General News

The public finance opportunity

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 19:49

If you’re a certain age, it’s likely that you’ve never given a second thought to buying a municipal bond or the process of bond buying, even if you’ve intuited, rightly, that’s it’s an intentionally opaque business.

Yet there could be a big opportunity for startups, and for people looking for places to invest, and for cities with crumbling infrastructures, in disrupting the status quo — if only more Americans start playing attention.

First, there’s a strong case for buying bonds. Late last year, the Trump administration capped at $10,000 the amount that taxpayers can deduct in property tax and local and state income tax. Most people with hefty tax bills are benefiting in other ways from that same new tax bill, but this aspect of it isn’t so great for them, and municipal bonds can help. The reason: interest income paid on muni bonds is exempt from federal tax. (Bonds issued within one’s state can also be free of state tax.)

What about people without hefty tax bills? For one thing, bonds are a very safe investment. They’re not sexy, it’s true ( they typically deliver interest in the single digits), but they also feature low default rates. Whether debts from states, cities, or counties, they’re typically government guaranteed and paid back in full at the end of their term. In fact, muni bond default rates have been as low as below .03 percent over the last decade. What’s also compelling — perhaps even more so — is that bonds can give residents an opportunity to help out the community where they live. For example, Oakland, Ca. voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved a $600 million bond to fix old city streets and build affordable housing.

You might be wondering at this point where the new opportunity lies and what role tech can play. Let’s start with the moolah, which there happens to be a lot of sloshing around the municipal bond market. Last year, Morningstar Direct reported $34 billion in net inflows to municipal bond funds and exchange-traded funds, and there’s a lot of action happening outside these kinds of products, which package up a bunch of bonds to create a diversified portfolio for investors.

Like any financial services disruptor, the idea here is to offer what the big financial institutions are offering but to do it at less cost.

There’s also room to create many more bonds than are currently available. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, fewer municipal bonds have been hitting the market ever since the financial crisis of 2008. More, the Trump administration’s new tax law revision eliminated something called “advance refunding issues,” which the Times describes as a type of municipal bond financing that accounts for around 15 percent of the market. Where there’s constrained supply, there’s demand.

Right now, there aren’t tons of startups paying attention to public finance, and perhaps just one company laser focused on bringing the muni bond market into the 21st century: Neighborly, which is a six-year-old, Bay Area-based company that’s very progressive, to say the least, for a bond broker. In 2017, its technology enable the city of Cambridge, Ma., to create $2 million of “mini bonds” that allowed residents to earn tax-exempt interest for smaller check sizes than typically possible, and the residents were able to invest that money directly in a variety of projects, without going through a middleman. (Apparently, it was successful; Cambridge staged a second mini bond sale earlier this year.)

Earlier this year, Neighborly convinced the city of Berkeley, Ca., to stage an initial coin offering that it dubbed an “initial community offering.” The idea is to deliver crytocurrency tokens in exchange for investments into cash-strapped projects in Berkeley — tokens that will be backed by municipal bonds. (Bond holders can receive their money back in digital coins or cash.) The project is still in development, but if it works, it could certainly provide a roap map for other cities.

Whether Neighborly winds up being a pioneer in the space- – or else trampled by a newer entrant — remains to be seen, but a recent on-stage sit-down with a longtime political strategist turned investor, Bradley Tusk, opened our eyes to the possibilities. You can check out part of that conversation below.  Note that Tusk is not an investor in Neighborly but has more recently begun advising the company. Our chat has been edited for length.

TC: You think the muni bond market is broken. Why?

BT: We have a system now that, on the one hand works. Governments can issue debt. People will pay for it. You can build projects and people will get paid back. That basically works. But it’s a very opaque, very closed system. And in the way that tech has managed to disrupt other very closed industries and force change and make them more cost efficient and transparent, there’s no reason that can’t happen in public finance as well.

[Earlier in my career], I was at Lehman Brothers . . . and they didn’t know where to put me so they stuck me in public finance. The people who worked there were honest, they weren’t the people who bankrupted the global economy. But they made a lot of money, and effectively, it was just all layered on top of the taxpayers. It’s built into [banks’] underwriting costs. And you just don’t need that any more.

TC: So right now, bonds are mostly made available through brokers who charge too much in your view. But is skipping straight to “initial community offerings” or employing blockchain technologies the right way to go? You could see that scaring people.

BT: I think blockchain gets confused with crypto and ultimately, it’s just a better system of piping, a more efficient way of moving data across a ledger from Point A to Point B and done n a way where it’s distributed across lots of different places so that it’s more secure and less hackable. But it’s plumbing; it’s infrastructure at the end of the day. So it will evolve to the point where it will just make a transaction that’s complicated and has lots of different parties and pieces just easier and faster. It’s no different than how the Internet makes it faster to do things we used to do. Email is faster than writing a letter. Text is faster than email.

[To your point], what Neighborly is trying to achieve isn’t solely dependent on blockchain. I don’t think it existed in the form it does now when [Neighborly founder and CEO Jase. Wilson] first came up with this idea. The main notion is you have a public finance system that’s expensive and opaque and not particularly democratic. You meanwhile have a lack of awareness by the people most impacted by the decisions [about where bond money should go], and those are real inefficiencies in the marketplace that Neighborly and other companies are trying to do address. Blockchain should just help them do it more efficiently over time.

TC: Is Neighborly making already available bonds to users of its platform or creating new bond offerings?

BT: Both. It can participate in a process and make bonds available or it can work with a municipality that, say, wants to create community-owned broadband.

TC: What about challenges in persuading governments to work with startups like Neighborly? Aren’t there a lot of special interests and existing relationships to overcome?

BT: Yeah, there’s a huge problem right now, which is that you have all these firms that advise government on issuing debt or participate in the process that, even though a lot of them are prohibited from giving money directly to candidates, they are very, very entrenched. They have relationships with mid-level people at budget offices everywhere.

This is a cartel that has to be taken on, just like Uber has had to take on the taxi industry and Airbnb has taken on hotels. In some ways, it’s an even harder cartel to fight because it’s so opaque. No one really understands how the budgeting process works internally, so it’s a big cartel and it’s a silent cartel, which in some ways is the most powerful of all, so it’s a pretty big fight. I give Neighborly a lot of credit for taking it on.

TC: Is there a precedent here? 

BT: [Not really.] One company does it well, then 15 more pop up. The first one has to do all the heavy lifting and take on all the fights and that’s probably what’s going to happen here, too. When market opens up, and people realize there’s money to be made, you’ll see more come in, but right now, there’s just one company that I’m aware of that’s doing most of the work.

Public finance departments are good at really working over who gets to issue and underwrite the debt, and Neighborly would rather live in a world where they didn’t have to play that game, but to some extent, the real world of politics still exists.

Categories: General News

It’s Friday so relax and watch a hard drive defrag forever on Twitch

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 19:09

It’s been a while since I defragged — years, probably, because these days for a number of reasons computers don’t really need to. But perhaps it is we who need to defrag. And what better way to defrag your brain after a long week than by watching the strangely satisfying defragmentation process taking place on a simulated DOS machine, complete with fan and HDD noise?

That’s what you can do with this Twitch stream, which has defrag.exe running 24/7 for your enjoyment.

I didn’t realize how much I missed the sights and sounds of this particular process. I’ve always found ASCII visuals soothing, and there was something satisfying about watching all those little blocks get moved around to form a uniform whole. What were they doing down there on the lower right hand side of the hard drive anyway? That’s what I’d like to know.

Afterwards I’d launch a state of the art game like Quake 2 just to convince myself it was loading faster.

There’s also that nice purring noise that a hard drive would make (and which is recreated here). At least, I thought of it as purring. For the drive, it’s probably like being waterboarded. But I did always enjoy having the program running while keeping everything else quiet, perhaps as I was going to bed, so I could listen to its little clicks and whirrs. Sometimes it would hit a particularly snarled sector and really go to town, grinding like crazy. That’s how you knew it was working.

The typo is, no doubt, deliberate.

The whole thing is simulated, of course. There isn’t really just an endless pile of hard drives waiting to be defragged on decades-old hardware for our enjoyment (except in my box of old computer things). But the simulation is wonderfully complete, although if you think about it you probably never used DOS on a 16:9 monitor, and probably not at 1080p. It’s okay. We can sacrifice authenticity so we don’t have to windowbox it.

The defragging will never stop at TwitchDefrags, and that’s comforting to me. It means I don’t have to build a 98SE rig and spend forever copying things around so I have a nicely fragmented volume. Honestly they should include this sound on those little white noise machines. For me this is definitely better than whale noises.

Categories: General News

Y Combinator invests in non-invasive breast cancer screening bra EVA

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 16:23

According to a report by the American Cancer Society, an estimated 266,120 women will be newly diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States this year and (according to a 2016 estimate) can expect to pay between $60,000 and $134,000 on average for treatment and care. But, after hundreds of thousands of dollars and non-quantifiable emotional stress for them and their families, the American Cancer Society still estimates 40,920 women will lose their battle to the disease this year.

Worldwide, roughly 1.7 million women will be diagnosed with the disease yearly, according to a 2012 estimate by The World Cancer Research Fund International.

While these numbers are stark, they do little to fully capture just how devastating a breast cancer diagnosis is for women and their loved ones. This is a feeling that Higia Technologies‘ co-founder and CEO Julián Ríos Cantú is unfortunately very familiar with.

“My mom is a two-time breast cancer survivor,” Cantú told TechCrunch. “The first time she was diagnosed I was eight years old.”

Cantú says that his mother’s second diagnosis was originally missed through standard screenings because her high breast density obscured the tumors from the X-ray. As a result, she lost both of her breasts, but has since fully recovered.

“At that moment I realized that if that was the case for a woman with private insurance and a prevention mindset, then for most women in developing countries, like Mexico where we’re from, the outcome could’ve not been a mastectomy but death,” said Cantú.

Following his mother’s experience, Cantú resolved to develop a way to improve the value of women’s lives and support them in identifying breast abnormalities and cancers early in order to ensure the highest likelihood of survival.

To do this, at the age of 18 Cantú designed EVA — a bio-sensing bra insert that uses thermal sensing and artificial intelligence to identify abnormal temperatures in the breast that can correlate to tumor growth. Cantú says that EVA is not only an easy tool for self-screening but also fills in gaps in current screening technology.

Today, women have fairly limited options when it comes to breast cancer screening. They can opt for a breast ultrasound (which has lower specificity than other options), or a breast MRI (which has higher associated costs), but the standard option is a yearly or bi-yearly mammogram for women 45 and older. This method requires a visit to a doctor, manual manipulation of the breasts by a technologist and exposure to low-levels of radiation for an X-ray scan of the breast tissue.

While this method is relatively reliable, there are still crucial shortcomings, Higia Technologies’ medical adviser Dr. Richard Kaszynski M.D., PhD told TechCrunch.

“We need to identify a real-world solution to diagnosing breast cancer earlier,” said Dr. Kaszynski. “It’s always a trade-off when we’re talking about mammography because you have the radiation exposure, discomfort and anxiety in regards to exposing yourself to a third-party.”

Dr. Kaszynski continued to say that these yearly or bi-yearly mammograms also leave a gap in care in which interval cancers — cancers that begin to take hold between screenings — have time to grow unhindered.

Additionally, Dr. Kaszynski says mammograms are not highly sensitive when it comes to detecting tumors in dense breast tissue, like that of Cantú’s mom. Dense breast tissue, which is more common in younger women and is present in 40 percent of women globally and 80 percent of Asian women, can mask the presence of tumors in the breast from mammograms.

Through its use of non-invasive, thermal sensors EVA is able to collect thermal data from a variety of breast densities that can enable women of all ages to more easily (and more frequently) perform breast examinations.

Here’s how it works:

To start, the user inserts the thermal sensing cups (which come in three standard sizes ranging from A-D) into a sports bra, open EVA’s associated EVA Health App, follow the instructions and wait for 60 minutes while the cup collects thermal data. From there, EVA will send the data via Bluetooth to the app and an AI will analyze the results to provide the user with an evaluation. If EVA believes the user may have an abnormality that puts them at risk, the app will recommend follow-up steps for further screening with a healthcare professional.

While sacrificing your personal health data to the whims of an AI might seem like a scary (and dangerous, if the device were to be hacked) idea to some, Cantú says Higia Technologies has taken steps to protect its users’ data, including advanced encryption of its server and a HIPAA-compliant privacy infrastructure.

So far, EVA has undergone clinical trials in Mexico, and through these trials has seen 87.9 percent sensibility and 81.7 percent specificity from the device. In Mexico, the company has already sold 5,000 devices and plans to begin shipping the first several hundred by October of this year.

And the momentum for EVA is only increasing. In 2017, Cantú was awarded Mexico’s Presidential Medal for Science and Technology and so far this year Higia Technologies has won first place in the SXSW’s International Pitch Competition, been named one of “30 Most Promising Businesses of 2018” by Forbes Magazine Mexico and this summer received a $120,000 investment from Y Combinator.

Moving forward, the company is looking to enter the U.S. market and has plans to begin clinical trials with Stanford Medicine X in October 2018 that should run for about a year. Following these trials, Dr. Kaszynski says that Higia Technologies will continue the process of seeking FDA approval to sell the inserts first as a medical device, accessible at a doctor’s office, and then as a device that users can have at home.

The final pricing for the device is still being decided, but Cantú says he wants the product to be as affordable and accessible as possible so it can be the first choice for women in developing countries where preventative cancer screening is desperately needed.

Categories: General News

Tesla lost nearly $8 billion in shareholder value this week and its board should be ashamed

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 16:01

Over the last five days, Tesla shareholders watched the value of their stock decline by roughly 16 percent and saw nearly $8 billion in value erased, as the company’s celebrity chief executive, Elon Musk, had what amounts to a very public breakdown.

However, Musk is not the only person responsible for the collapse of Tesla’s stock price. As The New York Times article which precipitated the latest slide in Tesla’s value on the public markets makes clear, the company’s board is also to blame.

For months, Musk has been showing signs of strain (generously speaking), and has been accused of making questionable decisions to drive growth and stifle criticism or dissent at the revolutionary electric vehicle company he founded.

During that time, as Shira Ovide notes in her piece from Bloomberg, Tesla’s board (primarily composed of Musk’s friends, relatives and initial investors) took no public steps to control or manage the situation.

Some Tesla board members are reportedly concerned about Elon Musk's workload and his use of Ambien.

If so, here's a solution for directors: Do your jobs. https://t.co/fQaENm9tS7

— Shira Ovide (@ShiraOvide) August 17, 2018

Privately and on background the board (or certain members) expressed concern over Musk’s recent behavior, drug use (both medicinal and recreational) and Twitter habits.

Those concerns should have been aired at the board level and the company’s directors should have exercised their ability to manage the mercurial Musk as his public actions became increasingly unmoored.

Something could have happened after the disastrous earnings call with analysts. It could have happened around the time of the strange active shooter allegations that were made against a Tesla whistleblower. It could have happened after Musk called a diver involved in the rescue of trapped and starving children a “pedo.”

At any of those moments the board could have stepped in and demanded that Musk face the consequences for actions that cost his company billions of dollars. They did not, and now Tesla’s position is more precarious than ever.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Musk for his public statements around privatization plans for Tesla that may or may not have been real.

It’s another distraction for the company’s chief executive at a time when he is already under tremendous pressure to meet production targets for the company’s troubled Model 3 rollout (even as it begins to hit its targets).

Tesla hits Model 3 production goal

The problem is that Musk’s cult of personality is so intertwined with Tesla’s corporate identity, there’s a fear that as Musk goes so goes Tesla. That’s no way to run a business, and it’s no way to ensure long-term value for shareholders (either as a public or private company).

Ultimately the board at Tesla needs to step in and take a more active role in overseeing the company, before the next decision they find themselves confronted with is the company’s liquidation.

Categories: General News

The Automatica automates pour-over coffee in a charming and totally unnecessary way

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 15:26

Most mornings, after sifting through the night’s mail haul and skimming the headlines, I make myself a cup of coffee. I use a simple pour-over cone and paper filters, and (in what is perhaps my most tedious Seattleite affectation), I grind the beans by hand. I like the manual aspect of it all. Which is why this robotic pour-over machine is to me so perverse… and so tempting.

Called the Automatica, this gadget, currently raising funds on Kickstarter but seemingly complete as far as development and testing, is basically a way to do pour-over coffee without holding the kettle yourself.

You fill the kettle and place your mug and cone on the stand in front of it. The water is brought to a boil and the kettle tips automatically. Then the whole mug-and-cone portion spins slowly, distributing the water around the grounds, stopping after 11 ounces has been distributed over the correct duration. You can use whatever cone and mug you want as long as they’re about the right size.

Of course, the whole point of pour-over coffee is that it’s simple: you can do it at home, while on vacation, while hiking or indeed at a coffee shop with a bare minimum of apparatus. All you need is the coffee beans, the cone, a paper filter — although some cones omit even that — and of course a receptacle for the product. (It’s not the simplest — that’d be Turkish, but that’s coffee for werewolves.)

Why should anyone want to disturb this simplicity? Well, the same reason we have the other 20 methods for making coffee: convenience. And in truth, pour-over is already automated in the form of drip machines. So the obvious next question is, why this dog and pony show of an open-air coffee bot?

Aesthetics! Nothing wrong with that. What goes on in the obscure darkness of a drip machine? No one knows. But this — this you can watch, audit, understand. Even if the machinery is complex, the result is simple: hot water swirls gently through the grounds. And although it’s fundamentally a bit absurd, it is a good-looking machine, with wood and brass accents and a tasteful kettle shape. (I do love a tasteful kettle.)

The creators say the machine is built to last “generations,” a promise which must of course be taken with a grain of salt. Anything with electronics has the potential to short out, to develop a bug, to be troubled by humidity or water leaks. The heating element may fail. The motor might stutter or a hinge catch.

But all that is true of most coffee machines, and unlike those, this one appears to be made with care and high-quality materials. The cracking and warping you can expect in thin molded plastic won’t happen to this thing, and if you take care of it, it should at least last several years.

And it better, for the minimum pledge price that gets you a machine: $450. That’s quite a chunk of change. But like audiophiles, coffee people are kind of suckers for a nice piece of equipment.

There is of course the standard crowdfunding caveat emptor; this isn’t a pre-order but a pledge to back this interesting hardware startup, and if it’s anything like the last five or six campaigns I’ve backed, it’ll arrive late after facing unforeseen difficulties with machining, molds, leaks and so on.

Categories: General News

Movado Group acquires watch startup MVMT

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 15:25

The Movado Group, which sells multiple brands, including Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss, has purchased MVMT, a small watch company founded by Jacob Kassan and Kramer LaPlante in 2013. The company, which advertised heavily on Facebook, logged $71 million in revenue in 2017. Movado purchased the company for $100 million.

“The acquisition of MVMT will provide us greater access to millennials and advances our Digital Center of Excellence initiative with the addition of a powerful brand managed by a successful team of highly creative, passionate and talented individuals,” Movado Chief Executive Efraim Grinberg said.

MVMT makes simple watches for the millennial market in the vein of Fossil or Daniel Wellington. However, the company carved out a niche by advertising heavily on social media and being one of the first microbrands with a solid online presence.

“It provides an opportunity to Movado Group’s portfolio as MVMT continues to cross-sell products within its existing portfolio, expand product offerings within its core categories of watches, sunglasses and accessories, and grow its presence in new markets through its direct-to-consumer and wholesale business,” said Grinberg.

MVMT is well-known as a “fashion brand,” namely a brand that sells cheaper quartz watches that are sold on style versus complexity or cost. Their pieces include standard three-handed models and newer quartz chronographs.

Categories: General News

YC-backed Mutiny helps B2B business personalize their website for each visitor

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 14:14

Mutiny, which is part of the current batch of startups at accelerator Y Combinator, helps business-to-business, software-as-a-service companies present a message that’s customized to each visitor on their website.

Co-founder and CEO Jaleh Rezaei said this concept is alive and well in the analog world: When she was at VMware, sales reps were given materials to help them tailor their pitch for each prospective customer. Then, when she was one of the early employees at HR services startup Gusto, she tried to do something similar online, only to find that existing software wasn’t quite up to the task.

There are landing page optimization tools, but Rezaei asked, “Who wants to create a thousand versions of your website?” And there are A/B testing tools, but Rezaei argued that they’re really designed to test “generic content” and use “very little audience intelligence.” And as for creating your own personalization tools, many companies will find that it requires “way too much engineering effort.”

That’s where Mutiny comes in. It integrates with existing data sources to allow businesses to divide their customers into segments. Then they can use Mutiny’s graphical interface to create personalized elements of the webpage for each segment.

For example, when you visit the homepage of Mutiny customer Amplitude, things like the customer testimonials and the call to action will change depending on the size of your company. Or when Brex customers click through from an email marketing campaign, they’ll see a credit card offer tailored to their name and company.

These kinds of changes might not seem all that significant, but Rezaei said that when someone visits a B2B website, they’re probably interested in the product or service already. If they’re not converting, it’s probably because “they didn’t find what they wanted right away.” Mutiny can help surface the right content or the right message for the right customer.

The startup will also compare the personalized results to the generic webpage to help determine what does and doesn’t improve the bottom line. Rezaei said some of Mutiny’s early customers (who include Gusto, Infusionsoft and Brex) have seen conversion rates improve by 20 to 180 percent.

“That’s not to say that every test performs better, but the nice thing here is that you immediately see how something is performing,” she added.

Eventually, Rezaei is hoping to expand Mutiny’s technology so that it can personalize every aspect of the B2B purchase experience, including email and ad retargeting.

“Our passion as a founding team is growth,” she said. “Progress occurs not when you just build something, but when that product makes it into the hands of the person for whom it was intended to help.”

Categories: General News

6 million users had installed third-party Twitter clients

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 14:11

Twitter tried to downplay the impact deactivating its legacy APIs would have on its community and the third-party Twitter clients preferred by many power users by saying that “less than 1%” of Twitter developers were using these old APIs. Twitter is correct in its characterization of the size of this developer base, but it’s overlooking millions of third-party app users in the process. According to data from Sensor Tower, six million App Store and Google Play users installed the top five third-party Twitter clients between January 2014 and July 2018.

Over the past year, these top third-party apps were downloaded 500,000 times.

This data is largely free of reinstalls, the firm also said.

The top third-party Twitter apps users installed over the past three-and-a-half years have included: Twitterrific, Echofon, TweetCaster, Tweetbot and Ubersocial.

Of course, some portion of those users may have since switched to Twitter’s native app for iOS or Android, or they may run both a third-party app and Twitter’s own app in parallel.

Even if only some of these six million users remain, they represent a small, vocal and — in some cases, prominent — user base. It’s one that is very upset right now, too. And for a company that just posted a loss of one million users during its last earnings, it seems odd that Twitter would not figure out a way to accommodate this crowd, or even bring them on board its new API platform to make money from them.

Twitter, apparently, was weighing data and facts, not user sentiment and public perception, when it made this decision. But some things have more value than numbers on a spreadsheet. They are part of a company’s history and culture. Of course, Twitter has every right to blow all that up and move on, but that doesn’t make it the right decision.

To be fair, Twitter is not lying when it says this is a small group. The third-party user base is tiny compared with Twitter’s native app user base. During the same time that six million people were downloading third-party apps, the official Twitter app was installed a whopping 560 million times across iOS and Android. That puts the third-party apps’ share of installs at about 1.1 percent of the total.

That user base may have been shrinking over the years, too. During the past year, while the top third-party apps were installed half a million times, Twitter’s app was installed 117 million times. This made third-party apps’ share only about 0.4 percent of downloads, giving the official app a 99 percent market share.

But third-party app developers and the apps’ users are power users. Zealots, even. Evangelists.

Twitter itself credited them with pioneering “product features we all know and love,” like the mute option, pull-to-refresh and more. That means the apps’ continued existence brings more value to Twitter’s service than numbers alone can show.

Image credit: iMore

They are part of Twitter’s history. You can even credit one of the apps for Twitter’s logo! Initially, Twitter only had a typeset version of its name. Then Twitterrific came along and introduced a bird for its logo. Twitter soon followed.

Twitterrific was also the first to use the word “tweet,” which is now standard Twitter lingo. (The company used “twitter-ing.” Can you imagine?)

These third-party apps also play a role in retaining users who struggle with the new user experience Twitter has adopted — its algorithmic timeline. Instead, the apps offer a chronological view of tweets, as some continue to prefer.

Twitter’s decision to cripple these developers’ apps is shameful.

It shows a lack of respect for Twitter’s history, its power user base, its culture of innovation and its very own nature as a platform, not a destination.

P.S.:

twitterrific

Categories: General News

YC-backed Sterblue aims to enable smarter drone inspections

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 13:57

As government regulation for commercial drone usage seems to be trending in a very positive direction for the companies involved, there is an ever-growing opportunity for drone startups to utilize artificial intelligence to deliver insights without requiring much human effort.

Sterblue, a French drone software startup that is launching out of Y Combinator’s latest class of companies, is aiming to get off-the-shelf drones inspecting large outdoor structures up close with automated insights that identify anomalies that need a second look.

The startup’s software is specifically focused on enabling drones to easily inspect large power lines or wind turbines with simple automated trajectories that can get a job done much quicker and with less room for human error. The software also allows the drones to get much closer to the large structures they are scanning so the scanned images are as high-quality as possible.

Compared to navigating a tight urban environment, Sterblue has the benefit of there being very few airborne anomalies around these structures, so autonomously flying along certain flight paths is as easy as having a CAD structure available and enough wiggle room to correct for things like wind condition.

Operators basically just have to connect their drones to the Sterblue cloud platform where they can upload photos and view 3D models of the structures they have scanned while letting the startup’s neural net identify any issues that need further attention. All and all, Sterblue says their software can let drones get within three meters of power lines and wind turbines, which allows their AI systems to easily detect anomalies from the photos being taken. Sterblue says their system can detect defects as small as one millimeter in size.

The startup was initially working on their own custom drone hardware but decided that their efforts were best spent supporting off-the-shelf devices from companies like DJI, with their software solution sitting on top. The founding team is composed of former Airbus employees that are focusing early efforts on utility companies, with some of the first customers based in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Categories: General News

Incentivai launches to simulate how hackers break blockchains

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 13:22

Cryptocurrency projects can crash and burn if developers don’t predict how humans will abuse their blockchains. Once a decentralized digital economy is released into the wild and the coins start to fly, it’s tough to implement fixes to the smart contracts that govern them. That’s why Incentivai is coming out of stealth today with its artificial intelligence simulations that test not just for security holes, but for how greedy or illogical humans can crater a blockchain community. Crypto developers can use Incentivai’s service to fix their systems before they go live.

“There are many ways to check the code of a smart contract, but there’s no way to make sure the economy you’ve created works as expected,” says Incentivai’s solo founder Piotr Grudzień. “I came up with the idea to build a simulation with machine learning agents that behave like humans so you can look into the future and see what your system is likely to behave like.”

Incentivai will graduate from Y Combinator next week and already has a few customers. They can either pay Incentivai to audit their project and produce a report, or they can host the AI simulation tool like a software-as-a-service. The first deployments of blockchains it’s checked will go out in a few months, and the startup has released some case studies to prove its worth.

“People do theoretical work or logic to prove that under certain conditions, this is the optimal strategy for the user. But users are not rational. There’s lots of unpredictable behavior that’s difficult to model,” Grudzień explains. Incentivai explores those illogical trading strategies so developers don’t have to tear out their hair trying to imagine them.

Protecting crypto from the human x-factor

There’s no rewind button in the blockchain world. The immutable and irreversible qualities of this decentralized technology prevent inventors from meddling with it once in use, for better or worse. If developers don’t foresee how users could make false claims and bribe others to approve them, or take other actions to screw over the system, they might not be able to thwart the attack. But given the right open-ended incentives (hence the startup’s name), AI agents will try everything they can to earn the most money, exposing the conceptual flaws in the project’s architecture.

“The strategy is the same as what DeepMind does with AlphaGo, testing different strategies,” Grudzień explains. He developed his AI chops earning a masters at Cambridge before working on natural language processing research for Microsoft.

Here’s how Incentivai works. First a developer writes the smart contracts they want to test for a product like selling insurance on the blockchain. Incentivai tells its AI agents what to optimize for and lays out all the possible actions they could take. The agents can have different identities, like a hacker trying to grab as much money as they can, a faker filing false claims or a speculator that cares about maximizing coin price while ignoring its functionality.

Incentivai then tweaks these agents to make them more or less risk averse, or care more or less about whether they disrupt the blockchain system in its totality. The startup monitors the agents and pulls out insights about how to change the system.

For example, Incentivai might learn that uneven token distribution leads to pump and dump schemes, so the developer should more evenly divide tokens and give fewer to early users. Or it might find that an insurance product where users vote on what claims should be approved needs to increase its bond price that voters pay for verifying a false claim so that it’s not profitable for voters to take bribes from fraudsters.

Grudzień has done some predictions about his own startup too. He thinks that if the use of decentralized apps rises, there will be a lot of startups trying to copy his approach to security services. He says there are already some doing token engineering audits, incentive design and consultancy, but he hasn’t seen anyone else with a functional simulation product that’s produced case studies. “As the industry matures, I think we’ll see more and more complex economic systems that need this.”

Categories: General News

Sino-US investment firms are targeting over $4 billion for new funds launched this year

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 12:50

As limited partners increasingly demand greater exposure to emerging market opportunities, venture capital firms with a focus on Asia are bulking up their funds and chasing deals in an increasingly competitive race to own stakes in the next generation of local startups with global aspirations.

Over the last year, firms, including DCM Ventures, GGV CapitalMatrix Partners China and Qiming Venture Partners, have all significantly increased the targets for their new funds. If each firm hits their targets, there’s roughly $4.4 billion in new capital that could be flooding into an already scorching market for investment into Chinese startups, according to SEC filings.

The largest of these new funds, by far, is GGV Capital, which has registered a new $1.8 billion fund with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Qiming Ventures has targeted $900 million for its latest fund, while DCM Ventures and Matrix Partners China are each looking for $750 million for their own new investment vehicles, according to securities filings.

Managing partners at the firms did not respond to a request for comment.

These four firms are among the last standing from the initial flood of U.S.-based venture capital firms that poured into Asia (and China specifically) in the first decade of the new millennium.

While marquee names like Kleiner Perkins, DFJ and others foundered in China, these four firms (along with global venture capital juggernauts like Sequoia Capital and NEA) put down deep roots and notched notable wins with investments in startups like Didi Chuxing, Kuaidi, Meituan-Dianping, Xiaomi and many more.

In part, these massive new funds are simply a response to the new world that venture investors find themselves in thanks to the massive amounts of capital raised by SoftBank with its $100 billion Vision Fund, or Sequoia with its $9 billion new investment vehicle.

Firms are also under pressure to raise more capital from limited partners, who want to reduce their exposure and consolidate their own investments around venture firms with track records of success and the ability to deploy capital into larger checks.

Couple those facts with the (still) low cost of capital given where interest rates are, and the sustained growth of technology companies across emerging market geographies, and you have a more willing pool of investors that want to commit more capital to emerging technology ecosystems (this is happening in Latin America, too).

But there are also some contours of China’s competitive environment that are pushing these venture capital firms to raise increasingly larger funds.

One is the sheer size of the opportunity that exists for new technology companies in China. As the WeChat messaging service increasingly evolves into a new operating system, there are opportunities to scale quickly with larger infusions of capital to capture the market.

Like their peers in the U.S., Chinese companies are also delaying their public offerings and spending more time to build a better outcome with their IPOs. That’s putting pressure on earlier-stage investors to raise capital so they don’t get crowded out in those later-stage rounds.

Chinese entrepreneurs are also often putting in their own money to finance companies at the earliest stages, which means startups are more mature when they’re seeking their first round. It’s this phenomenon that leads to the $100 million Series A and B rounds that crop up in the Chinese market more regularly than in the U.S.

Categories: General News

Netflix tests video promos in between episodes, much to viewers’ dislike

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 12:49

Netflix is testing video promos that play in between episodes of shows a viewer is streaming, the company confirmed to TechCrunch. The promos are full-screen videos, personalized to the user, featuring content Netflix would have otherwise suggested elsewhere in its user interface – like on a row of recommendations, for example. The promos also displace the preview information for the next episode being binged, like the title, description, and thumbnail that previously appeared on the right side of the screen.

The test was first spotted by Cord Cutters News, following a Reddit thread filled with complaints. A number of Twitter users are angrily tweeting about the change, too. (See below examples.)

We understand the introduction of promos in between the episodes is not a feature Netflix is rolling out to its subscribers at this time.

Instead, it’s one of the hundreds of tests Netflix runs every year, many of which are focused on how to better promote Netflix’s original programming to its customers.

This test is currently live for a small percentage of Netflix’s global audience.

And unlike some prior tests, the promos may feature any content in Netflix’s catalog – not just its original programming.

There is some misinformation about the way the test works out there because of what may be user error on the part of the original Reddit user, or an undocumented bug.

Image credit: Reddit user WhyAllTheTrains via this post

The original Reddit post said these new video promos are “unskippable,” noting there’s a Continue button with a countdown timer on it that looks similar to the one you’d see on a YouTube ad.

But we understand that the test in question does allow users to push that Continue button at any time to move forward to the next episode.

The promos, in other words, are interruptive, but they are not unskippable.

Needless to say, consumer reaction to these promos – which consumers perceive as advertisements – has been fairly critical so far. Netflix is a paid subscription service, not an ad-supported one like Hulu with Limited Commercials. That means customers expect on-demand viewing with no ads. And they think of anything that disrupts their viewing as an advertisement, as a result.

But Netflix is always trying to figure out how to better showcase its content for subscribers, in order to help them discover new shows and keep them engaged.

It has run many experiments like this over the years, not all of which pan out. For example, last year it toyed with pre-roll video previews, and more recently it began a test that promotes its shows on the background of the login screen.

Only when Netflix sees data that proves a test increases user engagement or another metric it cares about will it roll out the feature to all subscribers. That’s been the case with those auto-playing trailers, for instance. While not necessarily beloved, they seem to be doing the job.

The company’s longer-term goal is to make its user interface more video-rich and personalized, so it’s not surprising that it’s finding new ways to insert video into that experience.

Netflix, reached for comment about the new test, offering the following statement:

At Netflix, we conduct hundreds of tests every year so we can better understand what helps members more easily find something great to watch. A couple of years ago, we introduced video previews to the TV experience, because we saw that it significantly cut the time members spend browsing and helped them find something they would enjoy watching even faster. Since then, we have been experimenting even more with video based on personalized recommendations for shows and movies on the service or coming shortly, and continue to learn from our members.

In this particular case, we are testing whether surfacing recommendations between episodes helps members discover stories they will enjoy faster. It is important to note that a member is able to skip a video preview at anytime if they are not interested.

Tweets from testers:

@netflix REALLY just played an ad between episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. Netflix officially ain’t shit. Ads AND they don’t have One Tree Hill? Bye Felicia. That’s it. I’ve had both for a while but @hulu has now taken over my household.

— Sierra C. Johnson (@si8erra) August 17, 2018

@netflix for the record, this new ad setup that you have between episodes is stupid. It does not make me want to watch more shows, it just irritates me that I can’t read the preview for the next episode. Get rid of this shit!

— Starfox51315 (@Starfox51315) August 17, 2018

.@netflix make it stop! Make the ads after a show I watch stop!!!

— Frank Remley (@FrankRemley) August 17, 2018

Hey @netflix I can tolerate the ads at the top of my list of shows but between every episode I watch is getting stupid

— Lee (@dogmeat707) August 17, 2018

Wow. @netflix added ads for their shows inbetween episodes. #really

— Rowena Slytherin (@SaucySlytherin) August 16, 2018

@netflix did you seriously just hit me with an ad for your trash anime what the fuck

— Intergalactic Tham (@Tham1700) August 17, 2018

@netflix, I don't need ads in between episodes.

— Stacey (@stascream) August 17, 2018

@netflix I don’t like these ads you’ve started sliding in between my episodes of The Office! I’m well aware of what originals are on Netflix – don’t interrupt my binge watching to shove them down my throat!

— Googie (@MaximumGoogie) August 17, 2018

@netflix if you bring ads to your programming, I will have no reason to continue. I pay for your programming to avoid commercials. Just a customers input.

— JennyB (@itsgonnabfine) August 17, 2018

@netflix Please don't start forcing me to look at ads in-between episodes. It's bad enough I'm forced to watch a clip of some original show every time I open Netflix. I don't want to watch Orange is the New Black or Insatiable or The Package.

— Carol Ann (@hiicatc) August 17, 2018

https://t.co/KmtwCphVMu Exactly my reaction

Categories: General News

Gillmor Gang: Private Lives

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 12:00

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Keith Teare, Michael Markman and Steve Gillmor . Recorded live Tuesday, August 7, 2018.

Waiting for the midterms, Twitter meets the Constitution, uncommon carriers, straw man superheros.

G3: Helping Hands — Elisa Camahort Page, Francine Hardaway, Maria Ogneva and Tina Chase Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, August 3, 2018.

@stevegillmor, @fradice, @mickeleh, @kteare

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

Liner Notes

Live chat stream

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook

G3: Helping Hands

G3 chat stream

G3 on Facebook

Categories: General News

Kiiroo launches an adventure in bi-directional teledildonics

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 11:26

In the future everyone will be naked for fifteen minutes. It’s with this novel thought in mind that I connect with a model named Nazanin who will walk me through the new world of bi-directional teledildonic cam life.

I was there to test a new device from Kiiroo called the Kiiroo Launch. This novel sex jar connects with a Flashlight – essentially a masturbator – and can send and receive signals from a remote dildo. When I first explored the Kiiroo system three years ago and found it fascinating although, arguably, it was like having sex with a 3D printer. And so I was ready to work with Nazanin.

This is going to be NSFW by the way.

Bi-directional, you say?

In the world of cam-based teledildonics the models usually wear some sort of vibrator connected to a tipping system. When the viewer tips them the model’s vibrator vibrates, adding a frisson of interactivity to what is usually a one-way street. This became the norm for most cam sites and the Lush from Lovense is a popular choice in the current cam world.

What Kiiro has done is add that level of interactivity to its offerings. The Launch, for example, can send sensations to other devices including the OhMiBod, the We-Vibe, and the Kiiroo Pearl. You can either vibrate any of these things with tips or, in some cases, send signals from the Launch to the vibrator which sort of mimic your movements in real time.

Cam site Flirt4Free is the first site to enable this functionality and was also one of the first to enable Kiiroo in general, allowing models to send sensations to viewers using a robotic sex jar.

I told you this would be NSFW.

Sex jar, you say?

The experience, for the most part, was quite pleasant. The Launch is an excellent device – Engadget loved it – and it is far superior to the original Kiiroo Onyx I reviewed a few years ago. The Launch is a massive thing that holds an entirely separate sex toy inside it and it literally looks like a giant black egg sack.


I connected with the model using an app called Feel Connect that uses QR codes to link two phones or devices. In this case I linked to Nazanin’s room directly during a private session. Private sessions on Flirt4Free are paid in credits and you get 1050 credits for $100. Each model sets up their own pricing system – 40 credits per minute, for example – and once you’re in private you can talk, flirt, and show each other your bits.

In this case we were testing a device for science so Nazanin and I began a mating dance involving the swapping of QR codes and the preparation of various robotic attachments. The game proceeded apace with my signals reaching her and hers reaching me and I found myself asking fewer and fewer journalistic questions as the interview continued. She said she liked the feelings I was sending and I enjoyed the feelings she sent. It was, in the end, like a Slack room but naked.

“Up until now, performers have been using ‘read-only’ interactive devices, which react to the wildly popular tip-by-sound functionality,” said Flirt4Free President Greg Clayman.
“With compatible devices, clients can now play with their device, causing the model’s device to react- and the model can also control their device, resulting in the most realistic, mind-blowing experience ever!”

Ultimately I suspect most of us will have something like this in the home. Given the prevalence of masturbation in the human mammal and our lifelong dedication to technology, I can imagine this being just another way for all of us to get off. While it’s not perfect – my battery went dead during the session – nothing really is and I suspect the camaraderie and hearty hail-fellow-well-met nature of video sex will make a few converts over the next few years.

Ultimately tech touches everything. The fact that I’m able to send a message – be it an email or a vibration – around the world is fascinating. And as tech enters our lives more and more completely tools like the Launch will become commonplace. We trade a lot for this evolution of pleasure, to be sure, but we gain much as well. Nazanin said she liked it too, which was nice.

I told you this was going to be NSFW, didn’t I?

Categories: General News

Google gives its AI the reins over its data center cooling systems

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 11:05

The inside of data centers is loud and hot — and keeping servers from overheating is a major factor in the cost of running them. It’s no surprise then that the big players in this space, including Facebook, Microsoft and Google, all look for different ways of saving cooling costs. Facebook uses cool outside air when possible, Microsoft is experimenting with underwater data centers and Google is being Google and looking to its AI models for some extra savings.

A few years ago, Google, through its DeepMind affiliate, started looking into how it could use machine learning to provide its operators some additional guidance on how to best cool its data centers. At the time, though, the system only made recommendations and the human operators decided whether to implement them. Those humans can now take longer naps during the afternoon, because the team has decided the models are now good enough to give the AI-powered system full control over the cooling system. Operators can still intervene, of course, but as long as the AI doesn’t decide to burn the place down, the system runs autonomously.

[gallery ids="1693037,1693038,1693039,1693040"]

The new cooling system is now in place in a number of Google’s data centers. Every five minutes, the system polls thousands of sensors inside the data center and chooses the optimal actions based on this information. There are all kinds of checks and balances here, of course, so the chances of one of Google’s data centers going up in flames because of this is low.

Like most machine learning models, this one also became better as it gathered more data. It’s now delivering energy savings of 30 percent on average, compared to the data centers’ historical energy usage.

One thing that’s worth noting here is that Google is obviously trying to save a few bucks, but in many ways, the company is also looking at this as a way of promoting its own machine learning services. What works in a data center, after all, should also work in a large office building. “In the long term, we think there’s potential to apply this technology in other industrial settings and help tackle climate change on an even grander scale,” DeepMind writes in today’s announcement.

Categories: General News

Tesla shares tumble in early trading after another Elon Musk-powered PR blunder

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 10:34

Elon Musk, the embattled chief executive of electric automaker and sustainable energy company Tesla, tried to “set the record straight” about his recent behavior in an hour-long exclusive interview with The New York Times. Instead, it only served to further underscore how out-of-touch the billionaire chief executive seems from the ongoing operations at his company. The fallout has already begun, with shares falling in early trading.

His erratic behavior could cost investors billions and potentially destroy a company that has, in fact, revolutionized the automotive industry in America.

In the wide-ranging interview, Musk acknowledged the personal and physical toll running Tesla was taking on him and tried to explain away his recent behavior.

The latest drama began with a simple midday tweet last week indicating that Musk had secured funding to take Tesla private at a price of $420 per share.

Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 7, 2018

The number (which is both within the range of a 20 percent premium of Tesla shares at the time, and a code with special significance for people who smoke marijuana), the timing of the announcement and the medium on which it was issued all raised eyebrows.

just spent the past fifteen minutes delivering a rudimentary explanation of financial markets to someone just so i could help them appreciate my “elon musk absolutely did a weed twete today” theory

— ಠ_ಠ (@MikeIsaac) August 8, 2018

From there, it has pretty much been all downhill for Musk and Tesla as the company’s executive bounced from one public relations blunder to another.

There are the allegations of illegal drug use, which Musk feebly addresses in his interview, saying:

“I was not on weed, to be clear,” he said.

“Weed is not helpful for productivity. There’s a reason for the word ‘stoned.’ You just sit there like a stone on weed.”

Reporting from the Times also contradicts another assertion that Musk made in the interview — which is that Tesla’s board is not seeking someone to take the reins as a chief operating officer at the company. Something which would indubitably help take off of Musk’s shoulders some of the pressures of running the business.

The chief executive acknowledged the physical toll that managing Tesla has taken on him, but said that he does not regret any of his recent actions.

Given that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the circumstances around the tweet, that may be another position that is subject to revision.

The SEC wants Tesla to explain Elon’s 420 tweet

It’s been a long, hot summer for Tesla’s operations, and Musk has only exacerbated problems for the company with his very public complaints about short sellers, whistle-blowers, reporters, analysts and others who have openly questioned the company’s viability.

There are very real concerns about production of the company’s newest model, alongside claims from whistleblowers that the pressures of meeting deadlines for the new car have led to cutting corners on safety.

Ex-Tesla worker makes it official and blows the whistle to SEC

Throughout all of it, Tesla’s board has remained firmly committed to protecting Musk and preserving his role as chief executive officer.

As the board said in a statement it released to the Times:

There have been many false and irresponsible rumors in the press about the discussions of the Tesla board. We would like to make clear that Elon’s commitment and dedication to Tesla is obvious. Over the past 15 years, Elon’s leadership of the Tesla team has caused Tesla to grow from a small start-up to having hundreds of thousands of cars on the road that customers love, employing tens of thousands of people around the world, and creating significant shareholder value in the process.

Perhaps the best thing the company’s caretakers can do now is ensure that Musk gets some help (in the C-suite — and potentially outside of it).

It seems from the interview that Musk is asking for the same thing.

“[If] you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now,” Musk told the Times.

Categories: General News

Google said to be releasing its own smart display this year

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 10:08

Back at CES in January, Google put on a big show with the launch of a new product category designed to take on Amazon’s Echo Show and Spot. Three companies — LG, Lenovo and JBL — were waiting in the wings with their own take on the screen-powered smart speaker.

Google itself, on the other hand, was conspicuously absent. The company seemed content to rely on third-party hardware makers to do the heavy lifting in taking on Amazon. According to a new report from Nikkei Asian Review, however, the company is planning a screen sporting Home device before year’s end.

Lenovo’s Smart Display — the best looking of the original trio — launched late last month. Google, meanwhile, has been actively courting hardware makers to develop their own take on the product. At I/O, the company even handed out prototyping kits to attendees.

The strategy seemed a bit surprising, given the success Google has had with its own Home line. A recent report from Canalys shows a 449 percent year over year growth in global shipments, putting the company comfortably ahead of Amazon. If nothing else, however, letting manufacturers go first here was a vote of confidence that Google would continue to support third-party use of Google Assistant, even as it expands its own Home line.

Given the expected launch of the Pixel 3 in October, Google could well have the perfect platform to showcase new Home products just in time for the holidays.

Categories: General News

Facebook’s Kodi box ban is nothing new

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 10:08

According to recent reports, Facebook has updated its Commerce Policy to specifically ban the sale of Kodi boxes on its site – that is, devices that come with pre-installed Kodi software, which are often used for illegally streaming digital content. However, the ban is not a new one – Facebook confirms its policy on Kodi box sales hasn’t changed since last summer, and its external Policy Page – the one being cited as evidence of the new ban – was updated in December.

It’s true that the changes have flown under the radar until now, though.

The policy change was first reported by Cord Cutters News, and later linked to by TorrentFreak and Techdirt.

The original report claims that Facebook added a new rule on its list of “Digital Media and Electronic Devices” under “Prohibited Content,” which specifically calls out Kodi boxes. It says that Facebook posts “may not promote the sale of devices that facilitate or encourage streaming digital content in an authorized manner or interfering with the functionality of electronic devices.”

The Policy page lists a few examples of what this means, including wiretapping devices, jamming or descrambling devices, jailbroken or loaded devices, and, then “promoting the sale or use of streaming devices with Kodi installed.” (The only permitted items are “add-on equipment for Kodi devices, such as keyboards and remotes.”)

But this ban on Kodi boxes, Facebook says, is not a recently implemented policy.

According to a Facebook spokesperson, it launched a new policy last summer that prohibited the sale of electronic devices that facilitate or are intended for unauthorized streaming or access to digital content – including Kodi boxes. This policy has not changed since last summer, but its external Policy Page – this one being cited by the various reported – was updated in December 2017 to offer additional illustrative examples and more detailed information on all its policies, including the one related to unauthorized streaming devices.

In other words, Facebook has been banning Kodi boxes since it decided to crackdown on unauthorized streaming devices last year. It’s just now being noticed.

The ban affects all posts on Marketplace, Buy and Sell Groups, and Shop Sections on Pages.

Facebook explains it takes a very strong enforcement approach when “Kodi” is mentioned with a product for sale.

As Techdirt pointed out, that’s problematic because the Kodi software itself is actually legal.

However, device makers like Dragon Box or SetTV have been using the open-source Kodi platform and other add-ons to make copyright infringement easier for consumers.

Facebook does seem to understand that Kodi software isn’t illegal, but it knows that when “Kodi” is mentioned in a product (e.g. a device) listing, it’s very often a product designed to circumvent copyright. The company tells us that its intent is not to ban Kodi software altogether, however, and it’s in the process of reviewing its guidelines and these examples to more closely target devices that encourage unauthorized streaming.

That could mean it will, at some point, not outright ban a device that includes Kodi software, but focus more on other terms used in the sale, like “fully loaded” or some sort of description of the illegal access the box provides, perhaps. (Facebook didn’t say what might change.)

As for Kodi, the company says Facebook’s move doesn’t affect them.

“It doesn’t impact us, since we don’t sell devices,” says Keith Herrington, who handles Business Relations at the XBMC Foundation (Kodi).

He said his organization would love to talk to someone at Facebook – since they’ve never been in touch – in order to ensure that devices that are in compliance with Kodi’s trademark policy are not banned. Both Amazon and eBay have worked with Kodi on similar policies, he added.

“We’ve gotten thousands of devices which were in violation of our trademark policy removed from eBay,” Herrington said.

It’s unclear how well-enforced Facebook’s ban really is – I’m in Facebook groups myself where people talk about how to jailbreak “Fire sticks” and include posts from those who sell them pre-jailbroken. (It’s for research purposes. Ahem.)

Industry crackdowns go beyond Facebook

Facebook isn’t the only company that’s attempting to crack down on these devices. Netflix, Amazon and the major studios are suing Dragon Box for facilitating piracy by making it easy for consumers to access illegal streams of movies and TV shows.

In January 2018, a U.S. District Court judge handed down a preliminary injunction against TickBox TV, a Georgia-based set-top box maker that was sued by the major studios, along with streaming services Netflix and Amazon, for profiting from the sale of “Kodi boxes.”

Google has removed the word “kodi” from the autocomplete feature of Search, along with other piracy-related terms.

And more recently, the FCC asked Amazon and eBay to stop selling fake pay TV boxes. It said these boxes often falsely bear the FCC logo to give them the appearance of legitimacy, but are actually used to  perpetuate “intellectual property theft and consumer fraud,” the FCC said in letters to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and eBay CEO Devin Wenig.

Why Streaming Piracy is Growing

There’s a reason Kodi devices are so popular, and it’s not just because everyone is being cheap about paying for access to content.

For starters, there’s a lack of consequence for consumers who do illegally stream media – it’s not like back in the day when the RIAA was suing individuals for pirating music. While there has been some activity – Comcast several years ago issued copyright infringement notices to Kodi users, for example – you can today basically get away with illegal streaming. The copyright holders are currently focused on cutting off piracy at the source – box makers and the platforms that enable their sale – not at the individual level.

The rise of cord cutting has also contributed to the issue by creating a highly fragmented streaming ecosystem. Shows that used to be available under a single (if pricey) cable or satellite TV subscription, are now spread out across services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Sling TV, HBO NOW, and others used by cord cutters.

Customers are clearly willing to pay for some of these services (largely, Netflix and maybe one or two others), but most can’t afford a subscription for each one. And they definitely don’t want to when all they’re after is access to a single show from a network. That’s another reason they then turn to piracy.

Finally, there is the fact that film distributors have forever withheld their movies from streaming services for months, creating a demand for illegal downloads and streams. Though the release window has shrunk some in more recent years, the studios haven’t yet fully bought into the idea of much smaller windows to cater to the audience who will never go to the theater to watch their movie. And when this audience is cut out the market, they also turn to piracy.

Eventually, the record industry adapted to consumers’ desire for streaming, and services like Spotify and Apple Music emerged. Eventually, streaming services may be able to make piracy less attractive, too. Amazon Channels, could become a key player here if it expands to include more add-ons. Today, it’s the only true a la carte TV service available. And that perhaps – not skinny bundles – is what people really want.

Categories: General News

Google updates Location History language after tracking backlash

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 09:52

Four days after admitting that it continues to track users even after the Location History tracking has been disabled, Google has updated its website to more accurately reflect the nature of its location policy. 

“This setting does not affect other location services on your device, like Google Location Services and Find My Device,” the updated Google Account Help page now reads. “Some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps. When you turn off Location History for your Google Account, it’s off for all devices associated with that Google Account.”

The update was noted by the Associated Press, which first brought the tracking issue to light earlier this week in a report. Google initially denied its own inaccurate reporting, but later backtracked, adding that it had added clarifying language.

The company told TechCrunch earlier this week,

Location History is a Google product that is entirely opt in, and users have the controls to edit, delete, or turn it off at any time. As the story notes, we make sure Location History users know that when they disable the product, we continue to use location to improve the Google experience when they do things like perform a Google search or use Google for driving directions.

Google further clarified that it had tweaked the language to offer more insight into continued tracking. The company told AP, “We have been updating the explanatory language about Location History to make it more consistent and clear across our platforms and help centers.”

Of course, fixing the language on a Help page isn’t the same as addressing the issue of continued tracking. Nor does it fully clarify the company’s tracking policy. And let’s be honest, most users will never see the Help page with that information listed. Transparency on the issues goes a long way when it comes to maintaining consumer trust.

Categories: General News

Klarity uses AI to strip drudgery from contract review

TechCrunch - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 09:48

Klarity, a member of the Y Combinator 2018 Summer class, wants to automate much of the contract review process by applying artificial intelligence, specifically natural language processing.

Company co-founder and CEO Andrew Antos has experienced the pain of contract reviews first hand. After graduating from Harvard Law, he landed a job spending 16 hours a day reviewing contract language, a process he called mind-numbing. He figured there had to be a way to put technology to bear on the problem and Klarity was born.

“A lot of companies are employing internal or external lawyers because their customers, vendors or suppliers are sending them a contract to sign,” Antos explained They have to get somebody to read it, understand it and figure out whether it’s something that they can sign or if it requires specific changes.

You may think that this kind of work would be difficult to automate, but Antos said that  contracts have fairly standard language and most companies use ‘playbooks.’ “Think of the playbook as a checklist for NDAs, sales agreements and vendor agreements — what they are looking for and specific preferences on what they agree to or what needs to be changed,” Antos explained.

Klarity is a subscription cloud service that checks contracts in Microsoft Word documents using NLP. It makes suggestions when it sees something that doesn’t match up with the playbook checklist. The product then generates a document, and a human lawyer reviews and signs off on the suggested changes, reducing the review time from an hour or more to 10 or 15 minutes.

Screenshot: Klarity

They launched the first iteration of the product last year and have 14 companies using it with 4 paying customers so far including one of the world’s largest private equity funds. These companies signed on because they have to process huge numbers of contracts. Klarity is helping them save time and money, while applying their preferences in a consistent fashion, something that a human reviewer can have trouble doing.

He acknowledges the solution could be taking away work from human lawyers, something they think about quite a bit. Ultimately though, they believe that contract reviewing is so tedious, it is freeing up lawyers for work that requires a greater level of intellectual rigor and creativity.

Antos met his co-founder and CTO, Nischal Nadhamuni, at an MIT entrepreneurship class in 2016 and the two became fast friends. In fact, he says that they pretty much decided to start a company the first day. “We spent 3 hours walking around Cambridge and decided to work together to solve this real problem people are having.”

They applied to Y Combinator two other times before being accepted in this summer’s cohort. The third time was the charm. He says the primary value of being in YC is the community and friendships they have formed and the help they have had in refining their approach.

“It’s like having a constant mirror that helps you realize any mistakes or any suboptimal things in your business on a high speed basis,” he said.

Categories: General News