Communications

Google is Making it Easier For 911 To Find You in an Emergency (engadget.com) 10

An anonymous reader shares a report: When you call 911 from a cellphone, your location is typically sent to the call taker by a wireless carrier. But that information isn't always so accurate. Well Google might have a better way of going about it and it tested its system across a few states in December and January, the Wall Street Journal reports. In the states where the tests took place, Google sent location data from a random selection of 911 callers using Android phones straight to the people taking those calls. The test included 50 call centers that cover around 2.4 million people in Texas, Tennessee and Florida, and early reports of the results suggest the system is promising.

One company involved in the test told the Wall Street Journal that for over 80 percent of the 911 calls where Googl's system was used, the tech giant's location data were more accurate than what wireless carriers provided. The company, RapidSOS, also said that while carrier data location estimates had, on average, a radius of around 522 feet, Google's data gave estimates with radii around 121 feet. Google's data also arrived more quickly than carrier data typically did.

Privacy

Facebook Admits SMS Notifications Sent Using Two-Factor Number Was Caused by Bug (theverge.com) 33

Facebook has clarified the situation around SMS notifications sent using the company's two-factor authentication (2FA) system, admitting that the messages were indeed caused by a bug. From a report: In a blog post penned by Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos, the company says the error led it to "send non-security-related SMS notifications to these phone numbers." Facebook uses the automated number 362-65, or "FBOOK," as its two-factor authentication number, which is a secure way of confirming a user's identity by sending a numeric code to a secondary device like a mobile phone. That same number ended up sending users Facebook notifications without their consent. When users would attempt to get the SMS notifications to stop, the replies were posted to their own Facebook profiles as status updates.
Businesses

Most Cities Would Welcome a Tech Billionaire, But Peter Thiel? (bloomberg.com) 165

Sarah McBride, writing for Bloomberg: Tech billionaire Peter Thiel is moving to Los Angeles from San Francisco, adding another dose of legitimacy to a burgeoning startup scene in Southern California -- along with some controversy. The co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, Thiel runs Founders Fund, one of the more-respected venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. He comes with a little baggage, though, including his staunch support for President Donald Trump, his secretive funding of the legal battle between Hulk Hogan and Gawker.com, and comments some people say have been derogatory toward women. "I'm not sure why Peter Thiel believes he'll receive a warmer reception on the L.A. tech scene than he's had in Silicon Valley," said Tracy DiNunzio, chief executive officer of Tradesy, a fashion-reselling company based in Santa Monica, California. "Our venture and startup ecosystem is fairly left-leaning."
China

How Does Chinese Tech Stack Up Against American Tech? 117

The Economist: China's tech leaders love visiting California, and invest there, but are no longer awed by it [Editor's note: the link may be paywalled]. By market value the Middle Kingdom's giants, Alibaba and Tencent, are in the same league as Alphabet and Facebook. New stars may float their shares in 2018-19, including Didi Chuxing (taxi rides), Ant Financial (payments) and Lufax (wealth management). China's e-commerce sales are double America's and the Chinese send 11 times more money by mobile phones than Americans, who still scribble cheques.

The venture-capital (VC) industry is booming. American visitors return from Beijing, Hangzhou and Shenzhen blown away by the entrepreneurial work ethic. Last year the government decreed that China would lead globally in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030. The plan covers a startlingly vast range of activities, including developing smart cities and autonomous cars and setting global tech standards. Like Japanese industry in the 1960s, private Chinese firms take this "administrative guidance" seriously.
Education

Learning To Program Is Getting Harder (slashdot.org) 266

theodp writes: While Google suggests that parents and educators are to blame for why kids can't code, Allen Downey, Professor at Olin College argues that learning to program is getting harder . Downey writes: The fundamental problem is that the barrier between using a computer and programming a computer is getting higher. When I got a Commodore 64 (in 1982, I think) this barrier was non-existent. When you turned on the computer, it loaded and ran a software development environment (SDE). In order to do anything, you had to type at least one line of code, even if all it did was another program (like Archon). Since then, three changes have made it incrementally harder for users to become programmers:
1. Computer retailers stopped installing development environments by default. As a result, anyone learning to program has to start by installing an SDE -- and that's a bigger barrier than you might expect. Many users have never installed anything, don't know how to, or might not be allowed to. Installing software is easier now than it used to be, but it is still error prone and can be frustrating. If someone just wants to learn to program, they shouldn't have to learn system administration first.
2. User interfaces shifted from command-line interfaces (CLIs) to graphical user interfaces (GUIs). GUIs are generally easier to use, but they hide information from users about what's really happening. When users really don't need to know, hiding information can be a good thing. The problem is that GUIs hide a lot of information programmers need to know. So when a user decides to become a programmer, they are suddenly confronted with all the information that's been hidden from them. If someone just wants to learn to program, they shouldn't have to learn operating system concepts first.
3. Cloud computing has taken information hiding to a whole new level. People using web applications often have only a vague idea of where their data is stored and what applications they can use to access it. Many users, especially on mobile devices, don't distinguish between operating systems, applications, web browsers, and web applications. When they upload and download data, they are often confused about where is it coming from and where it is going. When they install something, they are often confused about what is being installed where. For someone who grew up with a Commodore 64, learning to program was hard enough. For someone growing up with a cloud-connected mobile device, it is much harder.
theodp continues: So, with the Feds budgeting $200 million a year for K-12 CS at the behest of U.S. tech leaders, can't the tech giants at least put a BASIC on every phone/tablet/laptop for kids?
Twitter

NBC Publishes 200,000 Tweets Tied To Russian Trolls 243

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NBC News: NBC News is publishing its database of more than 200,000 tweets that Twitter has tied to "malicious activity" from Russia-linked accounts during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. These accounts, working in concert as part of large networks, pushed hundreds of thousands of inflammatory tweets, from fictitious tales of Democrats practicing witchcraft to hardline posts from users masquerading as Black Lives Matter activists. Investigators have traced the accounts to a Kremlin-linked propaganda outfit founded in 2013 known as the Internet Research Association (IRA). The organization has been assessed by the U.S. Intelligence Community to be part of a Russian state-run effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential race. And they're not done. At the request of NBC News, three sources familiar with Twitter's data systems cross-referenced the partial list of names released by Congress to create a partial database of tweets that could be recovered. You can download the streamlined spreadsheet (29 mb) with just usernames, tweet and timestamps, view the full data for ten influential accounts via Google Sheets, download tweets.csv (50 mb) and users.csv with full underlying data, and/or explore a graph database in Neo4j, whose software powered the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers investigations.

NBC News' partners at Neo4j have put together a "get started" guide to help you explore the database of Russian tweets. "To recreate a link to an individual tweet found in the spreadsheet, replace 'user_key' in https://twitter.com/user_key/status/tweet_id with the screenname from the 'user_key' field and 'tweet_id' with the number in the 'tweet_id' field," reports NBC News. "Following the links will lead to a suspended page on Twitter. But some copies of the tweets as they originally appeared, including images, can be found by entering the links on webcaches like the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine and archive.is."
Businesses

Labor Board Says Google Could Fire James Damore For Anti-Diversity Memo (theverge.com) 569

According to a recently disclosed letter from the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, Google didn't violate labor laws by firing engineer James Damore for a memo criticizing the company's diversity program. "The lightly redacted statement is written by Jayme Sophir, associate general counsel of the NLRB's division of advice; it dates to January, but was released yesterday, according to Law.com," reports The Verge. "Sophir concludes that while some parts of Damore's memo was legally protected by workplace regulations, 'the statements regarding biological differences between the sexes were so harmful, discriminatory, and disruptive as to be unprotected.'" From the report: Damore filed an NLRB complaint in August of 2017, after being fired for internally circulating a memo opposing Google's diversity efforts. Sophir recommends dismissing the case; Bloomberg reports that Damore withdrew it in January, and that his lawyer says he's focusing on a separate lawsuit alleging discrimination against conservative white men at Google. NLRB records state that its case was closed on January 19th. In her analysis, Sophir writes that employers should be given "particular deference" in trying to enforce anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, since these are tied to legal requirements. And employers have "a strong interest in promoting diversity" and cooperation across different groups of people. Because of this, "employers must be permitted to 'nip in the bud' the kinds of employee conduct that could lead to a 'hostile workplace,'" she writes. "Where an employee's conduct significantly disrupts work processes, creates a hostile work environment, or constitutes racial or sexual discrimination or harassment, the Board has found it unprotected even if it involves concerted activities regarding working conditions."
Software

Ask Slashdot: Could Linux Ever Become Fully Compatible With Windows and Mac Software? 333

dryriver writes: Linux has been around for a long time now. A lot of work has gone into it; it has evolved nicely and it dominates in the server space. Computer literate people with some tech skills also like to use it as their desktop OS. It's free and open source. It's not vendor-locked, full of crapware or tied to any walled garden. It's fast and efficient. But most "everyday computer users" or "casual computer buyers" still feel they have to choose either a Windows PC or an Apple device as the platform they will do their computing on. This binary choice exists largely because of very specific commercial list of programs and games available for these OSs that is not available for Linux.

Here is the question: Could Linux ever be made to become fully compatible with all Windows and Mac software? What I mean is a Linux distro that lets you successfully install/run/play just about anything significant that says "for Windows 10" or "for OSX" under Linux, without any sort of configuring or crazy emulation orgies being needed? Macs and PCs run on the exact same Intel/AMD/Nvidia hardware as Linux. Same mobos, same CPUs and GPUs, same RAM and storage devices. Could Linux ever be made to behave sufficiently like those two OSs so that a computer buyer could "go Linux" without any negative consequences like not being able to run essential Windows/Mac software at all? Or is Linux being able to behave like Windows and OSX simply not technically doable because Windows and OSX are just too damn complex to mimic successfully?
Encryption

Two Years After FBI vs Apple, Encryption Debate Remains (axios.com) 170

It's been two years since the FBI and Apple got into a giant fight over encryption following the San Bernardino shooting, when the government had the shooter's iPhone, but not the password needed to unlock it, so it asked Apple to create a way inside. What's most surprising is how little has changed since then. From a report: The encryption debate remains unsettled, with tech companies largely opposed and some law enforcement agencies still making the case to have a backdoor. The case for strong encryption: Those partial to the tech companies' arguments will note that cyberattacks and hacking incidents have become even more common, with encryption serving as a valuable way to protect individuals' personal information. The case for backdoors: Criminals are doing bad stuff and when devices are strongly encrypted they can do it in what amounts to the perfect dark alley, completely hidden from public view.
The Internet

France's Telecom Regulator Thinks Net Neutrality Should Also Apply To Devices 38

An anonymous reader quotes a report from TechCrunch: The ARCEP, France's equivalent of the FCC in the U.S., wants to go beyond telecommunications companies. While many regulatory authorities have focused on carriers and internet service providers, the French authority thinks Google, Apple, Amazon and all the big tech companies also need their own version of net neutrality. The ARCEP just published a thorough 65-page report about the devices we use every day. The report says that devices give you a portion of the internet and prevent an open internet. "With net neutrality, we spend all our time cleaning pipes, but nobody is looking at faucets," ARCEP president Sebastien Soriano told me. "Everybody assumes that the devices that we use to go online don't have a bias. But if you want to go online, you need a device just like you need a telecom company."

Now that net neutrality has been laid down in European regulation, the ARCEP has been looking at devices for the past couple of years. And it's true that you can feel you're stuck in an ecosystem once you realize you have to use Apple Music on an Apple Watch, or the Amazon Echo assumes you want to buy stuff on Amazon.com when you say "Alexa, buy me a tooth brush." Voice assistants and connected speakers are even less neutral than smartphones. Game consoles, smartwatches and connected cars all share the same issues. The ARCEP doesn't think we should go back to computers and leave our phones behind. This isn't a debate about innovation versus regulation. Regulation can also foster innovation. "This report has listed for the first time ever all the limitations you face as a smartphone user," Soriano said. "By users, we mean both consumers and developers who submit apps in the stores."
Facebook

Even Apple and Google Engineers Can't Really Afford To Live Near Their Offices (fastcompany.com) 367

That's according to the Y Combinator-backed real-estate startup Open Listings, which looked at median home sales prices near the headquarters (meaning within a 20-minute commute) of some of the Bay Area's biggest and best-known tech companies. Fast Company: Using public salary data from Paysa, Open Listings then looked at how many software engineers from those companies could actually afford to buy a house close to their office. Here's what it found: Engineers at five major SF-based tech companies would need to spend over the 28% threshold of their income to afford a monthly mortgage near their offices. Apple engineers would have to pay an average of 33% of their monthly income for a mortgage near work. That's the highest percentage of the companies analyzed, and home prices in Cupertino continue to skyrocket. Google wasn't much better at 32%, and living near the Facebook office would cost an engineer 29% of their monthly paycheck.
IOS

Apple's Software 'Problem' and 'Fixing' It (learningbyshipping.com) 92

According to media reports, Apple is planning to postpone some new features for iOS and macOS this year to focus on improving reliability, stability and performance of the existing versions. Steven Sinofsky, a former President of the Windows Division, shared his insights into the significance of this development: Several important points are conflated in the broad discussion about Apple and software: Quality, pace of change, features "versus" quality, and innovation. Scanning the landscape, it is important to recognize that in total the work Apple has been doing across hardware, software, services, and even AI/ML, in total -- is breathtaking and unprecedented in scope, scale, and quality. Few companies have done so much for so long with such a high level of consistency. This all goes back to the bet on the NeXT code base and move to Intel for Mac OS plus the iPod, which began the journey to where we are today.

[...] What is lost in all of this recent discussion is the nuance between features, schedule, and quality. It is like having a discussion with a financial advisor over income, risk, and growth. You don't just show up and say you want all three and get a "sure." On the other hand, this is precisely what Apple did so reliably over 20 years. But behind the scenes there is a constant discussion over balancing these three legs of the tripod. You have to have all of them but you "can't" but you have to. This is why they get paid big $.

[...] A massive project like an OS (+h/w +cloud) is like a large investment portfolio and some things will work (in market) and others won't, some things are designed to return right away, some are safe bets, some are long term investments. And some mistakes... Customers don't care about any of that and that's ok. They just look for what they care about. Each evaluates through their own lens. Apple's brilliance is in focusing mostly on two audiences -- Send-users and developers -- tending to de-emphasize the whole "techie" crowd, even IT. When you look at a feature like FaceID and trace it backwards all the way to keychain -- see how much long term thought can go into a feature and how much good work can go unnoticed (or even "fail") for years before surfacing as a big advantage. That's a long term POV AND focus. This approach is rather unique compared to other tech companies that tend to develop new things almost independent of everything else. So new things show up and look bolted on the side of what already exists. (Sure Apple can do that to, but not usually). All the while while things are being built the team is just a dev team and trying to come up with a reliable schedule and fix bug. This is just software development.

Google

AMP For Email Is a Terrible Idea (techcrunch.com) 175

An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from a report via TechCrunch, written by Devin Coldewey: Google just announced a plan to "modernize" email with its Accelerated Mobile Pages platform, allowing "engaging, interactive, and actionable email experiences." Does that sound like a terrible idea to anyone else? It sure sounds like a terrible idea to me, and not only that, but an idea borne out of competitive pressure and existing leverage rather than user needs. Not good, Google. Send to trash. See, email belongs to a special class. Nobody really likes it, but it's the way nobody really likes sidewalks, or electrical outlets, or forks. It not that there's something wrong with them. It's that they're mature, useful items that do exactly what they need to do. They've transcended the world of likes and dislikes. Email too is simple. It's a known quantity in practically every company, household, and device. The implementation has changed over the decades, but the basic idea has remained the same since the very first email systems in the '60s and '70s, certainly since its widespread standardization in the '90s and shift to web platforms in the '00s. The parallels to snail mail are deliberate (it's a payload with an address on it) and simplicity has always been part of its design (interoperability and privacy came later). No company owns it. It works reliably and as intended on every platform, every operating system, every device. That's a rarity today and a hell of a valuable one.

More important are two things: the moat and the motive. The moat is the one between communications and applications. Communications say things, and applications interact with things. There are crossover areas, but something like email is designed and overwhelmingly used to say things, while websites and apps are overwhelmingly designed and used to interact with things. The moat between communication and action is important because it makes it very clear what certain tools are capable of, which in turn lets them be trusted and used properly. We know that all an email can ever do is say something to you (tracking pixels and read receipts notwithstanding). It doesn't download anything on its own, it doesn't run any apps or scripts, attachments are discrete items, unless they're images in the HTML, which is itself optional. Ultimately the whole package is always just going to be a big , static chunk of text sent to you, with the occasional file riding shotgun. Open it a year or ten from now and it's the same email. And that proscription goes both ways. No matter what you try to do with email, you can only ever say something with it -- with another email. If you want to do something, you leave the email behind and do it on the other side of the moat.

The Internet

Trump's Infrastructure Plan Has No Dedicated Money For Broadband (arstechnica.com) 103

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: President Trump's new 10-year plan for "rebuilding infrastructure in America" doesn't contain any funding specifically earmarked for improving Internet access. Instead, the plan sets aside a pool of funding for numerous types of infrastructure projects, and broadband is one of the eligible categories. The plan's $50 billion Rural Infrastructure Program lists broadband as one of five broad categories of eligible projects.

Eighty percent of the program's $50 billion would be "provided to the governor of each state." Governors would take the lead in deciding how the money would be spent in their states. The other 20 percent would pay for grants that could be used for any of the above project categories. Separately, broadband would be eligible for funding from a proposed $20 billion Transformative Projects Program, along with transportation, clean water, drinking water, energy, and commercial space. Trump's plan would also add rural broadband facilities to the list of eligible categories for Private Activity Bonds, which allow private projects to "benefit from the lower financing costs of tax-exempt municipal bonds." The plan would also let carriers install small cells and Wi-Fi attachments without going through the same environmental and historical preservation reviews required for large towers.

Businesses

'Troll' Loses Cloudflare Lawsuit, Has Weaponized Patent Invalidated (arstechnica.com) 48

A federal judge in San Francisco has unequivocally ruled against a non-practicing entity that had sued Cloudflare for patent infringement. From a report: The judicial order effectively ends the case that Blackbird -- which Cloudflare had dubbed a "patent troll" -- had brought against the well-known security firm and content delivery network. "Abstract ideas are not patentable," US District Judge Vincent Chhabria wrote in a Monday order. The case revolved around US Patent No. 6,453,335, which describes providing a "third party data channel" online. When the case was filed in May 2017, the invention claims it can incorporate third-party data into an existing Internet connection "in a convenient and flexible way."

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