Facebook’s got 99 problems but Trump’s latest “bias” tweet ain’t one

By any measure Facebook hasn’t had the best of years in 2018.

But while toxic problems keep piling up and, well, raining acidly down on the social networking giant — from election interference, to fake accounts, faulty metrics, security flaws, ethics failuresprivacy outrages and much more besides — the silver lining of having a core business now widely perceived as hostile to democratic processes and civilized sentiment, and the tool of choice for shitposters agitating for hate and societal division, well, everywhere in the world, is that Facebook has frankly far more important things to worry about than the latest anti-tech-industry salvo from President Trump.

In an early morning tweet today, Trump (again) attacked what he dubbed anti-conservative “bias” in the digital social sphere — hitting out at not just Facebook but tech’s holy trinity of social giants, with a claim that “Facebook, Twitter and Google are so biased towards the Dems it is ridiculous!”

Time was when Facebook was so sensitive to accusations of internal anti-conservative bias that it fired a bunch of journalists it had contracted and replaced them with algorithms — which almost immediately pumped up a bunch of fake news. RIP irony.

Not today, though.

When asked if it had a response to Trump’s accusation of bias a Facebook spokesperson told us: “We don’t have anything to add here.”

The brevity and alacrity of the response suggested the spokesperson had a really cheerful expression on their face when they typed it.

The relief of Facebook not having to give a shit this time was kinda palpable, even in pixel form.

It was also a far cry from the screeds the company routinely dispenses these days to try to muffle journalistic — and indeed political — enquiry.

Trump evidently doesn’t factor ‘bigly’ on Facebook’s oversubscribed risk-list.

Even though Facebook was the first name on the president’s (non-alphabetical) tech giant hit-list.

Still, Twitter appeared to have irked Trump more, as his tweet singled out the short-form platform — with an accusation that Twitter has made it “much more difficult for people to join [sic] @realDonaldTrump”. (We think by “join” he means follow. But we’re speculating wildly.)

This is perhaps why Twitter felt moved to provide a response to the claim of bias, albeit also without wasting a lot of words.

Here’s its statement:

Our focus is on the health of the service, and that includes work to remove fake accounts to prevent malicious behavior. Many prominent accounts have seen follower counts drop, but the result is higher confidence that the followers they have are real, engaged people.

Presumably the president failed to read our report, from July, when we trailed Twitter’s forthcoming spam purge, warning it would result in users with lots of followers taking a noticeable hit in the coming days. In a word: Sad.

Of course we also asked Google for a response to Trump’s bias claim. But just got radio silence.

In similar “bias” tweets from August the company got a bigger Trump-lashing. And in a response statement then it told us: “We never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has also just had to sit through some three hours of questions from Republicans in Congress on this very theme.

So the company probably feels it’s exhausted the political bias canard.

Even while, as the claims drone on and on, it might truly come to understand what it feels like to be stuck inside a filter bubble.

In any case there are far more pressing things to accuse Google’s algorithms of than being ‘anti-Trump’.

So it’s just as well it didn’t waste time on another presidential sideshow intended to distract from problems of Trump’s own making.

Uber to resume autonomous vehicle testing months after fatal accident

Uber has been granted permission by the state of Pennsylvania to reinstate tests of its autonomous vehicles, as first reported by Reuters.

A spokesperson for Uber confirmed to TechCrunch that the ride-hailing giant received a letter of authorization from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and clarified that the company has not yet resumed self-driving operations.

Uber halted testing of its self-driving cars following a fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona this March that left a pedestrian dead. An autonomous Uber SUV accompanied by a safety driver was driving northbound when it struck a woman, who was taken to the hospital where she later died as a result of her injuries.

Investigators later determined the driver, Rafaela Vasquez, had looked down at a phone 204 times during a 43-minute test drive, according to a 318-page police report released by the Tempe Police Department.

In the aftermath of the accident, Uber paused all of its AV testing operations in Pittsburgh, Toronto, San Francisco and Phoenix.

Moving forward, Uber will test its self-driving cars more cautiously, per a recently released Uber safety report. The company will require that two employees are in the front seat of its cars at all times, that an automatic braking system is enabled and that its safety employees are more strictly monitored.

Uber, which first began developing its autonomous vehicle fleet in 2015 and initiated tests the following year, confidentially filed for an initial public offering two weeks ago. The company, currently valued at $72 billion, is expected to debut at a valuation as high as $120 billion early next year.

Smart security camera maker Lighthouse AI shuts down

Smart security camera maker Lighthouse AI is calling it a day. The news, first reported by The Information, has since been confirmed by CEO Alex Teichman.

“I am incredibly proud of the groundbreaking work the Lighthouse team accomplished – delivering useful and accessible intelligence for our homes via advanced AI and 3D sensing,” the executive writes on the company’s homepage. “Unfortunately, we did not achieve the commercial success we were looking for and will be shutting down operations in the near future.”

Teichman also promises the company will provide refund details to those customers who have already bought into the product.

Lighthouse’s offering certainly showed promise. Andy Rubin’s Playground Global was among those companies throwing their support behind the device, helping the startup raise ~$17 million, by Crunchbase’s count.

I was given a demo at Playground’s offices earlier this year and was impressed by its implementation of 3D sensing and artificial intelligence to get a much more focused picture of what the device is recording. From Greg’s initial writeup:

One aspect of Lighthouse that’s particularly unique is in how you’re meant to peruse your footage; it’s aiming to be less of a security camera and more of an assistant. Rather than scrubbing a timeline, you ask the in-app natural language processing system (think Google Assistant or Alexa, but it only cares about what’s going on in your house) for what you want. You ask it things like “Did the dog walker come on Wednesday?”, or “When did the kids get home yesterday?” and it responds with relevant footage.

Of course, some things just can’t be overcome. An overcrowded market is one. The space is flooded with products, while being mostly dominated by Netgear spin-off, Arlo. And then there was the $300 price tag. That’s well out of the range of much of the competition.

Teichman ends the write-up on a hopeful note, however, “We remain strong believers in a future with AI at your service, and look forward to inventing that future with you.” Perhaps we’ll see the company’s impressive technology implemented on another smart camera in the future?

We’ve reached out to Playground for additional comment.

Oath officially becomes Verizon Media Group on January 8

A year and a half after giving birth to Oath, Verizon’s officially rebranding its media group as… wait for it… Verizon Media Group. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, it says what it does on the package — and most importantly, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than “Oath.”

Division head Guru Gowrappan confirmed that the changes will go into effect on January 8 — just in time for the kick-off of CES. The exec says the change is aimed at “representing our strong alignment as a core pillar of Verizon’s business.” Contrary to some initial reports spurred on by the (since changed) art accompanying the announcement blog post, Verizon tells me the big, purple Yahoo “Y” will (thankfully) not be the catchall logo for VZM.

A spokesperson for the company confirmed that an official Verizon Media Group logo is launching alongside the official rebranding on January 8. Then we’ll finally see if the company is keeping the infamous Oath colon around.

Again, good.

The less brand confusion the better. “‘Oath’ rhymes with ‘growth,’ and that’s our job, to grow,” then CEO Tim Armstrong told us at the brand’s launch. Clearly, the AOL+Yahoo = Oath equation never really added up for a brand that was initially positioned to be largely internally facing. But even without the rhyming, one assumes growth is still on the docket here.

The rise of the Verizon Media Group is mostly just a rebranding exercise — the portfolio, which includes HuffPost, Engadget, Tumblr and, yes, TechCrunch, should remain largely the same.

The Future Of FinTech According To Bain Capital Ventures’ Matt Harris

To listen to past interviews with the likes of former Mexican President Vicente Fox, Sal Khan, Sebastian Thrun, Steve Case, Craig Newmark, Stewart Butterfield, and Meg Whitman, please visit this link . To read future articles in this series, please follow me onon Twitter @PeterAHigh .) Peter High: You are a Managing Director at Bain Capital Ventures where your area of focus is Financial Technology [FinTech].

Tesla’s China factory and the missed growth opportunity

Tesla made its ambition for world domination known when it announced its intention to build a factory in China. The move makes sense — China is the world’s largest automotive market. But it might be shortsighted.

By continuing to go after the higher tiers of an established market, Tesla will engage in a zero-sum game for market share instead of forging a new market of unparalleled size. Competition will be fierce as incumbents, like BMW and Audi, which are determined to hold on to their more profitable customers, respond in kind.

Instead, the larger opportunity for any automaker is to grow the overall market by way of disruptive innovation — and not in the Silicon-Valley-hype sense of the term. The architect of disruptive innovation, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, explains that disruption happens at the low end of the market — not the end adorned with high-tech features and flashy designs.

Disruptive innovations succeed by transforming complicated and expensive products into simple and affordable ones, thereby enabling a much larger population to benefit from the offerings. And since they, by their very nature, expand the market, they constitute a wellspring of new growth.

Rather than take a page out of the disruptive playbook, Tesla is engaging in sustaining innovation. The company plans to use the new factory to build Model 3 and Model Y cars. Assuming that Tesla continues with its current positioning, these cars, like Tesla’s other models, will enter an established market to compete along existing measures of performance, like acceleration, style and luxury.

Sustaining innovations are important in that they advance an industry, but they offer little net growth, as not all consumers are able to access them. And because sustaining innovations target an industry’s more profitable consumers, we can expect leading automakers to fight tooth and nail to retain their core customers. Alternatively, a disruptive strategy offers a much easier way to tap into the Chinese market — and it’s already happening right under the noses of Tesla and other leading automakers.

Disruption happens at the low end of the market.

Chinese manufacturers of low-speed electric vehicles (LSEVs) — small vehicles that typically top out around 45 mph, have a limited driving range, and sell for as little as $2,000 — are creating a market where none existed, by primarily selling cars to people in rural China who have never owned one. We call these customers nonconsumers of cars. The measures of performance that matter most to nonconsumers aren’t speed, style or comfort, but rather affordability, accessibility and simplicity. So, as long as LSEVs meet these criteria, nonconsumers will generally be willing to buy them. After all, having a car that can’t travel very far or very fast is much better than the alternatives: bicycles, motorcycles or farm vehicles.

By targeting nonconsumers, LSEV manufacturers have steered clear of direct competition with incumbent automakers — who have at their disposal far more resources, such as capital, factories and relationships with suppliers — and effectively established a foothold that allows them to steadily move upmarket.

Taking the disruptive route has enabled LSEV manufacturers to unleash a new wave of growth that Tesla and other automakers should covet. During the decade that LSEVs have been available in China, sales have soared. According to the International Energy Agency’s “Global EV Outlook 2017” report, between 1.2 million and 1.5 million units were sold in China in 2016 — overshadowing the number of battery and plug-in hybrid electric cars sold globally that same year. Undoubtedly, further growth potential for LSEVs in China is immense — more than half a billion Chinese lived in rural areas in 2016.

Whether LSEV manufacturers manage to profitably march upmarket into higher-performance tiers of the market remains to be seen. What we can say for sure is that there is enormous untapped potential to be discovered — both in China and in other emerging markets.

Gift Guide: Indie games for players worn out on AAA titles

2018 has been a big year for big games, and with new titles from the Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty, and Battlefield franchises all competing… it’s enough to make a gamer want to just quit and play something a little more low key. Here are some of the smaller, independent games we liked from this year and who they might appeal to.

Bonus: many of these can be gotten for less than $30, making them super solid/easy gifts. They aren’t for any particular platform or in any particular order, except that I’ve been playing the heck out of Ashen for the last couple days, so it’s first.

Ashen – for “Souls” lovers

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

(To be fair, this is less of an “indie” than the others on this list, some of which were made by one person, but it’s just off the beaten path enough to qualify.)

If you’ve ever heard your loved one talk about “builds,” really hard bosses, or which helmet completes their outfit best, they probably play games of the Dark Souls type. Ashen is a new action-adventure-RPG in the same vein but with a few notable twists. It has a lovely art style, a streamlined (but still byzantine) progression system, and an interesting multiplayer style where other players drop into your game, and you drop into theirs, with no real warning or interaction. It works better than you’d think, and I’ve already had some great experiences with it.

Yoku’s Island Express – for people who like both pinball and Metroidvanias

Available on: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Windows

Don’t be fooled by the cuteness of Yoku’s Island Express. This game is both unique and well-crafted, a fusion of (believe it or not) pinball mechanics and gradual exploration of an enormous map. It’s definitely weird, but it immediately clicks in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a great break from the grim environments of… well, lots of the games on this list.

Dead Cells – for action fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, Linux, macOS

The “roguelike” genre has you traversing procedurally-generated variations on a series of levels and progressing farther by improving your own skills — and sometimes getting a couple shiny new weapons or abilities. Dead Cells takes this genre and combines it with incredibly tight side-scrolling action and platforming that never gets old even when you’re going through the sewers for the 20th time. The developers were very responsive during Early Access; the game was great when I bought it early in the year, and now it’s even better.

Below – for atmosphere fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

In some ways, Below is the opposite of Dead Cells, though they share a bit of DNA. This game, the long-awaited follow-up to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP by Capy, is a slow, dark, tense descent into a mysterious cave; it’s almost totally wordless and shown with a pulled-back perspective that makes things feel both twee and terrifying. The less said about the particulars of the game, the better (the gamer should discover on their own), but it may be fairly noted that this is a title that requires some patience and experimentation — and yes, you’re going to die on a spike trap.

Cultist Simulator – for the curious

Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

It’s very hard to explain Cultist Simulator. It’s an interactive story, different every time, told through cards that you draw and play, and which interact with each other in strange and wonderful ways. One card might be a place, another an action, another a person, all of which can be used, investigated, or sacrificed to other cards: ideas, drives, gods… it’s really quite amazing, even if you rarely have any idea what’s happening. But the curious and driven will derive great satisfaction from learning the way this strange, beautifully made machine works.

Return of the Obra Dinn – for the observant (and dedicated)

Available on: macOS, Windows

This game absorbed me completely for a few days earlier this year. Like the above, it’s a bit hard to explain: you’re given the task of determining the identities and fates of the entire crew of the titular ghost ship by using a magic watch to witness their last words and the moment of their death. That task, and the story it reveals as you accomplish it, grows increasingly disturbing and complex. The beautiful 1-bit art, great music and voice acting, and extremely clever construction make this game — essentially made by one person, Lucas Pope — one of my favorites of the year. But it’s only for people who don’t mind banging their head against things a bit.

Dusk – for connoisseurs of old-school shooters

Available on: Windows, Switch

If your loved one ever talks about the good old days of Quake, Half-Life, Unreal and other classic shooters, Dusk will be right up their alley. The chunky graphics are straight out of the ’90s but the game brings a level of self-awareness and fun, not to mention some gameplay improvements, that make it a joy to play.

CrossCode – for anyone who spent more time playing SNES Classic than AAA games this year

Available on: Windows, Linux, macOS

This crowd-funded RPG was long in the making, and it shows. It’s huge! A fusion of SNES and PSX-era pixel art, smooth but furious top-down action a la Secret of Mana, and a whole lot of skills and equipment. I’ve played nearly 20 hours so far and I’m only now starting to fill out the second branch of four skill trees; the overarching story is still just getting rolling. I told you it was huge! But it’s also fabulous.

Celeste – for the dexterous and those not inclined to anger

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, macOS, Windows, Linux

Celeste is one of those games they call “Nintendo Hard,” that elusive combination of difficulty and control that cause you to be more disappointed in yourself than the game when you die. And you will die in Celeste — over and over. Hundreds of times. It gleefully tracks the number of deaths on each set of stages, and you should expect well into three figures. The platforming is that hard — but the game is also that good. Not only is its pixel art style cute and the environments lovingly and carefully crafted, but it tells a touching story and the dialogue is actually pretty fun.

Overcooked! 2 –  for friendships strong enough to survive it

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, macOS

Much like the first Overcooked, the sequel has you and your friends attempting to navigate chaotic kitchens, hazards, and each other as you try to put together simple dishes like salads and hamburgers for never-sated patrons. The simple controls belie the emergent complexity of the gameplay, and while it can be frustrating at first, it’s immensely satisfying when you get into the zone and blast through a target number of dishes. But only do it with friends you think you can tolerate screaming and bossing each other around.

Into the Breach – for the tactically minded

Available on: Switch, Windows, macOS, Linux

The follow-up to the addictive starship simulator roguelike Faster Than Light (FTL), Into the Breach is a game of tactics taking place on tiny boards loaded with monsters and mechs — but don’t let the small size fool you. The solutions to these little tableaux require serious thinking as you position, attack, and (hopefully) repel the alien invaders. Matt says it’s “perfect for Switch.”

Coinbase lets you convert one cryptocurrency into another

It’s hard to believe that you still had to convert your BTC into USD in order to buy ETH on Coinbase. The company is finally adding direct cryptocurrency-to-cryptocurrency conversions.

The feature works with Bitcoin (BTC), Ethereum (ETH), Ethereum Classic (ETC), Litecoin (LTC), 0x (ZRX) and Bitcoin Cash (BCH). It is only available to U.S. customers for now, but the company plans to roll out the feature to other countries too.

Let’s look at the fees more closely. If you live in Europe or the U.S., every time you buy or sell cryptocurrencies using USD or EUR, you pay at least 1.49 percent in fees on top of the spread (the difference between the highest selling price and the lowest purchasing price). Fees are even higher if you’re using a credit or debit card.

Coinbase says that the spread between a fiat currency and a cryptocurrency should be around 0.5 percent but may vary depending on the trading pair and the order queue.

If you buy or sell less than 200 USD or equivalent, fees get much more expensive. For instance, a $10 order will generate $0.99 in fees, or 9.9 percent. Customers pay 3 percent in fees for a $100 order.

But the good news is that it’s a completely different story with token-to-token transactions. Coinbase doesn’t charge you any markup fee — but there’s some inevitable spread. And with some obscure trading pairs (exchanging ZRX for BCH for instance), you might end up paying around 1 percent in spread. Still, it’s a much better user experience for those who just want to trade on Coinbase.

Without even mentioning other exchanges, Coinbase Pro users have been able to trade between multiple cryptocurrencies for a long time. But Coinbase is still the entry gate for many new cryptocurrency users.