28 March 2019

The Verge: “Stadia is about the future of YouTube, not gaming”

Yesterday, Google announced plans for a new game-streaming service called Stadia. Besides the logo, the controller, and a single game — Doom Eternal — the announcement left us with more questions than answers. Primary in my mind has been the query of why Google needs to be in the gaming business at all. Isn’t it enough to dominate web search, ads, and browsers, smartphone operating systems, and maps? What part of our lives does Google not want to know about? And then it dawned on me that we might be looking at it from the wrong perspective: what if Stadia isn’t a case of Google aggressively entering a new business sphere, but rather a defensive one to protect its existing kingdom?

Yes, it’s cute that Google printed the Konami code on the underside of its Stadia controller, but look at the unique buttons the company has put on the top: one is for Google Assistant and the other is for screen capture. Those are your Google priorities printed in crisp white iconography atop a smooth black surface. The capture button is there to make sharing to YouTube as effortless and frictionless as possible, while the Assistant’s inclusion is there to help gamers stuck on a level find guides or tips on YouTube without having to leave their gaming session.

Vlad Savov

I have to say, I was rather impressed with the concept of Stadia. I’m not much of a gamer (although I spend too much time hitting ‘one more turn’ in Civilization), but something like this could radically change the gaming experience, especially in multiplayer, where virtual environments could accept many more players for more complex and engaging interactions.

26 March 2019

Bloomberg: “Lyft Confirms What We Know and What We Don’t”

Optimists can point to the fast rate of growth, which has outpaced the rate of cost increases. The negative 40 percent operating margin was a drastic improvement from a negative 76 percent margin in early 2017. The company seems to be getting better efficiencies from some its spending, and that kind of operating leverage may eventually allow Lyft to generate tidy profits.

On the pessimistic side, I was surprised at the scale of Lyft’s costs for items like insurance, credit-card payments and expenses to run its technology systems. Those costs eat up more than half of Lyft’s reported revenue, and it shows that on-demand rides may never have the type of high-margin profits that investors love in internet and software companies. This is a company that doesn’t have to spend to produce a physical product yet has the gross margins of a clothing retailer.

But for me, this is the biggest unknown about Uber and Lyft: How big is this market? About 12 percent of people in a recent Deloitte survey said they use on-demand ride services such as Lyft at least once a week. That number decreased from an earlier survey. That relatively small share is either good news — Lyft and Uber have a large untapped market particularly outside of big cities — or a sign that even with the oodles of money that Lyft and Uber spend on subsidizing fares and marketing to attract drivers, the natural demand for on-demand rides isn’t that big.

Shira Ovide

It’s pretty remarkable for a company to warn it may not be able to achieve or sustain profitability in the future, when profit is the primary mission of any normal business. And the numbers shared so far don’t contradict this extraordinary statement: as Lyft was able to grow revenues, operating costs have grown at a similar pace. Maybe, just maybe, this means that public transportation is difficult, if not impossible, to run as a for-profit enterprise, and it should simply be a public service, funded by local taxes – a concept that will be hard to swallow for Americans.

16 March 2019

Rolling Stone: “‘Westworld’: What the Hell happened to this show in Season 2?”

in Bucharest, Romania

In many ways, the tools that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have at their disposal with HBO’s sci-fi series are every bit as amazing as the hosts themselves: a budget that makes everything on TV other than Game of Thrones look like a kid’s YouTube comedy sketch; a cast of acting giants who can play anything thrown at them; great directors; and a world that, by its very nature, can be whatever the creators want it to be.

More and more as I watched Season Two, I found myself as incredulous about how Nolan and Joy were using their toys as so many people are about how Ford used his: With unlimited resources and imagination, they’ve opted to continue making cold and largely impenetrable puzzle-box nonsense.

Westworld went to great lengths to try to establish higher stakes than Season One’s tales of indestructible robots trapped in inescapable behavior loops. This time, we were told early and often, if a character died, be they human or robot, it was for real. In theory, this should have given everything more weight. But in short order it turned out that dead was only mostly dead… and often not even that. Any character at any time can be brought back through the revelation that they were secretly a host, or have been turned into one (see: William in the post-credits scene where he has to live out the same nightmare he once put his father-in-law through), or have had their consciousness transferred into another body, or have gone into the virtual paradise where Maeve’s daughter, Akecheta, Teddy (whose suicide in the previous episode was quickly reversed, even if we never see him again) and others fled.

Alan Sepinwall

I only finished the second season of the show last week and I have to say I mostly agree with this review. Having characters die only to be resurrected in the next episode is very unsatisfying. When the show keeps coming up with ways to recycle the same people, at some point you end up losing interest in their actions and the plot.

some spoilers follow, but by now I assume you either watched the show, or don’t care that much about spoilers.

11 March 2019

Gizmodo: “I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell”

To end my experiment, I’m going to see if I can survive blocking all five at once.

Not only am I boycotting their products, a technologist named Dhruv Mehrotra designed a special network tool that prevents my devices from communicating with the tech giants’ servers, meaning that ads and analytics from Google won’t work, Facebook can’t track me across the internet, and websites hosted by Amazon Web Services, or AWS, hypothetically won’t load.

Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not—with the exception of Apple.

These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not. These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.

Kashmir Hill

Fascinating experiment! In everyday life it’s hard to think about how much of the services and utilities we’ve come to take for granted in recent years depend on a handful of American corporations. Before reading the article, I wouldn’t have said so many online companies rely on AWS for their server backend; as someone living in Europe, the e-commerce component of Amazon is barely relevant here. And while there’s competition between the giants (Google, Apple and Microsoft all provide email, calendars, maps and office suites, for example), it’s hard to find alternatives outside of their grasp.

09 March 2019

UTA News Center: “Genomic evidence of rapid adaptation of invasive Burmese pythons to their new environment in Florida”

Florida has become a haven for invasive species in the United States, but perhaps the most well-known of the state’s alien residents is the Burmese python. These giant snakes, native to Southeast Asia, have become well-established over the past few decades and even flourish in their new environment.

In Burmese pythons, we observed the rapid establishment and expansion of an invasive population in Florida, which is quite ecologically distinct from Southeast Asia and likely imposes significant ecological selection on the invasive Burmese python population, said Todd Castoe, biology professor at The University of Texas at Arlington and director of the Castoe Lab. This situation had all of the hallmarks of a system where rapid adaptation could occur, so we were excited to test for this possibility using cutting-edge genomic approaches.

The University of Texas at Arlington

Fascinating! If some alien civilization ever visits Earth in the distant future – or if our far-removed descendants examine fossil records from the Anthropocene – one can imagine their surprise to uncover species without any local ancestry appearing out or nowhere in the ecosystem. The article above is far from the only example of ‘invasive’ species adapting and flourishing in new environments: many mammals in Australia were imported by humans at some point in recent history – including about a million wild camels!

07 March 2019

The New York Times: “Facebook and Telegram are hoping to Succeed where Bitcoin Failed”

The internet outfits, including Facebook, Telegram and Signal, are planning to roll out new cryptocurrencies over the next year that are meant to allow users to send money to contacts on their messaging systems, like a Venmo or PayPal that can move across international borders.

The most anticipated but secretive project is underway at Facebook. The company is working on a coin that users of WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, could send to friends and family instantly, said five people briefed on the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements.

Nathaniel Popper & Mike Isaac

The messaging overhaul at Facebook continues, this time with more rumors of a coin for making personal payments. My first reaction was that this is bound to facilitate all sorts of illegal activity on a magnitude rarely seen before, from money laundering, to payments for drug and sex trafficking, even tax evasion. Leaving aside Bitcoin’s numerous problems, I find it very hard to believe that any respectable country would allow a private company to operate an independent, parallel financial system through encrypted messaging, which would make transactions virtually untraceable.