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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Peek into an empty Steve Jobs Theater before tomorrow’s big Apple event

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 01:10 PM PDT

What are you up to this afternoon? If your answer is anything "watching the livestream of an empty Steve Jobs Theater," honestly, I'm not sure how you call yourself an Apple fan.

A day before the company's event in Cupertino, Apple's streaming video of what looks to be an empty theater, bathed in darkness, with some swirling psychedelic designs playing on the big screen. The whole thing is almost certainly a bid to drum up more interest a day out, as fan scramble to figure out if someone accidentally left the feed running after morning rehearsals.

Most likely, what we're seeing is a composite, CG mockup or pre-recorded video of the space. There’s even the occasional odd pop up on the big screen. Apple's been known to have fun at our expense just ahead of the big event. Call it a fun goof or good natured trolling, but the company's certainly got out attention. Not that is needed it.

Apple is expected to launch a number of new products tomorrow, including a  Netflix competitor, news offering and gaming service. There's even a credit card rumored to be in the works.

Meet the Texas startup that wants to decarbonize the chemical industry

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 12:30 PM PDT

Solugen, a startup that has set itself up with no less lofty a goal than the decarbonization of a massive chunk of the petrochemical industry, may be the first legitimate multi-million dollar company to start out in a meth lab.

When company co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt began hunting for a lab to test their process for enzymatically manufacturing hydrogen peroxide they only had a small $10,000 grant from MIT — which was supposed to pay their salaries and cover rent and lab equipment. 

Chakrabarti, who now jokingly calls himself “the Heisenberg of hydrogen peroxide” says that the lab spaces they looked at initially were all too pricey, so through a friend of a friend of a friend, he and Hunt wound up leasing lab space in a facility by the Houston airport for $150 per month.

It was there among the burners and round-bottomed flasks that Hunt and Chakrabarti refined their manufacturing process — using fermentation based on Solugen’s proprietary enzyme made from genetically modified yeast cells to produce hydrogen peroxide. 

“In 2016 I went to visit Solugen’s headquarters in Houston, They were subleasing a small part of a bigger lab and it was one of the sketchiest labs I’d seen, but the Solugen founders liked it because the rent was low” recalls Solugen seed investor, Seth Bannon, a founding partner with the investment firm Fifty Years. “Sean and Gaurab were incredibly impressive. They had their prototype reactor up and running and were already selling 100% of its capacity, so we invested.”

Creating a process that can make thousands of tons of chemicals — without relying on petroleum — would be a hugely important step in the fight against global climate change. And Solugen says it has done exactly that — while getting the chemical industry to subsidize its development.

The chemicals industry is responsible for 10% of global energy consumption and 30% of industrial energy demand, while also contributing 20% of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions, according to the website Global Efficiency Intelligence.

As the world begins to confront the effects of global climate change, curbing emissions from industry will be critically important to ensuring that the world is not irrevocably and catastrophically changed by human activity.

As columnist Ramez Naam wrote in TechCrunch:

Our hardest climate problems – the ones that are both large and lack obvious solutions – are agriculture (and deforestation – its major side effect) and industry. Together these are 45% of global carbon emissions. And solutions are scarce.

Agriculture and land use account for 24% of all human emissions. That's nearly as much as electricity, and twice as much all the world's passenger cars combined.

Industry – steel, cement, and manufacturing – account for 21% of human emissions – one and a half times as much as all the world's cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes combined.

Greenhouse gas emissions are only one of the dangers associated with the petrochemical industry’s approach to production. The processes by which chemicals are made are also incredibly volatile, and the work is dangerous for both employees and the communities in which these plants operate.

Last week, a chemical plant explosion has led to one of the worst fires in the city’s history. Firefighters in the city spent six days trying to contain a chemical fire that has burned 11 storage tanks managed by Intercontinental Terminals Company.

“They're moving chemicals exposed to the environment, and those chemicals are not designed to be transported in that way,” Francisco Sanchez, the county's deputy emergency emergency management coordinator told The Houston Chronicle

Man in protective workwear with Caution cordon tape (Courtesy Getty Images)

By contrast, Solugen’s process is only a little more dangerous than brewing beer.

In the years since Bannon came to visit the company in its first lab, Solugen has built a working production plant capable of making enough hydrogen peroxide to bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the company.

In addition to its current mobile manufacturing facility, a skid mounted 1,000 square foot mini plant, Solugen is using $13.5 million in new financing from investors to build a new, 2,500 modular facility which will produce 5,000 tons of hydrogen peroxide per year. 

That new money came from the investment fund Founders Fund (co-founded by the controversial libertarian investor, Peter Thiel), Fifty Years, and Y Combinator.

Solugen’s secret sauce is its ability to create oxidase enzymes cheaply that can be combined with simple sugars to make oxidation chemicals — which account for roughly half of the $4.3 trillion dollar global chemical industry.

The companies bioreactors have been specifically designed for the chemicals it makes, but the real innovation is looking at enzymes as a tool for oxidation chemistries.

Companies are now able to engineer these enzymes thanks to advances on computational biology and the newfound ability of biochemists to engineer DNA, Chakrabarti says.

Solugen uses CRISPR gene editing technologies to modify yeast cells. It has identified a certain transcription factor which acts like an accelerant to producing the enzyme that Solugen’s process requires. Messenger ribonucleic acid overwhelms most of the typical processes if a celll to force the cell to dedicate most of its function toward enzyme production. The company then uses a contract research organization to cheaply make the enzyme at scale.

Companies also have driven down the cost of manufacturing these specialty enzymes. “The revolution is the commoditization of biomanufacturing specifically enzyme production,” he says. “Instead of our enzymes costing $1,000 per kg… It's $1 to $10 per kg.”

Once Solugen proves that the new facility can work, the only issue is scaling, according to Chakrabarti. “We use enzyme technologies to create chemical mini-mills [and] each mini-mill can do 5,000 tons of products,” says Chakrabarti.

A typical chemical [lant has a production capacity of 50,000 tons, but the Solugen process is orders of magnitude more inexpensive, says Chakrabarti. That allows the company to build out a network of smaller plants profitably. “These are huge industries where we can make cheaper products,”he says.

And for every ton of product that Solugen makes and sells, it’s the equivalent of removing six tons of carbon from the atmosphere, Chakrabarti says.

Oil and gas companies have already signed contracts and are ordering the company’s products to the tune of several million in sales.

“It's a nice way of funding us and funding the oil and gas industry's demise,” says Chakrabarti of the company’s sales to its initial customers, “They give us money and allow us to go after other chemistries that would have been petroleum based… Our ultimate goal is to wipe them out.”

 

Apple could charge $9.99 per month each for HBO, Showtime and Starz

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 11:34 AM PDT

The Wall Street Journal has published a report on Apple's media push. The company is about to unveil a new video streaming service and an Apple News subscription on Monday.

According to The WSJ, you'll be able to subscribe to multiple content packages to increase the video library in a new app called Apple TV — it's unclear if this app is going to replace the existing Apple TV app.

The service would work more or less like Amazon Prime Video Channels. Users will be able to subscribe to HBO, Showtime or Starz for a monthly fee. The WSJ says that these three partners would charge $9.99 per month each.

According to a previous report from CNBC, it differs from the existing Apple TV app as you won't be redirected to another app. Everything will be available within a single app.

Controlling the experience from start to finish would be a great advantage for users. As many people now suffer from subscription fatigue, Apple would be able to centralize all your content subscriptions in a single app. You could tick and untick options depending on your needs.

But some companies probably don't want to partner with Apple. It's highly unlikely that you'll find Netflix or Amazon Prime Video content in the Apple TV app. Those services also want to control the experience from start to finish. It's also easier to gather data analytics when subscribers are using your own app.

Apple should open up the Apple TV app to other platforms. Just like you can play music on Apple Music on Android, a Sonos speaker or an Amazon Echo speaker, Apple is working on apps for smart TVs. The company has already launched iTunes Store apps on Samsung TVs, so it wouldn't be a big surprise.

The company has also spent a ton of money on original content for its own service. Details are still thin on this front. Many of those shows might not be ready for Monday. Do you have to pay to access Apple's content too? How much? We'll find out on Monday.

When it comes to Apple News, The WSJ says that content from 200 magazines and newspapers will be available for $9.99 per month. The Wall Street Journal confirms a New York Times report that said that The Wall Street Journal was part of the subscription.

Apple is also monitoring the App Store to detect popular apps according to multiple metrics, The WSJ says. Sure, Apple runs the App Store. But Facebook faced a public outcry when people realized that Facebook was monitoring popular apps with a VPN app called Onavo.

Apple could announce its gaming subscription service on Monday

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 09:45 AM PDT

Apple is about to announce some new services on Monday. While everybody expects a video streaming service as well as a news subscription, a new report from Bloomberg says that the company might also mention its gaming subscription.

Cheddar first reported back in January that Apple has been working on a gaming subscription. Users could pay a monthly subscription fee to access a library of games. We’re most likely talking about iOS games for the iPhone and iPad here.

Games are the most popular category on the App Store, so it makes sense to turn this category into a subscription business. And yet, most of them are free-to-play, ad-supported games. Apple doesn't necessarily want to target those games in particular.

According to Bloomberg, the service will focus on paid games from third-party developers, such as Minecraft, NBA 2K games and the GTA franchise. Users would essentially pay to access this bundle of games. Apple would redistribute revenue to game developers based on how much time users spend within a game in particular.

It's still unclear whether Apple will announce the service or launch it on Monday. The gaming industry is more fragmented than the movie and TV industry, so it makes sense to talk about the service publicly even if it's not ready just yet.

Transportation weekly: Nuro dreams of autonomous lattes, what is a metamaterial, Volvo takes the wheel

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 09:45 AM PDT

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Read the first edition hereAs I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. An email subscription is coming!

This week, we’re shoving as much transportation news, tidbits and insights in here as possible in hopes that it will satiate you through the end of the month. That’s right, TechCrunch’s mobility team is on vacation next week.

You can expect to learn about metamaterials, how traffic is creating genetic peril, the rise of scooter docks in a dockless world, new details on autonomous delivery startup Nuro and a look back at the first self-driving car fatality.


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.

nuro-scout-coffee

Mark Harris is here again with an insider look into autonomous vehicle delivery bot startup Nuro. The 3-year-old company recently announced that it raised $940 million in financing from the SoftBank Vision Fund.

Harris, during his typical gumshoeing, uncovers what Nuro might do with all that capital. It’s more than just “scaling up” and “hiring talent” — the go-to declarations from startups flush with venture funding. No, Nuro’s founders have some grand ideas from automated kitchens and autonomous latte delivery to smaller robots that can cross lawns or climb stairs to drop off packages. Nuro recently told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it wants introduce up to 5,000 upgraded vehicles called the R2X, over the next two years.

The company’s origin story and how it’s tied to autonomous trucking startup Ike is just as notable as its “big ideas.”

Come for the autonomous lattes; stay for the story … How Nuro plans to spend Softbank’s money


Dig In

What do metamaterials and Volvo have in common? Absolutely nothing. Except they’re both worth higlighting this week.

First up, is an article by TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey on a company called Lumotive that has backing from Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures. The names Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures aren’t the most interesting components of the story. Nope, it’s metamaterials.

Let us explain. Most autonomous vehicles, robots and drones use lidar (or light detection and ranging radar) to sense their surroundings. Lidar basically works by bouncing light off the environment and measuring how and when it returns; in short, lidar helps create a 3D map of the world. (Here’s a complete primer on WTF is Lidar).

However, there are limitations to lidar sensors, which rely on mechanical platforms to move the laser emitter or mirror. That’s where metamaterials come in. In simple terms, metamaterials are specially engineered surfaces that have embedded microscopic structures and work as a single device. Metamaterials remove the mechanical piece of the problem, and allow lidar to scan when and where it wants within its field of view.

Metamaterials delivers the whole package: they’re durable and compact, solve problems with existing lidar systems, and are not prohibitively expensive.

If they’re so great why isn’t everyone using them? For one, it’s a new and emerging technology. Lumotive’s product is just a prototype. And Intellectual Ventures (IV) holds the patents for known techniques, Coldewey recently explained to me. IV is granting Lumotive an exclusive license to the tech — something it has done with other metamaterial-based startups it has spun out.

Shifting gears to Volvo

Automakers are rolling out increasingly robust advanced driver assistance systems in production cars. These new levels of automation are creating a conflict of sorts. One on hand, features like adaptive cruise control and lane steering can make commutes less stressful and arguably safer. And yet, they can also cause overconfidence in the system and complacency among drivers. (Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk has noted that complacency is a problem among owners using its advanced ADAS feature called Autopilot). (And yes, I wrote advanced ADAS; it sounds repetitive, but it’s meant to express higher levels of automation and a term I recently encountered from two respected sources)

Some argue that automakers shouldn’t deploy these kinds of automated features unless vehicles are equipped with driver-monitoring systems (DMS are essentially an in-car camera and accompanying software) that can ensure drivers are paying attention. Volvo is taking that a step further.

Driver Monitoring Camera in a Volvo research vehicle

The company announced this week that it will integrate DMS into its next-gen, SPA2-based vehicles beginning in the early 2020s and more importantly, enable its system to take action if the driver is distracted or intoxicated. The camera and other sensors will monitor the driver and will intervene if a clearly intoxicated or distracted driver does not respond to warning signals and is risking an accident involving serious injury or death. Under this scenario, Volvo could limit the car’s speed, call the Volvo on Call service on behalf of the driver or cause the vehicle to slow down and park itself on the roadside.

Volvo’s plans raise all kinds of questions, including privacy concerns and liability. The intent is to add a layer of safety. But it also adds complexity, which could compromise Volvo’s mission. The Autonocast, a podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, talk about Volvo’s plans in our latest episode. Check it out.


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

blinky-cat-bird

Remember two weeks ago when we dug into Waymo’s laser bears and wondered whether we had reached "peak" LiDAR? (Last year, there were 28 VC deals in LiDAR technology valued at $650 million. The number of deals was slightly lower than in 2017, but the values jumped by nearly 34 percent.)

It doesn’t look like we have. We’re hearing about several funding deals in the works or recently closed, a revelation that shows investors still see opportunity in startups trying to bring the next generation of light ranging and detection sensors to market.

Spotted …. Former Zoox CEO and co-founder Tim Kentley Klay was spotted at the Self-Racing Car event at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, Calif., this weekend.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.


Deal of the week

Lyft set the terms for its highly-anticipated initial public offering and announced it will kick off the roadshow for its IPO. That means the initial public offering will likely occur in the next two weeks. Here’s the S-1 that Lyft filed in early March. This latest announcement also revealed new details, including that its ticker symbol will be  "LYFT" — as one might expect — and that the IPO range is set for between $62 and $68 per share to sell 30,770,000 shares of Class A common stock. Lyft could raise up to $2.1 billion at the higher end of that range, or $1.9 billion at the lower end.

The Lyft news was big — and it’s a story we’ll be following for awhile. However, we wanted to highlight another one of Ingrid Lunden’s articles because it underscores a point I’ve been pushing for awhile: not every important move in the world of autonomous vehicles occurs in the big three of Detroit, Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley.

This week, Yandex, the Russian search giant that has been working on self-driving car technology, inked a partnership with Hyundai to develop software and hardware for autonomous car systems. This is Yandex’s first partnership with an OEM. But it’s not Hyundai’s first collaboration with an autonomous vehicle startup. (Hyundai has a partnership with Aurora too)

Yandex will work with Hyundai Mobis, the car giant's OEM parts and service division, "to create a self-driving platform that can be used by any car manufacturer or taxi fleet" that will cover both a prototype as well as parts for other car-makers.

Other deals:


Snapshot

uber-bike-crash

One year ago, I parked on a small rise overlooking Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. The mostly dirt knoll, dotted with some trees and a handful of structures known out here as ramadas, was hardly remarkable. Just one other car sat in the disintegrating asphalt parking lot, the result of so many sun-baked days. A group of homeless people had set up at the picnic tables under a few of the structures, their dogs lolling nearby.

And yet, it was here, or specifically on the gleaming road below, that something extraordinary had indeed happened. Just days before, Elaine Herzberg was crossing Mill Avenue south of Curry Road when an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed her. The vehicle was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision, with a human test driver behind the wheel.

I had been in the Phoenix area, a hub for testing autonomous vehicle technology, to moderate a panel on that very subject. But the panel had been hastily canceled by organizers worried about the optics of such a discussion. And so I picked up Starsky Robotics CEO Stefan Seltz Axmacher who was also in town for this now-canceled panel, and we drove to site where Herzberg had died.

I wrote at the time, that “March 18 changed everything—and nothing—in the frenzied and nascent world of autonomous vehicles.” One year later, those words are still correct. The incident dumped a bucket of ice water over the figurative heads of autonomous vehicle developers. Everyone it seemed, had sobered up. Testing was paused, dozens of companies assessed their own safety protocols. Earnest blogs were written. Lawsuits were filed.

And yet, the cogs on the AV machine haven’t stopped turning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Innovation can sometimes “make the world a better place.” But it’s rarely delivered in a neat little package, no strings attached.

I’m hardly the first to reflect or write about this one-year anniversary. There are many takes, some of them hot, others not so much. And there are a few insightful ones; Autonocast co-host Niedermeyer has one entitled 10 Lessons from Uber’s Fatal Self-Driving Car Crash that’s worth reading.

Right now, I’m more interested in those lessons that haven’t been learned yet. It’s partly what prompted us to launch this newsletter, a weekly post that aims to be more than a historical record or a medium to evangelize AV technology.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

It's been said before, but we'll say it again. Data is queen. This past week, mobility management startup Passport partnered with Charlotte, N.C., Detroit, Mich. and Omaha, Neb. and Lime to create a framework to apply parking principles, data analysis and more to the plethora of shared micromobility services.

And, in case you missed it, Bird had to let some people go late last week. We’ve learned a few more details since the news broke. That came out to about 40 people out of the ~900-person company. The layoffs were part of Bird's annual performance review process and only affected U.S.-based employees, TechCrunch learned. Those laid off are eligible for severance, including health and medical benefits. Despite the layoffs, Bird is actively looking to hire for more than 100 positions throughout the company.

Meanwhile, Ford-owned Spin partnered with mobility startup Zagster to deploy scooters in 100+ new cities and campuses by the end of this year.

Megan Rose Dickey


Notable reads

Traffic affects more than people. Take a look at the map pictured above. See the red line? That’s Interstate 15 in southern California. To the east, are inland communities and eventually the San Bernardino National Forest and San Jacinto Mountains.

To the west, are the Santa Ana Mountains and an increasingly isolated family of 20 cougars, the Los Angeles Times reports this week. The 15 and the heavy traffic on it is putting pressure on the gene pool. In the past 15 years, at least seven cougars have crossed the 15. Just one sired 11 kittens. This lack of genetic diversity — the lower documented for the species outside of the endangered Florida panther — could have devastating effects on mountain lions here. A study published in the journal Ecological Applications predicts extinction probabilities of 16 percent to 28 percent over the next 50 years for these lions.

In this specific case, the last natural wildlife corridor in the area — and perhaps the difference between survival and extinction —  is little Temecula Creek.

This phenomenon is happening in other areas as well, causing communities to toy with possible solutions. One option: shuttling the lions over the other side, a move that could cause all sorts of problems. In other places, such as an area near the Santa Monica Mountains, a wildlife overpass has been proposed.

Transit pain points

Meanwhile, digital and mobile ticketing and payment company CellPoint Mobile released a report this week that examines the rising cost of acquiring new riders, mobile technology limitations and outdated procurement processes. The titillatingly named report — Challenges Facing Municipal, Regional and National Transit Agencies in the United States — surveyed 103 ground and mass transit operators in the United States.

Some takeaways and key findings:

  • 30 percent of mass transit providers collect fares through a mobile app; only 39 percent have an app at all
  • 26 percent of transit operators say costs are their biggest challenges. Among metro mass transit agencies, that concern jumps to 40 percent
  • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of national operators and 24 percent of large transit agencies (1,000  to 10,000 employees) say that implementing mobile technology is their single biggest challenge.
  • Customer acquisition is the second-most common challenge in US transportation, cited by 23 percent national, 33 percent regional, and 17 percent of private operators.

Other items of note:


Testing and deployments

Lyft Scooters docks

Dockless scooters have been all the rage; now it seems that cities and scooters startups are considering whether free-floating micromobility might need to be reined in a skosh.

Lyft, which has scooters in 13 cities, recently experimented with parking racks. These parking racks or docks are designed specifically for scooters. The company set up these docking stations in Austin during SXSW and released a handy Guide to Good Scootiquette to encourage better and safer rider behavior.

Meanwhile, an industry around scooter management is emerging. Swiftmile, a startup that developed light electric vehicle charging systems for bike share, has new solar-powered charging platforms for scooters. TechCrunch met Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche in Austin earlier this month and learned that a number of cities are interested in deploying these systems. Swiftmile’s system not only charges the scooters, it also can provide scooter companies with diagnostics and keep the device locked in the dock if it’s malfunctioning. The docks can be programmed to lock the scooters up during certain hours — bar closing time would seem like an optimal time — to keep them from being misused. Systems like these could help scooter companies like Bird and Lime extend the life of their scooters and keep local officials happy.

Autonomous street sweepers

ENWAY and Nanyang Technological University are deploying autonomous street sweepers in the inner city of Singapore as part of a project with National Environmental Agency Singapore. The project began this month and will run into September 2020.

Under the pilot, ENWAY’s autonomous sweeper will clean an area of more than 12 kilometers of roads every day. The sweeper is equipped with numerous sensors, including 2D and 3D lidars, 3D cameras, GNSS. The base vehicle is a retrofitted all-electric compact road sweeper from Swiss manufacturer Bucher Municipal.

The company aims to commercialize autonomous cleaning on public ground in Singapore and abroad.

A demo of the sweeper is in the video below.

Silvercar scales up

On the other end of the transportation spectrum, Silvercar by Audi has rolled out a delivery and pick up service in downtown locations in New York and San Francisco. Silvercar customers can request their rental be dropped off and picked up at home or a location of their choosing for an additional fee. Silvercar also announced plans to bring its premium rental experience to Boston at Logan International Airport on April 15.

If you’ve never heard of Silvercar, you’re forgiven. It’s not exactly widespread. The company aims to remove the headache of traditional car rental. I recently tried it out in Austin during SXSW and found that it is convenient, and works pretty well, but doesn’t remove some of the annoying pinch points of car rentals. Yes, there are no lines. When I got off the plane in Austin, I received a message that my car was ready and to hail my driver who picked me up curbside, drove me to the Silvercar operation, and brought me to my Audi. I used the app to unlock the vehicle.

That’s cool. What would be even better is skipping all those steps and being able to access the vehicle right there in the airport without interacting with anyone. (Granted, not everyone wants that) This new delivery and pickup service in New York and San Francisco gets closer to that sweet spot.

Other stuff:


On our radar

New York Auto Show is coming up and I’ll be in the city right before the show. But then it’s back to the west coast for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI, a one-day event held April 18 at UC Berkeley. I’ll be interviewing Anthony Levandowski on stage and moderating a panel with Aurora co-founder Sterling Anderson and Uber ATG Toronto chief Raquel Urtasun to talk about building the self-driving stack and how AI is used to help vehicles understand and predict what's happening in the world around them and make the right decisions.

Also, the PAVE Coalition is hosting its first public demonstration event April 5-7 at the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. The public will have an opportunity to ride in a self-driving car, and interactive displays will help visitors understand the technology behind self-driving cars and their potential benefits.

Finally, one electric vehicle thing we’ve been following. Columbus, Ohio won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first-ever Smart City Challenge and we’ve been tracking the city’s progress and its efforts to increase electric vehicle adoption.

One of the organizers told TechCrunch that since the beginning of 2017, the cumulative new EV registrations in the Columbus metropolitan area have increased by 121 percent. New EV registrations over this period outpaced the 82 percent expansion in the Midwest region and the 94 percent growth seen across the U.S. over the same time period.

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos en dos semanas.

Where did social media go wrong?

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 09:34 AM PDT

For most of my life, the Internet, particularly its social media — BBSes, Usenet, LiveJournal, blogosphere, even MySpace, early Twitter and Facebook — consistently made people happier. But roughly 5 years ago it began to consistently make people more miserable. What changed?

I posted that question to Twitter a week ago, and the most notable response was the response that did not exist: not a single person disputed the premise of the question. Yes, Twitter responses are obviously selection bias incarnate — but looking at the opprobrium aimed at social media from all sides today, I’d think that if anything it understates the current collective wisdom. Which of course can often be disjoint from factual reality … but still important. So, again: what changed?

Some argued that new, bad users flooded the Internet then, a kind of ultimate Eternal September effect. I’m skeptical. Even five years ago Facebook was already ubiquitous in the West, and we were already constantly checking it on our smartphones. Others argue that it reflects happiness decreasing in society as a whole — but as far back as 2014? I remember that as, generally, a time of optimism, compared to today.

There was one really interesting response, from a stranger: “The nature of these social networks changed. They went from places where people debated to places where lonely people are trying to feel less lonely.” Relatedly, from a friend: “The algorithms were designed to make people spend more time on those sites. Interestingly, unhappy people spend more time on social sites. Is unhappiness the cause, or the result of algorithms surfacing content to make us unhappy?” That’s worth pondering.

Pretty much everyone else talked about money, basically buttressing the argument above. Modern social media algorithms drive engagement, because engagement drives advertising, and advertising drives profits, which are then used to hone the algorithms. It’s a perpetual motion engagement machine. Olden days social media, early Facebook and early Twitter, they had advertising, sure — but they didn’t have anything like today’s perpetual motion engagement.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that there’s apparently a whole other perpetual motion machine at work in parallel, too: engagement drives unhappiness which drives engagement which drive unhappiness, because the kind of content which drives the most engagement apparently also drives anxiety and outrage — cf Evan Williams’ notion that social media optimizes for car crashes — and arguably also, in the longer run, displace other activities which do bring happiness and fulfillment.

I don’t want to sound like some sort of blood-and-thunder Luddite preacher. There’s nothing automatically wrong with maintaining a thriving existence on Facebook and Twitter, especially if you carefully prune your feeds such that they are asshole-free zones with minimal dogpiling and pointless outrage. (Some outrage is important. But most isn’t.) Social media has done a lot of excellent things, and still brings a lot of happiness to very many people.

But also, and increasingly, a lot of misery. Does it currently bring us net happiness? Five years ago I think that question would have seemed ridiculous to most: the answer would generally have been a quick yes-of-course. Nowadays, most would stop and wonder, and many would answer with an even faster hell-no. Five years ago, people who worked at Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) were treated with respect and admiration by the rest of the tech industry. Nowadays, fairly or not, it’s something a lot more like disdain, and sometimes outright contempt.

The solution is obvious: change the algorithms. Which is to say: make less money. Ha.They could even remove the algorithms entirely, switch back to Strict Chronological, and still make money — Twitter was profitable before stock options before it switched to an algorithmic feed, and its ad offerings were way less sophisticated back then — but it’s not about making money, it’s about making the most money possible, and that means algorithmically curated, engagement-driven, misery-inducing feeds.

So: social media is increasingly making us miserable. There’s an obvious solution, but financial realpolitik means we can’t get to it from here. So either we just accept this spreading misery as a normal, inescapable, fundamental part of our lives now — or some broader, more drastic solution is required. It’s a quandary.

It’s not so obvious that this VC firm is focused on impact

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 09:06 AM PDT

Obvious Ventures was founded in 2014 by Medium CEO and Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, along with Vishal Vasishth and James Joaquin. Its mission? To invest in startups that make a positive impact on the world.

It's a bold idea, and in its marketing material, San Francisco-based Obvious specifically states that it "invests only in companies where every dollar of revenue is also delivering some environmental or social impact."

Despite that promotional language, the firm doesn't want you to call it an impact investor. So to settle the confusion, we asked the firm directly to find out if we were getting caught up in semantics, or if this seemingly intentional differentiation stems from the fact that traditional impact investors have earned a reputation of being laissez-faire about returns.

We suspected the latter, and we were right — for the most part.

Founding the obvious

When the firm came together five years ago, the partners' intention was "to invest in entrepreneurs we felt were purpose-driven and going after some of the world's biggest challenges, or pieces of them at least," said Andrew Beebe, managing director at Obvious. At the same time, the firm was looking for "top venture performance." It is by this reasoning the venture firm, also a B-corp, prefers to describe its investment strategy as "World Positive." It's a nuance that's easy to miss, even for founders looking for cash.

"When the fund first started, we did get a lot of people coming to us thinking of us as a social impact fund," Beebe told Crunchbase News. "We would get pitches for yoga mat cleaners, or people selling a lot of used clothing and putting it into a business model that just reeked of first-world hubris," he said. "But that's not the kind of stuff we wanted to invest in."

"We believe if you combine purpose-driven terrific entrepreneurs solving the world's biggest problems, you should outperform your peers," he told Crunchbase News. "We think those companies can adjust, grow and scale better as world-changers. Put simply, we believe purpose fuels profit."

Obvious has closed on two funds since its inception: raising a deliberate $123,456,789 million in 2015 and $191,919,191 million in 2017. It currently has more than 50 companies in its portfolio, including Plant Prefab, a prefabricated home factory; Good Eggs, an online grocer and meal kit delivery service; and Diamond Foundry, which says it "cultures diamonds in California with a zero carbon footprint."

(Note that our chart above shows fewer than 50 companies because, according to Obvious, some of its portfolio companies "might be in stealth mode" or not disclosing their funding for another reason.)

Obvious claims it values diversity, noting that 20 percent of its current portfolio companies have female founders, according to Beebe.

"In our view, that represents where the world is going, as we think it's becoming more diverse," he said.

However, the firm doesn't "make" its portfolio companies measure their positive impact in the world, although many do so anyway "as part of who they are." For example, Beyond Meat on its website (in a section titled "our impact" no less) touts that its burgers use "99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, 90 percent fewer GHGE (greenhouse gas emissions), and 46 percent less energy."

"We didn't tell them they had to measure those things or hit those milestones, but that's what they were going after and wanted to prove to the world," Beebe said.

For his part, Diamond Foundry CEO R. Martin Roscheisen said his company's goal is to create real diamonds above ground in its San Francisco foundry using a proprietary solar technology.

"We use renewable energy and are the world's first and only diamond producer certified to be carbon neutral," he said, adding the company is now producing more than 100,000 carats per year with the goal of expanding to 1 million carats per year.

Roscheisen said Obvious Ventures invested in his company "when they barely existed," so for his company, it was more about the people.

"James Joaquin [an Obvious co-founder] is simply irresistible, and they've now built a whole team that's great," he said.

I asked him to confirm if his company's mission matched Obvious' stated desire to only invest in companies "where every dollar of revenue was also delivering some environmental or social impact."

His answer?

"Yes, this is true for us," he said. "We create diamonds without social and environmental harm…. But we're also growing as fast as the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley and have even been profitable."

Meanwhile, I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of a traditional impact investor on whether he considers Obvious to be an impact venture firm.

Dan Graham, co-founder of Austin-based Notley Ventures, has co-invested alongside Obvious Ventures. He believes there are two pillars of impact investors: those that want to improve the world through business but are looking for "great returns" at the same time, and those that are OK with lower returns and are almost viewed more as philanthropy.

Obvious Ventures, in his view, falls into the first category.

"They're looking for those home runs that will return very nicely for their investors but are also having a positive impact," he told Crunchbase News. Obvious might be hesitant to be lumped into the impact category because it doesn't want to scare away capital that is looking for great returns, or portray itself as being willing to take a below market return, Graham said.

"But if you look at their mission and all the companies in their portfolio, I'd definitely describe them as impact," he added.

So does it really matter how Obvious Ventures (or any other company) identifies itself? Marketing gurus certainly have opinions on that, but we aren't here to make that call. What we do know for certain, because we report on it day in and day out, is that whether a company survives or dies ultimately comes down to sound business metrics, and that is something we can measure.

MoviePass parent’s CEO discusses the service’s rocky year

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 09:03 AM PDT

In the space of a few months, MoviePass went from being the hottest startup on the block to a cautionary tale about growing too big, too fast.

By the time the summer of MoviePass came to an end, the company that was going to permanently disrupt the box office was hemorrhaging money. It changed its subscription plans repeatedly, while a service outage found its parent company, Helios and Matheson Analytics, asking creditors for a $5 million loan.

The company’s past year is littered with tales of woe, including funding the film “Gotti,” which earned the fabled 0 percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. But this week, MoviePass announced a return of sorts, with the launch of Uncapped, which brings back its unlimited subscription plan (with caveats).

Shortly after that news dropped, we sat down with Helios and Matheson CEO Ted Farnsworth to discuss the company’s rocky year, and how he intends to right the ship long after most have discounted MoviePass outright. We’ve already written up some of his more newsworthy remarks; now here’s a fuller (but still edited and condensed) transcript of what he told us.

TC: What is the status of the plan to spin-off MoviePass at this point? We last heard from you back in January.

TF: We filed our S-1, which is public information out there. And we’re continuing going full speed ahead.

TC: So what will Helios and Matheson look like moving forward?

TF: Helios and Matheson will still be obviously the largest shareholder of MoviePass. And then MoviePass Entertainment will be with MoviePass Films, MoviePass Subscription and Moviefone.

TC: Why does it make sense to spin-off?

TF: It makes sense from the standpoint of multiple reasons. One is because it will be a fully integrated entertainment company there. So if we plan to go forward and do any other acquisitions or whatever else we’re doing, really we’ll just focus on the entertainment side.

TC: Do you still view MoviePass as a good investment?

TF: Absolutely 100 percent, without a doubt. Because you created a household name, you changed the industry forever, even with AMC doing subscription and Cinemark doing subscription … even though they all said they would never do it, now they’re all doing it because you definitely changed the model. I think we grew obviously way too fast, where that was our problem in the technology side, being able to figure out people who were gaming the system or doing fraud on the system, sharing their codes. So I think now that we’ve relaunched the $9.95 Uncapped Plan, that’s where you really took six months to figure out on the technology side ways to really stop that from happening going forward.

Moviepass

This August 23, 2018, file photo shows MoviePass debit cards and used movie tickets in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

TC: Gaming the system…was the primary source of the problem?

TF: Oh, yeah. They would share their code. You’d have one person going to 20 movies a month, 30 movies a month. Which you know and I know, as much as we like movies, most people aren’t going to 30 movies a month. And the way we figured that out into the system was when we started auditing people’s [accounts]. How many times did they change their device. When they take it and then they bring it back. 

TC: So the primary fix you see on your end is kind of isolating those people and getting them off the system? Or how much of it is actually changing the fine print on the plans themselves?

TF: Even back then with all that abuse, 80 percent were just regular movie-goers. Your average movie-goer that would go to four movies a year, and you’re trying to get them to double to go to eight movies a year, right? So when you’re sitting here looking at that, it was the 20 percent that were the abusers that were ruining it for everybody else, from the standpoint of gaming the system or whatever. But I could go on … stories of people gaming the system. People use MoviePass to go to the restroom in Times Square.

TC: One of the complaints from consumers is that they felt like they had the rug pulled out from under them. The plans were constantly shifting. Is that going to continue to be the case moving forward?

TF: No. This plan was always the plan in the background of what you would move towards. But testing different plans, whatever it was, along the way. For instance, another issue is where people would go to the theater, they’ll pick up the ticket, they’ll hand their ticket to the kid or their child or their friend or whatever it is, they’ll go and watch the movie, and the person that’s paying the subscription goes back home or whatever they do. So now, even with our technology, we’ll be able to ping them inside the movie.

TC: You are actually tracking where people are?

TF: No, not tracking. When they go to log in to get a ticket, you have to do a location because you’ve got to know what theater they’re at. So as they do that, you’re gonna go ahead when the movie starts 30 minutes later, you’re able to ping them inside the theater, just to make sure they still are at that theater.

TC: What sends up a red flag? Is it just the sheer number of movies somebody’s going to in a month?

TF: It could be different things. It could be multiple locations. It could be multiple cities. It could be all kinds of different things. So those are all the algorithms that we’ve been building along the way.

TC: The new plan is unlimited with a caveat. What are the parameters?

TF: You have full inventory like the old days of what you’re able to go to, whether it’s a Marvel movie or whatever it is. And that’s what the people want. They don’t want curated movies. I also believe that even though we did caps … people don’t really look at caps. 

TC: Looking back on what happened in the past year, do you feel that the company was transparent enough with consumers and shareholders while all this was going down?

TF: Absolutely. I think on the shareholder side, absolutely. I think our disclosures are way, way above and beyond, which is proven out over time, and I think on the consumer side you’re always transparent as fast as you could be on different things that were going on, but you’re right from the standpoint of, you’re growing so quick so fast.

TC: In order to actually be profitable if you are generating revenue with your own original content, what does the breakdown have to be? How many of your films do people with these passes have to go see in order for the whole thing to be profitable?

TF: Not as many as you’d think, because if you’re just profitable on the subscription side alone, you know, break-even and profitable on that, and then you have your movies on top of that as your ancillary revenues. For instance, some of the pre-sales and commitments that we already have on our movies, you’re already way ahead of the game, and then when you start tying it back to subscribers, how much does each subscriber drive as gross revenue? Right now, everybody looks at it as $9.95 or $14.95. Those numbers will jump dramatically for — I mean, coming up soon. Sooner than later.

TC: What kind of time are we talking about for the subscription side to actually become profitable?

TF: Oh, well, that’s interesting. It’s profitable right now. [A Helios and Matheson spokesperson later clarified that Farnsworth meant MoviePass’ subscription business is profitable on a revenue-per-subscriber basis.]

TC: When did it turn profitable?

TF: I will tell you this because this is out there, MoviePass has actually paid Helios back money over the last several months for loans that they have, so that gives you an idea of when we really started focusing on getting rid of the 20 percent of abuse.

TC: Are you able to disclose numbers for this new plan, as far as number of subscribers?

TF: Look, we’re extremely happy. We’re definitely well over 800 percent growth in the last few days. And that’s conservative.

TC: What are you doing beyond announcing this plan to actually win those people back?

TF: Well, a lot of them are coming back already that have canceled in the past, and we’ll be doing things you’ll see coming out even more and more, especially towards the ones that were loyal over time and really stuck it out over the last two years.

TC: What is the company’s relationship like with theaters at this point?

TF: We have good relationships with them, but the whole business model now is we don’t depend on them. We’re not looking at them from the revenue side, from the discount side, because you’re doing your own. You’ve got the subscription and your own original content, so that’s what we’re focused on.

TC: Does the relationship with the studios become problematic one you start producing your own films?

TF: No, because if you look at some of our past films, Lionsgate’s a distributor, Universal’s a distributor, so they’re making money on us now, so they’re even more open now to dealing with us because now all of a sudden they’re realizing that we’re one of their clients. So, if we use Lionsgate for distribution for one of our movies, we’ve got Universal trying to get the same deal, so it’s the opposite with the studio side. The studio side, we’ve got great relationships with them for sure.

TC: Last year things were looking rough and there was a point where the service went down and the company needed a pretty large investment. What were those conversations like with investors?

TF: I think if you look at our investors, the institutions, they’ve all done fine. I mean, they’re more than willing to invest in the next rounds of whatever they can do to invest, so I think the big snafu there was the credit card company, when one company sold to another company or whatever. We had done business with them for four years, so they decide that it’s too much credit for them and literally called the credit line on a Friday night and I do a personal guarantee on a Saturday. So, were the conversations interesting? Yeah, they were to say the least.

HMNY moviepass parent chart

TC: What is Moviefone driving? What is the value proposition for you with it?

TF: We just brought on Matt [Atchity], who was the creator of Rotten Tomatoes … We’ll start doing more. We just engaged a very well-known person for Moviefone that will start doing all our red-carpet events.

TC: “Gotti” must have been a learning experience.

TF: Not really. Let me tell you why. Because we never looked at “Gotti” as a money-maker. They knew it would break-even or whatever, but they only projected that it would do $1.3 million in the box office here … Then when we pushed it with MoviePass, we took that up to $5 million. [Technically, $4.3 million.] So, I mean, when you can take a movie — I gotta be careful here, but when you take a movie that might not be that great or perfect, and you can move that needle, was always our theory of subscription.

TC: It sounds like you’re still optimistic about the theatrical business.

TF: Last year was the first time that theatrical was up in what, 20 years? Attendance, right? And then as we started going through our little snafus, you see numbers have dropped now. So I also think what’s interesting is, the industry was nervous to embrace you, and then all of a sudden when they thought maybe it was gonna go away, then all of a sudden they’re trying to embrace you. It’s like, wait a minute, maybe we do want them as part of the model. So I think, if you look at it overall, the whole ecosystem of theatrical, I don’t think that’s going anywhere at all. Because it’s like there’s certain people, and I think millennials for sure, they were never experiencing the theater side. Because they’re not gonna pay $15 a ticket, guy takes his girlfriend there or a young kid, and all of a sudden they’re spending 100 bucks on a night out going to the movies. Even though, it’s still the cheapest entertainment out there.

So with a subscription model, where it makes it more user-friendly, then they feel — it’s funny if you look at AMC’s quotes out there, from what’s going on with their subscription, consumption at the concession stands has doubled. We’ve been saying that all along. Because people feel if they’re there and they’re not putting money out of their pocket, they’re more free to spend money at the concession stand.

TC: Once the movie theaters realize that you might be going away, they’ve embraced you.

TF: They all know, the studios know the amount of tickets we’ve bought for certain movies. So if you’re buying 30, 40 percent of a movie nationwide, of a major studio … I think if you look back over the year of different points, different turning points, it was when they did the research report, it was Hollywood Reporter, and it was at CinemaCon. They did this research where we didn’t know about it, and they were putting it out at CinemaCon. Well, it came out, and it was raving reviews. It was: We were better than Netflix, we were better than Amazon, all these things. And talking about how people would listen to us 52 percent of the time [about] what theater to go to, all these different things.

So when that came out, when we saw it, of course we’re all happy to see how great the report is. And literally 15 minutes later, I’m like, boy has the gates of Hell just opened in Hollywood. These guys aren’t even a year old, and they have this kind of control over our box office. I mean, think about that from a technology standpoint. Think about that like from an Uber with a taxi service. Airbnb and the hotel industry. We’ve all lived through that. We all use it.

TC: You think MoviePass is disruptive in the same way that those businesses are?

TF: Oh my gosh, absolutely. We’ve proven it. We’ve changed the whole model forever. Where now, the No. 1 player in the world, AMC, is doing subscription. Even though they’ve said the whole time, ‘It won’t work, you can’t do subscription, it doesn’t work,’ blah blah blah, whatever …  So in hindsight, would you do it differently, where MoviePass would have been private and then grow it and then go to an IPO? But we didn’t know … we thought it would do well.

TC: Would you have [kept it private]?

TF: In hindsight?

TC: Yeah.

TF: You’d probably sit there and build it up for a couple of years, without being under the microscope of everybody looking at every move you make. Because even when you look at Uber or whatever, they’ve had, over the years, their systems hacked or this, that and everything else … and it’s not that big of news, because you’re not under the microscope. We didn’t know that it was gonna grow as fast as it did.

TC: Were there any moments of doubt in the past year?

TF: No … There was no moments with me where I thought it would go down. Where it would just disappear. In my mind, it was too big to fail. Where you created a household name in less than a year.

The ethics of internet culture: a conversation with Taylor Lorenz

Posted: 24 Mar 2019 07:58 AM PDT

Taylor Lorenz was in high demand this week. As a prolific journalist at The Atlantic and about-to-be member of Harvard's prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalism, that's perhaps not surprising. Nor was this the first time she's had a bit of a moment: Lorenz has already served as an in-house expert on social media and the internet for several major companies, while having written and edited for publications as diverse as The Daily Beast, The Hill, People, The Daily Mail, and Business Insider, all while remaining hip and in touch enough to currently serve as a kind of youth zeitgeist translator, on her beat as a technology writer for The Atlantic.

Lorenz is in fact publicly busy enough that she's one of only two people I personally know to have openly 'quit email,' the other being my friend Russ, an 82 year-old retired engineer and MIT alum who literally spends all day, most days, working on a plan to reinvent the bicycle.

I wonder if any of Lorenz's previous professional experiences, however, could have matched the weight of the events she encountered these past several days, when the nightmarish massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand brought together two of her greatest areas of expertise: political extremism (which she covered for The Hill), and internet culture. As her first Atlantic piece after the shootings said, the Christchurch killer's manifesto was "designed to troll." Indeed, his entire heinous act was a calculated effort to manipulate our current norms of Internet communication and connection, for fanatical ends.

Taylor Lorenz

Lorenz responded with characteristic insight, focusing on the ways in which the stylized insider subcultures the Internet supports can be used to confuse, distract, and mobilize millions of people for good and for truly evil ends:

Before people can even begin to grasp the nuances of today's internet, they can be radicalized by it. Platforms such as YouTube and Facebook can send users barreling into fringe communities where extremist views are normalized and advanced. Because these communities have so successfully adopted irony as a cloaking device for promoting extremism, outsiders are left confused as to what is a real threat and what's just trolling. The darker corners of the internet are so fragmented that even when they spawn a mass shooting, as in New Zealand, the shooter's words can be nearly impossible to parse, even for those who are Extremely Online."

Such insights are among the many reasons I was so grateful to be able to speak with Taylor Lorenz for this week's installment of my TechCrunch series interrogating the ethics of technology.

As I've written in my previous interviews with author and inequality critic Anand Giridharadas, and with award-winning Google exec turned award-winning tech critic James Williams, I come to tech ethics from 25 years of studying religion. My personal approach to religion, however, has essentially always been that it plays a central role in human civilization not only or even primarily because of its theistic beliefs and "faith," but because of its culture — its traditions, literature, rituals, history, and the content of its communities.

And because I don't mind comparing technology to religion (not saying they are one and the same, but that there is something to be learned from the comparison), I'd argue that if we really want to understand the ethics of the technologies we are creating, particularly the Internet, we need to explore, as Taylor and I did in our conversation below, "the ethics of internet culture."

What resulted was, like Lorenz's work in general, at times whimsical, at times cool enough to fly right over my head, but at all times fascinating and important.

Editor’s Note: we ungated the first of 11 sections of this interview. Reading time: 22 minutes / 5,500 words.

Joking with the Pope

Greg Epstein: Taylor, thanks so much for speaking with me. As you know, I'm writing for TechCrunch about religion, ethics, and technology, and I recently discovered your work when you brought all those together in an unusual way. You subtweeted the Pope, and it went viral.

Taylor Lorenz: I know. [People] were freaking out.

Greg: What was that experience like?

Taylor: The Pope tweeted some insane tweet about how Mary, Jesus' mother, was the first influencer. He tweeted it out, and everyone was spamming that tweet to me because I write so much about influencers, and I was just laughing. There’s a meme on Instagram about Jesus being the first influencer and how he killed himself or faked his death for more followers.

Because it's fluid, it’s a lifeline for so many kids. It’s where their social network lives. It’s where identity expression occurs.

I just tweeted it out. I think a lot of people didn’t know the joke, the meme, and I think they just thought that it was new & funny. Also [some people] were saying, “how can you joke about Jesus wanting more followers?” I’m like, the Pope literally compared Mary to a social media influencer, so calm down. My whole family is Irish Catholic.

A bunch of people were sharing my tweet. I was like, oh, god. I’m not trying to lead into some religious controversy, but I did think whether my Irish Catholic mother would laugh. She has a really good sense of humor. I thought, I think she would laugh at this joke. I think it’s fine.

Greg: I loved it because it was a real Rorschach test for me. Sitting there looking at that tweet, I was one of the people who didn’t know that particular meme. I’d like to think I love my memes but …

Taylor: I can’t claim credit.

Greg: No, no, but anyway most of the memes I know are the ones my students happen to tell me about. The point is I’ve spent 15 plus years being a professional atheist. I’ve had my share of religious debates, but I also have had all these debates with others I'll call Professional Strident Atheists.. who are more aggressive in their anti-religion than I am. And I’m thinking, "Okay, this is clearly a tweet that Richard Dawkins would love. Do I love it? I don’t know. Wait, I think I do!"

Taylor: I treated it with the greatest respect for all faiths. I thought it was funny to drag the Pope on Twitter .

The influence of Instagram

Alexander Spatari via Getty Images

Hackers conquer Tesla’s in-car web browser and win a Model 3

Posted: 23 Mar 2019 05:44 PM PDT

A pair of security researchers dominated Pwn2Own, the annual high-profile hacking contest, taking home $375,000 in prizes including a Tesla Model 3 — their reward for successfully exposing a vulnerability in the electric vehicle’s infotainment system.

Tesla handed over its new Model 3 sedan to Pwn2Own this year, the first time a car has been included in the competition. Pwn2Own is in its 12th year and run by Trend Micro's Zero Day Initiative. ZDI has awarded more than $4 million over the lifetime of the program.

The pair of hackers Richard Zhu and Amat Cam, known as team Fluoroacetate, “thrilled the assembled crowd” as they entered the vehicle, according to ZDI, which noted that after a few minutes of setup, they successfully demonstrated their research on the Model 3 internet browser.

The pair used a JIT bug in the renderer to display their message — and won the prize, which included the car itself. In the most simple terms, a JIT, or just-in-time bug, bypasses memory randomization data that normally would keep secrets protected.

Tesla told TechCrunch it will release a software update to fix the vulnerability discovered by the hackers.

"We entered Model 3 into the world-renowned Pwn2Own competition in order to engage with the most talented members of the security research community, with the goal of soliciting this exact type of feedback. During the competition, researchers demonstrated a vulnerability against the in-car web browser,” Tesla said in an emailed statement. “There are several layers of security within our cars which worked as designed and successfully contained the demonstration to just the browser, while protecting all other vehicle functionality. In the coming days, we will release a software update that addresses this research. We understand that this demonstration took an extraordinary amount of effort and skill, and we thank these researchers for their work to help us continue to ensure our cars are the most secure on the road today."

Pwn2Own's spring vulnerability research competition, Pwn2Own Vancouver, was held March 20 to 22 and  featured five categories, including web browsers, virtualization software, enterprise applications, server-side software and the new automotive category.

Pwn2Own awarded a total of $545,000 for 19 unique bugs in Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge and Windows, VMware Workstation, Mozilla Firefox, and Tesla.

Tesla has had a public relationship with the hacker community since 2014 when the company launched its first bug bounty program. And it's grown and evolved ever since.

Last year, the company increased the maximum reward payment from $10,000 to $15,000 and added its energy products as well. Today, Tesla's vehicles and all directly hosted servers, services and applications are now in scope in its bounty program