Category Archives: ReadList

things to read later

The case against behavioral advertising is stacking up

No one likes being stalked around the Internet by adverts. It’s the uneasy joke you can’t enjoy laughing at. Yet vast people-profiling ad businesses have made pots of money off of an unregulated Internet by putting surveillance at their core.

But what if creepy ads don’t work as claimed? What if all the filthy lucre that’s currently being sunk into the coffers of ad tech giants — and far less visible but no less privacy-trampling data brokers — is literally being sunk, and could both be more honestly and far better spent?

Case in point: This week Digiday reported that the New York Times managed to grow its ad revenue after it cut off ad exchanges in Europe. The newspaper did this in order to comply with the region’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, which includes a regime of supersized maximum fines.

The newspaper business decided it simply didn’t want to take the risk, so first blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages and then nixed behavioral targeting. The result? A significant uptick in ad revenue, according to Digiday’s report.

“NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result, according to Jean-Christophe Demarta, SVP for global advertising at New York Times International,” it writes.

“Currently, all the ads running on European pages are direct-sold. Although the publisher doesn’t break out exact revenues for Europe, Demarta said that digital advertising revenue has increased significantly since last May and that has continued into early 2019.”

It also quotes Demarta summing up the learnings: “The desirability of a brand may be stronger than the targeting capabilities. We have not been impacted from a revenue standpoint, and, on the contrary, our digital advertising business continues to grow nicely.”

So while (of course) not every publisher is the NYT, publishers that have or can build brand cachet, and pull in a community of engaged readers, must and should pause for thought — and ask who is the real winner from the notion that digitally served ads must creep on consumers to work?

The NYT’s experience puts fresh taint on long-running efforts by tech giants like Facebook to press publishers to give up more control and ownership of their audiences by serving and even producing content directly for the third party platforms. (Pivot to video anyone?)

Such efforts benefit platforms because they get to make media businesses dance to their tune. But the self-serving nature of pulling publishers away from their own distribution channels (and content convictions) looks to have an even more bass string to its bow — as a cynical means of weakening the link between publishers and their audiences, thereby risking making them falsely reliant on adtech intermediaries squatting in the middle of the value chain.

There are other signs behavioural advertising might be a gigantically self-serving con too.

Look at non-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo, for instance, which has been making a profit by serving keyword-based ads and not profiling users since 2014, all the while continuing to grow usage — and doing so in a market that’s dominated by search giant Google.

DDG recently took in $10M in VC funding from a pension fund that believes there’s an inflection point in the online privacy story. These investors are also displaying strong conviction in the soundness of the underlying (non-creepy) ad business, again despite the overbearing presence of Google.

Meanwhile, Internet users continue to express widespread fear and loathing of the ad tech industry’s bandwidth- and data-sucking practices by running into the arms of ad blockers. Figures for usage of ad blocking tools step up each year, with between a quarter and a third of U.S. connected device users’ estimated to be blocking ads as of 2018 (rates are higher among younger users).

Ad blocking firm Eyeo, maker of the popular AdBlock Plus product, has achieved such a position of leverage that it gets Google et al to pay it to have their ads whitelisted by default — under its self-styled ‘acceptable ads’ program. (Though no one will say how much they’re paying to circumvent default ad blocks.)

So the creepy ad tech industry is not above paying other third parties for continued — and, at this point, doubly grubby (given the ad blocking context) — access to eyeballs. Does that sound even slightly like a functional market?

In recent years expressions of disgust and displeasure have also been coming from the ad spending side too — triggered by brand-denting scandals attached to the hateful stuff algorithms have been serving shiny marketing messages alongside. You don’t even have to be worried about what this stuff might be doing to democracy to be a concerned advertiser.

Fast moving consumer goods giants Unilever and Procter & Gamble are two big spenders which have expressed concerns. The former threatened to pull ad spend if social network giants didn’t clean up their act and prevent their platforms algorithmically accelerating hateful and divisive content.

While the latter has been actively reevaluating its marketing spending — taking a closer look at what digital actually does for it. And last March Adweek reported it had slashed $200M from its digital ad budget yet had seen a boost in its reach of 10 per cent, reinvesting the money into areas with “‘media reach’ including television, audio and ecommerce”.

The company’s CMO, Marc Pritchard, declined to name which companies it had pulled ads from but in a speech at an industry conference he said it had reduced spending “with several big players” by 20 per cent to 50 per cent, and still its ad business grew.

So chalk up another tale of reduced reliance on targeted ads yielding unexpected business uplift.

At the same time, academics are digging into the opaquely shrouded question of who really benefits from behavioral advertising. And perhaps getting closer to an answer.

Last fall, at an FTC hearing on the economics of big data and personal information, Carnegie Mellon University professor of IT and public policy, Alessandro Acquisti, teased a piece of yet to be published research — working with a large U.S. publisher that provided the researchers with millions of transactions to study.

Acquisti said the research showed that behaviourally targeted advertising had increased the publisher’s revenue but only marginally. At the same time they found that marketers were having to pay orders of magnitude more to buy these targeted ads, despite the minuscule additional revenue they generated for the publisher.

“What we found was that, yes, advertising with cookies — so targeted advertising — did increase revenues — but by a tiny amount. Four per cent. In absolute terms the increase in revenues was $0.000008 per advertisment,” Acquisti told the hearing. “Simultaneously we were running a study, as merchants, buying ads with a different degree of targeting. And we found that for the merchants sometimes buying targeted ads over untargeted ads can be 500% times as expensive.”

“How is it possible that for merchants the cost of targeting ads is so much higher whereas for publishers the return on increased revenues for targeted ads is just 4%,” he wondered, posing a question that publishers should really be asking themselves — given, in this example, they’re the ones doing the dirty work of snooping on (and selling out) their readers.

Acquisti also made the point that a lack of data protection creates economic winners and losers, arguing this is unavoidable — and thus qualifying the oft-parroted tech industry lobby line that privacy regulation is a bad idea because it would benefit an already dominant group of players. The rebuttal is that a lack of privacy rules also does that. And that’s exactly where we are now.

“There is a sort of magical thinking happening when it comes to targeted advertising [that claims] everyone benefits from this,” Acquisti continued. “Now at first glance this seems plausible. The problem is that upon further inspection you find there is very little empirical validation of these claims… What I’m saying is that we actually don’t know very well to which these claims are true and false. And this is a pretty big problem because so many of these claims are accepted uncritically.”

There’s clearly far more research that needs to be done to robustly interrogate the effectiveness of targeted ads against platform claims and vs more vanilla types of advertising (i.e. which don’t demand reams of personal data to function). But the fact that robust research hasn’t been done is itself interesting.

Acquisti noted the difficulty of researching “opaque blackbox” ad exchanges that aren’t at all incentivized to be transparent about what’s going on. Also pointing out that Facebook has sometimes admitted to having made mistakes that significantly inflated its ad engagement metrics.

His wider point is that much current research into the effectiveness of digital ads is problematically narrow and so is exactly missing a broader picture of how consumers might engage with alternative types of less privacy-hostile marketing.

In a nutshell, then, the problem is the lack of transparency from ad platforms; and that lack serving the self same opaque giants.

But there’s more. Critics of the current system point out it relies on mass scale exploitation of personal data to function, and many believe this simply won’t fly under Europe’s tough new GDPR framework.

They are applying legal pressure via a set of GDPR complaints, filed last fall, that challenge the legality of a fundamental piece of the (current) adtech industry’s architecture: Real-time bidding (RTB); arguing the system is fundamentally incompatible with Europe’s privacy rules.

We covered these complaints last November but the basic argument is that bid requests essentially constitute systematic data breaches because personal data is broadcast widely to solicit potential ad buys and thereby poses an unacceptable security risk — rather than, as GDPR demands, people’s data being handled in a way that “ensures appropriate security”.

To spell it out, the contention is the entire behavioral advertising business is illegal because it’s leaking personal data at such vast and systematic scale it cannot possibly comply with EU data protection law.

Regulators are considering the argument, and courts may follow. But it’s clear adtech systems that have operated in opaque darkness for years, without no worry of major compliance fines, no longer have the luxury of being able to take their architecture as a given.

Greater legal risk might be catalyst enough to encourage a market shift towards less intrusive targeting; ads that aren’t targeted based on profiles of people synthesized from heaps of personal data but, much like DuckDuckGo’s contextual ads, are only linked to a real-time interest and a generic location. No creepy personal dossiers necessary.

If Acquisti’s research is to be believed — and here’s the kicker for Facebook et al — there’s little reason to think such ads would be substantially less effective than the vampiric microtargeted variant that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to describe as “relevant”.

The ‘relevant ads’ badge is of course a self-serving concept which Facebook uses to justify creeping on users while also pushing the notion that its people-tracking business inherently generates major extra value for advertisers. But does it really do that? Or are advertisers buying into another puffed up fake?

Facebook isn’t providing access to internal data that could be used to quantify whether its targeted ads are really worth all the extra conjoined cost and risk. While the company’s habit of buying masses of additional data on users, via brokers and other third party sources, makes for a rather strange qualification. Suggesting things aren’t quite what you might imagine behind Zuckerberg’s drawn curtain.

Behavioral ad giants are facing growing legal risk on another front. The adtech market has long been referred to as a duopoly, on account of the proportion of digital ad spending that gets sucked up by just two people-profiling giants: Google and Facebook (the pair accounted for 58% of the market in 2018, according to eMarketer data) — and in Europe a number of competition regulators have been probing the duopoly.

Earlier this month the German Federal Cartel Office was reported to be on the brink of partially banning Facebook from harvesting personal data from third party providers (including but not limited to some other social services it owns). Though an official decision has yet to be handed down.

While, in March 2018, the French Competition Authority published a meaty opinion raising multiple concerns about the online advertising sector — and calling for an overhaul and a rebalancing of transparency obligations to address publisher concerns that dominant platforms aren’t providing access to data about their own content.

The EC’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, is also taking a closer look at whether data hoarding constitutes a monopoly. And has expressed a view that, rather than breaking companies up in order to control platform monopolies, the better way to go about it in the modern ICT era might be by limiting access to data — suggesting another potentially looming legal headwind for personal data-sucking platforms.

At the same time, the political risks of social surveillance architectures have become all too clear.

Whether microtargeted political propaganda works as intended or not is still a question mark. But few would support letting attempts to fiddle elections just go ahead and happen anyway.

Yet Facebook has rushed to normalize what are abnormally hostile uses of its tools; aka the weaponizing of disinformation to further divisive political ends — presenting ‘election security’ as just another day-to-day cost of being in the people farming business. When the ‘cost’ for democracies and societies is anything but normal. 

Whether or not voters can be manipulated en masse via the medium of targeted ads, the act of targeting itself certainly has an impact — by fragmenting the shared public sphere which civilized societies rely on to drive consensus and compromise. Ergo, unregulated social media is inevitably an agent of antisocial change.

The solution to technology threatening democracy is far more transparency; so regulating platforms to understand how, why and where data is flowing, and thus get a proper handle on impacts in order to shape desired outcomes.

Greater transparency also offers a route to begin to address commercial concerns about how the modern adtech market functions.

And if and when ad giants are forced to come clean — about how they profile people; where data and value flows; and what their ads actually deliver — you have to wonder what if anything will be left unblemished.

People who know they’re being watched alter their behavior. Similarly, platforms may find behavioral change enforced upon them, from above and below, when it becomes impossible for everyone else to ignore what they’re doing.

Old Gods and New Gods prepare for war in new trailer for American Gods S2

Second trailer for American Gods season 2, which debuts on Starz March 10.

We’re less than two months away from the season 2 debut of American Gods, the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, and Starz has rewarded fans’ patience with a shiny new trailer.

(Spoilers for first season below.)

In season 1, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a recently released convict, falls in with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) as his bodyguard, after losing his wife, Laura (Emily Browning). But Mr. Wednesday is not who he seems. He’s actually the ancient Norse god Odin seeking to rally all the remaining Old Gods, who are slowly dying off from people’s lack of belief. Their mission: beat back the encroaching influence of all the New Gods so they can survive.

The first season covered roughly the first third of Gaiman’s novel, culminating in a gathering of the gods at the home of the goddess Easter (Kristin Chenoweth), who inflicted widespread drought on Earth as Mr. Wednesday revealed his true identity. So expect season 2 to cover much of the second third. Per the official season synopsis, “The battle between Old Gods and New Gods continues to brew as we join Mr. Wednesday just a few short hours after his declaration of war and the epic showdown that ensued at Easter’s party.” Gaiman confirmed last October at New York Comic Con that season 3 will cover the last third of the book.

We know there will be some new faces in the cast, most notably Kahyun Kim replacing Gillian Anderson as Media, as well as Mama-Ji (Sakina Jaffrey), the Hindu goddess of death (now working as a waitress at Motel America), Mr. Town (Dean Winters), a ruthless agent of the New Gods. and Sam Black Crow (Devery Jacobs(, a hitch-hiking college student.

The first trailer for the new season dropped in October, and it looked quite promising, even if was mostly tantalizing glimpses of the returning cast. We expressed hope that the rumors of production turmoil surrounding season 2—leading to the departure of original show runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, followed by their replacement, Jesse Alexander—would not, in the end, adversely affect the final product.  But we were less impressed by the sneak peek Starz posted on Twitter in December, showing the first three minutes of the new season.

It opens with a well-heeled man teeing off on the golf course when he is mowed down by a careening limo, driven by none other than Technical Boy (Bruce Langley). I guess this is meant to show the capriciousness of the gods, both Old and New, toward human life. Or maybe it was punishment for the golfer’s obnoxious vanity license plate, PAR-TEE. Anyway, Technical Boy drives to a dimly lit garage and a badly wounded Mr. World (Crispin Glover) emerges.

Then all we get is Glover muttering dark threats about taking out Mr. Wednesday once and for all, with overwrought lines like eradicating the “paternal stain from the geriatric tomes of every decrepit church, temple, and back alley apothecary.” He’s there to enlist an ally, and instructs Technical Boy to go find Media in the meantime. “This is a time for preparation,” he says. “I can’t sell war without my best salesman.”

This second trailer looks a bit more promising, with a ton of new footage. Mr. Wednesday is also preparing for war, and assures Shadow he has a big role to play. But there’s always a catch with Mr. Wednesday; there’s no assurance that role will be a pleasant one. It also looks like we’re going to get a few more flashbacks, as there are scenes clearly set in the Old West, Nazi Germany, and what looks to be an ancient tribal conflict of some kind. We’re most intrigued by the purpose of Mr Wednesday’s clearly magical carousel. Does it transport people in space as it spins faster and faster, or through space and time, as a means of visiting conflict in ages past? Or something else entirely? We’ll soon find out.

Season 2 of American Gods will debut on Starz on March 10, 2019.

Listing image by YouTube/Starz

Thanks to Hulu, Disney lost $580 million last fiscal year

The streaming media business is tough. Disney, which has a 30 percent stake Hulu, saw losses of $580 million last fiscal year, according to an SEC filing.

This was, the SEC filing states, “primarily due to a higher loss from our investment in Hulu, partially offset by a favorable comparison to a loss from BAMTech in the prior year.”

BAMTech is the streaming technology that powers ESPN+ and other services. In total, streaming accounted for more than $1 billion in losses for Disney last fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Disney has yet to release its own streaming service, Disney+, which is slated for late 2019. Disney is also planning to increase its investment in Hulu, focusing more on original content and international expansion.

As part of Disney’s buyout of 21st Century Fox, Disney will soon own another 30 percent of Hulu. If the business goes similarly for Hulu this fiscal year, that will only increase Disney’s losses.

Uber is exploring autonomous bikes and scooters

Uber is looking to integrate autonomous technology into its bike and scooter-share programs. Details are scarce, but according to 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson, who said Uber announced this at a DIY Robotics event over the weekend, the division will live inside Uber’s JUMP group, which is responsible for shared electric bikes and scooters.

The new division, Micromobility Robotics, will explore autonomous scooters and bikes that can drive themselves to be charged, or drive themselves to locations where riders need them. The Telegraph has since reported Uber has already begun hiring for this team.

“The New Mobilities team at Uber is exploring ways to improve safety, rider experience, and operational efficiency of our shared electric scooters and bicycles through the application of sensing and robotics technologies,” Uber’s ATG wrote in a Google Form seeking information from people interested in career opportunities.

Back in December, Uber unveiled its next generation of JUMP bikes, with self-diagnostic capabilities and swappable batteries. The impetus for the updated bikes came was the need to improve JUMP’s overall unit economics.

“That is a major improvement to system utilization, the operating system, fleet uptime and all of the most critical metrics about how businesses are performing with running a shared fleet,” JUMP Head of Product Nick Foley told TechCrunch last month. “Swappable batteries mean you don’t have to take vehicles back to wherever you charge a bike or scooter, and that’s good for the business.”

Autonomous bikes and scooters would make Uber’s shared micromobility business less reliant on humans to charge the vehicles. You could envision a scenario where Uber deploys freshly-charged bikes and scooters to areas where other vehicles are low on juice. Combine that with swappable batteries (think about Uber quickly swapping in a new battery once the vehicle makes it back to the warehouse and then immediately re-deploying that bike or scooter), and Uber has itself a well-oiled machine that increases vehicle availability and improves the overall rider experience.

Uber declined to comment.

Facebook launches petition feature, its next battlefield

Gather a mob and Facebook will now let you make political demands. Tomorrow Facebook will encounter a slew of fresh complexities with the launch of Community Actions, its News Feed petition feature. Community Actions could unite neighbors to request change from their local and national elected officials and government agencies. But it could also provide vocal interest groups a bully pulpit from which to pressure politicians and bureaucrats with their fringe agendas.

Community Actions embodies the central challenge facing Facebook. Every tool it designs for positive expression and connectivity can be subverted for polarization and misinformation. Facebook’s membership has swelled into such a ripe target for exploitation that it draws out the worst of humanity. You can imagine misuses like “Crack down on [minority group]” that are offensive or even dangerous but some see as legitimate. The question is whether Facebook puts in the forethought and aftercare to safeguard its new tools with proper policy and moderation. Otherwise each new feature is another liability.

Community Actions roll out to the entire US tomorrow after several weeks of testing in a couple of markets. Users can add a title, description, and image to their Community Action, and tag relevant government agencies and officials who’ll be notified. The goal is to make the Community Action go viral and get people to hit the “Support” button. Community Actions have their own discussion feed where people can leave comments, create fundraisers, and organize Facebook Events or Call Your Rep campaigns. Facebook displays the numbers of supporters behind a Community Action, but you’ll only be able to see the names of those you’re friends with or that are Pages or public figures.

Facebook is purposefully trying to focus Community Actions to be more narrowly concentrated on spurring government action than just any random cause. That means it won’t immediately replace Change.org petitions that can range from the civilian to the absurd. But one-click Support straight from the News Feed could massively reduce the friction to signing up, and thereby attract organizations and individuals seeking to maximize the size of their mob.

You can check out some examples here of Community Actions here like a non-profit Colorado Rising calling for the governor to put a moratorium on oil and gas drilling, citizens asking the a Florida’s mayor and state officials to build a performing arts center, and a Philadelphia neighborhood association requesting that the city put in crosswalks by the library. I fully expect one of the first big Community Actions will be the social network’s users asking Senators to shut down Facebook or depose Mark Zuckerberg.

The launch follows other civic-minded Facebook features like its Town Hall and Candidate Info for assessing politicians, Community Help for finding assistance after a disaster, and local news digest Today In. A Facebook spokesperson who gave us the first look at Community Actions provided this statement:

“Building informed and civically engaged communities is at the core of Facebook’s mission. Every day, people come together on Facebook to advocate for causes they care about, including by contacting their elected officials, launching a fundraiser, or starting a group. Through these and other tools, we have seen people marshal support for and get results on issues that matter to them. Community Action is another way for people to advocate for changes in their communities and partner with elected officials and government agencies on solutions.”

The question will be where Facebook’s moderators draw the line on what’s appropriate as a Community Action, and the ensuing calls of bias that line will trigger. Facebook is employing a combination of user flagging, proactive algorithmic detection, and human enforcers to manage the feature. But what the left might call harassment, the right might call free expression. If Facebook allows controversial Community Actions to persist, it could be viewed as complicit with their campaigns, but could be criticized for censorship if it takes one down. Like fake news and trending topics, the feature could become the social network’s latest can of worms.

Facebook is trying to prioritize local Actions where community members have a real stake. It lets user display “constituent” badges so their elected officials know they aren’t just a distant rabble-rouser. It’s why Facebook will not allow President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence to be tagged in Community Actions. But you’re free to tag all your state representatives demanding nude parks, apparently.

Another issue is how people can stand up against a Community Action. Only those who Support one may join in its discussion feed. That might lead trolls to falsely pledge their backing just to stir up trouble in the comments. Otherwise, Facebook tells me users will have to share a Community Action to their own feed with a message of disapproval, or launch their own in protest. My concern is that an agitated but niche group could drive a sense of false equivocacy by using Facebook Groups or message threads to make it look like there’s as much or more support for a vulgar cause or against of a just one. A politician could be backed into a corner and forced to acknowledge radicals or bad-faith actors lest they look negligent

While Facebook’s spokesperson says initial tests didn’t surface many troubles, the company is trying to balance safety with efficiency and it will consider how to evolve the feature in response to emergent behaviors. The trouble is that open access draws out the trolls and grifters seeking to fragment society. Facebook will have to assume the thorny responsibility of shepherding the product towards righteousness and defining what that even means. If it succeeds, there’s an amazing opportunity here for citizens to band together to exert consensus upon government. A chorus of voices carries much further than a single cry.

The AI market is growing, but how quickly is tough to pin down

If you work in tech, you’ve heard about artificial intelligence: how it’s going to replace uswhether it’s over-hyped or not and which nations will leverage it to prevent, or instigate, war.

Our editorial bent is more clear-cut: How much money is going into startups? Who is putting that money in? And what trends can we suss out about the health of the market over time?

So let’s talk about the state of AI startups and how much capital is being raised. Here’s what I can tell you: funding totals for AI startups are growing year-over-year; I just don’t know precisely how quickly. Regardless, startups are certainly raising massive sums of money off the buzzword.

To make that point, here are just a few of the biggest rounds announced and recorded by Crunchbase in 2018:

  • SenseTime, a China-based startup that is quite good at tracking your face wherever it may be, raised a $1 billion Series D round. It was the largest round of the year in the AI category, according to Crunchbase. But what’s more mind-blowing is that the company raised a total of $2.2 billion in just one year across three rounds. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a face is worth billions of dollars.
  • UBTech Robotics, another China-based startup focusing on robotics, raised an $820 million Series C. Just a cursory look at its website, however, makes UBTech appear to be a high-end toy maker rather than an AI innovator.
  • And biotech startup Zymergen, which “manufactures microbes for Fortune 500 companies,” according to Crunchbase, raised a $400 million Series C.

Now, this is the part I normally include a chart and 400 words of copy to contextualize the AI market. But if you read the above descriptions closely, you’ll see our problem: What the hell does “AI” mean?

Take Zymergen as an example. Crunchbase tags it with the AI marker. Bloomberg, citing data from CB Insights, agrees. But if you were making the decision, would you demarcate it as an AI company?

Zymergen’s own website doesn’t employ the phrase. Rather, it uses buzzwords commonly associated with AI — machine learning, automation. Zymergen’s home page, technology page and careers page are devoid of the term.

Instead, the company focuses on molecular technology. Artificial intelligence is not, in fact, what Zymergen is selling. We also know that Zymergen uses some AI-related tools to help it understand its data sets (check its jobs page for more). But is that enough to call it an AI startup? I don’t think so. I would call it biotech.

That brings us back to the data. In the spirit of transparency, CB Insights reports a 72 percent boost in 2018 AI investment over 2017 funding totals. Crunchbase data pegs 2018’s AI funding totals at a more modest 38 percent increase over the preceding year.

So we know that AI fundraising for private companies is growing. The two numbers make that plain. But it’s increasingly clear to me after nearly two years of staring at AI funding rounds that there’s no market consensus over exactly what counts as an AI startup. Bloomberg in its coverage of CB Insights’ report doesn’t offer a definition. What would yours be?

If you don’t have one, don’t worry; you’re not alone. Professionals constantly debate what AI actually means, and who actually deserves the classification. There’s no taxonomy for startups like how we classify animals. It’s flexible, and with PR, you can bend perception past reality.

I have a suspicion there are startups that overstate their proximity to AI. For instance, is employing Amazon’s artificial intelligence services in your back end enough to call yourself an AI startup? I would say no. But after perusing Crunchbase data, you can see plenty of startups that classify themselves on such slippery grounds.

And the problem we’re encountering rhymes well with a broader definitional crisis: What exactly is a tech company? In the case of Blue Apron, public investors certainly differed with private investors over the definition, as Alex Wilhelm has touched on before.

So what I can tell you is that AI startup funding is up. By how much? A good amount. But the precise figure is hard to pin down until we all agree what counts as an AI startup.

This wildlife photographer invented his own devices to capture images of dangerous and elusive animals

Camera trap image taken by Will Burrard-Lucas using Camtraptions PIR motion sensor. (Photo courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas)

What is it like to look up from the feet of an elephant or to see eye-to-eye with a leopard from inches away? UK photographer Will Burrard-Lucas is on a quest to show you, but he had to invent his own set of photo gear and start his own hardware company to achieve it.

I met Burrard-Lucas in December on a photo expedition to Antarctica, which he helped to lead. He shared how his photography has evolved and the devices he has created to support his work.

After studying physics at university and a brief stint as an accountant in London, Burrard-Lucas became a full-time wildlife photographer. In 2009, he invented a remote-controlled vehicle for a DSLR camera called the BeetleCam, designed to get close to large and dangerous animals like lions, elephants and buffalo.

Elephants photographed with a remote camera-buggy (BeetleCam). South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. (Photo courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas)

He also started a company called Camptraptions to sell the gear to fellow photographers. “What I wanted to achieve with it was to get my camera down low, on the ground and really close to my subject, so I could photograph them with a wide angle lens,” said Burrard-Lucas.

Will Burrard-Lucas with a BeetleCam (Photo courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas)

The first version of the BeetleCam revealed a critical design flaw when the camera was mauled by a lion, leading to the current design that includes an armored shell along with four-wheel drive, wireless control and camera-tilting capabilities.

A clan of inquisitive spotted hyenas photographed with a remote-control camera in Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia. Hyenas in Liuwa vastly out-number other predators and this has made them extremely bold. The also form large clans of up to 50 animals! I often found the hyenas would stroll right up to my camera to investigate it! Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia (Photo courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas)
(Photo courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas)

The remote-controlled camera buggy wasn’t effective to capture photos of creatures that are shy around humans or nocturnal, so Burrard-Lucas set out to create his own camera trap sensors.

Using passive infrared sensors like those found in your home security system encased in a weather-tight housing, the sensors are able to wirelessly trigger both camera shutters and flashes.

“I can leave it out for weeks or even months at a time, just waiting for that animal to pass, said Burrard-Lucas. “Because the camera trap allowed me time to set up lighting in advance, it is actually one of the best ways to photograph nocturnal creatures.”

Hyena at night taken by Will Burrard-Lucas using Camtraptions PIR motion sensor.(Photo courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas)

Will encourages photographers interested in camera trap photography to try it out in their back yard. “Whether it’s interesting lighting effects that you setup or going after that really elusive creature, there are a lot of different ways that people are using these camera traps to try to capture something that hasn’t been captured before,” said Burrard-Lucas.

See more of Will Burrard-Lucas’ spectacular work and the remote camera equipment that he created at willbl.com.

Rudy Claims Credit for Peter Carr’s Correction of BuzzFeed, Which Had the Goal of Tamping Down Impeachment Talk

In this post, I suggested that Rod Rosenstein’s call to Mueller’s office to see if they were going to release a statement pushing back against Buzzfeed’s story on Michael Cohen’s testimony might be a violation of SCO regulations protecting against “day-to-day supervision” by DOJ.

In his appearance on Jake Tapper’s show today, Rudy Giuliani (starting at 14:25) appears to take credit for SCO’s statement. After agreeing with Tapper that the NYT had corrected their claim that Paul Manafort had shared polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik with the intent that it in turn get shared with two Ukrainian oligarchs he worked for, he noted that the NYT had not issued the correction on their own. He then said that the Special Counsel’s office had not, either.

Rudy: Originally the NYTimes ran with the story [about Paul Manafort sharing polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik] — again, fake news — that he shared it with a Russian, not true. [note: actually it is true, because Kilimnik himself is a Russian citizen]

Tapper: They corrected that. They corrected that.

Rudy: They did correct that. They didn’t correct that — my friend, they didn’t correct that, they didn’t correct that just completely on their own by the way. The same thing with Special Counsel. That didn’t happen spontaneously.

At the very least, this undermines WaPo’s claim that Mueller already had a correction of Buzzfeed in the works before Rosenstein’s office called.

In the advanced stages of those talks, the deputy attorney general’s office called to inquire if the special counsel planned any kind of response, and was informed a statement was being prepared, the people said.

Worse still, it seems to suggest he or someone from the White House was involved.

The WaPo story suggested that the statement was issued because Democrats were discussing impeachment.

[W]ith Democrats raising the specter of investigation and impeachment, Mueller’s team started discussing a step they had never before taken: publicly disputing reporting on evidence in their ongoing investigation.

I’ve since heard the same.

It is not appropriate one way or another to issue a statement that otherwise would not have gotten made solely to tamp down discussion about impeachment — as opposed to reestablish what Special Counsel claims it can prove with regards to Cohen’s lies. If Trump suborned perjury about his own doings with Russia — and Congress already had abundant evidence that he had done so before Buzzfeed’s story — then that is grounds to discuss impeachment. That is a proper function of Congress. It is not the function of the Deputy Attorney General’s office to suppress perfectly legitimate discussions of impeachment.

But if the White House or Trump’s personal lawyer demanded that DOJ interfere in the day-to-day supervision of Mueller’s office with the specific goal of silencing talk about impeachment, as Rudy seems to suggest, that is a far more egregious intervention. That would mean Rosenstein’s office (either with or without the intervention of Big Dick Toilet Salesman Matt Whitaker) did what they did because Trump demanded it, which led them to take action that is arguably outside their permissible role with Mueller, all for the political purpose of squelching legitimate congressional discussion about impeachment.

The Special Counsel’s office declined to comment for this post.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

image_print

Week in Review: Most popular stories on GeekWire for the week of Jan. 13, 2019

Get caught up on the latest technology and startup news from the past week. Here are the most popular stories on GeekWire for the week of Jan. 13, 2019.

Sign up to receive these updates every Sunday in your inbox by subscribing to our GeekWire Weekly email newsletter.

Most popular stories on GeekWire

Dick's Drive-In

Update, Saturday, Jan. 19, 3:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to add comment from Paul Rich, who took the photograph. … Read More

The promise of so-called “low code/no code” software-development tools is to enable anyone to create business applications around their custom needs. … Read More

Penny Arcade partners with Wizards of the Coast to publish official "Acquisitions Incorporated Dungeon Manual"

Penny Arcade, the Seattle-based webcomic that spawned the popular PAX video game conventions, is partnering with Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast to release an official Acquisitions Incorporated Dungeon Manual, the first official third-party D&D book. … Read More

Stratolaunch taxi test

Stratolaunch, the Seattle-based space venture created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen seven years ago, says it’s discontinuing its programs to develop a new type of rocket engine and a new line of rockets. … Read More

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details from the Sounders’ event announcing Zulily as its new jersey sponsor. … Read More

Nike is disrupting shoelaces. The Beaverton, Ore.-based shoe giant unveiled its latest technological innovation on Tuesday, showing off the new Nike Adapt BB basketball shoes that use a power-lacing system designed to automatically tighten and loosen around a foot, depending on an athlete’s activity. … Read More

Jeff Bezos

Perhaps it was only a matter of time until the president tweeted about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ divorce from MacKenzie Bezos, his wife of 25 years. … Read More

Seattle’s booming tech sector helped push the city to the title of the nation’s hottest housing market for close to two years — for better or worse — but now Seattle isn’t even in the top 10, thanks to a recent real estate slowdown that has hit several West Coast markets. … Read More

SpaceX Dragon release

SpaceX’s robotic Dragon cargo ship splashed down in the Pacific Ocean tonight, bringing science experiments and used hardware from the International Space Station back to Earth after dark. … Read More

Coinstar, the maker of kiosks that turn loose change into cash and gift cards, has partnered with cryptocurrency ATM startup Coinme to let users buy bitcoin. … Read More

Intrepid scientist corrects physiology in Gulliver’s Travels after 300 years

Title page of first edition of Jonathan Swift's <em>Gulliver's Travels</em>, relating the fictional adventures of one Lemuel Gulliver.
Enlarge / Title page of first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, relating the fictional adventures of one Lemuel Gulliver.
Meisei University Library, Tokyo, Japan

Gulliver’s Travels is justly regarded as one of the best satirical novels of all time, although its author, Jonathan Swift, claimed he wrote the book “to vex the world rather than divert it.” Politicians of the time were indeed vexed at being mocked in its pages. It seems the author’s physiological descriptions also proved a bit vexatious, according to a charming new paper in the Journal of Physiological Sciences.

First published in 1726, Gulliver’s Travels relates the fictional adventures of one Lemuel Gulliver, “first a surgeon and then a captain of several ships,” according to the book’s lengthy subtitle. During his voyages, Gulliver encounters several unusual species: the tiny people of Lilliput, the giants of Brobdingnag, talking horses called Houyhnhnms who rule over the deformed, uncouth Yahoos, and the inhabitants of the flying island of Laputa, who devote themselves to the study of science and the arts but have never figured out how to apply that knowledge for practical applications. Apart from its literary qualities, Gulliver’s Travels provided ample fodder for eagle-eyed experts, since Swift couldn’t resist going into great detail about the physiology of his fictional species, practically inviting closer scrutiny.

Toshio Kuroki, special advisor to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and Gifu University, read Gulliver’s Travels for the first time with his book club. Having spent a long, prestigious career conducting cancer research, Kuroki immediately noticed an error on Swift’s part when estimating Gulliver’s energy requirements compared to that of the diminutive Lilliputions. It spurred him to look more closely at similar passages in the book, and to make his own comparative physiological analysis of the fictional creatures encountered by Gulliver during his travels.

“The sizes of the Lilliputions and Brobdingnagians are close to those of rats and large dinosaurs, respectively.”

Gulliver is described as being less than 6 feet tall in the book. Per Kuroki, a 2000 survey of heights across England found that the average height for men in the 18th century was around 5 feet 6 inches, so this seems about right. Apparently Swift “adopted the base of 12 in imagining these fictitious peoples,” Kuroki wrote. Per Swift’s text, the Lilliputions were 1/12 the size of Gulliver, while the Brobdingnagians were 12 times his size. That would make the Lilliputions just under half a foot, with the Brobdingnagians towering above everyone at just over 67 feet. Both fictional species are described as having bodies shaped similarly to humans.

Swift assumed weight would be proportional to the cube of the height, and used that to estimate the relative energy requirements of the three species. But Kuroki cites Quetelet’s rule (1869), stating that weight is proportional to the square of the height. It was kind of the body-mass-index (BMI) of the 19th century, and Kuroki came up with an average BMI of 23 for his analysis. That would put the average Lillipution’s weight at 1 pound, Gulliver’s at 148 pounds, and the Brobdingnagians at 21,351 pounds. “The sizes of the Lilliputions and Brobdingnagians are close to those of rats and large dinosaurs, respectively,” Kuroki wrote.

Wheras Swift estimated that Gulliver would need to consume the daily food requirement of 1724 Lilliputions, Kuroki’s analysis showed that food for just 42 of the tiny creatures would suffice for the adventurer’s energy needs.  As for the gigantic Brobdingnagians, Gulliver would only need the food consumed by 1/42 such creatures. Based on this, “the food requirement of Gulliver in the original text should be corrected after almost three centuries,” Kuroki wrote. Kuroki also estimated the comparative heartbeats, respiration rates, life spans (known to roughly follow a power law), and blood pressure for the three species.

Energy (metabolic rate, watt) of various animals as a function of body mass (kg). Those of Lilliputians, Gulliver and Brobdingnagians are plotted on a regression line.
Enlarge / Energy (metabolic rate, watt) of various animals as a function of body mass (kg). Those of Lilliputians, Gulliver and Brobdingnagians are plotted on a regression line.
Toshio Kuroki

Apparently Kuroki gave a presentation on his analyses to his fellow book club members. “After my presentation, colleagues at the book club appreciated that they now had a better image of these fictitious peoples, but added that it was a unique but not necessarily proper viewpoint from which to consider this book,” Kuroki wrote. “I agreed.” I suspect Swift himself would have been amused by the exercise.

Swift fared a bit better in his treatment of astronomy in Gulliver’s Travels. In “The Voyage to Laputa” (Part 3, Chapter 3), he notes that the astronomers of that land had discovered “two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars.” Mars does indeed have two moons, Deimos and Phobos, both found in 1877 by Asaph Hall, although Kepler had speculated about their possible existence. (Kepler may have been Swift’s inspiration.) That’s why a crater on Deimos is named after Swift, along with various minor features on Phobos.

DOI: Journal of Physiological Sciences, 2019. 10.1007/s12576-018-00655-4  (About DOIs).