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Tesla to recall 14,000 Model S cars in China over faulty Takata airbags

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 08:36 PM PST

China’s top market regulator said on Friday that Tesla will recall a total of 14,123 imported Model S vehicles in the country over potentially deadly airbags.

The recall is part of an industry-wide crackdown on Takata-made front passenger airbags, which involves roughly 37 million vehicles including more mainstream brands such as Toyota and Ford, as noted by the United States Department of Transportation. These defective airbags use a propellant that might rupture the airbag and cause serious injuries, or even deaths.

Tesla has begun a worldwide recall of its sedans that use Takata airbags, the firm said on its Support blog. It noted that the airbags only become defective based on certain factors, such as age. The recall does not affect later Model S vehicles, Roadster, Model X, or its more affordable Model 3.

The China recall involves Model S cars manufactured between February 2014 to December 2016, shows a notice posted on the website of China’s State Administration for Market Regulation. TechCrunch has reached out to Tesla for comments and will update the article once more information is available.

The setback comes as Tesla is making a big push into the world’s largest auto market and tapping on Beijing’s effort to phase out fossil-fuel cars for China. The company recently reached an agreement with the Shanghai government to build its first Gigafactory outside the US, which will focus on making Model 3 cars for Chinese consumers. There is no target date for the factory to become fully operational yet.

Despite being an alluring market, China has been a major source of Tesla’s concerns over the past months due to escalating trade tensions and the rollback of government subsidies for green vehicles. Tesla responded by slashing its Model 3 price by 7.6 percent for China to neutralize heavy tariffs on imported cars.

The Palo Alto-based company previously recalled 8,898 Model S vehicles in China over corroding bolts, which it claimed at the time had not led to any accidents or injuries.

Coinstar machines will start selling Bitcoin at the grocery store

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 04:58 PM PST

You know those machines at the grocery store that transform your gallon jugs worth of change into more usable currency? They’re about to start selling Bitcoin .

To make this impulse shopping dream come true, Coinstar, the company behind those ubiquitous change-counting kiosks, has partnered with Coinme, a startup that operates a small network of cryptocurrency-dispensing ATMs around the country.

"Coinstar is always looking for new ways to offer value to our consumers when they visit our kiosks, and Coinme's innovative delivery mechanism along with Coinstar's flexible platform makes it possible for consumers to easily purchase Bitcoin with cash," Coinstar CEO Jim Gaherity said in the announcement, first reported by GeekWire.

With 20,000 machines around the world, Coinstar operates a pretty huge network that could be enabled to dispense digital currency. As the company’s announcement states, there are “thousands in the U.S. market that can be enabled to accept Bitcoin transactions” though we’d guess it won’t hit those numbers for a while.

Coinme has digital currency ATMs in 11 states, including multiple locations in Texas, Washington and California, among others. While it’s not initially clear exactly how many machines will become Bitcoin-ready, Coinme’s site also states that the partnership will result in “thousands of places to buy Bitcoin.”

The Coinstar Bitcoin locator tool wouldn’t point us to any local kiosks when we tried, but if you can track one down, buying Bitcoin from the updated machines sounds pretty easy. It’s worth noting that you’ll need cash for the exchange — you won’t be able to trade digital money or credit for cryptocurrency here.

After sticking your paper money into one of the machines, the newfangled kiosk will dispense a voucher for a Bitcoin redemption code that points you to Coinme. The limit is $2500 and you’ll need to link a phone number to the transaction, though it’s not clear if you can just make one up to get around that kind of questionable requirement.

After last year’s wild highs and painful if inevitable lows, cryptocurrency’s cool off period might be here a while — particularly if the stock market keeps everyone battening down the hatches. Given that, the kiosks would have been met with more interest during the most feverish moments of early 2018 when everyone was trying to navigate the sometimes complex process of buying their first cryptocurrency. Still, given Coinstar’s ubiquity, the Bitcoin kiosks might pique the interest of some shoppers who just cashed out thirty bucks worth of nickels.

Nike’s auto-laced future

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 02:57 PM PST

Why does the world need a self-lacing shoe?

Haven't you heard of Velcro?

How will you tie your shoes when the Wi-Fi is down?

That's the gist of the instant response I got when I mentioned the new Adapt BB, a shoe from Nike with, yes, powered laces that tighten to a wearer's foot automatically. The shoe is an evolution of the Nike HyperAdapt 1.0, which is itself a commercialization of the Air Mag — a self-lacing vanity project that realized the self-lacing shoes mocked up for Back to the Future II.

When I tweeted about the Adapt and its companion smartphone app that allows for remote control of each shoe's lace tightness, the immediate response was, in summary, "why?"

A sentiment followed up quickly with callouts to the Twitter account @internetofshit, which highlights devices that are unnecessarily burdened with wirelessly connected bloatware features. To be fair, this response is exactly the same one that Nike’s first self-lacing model received. But this time, the announcement also came right on the heels of CES, the natural home of needless electronic gadgets. People are so burned out by smart toilets that they were not ready to hear about shoes gaining a connected hardware component.

And, honestly, I get it. It's a hard sell to say that the solution to a laceless design is to add about half of the hardware that goes into your smartphone and the ability to talk to your shoes with your phone.

But the Adapt BB is really working on two levels, and to tease out whether there is a there there when it comes to connected shoes, you have to consider the context.

Laceless

For a while now, the Holy Grail of shoe design has been the hunt for a truly “laceless lockdown” shoe for basketball applications. Not just a lack of laces, but enhanced lockdown — a fit that borders on custom-molded, preventing a player's foot from moving around inside a shoe even in extreme cut or stop-short situations. Think cornering ability in a car coupled with adjustable seats — it doesn't matter how hard the car can turn if it throws you all around the cabin.

Nike's approach to this effectively uses a single cord and a motor to replace a traditional set of laces.

Nike rival Adidas is pursuing the goal in a different way, using interwoven textiles and self-tightening weaves in its N3XT L3V3L basketball shoe.

Regardless of approach, there are genuine, real benefits to trying to eliminate or evolve laces. The casual observer crapping on auto lacing may not realize that lacing and lockdown are actually an enormous problem for many pro players. The typical player has their shoes laced in the locker room and then leaves them laced that way the whole game unless they come off the court for some reason and have them adjusted. At times, they even have a coach take care of lacing for them, because it's impossible to get enough torsion on their own to achieve full lockdown in their game shoes.

Then, that level of tightness is kept for hours as they play the game, allowing for no relief even on the sidelines. Not the best for players that already have bone weakness, and, honestly, not good for anyone, as blood flow aids recovery and prevents injury.

Nike says it commissioned an independent university study on the effectiveness of the Adapt BB system on lockdown that showed a 40 percent improvement and has testimonials from a host of (admittedly Nike-solicited or sponsored) athletes who have had a chance to try them. They all say the same thing: These shoes really do help achieve better lockdown, and the convenience of being able to set one or many pre-set lacing tightnesses and then choose to engage or disengage at will is a real benefit.

We'll get into the long-term plans, but it's important to remember that the market for this first model of Adapt is professional and semi-pro athletes. Though many consumers will buy them, Nike's plans for casual shoes on the Adapt platform are down the road and these aren't it, chief.

Still, those long-term plans are what make the whole thing more exciting than, hey, here's a new pro tool for pros.

First, though, let's talk about the hardware.

Hardware

The core of the Adapt BB and the device that makes Nike's use of the much-maligned platform buzzword possible is a plastic rectangle that sits under the arch of the foot inside the shoes. Branded with the traditional swoosh, it contains a worm drive engine with back stop protection that coils the laces to the desired tightness then locks them mechanically to prevent slippage during play.

This, and the single wire that tracks through a maze of anchors over and up the foot falls under the umbrella of what Nike is calling FitAdapt tech. It's the auto-fit component of the smart shoe stuff that Adapt BB can do.

There is, of course, a battery as well and a coil to enable induction charging from the shoe's charging plate. And yes, a Bluetooth module to allow it to communicate with your phone.

The other stuff inside this box is fascinating, though, and is completely un-used at the shoe's launch. But let's dance around that for a minute.

The midsole is made of Nike's Cushlon foam, a denser foam that doesn't compress as much as some of its newer offerings like Zoom. This allows the module to sit under foot, recessed a few millimeters under the sole insert and invisible to a wearer's foot. The insole is also made of a new sockliner foam, which focuses on impact distribution, spreading any point impacts from the box in the midsole over the surface of the foot.

Simply put: you can't feel the motor.

Narissa Chang, Lead Mechanical Engineer and Jordan Rice, Senior Director of Smart Systems Engineering at Nike, explained that they conducted a massive amount of testing to make sure that the module continued to work in damp, high-impact conditions. The spec I was given was that the motor should easily outlast the shoe, so it shouldn’t be the point of failure.

The outsole is grippy, with great traction behavior and sharp cornering. I was able to wear test the shoe on two consecutive days and played a pickup game with other media folks on day two in them. The details of my performance will remain undisclosed, but the shoes performed admirably.

Here's how the system works. You slip your foot into the shoe. If you've already set up a lace tightness, a new magnetic system (no longer pressure-based like the first Adapt) senses your foot's presence and tightens them. That's it.

If it's your first run, you pair the shoes to the Adapt BB app, which will be on the App Store and Google Play Store. When you pair, you're linking your shoes directly to your Nike+ account, so there is no chance of anyone either connecting to or controlling your shoes. No log-in, no control via the app.

Once the app is paired you're able to choose a color to identify your shoes, which will appear in the LEDs that back the control buttons on the lateral side of the midsole, just aft of the mild outrigger.

The LEDs serve to ID your shoes and offer customizability but also to identify which of your lacing profiles are set. The app, in a feature that is launching in a couple of weeks, allows you to set up multiple tightness levels that you can switch between with a tap.

If, however, you want to use the shoes free of the app you can. If your foot is in the shoe you can single tap to jump to desired tightness or tap and hold a button to bump them back to “wide open.” You can also make micro adjustments by tapping the buttons. If your foot remains in the shoe it will eventually tighten back down due to the auto-lacing mechanic sensing your foot is still inside, but I'm hoping you can change that behavior for rest periods.

This means that if an athlete is on the court, they can adjust their shoes by button on the go.

This is one of those fundamental things that a lot of the Twitter Snark brigade was missing — this was essentially an impossibility for players up until this point. Precisely adjusting the lacing all the way up to full lockdown was something that typically required a coach to do. This isn't hurriedly re-lacing to finish out a period, it's getting the exact fit for right now on the court.

Players, for example, will tell you that after about a half hour on the court, their feet will swell, sometimes up to a half size. This changes their comfort level significantly. So they have a choice: either play with their shoes too loose for 30 minutes or tighten them enough to be painful by halftime. Not with an adjustable shoe.

The buttons, it should be noted, are pretty much mandatory in the NBA where phones are outlawed on the bench.

The shoe and tech, however, is approved for court play and Jason Tatum debuted them last night in the Celtics/Raptors game.

But outside of the immediate benefits for athletes, the hardware also telegraphs an interesting future for Nike's connected future. The other components of the lace engine include things that you're probably already carrying including a 3D gyroscope and accelerometers that measure multiple axes. This shoe can, if it chooses, determine things like gait, foot strike pressure, pace and even in-air motion of your feet.

Imagine, if you will, a coach that tells you you're putting a foot too far forward or back during a layup or launching too late, or leaning back too far. This is possible with the hardware Nike already has on board.

And it is telling that none of it is enabled up front. Though it can do all of these things, it's not doing them now. Nike feels that the solid benefit to pros of an adjustable lacing system that can achieve industry-standard-or-better lockdown is enough to launch this.

Everything else it can do is gravy and scene-setting for Nike's future plans. Though they are predictably pretty reluctant to state future plans, plenty of hints are dropped at more connected shoes, clothing that connects to them and devices like smart watches and headphones that can work in concert to give you feedback about how your body is performing.

"When we think of it as a platform, we started with fit," says Nike VP of Design Innovation, Eric Avar. "We quoted Bill Bowerman — he believed fit was the foundation of all of it. If you don’t have fit then other performance attributes of the product could be compromised."

One other core component that Avar notes could become a focus of Adapt is cushioning.

"You can imagine adaptive cushioning in the future, obviously. So when we say platform we're thinking holistically about the performance attributes of footwear and also starting to think about apparel.

Some brief notes that you might be wondering about:

  • Nike says battery life clocks in at between 10-14 days with multiple adjustments per day.
  • The shoe always reserves 5 percent battery to unlace the shoes to get you out.
  • Charging takes under three hours with the wireless charging mat to full.
  • There is currently no Apple Watch app, but Nike says they've been thinking about it.

Design and comfort

I was able to wear test the Adapt BB over two days in New York, including doing some warmup and playing a pickup game with media at the National Basketball Player's Association court. The comfort level, I'm pleased to say, is well within bounds for a performance shoe. I've worn easily north of 1,000 different pairs of sneakers in just the past couple of years and I would have no problem wearing these off the court as well as on. It's absolutely a 'pro fit', with a grippy, enclosed feel that facilitates cutting and cornering.

This shoe does not have the comfort level of a casual or lifestyle sneaker, by design, but Nike says it is bringing Adapt to those categories in 2019 as well. I'm happy to say that these shoes are just wearable, period, even for someone with a wide foot and high instep. The Adapt 1.0, by comparison, were heavy, stiff and rough to wear for feet outside the norm.

Aside from the Cushlon we mentioned and the crispy clear outsole, there are a few interesting design details worth mentioning. To me, the shoe is designed to evoke designs of Nike basketball past. The overall silhouette evokes the Kobe AD, which makes sense given Nike vice president and creative director of innovation Eric Avar's work with Kobe and his line of shoes.

I also notice a shiny heel segment that throws off hints of the Jordan 11's patent leather support band.

Avar also calls out the swoosh within a swoosh, saying that it's meant to evoke the human within the shoe, being enhanced by the Adapt system.

It's a good looking shoe. Intentionally designed to give off Nike basketball vibes, while still holding appeal for a set of early adopter enthusiasts that will likely wear them on and off the court.

Enabling technology

One of the most exciting ancillary effects of a self-lacing shoe is assistance that it can give people with fine motor skills or mobility issues. Having a shoe that can tie itself goes right from a first-world problem to a genuinely life-enhancing feature when you look at it through the lens of accessibility.

First up, no, I don't think that the entire Adapt project is some sort of accessibility Trojan horse and that they're doing all of this to let people who can't tie their shoes for reasons out of their control wear dope kicks. But it's absolutely bound to be a result of the platform, including its self-lacing feature, trickling down through the lifestyle and casual categories. Yes, this first pair is $350, but that's already down from $750 from the Adapt 1.0. That's quite the curve and it will continue to bottom out with scale.

I asked Chang and Rice specifically about whether accessibility was a part of their design and engineering conversation. They said that the Adapt 1.0 was just an experiment to see if they could commercialize this laceless design but that the moment it hit the public they got tons of feedback about how great this could be for accessibility. And the engineering team works directly next to the department inside Nike that works on athletes of all levels of ability and enablement.

So, while this is not the purpose of Adapt, I'm hoping that it will be an awesome effect of it succeeding. Provided it does, of course.

Pitfalls and potentialities

Performance benefits of a connected suite of Nike and Nike-compatible devices are, frankly, a safe bet. Nike is in the envied position of being an established purveyor of performance gear and sees a future in being able to offer some value here that will sell a lot of product.

But I think even this unrealized future of a connected performance suite is too narrow. I've written before about Apple's position in the market and the potential it has to turn its devices into biometric enablers of identity.

Imagine a shoe that automatically pays as you cross the boundary of a toll booth or bus door. A bike that locks unless your cleats are in it. A shirt that can have an opt-in chat with your health app of choice and give a real window into hydration.

Nike is billing the Adapt BB as the first shoe that's software upgradeable. Though there have been other electronically enabled shoes in the past, this is the first time that you could conceivably see one of these being able to get better before the natural course of time and wear makes them get worse. Pro athletes change their shoes sometimes as quick as one pair per game. The pro-am category though, could conceivably see a shoe they wear for a year or more gain features and abilities over time.

Seeing a shoe get the benefits of a piece of upgradeable software defines, I believe, is a major shift in the way that we think about clothing as a consumable and “degrade only” category. Buying a piece of clothing that gets better with time isn't new, obviously, as leather boots and other animal skin clothing tends to take some time to break in before it even fits right. But outside of animal products, it's rare — and a first, as far as I'm concerned, in performance wear.

The caveats abound, of course. There is a lot of ground between here and there, and Nike could stumble at many points on execution, scale or just plain convincing people that more devices that collect and utilize data are what people want or "need."

It's imperative that they tell the story carefully, following the strategy of providing solid, real-world benefits that feel not just as good but better than the analogue alternative. It's also mandatory that Nike takes its stewardship of user data seriously. It's a good sign that they mentioned responsible data use a lot during formal presentations and my informal chats across the design, digital and engineering teams.

Apple's philosophy toward data handling was mentioned — and it makes sense as Nike has a similar arrangement with customers. You may give them data but they're providing you a product for profit. It does not benefit them to misuse or misrepresent the way they might use future data that they read from your shoes or clothing. Examining incentives is important in a world where we're getting closer to a high-fidelity, portable, digital profile without having yet decided who owns that profile — us or the companies that gather data on it.

But you have to walk the walk. As Nike rolls out the Adapt platform, it will be important to keep an eye on whether they are good stewards of user data.

Culture

One advantage Nike could and should leverage in its pursuit of creating actually useful smart clothing is its conduit into culture. This conduit takes many shapes but includes sneakerheads, basketball fans, hip hop culture and art/fashion collaborators. There are dozens of examples of failed attempts to make wearable smart clothing cool, functional and adopted at scale. In most of those cases, however, the efforts have come from companies without the ability to connect culture and tech with a strong organic link.

The Culture, as an organism, has an incredibly strong BS detector. It doesn’t matter how good the tech is or how disruptive a company's business model — if it's trying to create a true shift in consumer behavior (that's exactly what  Nike is attempting) then it has to partner with culture. That can be via communities like the sneaker enthusiast early adopters or through institutions with rabid in-tune fan bases like the NBA or collaborators like fashion upstarts and artists who lend authenticity and a feeling of nowness to the product.

It's one of the cardinal blind spots that remains in Silicon Valley, which views culture through the lens of engineering rather than art or fashion. It's a huge reason why there are so many corpses of companies that have attempted this before. That and many of them did not have the advantage of a mature-to-the-point-of-saturation smartphone supply chain to take advantage of.

Positive and negative futures

Any time I write about passive connectivity I get a polarized response, not unlike the one people have had so far for the Adapt BB. It's either a sign that we're getting lazy, complacent or not paranoid enough, or it's an amazing feat that points toward utopia. Neither one is likely to be totally true, though I would argue that we need to look at these things in a way that attempts to engage, discuss and influence them toward the positive end of the spectrum.

If the past decade has taught us anything, it's that the future is going to happen, and if we don't have the belief that it can be good, backed up with active participation in making it happen, then we're doomed to more of the same.

In the near term, Nike has what it seems could be a lucrative opportunity to provide solid value for customers based on a portfolio of devices that enhance active lifestyles. In the long term, the company has a tougher but potentially much more impactful chance to outline a connected, wearable framework that rests on an honest relationship with customers and strong data stewardship.

There are only a handful of companies on earth that have the scale, execution ability and incentive structure to make this happen. Nike is one of them. This will be interesting.

Here’s how SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will look motoring in from sea

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 02:51 PM PST

If you’re coming back from space at high speeds, it’s generally safer to descend over water than land, for a number of reasons. Certainly SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will do so, and this is how it’ll look when it comes back to land aboard the GO Searcher retrieval ship. Expect a bit more of a hero’s welcome, though.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the GO Searcher; it got a bit of publicity late last year when it underwent some helicopter landing tests at sea.

See, the GO Searcher isn’t just a giant mitt like the boats that are intended to catch falling fairings; they not only have to collect a large, heavy capsule from the surface of the water but accommodate (and potentially administer medical aid to) anyone on board. So this is more of a mobile headquarters than a utility boat.

Dock lurkers at Port Canaveral in Florida (near the famous cape, naturally) spotted the ship returning from, presumably, some mock operations out at sea.

That does appear to be a Crew Dragon capsule (not likely an actual production capsule but a full-scale mock-up or prototype) on the back, so they probably were practicing snatching it up out of the water and setting it down softly in the boot there.

Coming back into port after practice will likely look a lot like this, though depending on the distance and mission it’s also more than possible that the safe astronauts, cosmonauts and other spacefarers will expedite their return by means of helicopter. The landing pad on the roof will be crucial if anyone is injured, of course (though there are medical facilities on board), but depending on where splashdown takes place — not to mention the weather — it might be preferable to take to the air rather than ride a slow boat to shore.

Whatever the case, you can certainly expect to see ships like this one arriving with great regularity soon. I’ve asked SpaceX for more details on this particular operation and whether it is related to the company’s upcoming Crew Dragon test flights.

Judge orders net neutrality lawsuit to go ahead despite shutdown

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 02:41 PM PST

This week the possibility emerged that the ongoing government shutdown could delay net neutrality’s day in court — but the court was not sympathetic to the FCC’s request that the lawsuit be put off. Oral arguments for this major challenge to the agency’s rollback of 2015’s internet regulations will go ahead as planned on February 1.

During a shutdown, federal employees — including government lawyers — must have specific authorization to continue working, since it’s illegal for them to do so without pay. In this case a judge on the case must effectively make that authorization.

The FCC is among the many agencies and organizations affected by the shutdown, and many employees are stuck at home. As such it requested a postponement of an upcoming court date at which it and several companies and advocacy groups are scheduled to argue over its rollback of net neutrality.

A counter-argument filed immediately by industry group INCOMPAS pointed out that during previous shutdowns, the court had not granted such requests and should stick to that precedent.

The judges of the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court appear to agree with the latter argument; the FCC’s motion was denied and arguments will go forward as planned on February 1.

This is definitely not good news for the FCC. While it no doubt has its ducks in a row as far as defending its net neutrality rollback and new rules in court (it has done so before and will again), it’s far from ideal that the case will take place after a prolonged absence of all the pertinent experts from their posts. Briefing the lawyers, updating arguments, responding to industry concerns — it’s not easy to do when all your staff is sitting at home watching “Bandersnatch” over and over.

The lawsuit against the FCC has lots of good points to make about the rules it has established and the process by which it approved those rules, so this is no mere formality or frivolous suit. And net neutrality champions are likely happy to hear that they may very well catch the agency flat-footed.

Tesla will end its buyer referral program for ‘adding too much cost’

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 02:09 PM PST

At the end of the month, Tesla will end a long-running referral program that offered incentives for existing Tesla owners to help drive sales. In its recent iterations, the referral system gifted new buyers who found their way to a Tesla through a friend with six months of free charging at Supercharger stations.

Most recently, the referring friend would become eligible for a set of characteristically outlandish prizes, from launching a chosen photo into deep space orbit to a VIP invite to one of the company’s flashy unveiling events, depending on how many qualifying referrals were made. Tesla’s oft-chatty chief executive characteristically announced the news in a tweet.

The referral program was a clever choice by a company with such intense loyalty, putting many Tesla acolytes to work by turning them into semi-compensated brand ambassadors. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t sustainable.

In follow-up tweets, Musk added more insight to the decision to end the program, noting that the whole thing was “adding too much cost to the cars, especially Model 3.” He further clarified that the program wasn’t being replaced by something new. Instead, “the whole referral incentive system will end.”

Tesla owners will have until the end of the month to hustle for existing incentives. Tesla orders must be placed before February 1 to be eligible. How hard can it be to talk your acquaintances into impulse-buying a high-end all-electric status symbol within a month’s time?

VC funding of cybersecurity companies hits record $5.3B in 2018

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 02:05 PM PST

2018 wasn’t all bad. It turned out to be a record year for venture capital firms investing in cybersecurity companies.

According to new data out by Strategic Cyber Ventures, a cybersecurity-focused investment firm with a portfolio of four cybersecurity companies, more than $5.3 billion was funneled into companies focused on protecting networks, systems and data across the world, despite fewer deals done during the year.

That’s up from 20 percent — $4.4 billion — from 2017, and up from close to double on 2016.

Part of the reason was several “mega” funding rounds, according to the company. Last year saw some of the big eight companies getting bigger, amassing a total of $1.3 billion in funding last year. That includes Tanium’s combined $375 million investment, Anchorfree’s $295 million and CrowdStrike’s $200 million.

According to the report, North America leads the rest of the world with $4 billion in VC funding, with Europe and Asia neck-and-neck at around $550 million each, but growing year-over-year.

In fact, according to the data, California — where many of the big companies have their headquarters — accounts for nearly half of all VC funding in cybersecurity in 2018. By comparison, only about $300 million went to the “government” region — including Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC, where many government-backed or focused companies are located.

“As DC residents, we have to think there is more the city could do to entice cybersecurity companies to establish their headquarters in the city,” the firm said. Virtru, an email encryption and data privacy firm, drove the only funding of cybersecurity investment in Washington, DC last year, they added.

“We've seen this trend in the broader tech ecosystem as well, with many, large international funds and investment outside of the U.S.,” the firm said. “Simply put, amazing and valuable technology companies are being created outside of the U.S.”

Looking ahead, Tanium and CrowdStrike are highly anticipated to IPO this year — so long as the markets hold stable.

“It’s still unclear what the public equity markets have in store in 2019,” the firm said. “A few weeks in and we’re already experiencing a government shutdown, trade wars with China, and expected slow down in global economic growth.”

“However, only time will tell what 2019 has in store,” the firm concluded.

Google remains the top open-source contributor to CNCF projects

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 02:04 PM PST

According to the latest data from Stackalytics, a project founded by Mirantis and hosted by the OpenStack Foundation that visualizes a company’s contribution to open-source projects, Google remains the dominant force in the CNCF open-source ecosystem. Indeed, according to this data, Google is responsible for almost 53 percent of all code commits to CNCF projects. Red Hat, the second biggest contributor, is far behind, with 7.4 percent.

The CNCF is the home of Kubernetes, the extremely popular container orchestration service that Google open sourced, so the fact that Google is the top contributor may not seem like a major surprise. But according to this data, Google would still be the top code contributor to all CNCF projects without even taking Kubernetes into account. In part, that’s due to the fact that Google is also the major contributor to GRPC, a queuing project the company donated to the CNCF, and Vitess, the database clustering system it developed for YouTube.

There are still quite a few projects where Google isn’t the main contributor; 64 percent of contributions to Jaeger come from Uber, for example, and 84 percent of LinkerD code commits are from Buoyant engineers. What’s interesting here is that the report found there is only one project where there isn’t a vendor who contributes more than 40 percent, and that’s the Prometheus monitoring solution that was contributed to the CNCF by SoundCloud but which is now mostly maintained by independent developers Red Hat.

You may read those stats and argue that Google may be a bit too dominant a player in the CNCF ecosystem. Google, of course, doesn’t think so.

"Google has a long history of contribution to and respect for, contribution to open-source software. We love to give back,” said Aparna Sinha, Group Product Manager for GKE and Kubernetes, Google Cloud. “One top of mind example is Kubernetes, one of the fastest growing projects in the history of open source, and today has a thriving community and widespread industry support. Google has been at the heart of it all, as a constant driving force in the community and the broader CNCF. A key part of that momentum has been driven by Google’s deep commitment to the project's success, whether it's through providing extensive engineering expertise, code contribution and compute resources, or through project management, testing and documentation. We're just as dedicated to the project as ever, and we're excited to see the broader Kubernetes community begin to shape the project's future and ensure its long-term success."

It’s worth noting that the CNCF also publishes its own data through its DevStats tool, which tells a similar story, even though it doesn’t quite highlight Google’s dominance as a contributor. When I asked Mirantis co-founder and CMO Boris Renski about these discrepancies, he noted that Stackalytics focuses on commits, whereas the CNCF’s tool looks at contributions, which includes reviews, comments and created issues, among other things. Stackalytics also doesn’t take the CNCF’s sandbox projects into account, where Red Hat contributes quite a bit. The two tools also handle attributions differently, with DevStats attributing all former contributions from CoreOS to Red Hat after it was acquired by the company.

On Twitter, Renski suggested that the different organizations should merge their different data sources to do away with these discrepancies, but I’m not sure how well the CNCF and the OpenStack Foundation really play together these days.

Netflix adds 8.8M paid subscribers globally, says it now accounts for 10 percent of US TV screen time

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 01:50 PM PST

Netflix just released its fourth quarter earnings report, which looks mixed compared to Wall Street expectations.

The company added 8.8 million subscribers, well above the 7.6 million that it had predicted at the beginning of the quarter. It also beat estimates for earnings per share — analysts had predicted EPS of 24 cents, but actual EPS came in at 30 cents. However, revenue was a bit lower than expected — $4.19 billion, compared to predictions of $4.21 billion.

As of 4:50pm Eastern, Netflix shares were down about 2 percent in after-hours trading.

The investor letter also includes viewership numbers for several popular titles, including “Bird Box,” which the company says will be viewed by more than 80 million households in its first four weeks (45 million accounts streamed the movie in its first week, setting a record for Netflix). It also says that “You” and “Sex Education” are on track to be viewed by more than 40 million households in their first four weeks on the service.

And these aren’t just people accidentally tuning in for a few seconds — Netflix says it only counts someone as a viewer if they watch at least 70 percent of a movie or an episode.

The letter emphasizes the popularity of these original shows and movies as a way of suggesting that Netflix isn’t reliant on outside studios for its content and continued success.

“As a result of our success with original content, we’re becoming less focused on 2nd run programming,” it says, noting that Netflix originals now account for the majority of unscripted viewing on the service. “We are ready to pay top-of-market prices for second run content when the studios, networks and producers are willing to sell, but we are also prepared to keep our members ecstatic with our incredible original content if others choose to retain their content for their own services.”

Later, the letter returns to the theme of growing competition in the streaming world, claiming that Netflix currently accounts for 100 million hours of viewing per day on U.S. TV screens — which it estimates to be 10 percent of the total. It also suggests that it’s going up against a “very broad set of competitors … We compete with (and lose to) ‘Fortnite’ more than HBO.”

“Our focus is not on Disney+ or Amazon, but on how we can improve our experience for our members,” the company says.

How Lyft envisions bringing VR and AR to your ride

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 01:05 PM PST

Lyft is exploring ways to integrate virtual reality and augmented reality into your Lyft rides, according to a couple of patent applications TechCrunch came across today.

The first, filed in July 2017, is for “providing a virtual reality transportation experience” that would respond to real-world forces and events that happen during your ride, like sudden stops, turns and bumps in the road. Over time, the VR system would be able to predict those bumps and turns in the road.

“For instance, the virtual reality transportation system accesses the historical information for each maneuver along the route and identifies previous inertial forces that transportation vehicles have experienced in the past for the same turns, merges, stops, etc,” the application states. “In some cases, the virtual reality transportation system determines (e.g., calculates) an average of each of the previous inertial forces for the maneuvers along the travel route to predict the inertial forces that the passenger will experience.”

From there, the VR system would generate a virtual experience with virtual interactions based on the real-world environment. Specifically, the VR system may include, “but are not necessarily limited to, virtual collisions with objects, virtual turns, virtual drops, etc.”  That sounds mildly horrifying, but it would definitely make for an unforgettable ride. Other ideas of virtual experiences feature a game with lasers and flying saucers.

During your ride, Lyft envisions passengers being able to share their VR experience with people in other cars, or those waiting for a pick-up.

This is likely possible in part thanks to Lyft’s acquisition of Blue Vision Labs, an augmented reality startup, last year. Blue Vision, for example, offers collaborative augmented reality to enable people to see the same spot in space.

Lyft’s other patent application, also filed in July, seeks to provide information to passengers using augmented reality. This one seems to be less about entertainment and more about practical information.

In one example, Lyft would generate virtual objects to overlay on a passenger’s real-world surroundings in order to help with the pick-up or drop-off process. Based on historical data, Lyft envisions identifying the ideal pickup location based on the passenger’s current location, traffic conditions and transportation restrictions.

TechCrunch has reached out to Lyft and will update this story if we hear back.

In defense of screen time

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 01:00 PM PST

The Silicon Valley engineers who design our tech gadgets won’t let their kids anywhere near those devices, according to a shocking New York Times profile. These workers are convinced too much time in front of smartphones and iPads is rotting kids’ brains. Technology “is wreaking havoc on our children,” warned one former Facebook employee.

These parents need to relax. It’s true that allowing kids to browse social media until the wee hours of the morning isn’t a good idea. But it’s also true that smart phones, iPads and other gadgets are powerful educational tools, both at home and in the classroom.

Rather than demonize and ban all devices, parents should regulate screen time and ensure their children use technology in beneficial ways.

Despite the parental panic in Silicon Valley and well-educated communities nationwide, research suggests that screen time can be a net positive for children. Kids whose parents drastically limit screen time ultimately perform worse in college, according to a Swiss study of American universities.

And thanks to their immediate feedback and multimedia features, iPads are great reading tools. Compared to kids who only use books, kids who learn to read on iPads are more engaged, cooperative and willing to speak up, according to a researcher from the Institute of Education in London. Kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds who read on both books and iPads at home are more likely to perform at or above grade level in school.

It’s not the screen itself that’s good or bad — but what’s on it.

These studies show that it’s not the screen itself that’s good or bad — but what’s on it. Watching two hours of Cartoon Network is much different than watching a National Geographic documentary. Parents simply need to create straightforward rules for their kids. Regulating non-educational screen time or having a social media curfew are both good options.

At school, educators can use tech gadgets and apps to speed up the learning process while tailoring their lessons to support each student.

Consider DreamBox, a platform that allows elementary and middle schoolers to play different math games on their iPads. The tech tool mines more than 48,000 data points per student every hour to personalize lessons for individual users. Algebra Nation, a similar program, studies click-patterns to figure out when students are struggling and offer personalized advice.

Such “adaptive learning” platforms are already yielding impressive results in higher education. An adaptive learning tool at the Colorado Technical University increased a course’s pass rate by 27 percent and its final grade average by 10 percent.

Classroom tech also gives teachers a superhuman capacity to pinpoint and predict problems. For example, a school in Spokane, Wash. gives its students online surveys to track how focused they feel, how inclusive their social environment is and how often they feel like giving up, among other things. Educators then study this data via dashboards to understand where kids might need help, both inside and outside the classroom.

A decade ago, it would have been unrealistic to expect school faculty to track the day-to-day thoughts, feelings and engagement of each and every student — despite this being invaluable information for educators. With classroom tech, such practices can and should become standard.

No reasonable person thinks it’s good for kids to be glued to their screens 24/7 or to replace human interaction with an app. But the notion that screen time is intrinsically harmful for children is equally silly. It’s time for teachers and parents to stop the fear mongering and harness the latest technology to offer kids a world-class education.

Walmart adds four grocery delivery partners

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 12:14 PM PST

Walmart has partnered with Point Pickup, Skipcart, AxleHire and Roadie to expand its grocery delivery program across four states. Walmart’s grocery delivery is currently available in more than 800 stores, and plans to be in 800 more this year.

To use Walmart’s delivery program, customers go online, place an order and then select a delivery window. From there, Walmart’s personal shoppers select your items and then pass them off to a Walmart delivery partner.

Customers likely won’t notice, or care, which delivery partner shows up to the door with their groceries. All that matters, and all that Walmart is trying to do, is get you your food in a timely manner, wherever you are.

“Customers love our Grocery Delivery service,” Walmart SVP of Digital Operations Tom Ward said in a press release. “As they are busy managing jobs, soccer practice, dance lessons and social schedules we are on a mission to do more than keep a little extra money in their pockets. With the help of these new delivery partners, we're making grocery shopping even easier by bringing the everyday low prices of Walmart right to the front door of customers.”

Other Walmart grocery delivery partners include Postmates, Deliv, DoorDash and others.

A look at Birdies, the popular slipper shoe startup that just raised $8 million more from investors

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 12:13 PM PST

Bianca Gates is a first-generation American, her parents having immigrated to the U.S. from Latin America. As such, she says, after graduating from UC Irvine, she was expected to get a safe job with a 401(k) plan and to live with her parents until she was married.

Things haven’t gone exactly that way, but one can imagine Gates’s parents feeling pretty satisfied with their daughter’s trajectory nevertheless. The reason: Gates and Marisa Sharkey are the co-founders of Birdies, a four-year-old, San Francisco-based footwear brand that has made it chic to step out in shoes that look like elegant slippers, and which just raised $8 million in Series A funding led by Norwest Venture Partners, with participation from Slow Ventures and earlier investor Forerunner Ventures.

Sure, another e-commerce brand, why should you care? Actually, if haven’t seen the shoes out in the wild, there’s a high likelihood that will change soon, including because one of the company’s biggest advocates to date has been Meghan Markle, the actress-turned-Duchess of Sussex, whose fashion choices are copiously detailed by entertainment sites around the world, copied by their readers, then picked up by readers’ friends.

Interestingly, Markle was never meant to step outside in the slippers. But let’s back up a bit first, to Gates’s earlier career, a familiar story that underscores the value of grit — as well as the importance of making the right connections.

As Gates tells it from Birdie’s offices on Union Street, a kind of yuppie haven in San Francisco, “My family was living in Santa Ana and I was commuting every day to Irvine and I just wanted to spread my wings and move to a big city with a lot of diversity after graduating.” Thanks partly to her fluency in Spanish, she landed a job with the broadcast giant Univision as an account executive. After more than three years, and “realizing I didn’t want to be typecast as an Hispanic person working for Hispanic TV,” she left for Viacom, where Gates fell for a colleague.

He landed soon after at Stanford Business School, and after plenty of cross-country flights, the two married and moved to San Francisco to start their family, with Gates opening up an office for Viacom’s MTV in the process. But she was soon feeling antsy again. “It was really convenient for me, but I [felt] after having my first child and working out of a satellite office that I was out of the action. I wanted to be closer to people.”

As it happens, she caught a 2011 commencement speech that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivered to Barnard College students and decided to apply to Facebook. Six months of interviews later, she landed a job leading retail partnerships, where she helped sales organizations understand what was then a new platform to them.

She also made powerful friends, including Priti Youssef Choksi, a Facebook colleague who was striking corporate and business development deals and whom Gates befriended over a series of events at the home of Sandberg, who quietly hosted employees she identified as eager to do more with their careers. “You didn’t photograph yourself there or talk about [the dinners], but it helped Priti and I form a deeper friendship,” recalls Gates.

The friendship — and Sandberg’s support — would eventually help get Birdies off the ground.

So did Gates’s obsession with finding post-work, pre-slipper-type shoes, which she says dates back a decade. “I just found that more and more, I was being asked to take off my shoes in friends’ homes and I was asking people to do the same. I thought that stylish shoes for indoors made a lot of sense,” but she wasn’t sure if there was a void in the market, or if she just imagined one.

She decided to pursue the idea while recognizing that she couldn’t do it alone. She still had that big job at Facebook that she loved. She also had two young kids at home at this point. So Gates texted her friend, Marisa Sharkey, a former Ross Stores executive who’d moved from Manhattan to Sacramento with her own family and was feeling restless. “I texted her and said, ‘I have this crazy idea; I’ll call you tomorrow.’ Marisa texted back immediately and said, ‘Tell me what it is.'” Within no time at all, Sharkey was fully committed, putting $50,000 into the venture, alongside Gates, who also put $50,000 into the venture.

What did they get for their money? Shoes that today give them both “PTSD,” jokes Gates, but that became the starting point of Birdies.

It wasn’t so easy, but some key connections made the difference, one of which surfaced through good-old-fashioned outreach. “We became so obsessed with our idea that we asked everyone we talked with whether they could help. Through degrees of separation, we were connected to someone who’d just retired from the footwear business in L.A and knew some factories in China and agreed to help introduce us to them.”

It was a game changer, even if what the factories were left working with wasn’t exactly pretty. Think shoes torn apart, their innards — including their memory foam inserts — reassembled on construction paper.

“The shoe industry is very small and it’s really hard to get into a factory unless you know someone,” says Gates. “It isn’t like making apparel, where you can go to a factory in South San Francisco and make 24 dresses and see how it goes. With footwear, you can’t try in small doses.”

It was one of many learnings yet to come, including the realization they had nowhere to store the 1,800 pairs of shoes they’d had to order — and which arrived sooner than expected outside of Sharkey’s home. (They wound up housed in her garage.)

Gates also began worrying about losing her full-time job, eventually writing Sandberg to explain that she was responsible for a garage piled high with slipper shoes that she hoped to sell — then fretting about what the return email would say. As it happens, Sandberg “couldn’t have been more supportive. I even forwarded her note to my manager, saying, look, Sheryl is cool with this,” says Gates, laughing.

Fast-forward several years and Birdies is now a legitimate, if surprisingly small, operation, one with just six employees but a big and fast-growing base of customers.

Its very first customer, Gate’s Facebook friend, Choksi, wound up being an important champion. Choksi left Facebook last year to become a venture capitalist. And as a partner with Norwest Venture Partners, she just led the firm into Birdie’s competitive Series A round, a development about which she sounds excited. “Even that first pair — they didn’t look like the random shoes I was putting on with what I was wearing at home,” recalls Choksi. “I could also get the mail and do quick errands.”

She still has them, she says. “They’re fairly worn out, but I keep them to taunt Bianca.”

Meanwhile, Meghan Markle helped put the company on the map. A short lifestyle piece about Birdies in the SF Chronicle got the ball rolling. “We started to gain traction,” and with that came the nascent attention of fashion editors and celebrity stylists, says Gates. But the company still had very limited resources. It had to choose one celebrity on which to focus and it zeroed in on Markle, then an actor starring in a show called “Suits.”

“We just loved her casual elegance,” says Gates of Markle, whose courtship with Prince Harry was on no one’s radar at the time. “We loved that she often wore simple button-downs and jeans and casual loafers. We also liked that she was this humanitarian.” Birdies sent Markle a complimentary pair of shoes, and to its great delight, Markle took to them. In fact, she began wearing them all the time and tagging them on Instagram, too.

There was just one problem. Markle was wearing them everywhere other than indoors. “It was this amazing, frustrating moment for the brand, because they were made for entertaining in the home.” They might have stewed longer, but a quick call with Bonobos founder Andy Dunn — who’d attended Stanford with Gates’s husband — soon set Gates and Sharkey straight. “He basically said, ‘You just fell into a much bigger opportunity.'”

A thicker rubber sole followed, and the rest is history in the making. Not that it’s all been a walk in the park. The company has at times had waitlists of up to 30,000 people — an enviable but very real problem it hopes its new round of funding will help solve.

As happens with many new brands, it’s also wrestling with price points, offering several limited-edition shoes in partnership with designer Ken Fulk last fall that “brought in a whole new customer” but were also priced at $165, roughly 30 percent more than most of its slippers, says Gates. (Birdies more recently introduced a “resort” slipper that’s priced at $95, and Gates says the company hopes to introduce other, more affordable designs down the line.)

There’s also the challenge of figuring out which new markets to chase while simultaneously hiring, fast. Choksi and Norwest, which has reach into many consumer brands, is helping on the latter front. Meanwhile, Gates says to expect more in the way of bridesmaids’ slippers, as well as other new designs coming this spring and summer.

Like another e-commerce footwear startup that’s taking off  — Rothy’s — which has filed a patent infringement suit against a rival, Birdies also seems poised to see more copycat designs.

Asked about this, Gates doesn’t seem terribly concerned, not yet. “We’ve had friends tell us that Target is offering a similar slipper at a different price point. Everybody copies everybody,” she says. “It’s our job to create a brand beyond the silhouette of a slipper, because that can be knocked off, it’s not defensible. What is defensible is why [a customer] is buying Birdies, and why she is telling her friends to shop us. It’s our job to give her more than a product, to lift her up.”

Birdies has now raised roughly $10 million altogether, including $2 million in seed funding led by Forerunner in the fall of 2017.

Above, left to right, co-founders Bianca Gates and Marisa Sharkey. Photo courtesy of Birdies.

Redpoint Ventures is raising another $400M to invest in Chinese companies

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 11:55 AM PST

Redpoint Ventures is doubling down on China. The firm, headquartered in Menlo Park, has filed documents with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to raise $400 million across two new China-focused funds.

The firm has set a $300 million target for its second flagship China fund, a significant increase from the $180 million it garnered for its debut China fund in 2016. Redpoint is also raising a $100 million opportunity fund that will also focus on the Chinese tech startup market.

Redpoint launched its dedicated China fund, led by managing director David Yuan and partners Tony Wu and Reggie Zhang, in 2016. Wu isn’t listed on the latest filings and may have taken a step back from the China team. We’ve reached out to Redpoint for additional details.

Investing at the seed, early- and growth-stages, Redpoint’s portfolio includes Stripe, Snowflake and Brandless. Its China fund has deployed capital to Yixia, a video blogging platform valued at more than $3 billion; Renrenche.com, an online marketplace for used cars; and iDreamSky, a Chinese game distributor that recently debuted on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Following a banner year for venture capital fundraising wherein firms brought in $55.5 billion across 256 vehicles, per PitchBook, VCs are already off to a strong start in 2019. This week, Resolute Ventures, an early-stage firm based in San Francisco and Boston, closed its fourth fund on $75 million, and Silicon Valley-based BlueRun Ventures nabbed $130 million for its sixth flagship fund. Earlier this month, Lightspeed Venture Partners announced $560 million in capital commitments for its fourth China fund.

Amazon shareholders want the company to stop selling facial recognition to law enforcement

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 11:40 AM PST

Amazon shareholders are demanding the company stop selling Rekognition, the company’s facial recognition software, to law enforcement. Unless the board of directors determines the technology “does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights,” shareholders want Amazon to stop selling the software to government agencies.

Rekognition, which is part of Amazon Web Services, has the ability to conduct image and video analyses of faces. The technology can identify and track people, as well as their emotions. Amazon has reportedly sold Rekognition to law enforcement agencies in at least two states. Amazon has also reportedly pitched this software to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Last May, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California shed some light on Rekognition, saying it had obtained documents that raise “profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns.” In one test, the ACLU found Rekognition wrongly identified 28 members of Congress, disproportionately confusing Congress members of color as criminals.

This resolution, organized by nonprofit organization Open MIC, represents a group of shareholders that represent a total of $1.32 billion in assets under management.

"It's a familiar pattern: a leading tech company marketing what is hailed as breakthrough technology without understanding or assessing the many real and potential harms of that product,” Open MIC Executive Director Michael Connor wrote in a blog post. “Sales of Rekognition to government represent considerable risk for the company and investors. That's why it's imperative those sales be halted immediately.”

Shareholders intend for this resolution to be voted on in Amazon’s annual meeting this spring.

Amazon declined to comment for this story.

‘Star Wars’ returns: Trump calls for space-based missile defense

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 11:38 AM PST

The President has announced that the Defense Department will pursue a space-based missile defense system reminiscent of the one proposed by Reagan in 1983. As with Reagan’s ultimately abortive effort, the technology doesn’t actually exist yet and may not for years to come — but it certainly holds more promise now than 30 years ago.

In a speech at the Pentagon reported by the Associated Press, Trump explained that a new missile defense system would “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place.”

“My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer. It's new technology. It's ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense, and obviously our offense,” he said. The nature of this “new technology” is not entirely clear, as none was named or ordered to be tested or deployed.

Lest anyone think that this is merely one of the President’s flights of fancy, he is in fact simply voicing the conclusions of the Defense Department’s 2019 Missile Defense Review, a major report that examines the state of the missile threat against the U.S. and what countermeasures might be taken.

It reads in part:

As rogue state missile arsenals develop, space will play a particularly important role in support of missile defense.

Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic missile capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge existing defensive systems.

The exploitation of space provides a missile defense posture that is more effective, resilient and adaptable to known and unanticipated threats… DoD will undertake a new and near-term examination of the concepts and technology for space-based defenses to assess the technological and operational potential of space-basing in the evolving security environment.

The President’s contribution seems to largely have been to eliminate the mention of the nation-states directly referenced (and independently assessed at length) in the report, and to suggest the technology is ready to deploy. In fact all the Pentagon is ready to do is begin research into the feasibility of the such a system or systems.

No doubt space-based sensors are well on their way; we already have near-constant imaging of the globe (companies like Planet have made it their mission), and the number and capabilities of such satellites are only increasing.

Space-based tech has evolved considerably over the many years since the much-derided “Star Wars” proposals, but some of them are still as unrealistic as they were then. However as the Pentagon report points out, the only way to know for sure is to conduct a serious study of the possibilities, and that’s what this plan calls for. All the same it may be best for Trump not to repeat Reagan’s mistake of making promises he can’t keep.

Dolby quietly preps augmented audio recorder app “234″

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 11:37 AM PST

Dolby is secretly building a mobile music production app it hopes will seduce SoundCloud rappers and other musicians. Codenamed “234” and formerly tested under the name Dolby Live, the free app measures background noise before you record and then nullifies it. Users can also buy “packs” of audio effects to augment their sounds with EQs settings like “Amped, Bright, Lyric, Thump, Deep, or Natural”. Recordings can then be exported, shared to Dolby’s own audio social network, or uploaded directly to SoundCloud through a built-in integration.

You could call it VSCO or Instagram for SoundCloud.

234 is Dolby Labs’ first big entrance into the world of social apps that could give it more face time with consumers than its core business of integrating audio technology into devices by other manufacturers. Using 234 to convince musicians that Dolby is an expert at audio quality could get them buying more of those speakers and headphones. And by selling audio effect packs, the app could earn the company money directly while making the world of mobile music sound better.

Dolby has been covertly testing Dolby Live/234 since at least June. A source tipped us off to the app and while the company hasn’t formally announced it, there is a website for signing up to test Dolby 234. Dolby PR refused to comment on the forthcoming app. But 234’s sign-up site advertises it saying “How can music recorded on a phone sound so good? Dolby 234 automatically cleans up the sound, gives it tone and space, and finds the ideal loudness. it’s like having your own producer in your phone.”

Those with access to the Dolby 234 app can quickly record audio or audio/video clips with optional background noise cancelling. Free sound editing tools including trimming, loudness boost, and bass and treble controls. Users can get a seven-day free trial of the Dolby’s “Essentials” pack of EQ presets like ‘Bright’ before having to pay, though the pack was free in the beta version so we’re not sure how much it will cost. The “Tracks” tab lets you edit or share any of the clips you’ve recorded.

Overall, the app is polished and intuitive with a lively feel thanks to the Instagram logo-style purple/orange gradient color scheme. The audio effects have a powerful impact on the sound without being gimmicky or overbearing. There’s plenty of room for additional features, though, like multi-tracking, a metronome, or built-in drum beats.

For musicians posting mobile clips to Instagram or other social apps, 234 could make them sound way better without much work. There’s also a huge opportunity for Dolby to court podcasters and other non-music audio creators. I’d love a way to turn effects on and off mid-recording so I could add the feeling of an intimate whisper or echoey ampitheater to emphasize certain words or phrases.

Given how different 234 is from Dolby’s traditional back-end sound processing technologies, it’s done a solid job with design and the app could still get more bells and whistles before an official launch. It’s a creative move for the brand and one that recognizes the seismic shifts facing audio production and distribution. As always-in earbuds like Apple’s AirPods and voice interfaces like Alexa proliferate, short-form audio content will become more accessible and popular. Dolby could spare the world from having to suffer through amazing creators muffled by crappy recordings.

NPR turns comedy game show ‘Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me!’ into an Alexa and Google voice app

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 11:26 AM PST

NPR is turning its popular game show program “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” into a voice application for smart speakers, including both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant-powered devices. The new app lets listeners play along at home by answering the fill-in-the-blank questions from this week’s news — just like the players do on the NPR podcast and radio show, which airs on more than 720 NPR member stations.

Also like the NPR program, the new smart speaker game includes the voice talent of the comedy quiz show’s hosts, Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis.

To get started, you just say either “Alexa, open Wait Wait Quiz” or “Hey Google, talk to the Wait Wait Quiz,” depending on your device.

After hearing the question, you can then speak — or shout — your answer at your smart speaker to find out if you got it right.

The game is five minutes long and updated every week, NPR says.

In addition to bragging rights around your home if you win, game players get to compete for an offbeat prize — the chance to have the show’s talent personalize their voicemail, as well as hear their name announced on the air.

The new game was developed in collaboration with VaynerMedia’s internet-of-things-division, VaynerSmart, NPR notes.

It’s not NPR’s first foray into the smart speaker market, but it is its first game.

To date, NPR’s other voice apps have included news briefings, like Up First, News Now and Story of the Day (plus its variations like World Story of the Day; Business Story of the Day). NPR also offers a live radio app and its NPR One app, as well as dedicated apps for its Planet Money program.

NPR’s continual expansion into smart speakers has to do with the growing popularity of these devices. Its own Smart Audio Report says that 53 million people (or 21 percent of the adult population) now own one of these devices, and it wants its content there to reach them.

Facebook says it will ask employees to take down glowing Portal reviews on Amazon

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 11:10 AM PST

The reception to Facebook Portal has been, at best, a mixed bag. Between the company’s ongoing privacy woes and a lackluster response, Facebook likely didn’t get the response it was anticipating for its first in-house hardware creation. Still, both the Portal and Portal Plus are floating around the four-star mark over on Amazon. Not too shabby.

New York Times columnist Kevin Roose noticed something fishy in all of this, noting on Twitter that many of the verified reviewers on the site bore the same names as Facebook employees. “Reviewing your employer’s products is definitely against Amazon’s rules,” he wrote today. “It’s also not exactly an indicator of confidence in how well they’re selling organically!”

Facebook’s AR/VR VP Andrew Bosworth was quick to respond, tweeting, “[N]either coordinated nor directed from the company. From an internal post at the launch: ‘We, unequivocally, DO NOT want Facebook employees to engage in leaving reviews for the products that we sell to Amazon.’ We will ask them to take down.”

This is just the latest controversy in the product’s short life. At launch, Bosworth felt it necessary to clarify concerns about whether Facebook was using the product to listen to calls and collect data. And while apparently not a calculated effort on Facebook’s part, it does leave one wondering about internal fallout surrounding the product’s negative response.

Slack’s product chief is out ahead of direct listing

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 10:45 AM PST

Slack is losing its chief product officer, April Underwood, ahead of a direct listing expected in 2019. Tamar Yehoshua, a long-time Google vice president, has been tapped to fill Underwood’s shoes as Slack’s new product chief.

Underwood joined Slack, the provider of workplace communication tools, in 2015 as its head of platform after a five-year stint as Twitter’s director of product. She was promoted to the chief product role about 10 months ago. Underwood is also a founding partner of #Angels, an investment collective that pushes to get more women on startup cap tables.

In a Medium post announcing her departure from Slack, Underwood said she planned to focus on investing full time.

“One common story you hear when you talk to founders is that their idea ran as a background process for many years until it moved into the foreground and became a calling too loud to ignore,” Underwood wrote. “And now, I can truly empathize with founders — because that's happened for me. Investing, which started as a side hustle for me and my #Angels partners, has emerged as the pursuit too inspiring and energizing to be relegated to my spare time.”

During her tenure, Underwood had a hand in crafting Slack’s investment fund — a pool of capital supported by Accel, Index Ventures, KPCB, Social Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and Spark Capital that has invested in 49 projects building on top of Slack to date.

Slack, led by founder and chief executive officer Stewart Butterfield, is said to be preparing for a direct listing, meaning it will go public without listing any new shares, with no lockup period and no intermediary bankers. Valued at roughly $7 billion, Slack has raised more than $1 billion to date from GV, IVP, T. Rowe Price, SoftBank, Kleiner Perkins, Accel and others.