Start up: weather-forecasting phones, MPs v BT, Google’s UK tax row, Apple Street View?, and more


Smartphones are transforming life in Myanmar. Photo by Timothy Neesam on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not sure if they’re viral or bacterial. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The Facebook-loving farmers of Myanmar » The Atlantic

Craig Mod:

For six weeks last October and November, just before Myanmar [formerly Burma] held its landmark elections, I joined a team of design ethnographers in the countryside interviewing forty farmers about smartphones. A design ethnographer is someone who studies how culture and technology interact. A common mistake in building products is to base them on assumptions around how a technology might be adopted. The goal of in-field interviewing in design ethnography is to undermine these assumptions, to be able to design tools and products aligned with actual observed use cases and needs.

Myanmar is especially fertile ground for this kind of work. Until recently the military junta had imposed artificial caps on access to smartphones and SIM cards. Many of the farmers we spoke with had never owned a smartphone before. The villages were often without running water or electricity, but they buzzed with newly minted cell towers and strong 3G signals. For them, everything networked was new.

Fascinating points: brands, how the price of data has dived, apps, and how mobile shops have become pivotal.
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Clever app turns everyone into a roving weather reporter » WIRED

Tim Moynihan:

With a free app for iOS, Sunshine wants to be the gold standard for weather accuracy. It hopes to achieve this ambitious goal by using altogether different meteorological instruments: People, iPhones, algorithms, and the draw of community and gamification. The app needs your location to work correctly, but the tradeoff is receiving hyper-local weather reports—Sunshine calls them “Nowcasts”—and becoming part of the data-aggregation process.

Using crowdsourced reporting, readings from the barometric pressure sensor in the iPhone 6 and latest iDevices, and predictive algorithms that overlay all that information on a map to deliver 18-hour forecasts, Sunshine generates what Stroponiati calls “weather forecasting at the street level.”

“It’s a weighted scheme of a user’s experience, community appreciation [you can upvote other users], and how much activity,” Stroponiati says. “Users that update often but also get a lot of upvotes get more weight. There is a whole gaming scheme behind it with local leaderboards and titles … As you get more points, you change titles and climb higher on the leaderboards.”

Was liking it until the gamification stuff. (Perhaps that’s necessary?) When she was still at Google in July 2009 I interviewed Marissa Mayer, who put forward exactly this sort of idea as what smartphones would enable.
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Can DCMS safely ignore over 120 MPs protesting over constituency broadba[n]d » Computer Weekly

Philip Virgo:

The British Infrastructure Group report publicised in the Daily Telegraph today uses available data (assembled by the House of Commons Library) but puts on it a rather different interpretation to that recently used by BDUK to boast of its achievements to date and thsoe in the pipeline. The consequent call for action is backed by 120 MPs. Whether the break up of BT is the right action is another matter. If it were to be the right “answer” that raises the more interesting questions of whether “merely” separating out Openreach would achieve the objective of stimulating BT to invest in infrastructure (back haul as well as local loop) as opposed to content (alias subsidising premier league football) and whether that would be enough.

Can BT afford the scale and nature of investment necessary to build the communications infrastructure needed to underpin a “smart society”? A ‘smart society” is one in which everything is interconnected: from smart phones, TVs, toys and consumer goods, through smart meters, cars, buildings, telecare and telemedicine to smart grids and cities. It is also one in which those dependent on on-line medical devices (for example) may die when networks go down.

It is not just that BT has not maintained its previous rate of investment in recent years – it does not appear to have plans to increase it in the future and may find it hard to do so.

The BIG report, and others that have come out over the weekend, do make it seem like Openreach is very unloved, not just by customers but also by legislators.
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How to save Wikipedia: Start paying editors … or write for machines » The Register

Andrew Orlowski:

Imagine that one giant manufacturer dominated the car market. The cars it made weren’t very good, but they were much cheaper and easier to buy than cars from anyone else, so the car company had ended up dominating the market.

These cars would often break down, spew noxious gasses, and a lot of the time, didn’t go where you wanted them to go.

Car travel was unreliable and sometimes even dangerous. People kept using them hoping that the crashes would happen to somebody else, and the health consequences of the pollution wouldn’t hit them for years.

For us, it isn’t difficult to imagine a better world, a world of reliable and safe cars.

Wikipedia at 15 is the monopoly car company of digital knowledge.

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Apple Maps vehicles » Apple

Apple is driving vehicles around the world to collect data which will be used to improve Apple Maps. Some of this data will be published in future Apple Maps updates.

We are committed to protecting your privacy while collecting this data. For example, we will blur faces and license plates on collected images prior to publication.

As Benedict Evans points out, the blurring and publication mentions immediately point to a Street View competitor. (Microsoft also has a Street View product, as I recall, which even came before Google’s.)
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Keeping up with Tim Cook’s Apple » Delusions Of Grandeur

Rob Rhyne:

Apple is moving at a blistering pace. Everywhere you look, a bearded neck slams Apple’s software quality. I agree that Apple has shipped some terrible bugs the past few years, but what did you expect? Apple is shipping software at an absurd rate.

When you consider the amount of technology they’re putting out to support new hardware and the number of people who use their software, it’s a mathematical reality that bugs will get out. Some of them can be nasty.

Those assailing Apple’s software quality fail to recognize the particulars of what Apple has shipped and how they have to ship it. If you take time to understand the problems facing a platform vendor and consider Apple’s scale, you might wonder how more bugs haven’t slipped out.

What Apple has accomplished in the past few years is astonishing, but you need to understand the details of how software frameworks are developed and shipped before you can truly appreciate it.

What we need is a graphic of how the hardware and software frameworks have expanded over the past few years. There really isn’t a company that is doing this much on so many fronts at such scale.
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How Larry Page’s obsessions became Google’s business » NYTimes.com

Conor Dougherty:

Many former Google employees who have worked directly with Mr. Page said his managerial modus operandi was to take new technologies or product ideas and generalize them to as many areas as possible. Why can’t Google Now, Google’s predictive search tool, be used to predict everything about a person’s life? Why create a portal to shop for insurance when you can create a portal to shop for every product in the world?

But corporate success means corporate sprawl, and recently Google has seen a number of engineers and others leave for younger rivals like Facebook and start-ups like Uber. Mr. Page has made personal appeals to some of them, and, at least in a few recent cases, has said he is worried that the company has become a difficult place for entrepreneurs, according to people who have met with him.

Part of Mr. Page’s pitch included emphasizing how dedicated he was to “moonshots” like interplanetary travel, or offering employees time and money to pursue new projects of their own. By breaking Google into Alphabet, Mr. Page is hoping to make it a more welcoming home for employees to build new businesses, as well as for potential acquisition targets.

It will also rid his office of the kind of dull-but-necessary annoyances of running a major corporation. Several recently departed Google staff members said that as chief executive of Google, Mr. Page had found himself in the middle of various turf wars, like how to integrate Google Plus, the company’s struggling social media effort, with other products like YouTube, or where to put Google Now, which resided in the Android team but was moved to the search group.

Observation by Above Avalon’s Neil Cybart (former Wall Street analyst): “The continued lack of focus is noteworthy.”
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Yes, Google’s UK back-tax payment is derisory. Here are the numbers that show it. » The Overspill

I used the public data to do some calculations:

The UK is the only region besides the US for which Google breaks out revenue in its quarterly earnings, because – for whatever reason – the UK represents 10% or more of Google’s total revenue. (Public companies are generally obliged to cite countries or regions which generate more than 10% of revenue in their results.)

Google doesn’t, however, break out profits for any region; it just gives a single figure for operating and net profit.

But what if we were to try to estimate how much profit Google has made in the UK, and then compare that to the tax it has paid, and the tax that it recently paid in a settlement with the UK’s tax authorities, HM Revenue & Customs?

This article from The Register is good background too.

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Google’s 2.5% UK tax rate » ITV News

Robert Peston:

Google and HMRC would of course argue that for taxable purposes my calculation of its UK profits is wrong.

They would say that there is a global convention that the profits in the UK should be measured as a margin or increment on top of what it would cost Google to operate here if all its operations were subcontracted to a third party.

Those notional taxable profits would appear to be a bit more than a couple of hundred million quid for for the 18 months to the middle of last year.

And the British taxman would want credit for increasing that margin or increment in its latest negotiations with Google, to capture (in a way that I freely admit I don’t understand) a new assessment of the maturity of its UK business and the low risk of operating here.

They would argue that it would be wholly inappropriate to tax Google on profits measured as I suggested, because most of the costs and business risks of developing Google were taken in the US – and therefore it is only fair that the bulk of the taxable profit of this global giant should be attributable to the US.

In other words, the British taxman and Google would both insist that the Chancellor and the Exchequer are getting quite as much tax as they deserve – perhaps even more – given that multinationals conventionally pay most tax in their homeland (or America in this case).

Here is the punchline. George Osborne, who is struggling to reduce the government’s deficit and needs every penny of tax he can lay his hands on, would seem to concur that he is not being short-changed by mighty Google.

Peston’s calculations are the same as mine.
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Google paid Apple $1bn to keep search bar on iPhone » Bloomberg Business

Joel Rosenblatt:

The revenue-sharing agreement reveals the lengths Google must go to keep people using its search tool on mobile devices. It also shows how Apple benefits financially from Google’s advertising-based business model that Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has criticized as an intrusion of privacy.

Oracle has been fighting Google since 2010 over claims that the search engine company used its Java software without paying for it to develop Android. The showdown has returned to U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco after a pit stop at the U.S. Supreme Court, where Google lost a bid to derail the case. The damages Oracle now seeks may exceed $1 billion since it expanded its claims to cover newer Android versions.

Annette Hurst, the Oracle attorney who disclosed details of the Google-Apple agreement at last week’s court hearing, said a Google witness questioned during pretrial information said that “at one point in time the revenue share was 34 percent.” It wasn’t clear from the transcript whether that percentage is the amount of revenue kept by Google or paid to Apple.

It’s a good point: if Apple is so critical of Google’s business model, why is it happy to take money to let it run that business model on iOS? True, Safari blocks third-party cookies (including DoubleClick, the ad network Google owns) – until you sign in to Google. But still a point of contradiction, rather like iAds.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none noted (though tax manoeuvres are notoriously complicated, so I’m expecting feedback on that).

Start up: DMCA v Volkswagen, cruel opt-outs, self-parking cars win, HP’s irrelevance, and more


The tsunami that hit the Fukushima reactor nearly led to a meltdown – but how many people died from radiation release? Photo by NRCgov on Flickr.

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

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

Researchers could have uncovered Volkswagen’s emissions cheat if not hindered by the DMCA » Electronic Frontier Foundation

Kit Walsh:

Automakers argue that it’s unlawful for independent researchers to look at the code that controls vehicles without the manufacturer’s permission. We’ve explained before how this allows manufacturers to prevent competition in the markets for add-on technologies and repair tools. It also makes it harder for watchdogs to find safety or security issues, such as faulty code that can lead to unintended acceleration or vulnerabilities that let an attacker take over your car.

The legal uncertainly created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act also makes it easier for manufacturers to conceal intentional wrongdoing. We’ve asked the Librarian of Congress to grant an exemption to the DMCA to make it crystal clear that independent research on vehicle software doesn’t violate copyright law. In opposing this request, manufacturers asserted that individuals would violate emissions laws if they had access to the code. But we’ve now learned that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Volkswagen had already programmed an entire fleet of vehicles to conceal how much pollution they generated, resulting in a real, quantifiable impact on the environment and human health.

This code was shielded from watchdogs’ investigation by the anti-circumvention provision of the DMCA. Surprisingly, the EPA wrote in [PDF] to the Copyright Office to oppose the exemptions we’re seeking.

With a headline like that, it sounds like an episode of Scooby-Doo. The EPA’s argument in the linked letter is actually reasonable: you know that people will hack the ECM, especially if they get the source code.
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The Cruelest Opt-Out Forms » Tumblr

A project in which @lydialaurenson collects all those forms where, when you decline, you’re meant to feel guilty for doing so. Such as this:

Of course you don’t have to read it. You could just miss the best chance of your life.
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Self-parking cars are better than humans at parking » Fusion

A new study from the AAA put human drivers who considered themselves adept at parallel parking in a “park-off” against five models of self-parking cars. The result? Human drivers got absolutely destroyed by the automated cars in a test of basic parking skills.

Nearly 80% of survey respondents contacted by the AAA said they were “confident in their parallel parking abilities.” But self-parking cars hit the curb 81% less often than human drivers in the road test, and parked themselves with 47% fewer maneuvers. Self-parking cars were also able to park 37% closer to the curb than human drivers, and—to add insult to injury—they did it 10% faster than the humans.

“Self-parking cars” somehow doesn’t sound as sexy, you know? But the clincher is: only one in four of the people in a survey said they’d trust a car to do the parking. This is the knowledge gap that’s so crucial: we don’t know how good robots are at things.
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One million Android users infected with malware through an IQ testing application » Softpedia

Catalin Cimpanu:

The app is called Brain Test and is a simple IQ testing utility, which comes packed with a combination of complex malware strands.

According to Check Point’s research staff, the application was detected via the company’s Mobile Threat Prevention system, first on a Nexus 5 device.

Because its owner, after receiving the malware alert, did not manage to uninstall the malicious app, this prompted Check Point’s team to have a closer look at the source of the infection.

By reverse-engineering the Brain Test app, researchers found a very well-designed piece of malware, which allowed attackers to install third-party applications on the user’s phone, after previously rooting the device and even managing to become boot-persistent.

Brain Test came with a complex detection avoidance system

Looking even further into the issue, researchers found a complex system that allowed the malware to avoid detection by Google’s Bouncer, an automated app testing system that checks for known security issues.

The malware contained code that prevented it from executing if it detected it was being run from certain IP ranges, or domains containing “google”, ”android”, ”1e100.”

After managing to get around Bouncer’s checks and getting installed on a user’s phone, Brain Test would execute a time bomb function whenever the user would run it for the first time.

Even after Google zapped it, the app was re-uploaded five days later. Software that detects when it’s being tested really is the flavour of the month, isn’t it?
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London Collision Map Beta

Discover where road traffic collisions have happened in London since 2005; then filter by year, road user, collision severity and age group.

Figures for 2014 show that the number of people Killed or Seriously Injured (KSI) on London’s roads fell to the lowest level since records began. Safe Streets for London, London’s road safety plan, set out the ambition to work towards roads free from death and serious injury and the Mayor’s new target is to halve the number of KSIs by 2020 compared to the Government baseline.

Nice idea, but it’s pretty hellish to use. Heatmaps might have worked better.

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Why HP is irrelevant » Om Malik

A few years ago, in a conversation with my friend Pip Coburn (who spent a long time as a tech-stocks strategist for UBS before starting his own firm, Coburn Ventures), I mentioned that a certain company was dead, though not many realized it. And by “dead,” I didn’t mean that it was bankrupt, out of money or out of business. I meant it was dead in its ability to find growth, excitement and new ideas. Any positive energy had flattened and turned negative. “With that lens on, HP has been ‘dead’ for 15+ years,” Pip emailed me this morning.

Pip says that “companies have a space and time and purpose and when those fade the company would be wise to steadily shut itself down.” Like some other large tech companies, HP fits that bill. In a note to some of his clients, Pip pointed out, “The company [HP] doesn’t even do a good job of pretending to have a strategy.” And he is right.

It’s true: HP hasn’t made a market since, what the inkjet printer? Bubblejet printer? Laser printer? Whichever, it’s been a long time.
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When radiation isn’t the real risk » The New York Times

George Johnson:

This spring, four years after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, a small group of scientists met in Tokyo to evaluate the deadly aftermath.

No one has been killed or sickened by the radiation — a point confirmed last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even among Fukushima workers, the number of additional cancer cases in coming years is expected to be so low as to be undetectable, a blip impossible to discern against the statistical background noise.

But about 1,600 people died from the stress of the evacuation — one that some scientists believe was not justified by the relatively moderate radiation levels at the Japanese nuclear plant.

None of the workers who went into the stricken plant has died of radiation poisoning. The biggest problem for those workers is heatstroke caused by the extra protective equipment they wear.

Truly, the media reaction to Fukushima was enormously overblown; we are all bad at evaluating risk, but the media perhaps worst of all because “if it bleeds, it leads”.
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BT pledges better broadband for UK » BBC News

BT has hit back at rivals calling for its break-up, with a strategy to make the UK the fastest broadband nation.

It revealed plans to connect 10 million homes to ultrafast broadband [300-500Mbps] by the end of 2020 and raise the minimum broadband speed for homes that cannot get fibre to 5-10Mbps (megabits per second).

It comes in a week when rivals have denounced the quality of UK broadband.

In a letter to the Financial Times on Monday, they said BT should be split.

Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk were among signatories to the letter which claimed that millions of customers currently have a “substandard” broadband service.

Homes currently passed by fibre, according to Ofcom: 23.6m (with 30% takeup, ie 7.1m users).
Households in UK: 26.4m.

However, the gap between that pledge of ultrafast and minimum is just absurd. And it’ll be those who need the faster speeds – in rural areas – who won’t get it.
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Soft underbelly » Asymco

Horace Dediu suggests that existing carmakers are underestimating the threat they face from computer-industry entrants:

Traditional car making is capital intensive due to the processes and materials used. There are however alternatives on the shelf. iStream from Gordon Murray Design proposed switching to tubular frames and low cost composites.  BMW has an approach using carbon fiber other composites. 3D printing is waiting in the wings. All offer a departure from sheet metal stamping.

With new materials, costs for new plants can be reduced by as much as 80% and since amortizing the tooling is as much as 40% of the cost of new car, the margins on new production methods could result in significant boosts in margin.

There is a downside however. What is usually compromised when using these new methods is volume and scale of production. So that becomes the real question: how many cars can Apple target? 10k, 50k, 100k per year? Could they target 500k? That would be 10 times Tesla’s current volumes but only a bit more than the output of the Mini brand.

Now consider that the total market is 85 million vehicles per year. For Apple to get 10% share would imply 8.5 million cars a year, a feat that is hard to contemplate right now with any of the production systems. On the other hand selling 80 million iPhones and iPads in a single quarter has become routine for Apple and that was considered orders of magnitude beyond what they could deliver. Amazing what 8 years of production ramping can offer.

Given that cars are increasingly computers with fancy cases on wheels, you really don’t want to rule out low-end or even high-end disruption.
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Ad tech always wins: Ad blocker users are the new hot ad-targeting segment » Digiday

Lucia Moses:

“We want to find ways to reach these consumers in ways that suit how they want to be communicated to and with,” Laura Mete Frizzell, gm of search/analytics/media at 360i. “They are part of an audience for which the brand is relevant and can offer utility.”

The potential to target ad blockers is “on the radar,” said Jon Anselmo, senior vp, managing director of digital innovation at MediaVest. “People’s behaviors, including ad blocking, do provide us insights about who they are and what they care about. A tech-savvy nature could absolutely be one such insight.”

On the seller side, too, the idea of targeting blockers is starting to pop up in conversations with publishers like Complex, said its CEO and founder Rich Antoniello. “Those are the hardest to reach people,” he said. One response by Complex has been to use the space normally given over to ads to present ad blocker users with a message asking for their emails to target them regardless.

Mark that last one, because it must surely be the dumbest thing you’ll see today. (Via Rowland Manthorpe.)
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