Bag Week 2018: WP Standard’s Rucksack goes the distance

WP Standard – formerly called Whipping Post Leather – makes rugged leather bags, totes, and briefcases and their Rucksack is one of my favorites. Designed to look like something a Pony Express rider would slip on for a visit to town, this $275 is sturdy, handsome, and ages surprisingly well.

There are some trade-offs, however. Except for two small front pouches there are no hidden nooks and crannies in this spare 15×15 inch sack. The main compartment can fit a laptop and a few notebooks and the front pouches can hold accessories like mice or a little collection of plugs. There is no fancy nylon mesh or gear organizers here, just a brown expanse of full grain leather.

I wore this backpack for a few months before writing this and found it surprisingly comfortable and great for travel. Because it is so simple I forced myself to pare down my gear slightly and I was able to consolidate my cables and other accessories into separate pouches. I could fit a laptop, iPad Pro, and a paperback along side multiple notebooks and planners and I could even overstuff the thing on long flights. As long as I was able to buckle the front strap nothing fell out or was lost.

This bag assumes that you’re OK with thick, heavy leather and that you’re willing to forgo a lot of the bells and whistles you get with more modern styles. That said, it has a great classic look and it’s very usable. I suspect this bag would last decades longer than anything you could buy at Office Depot and it would look good doing it. At $275 it’s a bit steep but you’re paying for years – if not decades – of regular use and abuse. It’s worth the investment.

bag week 2018

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Facebook expands fact-checking program, adopts new technology for fighting fake news

Facebook this morning announced an expansion of its fact-checking program and other actions it’s taking to combat the scourge of fake news on its social network. The company, which was found to be compromised by Russian trolls whose disinformation campaigns around the November 2016 presidential election reached 150 million Americans, has been increasing its efforts at fact-checking news through a combination of technology and human review in the months since.

The company began fact-checking news on its site last spring, with help from independent third-party fact-checkers certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network.

These fact checkers rate the accuracy of the story, allowing Facebook to take action on those rated false by lowering them in the News Feed, and reduced the distribution of those Pages that are repeat offenders.

Today, Facebook says it has expanded this program to 14 countries around the world, and plans to roll it out to more countries by year-end. It also claims the impact of fact-checking reduced the distribution of fake news by an average of 80 percent.

The company additionally announced the expansion of its program for fact-checking photos and video.

First unveiled this spring, Facebook has been working to fact-check things like manipulated videos or misused photos where images are taken out of context in order to push a political agenda. This is a huge issue, because memes have become a popular way of rallying people around a cause on the internet, but they often do so by completely misrepresenting the facts by using images from different events, places, and times.

One current example of this is the photo used by Drudge Report showing young boys holding guns in a story about the U.S.-Mexico border battle. The photo was actually taken nowhere near the border, but rather was snapped in Syria in 2012 and was captioned by the photographer: “Four young Syrian boys with toy guns are posing in front of my camera during my visit to Azaz, Syria. Most people I met were giving the peace sign. This little city was taken by the Free Syrian Army in the summer of 2012 during the Battle of Azaz.”

Using fake or misleading images to stoke fear, disgust, or hatred of another group of people is a common way photos and videos are misused online, and they deserve fact-checking as well.

Facebook also says it’s now taking advantage of new machine learning technology to help it find duplicates of already debunked stories. And it will work with fact-checking partners to use Schema.org‘s Claim Review, an open-source framework that will allow fact-checkers to share ratings with Facebook so the company can act more quickly, especially in times of crisis.

The company is also expanding its efforts in downranking fake news by using machine learning to demote foreign Pages that are spreading financially-motivated hoaxes to people in other countries.

In the weeks ahead, an elections research commission working in partnership with Facebook to measure the volume and effect of misinformation on the social network will launch its website and its first request for proposals.

The company had already announced its plans to further investigate the role social media plans in elections and in democracy. This commission will receive access to privacy-protected data sets with a sample of links that people engaged with on Facebook, which will allow it to understand what sort of content is being shared, says Facebook. The company claim the research will “help keep us accountable and track our progress.”

We’ll see!

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Inside Atari’s rise and fall

By the first few months of 1982, it had become more common to see electronics stores, toy stores, and discount variety stops selling 2600 games. This was before Electronics Boutique, Software Etc., and later, GameStop . Mostly you bought games at stores that sold other electronic products, like Sears or Consumer Distributors. Toys ’R’ Us was a big seller of 2600 games. To buy one, you had to get a piece of paper from the Atari aisle, bring it to the cashier, pay for it, and then wait at a pickup window behind the cash register lanes.

Everyone had a favorite store in their childhood; here’s a story about one of mine. A popular “destination” in south Brooklyn is Kings Plaza, a giant (for Brooklyn) two-story indoor mall with about 100 stores. My mother and grandmother were avid shoppers there. To get to the mall from our house, it was about a 10-minute car service ride. So once a week or thereabouts, we’d all go. The best part for me was when we went inside via its Avenue U entrance instead of on the Flatbush Avenue side. Don’t ask me what went into this decision each time; I assume it depended on the stores my mother wanted to go to. All I knew was the Avenue U side had this circular kiosk maybe 50 feet from the entrance. The name has faded from memory. I remember it was a kind of catch-all for things like magazines, camera film, and other random stuff.

But the most important things were the Atari cartridges. There used to be dozens of colorful Atari game boxes across the wall behind the counter. When we walked up to the cashier’s window, there was often a row of new Atari games across the top as well. Sometimes we left without a new cartridge, and sometimes I received one. But we always stopped and looked, and it was the highlight of my trip to the mall each time.

For whatever reason, I remember the guy behind the counter gave me a hard time one day. I bought one of Atari’s own cartridges—I no longer remember which, but I’m almost sure it was either Defender or Berzerk—that came with an issue of Atari Force, the DC comic book. I said I was excited to get it. The guy shot me a dirty look and said, “You’re buying a new Atari cartridge just for a comic book?” I was way too shy to argue with him, even though he was wrong and I wanted the cartridge. I don’t remember what my mother said, or if she even heard him. Being too shy to protest, I sheepishly took my game and we both walked away.

Mattel Stumbles, While Atari Face-Plants

Mattel began to run into trouble with its Intellivision once the company tried to branch out from sports games. Because Mattel couldn’t license properties from Atari, Nintendo, or Sega, it instead made its own translations of popular arcade games. Many looked better than what you’d find on the 2600, but ultimately played more slowly thanks to the Intellivision’s sluggish CPU. Perhaps the most successful was Astrosmash, a kind of hybrid of Asteroids and Space Invaders, where asteroids, space ships, and other objects fell from the sky and became progressively more difficult. Somewhat less successful were games like Space Armada (a Space Invaders knock off).

Mattel also added voice synthesis—something that was all the rage at the time—to the Intellivision courtesy of an add-on expansion module called Intellivoice. But only a few key games delivered voice capability: Space Spartans, Bomb Squad, B-17 Bomber (all three were launch titles), and later, Tron: Solar Sailer. The Intellivoice’s high cost, lack of a truly irresistible game, and overall poor sound quality meant this was one thing Atari didn’t have to find a way to answer with the 2600.

These events made it easier for Atari to further pull away from Mattel in the marketplace, and it did so—but not without a tremendous self-inflicted wound. A slew of new 2600 games arrived in the first part of 1982. Many important releases came in this period and those that followed, and we’ll get to those shortly. But there was one in particular that the entire story arc of the platform balanced on, and then fractured. It was more than a turning point; its repercussions reverberated throughout the then-new game industry, and to this day it sticks out as one of the key events that ultimately did in Atari.

Pac-Man (Atari, March 1982)

The single biggest image-shattering event for the 2600—and Atari itself—was the home release of its Pac-Man cartridge. I can still feel the crushing disappointment even now. So many of my friends and I looked forward to this release. We had talked about it all the time in elementary school. Pac-Man was simply the hottest thing around in the arcades, and we dreamed of playing it at home as much as we wanted. The two-year wait for Atari to release the 2600 cartridge seemed like forever. Retailers bought into the hype as well. Toy stores battled for inventory, JC Penney and Kmart bought in big along with Sears and advertised on TV, and even local drug stores started stocking the game. And yet, what we got…wasn’t right.

Just about everyone knows how Pac-Man is supposed to work, but just in case: You gobble up dots to gain points while avoiding four ghosts. Eat a power pellet, and you can turn the tables on the ghosts, chase them down, and eat them. Each time you do so, the “eyes” of the ghost fly back to the center of the screen and the ghost regenerates. Eat all the dots and power pellets on the screen, and you progress to the next one, which gets harder. Periodically, a piece of fruit appears at the center of the screen. You can eat it for bonus points, and the kind of fruit denotes the level you are on (cherry, strawberry, orange, and so on).

But that’s not the game Atari 2600 owners saw. After securing the rights to the game from Namco, Atari gave programmer Tod Frye just five weeks to complete the conversion. The company had learned from its earlier mistakes and promised Frye a royalty on every cartridge manufactured (not sold), which was an improvement. But this was another mistake. The royalty plus the rushed schedule meant Frye made money even if the game wasn’t up to snuff, and thus Frye had incentive to complete it regardless. Atari also required the game to fit into just 4KB like older 2600 cartridges, rather than the newer 8KB size that was becoming much more common by this point. That profit-driven limitation heavily influenced the way Frye approached the design of the game. To top it all off, Atari set itself up for a colossal failure by producing some 12 million cartridges, even though there were only 10 million 2600 consoles in circulation at the time. The company was confident that not only would every single existing 2600 owner buy the game, but that 2 million new customers would buy the console itself just for this cartridge.

We all know how it turned out. The instruction manual sets the tone for the differences from the arcade early on. The game is now set in “Mazeland.” You eat video wafers instead of dots. Every time you complete a board, you get an extra life. The manual says you also earn points from eating power pills, ghosts, and “vitamins.” Something is definitely amiss.

Pac-Man himself always looks to the right or left, even if he is going up or down. The video wafers are long and rectangular instead of small, square dots. Fruits don’t appear periodically at the center of the screen. Instead, you get the aforementioned vitamin, a clear placeholder for what would have been actual fruit had there been more time to get it right. The vitamin always looks the same and is always worth 100 points, instead of increasing as you clear levels. The rest of the scoring is much lower than it is in the arcade. Gobbling up all four ghosts totals just 300 points, and each video wafer is worth just 1 point.

The ghosts have tremendous amounts of flicker, and they all look and behave identically, instead of having different colors, distinct personalities, and eyes that pointed in the right direction. The flicker was there for a reason. Frye used it to draw the four ghosts in successive frames with a single sprite graphic register, and drew Pac-Man every frame using the other sprite graphic register. The 2600’s TIA chip synchronizes with an NTSC television picture 60 times per second, so you end up seeing a solid Pac-Man, maze, and video wafers (I can still barely type “video wafers” with a straight face), but the ghosts are each lit only one quarter of the time. A picture tube’s phosphorescent glow takes a little bit to fade, and your eye takes a little while to let go of a retained image as well, but the net result is that the flicker is still quite visible.

It gets worse. The janky, gritty sound effects are bizarre, and the theme song is reduced to four dissonant chords. (Oddly, these sounds resurfaced in some movies over the next 20 years and were a default “go-to” for sound designers working in post-production.) The horizontally stretched maze is nothing like the arcade, either, and the escape routes are at the top and bottom instead of the sides. The maze walls aren’t even blue; they’re orange, with a blue background, because it’s been reported Atari had a policy that only space games could have black backgrounds (!). At this point, don’t even ask about the lack of intermissions.

One of Frye’s own mistakes is that he made Pac-Man a two-player game. “Tod used a great deal of memory just tracking where each player had left off with eaten dots, power pellets, and score,” wrote Goldberg and Vendel in Atari Inc.: Business is Fun. Years later, when Frye looked at the code for the much more arcade-faithful 2600 Ms. Pac-Man, he saw the programmers were “able to use much more memory for graphics because it’s only a one player game.”

Interestingly, the game itself is still playable. Once you get past the initial huge letdown and just play it on its own merits, Pac-Man puts up a decent experience. It’s still “Pac-Man,” sort of, even if it delivers a rough approximation of the real thing as if it were seen and played through a straw. It’s worth playing today for nostalgia—after all, many of us played this cartridge to death anyway, because it was the one we had—and certainly as a historical curiosity for those who weren’t around for the golden age of arcades.

Many an Atari 2600 fan turned on the platform—and Atari in general—after the release of Pac-Man. Although the company still had plenty of excellent games and some of the best were yet to come, the betrayal was immediate and real and forever colored what much of the gaming public thought of Atari. The release of the Pac-Man cartridge didn’t curtail the 2600’s influence on the game industry by any means; we’ll visit many more innovations and developments as we go from here on out. But the 2600 conversion of Pac-Man gave the fledgling game industry its first template for how to botch a major title. It was the biggest release the Atari 2600 had and would ever see, and the company flubbed it about as hard as it could. It was New Coke before there was New Coke.

Grand Prix (Activision, March 1982)

The next few games we’ll discuss further illustrate the quality improvements upstart third-party developers delivered, in comparison with Atari, which had clearly become too comfortable in its lead position. First up is Activision’s Grand Prix, which in hindsight was a bit of an odd way to design a racer . It’s a side-scroller on rails that runs from left to right, and is what racing enthusiasts call a time trial. Although other computer-controlled cars are on the track, you’re racing against the clock, not them, and you don’t earn any points or increase your position on track for passing them.

Gameplay oddities aside, the oversized Formula One cars are wonderfully detailed, with brilliant use of color and animated spinning tires. The shaded color objects were the centerpiece of the design, as programmer David Crane said in a 1984 interview. “When I developed the capability for doing a large multicolored object on the [2600’s] screen, the capability fitted the pattern of the top view of a Grand Prix race car, so I made a racing game out of it.” Getting the opposing cars to appear and disappear properly as they entered and exited the screen also presented a problem, as the 2600’s lack of a frame buffer came into play again. The way TIA works, the 2600 would normally just make the car sprite begin to reappear on the opposite side of the screen as it disappeared from one side. To solve this issue, Crane ended up storing small “slices” of the car in ROM, and in real time the game drew whatever portions of the car were required to reach the edge of the screen. The effect is smooth and impossible to detect while playing.

The car accelerates over a fairly long period of time, and steps through simulated gears. Eventually it reaches a maximum speed and engine note, and you just travel along at that until you brake, crash into another car, or reach the finish line. As the manual points out, you don’t have to worry about cars coming back and passing you again, even if you crash. Once you pass them, they’re gone from the race.

The four game variations in Grand Prix are named after famous courses that resonate with racing fans (Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch, Le Mans, and Monaco). The courses bear no resemblance to the real ones; each game variation is simply longer and harder than the last. The tree-lined courses are just patterns of vehicles that appear on screen. Whenever you play a particular game variation, you see the same cars at the same times (unless you crash, which disrupts the pattern momentarily). The higher three variations include bridges, which you have to quickly steer onto or risk crashing. During gameplay, you get a warning in the form of a series of oil slicks that a bridge is coming up soon.

Although Atari’s Indy 500 set the bar early for home racing games on the 2600, Grand Prix demonstrated you could do one with a scrolling course and much better graphics. This game set the stage for more ambitious offerings the following year. And several decades later, people play games like this on their phones. We just call titles like Super Mario Run (a side-scroller) and Temple Run (3D-perspective) “endless runners,” as they have running characters instead of cars.

Activision soon became the template for other competing third-party 2600 developers. In 1981, Atari’s marketing vice president and a group of developers, including the programmers for Asteroids and Space Invaders on the console, started a company called Imagic. The company had a total of nine employees at the outset. Its name was derived from the words “imagination” and “magic”—two key components of every cartridge the company planned to release. Imagic games were known for their high quality, distinctive chrome boxes and labels, and trapezoidal cartridge edges. As with Activision, most Imagic games were solid efforts with an incredible amount of polish and were well worth purchasing.

Although Imagic technically became the second third-party developer for the 2600, the company’s first game didn’t arrive until March 1982. Another company, Games by Apollo, beat it to the punch by starting up in October 1981 and delivering its first (mediocre) game, Skeet Shoot, before the end of the year.

But when that first Imagic game did arrive, everyone noticed.

Demon Attack

At first glance, the visually striking Demon Attack looks kind of like a copy of the arcade game Phoenix, at least without the mothership screen (something it does gain in the Intellivision port). But the game comes into its own the more you play it. You’re stuck on the planet Krybor. Birdlike demons dart around and shoot clusters of lasers down toward you at the bottom of the screen. Your goal is to shoot the demons all out of the sky, wave after wave.

The playfield is mostly black, with a graded blue surface of the planet along the bottom of the screen. A pulsing, beating sound plays in the background. It increases in pitch the further you get into each level, only to pause and then start over with the next wave. The demons themselves are drawn beautifully, with finely detailed, colorful designs that are well animated and change from wave to wave. Every time you complete a wave, you get an extra life, to a maximum of six.

On later waves, the demons divide in two when shot, and are worth double the points. You can shoot the smaller demons, or just wait—eventually each one swoops down toward your laser cannon, back and forth until it reaches the bottom of the screen, at which point it disappears from the playfield. Shoot it while it’s diving and you get quadruple points. In the later stages, demons also shoot longer, faster clusters of lasers at your cannon.

The game is for one or two players, though there’s a cooperative mode that lets you take turns against the same waves of demons. There are also variations of the game that let you shoot faster lasers, as well as tracer shots that you can steer into the demons. After 84 waves, the game ends with a blank screen, though reportedly a later run of this cartridge eliminates that and lets you play indefinitely. If I were still nine years old, I could probably take a couple of days out of summer and see if this is true. I am no longer nine years old.

Demon Attack was one of Imagic’s first three games, along with Trick Shot and Star Voyager. Rob Fulop, originally of Atari fame and one of Imagic’s four founders, programmed Demon Attack. In November 1982, Atari sued Imagic because of Demon Attack’s similarity to Phoenix, the home rights of which Atari had purchased from Centuri. The case was eventually settled. Billboard magazine listed Demon Attack as one of the 10 best-selling games of 1982. It was also Imagic’s best-selling title, and Electronic Games magazine awarded it Game of the Year.

“The trick to the Demon Attack graphics was it was the first game to use my Scotch-taped/rubber-banded dedicated 2600 sprite animation authoring tool that ran on the Atari 800,” Fulop said in 1993. “The first time Michael Becker made a little test animation and we ran Bob Smith’s utility that successfully squirted his saved sprite data straight into the Demon Attack assembly code and it looked the same on the [2600] as it did on the 800 was HUGE! Before that day, all 2600 graphics ever seen were made using a #2 pencil, a sheet of graph paper, a lot of erasing, and a list of hex codes that were then retyped into the source assembly code, typically introducing a minimum of two pixel errors per eight-by-eight graphic stamp.”

Although you can draw a line from Space Invaders to just about any game like this, Demon Attack combines that with elements of Galaga and Phoenix, with a beautiful look and superb gameplay all its own.

Pitfall! (Activision, April 1982)

A watershed moment in video game history, David Crane’s Pitfall! was one of the best games released for the 2600. As Pitfall Harry, your goal is to race through the jungle and collect 32 treasures—money bags, silver bars, gold bars, and diamond rings, worth from 2,000 to 5,000 points each. Jump and grab vines, and you soar over lakes, quicksand, and alligators, complete with a Tarzan-style “yell.” You can stumble on a rolling log or fall into a hole, both of which just dock you some points. Each time you fall into quicksand or a tar pit, drown in a lake, burn in a fire, or get eaten by an alligator or scorpion, you lose a life. When that happens, you start the next one by dropping from the trees on the left side of the screen to keep playing.

Pushing the joystick left or right makes Pitfall Harry run. He picks up treasure automatically. Holding the stick in either direction while pressing the button makes him jump, either over an obstacle or onto a swinging vine (running into the vine without jumping also works). Push down while swinging to let go of the vine. You also can push up or down to climb ladders.

In an incredible feat of programming, the game contains 255 screens, with the 32 treasures scattered throughout them. The world loops around once you reach the last screen. Although Adventure pioneered the multiroom map on the 2600, Pitfall! was a considerably larger design. Crane fit the game into the same 4KB ROM as Adventure. But rather than storing all 255 screens as part of the ROM—which wouldn’t have fit—Crane’s solution was not to store the world in ROM at all. Instead, the world is generated by code, the same way each time. This is similar to games like Rogue, but even in that case, the game generates the world and then stores it during play. Pitfall! generates each screen via an algorithm, using a counter that increments in a pseudorandom sequence that is nonetheless consistent and can be run forwards or backwards. The 8 bits of each number in the counter sequence define the way the board looks. Bits 0 through 2 are object patterns, bits 3 through 5 are ground patterns, bits 6 and 7 cover the trees, and bit 7 also affects the underground pattern. This way, the world is generated the same way each and every single time. When you leave one screen, you always end up on the same next screen.

“The game was a jewel, a perfect world incised in a mere [4KB] of code,” Nick Montfort wrote in 2001 in Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971-1984.

You get a total of three lives, and Crane points out in the manual that you need to use some of the underground passages (which skip three screens ahead instead of one) to complete the game on time. The inclusion of two on-screen levels—above ground and below ground, with ladders connecting them—makes the game an official platformer. And the game even gives you some say in where to go and what path you take to get there. Pitfall Harry is smoothly animated, and the vines deliver a genuine sensation of swinging even though the game is in 2D.

The game’s 20-minute timer, which approximates the 22-minute length of a standard half-hour television show, marked a milestone for console play. It was much longer than most arcade games and even cartridges like Adventure, which you could complete in a few minutes. The extra length allows for more in-depth play.

“Games in the early ’80s primarily used inanimate objects as main characters,” Crane said in a 2011 interview. “Rarely there would be a person, but even those weren’t fully articulated. I wanted to make a game character that could run, jump, climb, and otherwise interact with an on-screen world.” Crane spent the next couple of years tinkering with the idea before finally coming up with Pitfall!. “[After] only about 10 minutes I had a sketch of a man running on a path through the jungle collecting treasures. Then, after ‘only’ 1,000 hours of pixel drawing and programming, Pitfall Harry came to life.”

Crane said he had already gone beyond that 4KB ROM limit and back within it many times over hundreds of hours. Right before release, he was asked to add additional lives. “Now I had to add a display to show your number of lives remaining, and I had to bring in a new character when a new life was used.” The latter was easy, Crane said, because Pitfall Harry already knew how to fall and stop when he hit the ground. Crane just dropped him from behind the tree cover. “For the ‘Lives’ indicator I added vertical tally marks to the timer display. That probably only cost 24 bytes, and with another 20 hours of ‘scrunching’ the code I could fit that in.”

Pitfall! couldn’t have been timed more perfectly, as Raiders of the Lost Ark was the prior year’s biggest movie. The cartridge delivered the goods; it became the best-selling home video game of 1982 and it’s often credited as the game that kickstarted the platformer genre. Pitfall! held the top spot on Billboard’s chart for 64 consecutive weeks. “The fine graphic sense of the Activision design team greatly enriches the Pitfall! experience,” Electronic Games magazine wrote in January 1983, on bestowing the cartridge Best Adventure Videogame. “This is as richly complex a video game as you’ll find anywhere…Watching Harry swing across a quicksand pit on a slender vine while crocodiles snap their jaws frantically in a futile effort to tear off a little leg-of-hero snack is what video game adventures are all about.” Pitfall!’s influence is impossible to overstate. From Super Mario Bros. to Prince of Persia to Tomb Raider, it was the start of something huge.

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SD Times news digest: V8 6.8, Google Play developer features, and Oracle’s donation to Apache NetBeans

V8 version 6.8 is now available. V8 is an open-source JavaScript engine developed by Google and used in Google’s open-source browser Chrome. The latest release focuses on memory, performance, WebAssembly and APIs.

To avoid memory leaks, the latest version lets the context point to a ScopeInfo in order to break down dependencies. According to the team, there is already a three percent v* memory improvement on mobile devices. For performance, the release will feature array destructuring, object.assign and TypedArray.prototype.sort improvements. In addition, developers can start using trap-based bounds checking on Linux x64 platforms, the team explained.

The version is currently in beta, and will remain in beta until the release of Chrome 68 Stable in a few weeks. More information is available here.

Intel CEO resigns

Brian Krzanich has announced he is resigning as CEO and a memory of the Board of Directors for Intel. Chief financial officer Robert Swan will become the interim CEO, effective immediately.

The resignation comes after the company was informed Krzanich had a consensual relationship with an employee. According to Intel, the company has a non-fraternization policy that applies to all managers.

“The Board believes strongly in Intel’s strategy and we are confident in Bob Swan’s ability to lead the company as we conduct a robust search for our next CEO. Bob has been instrumental to the development and execution of Intel’s strategy, and we know the company will continue to smoothly execute. We appreciate Brian’s many contributions to Intel,” said Intel chairman Andy Bryant.

Google Play updated with new developer features

Google Play is getting a new update to help developers grow and optimize their subscriptions. The Google Play team announced a new subscription center designed to help users view, manage, renew, restore and cancel subscriptions. In addition, the center will also provide a cancellation survey to give developers more feedback into why a user is cancelling.

With the subscription center, Google is also announcing new deep links to enable users to manage subscriptions from their app, email or website. Other features include the ability to accept price changes without setting up a new SKU.

“We strongly believe that by building a great user experience, we build a high quality subscriber base. And by giving you tools and insights to better manage your business, you have the flexibility to do what is best for your business and your customers,” the Google Play team wrote in a post.

Oracle donates code to Apache

Oracle has completed a second donation to Apache NetBeans, the IDE for Java. According to the Apache Software Foundation, Oracle donated 1.5 million lines of code. “This donation constitutes the modules of NetBeans dealing with enterprise Java, JavaScript, PHP, Groovy, as well as miscellaneous features applicable to Mobile and Web development,” Apache wrote in a statement announcing the news.

Apache NetBeans (incubating 9.0) will focus on JavaSE. “After that, or at least separate from that process, we will start relicensing the new code, i.e., from the 2nd donation, once it is in Apache NetBeans Git. Right now, it is a ZIP file, it needs to be moved to Apache NetBeans Git, and we need to do that in the right way, and figure out what the right way is,” Apache wrote.

The post SD Times news digest: V8 6.8, Google Play developer features, and Oracle’s donation to Apache NetBeans appeared first on SD Times.

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Urban Airship raises another $25M

Urban Airship has raised $25 million in Series F funding.

The company started out as a platform supporting push notifications, but has since expanded to include other marketing channels like email, SMS, mobile wallets and voice assistants. The goal is to be the platform managing messaging and unifying customer data across all these channels.

Altogether, Urban Airship said it’s now delivered more than two trillion messages, doubling the number from a year ago.

Recent product additions include voice notifications on Amazon Alexa (which is still in beta testing) and automated in-app messaging. The company has signed up new enterprise customers like AMC, Harley Davidson and Sonos.

This funding was led by Foundry Group (which previously led the company’s Series B), with participation from True Ventures, August Capital, Intel Capital, Verizon Ventures, QuestMark Partners and Franklin Park Associates.

Brett Caine, who joined as CEO in 2014, said Urban Airship is currently breaking even, and he described this as “the first time in the eight years of the company where we’re raising money when we didn’t need it.”

So then why raise again? Caine said he sees “a lot of opportunity to grow and continue to expand globally and certainly look at the broad set of channels emerging in the market.”

“Instead of saying, ‘Oh gosh, we’ve gotta go out and raise money,’ and it was, ‘Let’s raise money to go faster,’” he added.

In addition to the growth of new marketing channels, Caine said growing discussion and regulation around online privacy serve as “wind shifts” in the company’s favor — because Urban Airship is focused on helping marketers use their own data to communicate directly with customers who have opted in to hearing from them.

“We’ve been opt-in, first-party from day one,” Caine said. “All of digital channels that we want to power, they only use first-party data. We don’t do anything with third-party, we don’t do any advertising.”

Urban Airship has now raised more than $100 million in total funding, according to Crunchbase.

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AT&T launches a low-cost live TV streaming service, WatchTV

AT&T this morning announced the launch of a second TV streaming service, called WatchTV, days after its merger with Time Warner. The lower-cost alternative to AT&T’s DirecTV Now will offer anyone – including non-AT&T subscribers – the ability to join WatchTV for only $15 per month. This undercuts newcomer Philo, which in November had introduced the cheapest over-the-top TV service at just $16 per month.

With WatchTV, customers gain access to over 30 live TV channels from top cable networks including A&E, AMC, Animal Planet, CNN, Discovery, Food Network, Hallmark, HGTV, History, IFC, Lifetime, Sundance TV, TBS, TLC, TNT, VICELAND, and several others. (Full list below). Shortly after launch, it will add BET, Comedy Central, MTV2, Nicktoons, Teen Nick, and VH1.

There are also over 15,000 TV shows and movies on demand, along with premium channels and music streaming options as add-ons.

While the new WatchTV service is open to anyone, AT&T is also bundling it into two new unlimited plans for no additional cost.

These plans are the AT&T Unlimited & More Premium plan, and AT&T Unlimited & More plan.

The Premium plan customers will have all the same features of the existing AT&T Unlimited Plus Enhanced Plan, including 15 GB of high-speed tethering, high-quality video and a $15 monthly credit towards DirecTV, U-verse TV, or, AT&T’s other streaming service, DirecTV Now. They can also choose to add-on other options, like HBO, Showtime, Starz, Amazon Music Unlimited, Pandora Premium and VRV, more for an additional fee. Add-ons can only be swapped out once per year.

The regular plan (AT&T Unlimited & More) only offers SD video streams when on AT&T’s network, including when customers are viewing WatchTV. It also includes the $15 monthly credit towards other AT&T video services and up to 4G LTE unlimited data.

The Premium plan costs $80 for a single line after the AutoPay billing credit; or $190 for 4 lines. The regular plan is $70 with the AutoPay billing credit and paperless billing. It’s $5 more per line per month then the current Unlimited Choice Enhanced plan, but when you go up to 4 lines, it works out to the same price as before, $40 per line per month.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson had previously revealed the carrier’s plans for the new low-cost streaming TV service while in court defending the Time Warner merger against anti-trust claims. He used its launch as a point of rebuttal against comments about the high prices for AT&T’s DirecTV satellite service.

The Justice Department was concerned that following the merger, AT&T would raise prices on Time Warner’s HBO and Turner networks, like TNT, TBS and CNN, in order to prop up its own offering. For now, it seems AT&T will just come up with a million different ways to generate revenue from them, by offering different bundles and packages to AT&T customers and other consumers.

The company said today, when announcing the news:

Our merger brings together the elements to fulfill our vision for the future of media and entertainment. We’ll bring a fresh approach to how media and entertainment works for you—including new offerings that integrate content and connectivity.

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Taste test: Burger robot startup Creator opens first restaurant

Creator’s transparent burger robot doesn’t grind your brisket and chuck steak into a gourmet patty until you order it. That’s just one way this startup, formerly known as Momentum Machines, wants to serve the world’s freshest cheesebuger for just $6. On June 27th, after 8 years in development, Creator opens its first robot restaurant. We got a sneak peek…err…taste.

When I ask how a startup launching one eatery at a time could become a $10 billion company, Creator co-founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas looks me dead in the eye and says “the market is much bigger than that.”

Here’s how Creator’s burger-cooking bot works at its 680 Folsom St location in San Francisco. Once you order your burger style through a human concierge on a tablet, a compressed air tube pushes a baked-that-day bun into an elevator on the right. It’s sawwed in half by a vibrating knife before being toasted and buttered as its lowered to conveyor belt. Sauces measured by the milliliter and spices by the gram are automatically squirted onto the bun. Whole pickles, tomatoes, onions, and blocks of nice cheese get slices shaved off just a second before they’re dropped on top.

Meanwhile, the robot grinds hormone-free, pasture-raised brisket and chuck steak to order. But rather than mash them all up, the strands of meat hang vertically and are lightly pressed together. They form a loose but auto-griddleable patty that’s then plopped onto the bun before the whole package slides out of the machine after a total time of about five minutes. The idea is that when you bite into the burger, your teeth align with the vertical strands so instead of requiring harsh chewing it almost melts in your mouth.

The startup’s initial burger options include the classic-style Creator vs. The World with a mole Thousand Island special sauce, the oyster aioli Tumami Burger designed by Chef Tu of Top Chef, The Smoky with charred onion jam, and the sunflower seed tahini Dad Burger from Chef Nick Balla of Bar Tartine.

The taste of each is pretty remarkable. The flavor pops out of all the fresh cut and ground ingredients that lack the preservatives of pre-sliced stuff. The patties hold together as you munch despite being exceedingly tender. And afterwards I felt less of the greasy, gut-bomb, food coma vibe that typically accompanies scarfing down a cheeseburger.

“This is the kind of burger you would get for $12 to $18 [at an upscale restaurant], and it’s $6” says Vardakostas. It might not be the best burger I’ve had in my life, but it’s certainly the best at that price. A lot of that comes from the savings on labor and kitchen space afforded by a robot cook. “We spend more on our ingredients than any other burger restaurant.”

The CEO wouldn’t reveal how much Creator has raised, but says it’s backed by Google’s GV, frequent food startup investor Khosla Ventures, and hardware-focused Root Ventures. However, SEC filings attained by TechCrunch show the startup raised at least $18.3 million in 2017, and sought $6 million more back in 2013.

It’s understandable why. “McDonalds is a $140 billion company. It’s bigger than GM and Tesla combined. McDonalds has 40,000 restaurants. Food is one to the top three biggest markets” Vardakostas rattles off. “But we have a lot of advantages. The average reastaurant is 50 percent bigger in terms of square footage.” Then he motions to his big robot that’s a lot smaller than the backside of most fast-food restauants, and with a smile says “That’s our kitchen. You roll it in and plug it in.”

From Flipping Patties To Studying Physics

Creator co-founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas

What you want in a founder is a superhero origin story. Some formative moment in their life that makes them hellbent on solving a problem. Vardakostas has a pretty convincing tale. “My parents have a burger joint” he reveals. “My job was to make several hundred of the same burger every day. You realize there’s so much opportunity not taken because you don’t have the right tools, and it’s hard work.”

Robots and engineering weren’t even on his radar growing up in the restaurant in southern California. Then, “when I was 15 my dad took me to a book store for the first time. I started reading about physics and realizing that this could be a possibility.” He went on to study physics at UC Santa Barbara, got to work in the garage, and finally drove up to Silicon Valley to machine the first robot prototype’s parts at the famous Silicon Valley TechShop.

That’s when he met his co-founder and COO Steve Frehn. “Steve told me he was from Stanford and I was super intimidated” Vardakostas recalls. But the two had a great working rapport, and a knack for recruiting budding mechanical engineers from the college. Momentum Machines started in 2009, was a full-time garage project by 2010, incorporated and joined Lemnos Labs in 2012, and the startup began to make serious progress by 2014.

In the meantime, other entrepreneurs have tried to find a business in food robots. There was the now-defunct Y Combinator startup Bistrobot that haphazardly spurted liquid peanut butter and Nutella on white bread and called it a sandwich. More recently, Miso Robotics’ burger-flipping arm named Flippy made headlines, even though all it does is flip and cook patties on a traditional griddle. “We have an arm that pulls out the burgers, but that’s probably 5 percent of the complexity” of the full Creator robot run by 350 sensors, 50 actuators, and 20 computers, Vardakostas scoffs.

Breaking Burger Behavior

The CEO’s past in the kitchen keeps Creator in touch with the human element. He tells me he thinks the idea of a staff-less restaurant where you order on a computer sounds “dystopian”. In fact, he wants to give his food service employees access to new careers. Vardakostas says with a sigh that “people look at restaurant work as a charity case, but man, we just need a chance.” Referring to the old Google policy of letting employees try out side projects, he explains how “Tech companies get 10 percent time but no one does that for restaurant workers.”

“Something we got really excited about in 2012 and we’re just starting to excute on is reinventing the job of working in a store like this, where the machine it taking care of the dirty and dangerous work” his co-founder Frehn explains. “We’re playing around with education programs for the staff. 5 percent of the time they’re paid just to read. We’re already doing that. There’s a book budget. We’re paying $16 an hour. As opportunities come up to fix the machine, there’s a path we’re going to offer people as repair or maintenance people to get paid even more.”

One tradition Creator couldn’t escape was french fries. Vardakostas says they’re basically the least healthy thing you can eat, noting they’re “worse than donuts because there’s more surface area exposed to the frier.” But chefs told him some people simply wouldn’t eat a burger without them. Creator’s compromise is that burgers are paired with hearty miniature farro or seasonal veggie salads by default, but you can still opt for a side of frites.

Creator’s fate won’t just be determined by the burger robot and the people that work alongside it. The startup will have to prove to fast food diners that it can be just as quick and cheap but a lot tastier, and that they’re welcome amongst the restaurant’s bougie Pottery Barn decor. At the same time, it must convince more affluent eaters that a cafeteria-style ordering counter and low price don’t mean low quality.

For now, Creator won’t be licensing out its bot or franchising its restaurant, though those could be lucrative. “I don’t want someone putting frozen beef in there or charging way more” says Vardakostas. Instead, the goal is to methodically expand, and maybe take advantage of its petite footprint to move into airport terminals or bus stations. “We want to get out of San Francisco” Frehn confidently concludes. “Our business model is pretty simple. We take a really good burger that people like and sell it for half the price.”

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Intel’s CEO resigns as information about a ‘past consensual relationship’ surfaces

In a press release touting “another record year,” Intel dropped a a bombshell, announcing that CEO Brian Krzanich is resigning, amid revelations of a “past consensual relationship” with an employee.

“Intel was recently informed that Mr. Krzanich had a past consensual relationship with an Intel employee,” the company notes in the release. “An ongoing investigation by internal and external counsel has confirmed a violation of Intel’s non-fraternization policy, which applies to all managers. Given the expectation that all employees will respect Intel’s values and adhere to the company’s code of conduct, the Board has accepted Mr. Krzanich’s resignation.”

Krzanich is stepping down from both the chief executive position and the company’s board of directors half a decade after being appointed to the role. CFO Robert Swan has been named the company’s interim CEO in his stead. Swan has been in the CFO role since late-2016, having previous held the position at both eBay and Electronic Data Systems Corp.

Here’s what he had to say on the matter, “Intel’s transformation to a data-centric company is well under way and our team is producing great products, excellent growth and outstanding financial results. I look forward to Intel continuing to win in the marketplace.”

Meantime, Intel is looking in earnest for a more permanent replacement with both internal and external candidates.

“The Board believes strongly in Intel’s strategy and we are confident in Bob Swan’s ability to lead the company as we conduct a robust search for our next CEO,” Intel Chairman Andy Bryant said in the release. “Bob has been instrumental to the development and execution of Intel’s strategy, and we know the company will continue to smoothly execute. We appreciate Brian’s many contributions to Intel.”

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Uber drivers made more than $600 million in tips in one year

Since finally launching in-app tipping for drivers last year, Uber has facilitated more than $600 million worth of payments in tips to its drivers. In August, Uber hit $50 million in tips.

Since introducing mid-trip ratings and tips in May, there has been a 30 percent increase in tipping, Uber product manager Dhruv Tyagi wrote in a blog post. In April, Lyft announced drivers hit $500 million in tips since its launch, with tip averages increasing by nearly 8 percent in 2017 compared to 2016.

Lyft, of course, is not available in nearly as many markets as Uber. Lyft only operates in the U.S. and Canada, while Uber operates in the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. So, more continents and cities means more opportunities for tipping.

Uber drivers make the most tips in Salt Lake City, Utah, San Antonio, Texas, Kansas City, Mo, New Orleans, La. and Nashville, Tenn. When Lyft ran its numbers, it found riders are most generous in New York City, Atlanta, Ga., Detroit, Mich., Dallas, Tx., San Jose, Calif., Minneapolis, Minn. and Westchester County, NY.

In terms of popular times to tip, people tip the most on Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they tip the most at 8:12pm on Thursday, 10:33pm on Saturday and 5:17am on Sunday.

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Twitter acquires anti-abuse technology provider Smyte

Twitter this morning announced it has agreed to buy San Francisco-based technology company Smyte, which describes itself as “trust and safety as a service.” Founded in 2014 by former Google and Instagram engineers, Smyte offers tools to stop online abuse, harassment, and spam, and protect user accounts.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but this is Twitter’s first acquisition since buying consumer mobile startup Yes, Inc. back in December 2016

Online harassment has been of particular concern to Twitter in recent months, as the level of online discourse across the web has become increasingly hate-filled and abusive. The company has attempted to combat this problem with new policies focused on the reduction of hate speech, violent threats, and harassment on its platform, but it’s fair to say that problem is nowhere near solved.

As anyone who uses Twitter will tell you, the site continues to be filled with trolls, abusers, bots, and scams – and especially crypto scams, as of late.

This is where Smyte’s technology – and its team – could help.

The company was founded by engineers with backgrounds in spam, fraud and security.

Smyte CEO Pete Hunt previously led Instagram’s web team, built Instagram’s business analytics products, and helped to open source Facebook’s React.js; co-founder Julian Tempelsman worked on Gmail’s spam and abuse team, and before that Google Wallet’s anti-fraud team and the Google Drive anti-abuse team; and co-founder Josh Yudaken was a member of Instagram’s core infrastructure team.

The startup launched out of Y Combinator in 2015, with a focus on preventing online fraud.

Today, its solutions are capable of stopping all sorts of unwanted online behavior, including phishing, spam, fake accounts, cyberbullying, hate speech and trolling, the company’s website claims.

Smyte offer customers access to its technology via a REST API, or it can pull data directly from its customer’s app or data warehouse to analyze. Smyte would then import the existing rules, and use machine learning to create new rules and other machine learning models suited to the business’s specific needs.

The customers data scientists could also use Smyte to deploy (but not train) their own custom machine learning models, too.

Smyte’s system includes a dashboard where analysts can surface emerging trends in real-time, as well as conduct manual reviews of individual entities or clusters of related entities and take bulk actions.

Non-technical analysts could use Smyte to create custom rules tested on historical data, then roll them out to production and watch how they perform in real-time.

For Twitter, the use case for Smyte is obvious – its technology will be integrated with Twitter itself and its backend systems for monitoring and managing reports of abuse, while also taking aim at bots, scammers and a number of other threats today’s social networks typically face.

Of course, combatting abuse and bullying will remain Twitter’s most pressing area of concern – especially as it’s the place where President Trump tweets, and the daily news is reported and discussed (and angrily fought about).

But Twitter could use some help with its troll and bot problem, too. The company, along with Facebook, was home to Russian propaganda during the 2016 U.S presidential election. In January, Twitter notified at least 1.4 million users they saw content created by Russian trolls; it also was found  to have hosted roughly 50,000 Russian bots tweeting election-related content in November 2016.

Presumably, Smyte’s technology could help weed out some of these bad actors, if it works as well as described.

Twitter didn’t provide much detail as to how, specifically, it plans to put Smyte’s technology to use.

Instead, the company largely touted the team’s expertise and the “proactive” nature of Smyte’s anti-abuse systems, in today’s announcement:

From ensuring safety and security at some of the world’s largest companies to specialized domain expertise, Smyte’s years of experience with these issues brings valuable insight to our team. The Smyte team has dealt with many unique issues facing online safety and believes in the same proactive approach that we’re taking for Twitter: stopping abusive behavior before it impacts anyone’s experience. We can’t wait until they join our team to help us make changes that will further improve the health of the public conversation.

According to Smyte’s website, the company has a number of high-profile clients, including Indiegogo, GoFundMe, npm, Musical.ly, TaskRabbit, Meetup, OLX, ThredUp, YouNow, 99 Designs, Carousell, and Zendesk.

Twitter tells us that Smyte will wind down its operations with those customers – it didn’t acquire Smyte for its revenue-generation potential, but rather for its talent and IP.

 

LinkedIn reports there are only a couple dozen employees at Smyte today, including the founders. But Smtye’s own website lists just nineteen. Twitter wouldn’t confirm Smtye’s current headcount but says it’s working to find positions for all.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Smyte had raised $6.3 million in funding from Y Combinator, Baseline Ventures, Founder Collective, Upside Partnership, Avalon Ventures, and Harrison Metal, according to Crunchbase.

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