE, Britain’s biggest mobile operator, is considering introducing technology that will hand smartphone users the power to control the advertising they see online, in a clampdown that would cause major upheaval in the £2bn mobile advertising market.

Olaf Swantee, EE’s chief executive, has launched a strategic review that will decide whether the operator should help its 27 million customers to restrict the quantity and type of advertising that reaches their devices, amid concern over increasingly intrusive practices.

The review will look at options for creating new tools for subscribers that would allow them to block some forms of advertising on the mobile web and potentially within apps, such as banners that pop up on top of pages or videos that play automatically. EE customers could also get the ability to control the overall volume of advertising.

Mr Swantee told The Sunday Telegraph: “We think it’s important that, over time, customers start to be offered more choice and control over the level and intensity of ads on mobile.

“For EE, this is not about adblocking, but about starting an important debate around customer choice, controls and the level of ads customers receive.”

It’s about adblocking. And potentially creating a whitelist.. in paid-for manner?
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Syria’s climate-fuelled conflict, in one stunning comic strip » Mother Jones

I would hotlink to the strip directly, to embed it, but that would probably take more scrolling room than you want to bother with here. However, it makes a crucial point: the Arab Spring wasn’t caused by some abrupt realisation among the peoples of the Middle East that democracy would be nice; instead, it was driven by the rising cost of staple foods and rural displacement to cities, which created huge tensions – which authoritarian regimes couldn’t handle without causing more unrest.

Thus when people snigger at Prince Charles saying that the refugee crisis is a result of climate change, he’s not the one who’s wrong; they are.
link to this extract


Adele is NOT No.1 on this chart (and it’s a really important one) » Music Business Worldwide

Tim Ingham:

The Pirate Bay’s regularly-updated Music chart shows the 100 most popular torrents on the service in the past 48 hours.

The shock news: [Adele’s new album] 25 is nowhere. Literally nowhere.

Below, you can see the 25 most popular music files on TPB as of yesterday morning (November 22) UK time – two days after the astonishingly successful release of Adele’s new LP.

Not only does 25 not feature in the tracks we’ve featured above – it didn’t feature in the entire top 100.

It was the same story on Saturday (November 21) – a day after release – and it’s the same story this morning.

Adele did briefly claim a position on the TPB chart yesterday, MBW noticed – at No.63, with her previous release 21 – but she’s since disappeared.

Speaks again to the different generations interested in Adele. If it had been, say, a new Nine Inch Nails album, it would have been all over the pirate sites.
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I worked in a video store for 25 years. Here’s what I learned as my industry died » Vox

Dennis Perkins makes the point that a lot of it is about choice and curation:

It was a point of pride that we had everything and could turn people on to some obscurity we knew would appeal. A video store had sneaky cultural punching power — movies championed by our staff got watched. They stayed alive. You know, as long as we did.

By contrast: Netflix routinely adds and removes films at a whim based almost exclusively on licensing agreements. These agreements just don’t mean that movies any respectable video store would have remain “unavailable for streaming,” but that a substantial portion of Netflix’s (rather small) 10,000 film inventory is garbage: direct-to-DVD movies (or movies that bypass DVD for streaming entirely) accepted as part of package deals to get the rights to titles somebody might actually want to see. Although not everything you might want to see. As of this writing, you can’t watch Annie Hall, Argo, The Exorcist, This Is Spinal Tap, Taxi Driver, Schindler’s List, The Muppet Movie, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Fight Club, or Frozen on Netflix. You can, however, stream Transmorphers or Atlantic Rim, two suspiciously titled low-budget knockoffs of the movie you meant to watch.

His other key point: you had to choose to go to a video store. Netflix and its kin generally offer “let’s settle for this” content.
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How LSD microdosing became the hot new business trip » Rolling Stone

Andrew Leonard:

“Ken” is 25, has a master’s degree from Stanford and works for a tech startup in San Francisco, doing a little bit of everything: hardware and software design, sales and business development. Recently, he has discovered a new way to enhance his productivity and creativity, and it’s not Five Hour Energy or meditation.

Ken is one of a growing number of professionals who enjoy taking “microdoses” of psychedelics – in his free time and, occasionally, at the office. “I had an epic time,” he says at the end of one such day. “I was making a lot of sales, talking to a lot of people, finding solutions to their technical problems.”

A microdose is about a tenth of the normal dose – around 10 micrograms of LSD, or 0.2-0.5 grams of mushrooms. The dose is subperceptual – enough, says Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, “to feel a little bit of energy lift, a little bit of insight, but not so much that you are tripping.”

This will become the new go-to explanation for crazy startup ideas.
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The invention of the wah-wah pedal » Priceonomics

In 1965, in a small back room of a Los Angeles facility, Thomas Organ’s engineers began to build Vox amplifiers. Among these engineers was a bright-eyed 20-year-old by the name of Brad Plunkett.

Plunkett was given a challenging task by Thomas Organ’s CEO: he was to take apart a Vox AC-100 guitar amp and find a way to make it cheaper to produce while still maintaining the sound quality.

“The first thing I noticed,” he recalls in the documentary Cry Baby, “was this little switch [on the amp] entitled ‘MRB.’”

This switch, invented by British engineer Dick Denney and installed on all Vox AC-100 amps at the time, stood for “middle range boost.” When flicked on, it would highlight the middle sound frequencies of the guitar (notes between 300 and 5,000 hertz); in doing so, it would tame the extremes (very high and very low pitches), and produce a flattened, smoother sound. Plunkett realized that he could replace this pricey switch with a potentiometer – essentially an adjustable knob that divided voltages and acts as a variable resistor – and achieve the same effect.

“The switches were very expensive, about $4 each,” Plunkett continues. “The potentiometer would only cost about 30 cents.”

After a few days of fiddling around with spare parts, Plunkett succeeded in designing a circuit that could change the frequency of notes by simply rotating a potentiometer. Then, something unexpected happened.

(This makes an hour-long video.)

Patented as “foot controlled continuously variable preference circuit for musical instruments”. The patent came too late. Everyone could figure it out. Still, should the wah-wah pedal be added to the list of serendipitous discoveries, along with vulcanized rubber and Post-It notes?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

Start up: more on AMOLED deterioration, Panic in the stores, tracking the trolls, questions for 2015 and more


AMOLED screens. What will they look like in a few years’ time? Photo by RafeB on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. May contain nuts. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Are AMOLED displays at risk of burn-in? >> PC Pro

Paul Ockenden:

The blacks are better on an AMOLED screen, since its pixels are turned off and emit no light; IPS black pixels merely attempt to block the backlight, with only partial success. AMOLED screens aren’t as sharp as IPS panels, however, and can be more difficult to read in bright sunlight. To my mind, however, the biggest problem with AMOLED displays is that they suffer from screen burn.

The problem is the “O” in the AMOLED acronym, which stands for “organic”. The organic compounds used in AMOLED displays are polymers or copolymers, such as polyfluorene (PFO) and polyphenylene vinylene (PPV), both of which degrade with use.

This is partly due to the fact that the chemistry involved in creating the electroluminescence is irreversible, so the luminous pixels degrade as they’re used up, like a battery. These organic materials tend to crystallise, too – an effect that is exacerbated at higher temperatures. That’s something to bear in mind the next time your phone becomes warm while you’re playing a game or watching a video.

The answer to the headline’s question is “yes”. This seems like the sort of thing that would be easily overlooked by reviewers who use a device for a few days and praise its “gorgeous AMOLED screen“. But come back in a couple of years, and is it still?


The 2014 Panic report >> Panic Blog

Cabel Sasser:

This is the biggest problem we’ve been grappling with all year: we simply don’t make enough money from our iOS apps. We’re building apps that are, if I may say so, world-class and desktop-quality. They are packed with features, they look stunning, we offer excellent support for them, and development is constant. I’m deeply proud of our iOS apps. But… they’re hard to justify working on.
Here’s a way to visualize the situation. First up is a sample look at Units Sold for the month of November 2014: Wow! 51% of our unit sales came from iOS apps! That’s great!

But now look at this revenue chart for the same month… Despite selling more than half of our total units, iOS represents just 17% of our total revenue.
There are a few things at work here:
1. We’re not charging enough for our iOS apps. Or Mac users are simply willing to pay more for apps. Or both.
2. We’re not getting the word out well enough about our iOS apps.
3. The type of software we make just isn’t as compelling to iOS users as it is to Mac users. Our professional tools are geared for a type of user that simply might not exist on the iPad — admins and coders. We might have misjudged that market.

It’s really hard to say for sure. One thing is for certain: we are more likely to increase the price of our iOS software over time in an effort to make it make sense. And we’re less likely to tackle any huge new iOS projects until we get this figured out.

The problem with getting enough revenues from the iOS store, quite apart from the hassle Panic had when one of its apps was yanked from the store by Apple, is one that will be echoed by many companies. The question is whether it’s inherent to mobile – that niche apps (high value-added, small user numbers) – or to Apple’s store structures, which don’t allow trials (for example).


Global smartphone market to record de-growth [in value] for the first time in 2015, semiconductor to advance as high return industry >> ETNews Korea

It has been forecast that 2015 will be a year in which the global smartphone market will record the first negative growth in history based on the amount. Although a growth is expected based on the forwarding volume, the rate at which average selling price (ASP) decreases has accelerated. The global smartphone market scale in 2014 is estimated at $298.1bn, which increased by 10% from the year before. However, it is forecast that the scale will decrease by 4.3% to $285.2bn next year.

Stock market analyst Kim Hye-yong from Woori Investment and Securities forecast, “The global smartphone ASP this year [2014] is $234.50, which decreased by 13.9% from last year. Next year [2014], it will drop by 16.3% to $196.”

According to Kim, common carrier subsidy policy is not working in the emerging market that centers on the open market and, as a result, high-end smartphones are not selling well across the world. He estimated that Chinese companies, despite their growth on the outside, will record a deficit or just about meeting the breakeven point as their profitability is insufficient.


The Death Of Expertise >> The Federalist

Tom Nichols:

I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.

I never thought those were particularly controversial statements. As it turns out, they’re plenty controversial. Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy…

…I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all…

…None of this ignorance stops people from arguing as though they are research scientists. Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case, even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented. The use of evidence is a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn, which is why articles and books are subjected to “peer review” and not to “everyone review,” but don’t tell that to someone hectoring you about the how things really work in Moscow or Beijing or Washington.

This is a storming essay about the ways in which the value of real domain expertise is being degraded and devalued. Read it and gape.


20 questions for 2015 >> Benedict Evans

I wrote a detailed post a few weeks ago looking at some of the key structural questions in mobile – with the platform wars over (their first phase, at least), what’s happening to Android, what will happen to interaction models and so on. But it’s also worth looking at just how much could change just in 2015 – or even in January. Everything is wide open. So, here, in no special order, are 20 questions for 2015, any one of which would change things a lot. I’ve written about most of these topics already in 2014 – in 2015 they’re even more interesting.


Apple questions for 2015 >> Above Avalon

Neil Cybart:

In recognition of the beginning of a new year, I want to share my running list of questions that I have been keeping for Apple in 2015. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but rather things that I know to be on the lookout for.

It’s a pretty long list, if not exhaustive. Some key questions in there, with designer Marc Newson, SVP operations Jeff Williams and ex-iOS chief Scott Forstall all in there. Plus would you believe in an Apple Pen?


Meet the dogged researchers who try to unmask haters online >> MIT Technology Review

Adrian Chen:

Internet hatred [näthat] is a problem anywhere a significant part of life is lived online. But the problem is sharpened by Sweden’s cultural and legal commitment to free expression, according to Mårten Schultz, a law professor at Stockholm University and a regular guest on Troll Hunter, where he discusses the legal issues surrounding each case. Swedes tend to approach näthat as the unpleasant but unavoidable side effect of having the liberty to say what you wish. Proposed legislation to combat online harassment is met with strong resistance from free speech and Internet rights activists.

What’s more, Sweden’s liberal freedom-of-information laws offer easy access to personal information about nearly anyone, including people’s personal identity numbers, their addresses, even their taxable income. That can make online harassment uniquely invasive. “The government publicly disseminates a lot of information you wouldn’t be able to get outside of Scandinavia,” Schultz says. “We have quite weak protection of privacy in Sweden.”

Imagine what the childish (and sometimes dangerous) doxxing wars being played out over various hashtags would look like if every country made available the amount of information that Sweden does. Stieg Larsson, author of the “Dragon Tattoo” books and an investigator into far-right hate groups, didn’t get married because doing so would have required him to state his place of residence.


What it would really take to reverse climate change >> IEEE Spectrum

Ross Koningstein and David Fork were in charge of Google’s “moonshot” announced in 2007 to come up with renewable energy sources that cost less than coal. It was shut down in 2011:

Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.

Those calculations cast our work at Google’s RE<C program in a sobering new light. Suppose for a moment that it had achieved the most extraordinary success possible, and that we had found cheap renewable energy technologies that could gradually replace all the world’s coal plants—a situation roughly equivalent to the energy innovation study’s best-case scenario. Even if that dream had come to pass, it still wouldn’t have solved climate change. This realisation was frankly shocking: Not only had RE<C failed to reach its goal of creating energy cheaper than coal, but that goal had not been ambitious enough to reverse climate change.

We’re a long way down the climate change road; what would really be needed would be an all-in effort on something like fusion and solar power.


No credit >> All this

Dr Drang:

Thursday night I got a fraud notice via text and email. When I called the bank, I found several charges from an online video game company that my older son uses. He’d made a single purchase, which went through, and then fifteen minutes later four or five charges from that same vendor were attempted and blocked. Was this a programming error at the game company? fraud by the company? fraud by some third party masquerading as the game company? Don’t know. I do know it wasn’t because my son was buying things by mistake—he’s eighteen and has enough experience online to know better. The bank cancelled the credit card and we canceled his game account. Happy New Year.

As I said, this will be our fifth card in the past twelve months. We started 2014 with a card we’d had for a couple of years, but it was replaced in early February after the Target breach. Sometime in spring, the bank caught a fraudulent charge at a Kmart in Chicago, so our 3–4 month old card was cancelled and a new one issued. That one lasted all the way to October, when it was cancelled because of the Home Depot breach. And now this.

When the new card arrives on Monday, I’ll go through the list of accounts and change them all to the new number. My list is on paper, but this time I’m going to switch to a system like Jamie Phelps’s, that’ll allow me to just click a single link instead of dig my way through a series of pages for each account.

It’s puzzling how European banks and retailers were able to coordinate the introduction of Chip+PIN – which would kill this sort of fraud almost dead – and yet the US has completely failed at it. The UK introduced Chip+PIN in 2004. The problem hasn’t gone away – it’s forced it to different places, principally online, where phishing is still a big problem that await Apple Pay-style methods to reduce them.