Original Content podcast: ‘Black Mirror’ returns with one of its strongest seasons

Less than six months after releasing the disappointing interactive experiment “Bandersnatch,” Netflix’s science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror” is back with three traditionally-structured episodes.

On the latest installment of the Original Content podcast, we weigh in with our thoughts on the new season. We didn’t entirely agree on which episodes were strongest, but we agreed that there wasn’t a real misfire in the bunch.

Darrell and Jordan were most impressed the season opener, “Striking Vipers” — which uses a VR fighting game as a launching point for a thorny exploration of sexuality and friendship — while Anthony preferred “Smithereens,” in which the the driver with an Uber-style app takes a social media intern hostage. And we also had a good time with “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” which stars as Miley Cyrus as a pop star who’s merchandised as a friendly AI assistant.

Not all of the new episodes end happily, but in general, the show’s penchant for bleakness seems to have lifted (or perhaps it was simply channeled into “Bandersnatch”), leaving room for more emotional complexity. If we had any complaints, they had more to do with the relatively abbreviated season length, and with our skepticism about some of the show’s near-future technology.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you want to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:

0:00 Intro
1:33 “Black Mirror” spoiler-free review
31:00 Spoiler discussion

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

“Russian Doll” will return to Netflix for a second season

Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” might be ringing through your ears once again. “Russian Doll,” co-created by and starring Natasha Lyonne, has been picked up for a second season by Netflix. A release date hasn’t been confirmed yet, but the new season will have eight episodes.

The renewal was announced today by Lyonne and Netflix vice president of content acquisition and original series Cindy Holland during Recode’s Code Conference and is noteworthy for several reasons. As a dark, time-bending comedy written and directed by all women, the show is an example of how Netflix and other streaming services can give a platform to content that might otherwise have a hard time finding a distributor. Though Lyonne is a well-respected actress, she has mostly appeared in supporting roles, but her lead performance was one of the reasons “Russian Doll” became a breakout hit earlier this year.

During their Code Conference panel, Holland said “Russian Doll” was a “hit relative to cost” and underscored the “eclectic tastes” of Netflix’s audience, while Lyonne described Netflix’s algorithm as “a bit of a relief,” adding that “boundaries are sort of healthy for the creative process in a way.”

Netflix snags Ubisoft’s ‘Tom Clancy’s The Division’ adaptation starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain

Netflix has snagged the distribution rights to Ubisoft’s adaptation of “Tom Clancy’s The Division” starring Jessica Chastain and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Directed by David Leitch, the new movie will come with a screenplay from Rafe Judkins, who’s also penning and showrunning Amazon’s adaptation of the “Wheel of Time” series.

The story is apparently set in the future when a pandemic virus spread via paper money kills millions across New York City. The heartening Christmastime-set story will focus on an attempt by a group of ragtag civilians whoa re trained to address catastrophes attempt to shore up what remains of civilizations against its ruins.

According to Variety, the producers include 87North Productions, Gyllenhaal’s Nine Stories, Chastain’s Freckle Films along with Ubisoft Film and Television.

Video games are another vein that Hollywood is mining for potential tentpole franchises. While their success has been mixed, “Tomb Raider”, “Resident Evil” “Angry Birds” and even “Detective Pikachu” have all raked in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office after making the jump from console to cinema screen.

Ubisoft’s own attempts at box office gold have been somewhat less successful. The company tried with “Assassin’s Creed” and the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle “Prince of Persia” but neither film resonated with audiences. Perhaps Netflix’s ability to control the funnel for an audience will encourage more viewers to sing on to “Tom Clancy’s The Division”.

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Always Be My Maybe’ is a surprisingly sweet romantic comedy

“Always Be My Maybe” — a new film starring and co-written by Ali Wong and Randall Park — continues Netflix’s streak of solid romantic comedies.

That said, anyone expecting it to match Wong’s delightfully dirty stand-up (showcased in the Netflix specials “Baby Cobra” and “Hard Knock Wife”) might be disappointed. Instead, “Always Be My Maybe” feels like a throwback to ’90s romantic comedies; after all, Park and Wong have cited “When Marry Met Sally” and “Boomerang” as inspirations.

On this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by Catherine Shu to review the film, which tells the story of Marcus (Park) and Sasha (Wong), two childhood friends who grow up together in the Bay Area, lose their virginity to each other and then drift apart — until they cross paths again in their 30s.

We didn’t all love the movie: Anthony, in particular, found some of the jokes and the character arcs to be a little formulaic. But we all had a good time, thanks to the sharply-drawn characters, the rapid-fire humor and an excellent cameo.

Anthony and Catherine also discuss how the film resonates with their own personal experiences, and how it compares to “Crazy Rich Asians.”

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you want to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:

0:00 Introduction and discussion of upcoming TV shows
10:18 Spoiler-free review of “Always Be My Maybe”
26:14 Spoiler discussion

India’s largest video streaming service, owned by Disney, breaks Safari compatibility to fix security flaw

Hotstar, India’s largest video streaming service with more than 300 million users, disabled support for Apple’s Safari web browser on Friday to mitigate a security flaw that allowed unauthorized usage of its platform, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The incident comes at a time when the streaming service — operated by Star India, part of 20th Century Fox that Disney acquired — enjoys peak attention as millions of people watch the ongoing ICC World Cup cricket tournament on its platform.

As users began to complain about not being able to use Hotstar on Safari, the company’s official support account asserted that “technical limitations” on Apple’s part were the bottleneck. “These limitations have been from Safari; there is very little we can do on this,” the account tweeted Friday evening.

Sources at Hotstar told TechCrunch that this was not an accurate description of the event. Instead, company’s engineers had identified a security hole that was being exploited by unauthorized users to access Hotstar’s content, they said.

Hotstar intends to work on patching the flaw soon and then reinstate support for Safari, the sources said.

The security flaw can only be exploited through Safari’s desktop and mobile browsers. On its website, the company recommends users to try Chrome and Firefox, or its mobile apps, to access the service. Hotstar did not respond to requests for comment.

Hotstar, which rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, maintains a strong lead in the local video streaming market (based on number of users and engagement). Last month, it claimed to set a new global record by drawing more than 18 million viewers to a live cricket match.

On the road to self-driving trucks, Starsky Robotics built a traditional trucking business

More than three years ago, self-driving trucks startup Starsky Robotics was founded to solve a fundamental issue with freight — a solution that CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher believes hinges on getting the human driver out from behind the wheel.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Starsky Robotics started a regular ol’ trucking company. Now, nearly half of the employees at this self-driving truck startup help run a business that uses the traditional model of employing human drivers to haul loads for customers, TechCrunch has learned.

Starsky’s trucking business, which has been operating in secret for nearly two years alongside the company’s more public pursuit of developing autonomous vehicle technology, has hauled 2,200 loads for customers. The company has 36 regular trucks that only use human drivers to haul freight. It has three autonomous trucks that are driven and supported by a handful of test drivers. Starsky also employs a number of office people who, as Seltz-Axmacher notes, “know how to run trucks.”

The CEO and co-founder contends that without the human-driven trucking piece, Starsky won’t ever have an operational, or profitable, self-driving truck business. The trucking business has generated revenue, led to key partnerships such as Schneider Logistics, Penske and Transport Enterprise Leasing, and importantly, helped build a company that works in the real world. It has also been a critical tool for recruiting and vetting safety drivers and teleoperators (or remote drivers), according to Seltz-Axmacher.

“The decision to have a trucking business interact with the real trucking world in parallel with developing the robotics piece is a necessary part of building a longstanding business in the space,” said Reilly Brennan, general partner at Trucks VC and the first institutional investor in Starsky.

Starksy, which was co-founded by Seltz-Axmacher and Kartik Tiwari, has raised $21.7 million in equity from investors including Shasta Ventures and Trucks VC.

The evolution over at Starsky illustrates the challenge that awaits the autonomous vehicle industry and the giant companies and startups operating within it. Even after engineers solve the complexity of building an AI-powered driver that’s better than a human, these companies must figure out the equally intricate task of operations. Robotaxis, autonomous delivery robots and self-driving trucks won’t matter if humans don’t use, like or trust the tech.

Figuring out the basics of operations — including the rather pedestrian and obvious ones — will mean the difference between making or losing money. Or, having a business at all.

And the stakes are high. Trucks are the backbone of the U.S. economy and moved more than 70% of all U.S. freight and generated more than $700 billion in 2017, according to the most up-to-date statistics available from the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

Companies pursuing robotaxis and other autonomous vehicle programs are going to eventually wake up — if they haven’t already — to the same realities that Starsky has accepted, Brennan contends.

“The interaction with the market, particularly in logistics, is vital,” Brennan said, adding that companies pursuing robotaxis that haven’t built out and tested a consumer-facing app risk the same problems. “They need to have a business on day one, not on day 720.”

For Starsky, it started with something as basic as having a working vehicle and access to mechanics that could fix it.

Trucks, the hard way

Seltz-Axmacher admits now he underestimated how difficult trucks could be.

“Hey, it’s a truck, how hard can buying one be?,” said Seltz-Axmacher, as he described the company’s first major purchase of a truck for about $50,000. “We quickly realized that having a truck and driving a truck are not easy things to do.”

Starsky engineers retrofitted the truck, named Rosebud, with its autonomous driving system and made plans to test it at the Thunderhill Raceway about 150 miles north of San Francisco. It didn’t make it. The truck’s engine was smoking by the time it crossed the Bay Bridge. And then the truck, along with all those engineers, sat for two weeks while Seltz-Axmacher hunted for a diesel mechanic.

Self-driving truck startup Starsky Robotics began with this first, and problematic truck

The truck, pictured above, continued to break down. The company ran into more snafus, including a problem with insurance and the title of the vehicle. Starsky was going to miss a key milestone and Seltz-Axmacher was going to have to tell investors that it wasn’t because of bottlenecks in engineering, but because they didn’t know how to manage the truck part of this self-driving truck company.

The founders learned that even “average” trucks needed to go to the shop every 60 days, which is operationally complex when vehicles are traveling throughout the United States.

Starsky ended up making a key hire, Paul Schlegel, who is a veteran of trucking operations, to organize the enterprise. Schlegel, who has 32 years in the transportation industry with companies such as Schneider National and Stevens Transport, developed the trucking business that enabled autonomous trucks, but still worked in their absence. The trucking operations team is in Dallas. 

The driver pinchpoint

Seltz-Axmacher has said repeatedly that “unless you’re getting the driver out of the truck, you’re not solving anything.”

The problem in trucking is the supply of drivers. The chronic shortage has, in turn, driven up costs. For instance, the median salary for a truckload driver working a national, irregular route was more than $53,000 — a $7,000 increase from ATA’s last survey, which covered annual pay for 2013, or an increase of 15%. It’s even higher for private fleet drivers, who saw their pay rise to more than $86,000 from $73,000, or a gain of nearly 18%.

Starksy soon found that finding the right drivers was just as hard as finding the right trucks. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shows the company has reported three crashes of its manually driven trucks.

Seltz-Axmacher said they’ve had a driver make a wrong turn and have a low-hanging branch rip a hole in the side of a trailer. The most serious incident involved a new driver who took an offramp in Florida too fast and rolled the truck onto its side. No one was injured and the driver was terminated.

These drivers are critical to the autonomous program and the best of them end up becoming teleop controllers, a job that involves sitting in an office, not logging days and weeks in a truck.

Starsky is taking a dual approach to its autonomous trucks. It outfits regular trucks with a combination of sensors like radar and cameras along with software that allows long-haul trucks to drive autonomously on the highway. When the truck is about to exit, a trained remote operator, who is sitting in an office, takes over and navigates the truck to its final destination.

The promise of being able to be promoted to teleoperator is a big part of how Starsky is able to hire drivers effectively. The company contends it wouldn’t be possible to find 25 highly skilled safety and remote drivers without having a broader fleet of regular truck drivers to choose from.

Robotrucks or bust

The ultimate goal of Starsky Robotics hasn’t changed, Seltz-Axmacher said. To get there, the company recently hired Ain McKendrick as vice president of engineering, and former Tesla executive Keith Flynn to head up its hardware manufacturing to support Starsky’s fleet build. McKendrick, who co-founded Podtek and Lyve, also has experience at autonomous vehicle company Cyngn, Highfive, Netflix and Dell .

By early 2020, the company aims to have 25 autonomous trucks — a goal that is only possible if it has 100 regular trucks, he added.

The only way Starsky can scale its operations on the autonomous side is to continue to scale its regular trucking operations six months in advance. In other words, the regular trucking business is inextricably linked to the success of deploying autonomous trucks.

The company has already found that the 15-plus brokers that are regularly giving it freight to haul are ready for driverless trucks.

“Many times the brokers who have given us loads have been fairly ambivalent to whether or not we’re hauling that freight with a self-driving truck, Seltz-Axmacher said. “A lot of the concern that people might have is that this is a technology-averse industry and might not be willing to accept self-driving trucks has proven not to be true.”

Tackling ‘big tech’ issues through storytelling, with Jessica Powell

Jessica Powell, Google’s former head of PR from 2012-2018 (years in which Google required a not-insignificant amount of PR leadership), is now a rock star writer whose 2018 debut book, The Big Disruption: A Totally Fictional But Essentially True Silicon Valley Story, was the first novel published by Medium.

I recently spoke with Powell for this series on the ethics of technology, because The Big Disruption, for all its manic energy and a playfulness at times bordering on sci-fi sitcom level-absurdity, should be viewed as a key work in the emerging field of tech ethics. In scenes like the one that begins below, her comic timing and characters help us see how “disruptive” technologies may not so much change humanity, as reveal it.

As a product manager, you are tasked with leading a team and bringing an idea to life. You are the visionary who must direct not just engineers but also marketers, sales teams, lawyers, and others. You are a mini-CEO, the ruler of your product!

“Just like king!” Arsyen shouted to the empty stalls.

It’s part Dave Eggers’ The Circle; part “Coming to America” (the classic 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy about an African prince’s incognito sojourn in New York City); and part dystopian Tarzan. In this rather amazing sequence from an early chapter in The Big Disruption, Arsyen Aimo, an exiled prince from the fictional backwater country of Phyrria who has been working in Silicon Valley as a janitor, has accidentally convinced executives at the tech behemoth Anahata to hire him as Project Manager for the company’s disruptive new project – a car slash social network. Now, Arsyen has locked himself in the bathroom to scroll his phone for info on what Project Managers at tech companies actually do.

Of course, there is one important difference: You have no direct authority over anyone, and you must lead through influence.

“Hmmph, more like queen,” Arsyen grumbled. But then he reconsidered: Other than the receptionists, he had yet to meet any women at Anahata. He probably didn’t need to worry about being treated like one of them.

Jessica Powell, of course, was a woman you might well have met at Google, if you’d been working at the highest levels in or around the real-life tech giant over the past decade. While she joins others who’ve left Big Tech to write important philosophical books shedding light on the political and social implications of their industry (James Williams, Chamath Palihapitiya, Tristan Harris, and others come to mind), no one has yet succeeded like Powell in illuminating our current culture of technology. And if we can’t see our own culture, how can we change it?

After the short scene below, you’ll find part one of my two-part conversation with Powell, where we discuss the importance of satire in ethics, and how her background may have led her to become one of Silicon Valley’s most interesting and important class traitors.

Arsyen skimmed a few more blogs, trying to memorize the P.M.’s language — words like “action items,” “B2B solutions,” and “use cases,” and then something mystic called a “roadmap,” which as far as Arsyen could tell had little to do with either roads or maps. There was an even greater obsession with “alignment,” a concept Arsyen struggled with as his translation app told him that the equivalent word in Pyrrhian was pokaya, meaning to place the chicken coop parallel to one’s home.

Suddenly there was a banging on the stall door.

“Arsyen? You in there?”

It was Sven.

“Listen, you’ve been in there long enough. Only senior engineers get to work in the bathroom. Roni has some sort of roadmap question for you, so come on back.”

Arsyen washed his hands and returned to the cubicle, armed with his new vocabulary.

When Roni asked Arsyen about prioritization, Arsyen asked, “Is this on the roadmap?”

When Sven suggested adding images of attractive women to the car dashboard, Arsyen rubbed his chin.

“Does this align with our strategy?”

When all three looked to him for an opinion in how best to implement Symmetry Enhancement, Arsyen stood and put his hands on his hips.

“Does this align with the strategy on our roadmap?”

No one seemed to notice anything was amiss. If anything, it seemed like product managers just asked questions that other people had to answer.

Jessica P.: When you first reached out to me, I knew your name. Then I looked you up, and ended up reading your Wikipedia page and being intimidated.

There’s this amazing line in there, and because it’s Wikipedia, it’s written so straight…something to the effect of, he went to Asia, discovered that actually no one has enlightenment, so he came back to the US and became a rock star. And it was like, “Oh, wait. I can talk to this guy.” It was just so funny.

Greg E.: That made me more relatable?

Original Content podcast: Director Grant Sputore explains how ‘I Am Mother’ draws from real-world robots

When I first watched the new Netflix Original film “I Am Mother,” I assumed that the robotic Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) was a CG creation. How else could you create a robot that looked so inhuman, and that that could also run around the film’s post-apocalyptic environments so gracefully?

But in a bonus interview for the Original Content podcast, director Grant Sputore estimated that 99 percent of the shots of Mother are completely practical, consisting of nothing more than a person wearing “a fancy bit of costume.”

“It’s both a budgetary thing, because we knew how we were planning to make the film — but also, we’re children of ‘80s and ‘90s cinema,” Sputore said. “So we worship at the altar of ‘Robocop’ and ‘Predator’ and the first ‘Terminator’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ and all of Stan Winston’s work, which is most of those movies … It’s for our own satisfaction, as much as anything.”

The film focuses on the relationship between Mother and her adopted human daughter (Clara Rugaard), who has been completely isolated from the outside world — until the arrival of a mysterious stranger played by Hilary Swank prompts Daughter to question everything she’s been told.

When I asked how Sputore wanted to distinguish “I Am Mother” from all the previous movies about robots, he said there are fewer than you think:

All the films that you think are about robots are largely about androids. So like ‘Blade Runner,’ for instance, is a seminal contribution to the sci-fi genre and many people would say that it’s about robots, but really it’s about androids. Which sounds like semantics, but it’s significant [from] two different points of view, One: Android movies tend to focus on the question of, do androids have feelings? ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ Are they like us? Where do you draw the line between robots and humans? I feel like that question has been done … and our film is not about that at all.

Plus, of course, android movies are usually cheaper to make, because you can just use a human actor.

Sputore said he was less interested in the dividing line between humans and androids, and more in the relationship between humans and robots.

While he’s clearly spent a lot of time watching classic science fiction films, he said Mother was actually based on a real machine, namely the Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics. And where an ’80s movie like “Terminator” might use killer robots as a way to address fears around the emergence of computers and automation, Sputore suggested that our relationship with robots has become a much more real, and much more pressing, issue.

“It’s a little more scary when people start losing their jobs to smart machines,” he said.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)