Can the Visa-Mastercard Duopoly Be Broken?
An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Economist:
America is home to the heftiest interchange fees of any major economy -- costs are an order of magnitude greater than in Europe and China. That largely benefits two firms: Visa and Mastercard, which facilitate more than three-quarters of the country's credit-card transactions. Doing so has made them two of the most profitable companies in the world, with net margins last year of 51% and 46% respectively. Rank every firm (excluding real-estate-investment trusts) in the s&p 500 index by their average net-profit margins last year, five years ago and a decade ago, and only four appear in the top 20 every time. Two are financial-information firms, Intercontinental Exchange and the cme Group. The others are Mastercard and Visa. At first glance their position appears insurmountable. Already dominant, in recent years the firms have been boosted by a covid-induced rise in online shopping. American consumers used credit or debit cards for 45% of their transactions in 2016; by 2021, that had reached 57%. The migration from cash is "a significant and long-running tailwind," says Craig Vosburg of Mastercard. Yet two threats loom. The first comes from Washington, where legislators hope to smash the duo's grip on payments. The second is virtual. Payments have been transformed in Brazil, China and Indonesia by cheap, convenient app-based options from tech giants like Mercado Pago, Ant Group, Tencent and Grab. After a long wait, new entrants now look like they could shake up America's market.
[...] On July 28th Richard Durbin, the same Democratic senator who regulated debit interchange a decade ago, introduced the Credit Card Competition Act (ccc). It does not propose a cap on interchange, as the debit rule does, since costs for credit cards are more variable than for debit cards, making it harder to find the right level. Instead, the ccc would attempt to spur competition by breaking the links between card networks and banks. At present, when a bank issues a credit card every transaction on it is processed by the card network the bank stipulates, meaning the bank is guaranteed the interchange fee the network sets. If the ccc becomes law it will force banks to offer merchants the choice of at least two different card networks. Crucially, these choices could not be the two biggest -- at least one smaller network would have to be offered. They could compete for business by offering lower interchange rates, and merchants would presumably jump at the offer.
Two factors help the bill's chances. It is sponsored by Mr Durbin, the second-most senior Democrat in the Senate, and it is bipartisan, co-sponsored by Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas. The ccc's best chance is probably as an amendment to another bigger piece of legislation, which is how debit-card regulation passed in 2010. Even if the effort fails, or fails to work as intended, a potentially bigger threat to the giants looms. So far new entrants to the payments market have benefited Visa and Mastercard, by making it easier for consumers to use their cards online. But as the new fintechs have gained clout, their decisions about the sorts of payments they offer could influence how much money travels along the card networks. Stripe, a large payments-infrastructure firm, says it is working to provide merchants with payment methods that will lower their costs. Current options include a box for customers to enter card details, but also Klarna, a "buy-now-pay-later" provider through which customers can pay for purchases using bank transfers, thus avoiding the card networks. It could soon include things like FedNow, a real-time bank-transfer system being built by the Fed, which is due to be launched next year. In time, it could even include central-bank digital currencies or cryptocurrencies.
Competitors might make little headway if the perks for sticking with credit cards are sufficiently juicy. But merchants can offer their own incentives. When your correspondent recently went to purchase a pair of linen trousers from Everlane, an online retailer, she was encouraged to pay using Catch, a fintech app. The app linked to her bank account via another payment startup called Plaid. As a thank you for avoiding the card networks, Everlane offered a shop credit worth 5% of the transaction value. Catch has signed up a handful of fashionable, millennial brands including Pacsun, another clothing retailer, and Farmacy, a skincare firm. For evidence that this poses a threat, look no further than Visa's attempted purchase of Plaid. In 2020 the firm tried to buy the upstart for $5.3bn, only for the deal to be scuppered by antitrust regulators on the grounds that the transaction would have allowed Visa to eliminate a competitive threat. Ultimately, Visa gave up, but the attempt was nonetheless telling. The house of cards carefully constructed by the two payment giants is formidable and long-standing. But it is not indestructible.
Tesla's Virtual Power Plant Had Its First Event Helping the Grid
Klaxton shares a report from Electrek:
Last year, Tesla launched a VPP pilot program in California, where Powerwall owners would join in voluntarily without compensation to let the VPP pull power from their battery packs when the grid needed it. Following the pilot program, Tesla and PG&E, the electric utility covering Northern California, launched the first official virtual power plant through the Tesla app in June. This new version of the Tesla Virtual Power Plant actually compensates Powerwall owners $2 per kWh that they contribute to the grid during emergency load reduction events. Homeowners are expected to get between $10 and $60 per event. Earlier this week, Tesla's California VPP expanded to Southern California Edison (SCE) to now cover most of the state. Just days later, the Tesla VPP had its first emergency response event.
Tesla reached out to Powerwall owners who opted in the program through its app yesterday to warn them of the event and give them the option to opt-out if they needed all the power from their Powerwalls today. It looks like 2,342 Powerwall owners participated in the event on the PG&E network and 268 homes on the SCE grid. For PG&E, Tesla's VPP was outputting as much as 16 MW of power at one point during the event -- acting as a small distributed power plant.
Europe Is Seriously Considering a Major Investment In Space-Based Solar Power
seriously considering developing space-based solar power to increase its energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the leader of the European Space Agency said this week. Ars Technica reports:
"It will be up to Europe, ESA and its Member States to push the envelope of technology to solve one of the most pressing problems for people on Earth of this generation," said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the space agency, an intergovernmental organization of 22 member states. Previously the space agency commissioned studies from consulting groups based in the United Kingdom and Germany to assess the costs and benefits of developing space-based solar power. ESA published those studies this week in order to provide technical and programmatic information to policymakers in Europe. Aschbacher has been working to build support within Europe for solar energy from space as a key to energy de-carbonization and will present his Solaris Program to the ESA Council in November. This council sets priorities and funding for ESA. Under Aschbacher's plans, development of the solar power system would begin in 2025.
In concept, space-based solar power is fairly straightforward. Satellites orbiting well above Earth's atmosphere collect solar energy and convert it into current; this energy is then beamed back to Earth via microwaves, where they are captured by photovoltaic cells or antennas and converted into electricity for residential or industrial use. The primary benefits of gathering solar power from space, rather than on the ground, is that there is no night or clouds to interfere with collection; and the solar incidence is much higher than at the northern latitudes of the European continent.
The two consulting reports discuss development of the technologies and funding needed to start to bring a space-based power system online. Europe presently consumes about 3,000 TWh of electricity on an annual basis, and the reports describe massive facilities in geostationary orbit that could meet about one-quarter to one-third of that demand. Development and deployment of these systems would cost hundreds of billions of euros. Why so much? Because facilitating space-based solar power would require a constellation of dozens of huge, sunlight-gathering satellites located 36,000 km from Earth. Each of these satellites would have a mass 10 times larger, or more, than that of the International Space Station, which is 450 metric tons and required more than a decade to assemble in low Earth orbit. Launching the components of these satellites would ultimately require hundreds or, more likely, thousands of launches by heavy lift rockets. "Using projected near-term space lift capability, such as SpaceX's Starship, and current launch constraints, delivering one satellite into orbit would take between 4 and 6 years," a report by British firm Frazer-Nash states. "Providing the number of satellites to satisfy the maximum contribution that SBSP could make to the energy mix in 2050 would require a 200-fold increase over current space-lift capacity." Critics of the concept include
Elon Musk and
physicist Casey Handmer, among others, which take issue with the poor photon to electron to photon conversion efficiency and prohibitively expensive transmission losses, thermal losses, and logistics costs.
Forever Chemicals No More? PFAS Are Destroyed With New Technique
An anonymous reader quotes a report from the New York Times:
A team of scientists has found a cheap, effective way to destroy so-called forever chemicals, a group of compounds that pose a global threat to human health. The chemicals -- known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- are found in a spectrum of products and contaminate water and soil around the world. Left on their own, they are remarkably durable, remaining dangerous for generations. Scientists have been searching for ways to destroy them for years. In a study, published Thursday in the journal Science, a team of researchers rendered PFAS molecules harmless by mixing them with two inexpensive compounds at a low boil. In a matter of hours, the PFAS molecules fell apart. The new technique might provide a way to destroy PFAS chemicals once they've been pulled out of contaminated water or soil. But William Dichtel, a chemist at Northwestern University and a co-author of the study, said that a lot of effort lay ahead to make it work outside the confines of a lab. "Then we'd be in a real position to talk practicality," he said.
At the end of a PFAS molecule's carbon-fluorine chain, it is capped by a cluster of other atoms. Many types of PFAS molecules have heads made of a carbon atom connected to a pair of oxygen atoms, for example. Dr. Dichtel came across a study in which chemists at the University of Alberta found an easy way to pry carbon-oxygen heads off other chains. He suggested to his graduate student, Brittany Trang, that she give it a try on PFAS molecules. Dr. Trang was skeptical. She had tried to pry off carbon-oxygen heads from PFAS molecules for months without any luck. According to the Alberta recipe, all she'd need to do was mix PFAS with a common solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, and bring it to a boil. "I didn't want to try it initially because I thought it was too simple," Dr. Trang said. "If this happens, people would have known this already." An older grad student advised her to give it a shot. To her surprise, the carbon-oxygen head fell off. It appears that DMSO makes the head fragile by altering the electric field around the PFAS molecule, and without the head, the bonds between the carbon atoms and the fluorine atoms become weak as well. "This oddly simple method worked," said Dr. Trang, who finished her Ph.D. last month and is now a journalist.
Unfortunately, Dr. Trang discovered how well DMSO worked in March 2020 and was promptly shut out of the lab by the pandemic. She spent the next two and a half months dreaming of other ingredients which she could add to the DMSO soup to hasten the destruction of PFAS chemicals. On Dr. Trang's return, she started testing a number of chemicals until she found one that worked. It was sodium hydroxide, the chemical in lye. When she heated the mixture to temperatures between about 175 degrees to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, most of the PFAS molecules broke down in a matter of hours. Within days, the remaining fluorine-bearing byproducts broke down into harmless molecules as well. Dr. Trang and Dr. Dichtel teamed up with other chemists at U.C.L.A. and in China to figure out what was happening. The sodium hydroxide hastens the destruction of the PFAS molecules by eagerly bonding with the fragments as they fall apart. The fluorine atoms lose their link to the carbon atoms, becoming harmless. [...] Dr. Dichtel and his colleagues are now investigating how to scale up their method to handle large amounts of PFAS chemicals. They're also looking at other types of PFAS molecules with different heads to see if they can pry those off as well.
Snap May Be a Camera Company, But Only Its Software Sells
After just four months, Snapchat is
sunsetting future development on its easy-to-use "Pixy" drone, "seemingly in part of a broader effort to cut costs after the company's second-quarter earnings," reports Input Mag.
The Wall Street Journal was first to break the news. From the report:
Snap isn't alone in suffering under the current economic downturn -- or the long-term effect Apple's App Tracking Transparency has had on the mobile advertising business -- but its struggles with hardware are somewhat unique. Whether it's the Spectacles camera glasses or now the Pixy, Snap's experimental hardware hasn't really caught on in the same way other new hardware has. [Snap CEO Evan Spiegel] was the first to tease possible future Pixys (Pixies?) in an interview with The Verge, noting that Snap even underestimated how many people would want to buy the first version. "Maybe we would make more with version two if people love the original product," Spiegel explained. After the relative failure of the Spectacles from a sales perspective, the Pixy seemed like a corrective product people would be more interested in. "After a couple versions of camera glasses, it just becomes very clear that the market for camera glasses is actually very small and constrained to people who want that first person POV," Spiegel told The Verge. "I think the market for Pixy is bigger."
Snap software continuing to succeed while its hardware struggles puts the company in an odd position. Learning through making hardware, and ideally selling that hardware for a profit, is a big part of its push for an augmented reality future. But if no one's buying it, or it's too expensive to develop in the first place, that's kind of a problem. Snap thinks of itself as a camera company. That might have seemed premature when it was only developing an app, but it's since backed that up with experimental toys, and plenty of exciting acquisitions. It's ironic then, that it maybe got it right the first time. If Google's proved anything with its Pixel phones, it's that the most important camera you own is the software that processes your photos, not the physical hardware itself. For the immediate future, software is working for Snap, and it seems like that's what it's going to be selling.
Dodge's Electric Charger SRT Concept Has Fake V8 Noise, Exhausts
"Dodge has given its electric Charger Daytona SRT Concept a set of fake exhausts and
one of the loudest artificial V8 noises we've ever heard," writes Harry Waring via CarThrottle. From the report:
The car features some interestingly named components that make it stand out from the rest of the EV crowd, such as the "Rupt" simulated multispeed transmission and a "Fratzonic" chambered 'exhaust' which emits a 125 dB "Dark Matter" noise (yes, we're serious). According to Dodge, the battery-powered machine is supposedly as loud as a Hellcat with its supercharged Hemi V8. The unusual names continue with the 800V "Banshee" propulsion system, which delivers power to the car's 21-inch wheels. We're yet to hear about official performance figures, but stopping power will be provided by six-piston brake callipers. The 'Fratzog' logo sits on the car's front and rear ends, previously used on vehicles produced by Dodge between 1962 and 1976, now representing the brand's electrified future. You can watch (and hear) it in action
A Tool That Monitors How Long Kids Are In the Bathroom Is Now In 1,000 American Schools
e-HallPass, a digital system that students have to use to request to leave their classroom and which takes note of how long they've been away, including to visit the bathroom,
has spread into at least a thousand schools around the United States. Motherboard reports:
On Monday, a since deleted tweet went viral in which someone claimed that their school was preparing to introduce e-HallPass, and described it as "the program where we track how long, at what time, and how often each child goes to the restroom and store that information on third party servers run by a private for-profit company." Motherboard then identified multiple schools across the U.S. that appear to use the technology by searching the web for instruction manuals, announcements, and similar documents from schools that mentioned the technology. Those results included K-12 schools such as Franklin Regional Middle School, Fargo Public Schools, River City High School, Loyalsock Township School District, and Cabarrus County Schools. Also schools Motherboard found that appear to use e-HallPass include Mehlville High School, Eagle County School District, Hopatcong Borough Schools, and Pope Francis Preparatory School. These schools are spread across the country, with some in California, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. Eduspire, the company that makes e-HallPass, told trade publication EdSurge in March that 1,000 schools use the system. Brian Tvenstrup, president of Eduspire, told the outlet that the company's biggest obstacle to selling the product "is when a school isn't culturally ready to make these kinds of changes yet."
The system itself works as a piece of software installed on a computer or mobile device. Students request a pass through the software and the teacher then approves it. The tool promises "hall omniscience" with the ability to "always know who has a pass and who doesn't (without asking the student!)," according to the product's website. Admins can then access data collected through the software, and view a live dashboard showing details on all passes. e-HallPass can also stop meet-ups of certain students and limit the amount of passes going to certain locations, the website adds, explicitly mentioning "vandalism and TikTok challenges." Many of the schools Motherboard identified appear to use e-HallPass specifically on Chromebooks, according to student user guides and similar documents hosted on the schools' websites, though it also advertises that it can be used to track students on their personal cell phones.
Buttons Beat Touchscreens In Cars, and Now There's Data To Prove It
An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica:
[Swedish car publication Vi Bilagare] tested 11 new cars alongside a 2005 Volvo C70, timing how long it took to perform a list of tasks in each car. These included turning on the seat heater, increasing the cabin temperature, turning on the defroster, adjusting the radio, resetting the trip computer, turning off the screen, and dimming the instruments. The old Volvo was the clear winner. "The four tasks is handled within ten seconds flat, during which the car is driven 306 meters at 110 km/h [1,004 feet at 68 mph]," VB found. Most of the other cars required twice as long, or more, to complete the same tasks. VB says that "one important aspect of this test is that the drivers had time to get to know the cars and their infotainment systems before the test started." VB lays the blame for the shift from buttons to screens with designers who "want a 'clean' interior with minimal switchgear."
Even with touchscreens, though, we can see in the spread of scores VB gave to different all-touch cars that design matters. You'll find almost no buttons in a Tesla Model 3, and we called out the lack of buttons in the Subaru Outback in our review, but both performed quite well in VB's tests. And VW's use of capacitive touch (versus physical) for the controls on the center stack appears to be exactly the wrong decision in terms of usability, with the ID.3 right at the bottom of the pack in VB's scores. I'm not surprised that the BMW iX scored well; although it has a touchscreen, you're not obligated to use it. BMW's rotary iDrive controller falls naturally to hand, and there are permanent controls arrayed around it under a sliver of wood that both looks and feels interesting. It's an early implementation of what the company calls shy tech, and it's a design trend I am very much looking forward to seeing evolve in the future.
Google Will Roll Out New Updates To Reduce Low-Quality, Unoriginal Content In Search Results
announced today that it's rolling out new Search updates over the next few weeks that will aim to
make it easier for people to find high-quality content. TechCrunch reports:
The new ranking improvements will work to reduce the amount of low-quality or unoriginal content that ranks high in search results. Google says that the update will especially target content that has been created primarily for ranking on search engines, known as "SEO-first" content, rather than human-first content. The company's tests have shown that the update will improve the results users find when searching for content like online educational materials, as well as arts and entertainment, shopping and tech-related content.
The new updates should help reduce the number of low-quality results from websites that have learned to game the system with content that is optimized to rank high in search results. Google says users should start to see content that is actually useful rank more prominently in search results. The company plans to refine its systems and build on these improvements over time. "If you search for information about a new movie, you might have previously encountered articles that aggregated reviews from other sites without adding perspectives beyond what's available elsewhere on the web," the company explained in a blog post. "This isn't very helpful if you're expecting to read something new. With this update, you'll see more results with unique information, so you're more likely to read something you haven't seen before."
Vietnam To Make Apple Watch, MacBook For First Time Ever
Apple is in talks to
make Apple Watches and MacBooks in Vietnam for the first time, marking a further win for the Southeast Asian country as the U.S. tech giant looks to diversify production away from China. Nikkei Asia reports:
Vietnam is already Apple's most important production hub outside of China, producing a wide range of flagship products for the American company, including iPad tablets and AirPods earphones. The Apple Watch is even more sophisticated, according to industry experts, who say that squeezing so many components into such a small case requires a high degree of technological skill. Producing the device would be a win for Vietnam as the country attempts to further upgrade its tech manufacturing sector.
Apple has also continued to shift iPad production to Vietnam after COVID-related lockdowns in Shanghai caused massive supply chain disruptions. BYD of China was the first to assist with this shift, though sources told Nikkei Asia that Foxconn, too, is now helping build more iPads in the Southeast Asian nation. Apple is also in talks with suppliers to build test production lines for its HomePod smart speakers in Vietnam, the people said. On the MacBook front, Apple has asked suppliers to set up a test production line in Vietnam, two sources said. However, progress in moving mass production to the country has been slow, partly due to pandemic-related disruptions but also because notebook computer production involves a larger supply chain, multiple sources said. That network is currently centered on China and very cost-competitive, they added.
Apple Targets September 7 for iPhone 14 Launch in Flurry of New Devices
Def Con Banned a Social Engineering Star - Now He's Suing
Several readers have shared this report:
In February, when the Def Con hacker conference released its annual transparency report, the public learned that one of the most prominent figures in the field of social engineering had been permanently banned from attending. For years, Chris Hadnagy had enjoyed a high-profile role as the leader of the conference's social engineering village. But Def Con's transparency report stated that there had been multiple reports of him violating the conference's code of conduct. In response, Def Con banned Hadnagy from the conference for life; in 2022, the social engineering village would be run by an entirely new team. Now, Hadnagy has filed a lawsuit against the conference alleging defamation and infringement of contractual relations. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on August 3rd and names Hadnagy as the plaintiff, with Def Con Communications and the conference founder, Jeff Moss, also known as "The Dark Tangent," as defendants. Moss was reportedly served papers in Las Vegas while coordinating the conference this year.
There are few public details about the incidents that caused Hadnagy's ban, as is common in harassment cases. In the transparency report announcing the permanent ban, Def Con organizers were deliberately vague about the reported behavior. "After conversations with the reporting parties and Chris, we are confident the severity of the transgressions merits a ban from DEF CON," organizers wrote in their post-conference transparency report following the previous year's conference. Def Con's Code of Conduct is minimal, focusing almost entirely on a "no-harassment" policy. "Harassment includes deliberate intimidation and targeting individuals in a manner that makes them feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or afraid," the text reads. "Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. We reserve the right to respond to harassment in the manner we deem appropriate."
Old Laptop Hard Drives Will Allegedly Crash When Exposed To Janet Jackson Music
An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica:
It sounds like something out of an urban legend: Some Windows XP-era laptops using 5400 RPM spinning hard drives can allegedly be forced to crash when exposed to Janet Jackson's 1989 hit "Rhythm Nation." But Microsoft Software Engineer Raymond Chen stands by the story in a blog post published earlier this week, and the vulnerability has been issued an official CVE ID by The Mitre Corporation, lending it more credibility. According to Chen, CVE-2022-38392 was originally discovered by "a major computer manufacturer," and it can affect not just the laptop playing the song but adjacent laptops from other PC companies as well.
The specific hard drive model at issue -- again from an unnamed manufacturer -- would crash because "Rhythm Nation" used some of the same "natural resonant frequencies" that the drives used, interfering with their operation. Anyone trying to independently recreate this problem will face several obstacles, including the age of the laptops involved and a total lack of specificity about the hard drives or computer models. The CVE entry mentions "a certain 5400 RPM OEM hard drive, as shipped with laptop PCs in approximately 2005" and links back to Chen's post as a primary source. And while some Windows XP-era laptop hard drives may still be kicking out there somewhere, after almost two decades, it's more likely that most of them have died of natural causes. The PC manufacturer was able to partially resolve the issue "by adding a custom filter in the audio pipeline that detected and removed the offending frequencies during audio playbanck," says Chen. However, these HDDs would still crash if they were exposed to another device that was playing the song.
had a hand in delivering the stunning images that the James Webb Space Telescope has been
beaming back to Earth. From a report:
Qualcomm Is Plotting a Return To Server Market With New Chip
Qualcomm is taking another run at the market for server processors,
Bloomberg News reported Thursday, citing people familiar with its plans, betting it can tap a fast-growing industry and decrease its reliance on smartphones. From a report:
The company is seeking customers for a product stemming from last year's purchase of chip startup Nuvia, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. Amazon.com AWS business, one of the biggest server chip buyers, has agreed to take a look at Qualcomm's offerings, they said. Chief Executive Officer Cristiano Amon is trying to turn Qualcomm into a broader provider of semiconductors, rather than just the top maker of smartphone chips. But an earlier push into the server market was abandoned four years ago under his predecessor. At the time, the company was trying to cut costs and placate investors after fending off a hostile takeover by Broadcom.
This time around, Qualcomm has Nuvia, staffed with chip designers from companies such as Apple. Amon, who acquired the business for about $1.4 billion in 2021, has said that its work will help revitalize Qualcomm's high-end offerings for smartphones. But Nuvia was founded as a provider of technology for the server industry. The market for cloud computing infrastructure -- the kind of equipment that Amazon, Google and Microsoft use to whisk data around the world -- generated $73.9 billion last year, according to research firm IDC. That was up 8.8% from 2020. The owners of giant cloud data centers have long relied on Intel's chip technology for their servers. But they're increasingly embracing processors that use designs from Arm, a key partner in phone chips for San Diego-based Qualcomm.
Scientists Discover How Mosquitoes Can 'Sniff Out' Humans
Whether you opt for repellant, long sleeves or citronella coils, the dreaded drone of a mosquito always seems to find its way back to you. Now researchers say they have found the mechanism behind the insect's
ability to home in on humans. From a report:
Humans give off a fragrant cocktail of body odour, heat and carbon dioxide, which varies from person to person and mosquitoes use to locate their next meal. While most animals have a specific set of neurons that detect each type of odour, mosquitoes can pick up on smells via several different pathways, suggests the study, which is published in the science journal Cell. "We found that there's a real difference in the way mosquitoes encode the odours that they encounter compared to what we've learned from other animals," said Meg Younger, an assistant professor of biology at Boston University and one of the lead authors of the study. Researchers at the Rockefeller University, in New York, were baffled when mosquitoes were somehow still able to find people to bite after having an entire family of human odour-sensing proteins removed from their genome. The team then examined odour receptors in the antennae of mosquitoes, which bind to chemicals floating around in the environment and signal to the brain via neurons.