Archives for April 2019

Cyber Saturday—YouTube Extremism, Bezos Phone Hacking, Spies at Mar-a-Lago

What causes a person to become radicalized?

This was the subject of a fascinating talk delivered by Tamar Mitts, an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, at a “data science day” hosted by the school on Wednesday. Mitts studied the efficacy of Twitter-disseminated propaganda supporting the self-identified Islamic State, or ISIS, in 2015 and 2016. To avoid the “obvious ethical issues” which attend to subjecting humans analysts to ISIS propaganda, Mitts said she used machine learning algorithms to identify and sort messages and videos into various categories, such as whether they contained violence. Then she parsed her dataset to uncover trends.

Mitts’ results were a revelation. Even though people tend to associate ISIS propaganda with heinous acts of brutality—beheadings, murder, and the like—Mitts found that such violence was, more often than not, counterproductive to the group’s aims. “The most interesting and unexpected result was that when these messages were being coupled with extreme, violent imagery, these videos became ineffective,” Mitts said. In other words, the savagery for which ISIS became famous did not appeal to the majority of its followers; positive messaging found greater success.

There’s a caveat though: Anyone who was already extremely supportive of ISIS became even more fanatical after encountering a piece of propaganda featuring violence. So, while violent acts turned off newcomers and casual sympathizers, they nudged ideologues further down the path of radicalization. Extremism begets polarity.

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, Mitts’ research gains even more relevance. Tech giants are continuing to fail to curb a scourge of violence and hate speech proliferating on their sites. World governments are, meanwhile, passing ham-fisted policies to stem the spread of such bile.

Perhaps Mitts’ discoveries could help society to avoid repeating history’s darkest moments. My appreciation for her work grew after I finished reading In the Garden of Beasts, a gripping journalistic endeavor by Erik Larson, which details the rise of Nazi Germany through the eyes of an American ambassador and his family living in Berlin. Afterward, I watched a YouTube video—an innocuous one—recommended by the author: Symphony of a Great City, a 1927 film that documented the daily life of ordinary Berliners at that time. It amazes me to think how, within a few years, these souls would come under the sway of Hitler’s bloodthirsty regime.

While the Internet makes zealotry easier than ever to incite, today’s tools also make it easier to study.

Robert Hackett

@rhhackett

[email protected]

Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach Robert Hackett via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my about.me), PGP encrypted email (see public key on my Keybase.io), Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.

An Open Letter from Steve Jobs to Tim Cook

Time passes quickly and the WiFi is spotty here in Trāyastriṃśaso I apologize for taking so long to check out how you’ve been doing with our company.

Of course, truth be known, Apple was already on that trajectory when I handed you the company, but props anyway.

Beyond that, though, I feel I must ask: Is that ALL you could manage with that money and talent? Seriously?

OK… Let me calm down… Deep breath… Nam Myoho Renge Kyo… Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.. That’s better.

Look, Tim, I don’t want to go all heavy on your case, but here’s what you need to do to make Apple great again:

1. Invest in new technology.

You let our cash on hand get all the way up to $245 billion??? Earning maybe 3% interest? Are you out of your mind?!?!  With those deep pockets, we should be making huge investments and acquisitions in every technology that will comprise the world of the future. You’ve let that upstart Musk make us look like IBM. That’s just plain wrong. 

2. Attack and cripple Google.

Google is our new nemesis, remember? They attacked our core business model with that Android PoC. But, Tim, c’mon… Google is weak. They can’t innovate worth beans and most of their revenue still comes from online ads, which are only valuable because they constantly violate user privacy. You could cut their revenues in half if you added a defaul 100% secure Internet search app to iOS and Mac OS. Spend a few billion and make it faster and better than Google’s ad-laden wide-open nightmare. This isn’t brain surgery.

3. Make the iPad into a PC killer.

WTF? The iPad was supposed to be our big revenge on Microsoft for almost putting us out of business. All it needed was a mouse and could have killed–killed!–laptop sales. Sure, it would have cut into MacBook sales, but that’s the way our industry works. I let the Macintosh kill the Lisa, remember? And the Lisa was my personal pet project. The iPad could have been the next PC… and it still might not be too late.  

4. Give our engineers private offices.

I get it, Tim. You’re not a programmer. You built your career in high tech but it was always in sales and marketing, which are the parts of the business where a lot of talking and socializing make sense. But if you’d ever designed a product, or actually written code, you’d know engineering requires concentration without distractions. Programmers and designers don’t belong in an open plan office. Give them back their private offices before it’s too late.

5. Don’t announce trivial dreck.

A credit card? Seriously? Airbuds with ear-clips? A me-too news service? Is that best you can do? And what was with Oprah And Spielberg at the event? Hey, the year 2007 called and wants its celebrities back. Look, when you gin up the press and the public up for a huge announcement and it’s just meh tweaks to existing products or me-too stuff, it makes us look lame and out of touch. If we don’t have anything world-shaking, don’t have an announcement!

6. Stop pretending we’re cutting edge.

There was a time–I remember it well–when people would line up for hours just to be the first to get our innovative new products. Heck, we even had “evangelists” who promoted our products to our true-believers. But that’s history. Until we come out insanely great new products that inspire that kind of loyalty, dial down the fake enthusiasm. 

7. Make Macs faster, better, cheaper–more quickly.

I’m honestly embarrassed what you’ve done with the Mac. You’ve not released a new design in years. Sure, MacBooks were cool back in the day, but now they’re just average. And where’s our answer to the Surface? Tim, you actually let Microsoft–Microsoft again!–pace us with a mobile product. That’s freakin’ pitiful.

8. Diversify our supply chain out of Asia.

Tim, Tim, Tim…  I love Asia, but you’ve bet our entire company on the belief that there will never be another war (shooting or trade) there. Meanwhile, China has become more aggressive and there’s a madman with nuclear weapons perched a few miles from our main supplier for iPhone parts. Wake up! We need to sourcing our parts in geographical areas where war is less likely.

9. Fix our software, already.

This was the one that surprised me the most. I knew that iTunes, iBooks, Music, and AppStore was a crazyquilt but I figured we could fix that in a future release. But here we are, ten years later, and we’re still asking people to suffer through this counter-intuitive bullsh*t? And what’s with the recent instability with our operating systems? And that wack Facetime security hole? 

10. Make some key management changes.

Delete your account.

Beatifically,

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos Each Wrote Exactly 93 Words About Their Divorce. Here's a Truly Stunning Theory About Why They Did It

Jeff and MacKenzie announced the terms of their divorce on Twitter this week in two simultaneous statements. When I wrote about it yesterday, I now think I may have missed something intriguing.

First, the background. It’s fascinating and admirable that the Bezoses worked through their agreement so quickly:

  • MacKenzie keeps 25 percent of their Amazon stock (which works out to something like $35 billion). 
  • Jeff keeps the remaining 75 percent of the Amazon stock, plus the voting power of MacKenzie’s shares, plus their interests in The Washington Post and Blue Origin.

When I wrote yesterday, I pointed out three things that I found unusual — but endearing — in the statements:

  1. They posted the statements almost simultaneously. 
  2. They used the same word, “grateful” twice each, which set the tone of the whole thing in a very positive way.
  3. They each wrote the exact same length: 93 words.

That last detail caught me. Why would they write 93 words each. Could it possibly be a coincidence? Hmmm. 

93 words

I’d only noticed this because I had to retype the statements into a text document. Being a word nerd, I also noticed that MacKenzie Bezos’s statement (embedded at the end of this article) doesn’t include many first person pronouns. 

For example, she writes: “Grateful to have finished the process of dissolving my marriage with Jeff…” instead of “I’m grateful to have finished….”

Actually every sentence is like that. 

I know people sometimes skip first person pronouns, and Twitter is informal, etc. But if she had included all the “I am” clauses, the statements would be uneven. She’d have more than 93 words.

Okay, this was really weird. I didn’t want to be known as a “Bezos Divorce Tweet Truther.” But was there something going on here? Did they agree on 93 words exactly?

And if so, why that number?

September 4, 1993

Then, a reader emailed me with an observation: “the obvious symbolism of the 93 words is they were married in ’93.”

Oh wow. The reader, who didn’t want to be identified, is right at least about the date. The Bezoses were married on September 4, 1993.

I haven’t heard back. I tried [email protected] as well, because why not? But it bounced back.

So I can’t confirm this “93-words-for-1993” theory, obviously. All I can do is put these intriguing facts in front of you, and share what I think of them.

My response is that if it’s true, it’s poignant and beautiful. The writer in me likes to think it’s a communication in a shared voice, going beyond the text itself.

It leaves me thinking about what was, what might have been, and what their relationship will be going forward.

Suspend your disbelief

Suspend your disbelief for just a second. Accept that it’s probably just a coincidence but then allow yourself to imagine what it means if it wasn’t.

Imagine if during the chaos of what could have been one of the most contentious and costliest divorces in history, Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos quickly reached an agreement — not just on the big things, but on the little things, down to the length of their joint statement.

Suspend that disbelief just a bit longer, and ask yourself if it’s possible they chose 93 words for this special, sentimental reason.

Put that with their repeated symmetrical use of the word, “grateful,” and of the repeated phrases in each statement: “friends and co-parents,” and “co-parents an friends.”

Add to it how they both agreed with the language in MacKenzie’s post, where she says she’s “[h]appy to be giving Jeff all of my interests in The Washington Post and Blue Origin and 75% of our Amazon stock.”

Emphasis added there, since this phrasing is instead of Jeff saying he’s giving something to MacKenie, or them both saying they were splitting the assets. It’s MacKenzie giving what she owns to Jeff. That’s powerful.

I’m impressed. I’m a filled with a bit of awe. And, I find myself offering them both condolences and congratulations on the whole situation. 

How Artificial Intelligence Could Humanize Health Care

Using artificial intelligence in health care could actually make medicine more human by giving doctors more time to interact with their patients.

The technology promises to improve health care by making it more effective and speedy by eliminating some of the mundane functions that eat up doctors’ time, said Eric Topol, founder and director of the nonprofit Scripps Research Translational Institute, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference on Tuesday in San Diego. Machine learning could free doctors from having to type medical information into patient files while also helping give patients better access to their personal data.

“All that effort can then get us to what we’ve been missing for decades now, which is the true care in health care,” Topol said.

Topol’s vision is the topic of his new book, Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again. To achieve this optimistic future, he said the health care industry must aggressively adopt artificial intelligence.

Beyond humanizing health care, deep learning, a type of artificial intelligence, can also reduce human error and help doctors make better decisions, Topol said.

Radiologists falsely clear patients of disease 32% of the time, Topol said. Meanwhile, gastroenterologists regularly miss small polyps that are just as pre-cancerous as larger ones.

“We have to fess up to how bad things are now,” Topol said. “All these things can be improved by deep learning and machine vision.”

Artificial intelligence also opens the door to new discoveries, crunching massive amounts of data both from patients and medical literature that would have been too onerous for a human to review. This would allow doctors to provide more individualized care for patients such as a diet that is more likely to succeed based on a patient’s body type. It also could lead to improved wearable technology and innovations like virtual medical coaches that give patients health advice.

Combining all of these things, artificial intelligence could improve an industry burdened by doctor burnout, early retirement, and a growing feeling that enrolling in medical school is a bad idea.

“What we need is some hope,” Topol said. “It’s reassuring that we have a path, that if we work on it hard, we might get there.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference, click here. For news delivered daily to your inbox, subscribe to Fortune’s Brainstorm Health Daily newsletter.

Lego’s Break Dancing Robot, Best Email Apps, and More News

Tech news you can use, in two minutes or less:

Lego’s changing the game, again

Lego has introduced a new coding and robotics set called “Spike Prime” that will help kids gain valuable confidence in team building, STEM skills, and the power of persistence. The sets come with lesson plans for teachers, and kids can build anything from a breakdancing robot to a grasshopper-like racing module. These aren’t your childhood legos, but they’ll be helping build the foundation for the next generation of kids.

Gmail’s Inbox app is dead, but there’s still hope

Inbox—a Google-powered app that runs Gmail with more niche features—has been moved to the trash. But if you were one of those loyal users of the app, there’s still hope: We put together a list of the best email alternatives for you, because email doesn’t have to suck.

The Democratic data operation is under construction

After the 2016 presidential race, candidate Hillary Clinton called the Democratic National Committee’s data infrastructure “mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong.” Insiders said their data warehouse was a total “shitshow,” sometimes crashing for days at a time. Now the party is doing a massive overhaul of their system, giving all candidates access to a real working data house that could prove critical in the coming elections nationwide. We talked to them about how they’re doing it.

Cocktail Conversation

Boston Dynamics, the company that brought you those viral internet back-flipping, door-opening, box-tossing robots, is ready to take their bots to market. Are you ready to see them in the work force? Or do you wish they’d just live only in your newsfeed forever?

WIRED Recommends: Fermentation Implementation

Love you some Kimchi? Enjoy a delicious fresh pickle? Make it all at home with the best fermentation gear on the internet.

More News You Can Use

Facebook Had a Busy Weekend, From News Feed to Livestream Changes

While millions of Americans were enjoying a warm spring weekend, Facebook employees were hard at work responding to an avalanche of news about their company. After an already busy week for the social media platform—including a lawsuit from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as a policy change regarding white nationalist and separationist content—five major Facebook stories broke over the last few days, including a Washington Post op-ed in which CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls for the social network to be regulated. Here’s what you need to know to get caught up.

Facebook Explores Restricting Who Can Livestream

The torrent of Facebook news began Friday, when COO Sheryl Sandberg said the company was “exploring restrictions on who can go Live depending on factors such as prior Community Standard violations.” The decision came less than three weeks after a terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 people was livestreamed on Facebook. The social network, as well as other companies like YouTube, struggled to stop the shooter’s video from being reuploaded and redistributed on their platforms.

In 2016, Zuckerberg said that live video would “create new opportunities for people to come together.” Around the same time, the company invested millions of dollars to encourage publishers like Buzzfeed to experiment with Facebook Live. The feature provided an unedited, real-time window into events like police shootings, but it was also repeatedly used to broadcast disturbing events. After the Christchurch attack, Facebook is now reexamining who should have the ability to share live video, which has proven difficult for the company to moderate effectively.

Sandberg also said Facebook will research building better technology to “quickly identify edited versions of violent videos and images and prevent people from re-sharing these versions.” She added that Facebook had identified over 900 different variations of the Christchurch shooter’s original livestream. Sandberg made her announcement in a blog post published not to the Facebook Newsroom but to Instagram’s Info Center, indicating Facebook wants its subsidiaries to appear more unified.

Old Zuckerberg Blog Posts Disappear

Also on Friday, Business Insider reported that years of Zuckerberg’s public writings had mysteriously disappeared, “obscuring details about core moments in Facebook’s history.” The missing trove included everything the CEO wrote in 2007 and 2008, as well as more recent announcements, like the blog post Zuckerberg penned in 2012 when Facebook acquired Instagram.

Facebook said that the posts were mistakenly deleted as the result of technical errors. “The work required to restore them would have been extensive and not guaranteed, so we didn’t do it,” a spokesperson for the company told Business Insider. They added that they didn’t know exactly how many posts were lost in total.

This isn’t the first time Zuckerberg’s content has gone missing from Facebook. Last April, TechCrunch reported that some of the CEO’s messages were erased from people’s private inboxes. (Facebook later extended an “unsend” feature to all Facebook Messenger users.) And in 2016, “around 10” Zuckerberg blog posts also disappeared from the social network. The deletion was similarly blamed on a technical error, but in that case the blogs were later restored.

Zuckerberg Calls for Regulation in Four Areas

In an interview with WIRED last month, Zuckerberg said, “There are some really nuanced questions … about how to regulate, which I think are extremely interesting intellectually.” On Saturday, the Facebook CEO expanded on that idea in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post. “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators,” Zuckerberg wrote, calling for new regulation in four particular areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy, and data portability.

In the piece, Zuckerberg acknowledged that he believes his company has too much power when it comes to regulating speech on the internet. He also mentioned Facebook’s new independent oversight board, which will decide on cases where users have appealed the content decisions made by Facebook’s moderators. (On Monday, Facebook announced it was soliciting public feedback about the new process.)

Zuckerberg also said the rest of the world should adopt comprehensive privacy legislation similar to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation that went into effect last year. There’s currently no modern privacy law in the United States, though California passed a strong privacy bill last summer, which Facebook originally opposed. Now a number of lawmakers, and lobbyists, are jockeying to get a federal privacy law in place before the state-level rules take effect next year.

The op-ed arrives as Facebook faces a looming Federal Trade Commission investigation over alleged privacy violations. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have also recently expressed an interest in regulating or even breaking up the social media giant. Zuckerberg’s op-ed provides a sketch of the kind of regulation that his company would be comfortable adopting. Some critics have also argued that legislation like GDPR can strengthen the dominant position of companies like Facebook and Google.

Facebook Opens Up About How News Feed Works

How Facebook chooses what content to feature in the News Feed has consistently remained mostly a mystery. As Will Oremus wrote last week in Slate, “For all of Facebook’s efforts to improve its news feed over the years, the social network remains as capricious and opaque an information source as ever.”

But on Sunday evening, Facebook quietly announced that it will begin revealing more about why users see one post over another when they scroll through their feeds. The company will soon launch a “Why am I seeing this post?” button, similar to the one it launched in 2014 for advertisements. It will begin rolling out this week and will be available for all Facebook users by the middle of May, according to Buzzfeed.

“This is the first time that we’ve built information on how ranking works directly into the app,” Ramya Sethuraman, a product manager at Facebook, wrote in a blog post. The new feature might tell users, for example, that they’re seeing a post because they are friends with someone on Facebook or because they joined a specific group. But the button will also provide more granular information, such as telling users they’re seeing a specific photo because they’ve “commented on posts with photos more than other media types.”

Facebook is also making updates to its preexisting “Why am I seeing this ad?” button. It will now tell users when an advertiser has uploaded their contact information to Facebook. In addition, it will show users when advertisers work with third-party marketing firms. For example, an ad for a shoe company might reveal the name of the marketing agency it hired to sell its new sandals.

Pivot to Paying Publishers?

On Monday morning, Zuckerberg suggested he might create a new section of Facebook dedicated to “high-quality news.” Details are scarce, but it may feature content Facebook pays publishers directly to share. The remarks were made during an interview Zuckerberg did with European media executive Mathias Döpfner, which the CEO posted to his personal Facebook page. The announcement comes a year after Facebook said it would begin deprioritizing news stories in its News Feed in favor of content from friends and family.

Last week, Apple announced it was launching a $10 per month paid news aggregation service called News+ (it features content from WIRED). But unlike Apple, Facebook doesn’t appear to be getting into the subscription business. “We’re coming to this from a very different perspective than I think some of the other players in the space who view news as a way that they want to maximize their revenue. That’s not necessarily the way that we’re thinking about this,” Zuckerberg said in the interview.

Facebook’s earlier attempts to partner with media organizations have been a mixed bag. The social network also previously explored creating a dedicated feed for publishers but abandoned the project. Without knowing more, it remains to be seen what, if anything, is going be different this time.


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