Lessons from history 100 years after the Armistice

Lessons from history 100 years after the Armistice

SHORTLY AFTER 2am on November 11th 1918 a train came to a halt in a wood in Compiègne, near Paris. A second train pulled up on a nearby track. After four years of fighting, delegates of the German government sought an armistice from Ferdinand Foch, the commander of the French forces. Rare photos of the scene, hazy as a memory, show engine smoke twisting between the twiggy trees, makeshift boardwalks across the leaf-strewn ground and clusters of soldiers by the rails. At 5.15am the Germans signed the peace in the light of brass lamps in a teak-lined dining car. At 11am the guns fell silent along the 400km (250 mile) front, their thunder replaced by the pealing of church bells.

Get our daily newsletter

Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.

This peace ended a collective nightmare of hitherto unrivalled intensity and volume. The first world war was not just a grand tragedy. For the 67m who fought, it was a sordid hellscape. Few of the 10m killed in combat died from a “bullet, straight to the heart”, as pro forma telegrams to relatives put it. Many more bled to death in no-man’s land, their wails lingering for days like “moist fingers being dragged down an enormous windowpane”, as a British lieutenant wrote of the Battle of the Somme. Traumatised survivors sometimes slept in open sewers, and begged for their mothers as superiors ordered them over the top.

They guarded what slivers of humanity and dignity they could. At Compiègne today visitors can view silver rings from the trenches bearing initials (LV, MJ, SH or G) or four-leaf clovers; pipes with marks worn where teeth once clenched; a tube of insect-bite cream; letter-openers fashioned from shell casings, the names of yearned-for correspondents etched into their blades (“Marguerite”, “Mlle Rose-Marie”). A certain stoic humour also played its part. “I was hit. I looked round and saw that my leg had shot out and hit the fellow behind me (who got rather annoyed about [it])” wrote Charlemagne’s great-grandfather in his diary in 1915, just outside Ypres.

The memorial at Compiègne focuses on the leaders, the “switchmen of history” as Geert Mak, a Dutch historian, calls them. A replica carriage is the star artefact, name cards marking where the German and French delegates sat. Outside, a statue of Foch keeps vigil over the clearing. On November 10th Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel will visit the site. As they enter the room where the carriage stands they will pass under a quote by Winston Churchill: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Pondering the exhibits, that apophthegm seems at once true and yet hopelessly hubristic. The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that had prevailed in most of Europe for decades. They should have read their history books. Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would not have happened had his driver not taken a wrong turning in Sarajevo. The German army’s initial advance was halted at Nieuwpoort by a Belgian lock-keeper who flooded the surrounding marshlands. Political twists in Berlin, not crushing defeat on the battlefield, pushed Germany to sue for peace in 1918.

The raftsmen also lacked maps. Across the continent, the armistice was greeted with relief. Newspapers announced it with a retrospectively stomach-churning sense of finality. “The war is over” cried Londoners as ceremonial gunfire broke the news. The nightmare seemed to have passed, but it had not. The armistice and the peace treaties that followed in 1919 and 1920 reshaped the maps of Europe and the Middle East, and imposed vengeance on the defeated, seeding future conflicts. Millions returned from the front angry, traumatised, wounded, resentful or all four. Gueules cassées (broken faces) the French called them. One such, an Austrian-born lance-corporal, would take Germany to war again two decades later, and in 1940 would have the French sign their own surrender in the same railway carriage at Compiègne.

The power of nightmares

Memories are everywhere. Two plaques in Compiègne’s station list the 23 locals killed in the first world war and the 20 killed in the second. Engraved brass cobblestones glint from German streets marking the addresses where Holocaust victims once lived. Recollections live on in diaries or passed through families orally. The past summer’s hot weather exposed shells and bullets in dried-up rivers. Other artefacts remain hidden: the original French version of the Treaty of Versailles went missing and probably rests, forgotten, in some German attic or cellar. “Europe is a continent in which one can easily travel back and forth through time,” writes Mr Mak. The EU, forged from the rubble of the two wars, knits the continent together in the spirit of lessons learned: peace, fraternity, unity in diversity. The pedagogical value of the past is to today’s European establishment what the uninhibited pursuit of freedom is to the American one, a foundational story, an essence.

Long may that learning continue. Yet modesty is also due, about forces greater than the wits and power of even historically aware societies are able to contain. National chauvinisms live on despite the Somme. Anti-Semitism lives on despite the Holocaust. Societies’ capacity to imagine collapse and barbarism in visceral terms fades with time. All Europeans can do is be vigilant and humble before these forces, dip their oars into the waves of history when possible, hold tight to their humanity and be grateful that their continent’s past and present are now broadly in harmony, the former educating and civilising the latter, for now at least. Like train lines running together in a wood.

%

Emmanuel Macron’s labour reforms may be working

Emmanuel Macron’s labour reforms may be working

WHEN GERHARD SCHRöDER launched a series of German labour-market reforms in 2003, his country’s unemployment rate stood at just under 10%. This was also the rate inherited by Emmanuel Macron, who signed his own labour-market reform into law in September 2017. The French president’s version is more modest than the Schröder package, not least because the bits already enacted touch only the labour code and not yet the unemployment-benefit and vocational-training systems. But Mr Macron’s hopes to curb unemployment are no less ambitious. A year on, has the French reform had any effect?

Get our daily newsletter

Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.

At first glance, not much. The number of jobseekers edged up again slightly in the third quarter, by 0.5%, after a tiny rise in the second quarter, according to Pôle Emploi, the unemployment agency. There has been a steep increase, of 8%, in the number of people out of work for between one and two years. France’s overall unemployment rate in the second quarter stood at 9.1%, still well above the 7% he has promised to achieve by 2022.

Part of this is unsurprising. Labour reforms obviously take time to feed through into durable job creation. It was not until 2008, five years after its reforms, that Germany’s unemployment rate fell to 7%, and a further four years before it reached 5%, thanks in part to the creation of low-wage “mini-jobs”, which the French government does not seek to copy. “France will not be a country of low-cost work,” declared Muriel Pénicaud, the labour minister, last year.

Moreover, the second element of Mr Macron’s three-part labour reform—a revamp of vocational-training schemes on which France spends €32bn ($37bn, or 1.4% of GDP) a year—has only just gone into effect. This is designed to improve results by handing choice to employees in the form of training credits they can choose how to spend. A further €15bn over five years is going into training for the unemployed. It will take much longer for such measures to improve skills and job prospects.

The third and final part—a reform of social protection—will be unveiled only next year. Whereas Mr Schröder began with benefit reform, Mr Macron has left this until last. During his campaign, he promised to extend unemployment benefit to all (currently it depends on accumulated insurance rights), in order to adapt the French welfare state to a world in which work is less regular and people change jobs more often. Such ambitions may now be scaled back, because of their cost. Plans to clamp down on those who refuse job offers remain on the table.

Nonetheless there are some indications that French employers are starting to respond to the labour reforms. One seems to be an improvement in the quality of jobs created. For example, in the third quarter of 2018 the number of firms reporting an intention to hire on permanent (rather than temporary) contracts was 10% higher than a year earlier, according to Acoss, the social-security agency. Figures also show a rise in the overall share of those aged 15-64 employed on permanent contracts over the past three quarters and a recent drop in those on short-term contracts (see chart).

Another measure is how many cases for unfair dismissal end up in the labour courts. French courts have until recently been free to award damages without limit, and these varied wildly. Mr Macron’s labour law capped such awards, thereby minimising the financial risk of lay-offs (and so of hiring) to firms. In 2017 the number of such cases going to court fell by 15% on the previous year. One director of a services firm, which employs 40 people in its call centre, says that he usually hires around five people each month, and used to put them all on short-term contracts. Now at least two of those will be permanent job offers. “It’s better to have motivated employees, but in the past it was a risk,” he says. “Now I feel it’s a gamble I can take.”

Such trends are new, and yet to be confirmed. Much will depend on the economic outlook beyond France. But, says Ludovic Subran, chief economist at Euler Hermes, a French credit insurer, “the trajectory is right, and we should see results by 2020.” Mr Macron has urged people to be patient. The trouble, of course, is that politicians who introduce reforms are often not those who benefit from them. Just as his last labour reforms came into force, in 2005, Mr Schröder lost his job, to Angela Merkel.

%

Emmanuel Macron’s calls for a European army are misguided

Emmanuel Macron’s calls for a European army are misguided

NORWAY’S COUNTRYSIDE teemed with European soldiers in the past two weeks. A Montenegrin platoon drilled within a Slovenian company, which was wrapped in a Spanish battalion, which in turn was inside an Italian brigade. All were part of NATO’s biggest exercise since the cold war (see article). Yet this is not quite what President Emmanuel Macron had in mind when he called for a “true European army” on November 6th. Striking a Gaullist pose, Mr Macron urged Europe to free itself from military dependence on America.

Get our daily newsletter

Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.

Mr Macron did not say precisely what he meant. Even so, his loose talk of a Euro-army is confused, quixotic—and reckless at a time of growing transatlantic uncertainty.

European federalists have long dreamed of defence integration, but they have had little to show for it beyond some joint equipment projects and anti-piracy operations. The most ambitious plan for a common army collapsed in the 1950s because of French opposition. Since then, however, France has pushed lesser schemes to develop autonomous European forces. These were mostly blocked by Britain, which feared splitting NATO (whose integrated military command France left in 1966 and then rejoined in 2009).

European defence has returned to the fore for three reasons: Brexit will remove its most dogged opponent within the European Union; Donald Trump has shaken European faith in the NATO alliance; and France and Germany have been desperate to find common cause. But European leaders cannot agree on its aims: should it be a symbol of ever-closer union, a roving gendarmerie to police the continent’s periphery or, as Mr Macron implied this week, a force that could beat off the very biggest powers, such as Russia and China?

Germany is keen on using EU defence schemes, like Permanent Structured Co-operation, a cluster of EU projects launched with fanfare last year, to bind big and small European countries closer together. Mr Macron, irked that this gives priority to politics over firepower, proposed a European Intervention Initiative: a smaller club of more ambitious powers, open to non-EU members, who would jointly plan future expeditionary campaigns. Germany saw this as an attempt to drag others into France’s African wars, but grudgingly signed up anyway.

For all these plans, Europeans would struggle to wage even medium-sized wars without extensive help from America, as they discovered during their air campaign in Libya in 2011. Though their defence spending is growing, there are still large gaps in their arsenals. In Norway, Europeans flaunted their armoured vehicles, air-refuelling tankers and transport aircraft. But data collected by the German Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, shows that their stock of equipment in all these areas has been shrinking. The EU will be weaker still when Britain leaves.

So what if some fantasise about Euro-forces? If that pushes them to equip their armies properly, and stop duplicating capabilities, so much the better. The merging of Dutch, Romanian and Czech units into the German army is promising. The danger is that little new fighting strength will be created, giving America yet more reasons to feel exasperated with its allies. European leaders rebuked America for pulling out of the INF treaty, a cold-war nuclear pact, but until recently kept silent about Russia’s brazen violation of the accord. Mr Macron was crass in talking of the need to “protect ourselves” from America, in effect comparing Europe’s awkward but indispensable ally to Russia and China.

Europeans must do more to defend themselves, but the only effective European “army”—or armies—are forces that plug firmly into NATO. Anything else would be good only for ceremonial parades, not real wars.

%

An Italian budget showdown underlines the need for euro-zone reform

An Italian budget showdown underlines the need for euro-zone reform

THE FATE of the euro was always going to depend on Italy. With annual GDP of more than €1.6trn ($1.9trn), about 15% of euro-area output and debt of nearly €2.3trn, it poses a challenge to the single currency that Europe seems unable to manage but cannot avoid. Matters are now coming to a head, as Italy’s new coalition government instigates a showdown over the European Union’s fiscal rules. The disagreement might well become disastrous. But it is also an opportunity for the euro zone to begin building a better, more durable approach to fiscal policy.

Trouble began earlier this year when the populist Five Star movement, led by Luigi Di Maio, formed a government with the right-wing Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini. Both promised budget goodies: Mr Salvini a hefty tax cut and Mr Di Maio a basic minimum income. Such largesse may test the deficit limit of 3% set by the EU’s stability and growth pact. And it seems certain to break other fiscal rules set by the bloc: the government’s initial budget plan is forecast to raise borrowing to 2.4% of GDP in 2019, above the 0.8% target to which Italy previously committed itself and enough to reverse recent, modest declines in its debt burden.

Get our daily newsletter

Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.

The EU did not take the news well. On November 5th other countries’ finance ministers warned that failure to revise the budget would lead to an “excessive deficit procedure”, and possible sanctions. But Italians are unbowed. Mr Di Maio, now deputy prime minister, argued in comments to the Financial Times that Italy’s fiscal expansion will prove so successful that other European leaders will clamour to follow, citing, somewhat dubiously, faster growth in America after a budget-busting Republican tax cut.

Both sides have their points. Italians are frustrated. Real incomes in Italy have fallen since joining the euro area; inequality and poverty have risen. Economic growth briefly rose to almost 2% in mid-2017 but has since slipped back to close to zero. At 10.1%, the unemployment rate is well above the pre-crisis low of 5.8%. Economic weakness is re-emerging even as the European Central Bank reduces its stimulative asset purchases and prepares for eventual interest-rate rises. Recent indicators of service-sector and manufacturing activity suggest that the economy is at risk of falling back into contraction. A return to recession would prove disastrous for Italy’s politics and its long-run budget position. And a bit more spending now would probably not spark a bond-market panic, since the government’s debt has an average maturity of nearly seven years and most is held domestically. A little forbearance on the part of the EU might therefore enable a dangerous political moment to be defused at little economic cost.

Yet it is hard to fault the EU for its wariness. Italy’s slow growth reflects serious structural problems. The European Commission estimates that the country’s natural unemployment rate has risen from about 8% in 2007 to 10% now, suggesting that boosting employment is a matter more of reform than stimulus. The OECD estimates that Italy’s output gap, the shortfall between an economy’s actual and potential output, will have closed by next year. Potential output—ie, what an economy can sustain without inflation accelerating—is easy to underestimate. But some variables suggest that labour-market slack is disappearing. For example, after a long period of decline year-on-year wage growth roughly doubled over the summer, to 2%. Nor have Italians been deeply mired in austerity in recent years. Italy’s structural budget deficit has nearly doubled since 2015. Its pensions remain among the euro area’s most generous, a perversity given the disproportionate economic pain borne by young Italians over the past decade.

Tight budget rules were, moreover, the price of the extraordinary measures that saw the euro area through its crisis earlier this decade. A bail-out programme for Italy could well prove fatal to the currency bloc; a showdown might be worth provoking to keep Italy’s debt manageable and the euro area viable. Each side has its reasons for fighting all the way.

Ciao time

There is a path through this impasse. The euro zone shares a monetary policy but lacks a correspondingly coherent fiscal approach. The Italian dispute offers a timely opportunity to address that. Across the euro area as a whole, fiscal policy is arguably too tight. The ratio of debt to GDP is a relatively modest 86.3% and falling fast, by three percentage points in the past year alone. In countries with big budget surpluses, such as Germany and the Netherlands, higher spending on growth-boosting investments would slow the shrinking of debt burdens, but not stop it altogether. Some of the resulting fiscal boost would spill over into Italy through increased tourism and consumption of its exports, boosting demand without straining the Italian public purse. In exchange, the EU could ask Italy to moderate its fiscal plans.

Though it would be anathema to northern Europeans, a further sweetener, in the form of limited debt mutualisation, should also be considered. Italy’s debt is an old problem. It reached 100% of GDP almost three decades ago; but the country has run a primary surplus every year for the past quarter-century, except for the two years immediately after the financial crisis. Taking a hard line with Italy today does nothing to discipline the governments of the 1980s but adds to the bitterness felt by young people, who have fared worst under the euro and must accept towering budget surpluses in perpetuity or face ejection from the single currency. A plan to swap some national bonds for Eurobonds backed by all euro-area governments might be pie-in-the-sky, politically. Yet that policy would acknowledge that euro-area countries share a fiscal fate, relieve young Italians of doing penance for their forebears’ sins and make fiscal probity for Italy a less Sisyphean task—and, perhaps, more politically tolerable.

European integration is meant to build a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The euro area could wield its combined fiscal capacity to deal with the Italian threat while building a sense of shared fiscal responsibility. Instead, Europe and Italy are heading towards confrontation. The euro zone’s greatest weakness is not its spending, but its politics.

%

Internal Facebook memo sees Elliot Schrage take responsibility for hiring Definers

Internal Facebook memo sees Elliot Schrage take responsibility for hiring Definers

TechCrunch has obtained an internal memo published by Facebook’s outgoing head of public policy Elliot Schrage in which he blames himself for hiring PR firm Definers. He admits to having the company push negative narratives about competitors, but says Facebook did not ask or pay Definers to publish fake news. COO Sheryl Sandberg left a comment on the memo, saying it was never Facebook’s intention to play into anti-semitic theories about George Soros.

The memo includes a Q&A regarding points raised by a New York Times article detailing how Definers worked to spread negative publicity about Google and other tech giants to make Facebook look better, and that the firm’s employees also published biased articles bashing Facebook’s competitors and critics through a news site called NTK Network that’s affiliated with Definers.

In the memo, Schrage justifies the use of opposition research, and chastizes Facebook employees for allowing internal finger pointing surrounding its troubled past two years to become public. He also notes that his replacement, Facebook’s new head of global policy and former UK deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg will be reviewing its work with all political consultants, which could turn up more skeletons.

Facebook’s former head of policy and comms Elliot Schrage (left)

Schrage announced in June that he’d be stepping down in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but would stay on to help find a replacement. Many have asked who, if anyone, would be fired for putting Facebook in cahoots with Definers. As TechCrunch previously reported, Schrage was atop the chain of command here. Given his extensive experience in public policy, was likely well aware of the nature of Definers’ work. Schrage taking the blame provides a convenient solution to the issue, as he’s already on his way out.

“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy” Schrage writes. “I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate . . . I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.” This explanation serves to protect Zuckerberg and Sandberg from additional blame, even as Sandberg strives to show she’s not passing the buck by noting “I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us.”

Schrage’s defense of his bosses provides additional cover for Zuckerberg’s comments from a CNN interview that ran tonight in which he said he won’t step down as Facebook’s chairman and hopes to continue working alongside Sandberg for decades to come. The memo could have been aimed at quieting internal unrest about Facebook’s chief lobbyist Joel Kaplan. His ties to the GOP, support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and involvement with Facebook’s latest PR troubles had led some employees to question his employment. Now Facebook has someone else to take the heat.

Schrage is effectively jumping on the grenade here.

The memo and comment can be found below:

Internal Facebook Memo By Elliot Schrage

Many of you have raised questions about our relationship with the Definers consulting firm. We’ve been looking into this and though it is close to a holiday for many of you I wanted to share an update on what we’ve learned and where things stand:

Why did we hire Definers?

We hired Definers in 2017 as part of our efforts to diversify our DC advisors after the election. Like many companies, we needed to broaden our outreach. We also faced growing pressure from competitors in tech, telcos and media companies that want government to regulate us.

This pressure became particularly acute in September 2017 after we released details of Russian interference on our service. We hired firms associated with both Republicans and Democrats — Definers was one of the Republican-affiliated firms.

What did we ask them to do and what did they do?

While we’re continuing to review our relationship with Definers, we know the following: We asked Definers to do what public relations firms typically do to support a company — sending us press clippings, conducting research, writing messaging documents, and reaching out to reporters.

Some of this work is being characterized as opposition research, but I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics. This work can be used internally to inform our messaging and where appropriate it can be shared with reporters. This work is also useful to help respond to unfair claims where Facebook has been singled out for criticism, and to positively distinguish us from competitors.

As the pressure on Facebook built throughout the year, the Communications team used Definers more and more. At Sheryl’s request, we’re going through all the work they did, but we have learned that as the engagement expanded, more people worked with them on more projects and the relationship was less centrally managed.

Did we ask them to do work on George Soros?

Yes. In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a “menace to society.” We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information.

Later, when the “Freedom from Facebook” campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.

Did we ask them to do work on our competitors?

Yes. As I indicated above, Definers helped us respond to unfair claims where Facebook was been [sic] singled out for criticism. They also helped positively distinguish us from competitors.

Did we ask them to distribute or create fake news?

No.

Who knew about this work, and who signed off on it?

Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy.

I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate. Over the past decade, I built a management system that relies on the teams to escalate issues if they are uncomfortable about any project, the value it will provide or the risks that it creates. That system failed here and I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.

Why have we stopped working with them?

Mark has asked us to reevaluate how we work with communications consultants. It’s not about Definers. It is about us, not them.

Mark has made clear that because Facebook is a mission driven company, he wants to hold us to a higher standard. He is uncomfortable relying on any outside firm to make decisions about how to make our case about our mission, policies, competitors and critics until he can become comfortable with our management, oversight and escalation.

Where are we now?

Many people across the company feel uncomfortable finding out about this work. Many people on the Communications team feel under attack from the press and even from their colleagues. I’m deeply disappointed that so much internal discussion and finger pointing has become public. This is a serious threat to our culture and ability to work together in difficult times.

Our culture has long been to move fast and take risks. Many times we have moved too quickly and we always learn and keep trying to do our best. This will be no exception.

What happens next?

Our legal team continues to review our work with Definers to understand what happened. Mark and Sheryl have also asked Nick Clegg to review all our work with communications consultants and propose principles and management processes to guide the team’s work going forward. We all want to ensure that we, our advisors and consultants better reflect Facebook’s values and culture.

Comment On The Memo From Sheryl Sandberg

Thank you for sharing this, Elliot.


I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us. I truly believe we have a world class Comms team and I want to acknowledge the enormous pressure the team has faced over the past year.

When I read the story in New York Times last week, I didn’t remember a firm called Definers. I asked our team to look into the work Definers did for us and to double-check whether anything had crossed my desk. Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.

I also want to emphasize that it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else. Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate. The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.

I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry. As I said at the All Hands, I believe so deeply in the work we do and feel so grateful to all of you for doing so much every day. Thanksgiving seems like the right time to say a big thank you once again.

Additional reporting by Taylor Hatmaker

Zuckerberg won’t step down as Facebook chairman

Zuckerberg won’t step down as Facebook chairman

In a short but amply-hyped interview with CNN, Facebook’s founder and chief executive again responded to criticism over the company’s most recent crisis.

The interview, excerpted from a longer Q&A for a CNN series called “Human Code,” hit most of the main questions that critics have raised about Facebook’s failings and Zuckerberg’s unilateral control over the company.

While we didn’t learn much new, we do know the company’s latest posture about a few leadership issues, the first of which being if Sheryl Sandberg remains secure in her position as COO.

“Sheryl is a really important part of this company… She’s been an important partner with me for 10 years,” Zuckerberg told CNN. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together and I hope that we work together for decades to come.”

That answers that, for now anyway.

The second big leadership issue: Will Zuckerberg retain all of the control he currently exercises as the chairman of Facebook’s board? Last week during a press call, Zuckerberg told reporters that he won’t be stepping down in that capacity and “[he doesn’t] think that that specific proposal is the right way to go.” Still, that was early days for this particular self-made internal crisis.

When asked again today if he plans to step down as chairman in the midst of his company’s latest crisis, Zuckerberg answered firmly enough to put that question to rest for now.

“That’s not the plan… I’m not currently thinking that that makes sense,” Zuckerberg told CNN.

The scandal over Facebook’s relationship with a GOP crisis communications group known for its opposition research is far from the first time critics have called for Zuckerberg to relinquish some of his power at the company. Due to the nature of its shareholding structure, he commands the majority of voting power within the company he founded. With no mechanism through which he could be deposed, Zuckerberg again makes it clear that he is one and the same with the company he founded — and that he won’t be going anywhere or yielding any of his control any time soon.

Androidユーザー50万人がGoogle Playからマルウェアをダウンロード

Androidユーザー50万人がGoogle Playからマルウェアをダウンロード

50万人以上のAndroidユーザーが、ドライブゲームを装ったマルウェアをダウンロードした——Googleの専用アプリストアでの出来事だ。

ESETのセキュリティー研究者Lukas Stefankoは、13本のゲームアプリ——同じ開発者による——の詳細をツイートした。その時アプリはまだGoogle Playでダウンロード可能だった。うち2本はアプリストアの人気ランキングに入っていたため、いっそう目立っていた、と彼は言った。

Googleが削除するまでに計58万回以上インストールされた。

ダウンロードした人はトラックか車のドライブゲームを期待していた。代わりに手にしたのは開くたびにクラッシュするバグだらけのアプリだった。

実際には、そのアプリは別のドメイン(イスタンブールのアプリ開発者が登録)からデータをダウンロードし、裏でマルウェアをインストールしながらアプリのアイコンを消していた。悪意のアプリが正確に何をするのかはわかっていない。VirusTotalにアップロードされたサンプルを見る限り、このマルウェアが何をするかはマルウェアスキャナーの間でも一致していない。はっきりしているのは、マルウェアに持続性があることだ——Android携帯またはタブレットをスタートさせるたびにアプリは立ち上がり、ネットワークに「フルアクセス」できるため、マルウェア作者はそれを利用して秘密を盗み出す。

本誌はイスタンブール拠点のドメイン所有者Mert Ozekに接触を試みているが、今のところメールへの返信はない。

またしてもこれはGoogleによる恥ずかしいセキュリティー欠陥だ。Googleはアプリとモバイルのセキュリティー対策でAppleに遅れを取っていることで長年批判されている。Appleは壁に囲まれた庭にどのアプリを入れるかに関してはるかに限定的で選り好みが強いと言われている。

GoogleはAndroidのセキュリティーを強化すべく、セキュリティー機能を改善し、きめ細かなアプリ許可制御を導入した。しかし、その後もGoogle Playアプリストアでは詐欺や悪意あるアプリとの戦いが続いており、Androidユーザーにとって最大の脅威の一つとなっている。Googleは昨年だけで70万以上の悪質アプリをアプリストアから削除し、悪意あるアプリがそもそもストアに入り込むのを防ぐために、バックエンドの改善を試みた。

しかし、それでもまだ十分ではないことが明らかだ。

Google広報は本誌の問い合わせに対してすぐにはコメントしなかった。

[原文へ]

(翻訳:Nob Takahashi / facebook

Kindred’s robots help retailers handle fulfillment centers — and take on Amazon

Kindred’s robots help retailers handle fulfillment centers — and take on Amazon

Since taking the reins as chief executive of Kindred at the beginning of the year, Jim Liefer has been focused on commercializing his company’s autonomous robots. But unlike forward-projecting use-cases for robots that may (or may not) one day take over for human beings in a wide swath of functions, Kindred’s current robots are purpose-built for the floor of retail fulfillment centers. That puts Kindred in the middle of an interesting business question: Given rising consumer expectations associated with online ordering, can anyone match or beat Amazon when it comes to speed, accuracy and efficiency?

With a background in operations at Walmart and One Kings Lane, Liefer asserts that his company’s core IP represents a significant advancement in retail operations. That’s because while industrial robots have worked well on manufacturing floors, robots have historically underperformed in e-commerce fulfillment centers, which require systems to handle objects of various shapes and sizes. Kindred’s approach is also notable because of its low-risk model that doesn’t require customers to make major capital investments. Instead of paying for the robot hardware, clients such as Gap pay based on the robots being able to successfully pick and sort items in a warehouse.

In the interview below, Liefer was eager to elaborate on his company’s core product, SORT. He was also happy to address the labor and throughput challenges facing Kindred’s clients as they look to thrive this holiday season. Finally, he offered his candid perspective on the ongoing debate over AI and jobs.

Gregg Schoenberg: Jim, it’s good to see you. I was interested in talking with you because Kindred is focused on the unsexy, but very important part of robot and AI technology that deals with e-commerce and gives insight into how our economy is changing. And by unsexy, I mean that your robots don’t do parkour.

Jim Liefer: Thanks, Gregg.  I’ll start out by saying that sexy is in the eye of the beholder. If you came from retail operations companies like Walmart, sexy would be not having to re-engineer or re-architect my building every year to handle the next peak.

GS: Fair enough. So where has that “sexy” journey taken the company today?

JL: We’ve evolved from a research and engineering company into a customer-focused organization. Today, there are four primary components that Kindred is working on: vision capability, grasping/manipulation capability, ability to identify what’s being held onto and then placing an item somewhere.

GS: And today, your solution is being applied to retail fulfillment centers?

JL: Yes, in retail fulfillment distribution centers, but not the consumer-facing side of retail. Still, there is a tremendous amount of automation in these centers. There are sorters and power conveyance, and there are forklifts running around. But we saw gaps in those in-between moments, the need to take individual pieces from automation A to automation B. That’s where Kindred now can fill those gaps, and it’s a big market.

GS: Do you make robots or do you make cobots?

JL: We’re absolutely collaborating with the humans, but we’re not letting them get that close to the robot. We’re letting the humans do what they do best, like higher-level thinking and dealing with more ambiguity than the robot can handle.

GS: But your solution is designed with the intent that there are going to be people that interact with it?

JL: For some period of time to come, I believe that is going to be true. That’s the design of what we have now. The reason I say it that way is that even today, the aspects of how product arrives at our solution varies, and some day, there might be another mobile robot that serves our robot, that brings the product to us.

Product

GS: At the core of the solution is your autograsp technology, right?

JL: The autonomous grasp algorithm is the core of our AI technology, which is combined with vision and grasping capabilities.

GS: I’m guessing that even though that grasp technology looks simple, it’s actually a big feat of both software and hardware innovation.

JL: Yes, absolutely. The grasping technology is a combination of AI that can understand the ambiguity that it’s dealing with. But there’s also the the physical side of it. Not only do you have to be able to get to a grasp-point, but you also have to grip it correctly.

Some day, there might be another mobile robot that serves our robot, that brings the product to us.

GS: What’s the inherent challenge with getting the gripping correct?

JL: It needs to be precise enough to pick up the item you want. It also has to have enough torque to be able to hold onto the item when you’re moving it.  

GS: Why is that so critical?

JL: Because you have to move at a speed that’s equivalent to a human or better in order to not lose it.

GS: What’s the installation process associated with putting a system into a facility?

JL: We literally roll them off the truck, roll them into place, plug them into 110 power and a data port, and maybe do some final provisioning of software. All in, it takes us anywhere from five to eight hours to set up a robot. So it’s definitely plug and play.

Business Model

GS: I know you don’t actually sell the solution to a customer. Can you walk me through your model?

JL: In the days when I was in a Walmart facility and I wanted to implement a new solution, I would go out to a service provider and they would tell me how many millions of dollars to plunk down. I would pay for it and then someone would come in and build it, and then they would go away and I would try to operate it.

GS: How antiquated.

JL: In our world today, they tell us their throughput need and how many products they are trying to serve with robots. We then deploy the number of robots to the customer. We have an agreement that says you need 10 robots or whatever the number is, and we deploy robots that will serve X amount of products.

GS: How does the money flow work?

JL: It’s a robots-as-a-service model, where every time we successfully grasp and stow a product or item, they pay us something.

It takes us anywhere from five to eight hours to set up a robot. So it’s definitely plug and play.

GS: A commission of sorts.

JL A commission, right. So it’s not a purchase and walk away. And there are several reasons why we think that’s compelling for the customer. One, because it’s not a capital expenditure play for them; it doesn’t have to be multiple weeks, months or even years to get onto the capital budget. It’s an operating expense play.

GS: That sounds like a key consideration.

JL: Think of it this way. When an operating expense comes into play, in many cases, a director-level person of a fulfillment center can make the choice: Am I going to hire a human to do the job, or I can hire a robot to do that job?  The other is that because we’re providing a service to the customer, we’re right there alongside them. It’s not as though we gave them something and said figure it out.

GS: Aren’t you making it very easy for clients to keep the robots around? Because it’s not costing them to have the robots sit on the fulfillment center floor.

JL: Well, okay, good question. In our model, we still have a minimum for the customer,  because we’re paying down the robot. We don’t want to have a robot sitting there idle.

GS: In that case, what’s the break-even on how long the robot needs to be on site with the client?

JL: It’s somewhere between a year and a year and half to get the payback to cover the cost of building the robot.

The Kindred.AI sorting robot in the lab.

GS: Does the counterparty risk become a factor? Because these machines are obviously expensive.

JL: Yes, that comes into play. At the same time, the robots themselves are quite… I want to say the word mobile. It’s relatively low-pain for us to roll them out and roll them to another customer facility that’s probably nearby. Of course, we don’t want to do that, but it’s possible to do it.

Amazon

GS: Of course not. But you’ve spent many years at Walmart, and you’re obviously very aware of the existential threat that Amazon poses to just about everybody that isn’t Amazon. Does Kindred aspire to help others thrive in a retail economy that is increasingly dominated by Amazon?

JL: Yes. It levels the playing field, because if our customer, the retailer, is able to have better throughput, get the products into the hands of the customer faster, then they have the ability to hold onto their customers. If they don’t do it, then those customers are going to go somewhere else.

Am I going to hire a human to do the job, or I can hire a robot to do that job?

GS: Looking to the future, do you want to go deeper within the apparel channel, or do you see other retail applications for your grasping technology?

JL: To recap, we figured out a very difficult problem, which is how to handle clothing in a polybag with a label on it. What seems like the most logical and reasonable place to go is to smaller items and maybe toy items or jewelry.

GS: But it has to be in a bag?

JL: It doesn’t have to be in a bag. In testing, we can pick up a pen or a pencil. We can pick up an iPhone and even general merchandise-related items like baby wipes or rubber balls.

Technology

GS: Let’s dive into your technology a little deeper. Is your tech based on reinforcement learning or deep reinforcement learning?

JL: Actually, both. The way that we’re operating the current SORT robot is that there are multiple AI algorithms that are running in concert together. So there’s the autonomous grasp algorithm, there’s a grasp verification algorithm, there’s a stow algorithm; there are multiple algorithms that are running to maintain that speed and accuracy. Then, there’s our team in the Toronto office—

GS: —That’s the team working on deploying more reinforcement learning?

JL: Yes, the reinforcement learning which would replace some of the deep learning algorithms that we have in place today.

GS: I read up on Rich Sutton, who, based on my research, is a big deal in reinforcement learning—

JL: —Yes. He’s a big deal and is a mentor to several of our people.

It’s relatively low-pain for us to roll them out and roll them to another customer facility that’s probably nearby.

GS: Sutton describes reinforcement learning as a learning system that wants something. Can you describe in lay terms how this is central to Kindred’s technology and how it is different than deep Learning?

JL: Here’s how I think of reinforcement learning versus deep Learning. Reinforcement learning is allowing the algorithm to determine all of the possible outcomes and all of the possible permutations. Think about something in a space where you want you to go from point A to point B. In reinforcement learning, that robot will achieve the goal by doing something called body babbling, which looks like it’s jittering around, looking at all the different possible solutions.

GS: So it takes longer to train a reinforcement algo?

JL: Yes, because in deep Learning, you are going to give it some sort of structure within parameters, because you sort of know what you want it to do. Then you look at body babbling, which is a much cleaner solution because the algorithm knows how to deal with all these variables because it’s explored every permutation.

GS: I saw that Kindred released a research paper last month. My top-line takeaway is that while reinforcement learning has made progress, it’s tough to train robots.

JL: I view it this way: In the last two years that I’ve been here at Kindred, I’ve seen things on a daily basis that I didn’t think were possible the week before or the month before. That’s a blanket statement, though, which is one of the reasons why I think people are anxious about AI and automation.

AI Anxiety

GS: So let’s talk about AI anxiety. Yesterday, I was on Bush Street and I watched this Cafe X robot serve coffee. Meanwhile, across the street, you’ve got this Blue Bottle that’s teeming with people, keeping its staff quite busy. Is that the future you see? Where workers are in demand, even in an era of well functioning robots that can grasp stuff?

JL: I  think back to Tower Records in San Francisco in the 90s. It used to be packed. I mean, that’s where I spent every weekend. You never thought that would end, perhaps like some people at the Blue Bottle today. But there’s that flip point.

GS: I appreciate that honest comment.

JL: To me, I just think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s bad. But I believe that we will embrace it, just as we embrace technology in our phones, because it will improve our lives in many ways and it will also make our lives more complicated.

GS: We’ve discussed previously, too, this idea that in the fulfillment centers where the Kindred robots are operating, there’s a labor shortage.

JL: Yes, there’s no employee there to do the job.

We can pick up an iPhone and even general merchandise-related items like baby wipes or rubber balls.

GS: And that’s because fulfillment centers are in locations that are often—

JL: —They’re clustered. They’re fighting for the same resources. Big Amazon has come in, they’re paying those workers more, so they’re siphoning all those workers away.

GS: What about temporary workers around the holidays?

JL: We said earlier that the robots are collaborative, working alongside and collaborating with the humans. Absolutely, there are places for the temporary workers to come in, and I want those humans to be fulfilled. In terms of helping our customer, it’s so painful to get even a temporary worker, give them a job that’s very mundane, have them leave and then have to hire another temporary worker.

GS: But Kindred is giving jobs to people with gamer skills, too, right?

JL: Yes, on the tele-operation side. About 85 percent of the time, our algorithm can do everything on its own. But 15 percent of the time, we have a human in the loop who steps in and assists the robot for about a second and half, and then steps back out.

GS: When you’re recruiting for these people, are you recruiting in the typical places that tech companies look?

JL: These people have a wide variety of backgrounds and skill sets. They might be gamer types, but some of them have marketing degrees and some of them have engineering backgrounds. There’s also a pool of generalists, those jack-of-all-trades kind of people.

GS: But they need to have pretty good dexterity, right?

JL: I don’t think it’s highly required. A lot of it is just point and click.

GS: Well, on that non-techy note, Jim, thanks so much for your time.

JL: Thanks very much, Gregg.

This interview has been edited for content, length and clarity.

Five years and one pivot later, Trueface emerges with a promise for better facial recognition tech

Five years and one pivot later, Trueface emerges with a promise for better facial recognition tech

Shaun Moore and Nezare Chafni didn’t initially intend to develop a new standalone facial recognition technology, when they first got started developing the technology that would become their new company, Trueface.ai.

When the two serial entrepreneurs were planning their next act five years ago, they wanted to ride the wave of smart home technologies with the development of a new smart doorbell — called Chui.

That doorbell would be equipped with facial recognition software as a service. The company raised $500,000 in angel funding and opened a manufacturing facility in Medellin, Colombia.

What the two entrepreneurs discovered was that most existing facial recognition tools lacked the ability to identify spoof or presentation attacks, which rendered the tech unfeasible for the access control functions they were trying to develop.

So Moore and Chafni set out to develop better software for facial recognition.

“In 2014 we focused our engineering efforts on deploying face recognition on the edge in highly constrained environments that could identify hack or spoof attempts,” Moore, the chief executive of Trueface.ai said in an email. “This technology is the core of what has become Trueface.”

With the upgrades to the product, Chui began tackling the commercial access control market, and while customers loved the software, they wanted to use their own hardware for the product, according to Moore.

So the two entrepreneurs shuttered the factory in 2017 and began focusing on selling the facial recognition product on its own. Thus Trueface was born.

It’s actually the third company that the two founders have worked on together. Friends since their days studying business at Southern Methodist University, Moore and Chafni previously worked on a content management startup, before moving on to Chui’s smart doorbell.

The company spun Trueface out of Chui in June 2017 and raised seed capital from investors including Scout Ventures with Harvard Business Angels and GSV Labs. That $1.5 million round has powered the company’s development since (including the integration with IFTT earlier this year to prove that its system worked).

But over the past few years, as damning stories around the risks associated with potentially bad training data being applied to facial recognition technologies continued to appear, the company set itself another task — aligning its training data with the real world.

To that end the company has partnered with a global non-profit which is collecting facial images from Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia to create a more robust portfolio of images to train its recognition software.

“Like many facial recognition companies, we acknowledge the implicit bias in publicly available training data that can result in misidentification of certain ethnicities,” the company’s chief executive has written. “We think that is unacceptable, and have pioneered methods to collect a multiplicity of anonymized face data from around the world in order to balance our training models. For example, we partnered with non-profits in Africa and Southeast Asia to ensure our training data is diverse and inclusive, resulting in reduced bias and more accurate face recognition – for all.

The company has also established three principles by which its technology will be applied. The first is an explicit commitment to reduce bias in training data; the second, an agreement with its customers that in any case that goes to court, human decision making is privileged over any data from its software; and finally, an explicit focus on data security to prevent breaches and data transparency so that customers discloes what information they’re collecting.

“When implemented responsibly, people will demand this technology for its daily benefits and utility, not fear it,” writes Moore.

Our 3 favorite startups from Morgan Stanley’s 2nd Multicultural Innovation Lab Demo Day

Our 3 favorite startups from Morgan Stanley’s 2nd Multicultural Innovation Lab Demo Day

The Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation LabMorgan Stanley’s in-house accelerator focused on companies founded by multicultural and female entrepreneurs, hosted its second Annual Showcase and Demo Day. The event also featured companies from accelerators HearstLab, Newark Venture Partner Labs and PS27 Ventures. (Note: I was formerly employed by Morgan Stanley and have no financial ties.)

The showcase represented the culmination of the program’s second year, which followed an initial five-company class that has already seen two acquisitions. Through the six-month program, Morgan Stanley provides early-stage companies with a wide range of benefits, including an equity investment from Morgan Stanley, office space at Morgan Stanley headquarters, access to Morgan Stanley’s extensive network and others. Applications are now open for its third cohort of companies, with the application window closing on January 4th, 2019.

The 16 presenting startups, all led by a female or multicultural founder, offered solutions to structural inefficiencies across a wide array of categories, including fintech, developer tools and health. Though all of the companies offered impressive presentations and strong value propositions, here are three of the companies that stood out to us.

Hatch Apps

In hopes of democratizing software and app development, Hatch Apps provides a platform that allows users and companies to build iOS, Android and web applications without any code through pre-built templates and custom plug-and-play functions. In essence, Hatch Apps provides a solution for application building similar to what Squarespace or Wix provide for websites.

In the modern economy, every company is in one way or another a tech or tech-enabled company. Now the demand for strong engineers has made the fight for talent increasingly competitive and has made engineering quite costly, even when only needed for simple tasks. 

For an implementation and subscription fee, Hatch Apps allows companies with less sophisticated engineering DNA to reduce entering costs by launching native apps on their own, across platforms and often on faster timelines than those seen through third-party developers. Once an app is launched, Hatch Apps provides customers with detailed analytics and allows them to send targeted push notifications, export data and make in-app changes that can automatically go live in app stores.

The company initially took a bootstrapping approach to financing and raised funds by selling a 2016 election-themed “Cards Against Humanity”-style game created on the platform. Since then, Hatch Apps has already received funding from the Y Combinator Fellowship, Morgan Stanley and a number of other investors.

FreeWill

While estate planning is a topic many don’t like to think about, it’s a critical issue for managing cross-generational wealth. But will drafting can often be very complex, time-consuming and costly, requiring hours of legal consultation and coordination between various parties.

Founded by two former classmates at Stanford Business School, FreeWill looks to simplify the estate-planning process by providing a free online platform that automates will drafting, in a similar function to what TurboTax does for taxes. Using FreeWill, users can quickly set allocations for their estate and select personal recipients, charitable donations, executor specifications and other ancillary requests. The platform then creates a finalized legal document that is legally valid in all 50 states, to which users can also quickly make changes and replace without incurring expensive legal costs.

FreeWill is able to provide the platform to consumers for free due to the proceeds it receives from its nonprofit customers, who pay to be featured on the platform as a partner organization. FreeWill offers a compelling value proposition for partnering companies. By acting as a channel to funnel user donations to listed organizations, FreeWill has been able to drive a 600 percent increase in charitable giving to partner organizations on average. FreeWill also provides partner organizations with backing analytics that allow nonprofits to track bequests and donors through monthly reports. 

FreeWill currently boasts an impressive roster of 75 paying nonprofit partners that include American Red Cross, Amnesty International and many others. In the long-run it hopes to be the go-to solution for financial and legal end-of-life planning for investment advisors, life insurance and employee benefits providers.

Shoobs

Shoobs is looking to be the go-to platform for local “urban” events, which the company defined as events centered on local nightlife, comedy and concerts in the hip-hop, R&B and reggae genres to name a few. But unlike the genre-agnostic, transaction-focused event management platforms that can make the space seem pretty crowded, Shoobs focused on providing genre-specific even discovery. Shoobs matches urban event goers with artists of their choice and related smaller-scale events that can be harder to discover, acting as a form of curation, quality control and discovery.

For event organizers, Shoobs helps provide digital ticketing and promotion services, with event recommendation capabilities that target the most promising potential customers. Through its offering to event organizers, Shoobs is able to monetize its services through ticket sale commission, advertising and brand partnerships.

Since its initial launch in London, Shoobs notes it has become one of the top urban events platforms in the city, with an extensive base of recurring registered users and event organizers. After previously working with AEG for its London launch, Shoobs is looking to expand stateside with the help of organizers like Live Nation. Shoobs joins a long list of promising Y Combinator alumni companies with YC also acting as one of Shoobs’ initial investors.

Other presenting companies included:

Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab

  • BeautyLynk “is an on-demand hair and makeup service provider, specializing in customizable services for women.”
  • Broadway Roulette “is an events marketplace that pairs consumers with surprise cultural events, beginning with Broadway theater.”
  • CariClub “is an enterprise software platform to connect young professionals with nonprofit opportunities.”
  • COI Energy Services “is an integrated platform for electric utilities and business users to optimize and manage energy usage.”
  • CoSign “is an API and application that allows anyone to create, distribute and monetize visual content.”
  • Goalsetter “is a goals-based gifting, savings and investing platform designed for children.”
  • myLAB Box “offers customizable at-home health-test kits and relevant telemedicine consultations / prescription services.”

HearstLab

  • Priori “is a global legal marketplace changing the way in-house teams find, hire and manage outside counsel.”
  • TRENCH “is an online fashion marketplace that makes use of the unworn items in every woman’s closet.”

Newark Venture Partners Labs

  • Floss Bar “is a new type of preventive brand for oral health care. The company offers high-quality, routine dental care across flexible locations at thoughtful prices.”
  • Upsider “is a software solution allowing recruiters to leverage AI technology to identify a comprehensive set of candidates who align with their business and role requirements, resulting in a more strategic understanding of the best possible talent for the job.”

PS27 Ventures

  • BlueWave Technologies “is a cleantech company and the creators of the BlueWave™ Cleaning System — a water-free, detergent-free and chemical-free plasma device that cleans items that are extremely hard or impossible to clean with a washer and dryer.”
  • OnPay Solutions “focuses exclusively on business-to-business payments. They create payment software and offer payment web services to enhance efficiency and productivity for Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable.”