HTTP://zicutake.usacomment.com *Illegal content? / send an email zicutake@live.com with link to withdrawal from the post!
USAComment.com
ZicutaKE | Search Articles




Saturday, January 12, 2019

#Tech

#Tech


Mental well-being took center stage at CES 2019

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 06:17 PM PST

This week, the Las Vegas Convention Center was packed with many of the year's biggest new devices. But over the last several years, The Sands has become the place where the real magic happens. The segment of the show known as Eureka Park is where the startups and accelerators congregate, often times showing off products that are still years away.

A quick walk around the floor (insofar as someone can walk quickly with that much humanity slowly shuffling through the halls) sheds a lot of light on the industry's biggest trends. Plenty are holdovers from previous years — smart home and wearables continue to dominate —  but others offer insight into where the next several years of technology may be going.

One key trend that absolutely exploded this past year is mental well-being. Between the sleep, relaxation, concentration and meditation products on display, you couldn't walk five feet without encountering another pitch. The list includes some familiar faces (to us, at least) like the Muse meditation and sleep headsets and a whole slew of new entrants.

The trajectory tracks if you consider many of these products a kind of extension of the fitness trackers that were all the rage a few years back. First startups pushed to keep our bodies in shape, moving on to sleep tracking and, eventually, our minds. The accessibility of sensors that can track things like basic brain activity have helped push the concept along.

It's a worthy cause, of course. The proliferation of many technologies has done some pretty rough stuff to our bodies and brains over the years. Wouldn't it be great if tech could also turn that around.

In many cases, the use is clear. Decades of scientific studies have demonstrated the value simply sitting quietly during meditation practice can have on your stress levels and mental health. If a product can help you get into a routine, great. But there's an even larger opportunity for snake oil salespeople than we saw on the fitness side.

Certainly the FDA has a role to play, ensuring that companies can't make untested medical claims for their products, but much of the burden here will ultimately be placed on journalist and consumer alike. When it comes to this category, the placebo effect is very real.

Anker’s PowerPort Atom is my permanent new travel companion

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 04:55 PM PST

I had to fight a couple of coworkers for this thing. It's a strange thing to fight over, I realize, but we are strange people with a strange job. And more importantly, I won. I'm plugged into the PowerPort Atom as I write this. It's keeping my 13-inch MacBook Pro alive via the plane power outlet tightly squeezed behind my legs.

I travel a lot, and I try to travel light. Determining what goes into and what stays out of my carryon feels a bit like stocking delivery rockets for the International Space Station sometimes. But I feel pretty confident in saying that this tiny little plug just scored a permanent spot. Well, until the PowerPort Quark comes along, I guess.

One of the beauties of Apple's switch to Thunderbolt 3/USB-C is the modularity of it all. I'm sure Apple will tell you to stick to official and officially licensed products, but the ability to mix and match these things has given us some solid options, and Anker's right there to reap the benefit. The products the company makes are rarely flash or sexy, but they're often genuinely useful in a way few accessory manufacturers can claim.

As someone who has owned a lot of Apple Chargers over the years, it's pretty remarkable what Anker has done here. I'd recently switched to Google's PixelBook charger for travel, but that has nothing on this. Hell, the Atom is smaller than some phone chargers I've used over the year.

It's small and white, with a single USB-C port. It's not quite as slim as, say, a standard iPhone charger, so it can get a bit tight with alongside some larger chargers (RavPower's dual-USB charger, for instance), but it frees up a lot of space. And in scenarios like the plane I'm typing this from, you're a lot less likely to accidentally knock it out with your leg, leaving you fumbling blindly to plug it back in.

It's not a perfect thing, of course. It can get quite hot to the touch when charging something large. And don't even think about charging up, say, your 15-inch Pro. With certain outlets in certain scenarios, the charging process could be downright sluggish. I can't remember ever seeing "Estimated Charging Time: 10 hours" before.

For the most part, I'd recommend the Atom for those instances when you want to maintain a charge, rather than filling the battery up quickly. I full expect to continue to bring the full-size charger along with me for when I get back to the hotel and need to fill it back up for the night. 

In an ideal world, Anker would have somehow squeezed in an additional USB-C or full-size USB port to charge two devices at once, but that kind of request is probably flying too close to the sun here. And hell, at $30, one is still an excellent deal. 

SpaceX will lay off hundreds to ‘become a leaner company’

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 04:45 PM PST

SpaceX plans to lay off approximately 10 percent of its workforce in order to manage its costs, the company confirmed to TechCrunch today. First reported by Ars Technica’s Eric Berger, the news comes as the company embarks on an ambitious plan to develop and test an interplanetary spacecraft while simultaneously performing frequent orbital launches.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, SpaceX explained that the layoffs are in pursuit of becoming a “leaner company” and that they were only necessary due to “the extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead.”

To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company. Either of these developments, even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations. This means we must part ways with some talented and hardworking members of our team. We are grateful for everything they have accomplished and their commitment to SpaceX's mission. This action is taken only due to the extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead and would not otherwise be necessary.

The company employed at least 7,000 people in late 2017 when COO Gwynne Shotwell last gave a number — which means around 700 will lose their jobs.

I asked SpaceX for more information on where these jobs might come from — engineering, manufacturing, sales, certain projects, etc — but apart from the statement the company did not offer any answers.

Layoffs of this scale ring alarm bells pretty much across the board, but the company has insisted that it is solvent and successful. And indeed even if it were not, it is hard to imagine that its extremely successful and increasingly reliable Falcon 9 launch vehicle would cease operations any time soon. In fact one might expect launch numbers to increase with financial difficulties in order to increase revenue.

Why such a major reduction in workforce, and why now? The company’s excuse of wanting to be lean doesn’t explain much; SpaceX can hardly have any fat to trim off it considering how young and small it is compared with other aerospace concerns, as well as the breadth of its services and research. It seems unlikely that there are hundreds of middle managers loafing their way to a paycheck. It’s far more likely SpaceX barely has enough employees to do what it already does.

But mounting costs may simply have caught up with SpaceX’s ambitions; it has, after all, been forging forward on multiple fronts, any single one of which would be more than enough for a single company.

It has been building and actively improving its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles for years, with the former now more or less in a final state but the latter far from it. It has been researching and prototyping an interplanetary spacecraft, formerly known as the BFR and now Starship. It is building and testing a crewed capsule intended to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. And it is planning a 400-strong constellation of satellites to deliver high speed internet connectivity at a global scale.

So it is perhaps understandable that despite raising $450 million in 2017 and having another round of a similar size rumored to be in negotiation right now, the money is pouring out just about as fast as investors can pour it in. Hundreds of millions in contracts help as well, but they bring costs and responsibilities with them. Its many projects hold the promise of riches, but require years of incubation and investment.

The most logical place to cut from would perhaps be the Falcon 9 development team; CEO Elon Musk indicated that large scale R&D on the platform was ending and being reallocated to the Falcon Heavy and Starship projects. Therefore there may well be designers and engineers who are more easy to part with than others. But that is merely speculation.

All this is just to say that SpaceX’s financials and operations are too complicated to write off major layoffs as simply due to revenue shortfalls or overzealous hiring. I have asked SpaceX for more details and will update this post if I hear back; in the meantime we are very likely to hear more from the company, or the talkative Musk, in the next few days.

Scooter startup Bird tried to silence a journalist. It did not go well.

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 03:59 PM PST

Cory Doctorow doesn’t like censorship. He especially doesn’t like his own work being censored.

Anyone who knows Doctorow knows his popular tech and culture blog, Boing Boing, and anyone who reads Boing Boing knows Doctorow and his cohort of bloggers. The part-blogger, part special advisor at the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation has written for years on topics of technology, hacking, security research, online digital rights and censorship and its intersection with free speech and expression.

Yet, this week it looked like his own free speech and expression could have been under threat.

Doctorow revealed in a blog post on Friday that scooter startup Bird sent him a legal threat, accusing him of copyright infringement and that his blog post encourages “illegal conduct.”

In its letter to Doctorow, Bird demanded that he “immediately take[s] down this offensive blog.”

Doctorow declined, published the legal threat and fired back with a rebuttal letter from the EFF accusing the scooter startup of making “baseless legal threats” in an attempt to “suppress coverage that it dislikes.”

The whole debacle started after Doctorow wrote about how Bird’s many abandoned scooters can be easily converted into a “personal scooter” by swapping out its innards with a plug-and-play converter kit. Citing an initial write-up by Hackaday, these scooters can have “all recovery and payment components permanently disabled” using the converter kit, available for purchase from China on eBay for about $30.

In fact, Doctorow’s blog post was only two paragraphs long and, though didn’t link to the eBay listing directly, did cite the hacker who wrote about it in the first place — bringing interesting things to the masses in bite-size form in true Boing Boing fashion.

Bird didn’t like this much, and senior counsel Linda Kwak sent the letter — which the EFF published today — claiming that Doctorow’s blog post was “promoting the sale/use of an illegal product that is solely designed to circumvent the copyright protections of Bird’s proprietary technology, as described in greater detail below, as well as promoting illegal activity in general by encouraging the vandalism and misappropriation of Bird property.” The letter also falsely stated that Doctorow’s blog post “provides links to a website where such Infringing Product may be purchased,” given that the post at no point links to the purchasable eBay converter kit.

EFF senior attorney Kit Walsh fired back. “Our client has no obligation to, and will not, comply with your request to remove the article,” she wrote. “Bird may not be pleased that the technology exists to modify the scooters that it deploys, but it should not make baseless legal threats to silence reporting on that technology.”

The three-page rebuttal says Bird used incorrectly cited legal statutes to substantiate its demands for Boing Boing to pull down the blog post. The letter added that unplugging and discarding a motherboard containing unwanted code within the scooter isn’t an act of circumventing as it doesn’t bypass or modify Bird’s code — which copyright law says is illegal.

As Doctorow himself put it in his blog post Friday: “If motherboard swaps were circumvention, then selling someone a screwdriver could be an offense punishable by a five year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.”

In an email to TechCrunch, Doctorow said that legal threats “are no fun.”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 10: Journalist Cory Doctorow speaks onstage at “Snowden 2.0: A Field Report from the NSA Archives” during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)

“We’re a small, shoestring operation, and even though this particular threat is one that we have very deep expertise on, it’s still chilling when a company with millions in the bank sends a threat — even a bogus one like this — to you,” he said.

The EFF’s response also said that Doctorow’s freedom of speech “does not in fact impinge on any of Bird's rights,” adding that Bird should not send takedown notices to journalists using “meritless legal claims,” the letter said.

“So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Bird is right or wrong when it claims that it’s illegal to convert a Bird scooter to a personal scooter,” said Walsh in a separate blog post. “Either way, Boing Boing was free to report on it,” she added.

What’s bizarre is why Bird targeted Doctorow and, apparently, nobody else — so far.

TechCrunch reached out to several people who wrote about and were involved with blog posts and write-ups about the Bird converter kit. Of those who responded, all said they had not received a legal demand from Bird.

We asked Bird why it sent the letter, and if this was a one-off letter or if Bird had sent similar legal demands to others. When reached, a Bird spokesperson did not comment on the record.

Two hours after we published this story, Bird spokesperson Rebecca Hahn said the company supports freedom of speech, adding: “In the quest for curbing illegal activities related to our vehicles, our legal team overstretched and sent a takedown request related to the issue to a member of the media. This was our mistake and we apologize to Cory Doctorow.”

All too often, companies send legal threats and demands to try to silence work or findings that they find critical, often using misinterpreted, incorrect or vague legal statutes to get things pulled from the internet. Some companies have been more successful than others, despite an increase in awareness and bug bounties, and a general willingness to fix security issues before they inevitably become public.

Now Bird becomes the latest in a long list of companies that have threatened reporters or security researchers, alongside companies like drone maker DJI, which in 2017 threatened a security researcher trying to report a bug in good faith, and spam operator River City, which sued a security researcher who found the spammer’s exposed servers and a reporter who wrote about it. Most recently, password manager maker Keeper sued a security reporter claiming allegedly defamatory remarks over a security flaw in one of its products. The case was eventually dropped, but not before more than 50 experts, advocates and journalist (including this reporter) signed onto a letter calling for companies to stop using legal threats to stifle and silence security researchers.

That effort resulted in several companies — notably Dropbox and Tesla — to double down on their protection of security researchers by changing their vulnerability disclosure rules to promise that the companies will not seek to prosecute hackers acting in good-faith.

But some companies have bucked that trend and have taken a more hostile, aggressive — and regressive — approach to security researchers and reporters.

“Bird Scooters and other dockless transport are hugely controversial right now, thanks in large part to a ‘move-fast, break-things’ approach to regulation, and it’s not surprising that they would want to control the debate,” said Doctorow.

“But to my mind, this kind of bullying speaks volumes about the overall character of the company,” he said.

Sensel’s pressure-sensitive display tech works underwater

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 03:48 PM PST

The Morph is a fun little computer peripheral. The small trackpad uses a series of silicone covers to recreate different interfaces, from a QWERTY keyboard to a drum pad. Ultimately, however, it's the tech that drives the product — rather than the product itself — that may prove the most useful.

Sensel was on-hand at CES this week, in a much larger booth than the year prior. The Morph took up a chunk of the area, including a musician using different pads to play songs live. But the startup's real star of the show were a series of thick, unbranded tablets. In a meeting with TechCrunch this time last year, the company noted that it was essentially shopping around the underlying technology for other uses. In a sense, the Morph is as much a way of proving that Sensel's technology truly works.

Pressure Grid offers an alternative to more traditional capacitive touch, essentially building positional touch and force touch into a single sensor. It's a less expensive way to accurately determine both the position and pressure (from 1g to 5kg) in one go. It's also thin and capable of working with flexible displays, making the company well-positioned for what could well be the next wave of mobile devices.

And, as the company was more than happy to demonstrate on the show floor, it actually works underwater. Because what's the fun of a waterproof phone, really, if you can’t use wet fingers?

Another key benefit here is the ability to detect objects beyond the finger — that could mean using it with a pair of gloves or taking a regular old paintbrush to the surface to draw some art. Sensel says it has built fail-safes into the software, to cut down on false positives, which could definitely present an issue for a device that can register just about any object that comes into contact with it.

Sensel says it's already begun working with industry partners to implement this technology into commercial devices. Of course, like 3D touch before it, incorporating pressure sensitivity is going to take some customer training to make using it a natural part of day to day computing. 

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

WeWork gets into the food business, backing the superfood startup of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 02:39 PM PST

WeWork CEO Adam Neumann has been described as an avid surfer, one who has been known to grab his board and go, both in the Hamptons in Long Island, where he reportedly owns a home, as well as in Hawaii.

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that WeWork is now also investing in a so-called superfood company that was created several years ago by big wave surf star Laird Hamilton, who Neumann was apparently surfing alongside just last week. In a video call with Neumann on Monday, a Fast Company reporter noted that Neumann is currently sporting a cast on one of his fingers, having broken it during the outing.

How much WeWork is investing in the startup, Laird Superfood, is not being disclosed, but according to the food company, the money will be used to fuel product development, acquisitions and to hire more employees. A press release that was published without fanfare earlier today also notes that Laird Superfood products will be made available to WeWork members and employees at select locations soon.

Some of those offerings are certainly interesting, including “performance mushrooms” that it says “harnesses the benefits” of Chaga, a fungus believed by some to stimulate the immune system; Cordyceps, another fungus that’s been used for kidney disorders and erectile dysfunction; and Lion’s Mane, yet another fungus believed by some to stimulate nerve growth in the brain.

The company suggests adding one teaspoon of the mushrooms each day to one’s coffee, tea or health shake.

Laird Superfood also sells beet- and turmeric-infused powdered coconut waters, “ultra-caffeinated” coffee and a variety of coffee creamers, including a mint-flavored creamer and a turmeric-flavored number.

It’s for a very specific consumer, in other words — presumably one who really likes turmeric, for example. Then again, what works for Laird Hamilton will undoubtedly work for a lot of people who’ve watched his decades-long career with amazement.

Hamilton seems to be selling what he actually ingests, too. As he told The Guardian last spring of his own diet: “I love espresso. You could give me five shots of espresso, a quarter stick of butter, a quarter stick of coconut oil and other fat, and I'll drink that. I could go for five or six hours and not be hungry, because I'm burning fat.”

Organic food startups have been raising money left and right in recent years, including from traditional food companies, as well as from venture investors, who’ve poured billions of dollars into healthy snacks and drinks, with mixed results.

For WeWork’s part, the investment isn’t the first that has seemed somewhat far afield for the company. In one of its more surprising bets to date, WeWork invested in a maker of wave pools in 2016. The size of that funding was also undisclosed.

That GoFundMe to build a border wall is issuing $20 million in refunds

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 02:00 PM PST

A Trump-inspired GoFundMe campaign that raised $20 million ostensibly to build a wall on the southern U.S. border will refund every cent. Run by Brian Kolfage, a veteran with a track record of questionable business practices, the project defied all logistical considerations with its proposal for a “simple and straightforward” plan to build the wall. That didn’t stop the fund from attracting the attention of 337,559 donors at the time of writing.

Surprising perhaps no one beyond its donors, the campaign collided with reality, with Kolfage coming to the realization that “the federal government won't be able to accept our donations anytime soon” given that there is no actual mechanism through which it could do so. On the campaign page, Kolfage newly disclosed his plans to form a nonprofit, “We Build The Wall, Inc.” that would hold onto the donations until the federal government is able to accept them or until all of the donors eventually forget the project altogether.

Initially, donors were told that their money would be refunded if the goal for the project was not met. On December 22, the project’s language changed, removing any mention of refunds if the goal was not met. With that, the project appears to have run afoul of GoFundMe’s policies.

Kolfage claims that he has formed an advisory board that features war privatization enthusiast and brother of the Secretary of Education Erik Prince and the also ethically questionable former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost his race this past November.

While Kolfage might be in good company, it sounds like GoFundMe will be automatically handing back every bit of the $20 million he raised before getting called out for changing the terms of the campaign. Donors who still want their money to go to Kolfage will need to opt in specifically.

“If a donor does not want a refund, and they want their donation to go to the new organization, they must proactively elect to redirect their donation to that organization,” GoFundMe told The Hill. “If they do not take that step, they will automatically receive a full refund.”

GM is transforming Cadillac into an electric brand

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 01:58 PM PST

General Motors is turning Cadillac into its lead electric vehicle brand in a bid to compete against Tesla as well as a host of other automakers bringing EVs onto the market.

Plans are already underway to introduce the first model from the company’s new battery electric vehicle architecture, GM said Friday during an investor meeting.

GM said this new BEV architecture will be the foundation for an advanced family of “profitable EVs,” a word choice likely meant to express the automaker’s conviction to offer up true competition in the EV world, which has been dominated by Tesla on the luxury side and Nissan in terms of pure volume sales.

The flexible platform will provide a broad array of body styles and will be offered in front-wheel, rear-wheel and all-wheel configurations, GM said. The brand’s most critical components, including the battery cells, are being designed for maximum usability across all programs, GM said. The battery system also will be adjustable, based on vehicle and customer requirements.

The announcement made Friday at an investor meeting marks a shift in GM’s approach to making electric vehicles. In the past, GM’s electrified vehicles — namely the all-electric Bolt and the plug-in hybrid Volt — fell under its mass-market Chevrolet brand.

The Bolt appears destined to continue, at least for now. (The Bolt is also used by GM’s self-driving subsidiary GM Cruise as its testing vehicle.) Meanwhile, the Volt is slated to end. GM announced last year it would end production of the Volt and the plug-in Cadillac CT6, which had sluggish sales.

GM has been undergoing a transformation over the past four to five years, getting rid of expensive, money-losing programs like the Opel brand in Europe, and investing more into electrification and autonomous vehicle technology. It has also warned repeatedly, Friday’s investor meeting being no exception, of a coming downturn in the traditional automotive business.

In November, GM ramped up its belt-tightening measures with cuts to factory and white-collar workers, plant closures in North America and the elimination of several car models as it tries to transform into a nimble company focused on high-margin SUVs, crossovers and trucks, and investments in future products like electric and autonomous vehicles.

The actions, which are meant to safeguard the automaker from an expected downturn in the U.S. market, will increase GM's annual free cash flow by about $6 billion, including cost reductions of $4.5 billion and lower capital expenditure annual run rate of almost $1.5 billion by 2020. Ford took similar cost-cutting measures in 2018.

Even as GM announced those cuts, it said it would double engineering resources allocated to electric and autonomous vehicle programs by 2020.

Improbable urges Unity to unsuspend their license, rectify ‘farcical’ situation for developers

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 11:54 AM PST

Improbable may be pissed at Unity, but they still want them back.

In a blog post titled “A final statement on SpatialOS and Unity,” the team at the cloud gaming startup aimed to tell their side of the story and implored Unity to “clarify their terms or unsuspend our licenses.”

Unity is a game engine that developers use to create, among other things, games. Improbable offers a cloud solution to developers that basically enables large multiplayer online gameplay by rendering the game worlds across multiple servers on its SpatialOS platform.

Yesterday, Improbable announced that Unity had terminated their game engine access and that developers that used SpatialOS were in danger of losing their work. Unity responded that live and in-development games were fine and that Improbable was in violation of their new terms of service and needed to negotiate a new partnership.

In the new blog post, Improbable doesn’t mince words, saying it “still has all its Unity license and access suspended. We cannot easily fix bugs, improve the service or really support our customers without being in a legal grey area. Anyone who has ever run a live game knows this is a farcical situation that puts games at risk.”

Last night, Improbable appeared to leverage their relation with rival engine-maker Epic Games to put the heat on Unity, creating a $25 million fund with the gaming giant to help developers move to “more open engines,” a pretty transparent knock on Unity.

Improbable now seems to be claiming that Unity basically changed the rules on them and was trying to bully them into a deal that none of their other partners have requested.

“We do not require any direct technical cooperation with an engine provider to offer our services – Crytek, Epic and all other providers clearly allow interoperability without commercial arrangement with cloud platforms. We have no formal technical arrangements there and have not required any with Unity for years.”

Losing Unity support is a huge blow to Improbable, which has raised $600 million largely on the promise that it can revolutionize online gaming, something that would prove difficult to do without one of the largest available game engines.

The NYT gets into voice with 5 new Alexa skills, including a daily briefing, quiz and more

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 11:49 AM PST

The New York Times is expanding its efforts around audio programming and voice assistants, the company announced today. The NYT says it’s launching a daily flash briefing for Alexa devices, as well as an interactive news quiz, and — in an interesting twist — it will be introducing “enhanced coverage” in its Sunday paper that prompts readers to launch dedicated Alexa skills to learn more about the stories they’re reading.

On weekdays, the Times will offer a short news briefing for Alexa devices that’s hosted by Michael Barbaro of The NYT’s popular podcast, "The Daily.” Listeners can enable the Alexa skill, then ask to hear the top stories by saying “Alexa, what’s my Flash Briefing,” or “Alexa, what’s in the news?,” for example.

For now, the flash briefing consists of the last portion of “The Daily,” where Barbaro says “Here’s what else you need to know today.” Over time, the company plans to expand upon that with new stories and sound bites.

Also new today is a daily news quiz, created by “The Daily’s” producers. This will be available on Fridays, and is triggered by saying “Alexa, play The New York Times News Quiz.”

The quiz will ask questions that listeners answer to then be told if they are right or wrong. The skill will provide additional context, as well.

While daily briefing skills and quizzes are among the most popular types of Alexa skills today, the way the paper is experimenting with its Sunday paper contest is interesting.

Skill discovery is still a huge challenge on voice assistants. And even when you enable a skill, you may forget to use it or not remember what it’s called, if it’s not something you launch regularly.

The NYT’s solution is to add Alexa prompts to its printed edition of the Sunday paper, for select sections including travel, music and books.

Starting this weekend, a special section will feature Travel’s annual list of 52 Places to Go. Readers can choose to listen to the Times's new “Traveler” writer Sebastian Modak, as he visits all the places on the list, by saying, "Alexa, open the 52 Places Traveler."

In addition, a command to “open The Pop Music Roundup” will offer a voice round-up from Times pop music editor Caryn Ganz, while saying “Alexa, get book recommendations from The New York Times” will trigger Alexa to tell you what the paper’s book critics are reading and recommend.

All three of these Alexa skills will continue beyond this weekend and will include fresh content.

"We've only just begun to explore the ways that voice technology can bring Times journalism to our audience, where and how they want it,” said Monica Drake, assistant managing editor, The New York Times, in a statement about the Alexa skills. "This project is a great starting point in this effort as we begin to experiment the ways voice can work in conjunction with stayed mediums like print while also exploring native Times experiences like the flash briefing and interactive news quiz, built specifically for voice services,” she added.

The NYT already offered some of its news through Alexa and other voice assistants prior to today, as its podcast “The Daily” has been available across platforms. But this is the first time it has rolled out dedicated Alexa skills like this.

Google cans the Chromecast Audio

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 11:24 AM PST

The Chromecast Audio is no more. Google has decided to stop manufacturing the audio dongle that allowed you to add any “dumb” speaker to your Google Cast setup. If you still want one, you’ll have to hurry — and to entice you to buy a discontinued product, Google is now selling its remaining inventory for $15 instead of $35.

“Our product portfolio continues to evolve, and now we have a variety of products for users to enjoy audio,” Google told us in a statement. “We have therefore stopped manufacturing our Chromecast Audio products. We will continue to offer assistance for Chromecast Audio devices, so users can continue to enjoy their music, podcasts and more.”

While the Chromecast turned out to be a major hit for Google, the Chromecast Audio was always more of a niche product.

Google is clearly more interested in getting people to buy its Google Home products and Assistant- or Cast-enabled speakers from its partners. It’s also worth noting that all Google Home devices can connect to Bluetooth-enabled speakers, though plenty of people surely have a nice speaker setup at home that doesn’t have built-in Bluetooth support. "Bluetooth adapters suck,” Google told us at the time, though at this point, it seems a Bluetooth adapter may just be the way to go.

The Chromecast Audio first launched back in 2015, in conjunction with the second-generation Chromecast. Over the years, the Chromecast Audio received numerous updates that enabled features like multi-room support. Google says it’ll continue to support Chromecast Audio users for the time being, so if you have already invested in this ecosystem, you should be set for a few more years.

Netflix faces $25 million lawsuit over ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 10:34 AM PST

If you watched Netflix’s latest “Black Mirror” production, there’s no doubt it reminded you of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Now, the publisher that owns the trademark to “Choose Your Own Adventure,” Chooseco, LLC, is suing Netflix. The publisher is alleging trademark infringement, The Hollywood Reporter first reported.

In the complaint, Chooseco says Netflix “used the mark willfully and intentionally to capitalize on viewers’ nostalgia for the original book series from the 1980s and 1990s. The film’s dark and, at times, disturbing content dilutes the goodwill for and positive associations with Chooseco’s mark and tarnishes its products.”

In one scene, the main character explains to his dad that his video game, “Bandersnatch,” is based on the fictional “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

20th Century Fox, according to Chooseco, has an options contract to develop a series based on the publisher’s books. Netflix, on the other hand, pursued a license beginning in 2016 but did not receive one, the suit says. Chooseco alleges it also sent Netflix a cease-and-desist letter before the release of “Bandersnatch.”

Chooseco is seeking at least $25 million or Netflix’s profits from the film, whichever amount is the greatest, for Netflix’s alleged trademark infringement, false designation of origin, unfair competition and trademark dilution.

Netflix declined to comment for this story.

Square loses another key executive as Mary Kay Bowman joins Visa

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 10:05 AM PST

Square’s management continues to shuffle. One week after the merchant services and mobile payments company tapped Amrita Ahuja to lead finance, replacing long-time executive Sarah Friar who landed the chief executive role at Nextdoor, the company’s head of payments, Mary Kay Bowman, has joined Visa as its head of seller solutions.

The company will promote someone internally to fill the position, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Bowman joined Square in 2015 after more than a decade at Amazon, most recently as the e-commerce giant’s director of global payments. In her new role, Visa says Bowman will lead the credit card company’s “strategy for acceptance products and solutions, driving the design, development and delivery of new services and solutions that will transform the payment experience for both sellers and consumers.”

“This is a critical role, as the point of sale is undergoing dramatic change as it shifts from traditional payment acceptance to digital, cross-channel payment experiences,” Visa wrote in a company announcement released Friday morning.

Gartner finds PC sales doldrums continued in 2018

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 09:56 AM PST

Gartner has released its quarterly PC sales survey for the fourth quarter of 2018, and it was the same old story. PC sales plunged in the fourth quarter and were down 1.3 percent for the year. The three top players — HP, Dell and Lenovo — accounted for 63 percent of sales worldwide in the quarter.

The company found in their preliminary sales research that worldwide sales totaled 68.6 million units in the fourth quarter. That may sound like a big number, but it’s down 4.3 percent over the same period last year.

Gartner principal analyst Mikako Kitagawa said after a couple of quarters of modest growth, the market began to slow down again for a number of reasons, including political and economic uncertainty and a CPU shortage. “There was even uncertainty in the U.S. — where the overall economy has been strong — among vulnerable buyer groups, such as small and midsize businesses (SMBs). Consumer demand remained weak in the holiday season. Holiday sales are no longer a major factor driving consumer demand for PCs," she said in a statement.

That could be because consumers are spending much more time on mobile phones. Many tasks, whether shopping, email, banking or social media, that once required a home PC can easily be done on a mobile phone now, leaving PCs to the realm of business, where it isn’t always practical to do work on a smaller footprint. In fact, Black Friday online shopping totaled $6.1 billion this year, with mobile phones accounting for $2.1 billion.

The trade war that has adversely affected Apple and other tech companies probably also had an impact on the PC market.

Lenovo was the biggest winner in the worldwide report, achieving 24.2 percent of market share with number of units sold up 5.9 percent from last year. HP had 22.4 percent market share, but its numbers were down -4.4 percent. Dell came in third with 15.9 percent with market share, up a modest 1.4 percent.

Chart: Courtesy of Gartner

In the U.S., sales were even worse, down 4.5 percent, as small business buyers stayed away in the quarter. “The fourth quarter is typically a buying season for small office/home office (SOHO) and small business buyers in the U.S. as they want to use up the untouched budget before the tax year ends," Kitagawa explained in the report. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to do that this year.

Chart: Courtesy of Gartner

The top three vendors in U.S. sales were HP with 33.4 percent market share, growth down -7.6 percent; Dell with 25.7 percent, growth up 0.9 percent and Lenovo with 15.2 percent, growth up a whopping 23.4 percent for the quarter, making it the big winner in the U.S. market in terms of sales growth.

In case you’re wondering, Apple, which was forced to issue new guidance for Q12019 earnings last week due to lower iPhone sales, also had softer PC sales last quarter, with numbers down 2.1 percent in the U.S. and 3.8 percent worldwide. Gartner found that Apple PCs account for 12.4 percent of market share in the U.S. and 7.2 percent worldwide.

The report is based on data from sales of desktop PCs, notebooks and devices such as the Microsoft Surface, but excludes Chromebooks and iPads. Gartner is careful to point out these are preliminary numbers and they could change once the final data is in.

Elon Musk shows off the assembled Starship test rocket

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 09:37 AM PST

After weeks of teasing renderings and production photos, Elon Musk finally showed off the finished Starship test rocket last night.

As you can well see, the Starship test rocket has a stainless steel skin, which had a few people scratching their heads. Steel is indeed quite durable, but weighs more than other materials used in rockets, like carbon fiber, aluminum and titanium. Musk argues, however, that stainless steel’s resistance to extreme temperature, especially heat, makes it a better fit for this type of rocket.

The Starship rocket, previously called the BFR, is an integral piece of the SpaceX road map. It’s meant to take the place of the Falcon and Falcon Heavy rockets as a primary launch vehicle, which means lots of re-entry (which means lots of heat).

This test model, currently at the Boca Chica, Texas launch site, is meant for suborbital VTOL tests, which will take place in March. The orbital version will be taller, with thicker skins, and a more smoothly curving nose section, with launches on the books for 2020.

The US continues to hammer Chinese tech

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 09:16 AM PST

It's another week, and another bevy of hits on Chinese tech by the U.S. government. Let's get up to speed, plus a request for startup lawyer recommendations.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

Venture capital's leading advocate NVCA pushes for narrower restrictions on foreign investment

Let's start with the most exciting subject in the world: the federal rulemaking process.

Last year, Congress approved sweeping reforms of CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, providing it with new powers, including the ability to review deals made by foreign investors for minority investments (aka the kinds of equity rounds typically received by startups). That reform has put a crimp on SoftBank's Vision Fund, which has been trying to get around the rules, and also has led to a massive decline in the amount of Chinese venture capital flowing into the Valley.

As the implementation of that reform meanders its way through the federal rulemaking process, one huge challenge is defining what the term "emerging technologies" means. Because the purview of CFIUS will extend to any technology defined under that term, its definition is critically important; but there is just one problem: no one knows what the hell that phrase even is.

So yesterday, the National Venture Capital Association, the leading advocacy org for the asset class, submitted its stance on the debate. In a filing with the Bureau of Industry and Security, the NVCA argues for a relatively narrow interpretation of emerging technologies.

The organization is specifically concerned about controls on technologies like AI/ML and gene editing through CRISPR, because these "horizontal technologies" are very under-defined and thus restrictions on investment could lead to tough challenges for many startups. For instance, startups that fall under these categories could be prevented from taking foreign investment, or sharing information with other startups. In short, it could kill American leadership in these industries.

It's an important point, but it is also part of a wider challenge — for startups and the government — that no one knows what "AI" means any more than they know what "emerging technologies" mean. Every startup might have (or claims to have!) AI, and that could mean that highly restrictive rules from the Bureau could apply pretty much to everyone, undermining the original intent of reform legislation.

This is a process not worth paying attention to, except that if it were to go stupidly wrong (and this is DC after all), we might suddenly find that the thousands of AI startups in the Valley suddenly become "definitely not AI" startups post-haste.

Don't expect to ride Chinese subway cars in America anytime soon (except if you live in Boston)

America's subway cars are widely dilapidated, as riders in systems in Boston, New York, DC and SF can attest. Replacing those subway cars is a challenge, particularly because no American company manufactures them. Among the largest manufacturers is the China Railway Rolling Stock Corp., which has won deals to replace some of Boston's aging subway cars.

Now, there is a renewed nationwide push to demand tougher cybersecurity standards on railcars as a way to prevent Chinese companies from receiving these contracts. As The Washington Post noted this week, DC's Metro officials have rewritten its contract specifications, adding terms to require that all hardware and software go through cybersecurity verification from third-parties.

Further, Congress itself is getting involved in the matter. Per the article:

Both the U.S. Senate and House have sought to block further Chinese penetration of the transit vehicle market. Each chamber has inserted language in annual transportation appropriations bills to impose a one-year ban on new purchases of mass transit rail cars or buses from Chinese-owned companies if the procurement uses federal funding. The ban is not yet law, as final action has been put off until this year.

Cybersecurity is of course a legitimate concern, but so is lowering the cost of subway car replacements. By removing Chinese bidders from this market, Congress is effectively raising the price of subway car replacements for every city in the nation (and do you think they will pay for that increase?).

Huawei export license not renewed

Huawei has had a bullseye on its back for much of the last two years, and now it faces another restriction.

The company hosts a research and development center in Silicon Valley, quaintly called Futurewei, where it designs next-generation telecommunications tech. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, the unit has recently seen its export license for some of its technologies pulled by the Commerce Department. That move means that Futurewei won't legally be allowed to transfer its know-how back to Huawei in China. What becomes of the lab, which the Journal reports has a budget of $16 million, is anyone's guess.

These little policy actions are starting to add up though. While the administration at one point pulled the entire license for ZTE and nearly killed it, it seems to have now fallen into a pattern of just creating enough friction in the market to make operating a Chinese company in the U.S. annoying and unprofitable. Which, with some deep irony, is exactly how the Chinese have blocked American companies for years.

Okay, so what?

With the massive decline of Chinese investment in Silicon Valley and further export restrictions, it is clear that the Trump administration wants to sever any link between the two countries in the technology industry. While it is still early, it is clear that they have been pretty clearly successful, no doubt helped by the retrenchment of the Chinese economy as growth has slowed on the mainland.

For founders in the U.S., the complications and tough choices have actually declined substantially. A certain universe of LPs and VCs have left the market, and the Chinese market is pretty clearly marked off-limits and is probably best ignored for the time being. The toughest questions might be around partnership deals with the likes of Tencent, but those have not been as heavily targeted by authorities so far. So the China story may well disappear in the coming months as the two countries head in their own directions.

Share your feedback on your startup's attorney

My colleague Eric Eldon and I are reaching out to startup founders and execs about their experiences with their attorneys. Our goal is to identify the leading lights of the industry and help spark discussions around best practices. If you have an attorney you thought did a fantastic job for your startup, let us know using this short Google Forms survey… and also, spread the word. We will share the results and more in the coming weeks.

What's next & obsessions

I'm continuing to explore this theme/thesis of (societal) resilience tech that I discussed yesterday. Lots of you gave feedback on the idea and further avenues to explore.

I want to specifically thank a reader named Beau, who sent me multiple paragraphs, a dozen book recommendations and a whole list of articles on the subject to get me up to speed. I super-appreciate the thoughtfulness, and look forward to sharing more of that list in the coming days.

I love hearing from readers, so if you have thoughts, opinions, articles or books, share them with me: danny@techcrunch.com.

Reading docket

What I'm reading (or at least, trying to read)

Daily Crunch: Bing has a child porn problem

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 09:10 AM PST

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. Microsoft Bing not only shows child pornography, it suggests it

A TechCrunch-commissioned report has found damning evidence on Microsoft’s search engine. Our findings show a massive failure on Microsoft's part to adequately police its Bing search engine and to prevent its suggested searches and images from assisting pedophiles.

2. Unity pulls nuclear option on cloud gaming startup Improbable, terminating game engine license

Unity, the widely popular gaming engine, has pulled the rug out from underneath U.K.-based cloud gaming startup Improbable and revoked its license — effectively shutting them out from a top customer source. The conflict arose after Unity claimed Improbable broke the company’s Terms of Service and distributed Unity software on the cloud.

3. Improbable and Epic Games establish $25M fund to help devs move to 'more open engines' after Unity debacle

Just when you thought things were going south for Improbable the company inked a late-night deal with Unity competitor Epic Games to establish a fund geared toward open gaming engines. This begs the question of how Unity and Improbable’s relationship managed to sour so quickly after this public debacle.

4. The next phase of WeChat 

WeChat boasts more than 1 billion daily active users, but user growth is starting to hit a plateau. That’s been expected for some time, but it is forcing the Chinese juggernaut to build new features to generate more time spent on the app to maintain growth.

5. Bungie takes back its Destiny and departs from Activision 

The creator behind games like Halo and Destiny is splitting from its publisher Activision to go its own way. This is good news for gamers, as Bungie will no longer be under the strict deadlines of a big gaming studio that plagued the launch of Destiny and its sequel.

6. Another server security lapse at NASA exposed staff and project data

The leaking server was — ironically — a bug-reporting server, running the popular Jira bug triaging and tracking software. In NASA's case, the software wasn't properly configured, allowing anyone to access the server without a password.

7. Is Samsung getting serious about robotics? 

This week Samsung made a surprise announcement during its CES press conference and unveiled three new consumer and retail robots and a wearable exoskeleton. It was a pretty massive reveal, but the company’s look-but-don’t-touch approach raised far more questions than it answered.

Tor pulls in record donations as it lessens reliance on US government grants

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 09:09 AM PST

Tor, the open-source initiative that provides a more secure way to access the internet, is continuing to diversify its funding away from its long-standing reliance on U.S. government grants.

The Tor Project — the organization behind the service which stands for “The Onion Router” — announced this week that it brought in a record $460,000 from individual donors in 2018. In addition, recently released financial information shows it raised a record $4.13 million from all sources in 2017 thanks to a growth in non-U.S. government donors.

The individual donation push represents an increase on the $400,000 it raised in 2017. A large part of that is down to Tor ally Mozilla, which once again pledged to match donations in the closing months of the year, while an anonymous individual matched all new backers who pledged up to $20,000.

Overall, the organization said that it attracted donations from 115 countries worldwide in 2018, which reflects its importance outside of the U.S.

The record donation haul comes weeks after the Tor Project quietly revealed its latest financials — for 2017 — which show it has lessened its dependence on U.S. government sources. That’s been a key goal for some time, particularly after allegations that the FBI paid Carnegie Mellon researchers to help crack Tor, which served as a major motivation for the introduction of fundraising drives in 2015.

Back in 2015, U.S. government sources accounted for 80-90 percent of its financial backing, but that fell to just over 50 percent in 2017. The addition of a Swedish government agency, which provided $600,000, helped on that front, as well as corporate donations from Mozilla ($520,000) and DuckDuckGo ($25,000), more than $400,000 from a range of private foundations, and, of course, those donations from individuals.

Tor is best known for being used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden but, with governments across the world cracking down on the internet, it is a resource that’s increasingly necessary if we are to guard the world’s right to a free internet.

Tor has certainly been busy making its technology more accessible over the last year.

It launched its first official mobile browser for Android in September, and the same month it released TorBrowser 8.0, its most usable browser yet, which is based on Firefox's 2017 Quantum structure. It has also worked closely with Mozilla to bring Tor into Firefox itself as it has already done with Brave, a browser firm led by former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich.

Beyond the browser and the Tor network itself, which is designed to minimize the potential for network surveillance, the organization also develops a range of other projects. More than two million people are estimated to use Tor, according to data from the organization.

Note 01/11/19 20:38 PST: Article updated to correct that the organization is the Tor Project not Tor Foundation

Some US government websites won’t load after HTTPS certificates expire during shutdown

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 08:50 AM PST

In a government shutdown, everything deemed non-essential stops. As we found out, renewing the certificates on its websites is considered non-essential.

Several government sites are currently inaccessible or blocked by most browsers after their HTTPS certificate expired. With nobody available to renew them during the government shutdown, these sites are kicking back warning errors.

According to Netcraft, a U.K.-based internet security services company, many government domains can’t be accessed until someone fixes the certificates. Some sites, like one Justice Department subdomain, are at the time of writing completely inaccessible because the domain is included in Chrome’s HSTS preload list, used by browsers to force browsers into using HTTPS only when accessing pages on the domain.

Others, like this NASA page and one U.S. Courts website, however, aren’t using HSTS and are still accessible via an interstitial warning.

So what’s happening?

Every time your browser lights up with “HTTPS” in green or flashes a padlock, it's a TLS certificate encrypting the connection between your computer and the website, ensuring nobody can intercept and steal your data or modify the website. But TLS certificates are notoriously delicate things. Certificates expire — a common mistake as people often forget to renew them. Depending on the security level, most websites will kick back browser errors while other sites won’t let you in at all until the expired certificate is renewed.

Except in this case, they can’t — because there’s nobody there to buy and install a new certificate.

As it stands, it’s the responsibility of each department and agency to renew the certificate for their own domain. Depending on how many workers have been furloughed and sent home in each agency, renewing a certificate might not be a top priority when they’re short-staffed and overworked already.

There is some good news.

Most major government websites aren’t down or likely to go down any time soon. Most government certificates aren’t set to expire for many more months. Also, any government website hosted on cloud.gov, search.gov or federalist.18f.gov won’t get certificate errors, as these domains automatically renew their certificates every three months with Let’s Encrypt.

Until the government opens up again, don’t expect these websites until then. But depending on how long this shutdown lasts, you can certainly expect things to get a lot worse.

Xiaomi’s five-year plan is a $1.5 billion bet on smart homes

Posted: 11 Jan 2019 07:57 AM PST

Xiaomi, the Chinese company best known for budget phones, is betting big on a future of connected homes. It plans to plough at least 100 billion yuan, or $1.48 billion, into the so-called “AIoT” sector over the next five years, founder and chief operating officer Lei Jun announced on Friday.

AIoT, short for “AI + IoT,” is an upgrade from devices connected to the internet, known as the Internet of Things. AIoTs are intelligent, run on automated systems and can learn from users’ habits, like lights that automatically turn on when you get home.

“We see a future where all home devices will be connected to the internet and controlled by voice. A wave of home appliances will be replaced by smart devices. There will be an AIoT network that infiltrates every second and scenario of people’s lives, collecting mountains of users, traffic and data,” said Lei in his annual address to employees.

The plan is to get all sorts of gadgets, not just handsets, onto Xiaomi’s operating system so the company can hawk services through these devices. The move comes as Xiaomi, the world’s fourth-largest smartphone vendor, copes with a weakening market. Smartphone shipments in China were down more than 15 percent year-over-year in 2018, according to a government-backed research institute.

Phones remain strategically important to Xiaomi as it looks to lower-end phones for growth. On Thursday, the company announced it has split up (not spin out) its budget phone brand, Redmi, in hope of launching “red rice” — what Redmi means in Chinese — to Xiaomi’s “little rice” stardom. The strategy is similar to how Huawei operates sub-brand Honor for its line of cheaper phones.

Xiaomi’s new billion-dollar pledge is a continuation of a plan in 2013 to back 100 startups over the course of five years. These portfolio companies, in turn, helped make Xiaomi products, which now count 132 million total devices (among which 20 million are active daily). Meanwhile, Xiaomi’s voice assistant Xiao Ai has hit 100 million installs.

These gadgets, along with an assortment of lifestyle products like suitcases and umbrellas, became the largest revenue driver for Xiaomi in the second quarter of last year, the company’s earnings report shows.

Xiaomi is in a land grab with other Chinese tech giants like Baidu to enter people’s homes. It’s becoming something akin to a department store, but it can’t make everything itself. Recently, the giant made a big push in TVs through a partnership with a veteran Chinese home appliance manufacturer. It’s also teamed up with IKEA on a 100 million yuan ($14.8 million) fund for third-party developers, which will enrich Xiaomi’s inventory as consumers in China may soon be able to buy many Xiaomi-powered furniture from the Swedish retailer.