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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

economic news of india - world economic news - economics news for students - indian economy news

economic news of india - world economic news - economics news for students - indian economy news

Live: BJP leads in 133 seats, Cong in 41, shows official data


Who all are leading in key constituencies


With the counting of votes underway across 1,100 centres to elect the 17th Lok Sabha, all eyes will be on who comes victorious at the end of this mammoth exercise. Majority of exit polls have given the Narendra Modi-led NDA a clear majority. Here's a quick look at the candidates who are leading in key constituencies which witnessed marquee electoral battles.*BJP's Pragya Singh Thakur is leading from Bhopal against Congress candidate Digvijaya Singh.*Sunny Deol trails in Gurdaspur constituency in Punjab. He's up against Punjab state Congress chief Sunil Jakhar. *PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti trailing in Anantnag constituency in J&K.*Congress' Mumbai chief Milind Deora is trailing from South Mumbai constituency. *Shashi Tharoor is leading in Thiruvananthapuram seat in Kerala. He is a sitting MP from the constituency.*BJP President leading by 25,000 votes in Gandhinagar constituency in Gujarat. *Congress president Rahul Gandhi is trailing from the Gandhi bastion of Amethi. Smriti Irani is leading by 4,900 votes against Rahul Gandhi after first round of counting in Ameth. *Sumalatha Ambareesh is leading in Mandya Lok Sabha constituency in Karnataka. She is an independent candidate backed by the BJP. She is ahead of the JD(S) candidate Nikhil Kumaraswamy, who is chief minister HD Kumaraswamy's son. *Early leads show Congress president Rahul Gandhi is leading from Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala. *Former J&K chief minister and National Conference patron Farooq Abdullah is leading from the Srinagar constituency in J&K.

Comprehensive changes on cards for PSBs


NEW DELHI: A host of measures are on the cards for transformation of public sector banks (PSBs). While consolidation tops the agenda, a list of directions is being separately worked out for state-owned lenders to focus on risk assessment, enhanced early warning signals in cases of stressed assets and bringing in new fintech players."We will soon be initiating the second round of reforms through our EASE (enhanced access and service excellence) programme," a finance ministry official told ET on condition of anonymity.PSBs have already been asked to carry out an internal assessment for shortlisting ideal candidates for possible mergers or acquisitions. "Two separate processes are simultaneously being carried out.... The government has some combinations in mind and based on the inputs it receives from lenders, it will take a final call," said the official.Some possible combinations revolve around big lenders such as the Punjab National Bank and Bank of India. Last year the government had initiated reforms for PSBs under EASE programme and directed these lenders to draw up a boardapproved strategic vision consistent with their risk-appetite framework."We have been holding discussions and reviews with PSBs in the last two months. Based on that we will soon roll out measures for prudential and clean lending," said another finance ministry official.The new performance parameters that may be introduced this year through the EASE programme include more stringent early warning signals (EWS) to tackle stressed assets, effective coordination in large value loans and bringing in new financial technology players to deepen financial inclusion and digitalisation.Another suggestion is to reconstitute the management committee of the board which takes decisions on large value loans and have representation from risk management, said the second official.Separately, the Banks Board Bureau (BBB) has selected around 80 chief general managers (CGMs) from all PSBs who will be trained in globally acclaimed management institutes such as the Kellogg School of Management in the United States. "This is to create a pipeline for future heads in PSBs and also to address the knowledge gap in key functioning areas of banks," said the official.Some experts said the government should look beyond EASE rankings and push banks towards differentiated banking. "Merger is not the silver bullet for India's banking woes," said MP Shorawala, a former independent director with the Central Bank of India.

Top 20 constituencies to watch out for


H&M may soon take on Ikea, others to deck up your home


Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) is keen to enter India's home decor and furnishing products industry, a move that will pitch the global fashion retailer against local firms Bombay Dyeing and Fabindia, and its Swedish peer Ikea. An offshoot of the high-street fashion label, H&M Home sells products such as cushion covers, blankets, curtains and accessories. "We are looking at the home segment and it will be decoration products and not furniture. There are not many players in that category and the product range doesn't change for years. In the organised sector, our strength will be the latest assortment," said H&M's India chief executive Janne Einola. The company hasn't decided whether its furnishing-retail foray will be through a standalone format or existing stores would be leveraged to sell new product lines. Globally, H&M Home is mostly present with 362 shop-in-shops and eight standalone stores, in about 50 countries. With annual sales of `1,109 crore in India, H&M, the world's second-largest clothing firm, has surpassed all apparel brands except Zara in revenue after three years of India operations. The Stockholm-based retailer stocks fast-fashion items created in-house, and teams up with designers for one-time collections. It keeps a large inventory of basic, everyday items sourced from manufacturers in India and Bangladesh. These items carry lower price tags than those sold by rivals. Foreign single-brand retailers need to meet 30% local sourcing norms to operate their own stores in the country. H&M said India is a large global supplier for home products and if these items are sold locally, the sourcing norms would be met. That would give the company significant cost advantages. "A bulk of sourcing for home products globally is from India and we'll benefit in terms of sourcing, given these will be made in India and sold here too," added Einola. Rising demand for premium and high-margin home furnishing products has drawn organised players to a segment that is largely unorganized in the country. Ikea opened its first India-based store in Hyderabad last year,while the JSW group launched its brand Forma in the furniture and furnishings segment a month ago.

Tata Sons plans to borrow $2 billion from overseas market


MUMBAI: Tata Sons is planning to tap the foreign loan market to raise $2 billion, its largest such borrowing till date, as group companies including Tata Steel and Tata Motors are expected to need liquidity support from the conglomerate's holding company.Senior Tata leaders are currently engaged with bankers and other financial institutions for price discovery ahead of the scheduled fund-raise, multiple officials aware of the situation said. The plan is to build a book at 120 basis points above Libor and the facility is expected to be for five years.In early 2018, Tata Sons raised $750 million through a special Reserve Bank of India dispensation to repay lenders of Tata Teleservices. But following the changes in guidelines earlier this year, which allowed NBFCs to tap the foreign loan market, Tata Sons, registered as a core investment company with the RBI, is once again keen to avail this option. The RBI approval is awaited.A Tata Sons spokesperson declined to comment. 69453075 Tata Sons is the principal investment holding company of the Tata Group. Around 66% of Tata Sons' share capital is held by public charitable trusts. It also holds equity stakes in major group companies including flagship Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, Tata Steel Ltd, Tata Motors Ltd, Tata Power Company Ltd, Tata Chemicals Ltd, Tata Investment Corporation Ltd, TTSL, Tata Capital Ltd, Tata Sky Ltd, Tata Projects Ltd, among others.Bulking up its balance sheet now is key as two of the group's biggest businesses are facing severe headwinds globally.Debt Piles at JLR, Tata MotorsNet debt at Tata Motors stands at Rs 28,000 crore, of which Rs 6,500 crore is JLR's, as per the group's own estimate, as Jaguar Land Rover still struggles to tide over a demand slump in China, the world's biggest auto market. Similarly, a steel deal in Europe that would've eased the group's liabilities unravelled this month after regulators blocked a merger proposal with Germany's Thyssenkrupp to create Europe's second largest steelmaker. The combined gross debt of steel and auto stands at $27 billion, as per Bloomberg estimates, constituting a lion's share of about $40 billion group debt — the largest for any Indian conglomerate. This excludes debt of $9 billion till March 2018 for Tata Steel BSL Ltd and Tata Teleservices Maharashtra Ltd, which are in the process of restructuring.The twin developments mark the biggest challenge facing the 151-year-old group that ventured overseas through a series of headline grabbing acquisitions more than a decade ago.However, bankers believe the flexibility of an aggressive pricing might not be easy at this moment, especially after the muted response to some of the group's debt papers. In December, JLR's Singapore based holding company raised $1 billion for five years from a consortium of nine banks including HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, Mizuho, Citi, Credit Agricole, among others. These banks subsequently found it extremely difficult to sell down during syndication and trades took place at a steep discount."The Tata Group has been diversifying its business presence through both organic and inorganic means. This has resulted in large funding requirements across group companies. Tata Sons, with its strong balance sheet and liquidity, and being the principal investment holding company of the Tata Group, is expected to participate in investments in these group companies," said Subodh Rai, senior director at Crisil. "As a result, Tata Sons' business risk profile will depend on the success of these investments."Tata Sons' debt to market value of investments ratio has increased due to increased level of investments in the group entities, including TCS. The ratio of debt to market value of investments may increase to over 10% in the medium term.In the past Tata Sons has subscribed to rights issues by group companies. It has also hiked its stake in Tata Motors to consolidate promoter holding and soothe investor nerves. Last March, Tata Sons sold a marginal 1.5% stake in TCS for Rs 9,000 crore, primarily to improve the leverage ratio of the holding company which has been purchasing stakes from group companies as part of untangling the cross-holdings among them."Steel has come as a bolt from the blue. Tata Sons has to also bankroll group initiatives like financial services, aviation, retail – all cash guzzlers. Thyssenkrupp was to maximise cost and operational synergies and an alternative could also run into the same regulatory challenges. Expect some serious reviews of business and divestments," said an old group watcher on condition of anonymity.Tata Sons' financial flexibility comes from its ability to raise additional funds by sale or pledge of its large portfolio of investments, mainly equity shares in TCS. As on July 30, 2018, the market value of investments was about Rs 6.5 lakh crore, of which TCS constituted more than 80% in value. According to Crisil, Tata Sons' financial risk profile is supported by company's comfortable liquidity and a sound capital structure. Tata Sons remains adequately resourced, which together with regular dividend income — primarily from its holding in TCS — provides high cash flow adequacy for debt servicing, which reflects a strong financial profile. As on July 31, 2018, Tata Sons' standalone cash and cash equivalents were about Rs 5,587 crore. Tata Sons will continue to manage its liabilities and cash prudently. Investments proposed to be made in FY19 are expected to be funded through a combination of share buyback programme of TCS, dividend flow from the group companies as well as divestments by Tata Sons.

F&O: Bulls face stiff tug-of-war with the bears to cross 11,888


By Chandan TapariaNifty50 managed to hold its previous day's low on Wednesday and traded in a wide range between 11,680 and 11,780 levels for most part of the session ahead of election results. The index formed a small-body candle followed by a Dark Cloud Cover with higher volatility, which indicated that the bulls have to face a tug-of-war with the bears to decisively surpass its lifetime high and a major hurdle at 11,888 level.Now, it has to hold above 11,666 to extend its move towards 11,888 and then attempt to hit the psychologically important 12,000 mark while major support exists at 11,550 level.On the options front, maximum Put open interest was at 11,000 followed by 10,500 levels, while maximum Call OI was at 12,000 followed by 12,500. Marginal Call and Put writing activities were seen in the market.India VIX moved up 7.73 per cent to 27.63 level. India VIX made a new record high of 30.18, which was its highest level in last 44 months since September 2015. A higher VIX could continue volatile swings in the market, but a sharp cut in VIX cannot be ruled out after the election results.Bank Nifty formed a Small Inside Bar on the daily scale and traded above the support at 30,250 by respecting its hurdle near the previous swing high of 30,669. The index formed a Bullish Candle and has been forming higher lows for last four sessions. Now, it has to hold above 30,000 to attract buying interest towards 30,926 and then 31,250 levels, even as the next major support shifts to 29,500 level.Nifty futures closed positive with a gain of 0.66 per cent at 11,791. Long buildup was seen in IndusInd Bank, Just Dial, Manappuram Finance and Sun TV while shorts were seen in Jindal Steel, DHFL, Hindustan Zinc, L&T Finance and Zeel.(Chandan Taparia is Technical & Derivative Analyst at MOFSL. Investors are advised to consult financial advisers before taking an investment calls based on these observations)

IndusInd CEO says IL&FS a one-off case, explains fiscal outlook


IndusInd Bank's net profit fell 62% year-on-year in the quarter ended March 2019 as the bank made provisions for its loan exposure to the IL&FS Group. Barring this exposure though, the bank's core profitability remained intact. In an interview to Joel Rebello, IndusInd CEO Romesh Sobti explained the reasons for the rise in provisions and the outlook for fiscal 2020. Edited excerpts:What's the reason for the increase in provision?You have to split the provision into a particular specific provision and the business as usual (BAU) provision. The big chunk came from the infrastructure group in which the specific provision for the quarter was Rs 1,120 crore. We also reversed two quarter interest of Rs 153 crore which gave us a total impact of Rs 1,273 crore in Q4. We have now provided 70% for the holding company and 25% for the operating companies. Apart from this, the BAU credit cost is 19 basis points which hits your P&L because of NPAs, and our total credit costs for the year is 57 basis points, well within our target of 60 bps. If you include IL&FS, it is 108 bps, but it's a one-off.There is also speculation on other risky exposures the bank may have…We waited till we had this platform of results declaration before we made some statement. These names put together from a media company, housing finance company or a conglomerate are 1.9% of our funded and non-funded exposure. It is not a single day overdue in our books and don't even come under the SMA 1 and SMA 2. We have 140% of value of security against these exposures, of which close to 60% is listed liquid securities. We have chosen not to sell them because they are standard and we don't need to. For the coming year, we still believe that keeping credit costs at 60 basis points is a fair assumption. In FY18, it was 62 basis points, and in FY19 (excluding IL&FS) it was 57 basis points, and we are saying 60 bps for FY 20.Are you now comfortable with the level of provisions?It's not a thumb in the air sought of estimation; it's based on realisable value of assets in the holding company. There are Rs 24,000 crore of assets and the realisable value we are assuming is 20%, and on that basis 70% provisioning is a good level. On the operating company, the 25% has a possibility of a write-back. If need be, this provisioning can be used for the other side as well and we have not used the floating provision. The emphasis is to look beyond IL&FS and look at the underlying. Loan growth, deposit growth, fee growth are all intact. Credit costs are intact and cost to income ratio ex-IL&FS is the same, or slightly below. NIM ex-IL&FS is slightly better. This is the way forward, and to this, you super impose Bharat Financial.Why is the merger with Bharat Financial taking so long? Is there a change in deal structure because of the delay?We have waited months and it's in the last stages. The court has reserved it for orders and hopefully the outcome will be a final order after the courts open on May 27. We will also publish the consolidated umbers for the full financial year 2019, Q4 FY18 and also Q1 FY20. That will give a fair idea of the way forward for the combined entity. There is no change in the structure. Bharat Financial was always meant to be a subsidiary. It is a merger followed by subsidiarisation of the network. The balance sheet and P&L will sit in the bank. This becomes a BC but continues to do exactly what they are doing today. So there is no change. We will get the advantages of the synergies in terms of cost of funds, priority sector lending, risk weightage fall.What are the bank's plans for finding a successor to your position?Succession has occupied the mind of the board for more than five years. When I turned 64, it was not certain whether I will be allowed beyond 65 and now I am 69. The board started debating on the whole issue of succession. That succession planning has not been obstructed or clouded by all this talk of extension and things like that. That stays on its own course. If anything of this nature happens, it happens. If it does not happen, our plan A continues. Five or six months before my retirement, there would be a successor in place. We are not in touch with RBI at this stage. As things stand today, the RBI has said that retirement is on March 2020. We are going on this basis. If there is a change, a whole different line of action will happen but it's not presumptive.

WhatsApp tipline gets 70k requests to verify messages


NEW DELHI: WhatsApp has received over 75,000 requests from people asking the company to authenticate messages they received after launching an India tip line number for this purpose a month ago, the company said. The India tip line was set up under a research project to combat fake news during the general elections held over seven phases from April 11 to May 19 and was launched by PROTO, an India-based media skilling startup. "The response on the tipline has been tremendous and has received over 75,000 claims since the launch, in five languages — Hindi, Telugu, Bengali, Malayalam and English," a WhatsApp spokesperson said.WhatsApp had said in April that the tip line would help create a database of rumours for the study of misinformation during the elections for Checkpoint, a research project commissioned and technically assisted by WhatsApp."As more data flows in, we continue to identify the issues, languages, regions that are most susceptible to or affected by this problem. We noticed duplicate or related claims were mostly about public service information messages related to voters' rights, surveys from states where assembly and Lok Sabha polls coincided and memes evoking nationalist pride like Make in India trains...Campaign posters and statements related to important political leaders came in for verification several times in a day," said Nasr Ul Hadi and Ritvvij Parrikh, co-founders, PROTO."There was a lot of inflow in regional languages — but most claims were related to the two national parties, and based on items attributed (not by the PROTO team) to their rival's IT cells," the founders said.WhatsApp said in the first week of April that people in India could send unverified messages they received on their phones to WhatsApp number +91-9643-000-888 to be cross-checked.It said news consultancy Dig Deeper Media and San Francisco-based Meedan, which builds digital tools for verification and fact-checking and has worked on projects like Electionland in the US and CrossCheck in France, were helping Proto in developing the verification and research frameworks for India.The Facebook-owned messaging platform had said Meedan will maintain the database of rumours that will be processed. It said Meedan had developed technology to verify messages and that it had expanded its Check platform developed for recent elections in Mexico and France and integrated it with the WhatsApp Business API (application programming interface) to receive and respond to messages.Proto's verification centre would respond to user requests through the tip line to validate suspicious messages and indicate whether the information is true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope and any other related information that is available.The centre was supposed to review messages in the form of pictures, video links and text. WhatsApp had said Proto would encourage grassroots organisations to submit suspected rumours circulating across various regions in India during the election period.

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జగన్‌ ఇప్పటికీ నాకు ఆత్మీయుడే

Posted: 22 May 2019 04:34 AM PDT

వైఎస్ రాజశేఖర్ రెడ్డి. రెండు సార్లు ఉమ్మడి ఏపీకి సీఎంగా పనిచేసిన నేత. వైఎస్ తెరముందు రాజకీయం నడిపితే..తెరవెనుక ఆయన ప్రాణస్నేహితుడు.. ఆత్మగా పిలిచే కేవీపీ రాంచంద్రరావు వ్యవహారం నడిపేవారు. వీరిద్దరి స్నేహం…. వైఎస్ మృతితో దూరమైంది. ఆ తర్వాత జగన్ సొంతంగా పార్టీ పెట్టుకోవడం.. కాంగ్రెస్ కు దూరమవ్వడంతో జగన్, కేవీపీల మధ్య గ్యాప్ పెరిగిందన్న వార్తలు వచ్చాయి. అయితే జగన్‌కు తను ఎప్పుడూ సన్నిహితుడనేనని.. తమ మధ్య మంచి సంబంధాలున్నాయని తాజాగా ఓ ఇంటర్వ్యూలో […]

మళ్లీ దిల్ రాజు క్యాంపులో మహేష్ బాబు?

Posted: 22 May 2019 12:30 AM PDT

టాలీవుడ్ సూపర్ స్టార్ మహేష్ బాబు ఈ మధ్యనే తన కెరీర్ లో 25వ చిత్రమైన ‘మహర్షి’ సినిమా తో ప్రేక్షకుల ముందుకు  వచ్చాడు. వంశీ పైడిపల్లి దర్శకత్వం లో పూజా హెగ్డే హీరోయిన్ గా నటించిన ఈ సినిమా మే 9న విడుదలైంది. భారీ అంచనాల మధ్య విడుదలైన ఈ సినిమా మొదటి రోజు నుండే మిక్స్డ్ రెస్పాన్స్ ను అందుకుంది. దిల్ రాజు, అశ్వినీదత్, పీవీపీ సంయుక్తంగా ఈ చిత్రాన్ని నిర్మించిన సంగతి తెలిసిందే. […]

తెలంగాణలో బీజేపీ ‘బెంగాల్’ ఫార్ములా

Posted: 22 May 2019 12:30 AM PDT

ఎగ్జిట్ పోల్స్ వచ్చేయడంతో బీజేపీ శిబిరంలో ఉత్సాహం నెలకొంది. ఇదే ఊపులో దేశంలో విస్తరించాలని యోచిస్తోంది. ముఖ్యంగా దక్షిణాదిన జాతీయ పార్టీల బలం లేని రాష్ట్రాలలో తమ పార్టీ పాత్రను పెంచాలని బీజేపీ నేతలు డిసైడ్ అయ్యారు. కేంద్రంలో బీజేపీ అధికారంలోకి వస్తుందని ఎగ్జిట్ పోల్స్ లో తెలియగానే తెలంగాణ బీజేపీ నేతల్లో ఆశలు చిగురించాయి. మొన్నటి తెలంగాణ అసెంబ్లీ ఎన్నికల్లో మోడీ వచ్చినా.. అమిత్ షా వచ్చి ఎంత ప్రయత్నం చేసినా తెలంగాణ ప్రజలు ఆ […]

కాజల్, తమన్నా లనే నమ్ముకున్నారా?

Posted: 21 May 2019 11:26 PM PDT

గత కొంతకాలంగా డిజాస్టర్ లతో సతమతమవుతున్న బెల్లంకొండ సాయి శ్రీనివాస్ తాజాగా ‘సీత’ అనే సినిమాతో ప్రేక్షకుల ముందుకు రాబోతున్నాడు. తేజ దర్శకత్వం వహించిన ఈ సినిమాలో కాజల్ అగర్వాల్ హీరోయిన్ గా నటించింది. ఇప్పటికే విడుదలైన ఈ చిత్ర టీజర్ మరియు ట్రైలర్ చూస్తుంటే ఈ సినిమాలో కాజల్ పాత్రకు ప్రాధాన్యత ఉండబోతోందని తెలుస్తోంది. చిత్ర బృందం కూడా కాజల్ తోనే ఎక్కువగా ఈ సినిమాకు ప్రమోషన్ చేస్తోంది. మరోవైపు ‘అభినేత్రి 2’ సినిమాకి కూడా అదే […]

ఏపీలో అత్యధిక బెట్టింగ్ ఈ సీటుపైనే….

Posted: 21 May 2019 10:53 PM PDT

రేపే ఫలితాలు.. 23 మధ్యాహ్నం వచ్చే సరికి దేశంలో ఎవరిది అధికారం అనేది చూచాయగా తెలుస్తుంది. ఓట్ల లెక్కింపునకు ఒక్కరోజు మాత్రమే సమయం ఉండడంతో ఏపీలో బెట్టింగ్ జోరుగా సాగుతోంది. అమరావతి, విజయవాడ, తాడేపల్లి, ఉండవల్లి, తెనాలి, తూర్పు, పశ్చిమ గోదావరి జిల్లాలు కేంద్రాలుగా బెట్టింగ్ రాయుళ్లు రెచ్చిపోతున్నారు. లక్షల్లో ప్రజలు, ఔత్సాహికులు కూడా పందాలు కాస్తున్నారు. ఆదివారం ఎగ్జిట్ పోల్స్ రావడంతో ముఖ్యంగా ఏపీలో గెలుపు ఎవరిది అనే దానిపై పెద్దగా పందాలు సాగడం లేదు. […]

ఓడిపోతే ఏం చేద్దాం…?

Posted: 21 May 2019 10:30 PM PDT

ఎన్నికల ఫలితాలు రావడానికి ఇంకా ఒక్క రోజు సమయం మాత్రమే మిగిలి ఉంది. దాదాపు అన్ని పార్టీలలో విజయావకాశాల మీద ఉత్కంఠ నెలకొంది. టీడీపీ అధినేత చంద్రబాబు కూడా ఇందుకు అతీతం కాదు… కాకపోతే పైకి మాత్రం మేకపోతు గాంభీర్యాన్ని ప్రదర్శిస్తున్నారు. విజయం తమదేనని పదేపదే ప్రకటిస్తున్నా, పరాజయం తప్పదేమోనని ఆయన లోలోపల ఆందోళన చెందుతున్నట్టు తెలుస్తోంది. అందుకే భవిష్యత్ వ్యూహాల గురించి ఆయన పార్టీకి చెందిన సీనియర్ నాయకులతో చర్చలు జరుపుతున్నారని అంటున్నారు. రాష్ట్రంలో అధికారం […]

టీమిండియా అమ్ములపొదిలో స్పిన్ ట్విన్స్

Posted: 21 May 2019 10:28 PM PDT

ప్రపంచకప్ కు భారత జాదూ స్పిన్నర్లు చాహల్, కుల్దీప్  మణికట్టుతో మాయచేసే స్పిన్ జోడీ చాహల్, కుల్దీప్ ల సత్తాకు ప్రపంచకప్ పరీక్ష బ్యాట్స్ మన్ స్వర్గధామం, ఇంగ్లండ్ అండ్ వేల్స్ వేదికగా జరిగే వన్డే ప్రపంచకప్ కోసం భారత నవతరం స్పిన్ జోడీ చాహల్, కుల్దీప్ యాదవ్ ఎక్కడలేని ఆసక్తితో ఎదురుచూస్తున్నారు. లెగ్ స్పిన్నర్ యజువేంద్ర చాహల్, లెఫ్టామ్ చైనామన్ స్పిన్నర్ కుల్దీప్ యాదవ్ తమ స్పిన్ జాదూతో ప్రపంచకప్ లో టీమిండియాను విజేతగా నిలపాలన్న పట్టుదలతో ఉన్నారు. […]

పెద్ద సినిమాల మీదే కన్నేసిన డీఎస్పీ

Posted: 21 May 2019 10:07 PM PDT

టాలీవుడ్ లో ఉన్న టాప్ సంగీత దర్శకులలో దేవి శ్రీ ప్రసాద్ కూడా ఒకరు. ఇండస్ట్రీలో స్టార్ డమ్ అనుభవిస్తున్న దేవిశ్రీ పై గత కొంత కాలంగా కొన్ని విమర్శలు కూడా వినిపిస్తున్నాయి. దేవిశ్రీ కి సంగీతం పై పట్టు పోయిందని, తన పాటలు ఈ మధ్య రొటీన్ గా ఉంటున్నాయని నెటిజన్లు కామెంట్లు చేస్తున్నారు. తాజాగా విడుదలైన ‘మహర్షి’ సినిమాలో కూడా దేవిశ్రీ అందించిన సంగీతం పెద్దగా ఉపయోగపడలేదు. దీనితో మహేష్ బాబు అభిమానులు కూడా […]

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Boom wants to build a supersonic jet for mainstream passengers; here’s its game plan

Posted: 22 May 2019 04:06 PM PDT

While much of the world remains fixated on the competition to build autonomous cars, there’s another race that’s gaining momentum fast. It centers on supersonic jets that can fly faster than the speed of sound, or 767 miles per hour. Indeed, while most commercial airliners today fly at between 400 and 650 miles per hour — largely because it’s more economical to burn fuel more slowly — a spate of startups is borrowing from the age of the legendary Concorde to build planes that they say will fly at 1,000 miles per hour, 1,500 miles per hour, and, even in one case, at more than 3,000 miles per hour.

The last of these, and seemingly the most audacious, is Hermeus, a year-old, Atlanta-based startup that wants to build planes capable of getting from New York to London in 90 minutes. Just last week, it announced that it has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Khosla Ventures. It’s also reportedly being advised by the former president of Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin space company. (That’s also where Hermeus’s CTO, Glenn Case, spent more than four years working on propulsion design and development.)

On the other end of the spectrum are Aerion Supersonic and Spike Aerospace, both of which expect to build planes that seat around 12 people and fly at a little more than 1,000 miles per hour. Spike, an eight-year-old, Boston-based outfit, is very much focused on the luxury market. Aerion, a 17-year-old, Reno, Nev.-based concern, meanwhile wants to start with a 12-seater, then graduate to a larger and faster version of the same plane that can serve as a commercial airline.

Aerion seems to have the most momentum of the three. It’s currently collaborating with GE Aviation on its engine, Honeywell for its flight deck, and Boeing on engineering, design, and manufacturing. (Also worth noting: it has seen Lockheed Martin pull out of a partnership, as well as Airbus.)

But there is another company hoping to steal its thunder, and that’s Boom, a roughly five-year-old, Denver-based, 150-person company that has raised $141 million from investors, including Japan Airlines, Emerson Collective, and Y Combinator, and that says the capital is more than enough to begin realizing its vision of creating 55-seat airplanes that fly at twice the speed of sound, and at prices that compete with today’s business class fares.

In fact, says Boom, if all goes as planned, it will eventually make and sell planes to airlines that fly just as fast but accommodate many more people — at economy fares.

Is it possible? It’s possible to imagine, at least, for transatlantic flights, such as between New York to London, San Francisco to Tokyo, and Seattle to Shanghai. Because of the continuous loud “boom” created by the shock waves of any object moving faster than the speed of sound, most countries have banned supersonic jets from flying overhead.

Of course, there are many outstanding questions, including how these startups make the economics work, whether they can be sufficiently fuel efficient, and what it means to make flight around the globe faster — both the good and the bad.

Following, you can find outtakes from a conversation we had with Scholl last week at one of our StrictlyVC events, wherein he addresses many of these same questions. We’re also providing video of the interview, in case you’d like to hear from him directly.

We thoroughly enjoyed the conversation; we hope you will, too.

TC: Blake, you [spent a handful of years with Amazon, working on mobile shopping, then Groupon acquired a mobile payment company you’d cofounded, Kima Labs, and you stayed on]. So you’re at Groupon. You don’t have an aerospace background. But you decide that you are the guy to start a supersonic jet company. How did that happen?

BS:  It goes back to the decision I made to sell [Kima Labs] . . . I thought, is it worth what I will go through personally for the product we’re building, or should I take the great offer and live to found another day? And so I took the offer, and in reflecting on that, what I realized is, like, all startups are hard. There’s no such thing as an easy startup. And what often makes the difference is what decisions you make in those moments. What happens when you get up in the morning, and it’s a rough day — do you think, Why did I get into this thing? Or do you think, It doesn’t matter —  it’s totally worth it?

So after leaving Groupon, I had a whole bunch of startup ideas, everything from rental cars, to some stuff in healthcare, and my personal passion for a long time had been airplanes. And so I put on that lens of, how happy will I be personally if it works? And so I thought, I have to look at the supersonic thing that I’ve been sort of thinking about for a decade and do some research and probably get it out of my system.

TC: And how do you start putting together a plan to create a jet that flies at twice the speed of sound?

BS: The first thing was to understand why it hadn’t been done already. As it turns out, there was a bunch of just false conventional wisdom — that the space is capital intensive, that it’si highly regulated, that there are only two companies on the planet that build long-range commercial aircraft. So it just scares off a lot of entrepreneurs.

[So I went back to] first principles and [thought], the Concorde was created 50 years ago with slide rules and wind tunnels. And half a century later, [I wondered] why is that not working, and what would it take, and the answer was that the fuel economy was the problem. It was too expensive to operate, [so] none of the people could afford to fly on it. And you start to run the numbers and say, well — by the way, all this stuff you can do out of Wikipedia — what would you have to do to make this economically feasible? It turns out the answer is [to make the fuel efficiency] 30 percent [better] versus what was designed a long time ago. And you start to realize, that doesn’t sound impossible. [So] I went off and read some aerospace textbooks, and took a design class, and started to meet everybody I could find in the industry, and I told them to shoot holes in my idea. And eventually, people started saying, ‘No, this actually makes sense.’ And then so we started the company.

TC: How much of what you’re working on is built from scratch, versus building on the work of your predecessors?

BS: We’re really standing on the shoulders of all the work that’s happened in aerospace since literally the Concorde 50 years ago. And we’ve gone from aluminum as the material to carbon fiber composites; we’ve gone from defining aerodynamics in wind tunnels to being able to do it in simulation, through cloud computing; we’ve gone from engines that are loud and very inefficient to modern jet engines that are quiet and sip fuel. And it turns out that if you take all that technology that’s been proven, the big players in the space have been iteratively optimizing the same you’ve had since the 1960s. But you can actually take that same technology and instead of make the machine more efficient, make the human more efficient, and deploy it in service of speed. So the the design of our airplane is very radical, but the fundamental technology is conventional.

TC: So the wings are in the back. And how many jet engines does the plane feature?

BS: It has three, so one under each wing, and the third one on the tail.

TC: And who is building the jet engines?

BS: We haven’t picked a provider yet, but we’re working with two of the three major jet engine companies; they are basically bidding to provide a custom engine for us.

TC: You’re starting with a prototype that’s one third the size of the eventual airplane you plan to produce. Why did you decide on 55 seats for the design of the bigger plane?

BS: If you look at it relative to the Concorde, and you say, ‘Well, it’s not enough just to do something really cool, you have to make the economics work,’ what you need to do is to make the machine efficient enough that more people can afford to fly on it; you’ve gotta get the fares down. Then the second thing you’ve got to do is right-size the airplanes. If you’re in the airline business, you live and die by something called load factor, which is the percentage of seats that are filled. And if you put too many seats on the airplane relative to the price of the seats, you fly around empty. At 55 seats . . . you can fill the seats and make money . . .by charging business class fares . . .on hundreds of routes.

TC: My understanding was that on the Concorde, the cabin was actually quite small and not necessarily very comfortable. I’m sure this is sort of very much a later consideration, but have you put much
thought into how the cabin will look? Does it have to be terribly narrow? 

BS: The very first thing we built in my cofounder’s garage was a mock-up of the cabin, because it is size sensitive . . . If it’s a three- or four-hour flight, instead of a seven- or eight- or nine-hour flight, you’re still in there long enough that comfort matters. And so you can put a really nice interior in the airplane. So it’ll be sort of business-class style, with nice wide seats, big windows, plenty of room to work or relax. But when the flight is three to four hours, the seat doesn’t have to lay flat the way it does in business class today. By the time to get it down, it’s time to put it back up.

TC: So you said you’re still trying to decide on a jet engine provider. But again, this is highly ambitious. Are there any other partnerships that you’ve struck, maybe with [your investor] Japan Airlines? 

BS: [I recognize that] on the face of it, it sounds like something that only big companies can do. I think Boom has [requires] four ingredients to make it successful. Number one is the engineering execution on the airplanes; that’s the one thing we control directly. Number two is the customer demand, so showing that you’re building not just something that seems cool but is something that airlines really want. Number three is the supplier partnerships, so folks that build jet engines, folks that do carbon fiber composites, folks that do avionics. Unless you’re going to build the whole thing soup to nuts yourself, you need those partnerships. And then last but not least, you need a lot of capital.

And each of those components kind of wants the rest, like the investors want to know the airlines are there. The airlines always ask about the engine. The engine companies ask who the airlines are. And so it’s like a four-way chicken-and-egg problem. I often tell the team we’re in the chicken omelet business. [Laughs.] So what you do is incrementally spiral up. The tech on the airplane is actually conventional stuff that’s flying on other airplanes today, [meaning it’s] proven safe and reliable and efficient. But the way you go to market and the way you build partnerships is completely different from the way that Boeing or Airbus would do it. We call it ‘dating engagement marriage.’ And so whether it’s an airline partnership, or a supplier partnership, you start off with something relatively loose, like a letter of intent, that allows you to go off and show credibility to other parties, and you come back and you progressively sharpen those things.

So so where we stand today on the airline side of it is we’ve pre-sold 30 airplanes [to Japan Airlines and Virgin Group] at $200 million apiece . . .

TC: What does that mean, pre-sold? Is that a letter of intent?

BS: It’s a bit more than a letter of intent. This is the part of the go-to-market engineering that turns out to matter. So it’s basically an option agreement with some like cleverly engineered terms that I can’t go into too much. But basically, we achieve some milestones on our first prototype over the next year, and that kicks the options into expiration, and so the airlines, at the maximum point of Boom being credible, have to place an order or lose a bunch of favorable things.

For more on Boom, including how much it will need to raise, how it views its competitors, and how the company realizes its long-range vision to make the fastest flight the cheapest one, do check out our interview with Scholl below. If you’ve read the above interview, you might want to start around the 10-minute mark.

Mona Lisa frown: Machine learning brings old paintings and photos to life

Posted: 22 May 2019 03:41 PM PDT

Machine learning researchers have produced a system that can recreate lifelike motion from just a single frame of a person’s face, opening up the possibility of animating not just photos but also paintings. It’s not perfect, but when it works, it is — like much AI work these days — eerie and fascinating.

The model is documented in a paper published by Samsung AI Center, which you can read here on Arxiv. It’s a new method of applying facial landmarks on a source face — any talking head will do — to the facial data of a target face, making the target face do what the source face does.

This in itself isn’t new — it’s part of the whole synthetic imagery issue confronting the AI world right now (we had an interesting discussion about this recently at our Robotics + AI event in Berkeley). We can already make a face in one video reflect the face in another in terms of what the person is saying or where they’re looking. But most of these models require a considerable amount of data, for instance a minute or two of video to analyze.

The new paper by Samsung’s Moscow-based researchers, however, shows that using only a single image of a person’s face, a video can be generated of that face turning, speaking and making ordinary expressions — with convincing, though far from flawless, fidelity.

It does this by frontloading the facial landmark identification process with a huge amount of data, making the model highly efficient at finding the parts of the target face that correspond to the source. The more data it has, the better, but it can do it with one image — called single-shot learning — and get away with it. That’s what makes it possible to take a picture of Einstein or Marilyn Monroe, or even the Mona Lisa, and make it move and speak like a real person.

In this example, the Mona Lisa is animated using three different source videos, which as you can see produce very different results, both in facial structure and behavior.

It’s also using what’s called a Generative Adversarial Network, which essentially pits two models against one another, one trying to fool the other into thinking what it creates is “real.” By these means the results meet a certain level of realism set by the creators — the “discriminator” model has to be, say, 90% sure this is a human face for the process to continue.

In the other examples provided by the researchers, the quality and obviousness of the fake talking head varies widely. Some, which attempt to replicate a person whose image was taken from cable news, also recreate the news ticker shown at the bottom of the image, filling it with gibberish. And the usual smears and weird artifacts are omnipresent if you know what to look for.

That said, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does. Note, however, that this only works on the face and upper torso — you couldn’t make the Mona Lisa snap her fingers or dance. Not yet, anyway.

Spotify resets some account passwords citing ‘suspicious activity’

Posted: 22 May 2019 03:19 PM PDT

Music streaming giant Spotify has notified an unspecified number of users that the company has reset their account password, but has left dozens of users asking why.

In an email, some Spotify users were told their password was reset “due to detected suspicious activity,” but gave no further details.

When reached, Spotify spokesperson Peter Collins said: “As part of our ongoing maintenance efforts to combat fraudulent activity on our service, we recently shared a communication with select users to reset their passwords as a precaution. As a best practice, we strongly recommend users not to use the same credentials across different services to protect themselves.”

In other words, Spotify says this is a credential stuffing attack, where hackers take lists of usernames and passwords from other breached sites and brute-force their way into other accounts.

We contacted several people who received the email reset message. Some used the same password across different websites and some used passwords unique to Spotify. Two people who commented on this Hacker News thread also said their passwords were unique, casting doubt on the veracity of a credential stuffing attack.

It’s not uncommon for companies to reset user passwords if they believe they are weak or easily guessed. Companies typically don’t store user passwords in plaintext. Instead, they scramble passwords using a hashing algorithm. By scrambling lists of weak or stolen passwords using the same algorithm, companies can match weak passwords against their own databases and proactively send out password reset emails.

Netflix, Facebook and Spotify too have all proactively reset account passwords in the aftermath of third-party data breaches by obtaining the data set and matching exposed passwords against their databases.

Spotify did not respond to our follow-up questions.

Customers of Chipotle, DoorDash and OkCupid have all reported account hacks in recent months. All three have denied data breaches.

Google’s Duplex calls still frequently require human intervention

Posted: 22 May 2019 03:15 PM PDT

When Google launched Duplex with a demo at I/O last year, the audience was left wondering how much of the call was staged. The AI-based reservation booking service seemed almost too impressive to be a machine. Now that it's been used for real-world reservations, Google has revealed that it frequently isn't.

The company recently told The New York Times that Duplex calls are often still made by human operators at call centers. Roughly a quarter of calls start with a live human voice. Of the calls that start with machines, 15% require a human to intervene.

Google told us during a demo last year that humans would be monitoring the system, ready to take over if something went haywire. That's to be expected, of course. This sort of real-world testing ran into some snags as the company works to iron out the kinks, now that the product is available for both iOS and Android devices. But the 25% initiated by people seems a little high for the advanced AI-based system.

Along with initial test driving, Google is very much in a period of data collection for the service. While Duplex is extremely impressive in fits and starts (I've tried it, and it's capable of fooling the listener for a quick reservation, if all goes well), the neural network requires a tremendous amount of data to improve, even though it’s essentially limited to a single task.

Panic’s Playdate is a pint-sized gaming machine with a ‘season’ of 12 intriguing titles

Posted: 22 May 2019 03:08 PM PDT

Tired of your smartphone games, and don’t want to take the Switch with you on the train today? Panic, renowned creator of useful Mac apps and more recently publisher of interesting games, has created a tiny handheld console that goes anywhere and receives a regular trickle of new games. It’s called Playdate.

One has to admire the gumption of jumping into a space that has been so thoroughly dominated by Nintendo and smartphones over the last decade that hardly anyone has even attempted to break in. But Panic isn’t trying to build an empire — just do something interesting and new.

“Nothing’s surprising anymore and surprises are great!” reads the Playdate’s FAQ. “Panic saw an opportunity for something truly different in the world of video games. Something small-scale that could deliver a dose of fun and delight to video game players who have otherwise seen it all.”

It’s different, all right. Bright yellow with a black and white screen and with no spot for removable media like cartridges, the Playdate is more or less self-contained, except of course for the charger and wireless connection. And it’s over the wireless connection that the games come: 12 of them, exclusives created by well-known developers like Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy), Bennett Foddy (Getting Over It) and Zach Gage (Ridiculous Fishing).

They appear one at a time, weekly; the first title is Crankin's Time Travel Adventure, from Takahashi. Oh, right — did I mention it has a crank?

Yes, the gadget has the usual d-pad and two buttons, but on the side is a little crank that you’ll be using in all these weird little games. In the first one, for instance, you use it to advance and reverse time. Perhaps you’ll be reeling in fish, charging a flashlight, grinding stones for crafting or any number of other tasks. It’s not necessary for every game, though, so don’t worry if it seems too weird. (The crank was the inspired choice of Teenage Engineering, Panic’s hardware design partner.)

In case you didn’t notice, the games are also black and white. The 2.7-inch, 400×240 screen has no backlight; it isn’t e-paper, but rather just an LCD without color filters. I’ve been saying we should do this for years! It should make for improved battery life and change the way you play a bit — in bed by the light of a lamp instead of on the couch looking at a bright screen.

“We thought Playdate needed to be a different experience than the one you get from your phone, or from a TV-based console,” said Panic’s Director of Special Projects, Greg Maletic, in an email. “This bizarre 1-bit reflective screen was a big part of that: you just won't see a lot of devices go this route, and for us, that was part of the attraction. And it's worked out really well: developers have felt energized designing for this weird but cool screen.”

When the 12 titles have all been delivered, there’s the possibility that more will come, but that depends on lots of things, the company said. But they were careful to make the platform easily hackable.

“Most hardware platforms nowadays have tight restrictions, so it was important to us that Playdate be open enough to allow experimentation,” said Maletic. “That’s the kind of platform that we, as developers, were personally craving. So we’ve made sure that people will be able to develop their own games and easily share them with their friends, without having to worry about plagues of mobile development like code signing and provisioning profiles.”

You’ll be able to preorder a Playdate for $149 later in the year. Yeah, it isn’t cheap — but it’s weird and fun and for now one of a kind. That has to count for something in the increasingly genericized world of gaming hardware.

Documentary series Foundation is back with a season 2

Posted: 22 May 2019 02:04 PM PDT

Paris startup campus Station F and Le Studio Next have teamed up once again for a second season of Foundation, a documentary series about building a startup. If you liked the first season, you'll feel right at home.

A video team followed the entrepreneurs working for three startups through their work issues, their personal life and their emotional reactions. You'll feel like you know them after watching the series.

This year, Foundation focuses on three startups that try to have a social impact. You'll meet Jean Guo and Binta Jammeh, co-founders of Konexio; Ruben Hallali, founder of HD Rain; and Olivier Jeannel, founder of RogerVoice.

So without further ado, here's Foundation season 2:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Consumer Reports knocks Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot feature

Posted: 22 May 2019 01:51 PM PDT

Consumer Reports is calling the automatic lane-change feature on Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot “far less competent” than a human driver and cautioned it could pose safety risks.

The consumer advocacy organization posted its review Wednesday on the newest version of Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system.

Navigate on Autopilot is an active guidance system that is supposed to navigate a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. Once drivers enter a destination into the navigation system, they can enable "Navigate on Autopilot" for that trip.

Tesla pushed out a software update last month to allow for automatic lane changes. Drivers must enable this feature, which gives the car permission to make its own lane changes. If not enabled, the system asks the driver to confirm the lane change before moving over. Automatic lane changes can be canceled at any time.

The system has been touted as a way to make driving less stressful and improve safety. In practice, the system had startling behavior, Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, told TechCrunch.

“It doesn’t take very long behind the wheel with this feature on to realize it’s not quite ready for prime time,” Fisher said. CR said one of the more troubling concerns were failures of Tesla’s three rearward-facing cameras to detect fast-approaching objects from the rear better than the average driver.

The CR reviewers found Navigate on Autopilot lagged behind human driving skills and engaged in problematic behavior, such as cutting off cars and passing on the right. CR drivers often had to take over to prevent the system from making poor decisions.

As a result, the system increases stress and doesn’t improve safety, Fisher said, before asking, “So what is the point of this feature?”

The automatic lane-change feature reviewed by Consumer Reports is not the default setting for Autopilot, Tesla notes. It’s an option that requires drivers to remove the default setting. Tesla also argues that drivers using Navigate on Autopilot properly have successfully driven millions of miles and safely made millions of automated lane changes.

While Fisher acknowledged the default setting, he contends that isn’t the issue. He notes that Tesla has many warnings that the driver must be alert and ready to take over at any time.

“Our concern is that if you’re not alert (or ready to take over) you could be put into a tricky situation,” he said.

The bigger concern for all systems like these is the driver will put too much trust into it, Fisher said. The automatic lane-change feature might not be good enough for drivers to let down their guard yet. If Tesla improves this system, even a little bit, the risk of complacency and too much trust rises.

And that’s problematic because drivers still must be ready to take over. “Just watching automation is a harder human task than driving the car,” he said.

CR asserts that an effective driver-monitoring system would mitigate this risk. DMS is typically a camera combined with software designed to track a driver’s attention and pick up on cognitive issues that could cause an accident, such as drowsiness.

DMS are found in certain BMW models with an ADAS system called DriverAssist Plus, the new 2020 Subaru Outback and Cadillacs equipped with its Super Cruise system.

This isn’t the first time CR has raised concerns about Autopilot. Last week, the consumer advocacy organization called on Tesla to restrict the use of Autopilot and install a more effective system to verify driver engagement in response to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board on the fatal March 2019 crash of a Tesla Model 3 with a semi-trailer in Delray Beach, Fla.

Last year, CR gave GM’s Super Cruise the top spot in its first-ever ranking of partially automated driving systems because it is the best at striking a balance between technical capabilities and ensuring drivers are paying attention and operating the vehicle safely. Tesla followed in the ranking not because it was less capable, but because of its approach to safety, Fisher noted.

CR evaluated four systems: Super Cruise on the Cadillac CT6, Autopilot on Tesla Model S, X and 3 models, ProPilot Assist on Infiniti QX50 and Nissan Leaf, and Pilot Assist on Volvo XC40 and XC60 vehicles. The organization said it picked these systems because they're considered the most capable and well-known in the industry.

Modsy scores $37M to virtually redesign your home

Posted: 22 May 2019 01:29 PM PDT

Modsy has raised some new cash as the computer vision startup looks to get physical and build more of the furniture it recommends. The startup announced they have closed $37 million in Series C funding led by TCV. They’ve now raised north of $70 million to date.

The service combines computer vision tech with human designer know-how to let users design the trendy home of their dreams. The process begins with a user snapping pics of their room (or multiple rooms), which Modsy then stitches into a complete 3D model of the room.

Prices range from $69 to $349 depending on what level of finesse you’re looking for.

From there Modsy designers drop in furniture from their partners, like Crate&Barrel, Pottery Barn, West Elm and others, if you pay for their $149 single-room premium package, you can chat with the designers and swap out pieces or try completely different styles. All-in-all the app gives you a lot of options for the price, although the startup’s main method of monetization isn’t these one-time packages, it’s earning cash when you buy the furniture they suggest.

Earlier this year the company branched out into creating their own furniture line of sofas and chairs, which they are injecting into their room designs and recommendations. This could allow the company to transform into more of a smart furniture company as opposed to an AR/computer vision startup.

“I founded Modsy on the premise that in the future we would all be shopping from a personalized catalog-like experience within a virtual version of our real homes,” CEO Shanna Tellerman said in a statement. “This new round of funding will bring us even closer to this reality.”

Vignette is a handy new app that keeps your iOS contact photos up to date

Posted: 22 May 2019 12:48 PM PDT

If there’s a special place in your heart for single-purpose utilities that solve a nagging problem, then you’re going to want to skip your daily Starbucks coffee and instead buy yourself a copy of the new iOS contacts utility Vignette. The new app is focused on doing one thing well: finding photos for your contacts by scouring social media profiles and updating them.

Many people don’t bother to add a photo when entering in an iOS contact for the first time — it’s often an afterthought at best. And because the iOS Contacts app directs you to your own photo library to find an image when editing a contact, adding a photo tends to be something people only do for close friends and family. (After all, most people don’t carry photos of co-workers, clients or business colleagues on their iPhone.)

But that means when you use Apple’s Phone app or iMessage and others, you see gray boxes with the person’s initials instead of a colorful picture.

It’s a minor grievance, sure, but one that can impact people with wide networks — like those who interact with a range of clients or customers as part of their job, or remote workers who like to be reminded of what far-flung colleagues look like, for instance.

Plus, the gray initial boxes are just aesthetically displeasing.

Vignette is simple to use. The app will scan select fields in your Contacts, including Email (which is used for Gravatar), Twitter, Facebook and the Custom social network field, Instagram. (Instagram is not one of the built-in options in iOS Contacts, unfortunately).

You can then choose to update each contact with the photo it finds. In the case of multiple photos, you can pick which you prefer. And you don’t have to make these updates one-by-one — you can “Select All” to make dozens or even hundreds of updates at once.

If you’re worried the app won’t find anything — or not enough to warrant spending $4.99 — you can opt to run the scan first, before committing to paying. But if you decide to proceed with the updates, you’ll need to make the one-time purchase.

There are some third-party utilities for contact management, including those that will update based on social network profile data; but they tend to require you to authenticate with the third-party network in order to pull in the additional content.

Vignette does not. The app instead takes a privacy-minded approach to its work. It doesn’t require you upload your contacts to its servers, and it only uses the social networks anonymously as opposed to having you log in.

The indie developer behind the app, Casey Liss — who you might know from the Accidental Tech Podcast or the video series Casey on Cars — says he has a few ideas for improving the app in the near-term.

This includes duplicate detection, limiting Vignette’s scans to select contact groups and better Facebook integration. (Right now it requires a numeric Facebook ID like fb://profile/1234567, which Liss realizes is undesirable).

He also acknowledges that many people are asking for LinkedIn integration.

“That would require login, which I'm currently kind of allergic to, but I've gotten enough requests to at least consider it,” he tells us.

The app was built over three months’ time, and is now launching just days before Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC, where it’s expected we’ll see updated versions of core apps, including Messages.

Given its singular purpose, Vignette may not have a wide audience. Liss admitted that’s the case on a recent episode of the Analog(ue) podcast, in fact.

When asked who the app was for, he responded: “it’s for me.”

“This is really scratching an itch that I had. I really was tired of looking at all these initials in my Contacts list — I wanted to have pictures,” he explained. “But I didn’t want to go through the manual process of adding them all one-by-one.”

He may be surprised to find quite a few of us were similarly annoyed by all the gray initials. The app today is making the rounds across the Apple blogs and news sites, including 9to5Mac, MacStories, The Mac Observer, Cult of Mac and others, where it’s being largely well-received.

Vignette is a free download with a $4.99 in-app purchase on the App Store.


My desk doesn’t deserve the $600 Dyson Lightcycle lamp

Posted: 22 May 2019 12:38 PM PDT

Like many of you, I'm assuming, my desk was purchased at Ikea and is the center of my life. Such as it is, the desk is littered with bits of crackers, memory cards, branded Moleskin notebooks and countless coffee cups. I'm not a slob. I just live here. The desk is clean enough.

Then Dyson sent me its new task light to try out. My desk suddenly felt dirty. After assembling the light, I looked around and took inventory of my life and choices. If I was going to have something as lovely as this on my desk, I would have to have a cleaner space. I cleaned up my desk.

[gallery ids="1831413,1831417,1831415,1831420,1831419"]


The Dyson Lightcycle is, well, a light. It makes the room brighter. And because it's made by Dyson, it's over-engineered and expensive. The Lightcycle is $600 and I’m not going to attempt to justify its price. I can’t. This is a product that costs countless times over its utility.

First the good.

The light works. Hit a button on the top and it turns on. Slide your finger across the top and the light’s brightness and color temperature changes.

The light is constructed with an insane attention to detail. It's perfectly balanced. As the light slides up and down its main pole, a counterweight ensures an effortless motion. Likewise, the light arm slides back and forth on three large wheels. All the while, its seemingly wireless with all the connections and wires hidden throughout the mechanisms.

The Dyson Task light is beautiful. It's impossible to look at the light and not be impressed by the construction. The function of the design is perfect for my desk. I placed it in the center of my workspace and the long arm allows it to reach where ever it’s needed.

The light works great and thanks to adjustable color temperatures, works in every situation. There are two touch-sensitive bars on top of the unit. Just slide a fingertip across the bars to make the light brighter or change the color temp. Dyson took the light temperatures option to the next level. The owner can connect the lamp to a smartphone app through Bluetooth, and when the light is connected, it will sync the color temp to the idea setting to match the owner's location on Earth. It's a clever function and is said to have a host of mental and physical benefits.

According to Dyson, this lamp's LED unit is good for 60 years thanks to a heat pipe system. It's said to pull the excess heat generated by the LED away from the unit, ensuring it lasts as long as possible.

And now the bad.

This lamp costs $600. That's a hard sell. There are countless minimalist task lamps on the market. None have all the features found on the Dyson Lightcycle, but one could argue that a person doesn't need all of the features.

I found the light produced by the Lightcycle adequate. The intensity is adjustable and there's even a supercharged mode that turns the intensity up to 11 — but that's only accessible through the smartphone companion app. To me, when you need extra light, you need it immediately and not after the 30 seconds needed to use an app.

The Lightcycle’s main selling point is the automatic adjustable color temperature. It’s a lovely feature and my eyes feel great after using this lamp. Just to be clear, there are a lot of products on the market for much less than the Lightcycle that can replicate the ideal color temperature. Get one. They’re a great gadget to have around in the winter months.

Bottom line.

I can’t recommend a person spend $600 on a light. That said, the Dyson Lightcycle is a lovely object, should last a lifetime and works as advertised.

Getaround, Facebook, AI chips, Nvidia, Africa, and immigration

Posted: 22 May 2019 12:35 PM PDT

Who helped your startup grow? Nominate a growth marketing agency.

For those who have been members of Extra Crunch for a while now, you have seen us go through two cycles of Verified Experts, covering startup attorneys and brand designers. Now, we turn our attention to our third community of startup professionals: growth marketers / hackers. Growth is the single most important objective of any startup, and so these professionals can have an outsized impact on which companies grow, and by how much.

Yvonne Leow is leading our search for the best growth marketers out there, as rated by founders. Worked with someone yourself? Impressed by the growth of a friend's startup? Let us know with this handy form and get ready for new profiles in the coming weeks.

The Exit: Getaround's $300M roadtrip

Our SF-based reporter Lucas Matney published his second piece in his "The Exit" series on, well, startup exits. Last time, Lucas looked at the acquisition of Dynamic Yield for $300 million by McDonald's, and now he looks at Getaround's $300 million acquisition of Paris-based Drivy (why Lucas loves $300m transactions, I have no idea). He interviewed Jeremy Uzan of Alven Capital to get the details:

Getting a seat at the VC table

Posted: 22 May 2019 12:30 PM PDT

We are witnessing the greatest paradigm shift in power since the advent of the venture capital industry. Since taking my first VC role in 2012, I've seen more change in the past year than all other years combined.

Six years after Ellen Pao's landmark gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Mary Meeker announced her departure to start a new fund with three other KPCB investors. Arlan Hamilton from Backstage Capital graced the cover of Fast Company with the caption "Venture Catalyst." AllRaise's circulation of a growing list of job postings is regularly hitting the inboxes of female investment talent climbing the check-writing ranks. To quote Seth Godin, “When you put the right idea into the world, people can’t unsee it.”

What does it mean to have a seat at the table, and how many of us have needed to bring our own chairs rather than wait for someone to offer us one?

Here are a few reflections on what having a seat at the investors' table means to me:

Representation is a competitive advantage.

Venture has operated in many ways like a club since its inception, where deals are shared within small, private circles, often comprised of people with more in common than not. When investment decisions are made by people who are not representative of our population — instead representative of the interests of a very small percentage of the population (in ethnicity, culture, education, and socioeconomic status) — our economy suffers. In other words, fewer wants and needs are addressed by the goods and services in the market, creating less economic prosperity as a whole.

According to the NVCA and Pitchbook, the total investment into venture-backed companies reached $57 billion in just the first half of 2018. To put this into context, $57 billion is more than 114 countries can claim in GDP. Given just how much money is invested — an increasing figure each year as more venture money appears from new participants — we should be concerned that just 9% of U.S. VCs are women despite comprising 50.8% of the U.S. population and driving 70-80% of all consumer purchasing.

#ANGELS and Carta exposed a staggering new statistic that just 9% of company equity is held by women, despite women comprising 33% of the founder and employee workforce.

The private and public markets are waking up to the realization that representation matters. A 2015 McKinsey study found that "companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians." I'm in constant communication with a wide range of investors from established firms to new ones, and the feedback is overwhelmingly positive — having an investment team more representative of the population generates better deal flow. I have this conversation on a biweekly basis and know that the next generation of investors is watching to see what established VC firms are doing to remain competitive.

So, you ask, what's next for venture capital?

Assimilation is a thing of the past.

I tried to blend in as much as possible when I first entered the venture world, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that I came from a very different background than the people I was interacting with. I didn't know what ski week was, my parents didn't belong to private clubs, and Ivy League schools were a distant concept. Yet, I found common ground with my new social circle because they were, in many respects, regular people with "access" broadly defined as the primary differentiator.

Fast forward to today, I see the greatest opportunity for those who are boldly unique. A seat at the table means I can be myself and draw upon my unique experiences to make decisions and support my portfolio companies in a way that only I can. Our industry thrives when contrarian views are developed over time and implemented without compromise. Conformity is the main villain when we decide to settle for the familiar, ultimately generating stagnant venture returns. After all, venture capital is, by definition, meant to be a high-risk asset class.

Safe environments matter. Full stop.

Having a seat at the table means I get to draw the line when male investors, entrepreneurs, and other industry voices choose to transgress or act inappropriately. I feel safe in assuming the male leadership I choose to invest in will have a lower probability of ruining their company due to issues with workplace culture and sexual abuse allegations.

As we witness one industry giant topple after another, spanning film and media, consumer brands, and investors, it has become increasingly apparent that poor judgment calls and mistreatment of talent will no longer be swept under the rug. I occasionally have meetings with entrepreneurs and fellow investors where you could say my "stranger danger" alarms are triggered by off-color comments and malapropos gestures. These are the instances where I will choose to avoid a situation or pass on a business opportunity that could, in time, become a ticking time bomb and, long-term, a poor investment.

There are no more rules.

A close friend in VC often states, "The new rule is: there are no rules." This means new people arriving to the table, chair in hand, to direct investment decisions, whether top-down as a company builder or bottoms-up as a content creator and micro-influencer. No rules means new faces showing up as limited partners in VC funds, and new managers of VC funds sharing their own unique stories of building their less-conventional careers. No rules also means that VC firms are going to look, act, and feel different, throwing out convention in favor of creativity and inclusivity.

Build it and they will come.

Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital said it best during her 36|86 AMA in Nashville with The JumpFund: "We will make our own club!" I nearly fell out of my seat applauding, laughing, and cheering. My own interpretation of this statement has to do with the can-do energy that is showing up in venture. In 2018, we are no longer waiting for someone to save a seat for us at the table or invite us into the room at all. We are showing up with our own chairs, building new tables, and creating new spaces and environments that foster the exchanging of ideas and deal docs.

Early in 2018, I set out to learn more about the startup and venture capital landscape in my new home city of Nashville, Tennessee, and in the broader surrounding geography of the Southeastern U.S. I quickly found that the entrepreneurs and investors I met were surprised by me — a relatively young, half-Mexican, female face did not immediately trigger the words 'venture' and 'capital'.

Questions followed, such as, "How did you end up in venture capital?" and statements like, "People must tell you all of the time that you don't look like the typical VC." A few minutes into the conversation and those questions and statements dissipate, though I knew there must be a broader local community sharing my interests and lack of conformity in physical appearance and style. So, I set out and launched ModernCapital to make the venture capital industry more accessible to new talent. Our team of 4 (3 venture fellows plus myself) is 100% female and 50% Latina. As we spend more time digging into the entrepreneurial landscape of our region, more entrepreneurs and future investors from a wide range of backgrounds are contacting us wanting to join the community we are building.

Considering just how much has changed in the dialogue around venture capital and where the greatest next investment opportunities will arise, I am confident this is only the beginning.

Review of Elon Musk’s DC-to-Baltimore ‘Loop’ system reveals safety concerns

Posted: 22 May 2019 12:27 PM PDT

The Boring Company's Loop transit system that aims to shuttle people in autonomous electric vehicles between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. fails to meet several key national safety standards, a review of its proposal reveals.

The underground system appears to lack sufficient emergency exits, ignore the latest engineering practices and proposes passenger escape ladders that one fire safety professor calls "the definition of insanity."

Details of the 35.3-mile system, the first segment in a high-speed network that Boring Company founder and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk hopes will one day run all the way to New York, emerged recently in a 505-page draft environmental assessment.

Musk founded The Boring Company, or TBC, in 2016 after becoming frustrated with Los Angeles' infamous traffic congestion. The aim was to find an efficient and cost-effective way to dig networks of tunnels for private vehicles. That idea evolved into the Loop, a system that would theoretically transport people in modified Tesla electric vehicles.

A Tesla Model X in The Boring Company’s demonstration tunnel in California. Photo/The Boring Company

Musk showed off his vision for what he has described as an 'entirely new system of transport during an event  last December that took guests and media through a 1.1-mile demonstration tunnel underneath 120th Street in the city of Hawthorne, Calif. near one of Musk's other companies, SpaceX. 

Fire risks and escape hatches

The Baltimore-to-Washington document specifies parallel tunnels running beneath highways, within which modified Tesla vehicles would travel autonomously at up to 150 miles per hour. Battery-powered cars would leave as frequently as every 30 seconds, with a journey time of just 15 minutes in either direction. In the future, Musk even envisages converting the tunnels into a Hyperloop system outfitted with pods that could theoretically reach speeds of 600 mph.

If the Baltimore-to-DC Loop system is considered a road tunnel, it would be the longest in the world. As a rail tunnel, it would only be surpassed by the epic Gotthard Base Tunnel running beneath the Swiss Alps.

But where the Gotthard Base Tunnel has escape passageways spaced about every 1,000 feet, Musk's Loop will have up to 10,500 feet between emergency exits. That is more than four times the maximum distance permitted in standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for public rail and transit systems.

"Just because a vehicle doesn't have gasoline doesn't mean it's not a significant fire risk," said Glenn Corbett, a professor of security, fire and emergency management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Lithium-ion batteries are perhaps even more dangerous, and have been an issue for airlines and fire safety agencies for the last 10 years."

Modern electric vehicle batteries can suffer intense, runaway fires when damaged. There have been two recent incidents — one captured on video in China — of a parked Tesla spontaneously exploding. Tesla said this month that it was updating its vehicles' battery software for charging and thermal management. "Although fire incidents involving Tesla vehicles are already extremely rare and our cars are 10 times less likely to experience a fire than a gas car, we believe the right number of incidents to aspire to is zero," it wrote in a statement.

The Loop document says that TBC will install fire detection, suppression and safety measures as well as a powerful ventilation system. But the facilities for passengers to escape during an emergency, be it breakdown, fire, flooding or terrorism, leave much to be desired, says Corbett: "You'll have people that range from 5 years old to 95. What they're proposing now would certainly not pass muster."

For a start, some of the Loop's emergency exits are too far apart. Should a fire break out at the worst possible place, passengers could face a two-mile walk to an exit — and then up to another quarter of a mile to a ventilation shaft leading to the surface.

To comply with NFPA standards for rail tunnels, the Loop would need at least 74 such exits for each of the twin tunnels between Baltimore and DC. TBC's document says it only intends to build "up to 70" in total.

If the Loop system were designated a road tunnel instead, complying would be even harder. Stricter NFPA standards for car and truck tunnels mean that TBC would have to construct more than 180 exit shafts for each tunnel.

"Even this standard, which is 1,000 feet between exits, is fairly weak," Corbett said. "Smoke from a fire in an enclosed, below-grade area has a high propensity to kill people and create a lot of problems."

The 'definition of insanity'

When passengers eventually reach the ventilation shafts, their problems might not be over. The tunnel floor will be between 44 and 104 feet below the surface.

"One or more means of vertical access (e.g. elevator, man basket, stairs or ladder) would be provided for ingress/egress," states TBC's document. At the top of each shaft will be either a shed housing ventilation equipment, or a flat steel grate.

"That's not going to work," Corbett said. "You're telling me a 70-year-old grandmother who's just traveled thousands of feet is going to climb a ladder to get out? That's crazy. It's the definition of insanity."

Such long and inconvenient escape routes would also hamper incoming firefighters, who typically have only a 30-minute supply of air for their breathing apparatus.

"Ingress becomes a concern with very long tunnels," said Justin Edenbaum, a tunnel fire and ventilation engineering consultant based in Toronto, Canada.

Another issue is that long tunnels are rare in the United States, a country that has more experience with fires in tall buildings than deep underground.

"All of our research in terms of stairwells has been done with downward motion," Corbett explained. "What's not been well studied are situations where people might have to walk a significant distance to get to a stairwell and then climb out. This is going to require a significant amount of research and consideration."

A different approach

Where long transit tunnels have been built recently, in Europe and Asia, engineers have taken a different approach. Instead of widely separated staircases, frequent cross-passageways allow passengers to quickly escape fire or smoke into either a dedicated safety tunnel or the tunnel traveling in the other direction.

In 2016, Jae-Ho Pyeon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at San Jose State University, conducted a trend analysis of long tunnels around the world. He found that the majority of long rail tunnels globally have such crossover connections, and that all built in the last decade have exits spaced far closer than 2,500 feet.

Pyeon concluded: "Configurations connected by cross passages are becoming more popular, mainly due to increasingly demanding safety requirements."

A 2015 study by Edenbaum found that not only do cross passages enable people to escape a smoky environment faster than stairways, they also let firefighters reach the blaze earlier, and can dramatically reduce construction costs.

The Boring Company’s take

The Boring Company did not respond to detailed questions about the Loop system but told TechCrunch that it had been designed to be the safest public transportation system in the world, which includes compliance with applicable safety and fire protection standards.

In the absence of federal rules for transit tunnels, the Loop will be subject to the regulations of the jurisdictions it passes beneath. Existing subway systems in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Maryland are all required to follow NFPA standards.

Curiously, TBC has yet to discuss its flagship project with Maryland's fire agency.

"While the Office of the State Fire Marshal hasn’t been contacted by The Boring Company in regards to the proposed [Loop system], we would take the position of applying our standard underground subway safety standards to such a project to ensure the safety of everyone involved," said Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci.

That being said, there is a slight chance that TBC would not be forced to include more shafts or emergency passages.

"[The NFPA standard states that] you can suggest solutions that are equivalent or superior to the stated methods, but they have to be approved the authority having jurisdiction," says Edenbaum. "[TBC] may have an argument about how it can go as widely spaced as it wants. They could make the case that [the Loop] is safer than a highway. That's a risk-based assessment, which is not very popular in North America, but it's another way to look at it."

The draft environmental assessment is currently in its public comment phase, along with a draft agreement between TBC and various federal agencies regarding the Loop's impact on historical properties. There are also numerous other permits and approvals that will be necessary before TBC completes a detailed design and starts digging, including safety assessments.

TBC has also proposed projects in other parts of the country with varying success. The one closest to getting underway this year is in Las Vegas, where TBC has proposed building a high-speed underground transit system that would initially transport people around the Las Vegas Convention Center. 

The upshot: For all of Elon Musk's obsession with speed, the world's longest tunnel won't be arriving anytime soon.

Nectar’s sonar bottle caps could save $50B in stolen booze

Posted: 22 May 2019 11:50 AM PDT

Bars lose 20% of their alcohol to overpours and “free” drinks for friends. That amounts to $50 billion per year in booze that mysteriously disappears, making life tough for every pub and restaurant. Nectar wants to solve that mystery with its ultrasound depth-sensing bottle caps that measure how much liquid is left in a bottle by measuring how long it takes a sonar pulse to bounce back. And now it’s bringing real-time pour tracking to beer with its gyroscopic taps. The result is that bar managers can determine who’s pouring too much or giving away drink, which promotions are working and when to reorder bottles without keeping too much stock on hand — and avoid wasting hours weighing or eyeballing the liquor level of their inventory.

Nectar’s solution to alcohol shrinkage has now attracted a $10 million Series A led by DragonCapital.vc and joined by former Campari chairman Gerry Ruvo, who will join the board. “Not a lot of technology has come to the bottle,” Nectar CEO Aayush Phumbhra says of ill-equipped bars and restaurants. “Liquor is their highest margin and highest cost item. If you don’t manage it efficiently, you go out of business.” Other solutions can look ugly to customers, forcibly restrict bartenders or take time and money to install and maintain. In contrast, Phumbhra tells me, “I care about solving deep problems by building a solution that doesn’t change behavior.”

Investors were eager to back the CEO, since he previously co-founded text book rental giant Chegg — another startup disrupting an aged market with tech. “I come from a pretty entrepreneurial family. No one in my family has ever worked for anyone else before,” Phumbhra says with a laugh. He saw an opportunity in the stunning revelation that the half-trillion-dollar on-premises alcohol business was plagued by missing booze and inconsistent ways to track it.

Typically at the end of a week or month, a bar manager will have staff painstakingly look at each bottle, try to guess what percent remains and mark it on a clipboard to be loaded into a spreadsheet later. While a little quicker, that’s very subjective and inaccurate. More advanced systems see every bottled weighed to see exactly how much is left. If they’re lucky, the scale connects to a computer, but they still have to punch in what brand of booze they’re sizing up. But the process can take many hours, which amounts to costly labor and infrequent data. None of these methods eliminate the manual measurement process or give real-time pour info.

So with $6 million in funding, Nectar launched in 2017 with its sonar bottle caps that look and operate like old-school pourers. When bars order them, they come pre-synced and labeled for certain bottle shapes like Patron or Jack Daniels. Their Bluetooth devices stay charged for a year and connect wirelessly to a base hub in the bar. With each pour, the sonar pulse determines how much is in the bottle and subtracts it from the previous measurement to record how much was doled out. And the startup’s new gyroscopic beer system is calibrated to deduce pour volume from the angle and time the tap is depressed without the need for a sensor to be installed (and repaired) inside the beer hose.

Bar managers can keep any eye on everything throughout the night with desktop, iOS and Android apps. They could instantly tell if a martini special is working based on how much gin across brands is being poured, ask bartenders to slow their pours if they’re creeping upwards in volume or give the green light to strong pours on weeknights to reward regular customers. “Some bars encourage overpours to get people to keep coming back,” says local San Francisco celebrity bartender Broke-Ass Stuart, who tells me pre-measured pourers can save owners money but cost servers tips.

Nectar now sells self-serve subscriptions to its hardware and software, with a 20-cap package costing $99 per month billed annually with free yearly replacements. It’s also got a free two-tap trial package, or a $399 per month enterprise subscription for 100 taps. Nectar is designed to complement bar point of sale systems. And if a bar just wants the software, Nectar just launched its PrecisionAudit app, where staff tap the current liquid level on a photo of each different bottle for more accurate eyeballing. It’s giving a discount rate of $29.99 per month on the first 1,000 orders.

After 2 million pours measured, the business is growing 200% quarter-over-quarter as bowling alley chains and stadiums sign up for pilots. The potential to change the booze business seduced investors like Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale and the founding family of the Modelo beer company. Next, Nectar is trying to invent a system for wine. That’s trickier, as its taps would need to be able to suck the air out of the bottles each night.

The big challenge will be convincing bars to change after tracking inventory the same way for decades. No one wants to deal with technical difficulties in a jam-packed bar. That’s partly why Nectar’s subscription doesn’t force owners to buy its hardware up front.

If Nectar can nail not only the tech but the bartender experience, it could pave a smoother path to hospitality entrepreneurship. Alcohol shrinkage is one factor leading to the rapid demise of many bars and restaurants. Plus, it could liberate bartenders from measuring bottles into the wee hours. As Phumbhra noted, “They’re coming in on weekends and working late. We want them to spend that time with their families and on customer service.”

Amazon has turned warehouse tasks into a (literal) game

Posted: 22 May 2019 11:12 AM PDT

Working at an Amazon fulfillment center is tough and tedious. Stories of problematic working conditions have plagued the company for years now, and pressure has likely only increased as the retail giant is pushing to get packages out even faster.

To give the company some credit, it has worked to improve conditions, including the addition of a $15/hour minimum wage and automating certain tasks with the help of its growing robotics offering. Turns out the company has also been, quite literally, gamifying certain tasks.

WaPo (which, incidentally, is also owned by Mr. Bezos) has a write-up of an "experimental" video game designed to motivate workers to fill orders. The game, which is apparently optional for employees, lives on workstation screens, awarding points for fulfilling orders and pitting teams against one another in the process.

As the story notes, Amazon's not alone in the idea. Gig-based companies like Uber and Lyft are similarly incentivizing workers with rewards for driving longer. In an age when we've gamified our own step counts through Fitbit and the like, it's probably no surprise that companies are taking similar tacks for their duller positions.

Still, the whole thing is a bit odd — and probably a good indication of how repetitive these tasks can be. As we noted on a recent trip to the company's massive Staten Island fulfillment center, the "picker" and "stower" gigs work closely with Amazon's shelf-sporting robots to get packages to their destination.

Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

Posted: 22 May 2019 11:07 AM PDT

Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview "On The Internet of Women," Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira's personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay "The Internet of Women," that I thought made it such a kind of, I'd call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally "female." This isn't just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a "softer" skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t "work," [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they're also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

Seven years later, the OUYA is dead for real

Posted: 22 May 2019 11:02 AM PDT

Remember the OUYA?

As a cheap Android-powered game console, it was pitched as being able to “open the last closed platform: the TV.” It was one of the first huge Kickstarter campaigns, raising nearly $9 million on the site in 2012. Even half a decade later, it remains one of the biggest campaigns Kickstarter has seen.

Outside of Kickstarter, the $99 console never really found its audience. OUYA was split up by 2015, its software assets and team acquired by Razer.

Razer kept the OUYA store running post-acquisition, a ghost of its former self. On June 25th, 2019, they’ll pull the plug once and for all.

In an FAQ on its site, Razer says that the OUYA store will be shut down by the end of June. The game store for the Forge TV (a similar attempt at an Android-powered console built by Razer itself) will also be shut down.

If you’ve somehow still got funds in your OUYA account, you’ll want to use them quick — the FAQ suggests that come June 25th, those funds will be more or less gone.

But what about the games you’ve already bought? Will those continue to work? That’s a bit more complicated. Writes Razer:

You will be able to play games via the OUYA platform until June 25, 2019. Once it has been shut down, access to the Discover section will no longer be available. Games downloaded that appear in Play, may still function if they do not require a purchase validation upon launch. Contact the game developer for confirmation.

In other words: some games will work, some won’t. They do note that the download servers will also go dark on June 25th — so if there’s a game you want to keep for the long term, make sure you’ve got it saved on the console.

Subscription fatigue hasn’t hit yet

Posted: 22 May 2019 10:29 AM PDT

U.S. consumers are still embracing subscriptions. More than a third (34%) of Americans say they believe they’ll increase the number of subscription services they use over the next two years, according to a new report from eMarketer. This is following an increase to three subscription services on average, up from 2.4 services five years ago.

The report cited data from subscription platform Zuora and The Harris Poll in making these determinations.

The study also debunks the idea that we’ve reached a point of subscription fatigue.

While only a third is planning to increase the number of subscriptions — a figure that’s in line with the worldwide average — the larger majority of U.S. internet users said they plan to use the same number of subscriptions services within two years as they do now.

In other words, they’re not paring down their subscriptions just yet — in fact, only 7% said they planned to subscribe to fewer services in the two years ahead.

However, that’s both good news and bad news for the overall subscription industry. On the one hand, it means there’s a healthy base of potential subscribers for new services. But it also means that many people may only adopt a new subscription by dropping another — perhaps to maintain their current budget.

Subscriptions, after all, may still feel like luxuries. No one needs Netflix, Spotify, groceries delivered to their home or curated clothing selections sent by mail, for example. There are non-subscription alternatives that are much more affordable. The question is which luxuries are worth the recurring bill?

The survey, however, did not define subscription services, which could include news and magazine subscriptions, digital streaming services, subscription box services and more. But it did ask about consumers’ interest in the various categories.

More than half of U.S. consumers (57%) said they were interested in TV and video-on-demand services (like Netflix) and 38% were interested in music services.

Related to this, eMarketer forecasts U.S. over-the-top video viewers will top 193 million by 2021, or 57.3% of the population. Digital audio listeners will top 211 million by the same time, or 63.1% of the population.

The next most popular subscriptions in the survey were grocery delivery like AmazonFresh (32%) and meal delivery like Blue Apron (21%). Software and storage services like iCloud and subscription beauty services like Ipsy followed, each with 17%.

Consumers were less interested in subscription news and information and subscription boxes — the latter only saw 10% interest, in fact.

The figures should be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The meal kit market is actually struggling. The consulting firm NPD Group estimated that only 4% of U.S. consumers have even tried them. So there’s a big disconnect between what consumers say they’re interested in and what they actually do.

Meanwhile, the supposedly less popular news and information services market is, in some cases, booming. The New York Times, for instance, just this month posted a higher profit and added 223,000 digital subscribers to reach 4.5 million paying customers. And Apple now has “hundreds of people” working on Apple News+, it said this week. 

Of course, consumers will at some point reach a limit on the number of services they’re willing to pay for, but for the time being, the subscription economy appears solid.


These startups are locating in SF and Africa to win in global fintech

Posted: 22 May 2019 10:12 AM PDT

To become a global fintech player, locate your company in San Francisco and Africa.

That's the approach of payments company Flutterwave, digital lending startup Mines, and mobile-money venture Chipper Cash—Africa-founded ventures that maintain headquarters in San Francisco and operations in Africa to tap the best of both worlds in VC, developers, clients, and the frontier of digital finance.

This arrangement wasn't exactly coordinated across the ventures, but TechCrunch coverage picked up the trend and some common motives among these rising fintech firms.

Founded in 2016 by Nigerians Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and Olugbenga Agboola, Flutterwave has positioned itself as a global B2B payments solutions platform for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Clients can tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber,  Booking.com and African e-commerce unicorn Jumia.com.

The Y-Combinator backed company is headquartered in San Francisco, runs its operations center in Nigeria, and plans to add offices in South Africa and Cameroon.

Flutterwave opened an office in Uganda in June and raised a $10 million Series A round in October. The company also plugged into ledger activity in 2018, becoming a payment processing partner to the Ripple and Stellar blockchain networks.

Google’s lead EU regulator opens formal privacy probe of its adtech

Posted: 22 May 2019 10:00 AM PDT

Google’s lead data regulator in Europe has opened a formal investigation into its processing of personal data in the context of its online Ad Exchange, TechCrunch has learnt.

This follows a privacy complaint pertaining to adtech’s real-timing bidding (RTB) system filed under Europe’s GDPR framework last year.

The statutory inquiry into Google’s adtech that’s being opened by the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC), cites section 110 of Ireland’s Data Protection Act 2018, which means that the watchdog suspects infringement — and will now investigate its suspicions.

The DPC writes that the inquiry is “to establish whether processing of personal data carried out at each stage of an advertising transaction is in compliance with the relevant provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation, including the lawful basis for processing, the principles of transparency and data minimisation, as well as Google’s retention practices”.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment. Update: A Google spokesperson said: "We will engage fully with the DPC's investigation and welcome the opportunity for further clarification of Europe's data protection rules for real-time bidding. Authorised buyers using our systems are subject to stringent policies and standards."

As we reported earlier this week complaints about the RTB system used by online advertisers have been stacking up across Europe.

The relevant complaint in this instance was lodged last fall by Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave, and alleges "wide-scale and systemic breaches of the data protection regime” by Google and others in the behavioral advertising industry.

Where Google is concerned the complaint focuses on its DoubleClick/Authorized Buyers ad system.

In a nutshell, the RTB complaints argue the system is inherently insecure — and that’s incompatible with GDPR’s requirement that personal data is processed "in a manner that ensures appropriate security”.

Commenting on the Irish DPC opening an inquiry in a statement, Ryan said: “Surveillance capitalism is about to become obsolete. The Irish Data Protection Commission's action signals that now — nearly one year after the GDPR was introduced — a change is coming that goes beyond just Google. We need to reform online advertising to protect privacy, and to protect advertisers and publishers from legal risk under the GDPR".

Similar complaints against RTB have been filed in the UK, Poland, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Ireland is leading the investigation of Google’s adtech as the company designates Google Ireland as the data controller for EU users.