Twitter makes its political ad ban official

The ban on political ads announced by Twitter two weeks ago has come into effect, and the rules are surprisingly simple — perhaps too simple. No political content as they define it may be promoted; Candidates, parties, governments or officials, PACs, and certain political nonprofit groups are banned from promoting content altogether.

The idea intended to be made manifest in these policies is that “political message reach should be earned, not bought,” as the company puts it. It’s hard to argue with that (but Facebook will anyway). The new rules apply globally and to all ad types.

It’s important to make clear at the outset that Twitter is not banning political content, it is banning the paid promotion of that content. Every topic is fair game and every person or organization on Twitter can pursue their cause as before — they just can’t pay to get their message in front of more eyeballs.

In its briefly stated rules, the company explains what it means by “political content”:

We define political content as content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.

Also banned are:

Ads that contain references to political content, including appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against any of the above-listed types of political content.

That seems pretty straightforward. Banning political ads is controversial to begin with, but unclear or complicated definitions would really make things difficult.

A blanket ban on many politically-motivated organizations will also help clear the decks. Political action committees, or PACs, and their deep-pocketed cousins the SuperPACs, are banned from advertising at all. That makes sense, since what content would they be promoting other than attempts to influence the political process? 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations, not as publicly notorious as PACs but huge spenders on political causes, are also banned.

There are of course exemptions, both for news organizations that want to promote coverage of political issues, and “cause-based” content deemed non-political.

The first exemption is pretty natural — although many news organizations do have a political outlook or ideological bent, it’s a far cry from the practice of donating millions directly to candidates or parties. But not just any site can take advantage — you’ll have to have 200,000 monthly unique visitors, make your own content with your own people, and not be primarily focused on a single issue.

The “cause-based” exemption may be where Twitter takes the most heat. As Twitter’s policy states, it will allow “ads that educate, raise awareness, and/or call for people to take action in connection with civic engagement, economic growth, environmental stewardship, or social equity causes.”

These come with some restrictions: They can only be targeted to the state, province, or region level — no zip codes, so hyper-local influence is out. And politically-charged interests may not be targeted, so you can’t send your cause-based ads just to “socialists,” for example. And they can’t reference or be run on behalf of any of the banned entities above.

But it’s the play in the definition that may come back to bite Twitter. What exactly constitutes “civic engagement” and “social equity causes”? Perhaps these concepts were only vaguely defined by design to be accommodating rather than prescriptive, but if you leave an inch for interpretation, you’d better believe bad actors are going to take a mile.

Clearly this is meant to allow promotion of content like voter registration drives, disaster relief work, and so on. But it’s more than possible someone will try to qualify, say, an anti-immigrant rally as “public conversation around important topics.”

I asked Twitter whether additional guidance on the cause-based content rules would be forthcoming, but a representative simply pointed me to the very language I quoted.

That said, policy lead at Twitter Vijaya Gadde said that the company will attempt to be transparent with its decisions on individual issues and clear about changes to the rules going forward.

“This is new territory,” she tweeted. “As with every policy we put into practice, it will evolve and we’ll be listening to your feedback.”

And no doubt they shall receive it — in abundance.

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You’ve heard of CRISPR, now meet its newer, savvier cousin CRISPR Prime

CRISPR, the revolutionary ability to snip out and alter genes with scissor-like precision, has exploded in popularity over the last few years and is generally seen as the standalone wizard of modern gene-editing. However, it’s not a perfect system, sometimes cutting at the wrong place, not working as intended and leaving scientists scratching their heads. Well, now there’s a new, more exacting upgrade to CRISPR called Prime, with the ability to, in theory, snip out more than 90 percent of all genetic diseases.

Just what is this new method and how does it work? We turned to IEEE fellow,  biomedical researcher and dean of graduate education at Tuft University’s school of engineering Karen Panetta for an explanation.

How does CRISPR Prime editing work?

CRISPR is a powerful genome editor. It utilizes an enzyme called Cas9 that uses an RNA molecule as a guide to navigate to its target DNA. It then edits or modifies the DNA, which can deactivate genes or insert a desired sequence to achieve a behavior. Currently, we are most familiar with the application of genetically modified crops that are resistant to disease.

However, its most promising application is to genetically modify cells to overcome genetic defects or its potential to conquer diseases like cancer.

Some applications of genome editing technology include:

  • Genetically modified mosquitos that can’t carry malaria.
  • In humans, “turning on” a gene that can create fetal type behaving cells that can overcome sickle-cell anemia.

Of course, as with every technology, CRISPR isn’t perfect. It works by cutting the double-stranded DNA at precise locations in the genome. When the cell’s natural repair process takes over, it can cause damage or, in the case where the modified DNA is inserted at the cut site, it can create unwanted off-target mutations.

Some genetic disorders are known to mutate specific DNA bases, so having the ability to edit these bases would be enormously beneficial in terms of overcoming many genetic disorders. However, CRISPR is not well suited for intentionally introducing specific DNA bases, the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs that make up the double helix.

Prime editing was intended to overcome this disadvantage, as well as other limitations of CRISPR.

Prime editing can do multi-letter base-editing, which could tackle fatal genetic disorders such as Tay-Sachs, which is caused by a mutation of four DNA letters.

It’s also more precise. I view this as analogous to the precision lasers brought to surgery versus using a hand-held scalpel. It minimized damage, so the healing process was more efficient.

Prime editing can insert, modify or delete individual DNA letters; it can also insert a sequence of multiple letters into a genome with minimal damage to DNA strands.

How effective might Prime editing be?

Imagine being able to prevent cancer and/or hereditary diseases, like breast cancer, from ever occurring by editing out the genes that are makers for cancer. Cancer treatments are usually long, debilitating processes that physically and emotionally drain patients. It also devastates patients’ loved ones who must endure watching helpless on the sidelines as the patient battles to survive.

“Editing out” genetic disorders and/or hereditary diseases to prevent them from ever coming to fruition could also have an enormous impact on reducing the costs of healthcare, effectively helping redefine methods of medical treatment.

It could change lives so that long-term disability care for diseases like Alzheimer’s and special needs education costs could be significantly reduced or never needed.

How did the scientific community get to this point – where did CRISPR/prime editing “come from?”

Scientists recognized CRISPR’s ability to prevent bacteria from infecting more cells and the natural repair mechanism that it initiates after damage occurs, thus having the capacity to halt bacterial infections via genome editing. Essentially, it showed adaptive immunity capabilities.

When might we see CRISPR Prime editing “out in the wild?”

It’s already out there! It has been used for treating sickle-cell anemia and in human embryos to prevent HIV infections from being transmitted to offspring of HIV parents.

So, what’s next?

IEEE Engineers, like myself, are always seeking to take the fundamental science and expand it beyond the petri dish to benefit humanity.

In the short term, I think that Prime editing will help generate the type of fetal like cells that are needed to help patients recover and heal as well as developing new vaccines against deadly diseases. It will also allow researchers new lower cost alternatives and access to Alzheimer’s like cells without obtaining them post-mortem.

Also, AI and deep learning is modeled after human neural networks, so the process of genome editing could potentially help inform and influence new computer algorithms for self-diagnosis and repair, which will become an important aspect of future autonomous systems.

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Hulu increases price for live TV by $10, to $55 per month

Hulu just sent an email to subscribers of its Hulu + Live TV plan announcing that the price of the basic live TV plan will increase from $44.99 per month to $54.99 per month.

This is Hulu + Live TV’s second price hike this year, with a $5 increase in January, followed by this twice-as-large increase, which is supposed to take effect on December 18.

In the email, Hulu says this increase “allows us to continue delivering the best live and on-demand TV experience for you.” However, as a the price keeps going up, the price advantage that a “skinny bundle” of TV channels offers over plain old cable starts to shrink.

The streaming service launched its live TV package at the beginning of 2018, and it supposedly past 1 million subscribers before the year was done.

Hulu’s ownership has also been changing, with Disney becoming a majority shareholder following its acquisition of Fox, and then taking full operational control of the company earlier this year. Hulu is part of Disney’s broader streaming strategy, which saw the company launching its own Disney+ service earlier this week and offering Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu (without live TV) together in a $12.99 bundle.

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AWS gives users access to third-party data in the cloud with AWS Data Exchange

AWS launched its Data Exchange service this week, which enables AWS customers to find, subscribe to and use third-party data in the cloud. 

According to the company, the service removes the need to build and maintain infrastructure for data storage, delivery, billing and entitling. Previously, when customers subscribed to third-party data, they often had to wait weeks to receive shipped physical media, manage sensitive credentials for multiple File Transfer Protocol (FTP) hosts and periodically check for updates, or code to several disparate APIs, methods that were inconsistent with modern architectures, according to AWS. 

“Customers have asked us for an easier way to find, subscribe to, and integrate diverse data sets into the applications, analytics, and machine-learning models they’re running on AWS. Unfortunately, the way customers exchange data hasn’t evolved much in the last 20 years,” said Stephen Orban, general manager of AWS Data Exchange. “AWS Data Exchange gives our customers the ability to quickly integrate third-party data in the workloads they’re migrating to the cloud, while giving qualified data providers a modern and secure way to package, deliver, and reach the millions of AWS customers worldwide.”

Prior to subscribing to a data product, customers can review the price and terms of use that providers make publicly available. 

Once subscribed, customers can use the AWS Data Exchange API or console to ingest data they subscribe to directly into Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to use across the portfolio of cloud services in AWS. 

To bolster security, AWS Data Exchange prohibits sharing sensitive personal data (such as personal health information) as well as any personal data that is not already lawfully and publicly available. 

AWS customers can get started with AWS Data Exchange here.

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More layoffs at pivoting London edtech startup pi-top

London edtech startup pi-top has gone through another round of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.

pi-top confirmed that eight jobs have been cut in the London office, saying the job losses resulted from a “restructuring our business to focus on the U.S. education market”.

In August we broke the news that the STEM hardware focused company had cut 12 staff after losing out on a major contract. pi-top told us then that its headcount had been reduced from 72 to 60.

The latest cuts suggest the workforce has been reduced to around 50 — although we have also heard that company headcount is now considerably lower than that.

One source told us that 12 jobs have gone in the London office this week, as well as additional cuts in the China office where the company’s hardware team is based — but pi-top denied there have been any changes to its China team.

pi-top said in August that the layoffs were related to implementing a new strategy.

Commenting on the latest cuts, it told us: “We have made changes within the company that reflect our business focus on the U.S. education market and our increasingly important SaaS learning platform.”

“The core of our business remains unchanged and we are happy with progress and the fantastic feedback we have received on pitop 4 from our school partners,” pi-top added.

Additionally, we have heard that a further eight roles at the UK office have been informed to staff as at risk of redundancy. Affected jobs at risk include roles in product, marketing, creative services, customer support and finance.

We also understand that a number of employees have left the company of their own accord in recent months, following an earlier round of layoffs.

pi-top did not provide comment on jobs at risk of redundancy but told us that it has hired three new staff “to accelerate the SaaS side of our education offering and will be increasing our numbers in the U.S. to service our growth in the region”.

We understand that the latest round of cuts have been communicated to staff as a cost reduction exercise and also linked to implementing a new strategy. Staff have also been told that the business focus has shifted to the U.S schools market.

As we reported earlier this year, pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board who has a strong U.S. focus: Stanley Buchesky served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US department for education under secretary of state, Betsy DeVos. He is also the founder of a U.S. edtech seed fund.

Sources familiar with pi-top say the company is seeking to pivot away from making proprietary edtech hardware to focus on a SaaS learning platform for teaching STEM, called pi-top Further.

At the start of this year it crowdfunded a fourth gen STEM device, the pi-top 4, with an estimated shipping date of this month. The crowdfunder attracted 521 backers, pledging close to $200k to fund the project.

In the pi-top 4 Kickstarter pitch the device is slated as being supported by a software platform called Further — which is described as a “free social making platform” that “teaches you how to use all the pi-top components through completing challenges and contributing projects to the community”, as well as offering social sharing features.

The plan now is for pi-top to monetize that software platform by charging subscription fees for elements of the service — with the ultimate goal of SaaS revenues making up the bulk of its business as hardware sales are de-emphasized. (Hardware is hard; and pi-top’s current STEM learning flagship has faced some challenges with reliability, as we reported in August.)

We understand that the strategic change to Further — from free to a subscription service — was communicated to staff internally in September.

Asked about progress on the pi-top 4, the company told us the device began shipping to backers this week. 

“We are pleased to announce the release of pi-top 4 and pi-top Further, our new learning and robotics coding platform,” it said. “This new product suite provides educators the ability to teach coding, robotics and AI with step-by-step curriculum and an integrated coding window that powers the projects students build. With pi-top, teachers can effectively use Project Based Learning and students can learn by doing and apply what they learn to the real world.”

Last month pi-top announced it had taken in $4M in additional investment to fund the planned pivot to SaaS — and “bridge towards profitability”, as it put it today.

“The changes you see are a fast growing start-up shifting from revenue focus to a right-sized profit generating company,” it also told us.

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Know your startup’s value so you can communicate it to investors

I’ve always told companies that investors have a much easier job than they do. To be good at their jobs, investors have to know how to do math and make decisions. As a business owner, you have to do both while also running your business.

The math piece can seem cumbersome, but it’s vital for understanding whether your company is creating or destroying value. A few simple metrics can demonstrate to investors the health and viability of your company, and they can show you which levers to pull that will best optimize your company for investor interest (and secure a higher price). But before you can ever hope to communicate your business’ value to an investor, you must understand it yourself.

The numbers are simple; it’s the calculations that are complex

Investment math itself is not complicated. In essence, it’s just about understanding whether your company is creating or destroying value by asking:

  • Where is your company investing its financial resourcesMost growing companies invest heavily in sales and marketing or research and development.
  • What is the return on this investment?  For example, how much gross profit (revenue x gross margin percentage) does a given sales and marketing investment produce?
  • How does that number compare to your cost of capital? If it’s higher, your company is creating value. If it’s lower, you’re destroying it.

Investors use this information to determine if their return would be higher than their expectation (e.g., 15% hurdle rate), should you continue down your current path of creating or destroying value. Then, they make their decision based on that calculation.

A caveat I’ll add here is that it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker if your company is declining in value. Oil rigs, after all, are considered investment assets, even though they are perpetually declining and will eventually run out (i.e., destroy all of their value). Although this article focuses on calculations that demonstrate value creation, all investment assets can be financed at the right price.

A deep dive into calculating value

One of the best metrics you can use to demonstrate value creation is your cohort-level return on investment. It’s a calculation most investors are familiar with, but it may not be as straightforward to companies who don’t see it as often. Again, while the metrics and concepts of investment math are simple, it’s the process of getting there that requires complex analysis.

Whether you are evaluating these metrics yourself or bringing in outside counsel to assist you, use the process below to show investors you are creating value.

Determine which information to analyze

The first step in calculating value is to understand which information from your income and cash flow statements to analyze as “investments.”

Start by dividing your capital allocation into three main buckets: short-term investments, long-term investments and expenses. In general, short-term investments will be the ones you want to focus on, but it’s helpful to walk through each.

GitHub launches new lab to tackle open-source security

GitHub wants to help protect the open-source ecosystem with the announcement of the GitHub Security Lab. The lab is designed to bring together security researchers, maintainers and companies who are dedicated to open-source security. 

In addition, the company will provide tools, resource bounties ,and hours of security research. 

“We all share a collective responsibility to keep open source software secure—none of us can do it alone,” Jamie Cool, VP of product for security at GitHub, wrote in a post

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As part of the announcement, GitHub revealed CodeQL is now freely available for open-source software. CodeQL is an open-source security tool that helps users find vulnerabilities in open-source code, the company explained. “CodeQL is a tool many security research teams around the world use to perform semantic analysis of code, and we’ve used it ourselves to find over 100 reported CVEs in some of the most popular open source projects,” Cool wrote.

The GitHub Advisory Database is also being launched to provide a public database of advisories on GitHub as well as additional data curated and mapped to packages. 

As part of the lab’s launch, F5, Google, HackerOone, Intel, LinkedIn, Microsoft Mozilla, Oracle, Uber, VMWare and more are donating time and expertise to open-source security. 

Other ways GitHub is helping protect open-source software is through automated security updates and token scanning.   

“Securing the world’s open source software is a daunting task. First, there’s scale: the JavaScript ecosystem alone has over one million open source packages. Then there’s the shortage of security expertise: security professionals are outnumbered 500 to one by developers. Finally there’s coordination: the world’s security experts are spread across thousands of companies. GitHub Security Lab and CodeQL will help level the playing field,” Cool wrote. 

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SD Times news digest: ONNX at LF AI Foundation, InfluxDB Cloud 2.0, and IBM partners with Stanford Human-Centered AI Institute

The LF AI Foundation announced the Open Neural Network eXchange (ONNX) is its newest graduate level project. 

ONNX provides AI capabilities like model creation and export, visualization, optimization, and acceleration capabilities. 

“ONNX will retain its existing OSI-approved open source license, its governance structure and their established development practices,” said Ibrahim Haddad, executive director of the LF AI Foundation. “We are committed to providing ONNX with a host of supporting services especially in the area of marketing and community events to extend its reach and adoption.”

InfluxDB Cloud 2.0 now available in Europe
InfluxData announced the availability of its Cloud 2.0 in Europe. Influx DB Cloud 2.0 is a serverless times series platform-as-a-service.

“The instrumentation of everything, from software systems to factories and home appliances, has generated an enormous flood of high-velocity data that can be harnessed for powerful innovations. We built InfluxDB Cloud 2.0 to provide developers and organizations with a platform that supports the data demands of the future,” said Evan Kaplan, CEO of InfluxData.

InfluxDB Cloud 2.0 provides customers with real-time observability into their systems and is able to support a wide range of customer applications. Current customer use cases include SLA-related monitoring around key business metrics for e-commerce sites and real-time monitoring of wind turbines for business insights to refine operations, according to the company in a post.

IBM joins the Stanford Human-Centered AI Institute Partner Program
IBM Research announced that it is the first founding corporate partner of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. 

As part of the partnership, IBM said it will work closely with fellow AI thought leaders, researchers and innovators at Stanford and through participation on the HAI Corporate Advisory Committee, and IBM researchers will also work alongside Stanford researchers as part of the Visiting Scholars program.

The three key areas of AI research include trusted artificial intelligence, natural language processing (NLP) and neuro-symbolic computation. 

Topcoder releases Talent-as-a-Service model
Technology network and on-demand digital talent platform Topcoder launched a Talent as a Service (TaaS) model that allows enterprise teams to scale quickly with resources from around the world. 

“There’s really no war for talent, but more of a ‘persistent blind spot’ in innovative technology talent acquisition. Highly skilled technologists from around the world have never been more accessible,” said Michael P. Morris, global head of crowdsourcing at Wipro Limited. “The key is figuring out how to find, attract and connect that talent with companies that need them most, and then creating project opportunities too attractive to be dismissed, as well as loyalty programs that keep them coming back.”

The full details on the new model are available here.

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Virgin Galactic begins ‘Astronaut Readiness Program’ for first paying customers

Virgin Galactic has begun its ‘Astronaut Readiness Program’ this week, which is being run out of Under Armour Global HQ to start. Under Armour is Virgin Galactic’s partner on its official astronaut uniforms, which its first paying space tourists will don on the company’s initial trips beyond Earth.

The Astronaut Readiness Program is a preparatory course that all of Virgin Galactic’s passengers undertake before they can get their trip aboard the company’s VSS Unity sub-orbital spaceplane. It involves guidance and instruction provided by Virgin Galactic team members, including its Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses and Chief Pilot Dave Mackay. Both Mackay and Moses were on Virgin’s February demonstration flight to space, and so can provide not only guidance based on their considerable expertise, but also share insights from actually having flown aboard the same vessel that will take the company’s paying passengers up.

Under Armour is also involved in the program, in more ways than just providing and reading the outfits that passengers will wear. They’re providing guidance on how Astronauts will get around aboard the spacecraft, as well as on nutrition and fitness programs to ready the space tourists for their adventure. A Virging Galactic in-house medical team is also on-hand to consult with each passenger. Virgin’s customers don’t need to match the strenuous physical fitness requirements of NASA astronauts, but the company says it’s still focused on ensuring its customers are healthy and hale on their trips.

Being an early customer for Virgin Galactic means not only training through programs like the one run this week in Baltimore, but also helping the new company develop and refine its process for future use.

“We will now be using the feedback from this week in Baltimore to build on that model,” Virgin Galactic said in a press release. “We discussed with our Future Astronauts how the training and the community can be best shaped for those waiting to fly and for those who have flown.”

To date, Virgin Galactic has 600 customers signed up to fly aboard its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, which launches from a customized cargo jet aircraft to reach sub-orbital space and provides customs with a 90-minute flight, for a $250,000 ticket. It’s looking to launch its first flights for paying customers in the first half of next year.

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LA warns of ‘juice-jacking’ malware, but admits it has no cases

Los Angeles’ district attorney is warning travelers to avoid public USB charging points because “they may contain dangerous malware.”

Reading the advisory, you might be forgiven for thinking that every USB outlet you see is just waiting for you to plug in your phone so it can steal your data. This so-called “juice-jacking” attack involves criminals loading malware “on charging stations or cables they leave plugged in at the stations so they may infect the phones and other electronic devices of unsuspecting users,” it reads. “The malware may lock the device or export data and passwords directly to the scammer.”

But the county’s chief prosecutor’s office told TechCrunch said that it has “no cases” of juice-jacking on its books, though it said there are known cases on the east coast.When asked where those cases were, the spokesperson did not know. And when asked what prompted the alert to begin with, the spokesperson said it was part of “an ongoing fraud education campaign.”

Which begs the question — why?

Security researcher Kevin Beaumont tweeted that he hasn’t seen “any evidence of malware being used in the wild on these things.” In fact, ask around and you’ll find very little out there. Several security researchers have dropped me messages saying they’ve seen proof-of-concepts, but nothing actively malicious.

Juice-jacking is a real threat, but it’s an incredibly complicated and imperfect way to attack someone when there are far easier ways.

The idea, though — that you can plug in your phone and have your secrets stolen — is not entirely farfetched. Over the years there have been numerous efforts to demonstrate that it’s possible. As ZDNet points out in its coverage of the juice-jacking warning, the FBI sent out a nationwide alert about the threat after security researcher Samy Kamkar developed an Ardunio-based implant designed to look like a USB charger to wirelessly sniff the air for leaky key strokes. And just earlier this year, a security researcher developed an iPhone charger cable clone that let a nearby hacker run commands on the vulnerable computer.

LA recommend using an AC power outlet and not a charging station, and to take your cables with you. That’s sound advice, but it’s just one of many things you need to do to keep your devices and data safe.

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