Doing science the Wonga way

The model used by the payday loans company might finally make science work for everyone. Could we be about to enter the age of Wonga science?

Occasionally a corporate entity tries to get science done its way. Google, for instance, sponsors various researchers to find out whether their worthy, planet-improving idea can work. But what would we get if the payday loans company Wonga.com sponsored science?

It’s not an idle question. Just recently, up in committee room 17 of the House of Commons, Chi Onwurah, Labour’s science minister, gathered academics and asked for thoughts on the public role of science and how we should fund it. The responses weren’t terribly conclusive or enlightening. But one interesting thing came up – the origins of Wonga.

Wonga’s eye-watering prices (borrowing £400 for 28 days will cost you £117.48, for example) have been the subject of questions downstairs in the Commons and the Lords. Stella Creasy MP is trying to get the Financial Services Authority to cap the rate of interest a company can charge. She is supported in the other chamber by the future archbishop of Canterbury, who has called Wonga’s business model “morally wrong”.

Apparently the algorithm behind Wonga.com was originally developed to detect banking fraud. The subtext in Onwurah’s meeting was clear – Wonga is an evil application of perfectly good algorithms, and if someone had said those algorithms could lead to Wonga questions would have been asked of those funding their development. Especially, perhaps, if Onwurah were in charge. When Wonga ploughed £24m into Newcastle Football Club in exchange for on-shirt advertising, Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, expressed outrage. She called Wonga a source of “debt and misery”.

There are two reasons to take issue with this. First, many people are clearly happy to pay hundreds of pounds for a short-term loan. Wonga’s reported customer satisfaction is above Apple’s and far above that recorded by any of the high-street banks. Second, Onwurah’s remit is innovation, science and digital infrastructure and yet she slurs a company that has used science and digital infrastructure to innovate. The firm is expanding into the US and is on course to become a billion-dollar company next year.

The good news is that the government will soon have a Wonga-friendly chief scientific adviser. Mark Walport is at present the director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest scientific and medical research charity and an investor in Wonga. When Creasy challenged Walport about this, he replied that he finds Wonga “extremely engaging”, with a good business model and a willingness to listen to feedback.

This bodes extremely well for Walport’s stint as the UK’s most influential scientist. Clearly, he’s not populist, he’s not swayed by conflicts with authority and he’s not averse to a bit of level-headed thinking.

Coming round

If Onwurah comes round, she and Walport might even usher in the age of Wonga science. This would be open to no-fuss funding of projects and people that are currently considered unfundable, ending the pyramid scheme that makes life easy for established professors and near-impossible for those trying to become established. It would reward people who cross disciplines to achieve optimum productivity (one of Wonga’s co-founders, Jonty Hurwitz, trained as a mathematician and physicist and then became a software engineer and entrepreneur). Pursuing interdisciplinary research is widely known as a fast track to the funding wilderness.

Wonga science would present straight-talking science advice to government and pursue research that has no useful application in sight. It would also encourage scientists to take things we already have and find entirely new purposes for them. Most appealing, it might show us gaps in our scientific research that no one even realised were there. The Wonga model might finally make science work for everyone.

 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Is Apple Music really deleting users’ songs without their consent?

It's hard to tell – but the iTunes Terms and Conditions seem to cover the company even if it does.

Musician James Pinkstone was a new Apple Music user when he realised that 122GB of music was missing from his computer.

According to a long blogpost he published on Wednesday, Apple Music attempted to “match” his music with songs in its online library via a function called “iMatch”. It then, Pinkstone claims, deleted all 122GB of his original files – collected from CDs, bought, and even created himself over a lifetime – from his hard drive.  

Luckily, Pinkstone was able to restore his library from a backup, but if what he says is true, it’s outrageous for a number of reasons. Apple Music streams music to users, meaning you need to be connected to Wi-Fi while you’re listening, so it isn’t the same as having an iTunes library of songs you actually own. You can download individual songs from the service to your device, but as Pinkstone writes, “it would take around 30 hours to get my music back” in this way. Your music and playlists also disappear if you stop paying your Apple Music subscription fee.

Meanwhile, iMatch has been notoriously rubbish at matching your files with music library entries, sparking lots of user complaints already. Pinkstone says a Fountains of Wayne song was replaced by a later version, for example, so he would have been unable to get the original song back.

So is it true? It’s not totally clear what happened to Pinkstone’s library, but here’s what we know so far.

Apple has said it doesn’t delete users’ music without their consent

Apple declined to give me a statement, but referred me to the piece “No, Apple Music is not deleting tracks off your hard drive – unless you tell it to” on the site iMore, which is not affiliated with the company but which the spokesperson described as “accurate background”.

Its author, Serenity Caldwell, explains that you have “primary” and “secondary” devices on Apple Music, and that on secondary devices (usually phones or tablets) in particular it’s advisable to delete your physical copies of songs to free up space – after all, you can stream everything via Apple Music anyway or download individual songs if you need them.

However, users should never delete files from their “primary” device (usually your desktop or laptop computer) because they’d lose the master copy of their songs forever.

…But customers might be giving that consent by accident

Jason Snell, a writer, speculated on Twitter that a misleading dialogue box may have caused Pinkstone his problems.

When you delete a song on any device, a dialogue box pops up offering to “delete” the song from “your iCloud Music Library and from your other devices” (emphasis mine). It’s more than possible that users would click this “delete” button rather than the less obvious “remove download” option which removes the song only from that device.

Apple Music’s terms and conditions cover it if it does delete your songs

Pinkstone seems to argue that he did no such thing, however, and it’s possible that there’s a bug as yet undiscovered by Apple which is deleting songs at will.

However, as Pinkstone points out, iTunes terms of use actually do cover it in the event the programme damages your files, or your property in general.

One section reads:

“IN NO CASE SHALL APPLE, ITS DIRECTORS, OFFICERS, EMPLOYEES, AFFILIATES, AGENTS, CONTRACTORS, OR LICENSORS BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, PUNITIVE, SPECIAL, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES ARISING FROM YOUR USE OF THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE OR FOR ANY OTHER CLAIM RELATED IN ANY WAY TO YOUR USE OF THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, ANY ERRORS OR OMISSIONS IN ANY CONTENT OR APPLE MUSIC PRODUCTS, OR ANY LOSS OR DAMAGE OF ANY KIND INCURRED AS A RESULT OF THE USE OF ANY CONTENT OR APPLE MUSIC PRODUCTS POSTED, TRANSMITTED, OR OTHERWISE MADE AVAILABLE VIA THE APPLE MUSIC SERVICE, EVEN IF ADVISED OF THEIR POSSIBILITY.”

Elsewhere, it defends its right to withdraw access to Apple products at will  including songs and albums you're under the impression you bought from them outright:

Apple and its principals reserve the right to change, suspend, remove, or disable access to any iTunes Products, content, or other materials comprising a part of the iTunes Service at any time without notice. In no event will Apple be liable for making these changes.

Tl;dr: Until there’s some explanation for Pinkstone’s lost library, it might be a good idea to avoid using the iMatch function, or even Apple Music altogether. It seems very unlikely that the software would be able to delete files without your consent, but given you aren’t covered if they do, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.