Start Up: Russia hacks US power, the solar subsidy fight, wild Amazon bot!, what Google reveals, and more


Vertu faces a court battle which might determine whether it has a future – though even that looks cloudy. Photo by legos+dream on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Court battle puts Vertu’s future on the line •Daily Telegraph

Christopher Williams:

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‘I have two of these phones that are basically useless now,” says Kenneth Tong, a customer of the troubled British smartphone brand Vertu. “$40,000 worth,” he adds.

Tong is upset that Vertu suddenly stopped providing on-demand concierge services for its well-heeled clientele. For almost 200 workers at the company’s Hampshire manufacturing base who have not been paid this month and have discovered around £400,000 missing from their pension fund, the problems are more serious.

This weekend they are in limbo as Vertu’s owner, a Paris-based Turkish exile named Murat Hakan Uzan, prepares to apply to the High Court to allow a pre-pack administration of their employer, the manufacturing arm Vertu Corporation. They have been told their jobs can be saved if the court and creditors agree to wipe out an accounting deficit of more than £128m and allow Uzan to buy the company out of administration for just €2.2m (£1.9m).

It is an ignominious fate for a brand that targets the super-rich, with handsets clad in titanium and sapphire glass starting at around £10,000 and going up to as much as £280,000 for bespoke, jewel-encrusted devices.

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If word gets out, Vertu is toast. Oh, hang on..
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U.S. officials say Russian government hackers have penetrated energy and nuclear company business networks • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima:

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Russian government hackers were behind recent cyber-intrusions into the business systems of US nuclear power and other energy companies in what appears to be an effort to assess their networks, according to US government officials.

The US officials said there is no evidence the hackers breached or disrupted the core systems controlling operations at the plants, so the public was not at risk. Rather, they said, the hackers broke into systems dealing with business and administrative tasks, such as personnel.

At the end of June, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security sent a joint alert to the energy sector stating that “advanced, persistent threat actors” — a euphemism for sophisticated foreign hackers — were stealing network log-in and password information to gain a foothold in company networks. The agencies did not name Russia.

The campaign marks the first time Russian government hackers are known to have wormed their way into the networks of American nuclear power companies, several US and industry officials said. And the penetration could be a sign that Russia is seeking to lay the groundwork for more damaging hacks.

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Must just be preparation for that impenetrable joint cyber security thingamajig they’re going to set up jointly.
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16 startup metrics • Andreessen Horowitz

Jeff Jordan, Anu Hariharan, Frank Chen, and Preethi Kasireddy from the venture capital fund:

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We have the privilege of meeting with thousands of entrepreneurs every year, and in the course of those discussions are presented with all kinds of numbers, measures, and metrics that illustrate the promise and health of a particular company. Sometimes, however, the metrics may not be the best gauge of what’s actually happening in the business, or people may use different definitions of the same metric in a way that makes it hard to understand the health of the business.

So, while some of this may be obvious to many of you who live and breathe these metrics all day long, we compiled a list of the most common or confusing ones. Where appropriate, we tried to add some notes on why investors focus on those metrics. Ultimately, though, good metrics aren’t about raising money from VCs — they’re about running the business in a way where founders know how and why certain things are working (or not) … and can address or adjust accordingly.

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This is a fascinating list: would you know the difference between “Total Contract Value” and “Annual Contract Value”, and “Gross Merchandise Value v Revenue”?
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Rooftop solar dims under pressure from utility lobbyists • The New York Times

Hiroko Tabuchi:

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Over the past six years, rooftop solar panel installations have seen explosive growth — as much as 900% by one estimate.

That growth has come to a shuddering stop this year, with a projected decline in new installations of 2%, according to projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

A number of factors are driving the reversal, from saturation in markets like California to financial woes at several top solar panel makers.

But the decline has also coincided with a concerted and well-funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working in state capitals across the country to reverse incentives for homeowners to install solar panels.

Utilities argue that rules allowing private solar customers to sell excess power back to the grid at the retail price — a practice known as net metering — can be unfair to homeowners who do not want or cannot afford their own solar installations.

Prodded in part by the utilities’ campaign, nearly every state in the country is engaged in a review of its solar energy policies. Since 2013, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Indiana have decided to phase out net metering, crippling programs that spurred explosive growth in the rooftop solar market. (Nevada recently reversed its decision.)

Many more states are considering new or higher fees on solar customers.

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Selling back at the retail price (that you would pay to receive it) seems excessive. But solar deserves subsidy, for this reason: it reduces the future investment that utilities would otherwise have to make in power plants (or their own solar farms). Every kilowatt-hour generated by home solar doesn’t have to be paid for by the utility, and every kilowatt installed means a concomitant amount won’t be needed for daytime generation in the future. Pricing the subsidy correctly is tricky, for sure; too high and you crush the utilities’ business model; too low and it crushes the solar business.

However the “talking points” that the utilities were offering to try to get repeals (revealed later in the story) are nonsense. After all, the simple measure for them is to install more solar themselves on customers’ houses, pay for it, and keep the repayments on that basis.
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My-Handy-Design phone cases • Amazon.com

This is a page which shows what happens when a bot which can make anything to order goes wrong. It’s offering phone cases. And it’s trying to hit peoples’ interests via some weird search gaming. So you get phone cases which have pictures described like this:

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Three year old biracial disabled boy in medical stroller, happy cell phone cover case Samsung S5

Cheese wheel on bady instead of table cell phone cover case iPhone6

Ingrown toenail with dressing cell phone cover case Samsung S5

Handgun in nightstand drawer cell phone cover case Samsung S5

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It is quite surreal.
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Everybody lies: how Google search reveals our darkest secrets • The Guardian

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who takes a big data look via Google searches at peoples’ anxieties, prejudices, sexual preferences and fears, and also this:

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The final – and, I think, most powerful – value in this data is its ability to lead us from problems to solutions. With more understanding, we might find ways to reduce the world’s supply of nasty attitudes. Let’s return to Obama’s speech about Islamophobia [after the 2015 San Bernadino attack]. Recall that every time he argued that people should respect Muslims more, the people he was trying to reach became more enraged. Google searches, however, reveal that there was one line that did trigger the type of response Obama might have wanted. He said: “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defence of our country.”

After this line, for the first time in more than a year, the top Googled noun after “Muslim” was not “terrorists”, “extremists”, or “refugees”. It was “athletes”, followed by “soldiers”.” And, in fact, “athletes” kept the top spot for a full day afterwards. When we lecture angry people, the search data implies that their fury can grow. But subtly provoking people’s curiosity, giving new information, and offering new images of the group that is stoking their rage may turn their thoughts in different, more positive directions.

Two months after that speech, Obama gave another televised speech on Islamophobia, this time at a mosque. Perhaps someone in the president’s office had read Soltas’s and my Times column, which discussed what had worked and what hadn’t, for the content of this speech was noticeably different.

Obama spent little time insisting on the value of tolerance. Instead, he focused overwhelmingly on provoking people’s curiosity and changing their perceptions of Muslim Americans. Many of the slaves from Africa were Muslim, Obama told us; Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran; a Muslim American designed skyscrapers in Chicago. Obama again spoke of Muslim athletes and armed service members, but also talked of Muslim police officers and firefighters, teachers and doctors. And my analysis of the Google searches suggests this speech was more successful than the previous one. Many of the hateful, rageful searches against Muslims dropped in the hours afterwards.

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This assumes that Google does take American’s temperature correctly – that people are primed to respond like this. Which may well be true.
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The Essential Phone passed its 30-day shipping promise, and that’s fine • AndroidAuthority

Williams Pelegrin:

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When Android co-creator Andy Rubin took the wraps off the Essential Phone around the end of May, the Playground and Essential CEO also said the phone would ship within the following 30 days. It has been over 30 days since then, and even though the Essential Phone is not yet at my doorstep, I am perfectly okay with that.

Regardless of Rubin’s pedigree in the industry, Essential is the new kid on the block. There are plenty of wrinkles for such a young player to iron out, some of which a company like OnePlus, which has been on the market for over three years, is still working out.

It’s not as if Essential has stood on its laurels – the company received a $300m investment in June, which means that the company is now valued somewhere between $900m and $1bn. Along with the $30m the company raised in 2016, Essential is in a better position than other nascent smartphone manufacturers, at least financially.

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Yeah, fine, it’s not as if we want to hold people to their word or anything.
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BlackRock gets wiped out on Jawbone • The Information

Serena Saitto and Alfred Lee:

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Funds overseen by BlackRock expect to lose at least 96% of the roughly $300m loan they made two years ago to Jawbone, which is going out of business, government filings show.

The New York-based asset manager marked down the value of the debt it held in Jawbone by nearly 98%, according to a Wednesday filing with the SEC. Slightly offsetting that loss is a stake the funds received in a new company affiliated with Jawbone founder Hosain Rahman, Jawbone Health Hub. The funds valued the stake at close to $6m.

The Jawbone loss risks wiping out much of the gains on BlackRock’s private tech portfolio. The firm’s Global Allocation Fund, for example, made $687 million in investments in 2014 and 2015 in venture-backed companies, which was worth $656m on paper as of April 30 after accounting for the fund’s $207m loss on Jawbone. Still, the loss is a small fraction of the $40bn managed by the Global Allocation Fund.

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I’m handing this over to my World’s Tiniest Violin Fund. Also, love how BlackRock, having seen $300m go down the tubes, is now ready to invest again in the same guy.
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A year after ‘Pokémon Go,’ where are the augmented-reality hits? • WSJ

Sarah E. Needleman and Cat Zakrzewski:

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There are thousands of augmented-reality games among the millions of apps in the Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc. stores. None, though, has come close to the success of “Pokémon Go.” There are several reasons why, industry observers say.

One is that the allure of “Pokémon Go” wasn’t primarily its augmented reality.

While the game’s digital monsters materialize as if in the real world, they don’t interact with it. A Snorlax might appear next to a tree, but the catlike creature won’t peek from behind it. Many players who took up hunting the monsters ended up turning off the augmented-reality feature.

The real innovation of “Pokémon Go,” analysts say, was its use of location-based technology to get players walking outside and socializing with others. A recent update to the game doubled down on community building by letting players meet at specific locations to jointly defeat powerful monsters in “raids.”

“We have worked for many years to build a new kind of game based on real world exploration, physical movement and social gameplay,” Niantic Inc., the game’s creator, said in an email. “Our definition of ’Augmented Reality’ is the entire concept of building a game that takes place in and augments the real world.”

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It’s going to be really good game mechanics which wins this, not good mechanics.
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How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous • The Guardian

David Runciman, in the latest of the Guardian’s “Long Read” series:

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Political cynicism has weaponised climate scepticism. But it might also prove to be its achilles heel. Just as pure science struggles with the fact that it can’t avoid politics, so pure politics struggles with the fact that it can’t avoid science. Even the most cynical political operators need to know what’s really likely to happen.

As reporting in the Los Angeles Times has shown, at the same time that it has been funding a PR campaign to question the scientific consensus, ExxonMobil has also been funding some of the research that underpins that consensus, including studies of rapidly shrinking ice levels in the Arctic. In the words of David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman, writing in the New York Review of Books, “a company as sophisticated and successful as Exxon would have needed to know the difference between its own propaganda and scientific reality”. Kaiser and Wasserman argue that, as a result, the company has committed fraud: it failed to disclose to its shareholders the basis on which it was making its investment decisions. Its business plans take it for granted that climate change is a real and imminent threat.

This behaviour has clear echoes of an earlier attempt to challenge the scientific consensus: the campaign by the big tobacco companies to dispute the link between smoking and cancer. Although many of these businesses recognised as far back as the 1950s that the science was sound, they funded a body of widely disseminated research designed to throw doubt on that view. Their goal was to keep the public open-minded about the dangers of cigarettes, and therefore to keep as many of them puffing away for as long as possible.

It was a purely cynical business strategy, and in some cases it was criminal as well. It worked to the extent that it bought the tobacco industry time to reorient its investment and marketing to take account of the new reality. But in the long run it failed. No reasonable person – and certainly no serious politician – now doubts the link between smoking and cancer. The fate of tobacco can give hope to people who worry that the truth is always outgunned: the science won out over the cynics in the end.

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This does offer the best route forward on tackling the sceptics – who are really cynics, not interested in truth. But as Runciman also points out, the danger is in ascribing change too quickly to climate effects.
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uBeacSec: privacy and security aspects of the ultrasound ecosystem

Following on from last time’s note about ultrasonic tracking via your phone, there’s a resistance movement:

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For the first time, we examine the different facets of ultrasound-based technology. Initially, we discuss how it is already used in the real world, and subsequently examine this emerging technology from the privacy and security perspectives. In particular, we first observe that the lack of OS features results in violations of the principle of least privilege: an app that wants to use this technology currently needs to require full access to the device microphone. We then analyse real-world Android apps and find that tracking techniques based on ultrasounds suffer from a number of vulnerabilities and are susceptible to various attacks. For example, we show that ultrasound cross-device tracking deployments can be abused to perform stealthy deanonymization attacks (e.g., to unmask users who browse the Internet through anonymity networks such as Tor), to inject fake or spoofed audio beacons, and to leak a user’s private information.

Where do we go from here?
Based on our findings, we introduce several defense mechanisms. We first propose and implement immediately deployable defenses that empower practitioners, researchers, and everyday users to protect their privacy. In particular, we introduce a browser extension and an Android permission that enable the user to selectively suppress frequencies falling within the ultrasonic spectrum. We then argue for the standardization of ultrasound beacons, and we envision a flexible OS-level API that addresses both the effortless deployment of ultrasound-enabled applications, and the prevention of existing privacy and security problems.

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The members list is a combination of University of California and University College London professors and PhD students. So someone is on it. (Via Tony Hirst.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified