26th June 2017

Faulty airbag maker Takata files for bankruptcy

Takata, the Japanese corporation at the heart of the auto industry’s largest ever product recall, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The business supplied airbag inflators that, thanks to poor standards in the plant where they were manufactured, were faulty. The scandal forced a worldwide recall of more than 40 million vehicles and several deaths have been linked to the issue.

CNBC reports that the company has filed for Chapter 11 in Delaware and will do so in Japan, where it is also based, on Monday. There’s no detail about how much the business owes in fines, settlements and other costs, but a Japanese financial analyst puts the figure at around $15 billion. But a rescue plan has already been agreed, with the US-based company Key Safety Systems buying Takata for $1.6 billion.

It appears that the deal will see Takata, essentially, broken into two: a division that Key Safety will own, involving the “non-toxic” assets, and the airbag arm. The latter business will remain operating to replace the damaged airbag components in the recall, and will be wound down soon after work is completed.

Earlier this year, executives at Takata were indicted on charges that they knowingly falsified safety checks to hide the news that they were selling faulty airbags. The company admitted criminal wire fraud back in January, and was planning to pay $1 billion in fines for its wrongdoing.

26th June 2017

Sony is losing its grip on the indie market

Here we go again.

In 2011, Microsoft was the indie king. The industry was just blossoming thanks to services like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade, which introduced independent games to huge, hungry audiences. Indie Game: The Movie was about to debut, giving fans a deep behind-the-scenes look at the perils and triumphs of small-scale development. The Xbox 360 served as the foundational platform for the film’s major projects Super Meat Boy, Fez and Braid.

And then, the pendulum swung — in 2012, Journey landed exclusively on the PS3. It served as a lightning rod for discussions about emotion and art in video games, and it gave Sony the momentum to transform its indie ecosystem. By July 2013, Sony had opened up its processes, allowing indie developers to self-publish their games on the company’s next console, the PlayStation 4. Even Microsoft still required indies to partner with established publishers, at this point.

Microsoft attempted to regain its indie dominance with the ID@Xbox program, though that turned out to be more complicated than most developers would have liked. The launch of the Xbox One was a low-key disaster while Sony continually dropped the mic, showcasing indie games at E3 to widespread acclaim while Microsoft played catch-up. As recently as E3 2015, Sony’s head hung heavy with indie jewels.

Which brings us to today. Just one week after E3 2017, Sony’s reign as indie king doesn’t feel stable any longer. It showed zero indie games during its E3 press conference (excluding some VR options), and developers on the show floor whispered about the company’s increasing silence. Jim Ryan, Sony Interactive’s head of global marketing, said in an interview just days ago that indie games were “less relevant now.”

When it comes to indies, the air around Sony is thick. It feels like the pendulum is about to swing back, indie-crown in tow.

“A few years ago, Sony was the champion of indies and I think it made their platform much stronger, honestly,” says Johnneman Nordhagen, the co-creator of Gone Home who’s currently building Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. “It gave them a whole group of devs that were coming up on the PlayStation platform that would then go on to do bigger and better things, and I think it’s a mistake for them not to keep that farm team growing, in a way.”

Sony’s indie operations haven’t halted entirely, of course, but they have changed in a tangible way. Two pivotal indie evangelists and outreach specialists, Adam Boyes and Nick Suttner, left Sony in 2016. Boyes headed to Divekick studio Iron Galaxy while Suttner landed at Oculus.

Around the same time, Shawn Layden’s role grew: He transitioned from president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America to president of SIE America and chairman of SIE Worldwide Studios. Layden has hosted the past two PlayStation E3 press conferences, both of which were short on indies, by recent standards.

“There was a specific person at Sony who’s not at Sony anymore, but I know for a fact that he cared so deeply and passionately about [indie games],” Ben Ruiz, the creator of Aztez, says. “And he was this big mover and shaker, and I think when he finally moved on he took a lot of the passion with him. The weird thing about Microsoft is that they’ve had people who it always seems like they’ve been assigned to indie games, as opposed to like, ‘I love them so give them to me.'”

The people at each of these major companies make all the difference for Ruiz. A few years back, Sony felt like an approachable space with people who were excited about indie games while it seemed Microsoft was simply going through the motions. Erin Robinson Swink, designer of Gravity Ghost and creative director of the Games and Playable Media master’s program at UC Santa Cruz, agrees with Ruiz.

“Sony was very good about approaching indies and finding us at PAX, and going to our booths and just talking to us, playing the games and really getting to know us,” she says. “Microsoft kind of came in with a business card and said, ‘OK. Thank you.'”

This was back in 2013 and 2014, but today, many developers say they don’t see much difference between Microsoft and Sony. Microsoft is ramping up its indie-outreach efforts, sending folks to the IndieCade booth at E3 to make deals with new developers, and lining up a few high-profile launch exclusives, including Tacoma, Cuphead and The Last Night. Meanwhile, Sony is pulling back. This puts both companies solidly in the middle of the road.

“Our contacts at Sony are not as reliable as those at Microsoft, to be honest,” says Roy van der Schilden, business director of indie studio Wispfire. He was showing off Herald at the E3 IndieCade booth. “I don’t know them as well, they’re less engaged with what’s going on here at IndieCade — I’ve seen the Xbox people all over here all the time. I see, definitely, a difference.”

Microsoft and Sony aren’t the only two players in the indie world. Nintendo is ramping up its own outreach efforts (“They have opened up with their new Switch portal,” van der Schilden says. “It’s amazing how well they’ve learned from past experiences.”) and new companies, like Raw Fury, Finji and even Iron Galaxy, are diving into indie publishing from a grassroots angle. These are independent developers who found their audience, saw success, and are now helping newcomers get started.

And then there’s Devolver Digital, a company that represents the largest threat to Sony’s — and Microsoft’s, and Nintendo’s — tenuous hold on the indie market.

The history of Devolver is intricately entwined with that of Hotline Miami. It’s a symbiotic relationship — Devolver gave Hotline Miami the support it needed to become one of the most successful indie games in history, while Hotline Miami cemented Devolver’s reputation as a one-stop shop for all of the neon-tinged, blood-splattered, pixel-specked titles about to burst onto the scene. Either would be able to exist without the other, but they certainly wouldn’t be the same.

“I was almost finishing up school to become a kindergarten teacher,” Wedin begins. Before he continues, let’s pause and really consider that statement. The co-creator of Hotline Miami was going to be a kindergarten teacher if his whole “ridiculously violent slaughter-fest of a video game” idea didn’t work out. Talk about irony.

Wedin carries on:

“So, we kind of just decided to make the game that we couldn’t play, the game that we really wanted to play ourselves. And that became Hotline Miami. We didn’t care if anybody was going to play it or any of that. It was just us putting all the cool stuff we that wanted to see in a game in there. And then Devolver got their hands on it, and it wasn’t our choice — we sent it to some friends who worked on the Serious Sam indie games, Vlambeer, and they just gave them the demo.”

Vlambeer, the studio behind Ridiculous Fishing and Nuclear Throne, was already working with Devolver on a trio of games set in the Serious Sam universe but made by established, independent studios. This was in 2011, and the indie-focused marketing move put Devolver’s name on the wider gaming industry’s radar. It also shifted Devolver’s own plans, pushing the company toward indie publishing and, luckily, Wedin’s last-ditch demo.

Devolver’s Nigel Lowrie got his hands on the tiny, arcade-style demo of Hotline Miami, he made a deal with Wedin and Dennaton co-founder Jonatan Söderström, and the rest is history. Wedin says a lot of developers are afraid of signing on with publishers, worried they’ll lose control over their creative visions or be buried in weeks of mind-numbing paperwork. He didn’t have those concerns with Devolver.

“Devolver was very simple,” Wedin says. “The contract was one page. It just said, like, ‘We get a certain percentage because we did marketing, but you own the game.'”

The paperwork problem cannot be overstated. Independent developers are generally not legal experts or communications majors — they don’t want to accidentally sign their rights away or waste time haggling over contractual details. Paperwork was (and perhaps still is) one of Microsoft’s biggest hurdles as it tried to snap up independent developers at the height of Sony’s indie reign.

Vlambeer, the studio that introduced Hotline Miami to Devolver, actually made its hotly anticipated survival game Nuclear Throne exclusive to the PS4 at launch because it didn’t want to deal with Microsoft’s restrictions.

“They had so many weird rules,” Wedin says. “Like, Microsoft is all about paperwork. … I’m sorry, I’m making video games. I’m not doing this.”

A cacophony of curious circumstances led to Devolver’s success as an indie publisher, but much of its appeal comes from its no-bullshit, anti-corporate approach to the industry. If indie developers are afraid of working with major publishers, it makes sense to position your company as a small-fry, easy-going, no-rules kind of establishment.

It makes sense to hold a satirical, anti-E3 press conference during E3, complete with lots of fake blood. It makes sense to buy out the parking lot directly across the street from E3 every year to host a three-day mini festival filled with games, food and beer.

The independent gaming industry is now large and stable enough to support publishers like Devolver, Raw Fury and Finji, which are focused on innovative titles from small teams. Indie games are their own genre, and the market is shifting to accommodate more experiences, more developers and more publishing opportunities. The community itself is also established, allowing veteran developers to support newcomers, offering advice on publishing, marketing and, yes, paperwork.

This is Sony’s competition now — other indie developers and companies like Devolver, the anarchist, neon-tinged publisher who does E3 out of an Airstream trailer parked next to the Hooters in downtown Los Angeles. Microsoft may be making moves in the indie space, but many developers are bypassing the big names altogether, choosing to exist in Devolver’s new kind of AA limbo. Hey, at least, they have beer.

“I think indie publishers are really becoming a thing,” says Ben Wander, a former BioWare developer currently working on A Case of Distrust. “Devolver, we know a few people at Raw Fury who really want to help us out.”

If this were the Sony of years past, a highlight of the company’s E3 2017 showcase could have easily been Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. It comes from Nordhagen, who worked on the BioShock franchise before creating Gone Home, a breakout indie hit that defined the modern genre of non-violent, narrative-driven, first-person games.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine would have been a fitting, powerful breath of fresh air at Sony’s E3 press conference, too. It’s a stunning independent game from an established developer, and it generated sizable buzz when it debuted at The Game Awards in 2015. A follow-up presentation at Sony’s E3 2017 showcase — complete with a new trailer backed by original folk music dripping with the sweet humidity of the American South — would have swept through the audience with a piercing kind of familiarity. As gorgeous, rolling plains and mystical creatures filled the screen, Sony would have subtly prompted the audience, Remember this game? Yeah — we thought it looked incredible, too.

It would have been a chance for Sony to show it’s still on the same page as its audience — the same audience that devoured every advertisement, trailer debut, late-night talk show appearance and pre-order bonus for No Man’s Sky, an indie title that premiered at the 2013 VGX award show, was featured in a huge way on Sony’s stage for two consecutive E3 conferences, and promptly became one of the most infamous games of the current generation. Infamous, but still furiously popular.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine — or any number of eye-catching, prominent independent titles in development right now — could have been Sony’s chance to prove it still believes in indie games. Attention on any indie title would have bolstered its E3 press conference and helped cement its reputation as a creative, supportive community for independent developers — a reputation it seemed to relish in building over the past few years. Instead, Sony didn’t bring a single developer on-stage, and its show centered on big-name, AAA experiences and VR.

Of course, it isn’t 2014 anymore. Selling indie games becomes more difficult every day, as the market is saturated with new experiences. The folks at Sony might be onto something here: Let the indie industry curate itself and form its own publishing ecosystem and then work with these companies in a more traditional third-party structure.

More traditional, perhaps — but less independent.

“It really seems like there’s a lot less support from the big console manufacturers out there,” Nordhagen says. “I don’t know why that is — whether that’s a reflection of changing market dynamics or things like that. Selling indie games right now is really hard for everybody.”

Follow all the latest news from E3 2017 here!

26th June 2017

Cyberattack on UK parliament exploited weak email passwords

Cyrielle Beaubois/Getty

A rudimentary cyberattack has compromised the accounts of up to 90 people at the UK’s parliament last week, thanks to a lack of basic security practices.

The hacked accounts were using weak passwords that did not conform to the recommended parliamentary security standards, a House of Commons spokesperson confirmed in a statement. Less than 1 per cent of the 9000 email accounts in the parliamentary network were affected by the attack.

Hackers repeatedly attempted to access politicians’ emails during the “sustained and determined cyberattack” that took place last Friday. Members of both houses of parliament, including the prime minister, other government ministers and their aides all use the email network hit by the attack.

Advertisement

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘mpu-mid-article’); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘video-mid-article’); });

“This is a rudimentary routine attack,” says Dave Palmer, director of technology at UK security firm Darktrace. “This has the hallmarks of someone just doing it to show they can or of someone doing it for fun.”

Palmer says there is no evidence at the moment linking the attack to Russia or any other state, as has been speculated. It would take several weeks of detailed analysis before any such links could be established, he says, and given the unsophisticated nature of the attack it is not at all clear that it is politically motivated.

But he says the attack is a “wake-up call” that should prompt parliament to look closely at the state of its cybersecurity. Simple security measures like multifactor authentication – requiring confirmation by app or text message before logging in – would make it much harder for hackers to gain access to email accounts. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre advises all individuals to use this kind of security.

Forcing parliamentarians to use more secure passwords would also hinder these attacks. All of the affected accounts were using passwords that fell below the security standards set by the Parliamentary Digital Service.

Hackers may have started with a list of parliamentary email addresses and then tried to access the accounts with software that automatically runs through obvious and commonly used passwords, Palmer says. The attackers may also have tried to use passwords exposed in previous high-profile hacks on companies such as LinkedIn, Yahoo and Dropbox.

This attack could easily be performed by someone with no computer knowledge at all, says Palmer, and is the most basic kind of attack faced by companies on a daily basis. “It’s pretty disappointingly trivial,” he says.

More on these topics:

26th June 2017

Birds use cigarette butts for chemical warfare against ticks

JerryFriedman/CC BY-SA 4.0

Is this a cigarette habit with some benefits? A species of urban bird seems to harness the toxic chemicals in cigarette butts in its fight against nest parasites – although there is a downside to the practice.

Constantino Macías Garcia at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and his colleagues, have spent several years studying the curious cigarette habit in urban house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus). Initial evidence hinted that nicotine and other chemicals in the butts might help deter insect pests from moving into the nests – nicotine does have anti-parasite properties – but it wasn’t conclusive.

To firm up the conclusion, Macías Garcia and his team experimented with 32 house finch nests. One day after the eggs in the nest had hatched, the researchers removed the natural nest lining and replaced it with artificial felt, to remove any parasites that might have moved in during brooding. They then added live ticks to 10 of the nests, dead ticks to another 10 and left 12 free of ticks.

Advertisement

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘mpu-mid-article’); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘video-mid-article’); });

They found that the adult finches were significantly more likely to add cigarette butt fibres to the nest if it contained ticks. What’s more, the weight of cigarette butt material added to nests containing live ticks was, on average, 40 per cent greater than the weight of cigarette butt material added to nests containing dead ticks.

The results suggest that the finches are using the cigarette butts to “medicate” their nests against the ticks, says Macías Garcia. ‘‘Ectoparasites such as ticks and mites cause damage to finches – for example, eating their feathers and sucking their blood,” he says.

“It’s fascinating, and an exciting example of animals being innovative and making use of the materials available to them,” says Steve Portugal at Royal Holloway, University of London.

However, Macías Garcia’s earlier studies suggest the habit is harmful too. “The butts cause [genetic] damage to finches by interfering with cell division, which we assessed by looking at their red blood cells,” he says.

“I think the anti-parasite effects the cigarette butts provide must outweigh any negative problems they cause,” says Portugal. “Alternatively, the genotoxic effects take longer to manifest, and the adult birds aren’t aware of any problem.”

Journal reference: Journal of Avian Biology, DOI: 10.1111/jav.01324

More on these topics:

26th June 2017

Peruvian monkey avoids stomach trouble by adding mud to its diet

Gordon Ulmer

Are there merits to munching mud? Some monkeys seem to go out of their way to add it to their standard diet of leaves, fruits and insects. In Amazonian Peru, at least, one primate species seems to use mud medicinally, possibly to prevent stomach upsets before they even begin.

Why some monkeys eat mud has been much debated, with the main options being to kill parasites, as a mineral supplement or to cure stomach upsets.

“Many previous reports involved just a few sightings, or come from accidental encounters,” explains Dara Adams at the Ohio State University in Columbus, who led the study. “We were really focused on answering this question, and that seems to have made the difference.”

Advertisement

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘mpu-mid-article’); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘video-mid-article’); });

The team studied Rylands’ bald-faced saki monkey (Pithecia rylandsi), a rainforest canopy specialist. With thick grey fur, it has a similar shaggy appearance and size to a Maine Coon cat. The sakis’ treetop lifestyle means they did not get their mud from the ground, but from the nest casings of tree-living termites.

“In 1125 hours, we recorded 76 feeding bouts at 26 termite mounds,” says team member Jennifer Rehg, from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “They ate mound casing – they weren’t focusing on the termites. They even ate inactive mounds.”

But why termite mounds? Enter Mrinalini Watsa from Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, who conducted a detailed analysis of the mud the sakis were eating.

“The important thing is that this isn’t just any mud, it’s termite-processed mud,” she explains. “Compared to topsoil, it has a higher carbon and clay content.”

Watsa adds that the mud can also absorb cations – positively charged particles – so could mop up potentially toxic metal ones from other substances in the monkeys’ diet. Furthermore, the mud is rich in organic carbon and kaolin clays, both of which excel at absorbing tannins and other plant toxins.

“This was key,” says Adams. “A large part of a saki’s diet is seeds from unripe fruit, and these are packed with toxic chemicals. Combined, the cation-capacity, clay and carbon absorb many of these, allowing these monkeys to have this unusual diet.”

The region’s other major seed eaters – macaws and parrots – fly to clay-rich soils on riverside cliffs for stomach-calming intestinal mudbaths. Without that option, the sakis have found a solution closer to their treetop homes.

Journal reference: Primates, DOI: 10.1007/s10329-017-0609-8

Read more: Chimps learn about nature’s medicine chest from elders

More on these topics:

26th June 2017

Research on male animals prevents women from getting best drugs

Adam Gault/Getty

Women are missing out on optimum medical treatment because most pre-clinical drug research is done in male animals, a new study suggests.

New drugs must be evaluated in animals before being considered for human trials. Over three-quarters of these studies use only male animals because of concerns that female hormone cycles will affect experiments. It is also widely assumed that what works for males will work for females.

However, research by Natasha Karp at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge and her colleagues casts doubt on this assumption.

Advertisement

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘mpu-mid-article’); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘video-mid-article’); });

They compared 234 physical traits in 14,000 male and female lab mice. Sex differences were identified for 57 per cent of quantifiable traits – like cholesterol level and bone mass – and for 10 per cent of qualitative traits, like head shape.

In another 40,000 mice, they found that when they switched off specific genes, the effects varied according to sex. This suggests that genetic diseases may manifest themselves differently in males and females and require different treatments, says Karp.

These sex nuances mean that drugs optimised for male animals may be less effective in females, or even cause harm, says Karp. Between 1997 and 2001, 8 of the 10 drugs that were pulled from the market in the US posed greater health risks for women – possibly as a result of male-biased animal research, she says.

Moreover, the male bias means that drugs that work better in females could be overlooked and never make it into clinical trials in the first place, because they are only tested in male animals, says Karp.

Karp argues that the fluctuating hormones of female animals is also no longer a good argument. Male animals vary in other ways, and research has shown they are just as variable as female animals, she says. “Unless there’s a really good reason not to, we should be using both sexes in biomedical research,” says Karp.

Peter Rogers at the University of Melbourne in Australia agrees. “I think the world is changing,” he says. “I sit on lots of grant review panels, and it’s rare now for research to be funded if the experimental design fails to consider both males and females where relevant.”

In human trials, there has been a greater focus on female representation. Since 1994, the US has required all clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to include women. As a result, the proportion of women in clinical trials for heart disease prevention, for example, has increased from only 9 per cent in 1970 to 41 per cent in 2006.

In 2014, the NIH also announced that it would provide $10 million to fund research on sex differences in a range of medical conditions, such as drug addiction, migraine and stroke.

Journal reference: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15475

More on these topics:

26th June 2017

More killer hail coming unless we curb global warming

AlesVeluscek/Getty

There is endless fascination with things that fall from the sky. The very term meteorology comes from the Greek word meteoron, referring to stuff high in the sky. Of that stuff, hailstones are among the more engaging things that drop on us.

I remember rushing out to collect them in one of the rare hailstorms we had during my boyhood in New Jersey, and my own children did the same in Illinois. It’s exciting to keep them in the freezer like a hoard of gemstones. If you crack them open, they have onion-like layers inside.

To continue reading this premium article, register or login for free for unlimited access. Existing users, please log in.

26th June 2017

PS4 Spider-Man analysis from someone who worked on 5 Spider-Man games

Chris Baker worked on five Spider-Man video games in his career as the manager of licensed games for Marvel from 2007 to 2014, so the guy knows a little bit about turning a huge franchise into a game. He also recently recorded some thoughts on the Spider-Man footage from Sony’s E3 conference this year, and the 14-minute video is … well, it’s a pretty detail-obsessed look at the footage and what it might mean about the rest of the game.

Seeing someone with this much experience discuss someone else’s work in this much detail is pretty rare in this business, and it’s likely that Baker doesn’t know anything that we don’t outside of industry scuttlebutt. There are a lot of “let’s hopes” and “this could means” sprinkled around the video. He also points out a lot of tiny background details that might be easter eggs, while providing a bit more insight into the small callbacks from the comic book universe.

One of the more interesting bits of speculation is that you may be able to create your own Spider-Man suit using elements of past and existing suits, although we do already know that the game will feature different suits and that the white Spider-Man logo does have some significance in the game.

The fact that Mister Negative may not be the big bad of this game, and that his footage is just a head-fake so Insomniac and Marvel can surprise us with a different villain or even a collection of them, had never occurred to me but seems so obvious now. It’s neat to see a developer with such a history in the franchise geek out over the smaller details of the trailer, even though there aren’t that many new things pointed out here. Enjoy!

26th June 2017

SpaceX launches and lands two rockets in a single weekend

SpaceX’s technical problems that caused an explosion last September seem well behind it, as it pulled off the rare feat of launching two rockets this weekend. On Friday, the Falcon 9 lofted a Bulgarian communications satellite into orbit from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, landing the recycled first stage at sea. On Sunday, it pulled off the trick again, sending ten Iridium-2 satellites into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Once again, it brought the first stage safely back to drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” despite visibly rough weather and rolling seas.

Sped up version of today’s rocket landing on the Droneship Just Read the Instructions (guess it did)

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on Jun 25, 2017 at 2:41pm PDT

The landing was impressively free of drama, despite the fact that you can see the barge pitching and whitecaps breaking against it. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that the drone ship had to be repositioned due to “extreme weather” and warned that launch and landing “will be tight” (see the full video, below).

Musk pointed out new titanium grid fins used to aerodynamically maneuver the Falcon 9’s first stage for the Iridium launch. Clearly visible in the landing video, they’re made of “a single piece of cast and cut titanium … [and] can take reentry heat with no shielding,” he tweeted.

Flying with larger & significantly upgraded hypersonic grid fins. Single piece cast & cut titanium. Can take reentry heat with no shielding. https://t.co/SmyCCQRt2F

Iridium might be best remembered as the company behind a failed space internet and cellphone calling scheme. In 2007, it rebooted the network as “Iridium Next” with an 81-satellite constellation, 75 of which will be launched by SpaceX. The aim is to “provide services for aviation, maritime, internet of things, terrestrial and government organizations,” says SpaceX.

The two launches are the closest together yet for SpaceX. The launch of the Bulgarian satellite and recovery of the first stage marked just the second time SpaceX has used (and recovered) a recycled first stage. Interestingly, the same rocket launched the first batch of 10 Iridium satellites in its virgin debut.

All of that is a good sign for SpaceX, which wants to really amp up the pace of rocket launches. Key to reducing time and cost are the first stage recoveries, and so far, SpaceX has done those successfully 13 times, including eight at sea. The last time a landing failed was a year ago, but that was already a risky attempt following a high-orbit satellite launch. Soon, SpaceX plans to launch rockets every two weeks, a blistering pace that may make the still-amazing spectacle old hat.

26th June 2017

Netflix remains ruthless as ‘Girlboss’ cut after one season

Netflix never talks audience numbers with its shows, but there’s one sure way to know when one is doing poorly. The streaming company cancelled Girlboss, the third series over the last month to get canned. The show was unpopular with critics from the start, with just a 32 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — a rarity for a Netflix comedy. Though the premise about a “broke anarchist” who develops a successful company was promising, the main character (loosely based on Nasty Girl founder Sophia Amoruso), “was not very likeable,” Deadline said.

Netflix recently cancelled The Get Down and Sense8 after just one and two seasons, respectively. Unlike Girlboss, however, both of those were incredibly expensive to produce, especially The Get Down, which reportedly cost Netflix $120 million for just one season. At the same time, the latter show reportedly drew just a fifth the audience of Orange is the New Black.

Girlboss, however, appears to have just fared poorly from the start. Netflix has generally done well with comedy, with shows like Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt generally receiving critical raves. However, the premise of a “genius asshole,” could only work “if it showed some semblance of self-awareness,” said IndieWire, noting that it wastes a fine performance by lead actor Britt Robertson.

Netflix is less willing to tolerate a show with rough edges than before. “Relative to what you spent, are people watching it?” Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos asked earlier this month. For Girlboss, it appears that not nearly enough were.

26th June 2017

Mohu’s latest indoor antenna has a 65-mile range

Mohu has something new for all of the cord-cutters out there. The company has upgraded its indoor Leaf antenna and the new version delivers a 65-mile reception range. That’s up from the 50-mile range of the previous model. Mohu says that its SignaLift technology puts the Leaf Glide more on par with outdoor antennas. The Leaf Glide is also a little bit bigger at 21.5 inches by 11.5 inches, allowing it to pick up lower frequency bands.

Mohu’s Leaf antennas are super thin, multi-directional indoor versions that you can use to pick up free over-the-air TV channels. The company announced earlier this year that it’s also launching a wireless version of its indoor antenna soon. Mohu began producing the thin Leaf antenna line in 2011 and they claim to have saved customers more than $300 million in cable fees.

Mohu’s antennas don’t require an additional subscription service and the Leaf Glide is available only through Mohu or Amazon. It costs $90.

26th June 2017

Nike’s SNKRS app uses AR to help you buy limited-edition shoes

Nike is the latest company to join the augmented reality craze. The sportswear giant has started using the tech to sell limited-edition kicks through its SNRKS app, with the system’s first drop being the Nike SB Dunk High Pro “Momofuku,” a model designed in collaboration with renowned chef David Chang. To unlock these sneakers in the application, all you have to do is go to the product page, tap on a GIF and then point your camera at a menu of Chang’s Fuku restaurant in New York City. (It doesn’t have to be a physical one, so don’t worry about having to make the trip if you’re not in The Big Apple.)

Once you do that, a 3D model of the Dunks will pop up and you’ll have the chance to buy a pair for yourself. There are also posters, like the one above, outside of Momofuku restaurants in NYC which can trigger the app’s AR feature — in case you’re looking for a more adventurous experience. This seems to be yet another effort by Nike to combat bots, a powerful tool for resellers that’s become a major problem in sneaker culture. Last month, the company introduce Stash, a way for people to unlock exclusive products in the SNRKS app based on their location.

The SNKRS AR functionality only works for iOS users at the moment, though Nike says Android support is coming soon.

26th June 2017

Recapping the first TechCrunch China event in Shenzhen

Last week we hosted our first TechCrunch China event in Shenzhen, the hardware capital of the world.

We were delighted to welcome thousands of attendees to the event, which included a host of top tech industry names, exciting up-and-coming startups, investors, students, hackers and much, much more.

For those of you who didn’t make it, here’s a recap of what went down at the I-factory, our very cool venue for the show which was once a glass manufacturing plant.

China’s Mobike plans move into services and aggressive international expansion

Mobike CTO Joe Xia joined us to discuss the current and future outlook for his company, which had raised $600 million a week before. Aside from an ambitious plan to reach 200 cities by the end of this year, many of which will be overseas, Mobike is also focusing and services, data and other areas.

How Ofo wants to change you and your city

Ofo, the arch rival to Mobike, was present via its CTO Austin Zhang who explained how it is using its bike rental service to aid city planning and — perhaps surprisingly — help Chinese people with their credit scores.

China’s biggest selfie app wants to prevent skin diseases

Meitu CTO Zhang Wei joined us to discuss his company’s selfie app, which he believes can have benefits beyond just beautifying people’s selfies. Meitu went public in a $600 million Hong Kong IPO in late 2016.

Kik CEO explains why its doing an ICO instead of venture fundraising

ICOs are emerging as a potentially transformative way to raise capital and build a decentralized ecosystem for developers. Canada-based Kik is one of the most established tech companies taking that route, and CEO Ted Livingston discussed why. He also explained how the company, which counts Tencent as an investor, keeps an eye on tech trends in China.

‘All roads do lead back to Shenzhen,’ according to Indiegogo’s Sandy Diao

A panel of hardware experts, including Indiegogo’s Sandu Diao and a number startup founders, discussed just why Shenzhen is a global hub for manufacturing, and whether that might ever change in the future. Their answer: probably not.

How wearables maker Huami is using deep learning to help doctors

Huang Wang, CEO of Xiaomi partner Huami, discussed the development of its latest health band — Amazfit — and the general direction that wearable devices are headed.

Kuang-Chi is bringing space tourism to China

Doctor Liu Ruopeng has been called the Elon Musk of China. His company is involved in several projects that sound like they are straight from science fiction – balloons that fly to space, jetpacks, flying cars, and metamaterials. Now his is working on a space-travel theme park.

Other panels and interviews included:

And last but not least, our pre-event hackathon…

Hacking blockchain, bike-rental and robotics at the TechCrunch Shenzhen Hackathon

Personal shopping assistant Roadshr wowed the judges into first place, but other notable projects include hacks using the blockchain and Mobike’s service.

Image via Leon Lv

All other images via TechNode

26th June 2017

Taking a ride in MIT’s self-driving wheelchair

Over the past few months, CSAIL’s (MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) self-driving wheelchair has become a familiar sight around the MIT halls. It’s a nice little rolling advertisement for the lab’s work — and more importantly, it’s a great opportunity to test the mobility device in a real world setting. As students wander by in groups, deep in conversation or face down in their smartphones, their paths are unpredictable and collisions are a very real possibility.

This kind of real world testing is exactly why the chair exists in the first place. It’s hard to test autonomous cars in out on the streets. It turns out there’s a lot of red tape involved when it comes to trying out driverless technology in the real world — particularly in a densely populated city like Boston.

Nearby military bases have popped up on the list of possible locations, but in the meantime, the school needed ways to try out their ideas before scaling them up to two ton pieces of rolling metal. The wheelchair serves as a good middle ground between real and remote control cars, letting researchers iterate more quickly on their ideas. The fact that the product could have real world applications for people with mobility issues is something of a happy coincidence.

“The current research that’s being done is using it more as a platform, but there are people who are discussing doing research specifically on the chair,” says Thomas Balch, an MIT robotics software engineer. “A lot of the research I’ve seen people doing since I’ve been [at CSAIL] has been focused on helping people with disabilities deal with things more easily.”

The chair feature the same LIDAR scanners the school is using on their full-sized cars, along with a mapping technology CSAIL developed way back in 2010 for use on the streets of Singapore, long before autonomy became the buzz word it is today. That system, mounted on top of the wheelchair, creates a 3D map of the fixed points around it — in this case, the irregularly-spaced walls of the Frank Geary-designed Stata Center. A smaller scanner up front, meanwhile, detects obstacles in its way.

Balch and MIT research assistant Felix Naser offer me a quick ride around the Stata lobby on the wheelchair — not exactly the campus tour I was expecting. First, they map the path, using a joystick and the 3D mapping tech up top. It’s nothing too exciting — just a straight shot from one side of the building to the other. Once traced, the path is visible as a color line on a large tablet mounted on one of the arm rests. The walls are a solid black, and feet show up as small multi-colored dots. The birds-eye view of the room isn’t exactly complex, but it does the trick.

The ride is slow and smooth — as you’d hope from an electric wheelchair. When the system detects a person, it slowly comes to a full stop, readjusts its position and drives around the person in its way. The process took around 10 to 15 seconds. If anything, the system is probably overly cautious at this point, stopping any time someone passes in its periphery. An abundance of caution is a fine quality in a wheelchair, but in this case, probably not something you want in a car. 

For added protection, Balch follows close behind with an Xbox controller in-hand, serving as an emergency brake. It’s a reminder of how much work needs to be done, even at this slow speed, before researchers are comfortable letting these vehicles cruise without any kind of human pilot providing backup. But low-speed, low-impact settings like this are a much safer place to work out some of those bugs.

Once perfected, however, the system could one day be deployed in busy hospitals to help transport patients across the floor. The school has been in talks with hospitals around the world about potential pilot programs, but as of yet, this branch of CSAIL’s self-driving car research has yet to yield real world commercial application.

26th June 2017

Living near noisy roads could make it harder to get pregnant

Christian Ferm/Folio Images/Getty

Living near a noisy road seems to affect couples who are trying get pregnant, increasing the likelihood that it will take them between six to 12 months.

That’s according to an analysis of 65,000 women living in Denmark. Jeppe Schultz Christensen of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center in Copenhagen and his team made this discovery by analysing data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, a project that ran from 1996 to 2002. They selected women who had tried to get pregnant during the project if traffic noise data was available for where they lived.

Previous research has suggested that 80 per cent of women who are actively trying to get pregnant usually do so within six menstrual cycles. But Christensen’s team found that for every 10 decibels of extra traffic noise around a woman’s home, there was a 5 to 8 per cent increased chance of it taking six months or longer.

Advertisement

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘mpu-mid-article’); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘video-mid-article’); });

This link persisted even when factors like poverty levels and nitrogen oxide pollution were taken into account. However, their statistical analysis showed that this association did not hold for women who took more than 12 months – perhaps because these couples may have had other factors affecting their fertility. “Road traffic noise may affect reproductive health,” says Christensen.

It is unclear whether traffic noise may be affecting women or their partners. Previous research has found a link between sleep disturbance and decreased fertility in women, as well as lower quality of semen in men. A 2013 study showed that consistent exposure to aircraft traffic noise activates a system in the brain that is known to disrupt the rhythm of ovulation.

Rachel Smith of Imperial College London says the link between traffic noise and health is worrying. Because traffic noise is common, even a small effect on health could feasibly have a large impact across a population, she says.

Europe’s roads are getting noisier. In the UK alone, an extra 2 million cars hit the road between 2011 and 2015. Christensen says traffic noise and fertility need to be investigated further before drawing up any recommendations for couples hoping to get pregnant, but Smith suggests that anyone who is worried could try to choose bedrooms away from the road, and close windows at night.

Marie Pedersen at the University of Copenhagen says traffic issues should be tackled by society as a whole, through better town planning and alternative transport. “It is a matter for urban planners and politicians,” she says.

Journal reference: Environment International, DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.05.011

Read more: Dying for some quiet: The truth about noise pollution; Noise kills and blights lives in Europe

 

More on these topics:

25th June 2017

There’s a better way to build your startup

If a startup founder could peer 8 years into the future and see a company that has become the symbol for disruptive culture, one that has raised over $8 billion on a valuation of $67 billion, that has a worldwide presence in hundreds of cities, millions of app downloads,12,000 full time employees and thousands more working for your service, chances are they would start it.

Every startup founder craves success, but the question is, how far are you willing to go to achieve that success. Uber is the company that generated those heady results, but it did so at a cost. After months of one scandal after another at Uber, CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down last week.

The takeaway for startup founders should be that culture matters as much, if not more, as a good idea and some funding — and you need to start thinking about this from your earliest days.

Under the leadership of Kalanick, Uber appears to have chosen ‘The Lord of The Flies’ as its cultural roadmap, and it’s a cautionary tale that startup founders everywhere need to contemplate as they build their companies. What kind of value system do you hope to cultivate? Do you want to have a no-holds barred approach that leads to bullying, harassment and grossly inappropriate behaviors, or do you want to build a legitimate meritocracy where the best ideas and the most talented people are rewarded?

It doesn’t seem like this should even be a question, but it’s something the core first group of employees need to define early on, encouraging positive internal values. It’s not something that develops by accident.

As we’ve seen, an aggressive cultural strategy can lead to a toxic work environment in which the more powerful people in the organizations (the managers and executive team) hold an inordinate amount of power over employees and that leads to the kind of gross abuses we heard about at Uber.

It would be a mistake to think that Uber stands alone as some sort of isolated case. It’s not. Last year, fast-growing human resources firm, Zenefits, which had raised over $583 million — including a whopping $500 million on a $4.5 billion valuation in 2015 — ran into serious trouble when the company was accused of selling health insurance in several states without a license and building pernicious culture.

In a matter of a few days, CEO and company founder Parker Conrad and head of sales Sam Blond resigned under a cloud of scandal. To be fair, the company has tried to move on from this, but it was yet another example for startups everywhere that culture matters.

Need further proof? There are many cases including Whitney Wolf’s sexual harassment lawsuit at Tinder that resulted in the suspension of co-founder Justin Mateen and eventually co-founder and CEO Sean Rad leaving his post (although he stayed on as a board member and president).

Each of these cases, and unfortunately, many more like them, show that if you cut corners and fail to cultivate a positive culture, it eventually catches up with you, no matter how successful you may be in the short term.

Freada Kapor Klein

Freada Kapor Klein of Kapor Capital, who along with her husband Mitch Kapor, was an early investor in Uber, has publicly criticized the company’s culture. She says, the time to think about building a positive culture is at the earliest stages of forming the company.

“It’s almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of intentionally building a positive culture from the start. Finding time to articulate values, principles and how you want to be known is critical. There’s always too much to do, but retrofitting culture or diversity and inclusion in a big company is much harder,” Kapor Klein told TechCrunch.

Steve Herrod, who was an early employee at VMware and today is the managing director at venture capital firm General Catalyst, says this is a topic that is top of mind and something the partners at GC always talk about when evaluating whether to fund a startup.

“A substantial part of our investment decision, especially at Series A, goes into assessing the values and style of the founders,” Herrod told TechCrunch. “We have passed several times when we sensed a founder was cutting corners, overly exaggerating achievements, bragging too much, or indicating any form of moral ambiguity,” he said.

General Catalyst goes even further to ensure a startup is building a positive culture by having one partner who is entirely focused on team assessment and development. “[This partner] joins the lead partner in ongoing assessments of our startups with a particular eye to cultures trending negatively. We [also] have a stable of coaches and other development resources that we can bring to bear when needed,” Herrod said.

Kapor Klein says culture needs to be front and center as part of the business plan. “Companies set business goals all the time. They use these goals to check their progress and hold themselves accountable to the metrics. If a company is not taking the same approach to culture then they’re showing you that they aren’t taking it as seriously as they take other business goals,” Kapor Klein explained.

“If these aren’t genuine concerns of the founders, there will always be a disconnect between what’s stated and what’s practiced. That gulf between words and actions is the quickest way to create distrust and cynicism,” she added.

Danny Crichton, a NYC investor in early stage companies, agrees it’s something that needs to be foundational for the company. “It’s mostly just thinking about it from the earliest possible moments. And to start with the right cultural thinking. Ultimately culture is an extension of the founder. Uber’s culture [was] Travis Kalanick,” Crichton said.

Crighton says if you don’t think about it early on, it gets harder to change as you grow. “It’s very difficult to undo a negative culture. And the problem is that once culture gets baked in, it’s basically done. I think nothing will really repair it, but we’ll see,” he said.

Kapor Klein sees it not being so much about the organization as the people in charge, and the more ingrained the negative culture, the harder it’s going to be to change. “Cultures don’t spin out of control—people do. If the core culture is sound, it can be reinstilled. If the core culture caused the problems, it’s a longer, messier process of rebuilding. Sometimes we just need guardrails, sometimes we need a complete overhaul,” she said.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff

There are examples of highly successful companies achieving growth and building a positive internal culture. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

A prime example is Salesforce, a company currently on a $10 billion run rate, which very early on decided to be as intentional about the company culture as they were about their products and how they would go to market.

“We believe that culture cannot be left to chance; it must be deliberate, measured and consistent from day one,” Cindy Robbins, Executive Vice President of Global Employee Success at Salesforce told TechCrunch.

For Salesforce, it’s about putting together culture, technology and data as a formula for employee engagement, she said, and they take it even further with an integrated philanthropy model called 1-1-1. While you could dismiss all of this as PR fluff, the company has devoted thousands of hours to community service and donated or discounted software to non-profits , and according to the company website, has given more than $160 million in community grants over the years.

Further, it has attempted to eliminate the gender pay gap at Salesforce and last year hired Tony Prophet as the company’s first chief equality officer to bring equality issues to the forefront of the company. The company has also exported the 1-1-1 model through the Pledge 1% program and 2000 companies are following a similar program including Appirio, Box, DocuSign, Glassdoor, Optimizely, Twilio, Xactly, Yelp and Zuora.

Graphic: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

As much as the negative examples of culture get the vast amount of attention, there are plenty of people working hard to build a positive culture and a solid business.

While Salesforce is a long established company, Clef, an identity startup launched in 2013, that became part of Twilio in March, put culture at the center of its hiring process, and went so far as to create a handbook, which it then “open sourced” for others to use. Founder B Byrne put it this way when he wrote a blog post in 2015 announcing the company was open sourcing the handbook:

“Building a company is hard. Building a company that prioritizes inclusion in an industry that doesn’t is even harder. Both this handbook and our company are a long way from perfect, but this is a start. One of our values is to be better today than yesterday, and we’re excited to have help making this core part of our company better,” he wrote.

Another company trying to do it differently is Trivago, the German hotel search site, which claims to be building the company to be a meritocracy where no single person has total power over another person’s career.

“Removing workplace politics/stereotyping bias from decision making should be the focus. Individuals should not have to worry about these coming into play when it comes to their personal growth and development within the company,” Trivago CFO Axel Hefer told TechCrunch.

While Rolf Schrömgens, CEO and founder at Trivago admits that it really wasn’t something they thought about right away, as the company grew, the earliest employees began to recognize they needed a system in place to ensure a positive cultural approach, especially with a diverse staff from all over world.

“It was less an active decision that we made in the beginning, and more of a necessity that we realized over time. If you want to keep your company constantly learning, if you want your organization to stay liquid and have decisions [made] fast, if you believe in the superiority of intrinsic motivation, then you have to realize a culture of trust, respect and authenticity is the only way to go,” Schrömgens explained.

Photo: New York Daily News/Getty Images

Trivago reports a male/female employee split of 58.2% to. 41.7% with over 50 nationalities working at the company’s Düsseldorf, Germany headquarters.

It’s worth noting that Glass Ceiling reviews of the company don’t paint quite as rosy a picture of the company’s culture as the company’s executives, especially when it comes to advancement opportunities and salary.

Still, Trivago has nearly doubled its stock price since it went public last December growing from an IPO price of $11.85 to $20.86 this week. Salesforce, which has been around since 1999 and went public in 2004, has a market cap of almost $63 billion and it’s stock price has grown steadily over the last five years from $34.28 in June 2012 to $86.82 this week, proving at least for these companies that a positive culture and positive business results can go hand in hand.

It shouldn’t be about the money though, it should be about doing the right thing by your employees, and the financial success should follow.

In fact, there is no perfect approach to culture, but we know that setting goals around compassion, diversity, charity, a willingness to share ideas, while providing mechanisms for all employees to grow and be appreciated — all of these things make for a more positive culture.

That clearly seems to be a better approach than a noxious culture. As we’ve seen repeatedly, that cultural approach eventually catches up with a company. Surely, Uber’s case (and others) should be a lesson for every startup that it’s better to start that process of building a positive culture from day one — and not have to go back and fix it or retrofit it down the road.

25th June 2017

SpaceX successfully launches and recovers second Falcon 9 in 48 hours

SpaceX has succeeded in launching another Falcon 9 into space, this time for client Iridium, a global satellite telecommunications provider. The Iridium-2 mission on Sunday saw a Falcon 9 take off from SpaceX’s Vandenberg Air Force base in California, with a payload of 10 satellites destined to become part of Iridium’s NEXT constellation, which will comprise 75 satellites in total once SpaceX has launched them all, creating a network that Iridium says will allow anyone on Earth to contact anyone else, anywhere else on Earth.

SpaceX also managed to land the Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous ocean-borne landing barge, despite tricky conditions. Just ahead of launch, SpaceX founder Elon Musk noted that the drone ship “Just Read The Instructions” had to be repositioned at a late stage due to extreme weather conditions, which would result in less chance of a successful recovery.

The mission also included the first ever use of a new grid fin system on a Falcon 9 first stage. Grid fins are used to help steer and orient the reusable first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and returns to the planet’s surface. The new grid fins used on this rocket were made of solid titanium, instead of shielded aluminum. This should allow SpaceX to reuse without any refurbishment required, lessening the time and money cost of relaunches further still.

Closeup of the titanium grid fins. Not painted, as they glow red hot during a fast reentry. pic.twitter.com/Ltrq1Prg2m

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 25, 2017

SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 just a couple of days ago, for client Bulgaria Sat. The rocket used for that mission was previously used for SpaceX’s first Iridium launch, which took place in January, and SpaceX once again recovered the first stage aboard its Atlantic Ocean drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You.”

The Falcon 9 launched today still has to deploy its payload of 10 Iridium satellites, and that’s set to begin approximately an hour from lift-off. We’ll update this post on the rest of the mission’s progress as it unfolds.

25th June 2017

Why now?

Sexism in tech has always been an open secret but it seems we’ve hit an inflection point in the past year… More women are now willing to expose the secret.

Most recently, six women came forward to talk about unwanted sexual advances from venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck. Three of the women chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, but, in what seems to be an increasing trend, three went on the record.

The inappropriate advances, say these women, included grabbing a woman’s thigh under the table, asking one founder who’d been pitching Caldbeck to take the meeting back to a hotel room, and sending explicit text messages. And Caldbeck’s history of inappropriate behavior allegedly pre-dated his time at Binary Capital (a founding managing partner at the firm, Caldbeck has been given an “indefinite leave of absence“).

One of the women who went on the record, Niniane Wang, wrote in a Medium post she’d been “trying to expose Justin for 7 years” but said Caldbeck had repeatedly threatened reporters, making it difficult for the story to be told.

So, what has gotten us to a place where women are beginning to feel more confident about talking openly about sexual harassment?

Susan Fowler arguably changed Uber’s entire culture. Before her, Ellen Pao fought and lost her gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins, but ignited the conversation within tech. Then there are the women who came forward about Trump and Bill Cosby. Five million women and allies of women showed up for the Women’s March on Washington and across the globe, making it the largest political demonstration since Vietnam. The march, which was meant to send the message that “women’s rights are human rights” showed how much support we really had and emboldened more of us to speak out.

Take all these recent incidents and combine it with a generation of women fed up with the status quo of enabling powerful men to hide the way they treat women. It’s clear we’ve hit a moment in time where women not only feel safer about speaking out, they feel it is their imperative to do so.

The end of that famous sentence is “grab ’em by the pussy” and its source was then presidential candidate Donald Trump. The revelation of that quote, as part of a private conversation with Billy Bush from 2005, sent shockwaves through both political parties during Trump’s presidential campaign after its release. Some dismissed it as locker room talk, while others still find those words, and others, from a president of the United States appalling.

The internet can be a tool used to expose men who prey on women and the article about Caldbeck is the latest example. Before it, there was Fowler’s explosive blog post into the misogyny and bro culture within Uber. Inarguably, Uber has had many problems — an array of lawsuits, faltering economics, and international issues — but Fowler’s mid-February post, “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber” was the bomb that set off a major overhaul and ousting of key executives, including, eventually, CEO Travis Kalanick.

However, it still takes a lot of guts for any woman to come forward. The internet can just as easily punish those who dare to speak out. By adding her name and face to allegations of sexual harassment a woman is likely to face more harassment and questioned about the validity of her statements (“What were you wearing?” “You shouldn’t have been out so late and alone with him, anyway,” etc).

Cases of sexual harassment and assault can also be hard to prove. Just look at the case of Bill Cosby, when 30 women accused him of the same thing, and it was, again, an open secret that Cosby had an alleged history of assault. Still, a jury could not reach a verdict in the case.

It can be terrifying just to come forward and talk about your experiences. Half the women accusing Caldbeck didn’t want to be identified. It’s hard enough for a woman to be taken seriously and then to be propositioned like that by someone who has the power to fund you, hire you, fire you, or control your life in some way, only serves to reinforce that you, as a woman, really don’t matter.

But there’s hope for tech. Note that both Cosby and Trump have not felt the effects of their actions, whereas it’s a different story in Silicon Valley (at least in recent months).

I was recently at a VC event where I asked one of the firm’s newest partners how many people he’d heard a formal pitch from in the last few months. “About 50,” he said. “How many women have you heard a pitch from?” another person in our group asked. He paused for a while and then told us just one. One!

It’s not because women are less entrepreneurial or don’t have brilliant ideas. By shutting women up or treating women like dates instead of founders, our whole society suffers. it’s sad to think of all the great businesses that might have been if we weren’t repeatedly intimidated.

Thankfully, women are breaking their silence to talk about the industry’s “open secrets”. But just because more women are saying something doesn’t mean our work here is done.

Acknowledging the problem is the first step to recovery. We see that with the Uber board’s whole-hearted admission the culture need to change. But talking about it means nothing if we don’t see action. Will Uber truly change? We’re still waiting to see but it looks like it’s made the first steps toward that end. However, Uber and one guy ate Binary Capital are not the only bad seeds. They just got caught. Silicon Valley, as a whole, needs a good scrub.

So, why now? Because we need to keep saying something — and loudly — and with the support of male allies. And just maybe these predatory monsters will get the message their actions are wrong and they will be exposed for treating women so horribly.

*If you’ve been sexually harassed by a VC or someone else in a position of power in the tech industry, I’m here for you! Contact me with your story either by email at sarah dot buhr at techcrunch dot com or on Signal. 

25th June 2017

How tech companies are recognizing Pride Month

In the month of June, tech companies celebrated Pride in the best way they know how: small, quirky product updates.

With San Francisco and New York’s annual Pride event hitting this weekend, it’s a good time to reflect on just how far LGBTQ visibility in the tech community has come in a few short years. While there’s still plenty of work to be done, we’re happy to celebrate some of the fun ways that companies are showing their solidarity with the queer community while also holding them to task on the stuff that really matters.

Apple

Apple may often lead the charge in Silicon Valley’s LGBTQ advocacy efforts, but its Pride Edition Apple Watch ($49) band proves it can make superficial yet delightful shows of queer solidarity too. TechCrunch hardware editor and official pride angel Brian Heater sent me one and either my cute new haircut or the rainbow watch band has been turning heads all pride month, but i’m pretty sure it’s the band.

The best part of this particular pride indulgence is that some of the proceeds go to groups like GLSEN and the Trevor Project.

Facebook

Facebook added a well-received Pride reaction this year, though reports suggest the opt-in feature isn’t available globally. In spite of ongoing tensions between the platform and the LGBTQ community, Facebook’s queer users are already pretty attached to the little rainbow reaction so hopefully it sticks around.

Instagram

Instagram added a special LGBTQ sticker set for Pride 2017 and launched a global Pride-inspired photo project. The stickers are cute and include a trans flag-inspired design.

Google

In 35 cities, Pride parade routes will show up on Google Maps for iOS and Android. According to Google, a special Pride icon will display additional events in those cities, which include Seattle, New York and San Francisco.

Uber

Uber’s local markets seem to be all kind of doing their own thing for Pride, but they apparently will deliver on-demand drag shows in Seattle for the second year running. Unfortunately, we’d expect that a delivery drag queen performance is even harder to score than a delivery kitten.

Lyft

Putting its money where its cute UI features are, Lyft announced that it would donate $100,000 over the next 12 months to LGBTQ causes. It kicked that pledge off with a Human Rights Campaign partnership called “Round Up and Donate” which invites riders to opt in from the Settings menu in order to round their fares up to the nearest dollar for a good cause. Anecdotally, I can confirm that Lyft cars along Pride parade routes show up in rainbow colors which was a nice touch.

Twitter
For the month of June, Twitter introduced a nice little hashtag icon that manages to combine a rainbow pride flag with the pink and blue transgender flag, which is a lot of colors in not a lot of pixels. To summon the new icon, try the hashtags #Pride2017, #PrideMonth and #LoveisLove.

Salesforce

Shout out to Salesforce for the gayest looking lobby we’ve ever seen.

? #LoveIsLove – Salesforce Lobbies in San Francisco today ?️‍? pic.twitter.com/oslrTsOLh7

— Tony Prophet (@tony_prophet) June 23, 2017

Skype

Skype introduced some rainbowy stickers and a colorful gradient text background, for getting very gay points across.

Spotify

Not settling for rainbows alone, Spotify curated a collection of music so robust that might actually last for the whole month. Or at least one really, really sleep-deprived Pride weekend.

Snapchat

For 2017, Snapchat launched a rainbow emoji brush, a new sticker set, Pride-themed geofilters and Pride-specific stories so users can get a glimpse of celebrations around the world, including in Paris, Toronto and Mexico City this upcoming weekend. Props to Snapchat for its inclusion of the trans flag.

While it’s nice to see these kind of fun Pride-themed product tweaks during the month of June, using its power and platform for good old-fashioned advocacy remains the best way that Silicon Valley can express its solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

That means signing onto legal briefs for queer issues that affect the tech community, contributing to organizations that have been quietly doing the hard work for years, crafting policies that include and enrich members of the queer community and making sure that LGBTQ employees are extended workplace protections and health insurance benefits that can help them not just live, but thrive.

25th June 2017

Square Enix, er, salutes DRM in Denuvo testimonial

Publishers generally keep their feelings about DRM mum, unless they saying they don’t like it, in which case they’ll tell you all about it. What they usually don’t do is say something like Square Enix has in a testimonial on the official site for Denuvo, the DRM that’s been giving crackers and hackers some trouble lately.

As noticed by Dark Side of Gaming, Square Enix had this to say. “Thanks to you for the incredible service your team provide – it’s great to partner with you! It’s thanks to you guys that people have to buy the game.” That’s kind of a .. spicy take! Two other game makers, id software and Crytek, also give Denuvo a thumbs-up but they’re a little more modulated in their praise.

Square Enix has Denuvo in Nier: Automata. This internet petition: not big fans of that. It points out all the reasons people don’t like Denuvo in their PC games. But Square Enix does, and that’s that, I guess.

The makers of Rime recently challenged pirates to break Denuvo, at which point they’d remove it from the game. They got it done in about three days.

25th June 2017

Houzz raises a huge $400M round at a $4B valuation

If you ask investors in Silicon Valley about Houzz — an app where you browse ridiculously nice homes and check out interesting interior design ideas — they’ll probably quietly mutter that they’re just growing their business. We really don’t hear about Houzz’s business that often.

Except now the company says it has raised $400 million led by Iconiq Capital, with Sequoia, Zeev Ventures and GGV also participating in the round. The new financing round values the startup at $4 billion, according to Bloomberg, making it one of the higher valued consumer startups — and based around house decorations, no less. The company has launched a localized version in 14 countries outside of the U.S., and the Houzz marketplace now has more than 9 million products from more than 20,000 sellers.

Houzz is still keeping at work on the product side. The company launched a basic augmented reality mode in May. With the upcoming release of ARkit for iOS, we may see that kind of feature evolve and become more robust in the coming months. But bringing those big-ticket items into a user’s home while they’re already in a mode for searching for home-related content could prove even more of a hook for the company.

I’m not a Houzz customer, but I can definitely say the app is a guilty pleasure. With its pleasantly curated photos with interesting designs and products, Houzz is basically a niche Pinterest for your future home. The difference is the kinds of products that Houzz can target and sell can be higher-value, meaning the people that actually buy products through Houzz are probably more valuable than the typical customer you might find on a larger platform like Facebook or Pinterest.

That means that Houzz occupies a niche, but it’s definitely a valuable niche. It’s one example of a company that’s able to try to slice off specific parts of a larger platform and try to execute really well on it, in the hopes that the user segment in of itself is a highly valuable business. Houzz, it would seem, has tapped into some kind of demand for that type of content — whether the users are just browsing it wistfully or actually purchasing home decor items through it.

The interesting thing here is that Houzz has managed to attract such a hefty valuation in the face of companies like Pinterest, which is worth more than $12 billion and has 175 million monthly active users — and also wants to own the discovery and inspiration parts of a consumer’s buying cycle. Pinterest with its size still probably has the best shot at trying to convince advertisers to tap into that, but Houzz’s big valuation may signal that there’s room for grabbing a customer’s attention for content in highly specific verticals.

Correction: This post previously said the company had expanded to 150 markets in six countries outside the U.S. last year. That growth was in the company’s Industry Solutions channel.

25th June 2017

The Uber and the frog

How the mighty are fallen. Travis Kalanick is out, and Uber has become something of a headless horseman, with no current CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, VP of Engineering, or general counsel. Its alleged valuation has fallen by $18 billion and counting. How did this happen? Or maybe a better question is: how could this not have happened?

It really wasn’t so long ago, believe it or not, that Uber was everybody’s darling except for regulators and taxi cartels — and, presumably, employees who were reluctant to risk the consequences of speaking up against its toxic culture. Which, as I understand, it was by no means uniformly distributed across the company, but which clearly started at the top. Bit by bit, that culture began to curdle and metastasize, from invisibly to visibly poisonous.

Uber had two problems: 1) it would do anything to succeed, without regard for either the law1 or basic ethics; 2) per Susan Fowler’s now famous blog post, it fomented and perpetuated a deeply pernicious, jawdroppingly sexist internal culture. It may seem like 2) is independent of 1). After all, one can at least envision a hyperaggressive company that does not demean and discriminate against women, right?

In this real world, though, I don’t think those were two separate problems at all. In the real world, when a company and its executive braintrust are gladiatorial and win-at-all-costs, they will construct an abusive and domineering internal culture, and in this real world such cultures essentially always target women.

Executives don’t construct such cultures because this helps them to win — it clearly doesn’t. Or even because they even necessarily consciously wanted to, and/or made a decision to do so. They do so purely because, like the tale of the scorpion and the frog, it’s their nature.

The trouble is, so much of the mythos of Silicon Valley is built on the legend of the hard-charging, brook-no-obstacles, take-no-prisoners, asshole-genius CEO. This is of course mostly the fault of Steve Jobs, who began his career by cheating his partner Steve Wozniak out of a bonus, and then went on become someone whose “way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody,” to quote none other than Jony Ive.

He was also, of course, a titanic, era-defining figure — but so many people, including far too many investors, seem to have looked at the Jobs “asshole titan” combination and concluded that becoming an asshole was a necessary prerequisite to becoming a titan. I put it to you that this is not just false, but that it is backwards; that Jobs become a titan despite being a giant asshole, rather than because of it.

Obviously CEOs have to be tough, have firm boundaries, and make hard, unpopular decisions. But there’s a huge gap between that and the kind of emotional sadism that Ive describes, or obtaining and mishandling the medical records of a rape victim, or fostering a work culture so awful that the widow of a new employee who committed suicide cites it as the cause, both of which apparently happened at Uber. It’s possible that there was a time when that kind of amoral assholedom was an advantage. But even if so, I think Uber now stands as proof that it is no longer acceptable, either culturally or practically.

So let’s hope that the fall of Uber’s CEO helps to signify the end of the era of the cult of the asshole CEO, and that the new standard is that companies should be founded and run by fundamentally decent people. Not because it’s the right thing to do (although it is.) But because employees, VCs, customers, consumers, and the wider world are, gradually but increasingly, simply no longer willing to accept the kind of culture for which Travis Kalanick was ultimately responsible.

1I’m willing to stipulate the nuance Uber was something of a special case in that they were working in a domain hidebound by the regulatory capture by the taxi cartels, and so, unusually, their disrespect for existing regulations which served mainly to protect parasitic rentiers was an advantage. Doesn’t change the larger point though.

25th June 2017

Wonder Woman is about to set a box office record

Let’s start with this: Wonder Woman is going to set a box office record after this weekend’s receipts are counted.

The record takes some explaining, but it’s going to do the most box office business, globally, of any live-action movie directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins). Estimates put Wonder Woman at $621.3 million since its premiere three weeks ago. The old record was held by Phillida Lloyd, who directed Mamma Mia!, which premiered in 2008.

That film, an adaptation of the 2001 Broadway musical by the same name, earned $609.8 million over a nearly four-month run. If you’re wondering why this has to be qualified as “live action,” that’s because 2013’s animated smash Frozen, directed by Jennifer Lee (and Chris Buck) did $1.27 billion worldwide, ninth place all time.

Just two DC Comics superhero flicks, 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, did $1 billion globally, neither making the top ten, so it seems unlikely that Wonder Woman could take the overall title, but who knows.

Kung Fu Panda 2, directed by Jennifer Yu Nelson, is the second-highest grossing film directed by a woman, making $665.7 million worldwide in 2011. That mark seems more in reach for Wonder Woman.

Warner Brothers and DC are probably happy to have a superhero movie doing this well, critically and commercially, regardless of who directed it. But it’s a nice feather in the cap for both the film and its maker.

25th June 2017

Grand Theft Auto modding tool gets updated, is available again

The modding toolkit at the center of a dispute between its creators and Take-Two Interactive, which roiled the Grand Theft Auto PC community over the past two weeks, has received an update and is being distributed. It’s another sign that Take-Two is backing away from a hard-line stance on modding.

OpenIV got a small update, notes PC Gameer. It’s now build 907 of version 2.9, implementing “bug fixes and small improvements.” By itself that isn’t much of a development, except that OpenIV’s makers had taken the toolkit offline on June 14, after receiving what they said was a cease-and-desist demand from Take-Two’s legal representatives on June 5.

Take-Two owns Rockstar Games, which makes Grand Theft Auto (and Max Payne 3, which OpenIV can also mod). Rockstar, on Friday, stepped in with a statement saying it “believes in reasonable fan creativity,” and supports creators who “showcase their passion for our games.” On Friday, the studio/publisher said it went to its corporate parent and secured an agreement that Take-Two wouldn’t take legal action against Rockstar-made PC games, provided they follow certain rules.

That came after a week in which furious PC gamers staged an online protest, one component of which was bombarding Grand Theft Auto 5‘s Steam marketplace listing with negative reviews.

OpenIV has been in use for nearly 10 years and is responsible for most of the modding seen for Grand Theft Auto 4 and Grand Theft Auto 5. The original cease-and-desist letter had alleged OpenIV allowed “third parties to defeat security features of (Take-Two’s) software and modify that software in violation (of) Take-Two’s rights.”

Modifying online multiplayer — which OpenIV’s developers insist they never did, nor enabled — is still against Rockstar and Take-Two’s policies.

24th June 2017

5 burning questions Blue Apron’s IPO is about to answer

Blue Apron will be going public in short order, kicking off the second big major consumer IPO of 2017. It’s nowhere near as big as Snap, but the company at the top end of its IPO pricing will be valued at around $3.2 billion as it looks to raise nearly $600 million.

The company’s IPO comes at an interesting time as we approach the midpoint for 2017, which has seen a big wave of IPOs since Snap went public at the beginning of the year. But since Snap went public, its stock has cratered. There have been a lot of successful enterprise tech IPOs — especially much smaller ones — but it’s not clear if the so-called IPO window will remain open in the back half of the year.

And of course there are big questions for Blue Apron now that Amazon made a big bid for Whole Foods. The company, which delivers ingredients for meals directly to consumers’ homes, is a very new kind of business that will be hitting the public markets. We’ll see how it performs soon, but in the mean time, here are some major questions that we’ll see some answers for when it makes its debut:

So let’s get this out of the way: Snap did cause a lot of trouble in its last earnings report. The company had a successful IPO “pop,” but since then the stock has cratered down to its IPO price. Despite that successful IPO — the first big consumer IPO of the year — there may be a lot of skepticism around consumer IPOs. While Blue Apron runs a complex web of logistics and data analysis, at the end of the day it’s also selling a consumer experience for users (cough millenials cough) that they might not otherwise get without access to good ingredients.

The Snap crash’s biggest effect is probably the shadow it has cast over advertising services that are alternatives to Facebook and Google. Those companies make up the majority of digital advertising budgets, meaning it’ll be a harder sell for Pinterest, Twitter and Snap that their ads are as effective (or more) or target a different kind of audience. Blue Apron isn’t an advertising service, but it’s still likely going to be caught up in the dragnet that Snap has dumped onto potential consumer IPOs.

This is the big elephant in the room. Amazon last week made a huge bid for Whole Foods, potentially giving it ownership of hundreds of stores across the country — that all have access to fresh ingredients and a good brand to go with that. This couldn’t have come at a worse time for Blue Apron, which is on its road show and trying to convince investors to pour cash into the startup as it goes public. While this story hasn’t exactly played out just yet, it’s not a stretch to think what Amazon could do with hundreds of nodes with fresh ingredients in areas that are Blue Apron’s sweet spot.

The company priced its IPO between $15 and $17 per share to raise as much as $587 million earlier this week. The hope for a pricing like this is it’ll produce a “pop” when the company finally hits trading. But with this announcement happening right as Blue Apron tries to woo Wall Street, the company may have to settle for a more conservative price. We’ll have to wait and see, as Wall Street may completely ignore the deal, but either way it has cast a shadow over the IPO.

As an addendum to that, Blue Apron will likely give us a read on the on-demand sector. This whole area has struggled, with a lot of food delivery startups shutting their doors. Instacart was able to raise $400 million at a $3.4 billion valuation earlier this year, but now has to untangle itself from a complicated relationship with Amazon — which may end up owning Whole Foods, and thus a slice of Instacart.

Blue Apron has shown that its deliveries are continuing to grow, but it also has to show that isn’t going to greatly slow down, which may come across as a signal that people are slowing their usage of on-demand delivery services. Blue Apron’s growth is naturally going to slow as it grows into a larger company, but if consumer spending drops off on-demand delivery services may be the first to feel a squeeze. While Instacart is private we won’t really get a good look into the demand for that consumer behavior, but Blue Apron may give us some early signals.

A majority of Blue Apron’s users are still in the 25-34 year-old range — in its IPO filing it said around 36%. While it still has a diverse audience, that presence among older potential customers with more buying power is going to be critical for the company as it goes forward. Blue Apron meals aren’t ridiculously expensive, but definitely aren’t cheap, so it needs to make sure it has a healthy customer base that can afford to buy it on a recurring basis.

As it ramps up its marketing spend it needs to grab customers that can return the value of that marketing spend and keep them. Getting a customer to come in and buy something from a promotion is a good entry point, but the real value is going to be buying the second, third and fourth meals. Blue Apron’s business is one that can capture a lot of lifetime value for a customer, but the acquisition cost — because of ticket price of the meal — can also be very expensive.

Snap was the first big (and initially successful) consumer IPO, and a ton of smaller enterprise startups like Okta and Yext followed suit. A big pop for Snap signals a lot of demand for fresh IPOs. That means that a lot of startups are going to try to get out the door and raise capital through an IPO, which also offers a liquidation event for investors and employees. A lot of these IPOs have been successful, but if Blue Apron’s is not it may mean that Wall Street is pulling back on that risk and looking for safer bets. There are also a variety of macroeconomic effects — like the Fed raising short-term interest rates  — that may affect the appetite for an IPO like Blue Apron. We’ll likely get a good read as to whether we’ll see a lot of these smaller enterprise companies racing to get out the door, as well as other potential big consumer IPOs, in the back half of the year.

24th June 2017

Coinbase is reimbursing losses caused by the Ethereum flash crash

Earlier this week, GDAX, the digital currency exchange run by Coinbase, experienced a flash crash in its USD – Ethereum market.

Within seconds the price of ETH crashed from ~$320 to as low as $0.10. While the price recovered quickly, the rapid price movement caused many traders to experience margin calls or stop loss orders, resulting in potentially severe losses.

While many initially thought the flash crash was the result of nefarious work, GDAX eventually confirmed that there was no indication of wrongdoing or account takeover.

Instead, the flash crash was the result of someone placing a multi-million-dollar sell order at market price, meaning ETH would change hands at whatever price bidders were currently offering until the entire order was filled – no matter how much lower the price was than the current price of ETH.

Filling this order caused ETH prices to instantly slip 30% to $224 – which in turn caused 800 stop loss orders and margin liquidations, which further drove the price down, to as low at $0.10.

Typically, someone placing a large sell order would liquidate their position over time to minimize the downward effect on price. Also, GDAX reminds users who are about to initiate large sell orders that it will cause slippage in the market, meaning this trader most likely didn’t care (or didn’t understand) that his trade would move the market.

For anyone not familiar with trading and exchanges, a stop loss order is an order to sell stock (or cryptocurrency) when the price drops to a certain level. It’s basically used as a way to cut your losses.

Additionally, a margin funding liquidation is when you borrow funds to go long and bet that an asset will rise in price, and if the price instead drops, your position may be automatically closed to reimburse the party that lent you the money to go long. Both of these types of trades require assets to be sold, which further drives down the price.

Originally GDAX said that they would be honoring all of these orders, since the trades were legitimate and in accordance with their trading rules.

However, yesterday they announced that the exchange will be using company funds to reimburse customers who suffered losses as the result of a margin call or stop loss order executed.

“We will establish a process to credit customer accounts which experienced a margin call or stop loss order executed on the GDAX ETH-USD order book as a direct result of the rapid price movement at 12.30pm PT on June 21, 2017. This process will allow affected customers to restore the value of their ETH-USD account to the equivalent value of their ETH-USD account at the moment prior to the rapid price movement.” – GDAX

Notably the won’t be reversing any trades, meaning if you were “lucky” enough to buy ETH at a low price during the flash crash, that trade will be honored.

This is more of a sign of goodwill than an admission of any wrongdoing. GDAX’s exchange performed just the way it was supposed to – and the same way a market like the NYSE would function if a proportionally large market sell order was placed.

If anything, this should be a reminder to traders how risky it can be to trade on margin, and that cryptocurrency markets can be just as unforgiving (and sometimes more) as other equity markets.

24th June 2017

42 percent of smart speaker owners have bought a second device (or more)

Here’s a promising metric for Amazon, in terms of its ability to maintain its current lead in the voice computing market: 42 percent of smart speaker owners have two or more devices, according to Edison Research. This figure is seemingly growing, too. Last year, there were about 1.18 Amazon Echo devices per Alexa household, but this new finding pushes the number to around 1.5 to 1.6 smart speaker devices per household.

Not exactly apples to apples, but Echo still dominates.

Amazon today has a solid lead in voice computing, despite new entrants on the market like Google Home and soon, Apple’s HomePod. A recent survey estimates that Amazon has sold more than 10 million Alexa-powered Echo devices since late 2014. Morgan Stanley believes that figure could be more than 11 million. Amazon is also forecasted to control 70 percent of the voice-controlled speaker market this year.

The new metrics were first published by Voicebot, citing figures shared by Edison Research at the RAIN conference on Wednesday. [Update: Edison says their statements were meant to refer to smart speaker devices, generally, not Echo specifically, as originally reported by Voicebot. We have corrected this. Apologies.]

These findings are important for several reasons.

For starters, it means that a large chunk of Amazon Echo owners are sold on the benefits of voice computing – after all, you wouldn’t buy a second device if you didn’t find any use for the first.

It also holds promise for Amazon’s newer Alexa-powered devices, like the fashion camera Echo Look and the first Echo device with a screen, the Echo Show. The latter is launching next week, and has already found a practical use case beyond displaying video, video calls, and other visual content on its 7-inch screen – it can display your smart home camera feeds as well, Amazon announced this week.

Amazon has been smart by investing in different types of devices.

The Look or Dot could live your bedroom, for example, while the Show makes sense in the family room or kitchen. With different feature sets and functionality – built-in cameras, a screen, etc. – Amazon can capitalize on the existing demand for more voice devices by offering ones that can perform new tricks.

It’s also tapping into consumer’s interest in using their voice-powered speakers outside the living room, which is where the Echo was originally intended to live. It did not stay put there, though. A study last fall found that 51 percent of Echo owners had the Echo in their kitchen. So what does Amazon launch next? A more kitchen-friendly device, of course – one that’s perfect for watching recipe videos, chatting with grandma, and keeping an eye on the kids playing outside – aka the Echo Show.

Edison’s new research report further delves into the habits of smart speaker device owners, largely confirming that the speakers aren’t just being bought, they’re being heavily used.

70 percent of smart speaker owners say they now listen to more audio at home, 65 percent said they wouldn’t want to go back to not having a speaker in the home, and 42 percent claim the device is “essential” to their everyday lives.

In addition, the report indicates these voice speakers aren’t just something adults are using, but are rather becoming devices for the whole families. 90 percent of parents with a smart speaker said their kids are enjoying them, and 8 in 10 said it has made it easier to entertain the kids. In fact, 57 percent said they even purchased a speaker for that very purpose. (I know I did.)

24th June 2017

Uber has seen a sharp drop in new driver retention this year: Apptopia

Uber has seen a sharp drop in retention rates for new drivers in the U.S., according to analysis of the Uber driver app provided to TechCrunch by app analytics firm Apptopia.

In an analysis of app downloads and usage, Apptopia estimates that 30-day user retention for the Uber driver app in the U.S. has dropped 47 percent from January through May.

This measure looks at the proportion of users opening the app each day after the initial day of download — continuing until the 30th day… the idea being to measure engagement meaningfully versus looking at app deletions (as lots of people just stop using an app versus actively deleting it).

Apptopia’s analysis also indicates a 20 percent bump in downloads of the driver app over the same period.

So — if the data crunching is correct — it appears that while Uber is successfully managing to drive initial interest from new drivers, it’s having serious trouble sustaining this interest.

From April, retention rates appear to fall especially dramatically.

Apptopia does not get any usage data direct from Uber but pulls data from a network of 250,000 apps to which it has developer account access. It then uses an algorithmic framework to generate estimates for individual apps, including by using public signals such as App Store reviews — and says its methods result in “strong trend data for major apps.”

For the two percentages it’s pulling here, it says it’s averaging its data from the Google Play Store and iOS App Store together — for, as it puts it, a “more holistic view” on interactions with the Uber driver app.

We asked Uber if it had any comment on the data, but at the time of writing it had not responded.

The company currently has no CEO in its own driving seat, after co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned following investor pressure applied in the wake of a report into its internal culture — triggered after a female former employee blogged about experiencing sexual harassment and sexism during her year at Uber.

It’s unclear whether new Uber drivers are sensitive to Uber’s internal turmoil. Perhaps more likely is general dissatisfaction with lower rates of pay from Uber pool rides and Uber’s lack of an in-app tipping feature (versus Lyft having in-app tipping) — tellingly, this week Uber finally said it will start allowing riders to tip drivers via the app.

Asked for his view on Apptopia’s data, Harry Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy told us: “Uber drivers for the most part have been very happy this week because of the tipping option and TK’s [Travis Kalanick’s] departure. We’ve known for a while that Uber has problems with high turnover and low satisfaction rates amongst drivers and a lot of drivers felt that TK was the root of many of their problems.”

Apptopia also looked at rider monthly usage for us, and on this said — perhaps surprisingly — that Uber hasn’t taken a hit due to #deleteuber — i.e. the social media campaign that sprung up aiming to convince Uber users to ditch the app as a result of the various ethical scandals being attached to it.

“It drove uninstalls but new downloads remained consistent so usage didn’t dip much,” said Apptopia of the #deleteuber movement. “Since February, monthly usage in the US (for riders) has actually increased around 60%.

“Engagement [aka the frequency of app opening per individual on average within a month] is down in the US, but really not by much.”

24th June 2017

Andrew Ng announces Deeplearning.ai, his new venture after leaving Baidu

Andrew Ng, the former chief scientist of Baidu, announced his next venture, Deeplearning.ai, with only a logo, a domain name and a footnote pointing to an August launch date. In an interesting twist, the Deeplearning.ai domain name appears to be registered to Baidu’s Sunnyvale AI research campus — the same office Ng would have worked out of as an employee.

It’s unclear whether Ng began his work on Deeplearning.ai while still an employee at Baidu. According to data pulled from the Wayback Machine, the domain was parked at Instra and picked up sometime between 2015 and 2017.

Registering that domain to Baidu accidentally would be an amateur mistake and registering it intentionally just leaves me with more unanswered questions. I’m left wondering about the relationship between Baidu and Deeplearning.ai — and its connection to Andrew Ng’s departure. Of course, it’s also possible that there was some sort of error that caused an untimely mistake.

UPDATE: Baidu provided us the following response.

“Baidu has no association with this project but we wish Andrew the best in his work.”

Ng left the company in late March of this year, promising to continue his work of bringing the benefits of AI to everyone. Baidu is known for having unique technical expertise in natural language processing and it’s recently been putting resources into self-driving cars and other specific deep learning applications.

It makes sense that Ng would take advantage of his name recognition to raise a large round to maximize his impact on the machine intelligence ecosystem. I can’t see a general name like Deeplearning.ai being used to sell a self-driving car company or a verticalized enterprise tool. It’s more likely that Ng is building an enabling technology that aims to become critical infrastructure to support the adoption of AI technologies.

While this could technically encompass specialized hardware chips for deep learning, I’m more inclined to bet that it is a software solution given Ng’s expertise. Google CEO Sundar Pichai made a splash back at I/O last month when he discussed AutoML — the company’s research work to automate the design process of neural networks. If I was going to come up with a name for a company that would build on, and ultimately commercialize, this technology, it would be Deeplearning.ai.

“This is super speculative, but I think it might be an AI tool to help generate AI training data sets or something else that will accelerate the development of AI models and products,” Malika Cantor, partner at AI investment firm Comet Labs told me. “I’m very excited about having more tools and platforms to support the AI ecosystem.”

Prior to his time at Baidu, Ng was instrumental in building out the Google Brain Team, one of the company’s core AI research groups. Ng is a highly respected researcher and evangelist in the AI space with connections spanning industries and geographic borders. If Ng truly believes that AI is the new electricity, he will surely try to position Deeplearning.ai to take advantage of the windfall.

We’ve reached out to both Baidu and Andrew Ng and will update this post if we receive additional information.

24th June 2017

Start summer with big savings on Steam, Sonic, and more of the best game deals

The big deal news this week is without a doubt the Steam Summer Sale that launched on Thursday, but there’s several other deals also worth checking out. Score discounts on hardware and accessories including gaming controllers and charging stations, and video game titles including the Hitman and Sonic the Hedgehog franchises.

Looking for tech deals? Check out The Verge’s roundup here.

Polygon Deals is a weekly roundup of the best deals on the internet, curated by Vox Media’s commerce editor, Chloe Reznikov, in collaboration with Polygon’s editorial team. You can submit deals to tips@polygon.com and find more Deals here.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics statement.

24th June 2017

Wallet-busting Galaxy Note 8 expected to launch in September

VentureBeat reported today that the upcoming Galaxy Note 8 will be Samsung’s most expensive model yet. The phone is expected to retail for €999 — which should put it somewhere around $900 — and will likely launch in late September. The information comes from someone briefed on Samsung’s plans.

As previous reports have noted, the Note 8 will have a dual camera setup on the back of the phone and come with 6BG of RAM. It will also, reportedly, come in black, blue and gold shades and have a 6.3-inch Infinity Display. Notably, the latest Note model will have a 3,300 mAh battery, which is a lower capacity than the Note 7’s 3,500 mAh version and probably a response to the Note 7’s disastrous penchant for exploding.

The issues surrounding the Note 7 didn’t seem to hurt Galaxy S8 sales earlier this year and if timed right, the Note 8’s release may come before the iPhone 8’s, giving it a slight sales advantage with impatient customers.