Vignette is a handy new app that keeps your iOS contact photos up to date

If there’s a special place in your heart for single-purpose utilities that solve a nagging problem, then you’re going to want to skip your daily Starbucks coffee and instead buy yourself a copy of the new iOS contacts utility Vignette. The new app is focused on doing one thing well: finding photos for your contacts by scouring social media profiles and updating them.

Many people don’t bother to add a photo when entering in an iOS contact for the first time — it’s often an afterthought at best. And because the iOS Contacts app directs you to your own photo library to find an image when editing a contact, adding a photo tends to be something people only do for close friends and family.  (After all, most people don’t carry around photos of co-workers, clients or business colleagues on their iPhone.)

But that means when you use Apple’s Phone app or iMessage and others, you see gray boxes with the person’s initials instead of a colorful picture.

It’s a minor grievance, sure, but one that can impact people with wide networks — like those who interact with a range of clients or customers as part of their job, or remote workers who like to be reminded of what far-flung colleagues look like, for instance.

Plus, the gray initial boxes are just aesthetically displeasing.

Vignette is simple to use. The app will scan select fields in your Contacts, including Email (which is used for Gravatar), Twitter, Facebook, and the Custom social network field, Instagram. (Instagram is not one of the built-in options in iOS Contacts, unfortunately).

You can then choose to update each contact with the photo it finds. In the case of multiple photos, you can pick which you prefer. And you don’t have to make these updates one-by-one — you can “Select All” to make dozens or even hundreds of updates at once.

If you’re worried the app won’t find anything — or not enough to warrant spending $4.99 — you can opt to run the scan first, before committing to paying. But if you decide to proceed with the updates, you’ll need to make the one-time purchase.

There are some third-party utilities for contact management, including those that will update based on social network profile data; but they tend to require you to authenticate with the third-party network in order to pull in the additional content.

Vignette does not. The app instead takes a privacy-minded approach to its work. It doesn’t require you upload your contacts to its servers, and it only uses the social networks anonymously as opposed to having you log in.

The indie developer behind the app, Casey Liss — who you might know from the Accidental Tech Podcast or the video series Casey on Cars — says he has a few ideas for improving the app in the near-term.

This includes duplicate detection, limiting Vignette’s scans to select contact groups, and better Facebook integration. (Right now it requires a numeric Facebook ID like fb://profile/1234567, which Liss realizes is undesirable).

He also acknowledges that many people are asking for LinkedIn integration.

“That would require login, which I’m currently kind of allergic to, but I’ve gotten enough requests to at least consider it,” he tells us.

The app was built over three months’ time, and is now launching just days before Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC, where it’s expected we’ll see updated versions of core apps including Messages.

Given its singular purpose, Vignette may not have a wide audience. Liss admitted that’s the case on a recent episode of the Analog(ue) podcast, in fact.

When asked, who the app was for, he responded: “it’s for me.”

“This is really scratching an itch that I had. I really was tired of looking at all these initials in my Contacts list — I wanted to have pictures,” he explained. “But I didn’t want to go through the manual process of adding them all one-by-one.”

He may be surprised to find quite a few of us were similarly annoyed by all the gray initials. The app today is making the rounds across the Apple blogs and news sites, including 9to5Mac, MacStories, The Mac Observer, Cult of Mac, and others, where it’s being largely well-received.

Vignette is a free download with a $4.99 in-app purchase on the App Store.

 

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Vignette is a handy new app that keeps your iOS contact photos up to date

If there’s a special place in your heart for single-purpose utilities that solve a nagging problem, then you’re going to want to skip your daily Starbucks coffee and instead buy yourself a copy of the new iOS contacts utility Vignette. The new app is focused on doing one thing well: finding photos for your contacts by scouring social media profiles and updating them.

Many people don’t bother to add a photo when entering in an iOS contact for the first time — it’s often an afterthought at best. And because the iOS Contacts app directs you to your own photo library to find an image when editing a contact, adding a photo tends to be something people only do for close friends and family.  (After all, most people don’t carry around photos of co-workers, clients or business colleagues on their iPhone.)

But that means when you use Apple’s Phone app or iMessage and others, you see gray boxes with the person’s initials instead of a colorful picture.

It’s a minor grievance, sure, but one that can impact people with wide networks — like those who interact with a range of clients or customers as part of their job, or remote workers who like to be reminded of what far-flung colleagues look like, for instance.

Plus, the gray initial boxes are just aesthetically displeasing.

Vignette is simple to use. The app will scan select fields in your Contacts, including Email (which is used for Gravatar), Twitter, Facebook, and the Custom social network field, Instagram. (Instagram is not one of the built-in options in iOS Contacts, unfortunately).

You can then choose to update each contact with the photo it finds. In the case of multiple photos, you can pick which you prefer. And you don’t have to make these updates one-by-one — you can “Select All” to make dozens or even hundreds of updates at once.

If you’re worried the app won’t find anything — or not enough to warrant spending $4.99 — you can opt to run the scan first, before committing to paying. But if you decide to proceed with the updates, you’ll need to make the one-time purchase.

There are some third-party utilities for contact management, including those that will update based on social network profile data; but they tend to require you to authenticate with the third-party network in order to pull in the additional content.

Vignette does not. The app instead takes a privacy-minded approach to its work. It doesn’t require you upload your contacts to its servers, and it only uses the social networks anonymously as opposed to having you log in.

The indie developer behind the app, Casey Liss — who you might know from the Accidental Tech Podcast or the video series Casey on Cars — says he has a few ideas for improving the app in the near-term.

This includes duplicate detection, limiting Vignette’s scans to select contact groups, and better Facebook integration. (Right now it requires a numeric Facebook ID like fb://profile/1234567, which Liss realizes is undesirable).

He also acknowledges that many people are asking for LinkedIn integration.

“That would require login, which I’m currently kind of allergic to, but I’ve gotten enough requests to at least consider it,” he tells us.

The app was built over three months’ time, and is now launching just days before Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC, where it’s expected we’ll see updated versions of core apps including Messages.

Given its singular purpose, Vignette may not have a wide audience. Liss admitted that’s the case on a recent episode of the Analog(ue) podcast, in fact.

When asked, who the app was for, he responded: “it’s for me.”

“This is really scratching an itch that I had. I really was tired of looking at all these initials in my Contacts list — I wanted to have pictures,” he explained. “But I didn’t want to go through the manual process of adding them all one-by-one.”

He may be surprised to find quite a few of us were similarly annoyed by all the gray initials. The app today is making the rounds across the Apple blogs and news sites, including 9to5Mac, MacStories, The Mac Observer, Cult of Mac, and others, where it’s being largely well-received.

Vignette is a free download with a $4.99 in-app purchase on the App Store.

 

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My desk doesn’t deserve the $600 Dyson Lightcycle lamp

Like many of you, I’m assuming, my desk was purchased at Ikea and is the center of my life. Such as it is, the desk is littered with bits of crackers, memory cards, branded Moleskin notebooks and countless coffee cups. I’m not a slob. I just live here. The desk is clean enough.

Then Dyson sent me its new task light to try out. My desk suddenly felt dirty. After assembling the light, I looked around and took inventory of my life and choices. If I was going to have something as lovely as this on my desk, I would have to have a cleaner space. I cleaned up my desk.

Review

The Dyson Lightcycle is, well, a light. It makes the room brighter. And because it’s made by Dyson, it’s over-engineered and expensive. The Lightcycle is $600 and I’m not going to attempt to justify it’s price. I can’t. This is a product that costs countless times over its utility.

First the good.

The light works. Hit a button on the top and it turns on. Slide your finger across the top and the light’s brightness and color temperature changes.

The light is constructed with an insane attention to detail. It’s perfectly balanced. As the light slides up and down its main poll, a counterweight ensures an effortless motion. Likewise the light arm slides back and forth on three large wheels. All awhile, its seemingly wireless with all the connections and wires hidden throughout the mechanisms.

The Dyson Task light is beautiful. It’s impossible to look at the light and not be impressed by the construction. The function of the design is perfect for my desk. I placed it in the center of my workspace and the long arms allows it to reach where ever it’s needed.

The light works great and thanks to adjustable color temperatures, works in every situation. There are two touch-sensitive bars on top of the unit. Just slide a fingertip across the bars to make the light brighter or change the color temp. Dyson took the light temperatures option to the next level. The owner can connect the lamp to a smartphone app through Bluetooth, and when the light is connected, it will sync the color temp to the idea setting to match the owner’s location on Earth. It’s a clever function and is said to have a host of mental and physical benefits.

According to Dyson, this lamp’s LED unit is good for 60 years thanks to a heat pipe system. It’s said to pull the excess heat generated by the LED away from the unit, ensuring it lasts as long as possible.

And now the bad.

This lamp costs $600. That’s a hard sell. There are countless minimalist task lamps on the market. None have all the features found on the Dyson Lightcycle but one could argue that a person doesn’t need all of the features.

I found the light produced by the Lightcycle adequate. The intensity is adjustable and there’s even a supercharged mode that turns the intensity up to 11 — but that’s only accessible through the smartphone companion app. To me, when you need extra light, you need it immediately and not after the 30 seconds needed to use an app.

The Lightcycle’s main selling point is the automatic adjustable color temperature. It’s a lovely feature and my eyes feel after using this lamp. Just to be clear, there are a lot of products on the market for much less than the Lightcycle that can replicate the ideal color temperature. Get one. They’re a great gadget to have around in the winter months.

Bottom line

I can’t recommend a person spends $600 on a light. That said, the Dyson Lightcycle is a lovely object, should last a lifetime, and works as advertised.

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Getaround, Facebook, AI chips, Nvidia, Africa, and immigration

Who helped your startup grow? Nominate a growth marketing agency.

For those who have been members of Extra Crunch for a while now, you have seen us go through two cycles of Verified Experts, covering startup attorneys and brand designers. Now, we turn our attention to our third community of startup professionals: growth marketers / hackers. Growth is the single most important objective of any startup, and so these professionals can have an outsized impact on which companies grow, and by how much.

Yvonne Leow is leading our search for the best growth marketers out there, as rated by founders. Worked with someone yourself? Impressed by the growth of a friend’s startup? Let us know with this handy form and get ready for new profiles in the coming weeks.

The Exit: Getaround’s $300M roadtrip

Our SF-based reporter Lucas Matney published his second piece in his “The Exit” series on, well, startup exits. Last time, Lucas looked at the acquisition of Dynamic Yield for $300 million by McDonald’s, and now he looks at Getaround’s $300 million acquisition of Paris-based Drivy (why Lucas loves $300m transactions, I have no idea). He interviewed Jeremy Uzan of Alven Capital to get the details:

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Getting a seat at the VC table

We are witnessing the greatest paradigm shift in power since the advent of the venture capital industry. Since taking my first VC role in 2012, I’ve seen more change in the past year than all other years combined.

Six years after Ellen Pao’s landmark gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Mary Meeker announced her departure to start a new fund with three other KPCB investors. Arlan Hamilton from Backstage Capital graced the cover of Fast Company with the caption “Venture Catalyst.” AllRaise’s circulation of a growing list of job postings is regularly hitting the inboxes of female investment talent climbing the check-writing ranks. To quote Seth Godin, “When you put the right idea into the world, people can’t unsee it.”

What does it mean to have a seat at the table, and how many of us have needed to bring our own chairs rather than wait for someone to offer us one?

Here are a few reflections on what having a seat at the investors’ table means to me:

Representation is a competitive advantage.

Venture has operated in many ways like a club since its inception, where deals are shared within small, private circles, often comprised of people with more in common than not. When investment decisions are made by people who are not representative of our population — instead representative of the interests of a very small percentage of the population (in ethnicity, culture, education, and socioeconomic status) — our economy suffers. In other words, fewer wants and needs are addressed by the goods and services in the market, creating less economic prosperity as a whole.

According to the NVCA and Pitchbook, the total investment into venture-backed companies reached $57 billion in just the first half of 2018. To put this into context, $57 billion is more than 114 countries can claim in GDP. Given just how much money is invested — an increasing figure each year as more venture money appears from new participants — we should be concerned that just 9% of U.S. VCs are women despite comprising 50.8% of the U.S. population and driving 70-80% of all consumer purchasing.

#ANGELS and Carta exposed a staggering new statistic that just 9% of company equity is held by women, despite women comprising 33% of the founder and employee workforce.

The private and public markets are waking up to the realization that representation matters. A 2015 McKinsey study found that “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” I’m in constant communication with a wide range of investors from established firms to new ones, and the feedback is overwhelmingly positive — having an investment team more representative of the population generates better deal flow. I have this conversation on a biweekly basis and know that the next generation of investors is watching to see what established VC firms are doing to remain competitive.

So, you ask, what’s next for venture capital?

Assimilation is a thing of the past.

I tried to blend in as much as possible when I first entered the venture world, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that I came from a very different background than the people I was interacting with. I didn’t know what ski week was, my parents didn’t belong to private clubs, and Ivy League schools were a distant concept. Yet, I found common ground with my new social circle because they were, in many respects, regular people with “access” broadly defined as the primary differentiator.

Fast forward to today, I see the greatest opportunity for those who are boldly unique. A seat at the table means I can be myself and draw upon my unique experiences to make decisions and support my portfolio companies in a way that only I can. Our industry thrives when contrarian views are developed over time and implemented without compromise. Conformity is the main villain when we decide to settle for the familiar, ultimately generating stagnant venture returns. After all, venture capital is, by definition, meant to be a high-risk asset class.

Safe environments matter. Full stop.

Having a seat at the table means I get to draw the line when male investors, entrepreneurs, and other industry voices choose to transgress or act inappropriately. I feel safe in assuming the male leadership I choose to invest in will have a lower probability of ruining their company due to issues with workplace culture and sexual abuse allegations.

As we witness one industry giant topple after another, spanning film and media, consumer brands, and investors, it has become increasingly apparent that poor judgment calls and mistreatment of talent will no longer be swept under the rug. I occasionally have meetings with entrepreneurs and fellow investors where you could say my “stranger danger” alarms are triggered by off-color comments and malapropos gestures. These are the instances where I will choose to avoid a situation or pass on a business opportunity that could, in time, become a ticking time bomb and, long-term, a poor investment.

There are no more rules.

A close friend in VC often states, “The new rule is: there are no rules.” This means new people arriving to the table, chair in hand, to direct investment decisions, whether top-down as a company builder or bottoms-up as a content creator and micro-influencer. No rules means new faces showing up as limited partners in VC funds, and new managers of VC funds sharing their own unique stories of building their less-conventional careers. No rules also means that VC firms are going to look, act, and feel different, throwing out convention in favor of creativity and inclusivity.

Build it and they will come.

Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital said it best during her 36|86 AMA in Nashville with The JumpFund: “We will make our own club!” I nearly fell out of my seat applauding, laughing, and cheering. My own interpretation of this statement has to do with the can-do energy that is showing up in venture. In 2018, we are no longer waiting for someone to save a seat for us at the table or invite us into the room at all. We are showing up with our own chairs, building new tables, and creating new spaces and environments that foster the exchanging of ideas and deal docs.

Early in 2018, I set out to learn more about the startup and venture capital landscape in my new home city of Nashville, Tennessee, and in the broader surrounding geography of the Southeastern U.S. I quickly found that the entrepreneurs and investors I met were surprised by me — a relatively young, half-Mexican, female face did not immediately trigger the words ‘venture’ and ‘capital’.

Questions followed, such as, “How did you end up in venture capital?” and statements like, “People must tell you all of the time that you don’t look like the typical VC.” A few minutes into the conversation and those questions and statements dissipate, though I knew there must be a broader local community sharing my interests and lack of conformity in physical appearance and style. So, I set out and launched ModernCapital to make the venture capital industry more accessible to new talent. Our team of 4 (3 venture fellows plus myself) is 100% female and 50% Latina. As we spend more time digging into the entrepreneurial landscape of our region, more entrepreneurs and future investors from a wide range of backgrounds are contacting us wanting to join the community we are building.

Considering just how much has changed in the dialogue around venture capital and where the greatest next investment opportunities will arise, I am confident this is only the beginning.

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Review of Elon Musk’s DC-to-Baltimore ‘Loop’ system reveals safety concerns

The Boring Company’s Loop transit system that aims to shuttle people in autonomous electric vehicles between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. fails to meet several key national safety standards, a review of its proposal reveals.

The underground system appears to lack sufficient emergency exits, ignore the latest engineering practices and proposes passenger escape ladders that one fire safety professor calls “the definition of insanity.”

Details of the 35.3-mile system, the first segment in a high-speed network that Boring Company founder and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk hopes will one day run all the way to New York, emerged recently in a 505-page draft environmental assessment.

Musk founded The Boring Company, or TBC, in 2016 after becoming frustrated with Los Angeles’ infamous traffic congestion. The aim was to find an efficient and cost-effective way to dig networks of tunnels for private vehicles. That idea evolved into the Loop, a system that would theoretically transport people in modified Tesla electric vehicles.

A Tesla Model X in The Boring Company’s demonstration tunnel in California. Photo/The Boring Company

Musk showed off his vision for what he has described as an ‘entirely new system of transport during an event  last December that took guests and media through a 1.1-mile demonstration tunnel underneath 120th Street in the city of Hawthorne, Calif. near one of Musk’s other companies, SpaceX. 

Fire risks and escape hatches

The Baltimore-to-Washington document specifies parallel tunnels running beneath highways, within which modified Tesla vehicles would travel autonomously at up to 150 miles per hour. Battery-powered cars would leave as frequently as every 30 seconds, with a journey time of just 15 minutes in either direction. In the future, Musk even envisages converting the tunnels into a Hyperloop system outfitted with pods that could theoretically reach speeds of 600 mph.

If the Baltimore-to-DC Loop system is considered a road tunnel, it would be the longest in the world. As a rail tunnel, it would only be surpassed by the epic Gotthard Base Tunnel running beneath the Swiss Alps.

But where the Gotthard Base Tunnel has escape passageways spaced about every 1,000 feet, Musk’s Loop will have up to 10,500 feet between emergency exits. That is more than four times the maximum distance permitted in standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for public rail and transit systems.

“Just because a vehicle doesn’t have gasoline doesn’t mean it’s not a significant fire risk,” said Glenn Corbett, a professor of security, fire and emergency management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Lithium-ion batteries are perhaps even more dangerous, and have been an issue for airlines and fire safety agencies for the last 10 years.”

Modern electric vehicle batteries can suffer intense, runaway fires when damaged. There have been two recent incidents — one captured on video in China — of a parked Tesla spontaneously exploding. Tesla said this month that it was updating its vehicles’ battery software for charging and thermal management. “Although fire incidents involving Tesla vehicles are already extremely rare and our cars are 10 times less likely to experience a fire than a gas car, we believe the right number of incidents to aspire to is zero,” it wrote in a statement.

The Loop document says that TBC will install fire detection, suppression and safety measures as well as a powerful ventilation system. But the facilities for passengers to escape during an emergency, be it breakdown, fire, flooding or terrorism, leave much to be desired, says Corbett: “You’ll have people that range from 5 years old to 95. What they’re proposing now would certainly not pass muster.”

For a start, some of the Loop’s emergency exits are too far apart. Should a fire break out at the worst possible place, passengers could face a two-mile walk to an exit — and then up to another quarter of a mile to a ventilation shaft leading to the surface.

To comply with NFPA standards for rail tunnels, the Loop would need at least 74 such exits for each of the twin tunnels between Baltimore and DC. TBC’s document says it only intends to build “up to 70” in total.

If the Loop system were designated a road tunnel instead, complying would be even harder. Stricter NFPA standards for car and truck tunnels mean that TBC would have to construct more than 180 exit shafts for each tunnel.

“Even this standard, which is 1,000 feet between exits, is fairly weak,” Corbett said. “Smoke from a fire in an enclosed, below-grade area has a high propensity to kill people and create a lot of problems.”

The ‘definition of insanity’

When passengers eventually reach the ventilation shafts, their problems might not be over. The tunnel floor will be between 44 and 104 feet below the surface.

“One or more means of vertical access (e.g. elevator, man basket, stairs or ladder) would be provided for ingress/egress,” states TBC’s document. At the top of each shaft will be either a shed housing ventilation equipment, or a flat steel grate.

“That’s not going to work,” Corbett said. “You’re telling me a 70-year-old grandmother who’s just traveled thousands of feet is going to climb a ladder to get out? That’s crazy. It’s the definition of insanity.”

Such long and inconvenient escape routes would also hamper incoming firefighters, who typically have only a 30-minute supply of air for their breathing apparatus.

“Ingress becomes a concern with very long tunnels,” said Justin Edenbaum, a tunnel fire and ventilation engineering consultant based in Toronto, Canada.

Another issue is that long tunnels are rare in the United States, a country that has more experience with fires in tall buildings than deep underground.

“All of our research in terms of stairwells has been done with downward motion,” Corbett explained. “What’s not been well studied are situations where people might have to walk a significant distance to get to a stairwell and then climb out. This is going to require a significant amount of research and consideration.”

A different approach

Where long transit tunnels have been built recently, in Europe and Asia, engineers have taken a different approach. Instead of widely separated staircases, frequent cross-passageways allow passengers to quickly escape fire or smoke into either a dedicated safety tunnel or the tunnel traveling in the other direction.

In 2016, Jae-Ho Pyeon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at San Jose State University, conducted a trend analysis of long tunnels around the world. He found that the majority of long rail tunnels globally have such crossover connections, and that all built in the last decade have exits spaced far closer than 2,500 feet.

Pyeon concluded: “Configurations connected by cross passages are becoming more popular, mainly due to increasingly demanding safety requirements.”

A 2015 study by Edenbaum found that not only do cross passages enable people to escape a smoky environment faster than stairways, they also let firefighters reach the blaze earlier, and can dramatically reduce construction costs.

The Boring Company’s take

The Boring Company did not respond to detailed questions about the Loop system but told TechCrunch that it had been designed to be the safest public transportation system in the world, which includes compliance with applicable safety and fire protection standards.

In the absence of federal rules for transit tunnels, the Loop will be subject to the regulations of the jurisdictions it passes beneath. Existing subway systems in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Maryland are all required to follow NFPA standards.

Curiously, TBC has yet to discuss its flagship project with Maryland’s fire agency.

“While the Office of the State Fire Marshal hasn’t been contacted by The Boring Company in regards to the proposed [Loop system], we would take the position of applying our standard underground subway safety standards to such a project to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” said Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci.

That being said, there is a slight chance that TBC would not be forced to include more shafts or emergency passages.

“[The NFPA standard states that] you can suggest solutions that are equivalent or superior to the stated methods, but they have to be approved the authority having jurisdiction,” says Edenbaum. “[TBC] may have an argument about how it can go as widely spaced as it wants. They could make the case that [the Loop] is safer than a highway. That’s a risk-based assessment, which is not very popular in North America, but it’s another way to look at it.”

The draft environmental assessment is currently in its public comment phase, along with a draft agreement between TBC and various federal agencies regarding the Loop’s impact on historical properties. There are also numerous other permits and approvals that will be necessary before TBC completes a detailed design and starts digging, including safety assessments.

TBC has also proposed projects in other parts of the country with varying success. The one closest to getting underway this year is in Las Vegas, where TBC has proposed building a high-speed underground transit system that would initially transport people around the Las Vegas Convention Center. 

The upshot: For all of Elon Musk’s obsession with speed, the world’s longest tunnel won’t be arriving anytime soon.

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Nectar’s sonar bottle caps could save $50B in stolen booze

Bars lose 20 percent of their alcohol to overpours and “free” drinks for friends. That amounts to $50 billion per year in booze that mysteriously disappears, making life tough for every pub and restaurant. Nectar wants to solve that mystery with its ultrasound depth sensing bottle caps that measure how much liquid is left in a bottle by measuring how long it takes a sonar pulse to bounce back. And now it’s bringing real-time pour tracking to beer with its gyroscopic taps. The result is that bar managers can find out who’s pouring too much or giving away drink, which promotions are working, when to reorder bottles without keeping too much stock on hand, and avoid wasting hours weighing or eyeballing the liquor level of their inventory.

Nectar’s solution to alcohol shrinkage has now attracted a $10 million Series A led by DragonCapital.vc and joined by former Campari chairman Gerry Ruvo who will join the board. “Not a lot of technology has come to the bottle” Nectar CEO Aayush Phumbhra says of ill-equipped bars and restaurants. “Liquor is their highest margin and highest cost item. If you don’t manage it efficiently, you go out of business.” Other solutions can look ugly to customers, forcibly restrict bartenders, or take time and money to install and maintain. In contrast, Phunumbhra tells me “I care about solving deep problems by building a solution that doesn’t change behavior.”

Investors were eager to back the CEO, since he previously co-founded text book rental giant Chegg — another startup disrupting an aged market with tech. “I come from a pretty entrepreneurial family. No one in my family has ever worked for anyone else before” Phunumbhra says with a laugh. He saw an opportunity in the stunning revelation that the half-trillion dollar on-premises alcohol business was plagued by missing booze and inconsistent ways to track it.

Typically at the end of a week or month, a bar manager will have staff painstakingly look at each bottle, try to guess what percent remains, and mark it on a clipboard to be loaded into a spreadsheet later. While a little quicker, that’s very subjective and in-accurate More advanced systems see every bottled weighed to see exactly how much is left. If they’re lucky, the scale connects to a computer, but they still have to punch in what brand of booze they’re sizing up. But the process can take many hours, which amounts to costly labor and infrequent data. None of these methods eliminate the manual measurement process or give real-time pour info.

So with $6 million in funding, Nectar launched in 2017 with its sonar bottle caps that look and operate like old-school pourers. When bars order them, they come pre-synced and labeled for certain bottle shapes like Petron or Jack Daniels. Their Bluetooth batteries last a year and connect wirelessly to a base hub in the bar. With each pour, the sonar pulse determines how much is in the bottle and subtracts it from the previous measurement to record how much was doled out. And the startup’s new gyroscopic beer system is calibrated to deduce pour volume from the angle and time the tap is depressed without the need for a sensor to be installed (and repaired) inside the beer hose.

Bar managers can keep any eye on everything throughout the night with desktop, iOS, and Android apps. They could instantly tell if a martini special is working based on how much gin across brands is being poured, ask bartenders to slow their pours if they’re creeping upwards in volume, or give the green light to strong pours on weeknights to reward regular customers. “Some bars encourage overpours to get people to keep coming back” says local San Francisco celebrity bartender Broke-Ass Stuart, who tells me pre-measured pourers can save owners money but cost servers tips.

Nectar now sells self-serve subscriptions to its hardware and software, with a 20 cap package costing $99 per month billed annually with free yearly replacements. It’s also got a free 2 tap trial package, or a $399 per month enterprise subscription for 100 taps. Nectar is designed to complement bar point of sale systems. And if a bar just wants the software, Nectar just launched its PrecisionAudit app where staff tap the current liquid level on a photo of each different bottle for more accurate eyeballing. It’s giving a discount rate of $29.99 per month on the first 1000 orders.

After 2 million pours measured, the business is growing 200 percent quarter-over-quarter as bowling alley chains and stadiums sign up for pilots. The potential to change the booze business seduced investors like Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, and the founding family of the Modelo beer company. Next, Nectar is trying to invent a system for wine. That’s trickier since its taps would need to be able to suck the air out of the bottles each night.

The big challenge will be convincing bars to change after tracking inventory the same way for decades. No one wants to deal with technical difficulties in a jam-packed bar. That’s partly why Nectar’s subscription doesn’t force owners to buy its hardware up front.

fIf Nectar can nail not only the tech but the bartender experience, it could pave a smoother path to hospitality entrepreneurship. Alcohol shrinkage is one factor leading to the rapid demise of many bars and restaurants. Plus, it could liberate bartenders from measuring bottles into the wee hours. Phunumbhra “They’re coming in on weekends and working late. We want them to spend that time with their families and on customer service.”

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Amazon has turned warehouse tasks into a (literal) game

Working at an Amazon fulfillment center is tough and tedious. Stories of problematic working conditions have plagued the company for years now, and pressure has likely only increased as the retail giant is pushing to get packages out even faster.

To give the company some credit, it has worked to improve conditions, including the addition of a $15 minimum wage and automating certain tasks with the help of its growing robotics offering. Turns out the company has also been, quite literally, gamifying certain tasks.

WaPo (which, incidentally, is also own by Mr. Bezos) has a writeup of an “experimental” video game designed to motivator workers to fill orders. The games, which is apparently optional for employees, live on workstation screens, awarding points for fulfilling orders and pitting teams against one another in the process.

As the story notes, Amazon’s not alone in the idea. Gig-based companies like Uber and Lyft are similarly incentivizing workers with rewards for driving longer. In an age when we’ve gamified our own step counts through Fitbit and the like, it’s probably no surprise that companies are taking similar tacts for their duller positions.

Still, the whole thing is a bit odd — and probably a good indication of how repetitive this tasks can be. As we noted on a recent trip to the company’s massive Staten Island fulfillment center, the “picker” and “stower” gigs work closely with Amazon’s shelf sporting robots to get packages to their destination.

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Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview “On The Internet of Women,” Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira’s personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay “The Internet of Women,” that I thought made it such a kind of, I’d call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally “female.” This isn’t just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a “softer” skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t “work,” [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they’re also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

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Seven years later, the OUYA is dead for real

 

Remember the OUYA?

As a cheap Android-powered game console, it was pitched as being able to “open the last closed platform: the TV”. It was one of the first huge Kickstarter campaigns, raising nearly 9 million dollars on the site in 2012. Even half a decade later, it remains one of the biggest campaigns Kickstarter has seen.

Outside of Kickstarter, the $99 console never really found its audience. OUYA was split up by 2015, its software assets and team acquired by Razer.

Razer kept the OUYA store running post-acquisition, a ghost of its former self. On June 25th, 2019, they’ll pull the plug once and for all.

In an FAQ on its site, Razer says that the OUYA store will be shut down by the end of June. The game store for the Forge TV (a similar attempt at an Android-powered console built by Razer itself) will also be shut down.

If you’ve somehow still got funds in your OUYA account, you’ll want to use them quick — the FAQ suggests that come June 25th, those funds will be more or less gone.

But what about the games you’ve already bought? Will those continue to work? That’s a bit more complicated. Writes Razer:

You will be able to play games via the OUYA platform until June 25, 2019. Once it has been shut down, access to the Discover section will no longer be available. Games downloaded that appear in Play, may still function if they do not require a purchase validation upon launch. Contact the game developer for confirmation.

In other words: some games will work, some won’t. They do note that the download servers will also go dark on June 25th — so if there’s a game you want to keep for the long term, make sure you’ve got it saved on the console.

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