Following Boris

The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg isn’t making TV news packages these days – she’s basically making daily documentaries. Thursday’s was particularly epic.

Have a watch of her news package from the BBC News at Ten, where she spends the day on the campaign (?) trail with the Prime Minister.

Kuenssberg’s piece begins at 2:00, and starts with a bang:

The killer line: “Even his brother quit as a minister in government, to spend less time with his family.”

San Francisco’s Ferry Building is returning to its old ‘gray’ self


From KTVU:

The San Francisco Ferry Building, a 120-year-old historic landmark, is about to get a serious makeover.

The most noticeable difference for locals will be the change in colour – or rather, the reverting of its colour back to how it used to look before the sandstone was damaged. Drew Gordon, senior vice president at Hudson Pacific Properties, explained the plans.

The distinct color is called “Ferry Building Gray,” by Hudson Pacific Properties. The Ferry Building opened in 1898. The architect, A.P. Brown wanted the building to represent local colors, Gordon explained. 

“He found a sandstone in Colusa County, which adorns the façade currently. The story gets really interesting. In the ‘70s, there was some damage on the building that had to be repaired,” Gordon said. 

He said the owners at the time brought on a firm to make the repairs. When they applied the material to the building, it became discolored. The restoration work done to the building at that time is irreversible. 

“Because sandstone is very porous, you could not reverse that action. The only way to adorn it was to paint it. The Port of San Francisco worked with local heritage groups. We found an old piece of the sandstone itself that had not been discolored.” 

I love the Ferry Building, which is of course about a lot more than just ferries. Local businesses are able to have a space inside to cater to throngs of tourists and locals. Pleased to see it getting some love.

Should Tesla be blamed when a driver doesn’t pay attention?

That’s a question that hangs over this piece from the Associated Press:

A design flaw in Tesla’s Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system and driver inattention combined to cause a Model S electric car to slam into a firetruck parked along a California freeway, a government investigation has found.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the driver was overly reliant on the system and that Autopilot’s design let him disengage from driving.

Elon Musk’s view on this is pretty clear: the feature is an assistance function, not a self-driving one (though he does promise it’ll be ‘full’ self-driving next year). I’ve used it, and he’s right — it only runs in limited circumstances, and if you keep your hands off the wheel, it’ll bleep at you and eventually disengage.

But here’s where Tesla’s responsibility gets a little less clear. First, the firm insists on misleadingly calling it Autopilot, and second, there is an argument—one I’ve heard from Google self-driving engineers in particular—that humans simply aren’t capable of snapping their brains into action when they need to take over. We’re just not built that way.

Tesla will point to many instances where drivers credit Autopilot—or just Tesla’s safety functions in general—with saving their life.

From the AP, here’s what the company says about the fatal accident near Culver City:

“Since this incident occurred, we have made updates to our system including adjusting the time intervals between hands-on warnings and the conditions under which they’re activated,” the statement said without further giving details.

Apple Watch sleep tracking

Today on 9to5 Mac:

9to5Mac has learned from sources inside Apple that the company is working on sleep tracking for the Apple Watch, which won’t require any special hardware to work. The new feature could be announced as early as next week when the company is expected to announce the next generation iPhones and possibly a revised Apple Watch with titanium and ceramic options.

Now, I’m not one to get into the whole “if Steve Jobs was still with us” cliche if I can help it, but sometimes it’s hard not to. There’s an obvious problem with using Apple Watch for sleep tracking, and Apple’s apparent solution is, on what we know so far, laughable:

One of the issues with wearing an Apple Watch during sleep is that many users choose to charge their Apple Watch at night. Apple thought about this and developed a feature that will remind users to charge their Watch beforehand so they can get through the night.

Elsewhere in the piece it mentions a function that would allow people who own two Apple Watches to designate one as the sleep tracker while they charge the other.

9to5 Mac says we’ll perhaps hear more on 10 September when Apple holds its annual iPhone event.


The WSJ’s Joanna Stern, arguably the best consumer tech reporter in the country right now, doesn’t share my concern:

I can understand this perspective – the Series 4 Apple Watch will last two days if for some reason you don’t charge it one night. But then, sleep tracking is only useful if you do it day in, day out – so I’m still not convinced.

Maybe the ‘high point of Finland’ is still to come

Twitter tells me it’s 19 years today since Nokia’s iconic 3310 mobile phone was released. I remember that time with extreme fondness: an era of texting girls, playing Snake and composing ringtones. (I was only ever any good at two of those three. You figure it out.)

Tero Kuittenen, a Finnish games developer turned Nokia analyst on Wall Street, has a different recollection, as shared today on Twitter.

He called it “the high point of Finland”:

Before that crash, Finland was famously the place to be if you were in the mobile (or “wireless”) space. This piece in the WSJ from the time heralds that talent, while recognising that the Finns knew they were headed to either world wireless domination… or irrelevance:

But even as the world hails Finland as ground zero for the wireless revolution, some of its entrepreneurs are already asking themselves: for how long? The answer will make or break a few embryonic fortunes. It will also indicate to what extent the Web has already fallen irrevocably under the sway of a few U.S. companies that grabbed early leads.

(Back then the hottest mobile app was apparently one that pinged your phone every now and then with jokes about Swedes. “How many Swedes are needed to have sex? Three. Two are doing it, and the third is reading the manual.” …yeah.)

Anyway, we all know how the story goes, with Nokia failing slowly at first and then taking a dive once the iPhone showed how mobile software could and should be done.

Nokia’s story today is interesting. The brand is coyly on the up. After being licensed to HMD Global (a firm run by some ex-Nokia execs, still in Helsinki, still in the same building, in fact), sales of Nokia phones have risen sharply – 126% year-on-year, according to Counterpoint research. That equates to about 1% of the global mobile phone market. That sounds like nothing, but it isn’t.

(Related: Counterpoint also says Nokia pushes Android updates more quickly than any other phone maker – vital for security and usability, which should be a massive selling point.)

The real Nokia’s business, though, is in networking. And it’s great news there. Global political rows have gifted it a position as one of the probable fall-back 5G infrastructure providers for the West. Nokia stood little chance against Huawei, but Ericsson? Game on. Nokia has landed multi-billion dollar contracts with AT&T, T-Mobile and US Cellular. By the second quarter of 2019, Nokia said it had landed no less than 45 significant commercial 5G contracts.

It’s almost like Finland’s most famous business is back where it was in 2000. On the precipice of greatness and riches… but then, maybe not, if they can’t capitalise on that position. Investors are looking at Nokia’s stock and seeing a company potentially drastically undervalued:

It’s easy to believe that NOK stock might finally be ready to rise. The opportunities are real, and substantial. European countries aren’t putting the same pressure on Huawei as their U.S. counterparts, but the negative press surrounding that Chinese firm surely gives Nokia at least some sort of advantage. All told, Nokia looks ready to grow. At 13x earnings, Nokia stock isn’t priced as such.

Tero wistfully called 2000-2001 the “high point” for Nokia. I wouldn’t be so sure – 5G could have Nokia rising again.

Here come the Apple tariffs

Mark Gurman at Bloomberg reports on the arrival of more US tariffs, significant in that it will have a deep effect on America’s richest company, Apple:

Here’s a list of Apple products that will be hit by 15% tariffs starting this weekend:

Apple Watch and Watch bands
Some Beats headphones
IMac computers
Repair parts for iPhones may also be hit
Nand flash, a key storage component for iPhones, could also be affected.

Gurman adds that the iPhone wouldn’t be affected by tariffs until December, but that the products hit from this weekend onwards amounted to around 10% of the firms overall sales in 2018.

Nintendo should make a smartphone

I’m looking at this:

…and I’m thinking: yes. Yes I want this. I’m also thinking: stick a sim card in there!

Why Nintendo hasn’t explored the avenue of a gaming-centric smartphone?

Of course it’s been tried before by others with poor results (remember the Ngage?), but of all the companies that could produce the hardware and software tie-up to make it happen, it must surely be Nintendo. It would be so fun.

Who should be the voice of Beeb?

Intriguing news from my employer today: the BBC is launching its own voice assistant.

It won’t compete with Alexa or Google, the Guardian reports, but will instead be a voice interface to interact with BBC software on smart TVs and similar. The theory goes that a BBC-made voice assistant will understand English accents better than the American-developed tech in use already.

The BBC’s team is turning to richly-accented BBC employees up and down the country to record a diverse range of voices.

The big question, though:

The name Beeb was chosen as a working title after comparing several potential wake words for the software. Although it is likely to be voiced by a single individual, no decision has been made on who this will be.

Who will be the voice of Beeb?

The obvious contenders for me:

– Moira Stewart, though a large number of Brits may consider her to already be the voice of, er, HMRC.

– Terry Wogan, as there’s surely enough archive material to be able to generate this?

– David Attenborough, obviously

– Zippy, Bungle and George, on rotation

– Barry Davies, as it’s already proven he can put his voice to absolutely anything and make sense of it

– Keith from The Office

– The sun baby from the Teletubbies, now in her mid-twenties

– me

So many possibilities.

Actually, maybe one possible contender for the voice of Beeb could be Jon Briggs.

He was the man who did the between-rounds voiceover on the Weakest Link, and was an announcer on Radio 2. He’s also known, though, to British iPhone users as the first voice of Siri…

Why kids should call robots ‘it’ (but still be nice)

The Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger:

Today’s small children, aka Generation Alpha, are the first to grow up with robots as peers. Those winsome talking devices spawned by a booming education-tech industry can speed children’s learning, but they also can be confusing to them, research shows. Many children think robots are smarter than humans or imbue them with magical powers.

We need to think very carefully about teaching children, who have never known a world without robots, how to interact with them appropriately. Treating them as if they were human isn’t a direction we should take. We are better than robots. But, equally, we surely shouldn’t encourage children to be impolite or aggressive just because the robot doesn’t have feelings. (Yet.)

If you need a reason to be cheerful, the piece goes on to describe some of the work being done to study this topic. In particular, this simple exercise suggests even the youngest of children have the capability to grasp the basics of machine learning and AI:

Researchers at MIT have developed an AI curriculum called PopBots that guides children as young as 4 to teach a robot to play the game Rock, Paper, Scissors; to divide foods into healthy and unhealthy groups; and to remix melodies to create new strains of music. The children answered many questions correctly on a test afterward and were able to discuss AI concepts.

‘Silicon Valley’s Chinese-style social credit system’

This excellent piece in Fast Company doesn’t necessarily tell you anything you don’t know already (Uber and AirBnB rate you, insurance companies keep data etc) but bunching it all together as a troubling trend was a terrific idea by Mike Elgan, who writes:

Many Westerners are disturbed by what they read about China’s social credit system. But such systems, it turns out, are not unique to China. A parallel system is developing in the United States, in part as the result of Silicon Valley and technology-industry user policies, and in part by surveillance of social media activity by private companies.

He goes on to list all of the ways that is happening. What the piece also examines is how China chooses to flex its power when punishing those with low scores. This paragraph really stood out:

Public shaming is also part of China’s social credit system. Pictures of blacklisted people in one city were shown between videos on TikTok in a trial, and the addresses of blacklisted citizens were shown on a map on WeChat.

Chinese-owned TikTok was by far the fastest growing social network in the world last year, particularly in the US, where it has incredible momentum. (And is busy poaching the very best talent from the established players like Twitter and Facebook in attempt to grow faster). It’ll be interesting to see how Western governments handle its popularity.