‘My daughter asked me to stop writing about motherhood’

As part of the privacy and personal data debate we’re having right now, do we need to figure out a way for children to take control of content about them, even if they weren’t responsible for creating it?

An interesting though ethically questionable piece in the Washington Post about a lawyer and writer who often makes her children the subject of her work.

Christie Tate tells the story of her daughter, now a “fourth-grader” (so, 9 or 10), getting a laptop and discovering the internet is full of content about her. 

“What’s all this?” she said. The screen was covered with thumbnail sketches of her as a baby, a toddler and preschooler — each paired with an essay or blog post I’d written on the subject of parenting. “Why are all of these pictures of me on the Internet?” She wanted to know, and she had a right to know.

Now, not all children have writers for parents. But many – most? – parents do take the view that posting images and comment about childcare to be perfectly fine. Will their kids see it that way? Already teens are shunning permanent for ephemeral.

Big on Snapchat this year

Snapchat’s Business team has written a post about what’s going to be popular in 2019 based on a few overhanging trends from 2018. While it’s mostly predictable – memes are going to get more popular, they say – I do think it’s interesting to read how behaviour of every day people on Snapchat is being discussed in the same manner we’d talk about celebrity trends in eras gone by. Here’s what’s going to be big in the world of teen fashion, per Snapchat’s analysis:

In 2019, female teens are planning to put forward a more “natural” look for their appearance. Expect to see more bobs and a “clean and fresh” makeup look. Teens are also leaning into vintage styles, and they’re looking forward to trying on color-coordinated, tie-dyed, and neon clothes in the new year.

I did learn something, though. “YKTV”. You Know The Vibes.

Image result for fellow kids gif

Discussing Apple’s revenue cut

Lots of coverage on Apple since their announcement yesterday on revising its revenue guidance.

Here’s a lengthy chat on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Wake Up To Money programme, where I try – mostly in vain – to suggest the problem isn’t necessarily the iPhone’s price point:

This morning I published this take on how big a problem this is for Apple in the long run and, well, I don’t think it’s anything approaching a crisis. The problem is that the decline of the iPhone – or rather, the global smartphone market – has been accelerated by China. Apple has been putting in the groundwork to deal with the device no longer being the major breadwinner, but those strategies haven’t come to fruition yet. That work will continue, China’s economy may well improve, and we’ll perhaps forget this ever happened. From my piece:

Services, health and fitness, entertainment. It’s done a simply spectacular job of building serious cash beyond selling hardware. The Services part of Apple makes almost as much money as Facebook’s entire business. Apple is not a company in trouble.

China’s economy, on the other hand, is – and it’s meant the iPhone’s decline has happened much more quickly than Apple – or anyone – had bargained for. And for that you suspect, privately, Mr Cook holds the current US administration partly responsible. The trade war is trickling down and affecting consumer confidence, Mr Cook told shareholders

Robots are writing Forbes articles for humans to ‘polish up’

One might say much of the corporate dreck published on Forbes  is already written by soulless robots, but now we can mean it literally. Digiday:

Over the summer, the business publisher, which just had its most profitable year in more than a decade, rolled out a new CMS, called Bertie, which recommends article topics for contributors based on their previous output, headlines based on the sentiment of their pieces and images too. It’s also testing a tool that writes rough versions of articles that contributors can simply polish up, rather than having to write a full story from scratch.

Through obsessive monitoring stats, A/B headlines testing and tracking of social media, this process has long been in the works for all newsrooms. It was only a matter of time until someone automated the actual writing too.

The optimist in me says: get the low-hanging fruit done by a robot, and leave people to do real journalism – and there are certainly some excellent  reporters on the books at Forbes.

But the realist thinks: it’s the low-hanging fruit that often brings in the most traffic and makes the most money, so publishers might just rethink having those pesky expensive humans at all.

Looking back at the last time Apple flunked on revenue

The wise John Gruber has written about the last time Apple revised its guidance, as it did on Wednesday. It was some 16 years ago, and it was Steve Jobs delivering the bad news. That time the earnings miss was blamed on a struggling creative industry not buying enough Apple hardware. Back then, a 10% adjustment accounted for $200m revenue. Today, 7% – as Apple has warned – amounts to around $7bn.

Gruber has some unfavourable words about Tim Cook’s long letter to investors. Here’s how he thinks it should have been written:

“We all know the Chinese market is fucked up — half because China is China and half because of you-know-who’s dumbass trade war. This quarter that fucked-upped-ness hit iPhone harder than we expected. But China is the whole problem — everything else is noise. Customers around the world love the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, and iPhones account for 90 percent of the profits in the entire handset industry. We expect that to grow as our competitors struggle to differentiate themselves from each other.”

He goes on to say that Cook’s humility – which has been a great strength during 2018’s Great Global Data Awakening – is a handicap on days like this, adding:

Properly delivered, the takeaway should have been that China is crazy but the iPhone is still kicking the shit out of the entire rest of the handset industry and is only pulling further ahead.

Anyway, what’s done is done. When Steve Jobs issued his warning, it was at a time when Apple is just beginning to lay the groundwork for what it has now become. The iPod was into its second generation, but still a Mac-only product at a time when the Mac was the underdog. Soon, iPod would be for everyone – and the iPhone was the next natural step. They’ve done rather well since.

So what happens next this time around? The New York Times’ Daisuke Wakabayashi:

Apple tells investors to expect a tough quarter

Apple shares halted on account of news it is lowering its guidance for Q1. Tim Cook explained why in a letter to shareholders on Wednesday. Here’s the key passage:

First, we knew the different timing of our iPhone launches would affect our year-over-year compares. Our top models, iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, shipped in Q4’18 — placing the channel fill and early sales in that quarter, whereas last year iPhone X shipped in Q1’18, placing the channel fill and early sales in the December quarter. We knew this would create a difficult compare for Q1’19, and this played out broadly in line with our expectations.

Second, we knew the strong US dollar would create foreign exchange headwinds and forecasted this would reduce our revenue growth by about 200 basis points as compared to the previous year. This also played out broadly in line with our expectations.

Third, we knew we had an unprecedented number of new products to ramp during the quarter and predicted that supply constraints would gate our sales of certain products during Q1. Again, this also played out broadly in line with our expectations. Sales of Apple Watch Series 4 and iPad Pro were constrained much or all of the quarter. AirPods and MacBook Air were also constrained.

Fourth, we expected economic weakness in some emerging markets. This turned out to have a significantly greater impact than we had projected.

In addition, these and other factors resulted in fewer iPhone upgrades than we had anticipated.

It all means Apple expects revenue to be $84bn for the quarter – its original estimate was $89-$93bn.

My report for BBC News, with thanks to YouTube for this flattering thumbnail:


Here’s our full piece on all this, including my analysis of where this leaves Apple:

To sum up what Mr Cook told investors: some of this is under Apple’s control, and some of it isn’t.

The economic realities in China – where growth is slowing – mean a region which Apple relied on heavily for new customers is no longer providing that boost. Coupled with a US-China trade war, this might get worse. There’s little Mr Cook can do about that, save lobbying hard, as he has already, for exemptions that help protect Apple’s business.

But there’s something else important at play here. The phenomenal smart phone era, a period that made Apple the world’s richest company, is winding down. That isn’t news. It’s just happening more quickly than Apple had anticipated. Better, more reliable devices, with longer-lasting batteries, mean people aren’t desperate to upgrade at the end of their contract. And ask yourself: what exactly was new about the latest iPhone model? Not a lot. Not enough.

Will Apple’s other products and services be enough to sustain its position? It has been trying to diversify what it does for some time with products like the Apple Watch and other online services, which have grown quickly but fall way short of the profit gained from the all-conquering iPhone.

Trusted commentators are now expecting the company to make a major acquisition to give investors something to feel optimistic about.

Judge: Tech firms can’t be held responsible for San Bernardino shooting

A lawsuit that argued Facebook, Twitter and Google should be held partly responsible for a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino was dismissed by a judge on Monday. The suit argued that as terrorists were able to communicate using the platforms, the firms were liable. Not so, Reuters reports:

“A contrary conclusion poses boundless litigation risk and is not tenable given how interconnected communication services are with modern economic and social life,” the judge wrote.

Beeler also found no liability for aiding and abetting terrorism under the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), finding allegations only that the companies were “generally aware” that Islamic State used their services.

Not a surprising ruling. Since then, the firms have got a lot better (read: quicker) at getting rid, or blocking, this kind of chatter on the platform – though the knock-on effect has been, as you might have predicted, terrorists moving to less visible platforms to organise.

H*ckin good study into online language

The utterly wonderful and charming @dog_rates account – whereby dogs are given a rating out of 10 (such as, er, 13/10) – is a regular bundle of internet joy, one which I have written about in the past.

What makes the account so effective is not just the foolproof concept of cute dogs, but the use of language to cultivate the sense of a global in-joke. Here’s how I (rather hopelessly) tried to explain it in my piece:

Dogs aren’t just dogs. They’re doggos. Puppies are puppers. And while not all puppers can be considered doggos, all doggos are most certainly puppers. Or woofers. Woofers that bork. If you want, you can boop a doggo’s snoot. That is – to lightly bop on one’s nose.

What is less clear is how and why certain phrases catch on to such an extent they take on a life of their own. However, a new paper titled (seriously) “This Paper is About Lexical Propagation on Twitter. H*ckin Smart. 12/10. Would Accept!” examines the phenomena. Here’s the abstract:

This paper presents an observational study of lexical propagation across online social networking platforms. By focusing on the highly followed @dog_rates Twitter account, we explore how a popular account’s unique style of language propagates outside of the account’s immediate follower community within Twitter. Initial results show a strong relationship between the prevalence of this account’s language-specific features and the account’s followership and popularity. Expanding this research across platforms, we demonstrate consistency in these results outside Twitter, as the @dog_rates vernacular shows a similarly strong relationship between use on Reddit and the account’s followership over time.

Tell the truth, I don’t have access to the full paper. But, well, if you do… let me know what you find out.

Netflix’s removal of episode ‘an affront to freedom of expression’

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called it “an affront to freedom of expression”, but the Saudi government sees it simply as illegal. An episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix show Patriot Act has been removed for audiences within Saudi Arabia. The Verge (citing the FT):

The second episode of the Netflix comedy show criticized Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the government’s reaction to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi government reportedly told Netflix that the episode violated its cybercrime laws and requested its removal. The cited law effectively states that criticizing the government through any kind of digital medium is a criminal act.

This kind scenario might become more common for Netflix in 2019. It’s aggressively expanding globally. In its last quarter, six of the seven million new subscribers it added came from outside the US.

Difficult political territory. Can Netflix keep its obligation to follow local laws without provoking backlash in existing markets?

This, from Human Rights Watch’s executive director for the Middle East, gives a sense of what Netflix is grappling with:

(h/t Paul Blake)


Hassan Minhaj has responded to the row on Twitter:

A smart response that manages to avoid getting caught in the row about whether or not Netflix made the wrong decision.

Robot learns to walk through unfamiliar terrain

It’s all well and good Boston Dynamics making a video of its robots trotting merrily across a field (in what, for all we know, might have been the 100th take).

A far bigger task is creating autonomy that reacts to brand new situations – scenarios it hasn’t been fed before as part of its machine learning. When it comes to making this kind of technology an every day reality, we are a long way from achieving this critical component.

This article in VentureBeat today is dense in the detail, but the gist is that researchers in California – at UC Berkeley and Google’s AI division, known as Brain – think they have come up with a method to help robots walk over the unexpected, by using reinforcement learning to “reward” the robot when it makes the right decision.

If you’re thinking this sounds like the way you’d train a dog, you’d be absolutely right. From the piece:

After 160,000 steps over two hours with an algorithm that rewarded forward velocity and penalized “large angular accelerations” and pitch angles, they successfully trained the Minitaur to walk on flat terrain, over obstacles like wooden blocks, and up slopes and steps — none of which were present at training time.

In other words, by teaching the robot to walk properly – rather than just handle pre-programmed obstacles – it was able to react to things it had never seen before. Here’s a tape of the learning process:

That’s one small step for robot…