How Blue Apron Became a Massive $2 Billion Disaster
An anonymous reader quotes a report from Observer:
If you like to cook but not to shop or plan your own meals, and if you weren't too hungry, and if you didn't like cooking for too many friends, then Blue Apron -- the startup delivering precisely measured, prepackaged amounts of just enough salmon, green beans, butter and lemon for one meal, no leftovers -- was for you. Exactly who it was that was both upwardly mobile to pay for this service while also having a barren kitchen, nobody really knew -- but by the divine math of Silicon Valley gamblers, your existence made this an idea worth several billion dollars and potent enough to "disrupt" the grocery business. People actually believed this. Or they did until Jeff Bezos and Amazon went shopping and bought out Whole Foods. Or until HelloFresh launched. Or until Blue Apron spent millions on packaging and shipping, as well as marketing, literally gifting away boxes of neatly assorted ingredients to millennials who never ordered another box. All this conspired to, one-by-one, wreck Blue Apron's IPO, crater stock prices to all-time list lows, kick founders out of company leadership and now, at last, the seemingly undeniable, ultimate doom of the company.
After losing another $23.7 million in the last three months of 2019, Blue Apron is laying off 240 workers and shutting down the shop at its Arlington, Texas warehouse location. Blue Apron will keep, for now, its California and New York assembly-and-distribution shops, while leaders ponder peddling what's left at a paltry $50 million price tag. Meanwhile, customers continue to desert Blue Apron, down to 351,000 in the last quarter of 2019, from 557,000 the year before. Selling off Blue Apron that low would mean a loss in the neighborhood of $143 million for Blue Apron's capital investors, including Fidelity and Goldman Sachs. That hurts, but as usual, retail investors took the worst hit. Stock-market playing rubes, who bought in when Blue Apron went public at $11 a share, have lost more than 80% on their investment -- and that represents a recovery. Shares were trading for $3.60 at the close on Wednesday, up from 2018 when Blue Apron was worth less than a dollar. There's no other analysis than this: Blue Apron was one of the biggest-ever Silicon Valley catastrophes, a mix of hubris, unrealistic expectations, a misunderstanding of how people exist in the world -- and, Amazon.
'Project Magnum': Flywheel's Alleged Plot To Steal Peloton's Technology
Spin bike maker Flywheel lost a patent lawsuit to rival company Peloton, announcing yesterday that it's shutting down. Motherboard uncovered some wild corporate espionage in the court documents: "At some point before the launch of FLY Anywhere, according to Peloton's lawyers, Flywheel launched 'Project Magnum,' an attempt to 'obtain as MUCH secret intel on Peloton as we can,' according to an improperly redacted document Peloton filed in court. 'Project Magnum was not some extemporaneous side-project [...] but rather a concerted, widespread effort,' one of Peloton's filings adds.
But Project Magnum was, apparently, more haphazard than spy operation. Flywheel created a Google Doc to 'create tabs with the functional areas of info so that the team know[s] to keep adding to it,' one of the documents reads. Much of the conspiracy seems to have taken place over email, judging by discovery that Peloton obtained. Someone at Flywheel named the project after the Magnum PI television series, one of the court documents adds, although the filing does not include the individual's name. The filings do not go into detail on how Flywheel apparently tried to obtain Peloton's secrets, but they do include contours of the project. In a message seemingly written by a former Flywheel CTO who now works at Facebook, he wrote 'Villency could be useful in providing insight related to Project Magnum.' Eric Villency, and his company Villency Design Group, designed the Peloton and SoulCycle stationary bikes..."
Windows 10 Icons Are Getting An Overdue Redesign
rolling out updates to the icons for Windows 10's core apps over the months ahead,
starting with the Calendar and Mail apps in a new Release Preview for Windows Insiders in the Fast ring. Engadget reports:
The company's design team explained that it wanted to break away from the flat, colorless icons you see today in favor of ones that are at once more consistent with newer branding (including apps available beyond Windows) and different enough that you'll have an easier time finding the one you want. This is arguably an overdue move. Microsoft hadn't really touched Windows 10's main icons since its debut in 2015, so they risked feeling old. There were also inconsistencies creeping in, especially once Office got its new look. This update drags Windows 10's appearance into the modern era, and might just give you a more colorful OS in the bargain. "Flat, monochrome icons look great in context of colorful tiles, but as more icon styles enter the ecosystem, this approach needs to evolve," reveals Christina Koehn, a design leader for Windows and Devices at Microsoft. "When icons in the taskbar and Start menu are different styles, it creates more cognitive load to scan and find applications. We needed to incorporate more visual cues into the icon design language using our modernized Fluent Design Language."
You can read more about Microsoft's approach to updating the icons in Windows 10 in
this Medium post.
Facebook Will Now Pay You For Your Voice Recordings
being caught listening to and transcribing voice recordings without informing customers, Facebook announced it
will now offer to pay some users for voice recordings to help improve its speech recognition technology. The Verge reports:
Facebook will let you make voice recordings as part of a new program called "Pronunciations" in its Viewpoints market research app. If you qualify to be part of the program, Facebook says you'll be able to record the phrase "Hey Portal" followed by the first name of a friend from your friends list. You'll be able to do this with the names of up to 10 friends, and you have to record each statement twice. Facebook won't be paying much for your recordings, though. If you complete one set of recordings, you get 200 points in the Viewpoints app -- and you can't cash out in the Viewpoints app until you earn at least 1,000 points. That only translates to a $5 reward via PayPal. However, Facebook says users may be offered the opportunity to make up to five sets of recordings, so there is the potential to meet that 1,000-point goal and get paid.
Should Facebook, Google Be Liable For User Posts?
An anonymous reader quotes a report from Reuters:
U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday questioned whether Facebook, Google and other major online platforms still need the immunity from legal liability that has prevented them from being sued over material their users post. "No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts. They have become titans," Barr said at a public meeting held by the Justice Department to examine the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. "Given this changing technological landscape, valid questions have been raised about whether Section 230's broad immunity is necessary at least in its current form," he said.
Section 230 says online companies such as Facebook, Alphabet's Google and Twitter cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of information they provide. This largely exempts them from liability involving content posted by users, although they can be held liable for content that violates criminal or intellectual property law. The increased size and power of online platforms has also left consumers with fewer options, and the lack of feasible alternatives is a relevant discussion, Barr said, adding that the Section 230 review came out of the Justice Department's broader look at potential anticompetitive practices at tech companies. Lawmakers from both major political parties have called for Congress to change Section 230 in ways that could expose tech companies to more lawsuits or significantly increase their costs. Barr said the department would not advocate a position at the meeting. But he hinted at the idea of allowing the U.S. government to take action against recalcitrant platforms, saying it was "questionable" whether Section 230 should prevent the American government from suing platforms when it is "acting to protect American citizens." The attorney general of Nebraska, Doug Peterson, noted that the law does not shield platforms from federal criminal prosecution; the immunity helps protect against civil claims or a state-level prosecution. Peterson said the exception should be widened to allow state-level action as well. Addressing the tech industry, he called it a "pretty simple solution" that would allow local officials "to clean up your industry instead of waiting for your industry to clean up itself."
Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Facebook among its members, said such a solution would result in tech giants having to obey 50 separate sets of laws governing user content. He suggested law enforcement's energies might be better spent pursuing the millions of tips that the tech industry sent over every year, only a small fraction of which, he noted, resulted in investigations.
A Group of Ex-NSA and Amazon Engineers Are Building a 'GitHub For Data'
A group of engineers and developers with backgrounds from the National Security Agency, Google, and Amazon Web Services are working on Gretel, an early-stage startup that
aims to help developers safely share and collaborate with sensitive data in real time. TechCrunch reports:
It's not as niche of a problem as you might think, said Alex Watson, one of the co-founders. Developers can face this problem at any company, he said. Often, developers don't need full access to a bank of user data -- they just need a portion or a sample to work with. In many cases, developers could suffice with data that looks like real user data. "It starts with making data safe to share," Watson said. "There's all these really cool use cases that people have been able to do with data." He said companies like GitHub, a widely used source code sharing platform, helped to make source code accessible and collaboration easy. "But there's no GitHub equivalent for data," he said.
And that's how Watson and his co-founders, John Myers, Ali Golshan and Laszlo Bock came up with Gretel. "We're building right now software that enables developers to automatically check out an anonymized version of the data set," said Watson. This so-called "synthetic data" is essentially artificial data that looks and works just like regular sensitive user data. Gretel uses machine learning to categorize the data -- like names, addresses and other customer identifiers -- and classify as many labels to the data as possible. Once that data is labeled, it can be applied access policies. Then, the platform applies differential privacy -- a technique used to anonymize vast amounts of data -- so that it's no longer tied to customer information. "It's an entirely fake data set that was generated by machine learning," said Watson. The startup has already raised $3.5 million in seed funding. "Gretel said it will charge customers based on consumption -- a similar structure to how Amazon prices access to its cloud computing services," adds TechCrunch.
Morgan Stanley Buys E-Trade For $13 Billion
Morgan Stanley is buying E-Trade in
a $13 billion deal that "will give a powerful Wall Street firm control of a major presence in the world of online brokerages," reports The New York Times. The deal
highlights the tech-driven change felt in many markets, from the fixed-income market to the institutional market. Matthew Leising writes via Bloomberg:
A report released Thursday by Greenwich Associates found an appetite for "new and better digital products and tools" among fixed-income investors is fueling competition at banks. Kevin McPartland, head of market structure and technology research at Greenwich, said the elimination of trading commissions by many firms including Charles Schwab Corp. has freed investors to choose a brokerage based on services alone. "A lot of it is based on the tools you provide to the end-user, and I'm not sure the institutional market is much different any more," he said in an interview. "Compute power is effectively limitless at this point."
In earlier research, Greenwich asked investors how they choose a top-tier bank, and 18% of respondents said technology services like execution algorithms and analytics were a factor. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, machine learning and the ability to mine huge pools of data have radically changed investing, McPartland said. The E*Trade deal, announced Thursday, helps Morgan Stanley add clients who are less wealthy than its traditional customers, but a state-of-the-art platform for investors was another draw. Morgan Stanley Chief Executive Officer James Gorman cited E*Trade's "innovation in technology" as a reason for the acquisition, according to a statement.
France Shuts Down Oldest Reactors, But Nuclear Power Still Reigns
An anonymous reader shares a report from Agence France-Presse (AFP):
France will start closing its oldest atomic power plant on Saturday after 43 years in operation, the first in a series of reactor shutdowns but hardly a signal the country will reduce its reliance on nuclear energy anytime soon. Unplugging the two reactors at Fessenheim, along the Rhine near France's eastern border with Germany and Switzerland, became a key goal of anti-nuclear campaigners after the catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima in Japan in 2011. Experts have noted that construction and safety standards at Fessenheim, brought online in 1977, fall far short of those at Fukushima, with some warning that seismic and flooding risks in the Alsace region had been underestimated. Despite a pledge by ex-president Francois Hollande just months after Fukushima to close the plant, it was not until 2018 that President Emmanuel Macron's government gave the final green light.
The first reactor will start being shut down on Saturday and the second on June 30, though it will be several months before they go cold and the used fuel can start to be removed. France will still be left with 56 pressurized water reactors at 18 nuclear power plants -- only the United States has more reactors, at 98 -- generating an unmatched 70 percent of its electricity needs. The government confirmed in January that it aims to shut down 12 more reactors nearing or exceeding their original 40-year age limit by 2035, when nuclear power should represent just 50 percent of its energy mix. But at the same time, state-owned energy giant EDF is racing to get its first next-generation reactor running at the Flamanville plant in 2022 -- 10 years behind schedule -- and more may be in the pipeline.
Coronavirus Has Temporarily Reduced China's CO2 Emissions By a Quarter
As China battles one of the most serious virus epidemics of the century, the impacts on the
country's energy demand and emissions are only beginning to be felt. From a report:
Electricity demand and industrial output remain far below their usual levels across a range of indicators, many of which are at their lowest two-week average in several years. These include:
Coal use at power stations reporting daily data at a four-year low.
Oil refinery operating rates in Shandong province at the lowest level since 2015.
Output of key steel product lines at the lowest level for five years.
Levels of NO2 air pollution over China down 36% on the same period last year.
Domestic flights are down up to 70% compared to last month.
All told, the measures to contain coronavirus have resulted in reductions of 15% to 40% in output across key industrial sectors. This is likely to have wiped out a quarter or more of the country's CO2 emissions over the past two weeks, the period when activity would normally have resumed after the Chinese new-year holiday. Over the same period in 2019, China released around 400m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2), meaning the virus could have cut global emissions by 100MtCO2 to date. The key question is whether the impacts are sustained, or if they will be offset -- or even reversed -- by the government response to the crisis.
Microsoft To Bring Its Defender Antivirus Software To iOS and Android
Microsoft said today it plans to bring its antivirus software, Defender Advanced Threat Protection, to
phones and other devices running Apple's iOS and Google's Android. From a report:
The software, also called Defender ATP, is already available on Windows and MacOS. It offers features like preventive protection, post-breach detection and automated investigation and response, according to Microsoft. When it comes to mobile devices, Microsoft's Rob Lefferts said that the Defender software could help companies protect employees from things like malware and phishing attacks. Apple's and Google's app stores are "pretty safe," Lefferts said, but "malware does happen on those platforms."
Google AI No Longer Uses Gender Binary Tags on Images of People
Google's image-labeling AI tool will
no longer label pictures with gender tags like "man" and "woman." From a report:
In the email, Google cites its ethical rules on AI as the basis for the change. This is a progressive move by Google -- and one that will hopefully set a precedent for the rest of the AI industry. Ethics aside, Google also says it's made this change because it isn't possible to infer gender from someone's appearance. Google is correct on that count. AI's tendency toward a gender binary might be helpful in blunt categorization, but there are also many gender identities that fall on the spectrum outside of "man" and "woman." Though Google doesn't go as far as saying so in its policies, removing the gender binary from its AI actively makes the software more inclusive of transgender and non-binary people. It's a move that the rest of the tech industry would do well to emulate.
Trump Backs Supporter Larry Ellison in Court Fight With Google
kimanaw shares a report:
The Trump administration urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reject an appeal by Alphabet's Google, boosting Oracle's bid to collect more than $8 billion in royalties for Google's use of copyrighted programming code in the Android operating system. The administration weighed in on the high-stakes case on the same day that President Donald Trump attended a re-election campaign fundraiser in California hosted by Oracle's co-founder, billionaire Larry Ellison. Ellison hosted a golf outing and photos with Trump. The event cost a minimum of $100,000 per couple to attend, with a higher ticket price of $250,000 for those who wanted to participate in a policy roundtable with the president, the Palm Springs Desert Sun reported. Google is challenging an appeals court ruling that it violated Oracle copyrights when it included some Oracle-owned Java programming code in Android. The dispute has split Silicon Valley, pitting developers of software code against companies that use the code to create programs. Google's "verbatim copying" of Oracle's code into a competing product wasn't necessary to foster innovation, the U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco said Wednesday in a filing with the court.
Twitter is Testing New Ways To Fight Misinformation
Twitter is experimenting with adding brightly colored labels directly beneath lies and misinformation posted by politicians and public figures, according to a leaked demo of new features sent to
NBC News. From the report:
Twitter confirmed that the leaked demo, which was accessible on a publicly available site, is one possible iteration of a new policy to target misinformation it plans to roll out March 5. In this version, disinformation or misleading information posted by public figures will be corrected directly beneath the tweet by fact-checkers and journalists who are verified on the platform, and possibly other users who will participate in a new "community reports" feature, which the demo claims is "like Wikipedia." "We're exploring a number of ways to address misinformation and provide more context for tweets on Twitter," a Twitter spokesperson said. "Misinformation is a critical issue and we will be testing many different ways to address it." The demo features bright red and orange badges for tweets that have been deemed "harmfully misleading," in nearly the same size as the tweet itself and prominently displayed directly below the tweet that contains the harmful misinformation.
UCLA Abandons Plans To Use Facial Recognition After Backlash
Ahead of a national day of action led by digital rights group Fight for the Future, UCLA has abandoned its plans to become the first university in the United States
to adopt facial recognition technology. From a report:
In a statement shared with Fight for the Future's Deputy Director Evan Greer, UCLA's Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck said the university "determined that the potential benefits are limited and are vastly outweighed by the concerns of the campus community." Since last year, UCLA has been considering using the university's security cameras to implement a facial recognition surveillance system.
These plans have been dogged by student criticism, culminating in an editorial in the Daily Bruin, UCLA's student newspaper, that argued the system would "present a major breach of students' privacy" while creating "a more hostile campus environment" by "collecting invasive amounts of data on [UCLA's] population of over 45,000 students and 50,000 employees." In an attempt to highlight the risks of using facial recognition on UCLA's campus, Fight for the Future used Amazon's facial recognition software, Rekognition, to scan public photos of UCLA's athletes and faculty, then compare the photos to a mugshot database. Over 400 photos were scanned, 58 of which were false positives for mugshot images -- the software often gave back matches with "100% confidence" for individuals "who had almost nothing in common beyond their race"
JPEG Committee is Banking on AI To Build Its Next Image Codec
Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG), a committee that maintains various JPEG image-related standards, has started
exploring a way to involve AI to build a new compression standard. From a report:
In a recent meeting held in Sydney, the group released a call for evidence to explore AI-based methods to find a new image compression codec. The program, aptly named JPEG AI, was launched last year; with a special group to study neural-network-based image codecs. Under the program, it aims to find possible solutions towards finding a new standard. To do that, it has partnered with IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) to call for papers under the Learning-based Image Coding Challenge. These papers will be presented at the International Conference of Image Processing (ICIP) scheduled to be held at Abu Dhabi in October.