National security journalism just became a national security threat

Six years ago, British intelligence officers walked into the offices of The Guardian newspaper in London and demanded its staff destroy computers they believed stored highly classified documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In the basement of the newspaper’s offices, editors used angle-grinders and drills to destroy the computers in an effort to render its data unusable after “weeks of tense negotiations” between the newspaper and the British government, which faced pressure from U.S. authorities to return the leaked top secret documents. The U.S. and Britain are close intelligence sharing partners. Despite the fact that there were several copies of the NSA documents — including in the U.S — the newspaper faced a threat of punitive legal action or prosecution if they declined.

“The only way of protecting the Guardian’s team was for the paper to destroy its own computers,” said Luke Harding, a Guardian journalist.

In the years of citing this case in why press freedoms are so important, the Americans always respond: “Wait, that happened?”

The Guardian’s situation would never happen in the U.S. It’s not uncommon for national security reporters to obtain classified information or rely on government employees providing secret information, particularly to uncover abuses of power or the law. As the only named profession in the U.S. constitution, the U.S. press is a shining example of holding the powers to account no matter what.

But the most recent charges laid against Julian Assange has put those press freedoms under threat.

Julian Assange, widely regarded as a liar, a proponent of misinformation, and loathed by many for generally being a shitbag, has been defended by some of his biggest critics since the latest round of charges were announced against him.

Assange last week became the first person to be charged for publishing classified information under the Espionage Act, a law that predates the Great Depression by an entire decade, and used to prosecute foreign spies and government whistleblowers.

“This is exactly what national security reporters and their news publications often ask government officials or contractors to do,” said Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School and former government lawyer, in a post on Lawfare.

In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve done. In 2017, following the fifth security lapse at NSA in as many years, I obtained and published classified documents relating to the government’s Ragtime program and the Red Disk intelligence sharing platform. While it’s not unheard of for reporters to face government investigations for doing their jobs, not a single journalist has been charged for obtaining or publishing classified information in the past hundred years since the Espionage Act became law.

It’s no surprise that the indictment has rattled news organizations and reporters, who have published classified information like off-grid torture sites and global government surveillance provided by anonymous sources and whistleblowers, for fear they may also suffer a similar prosecution.

Washington Post editor Marty Baron said in a statement: “Dating as far back as the Pentagon Papers case and beyond, journalists have been receiving and reporting on information that the government deemed classified. Wrongdoing and abuse of power were exposed. With the new indictment of Julian Assange, the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy and undermines the very purpose of the First Amendment.”

Assange, through WikiLeaks, published numerous troves of highly classified diplomatic cables and military videos showing the killing of civilians including a Reuters camera crew, provided by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was herself charged under the act and imprisoned before her sentence was later commuted. The government’s latest indictment accused Assange of publishing “unredacted names of human sources,” which “risked serious harm to United States national security.”

Some of Assange’s most vocal critics have said the U.S. is prosecuting Assange for “the last good thing he did”. Since his publications, Assange has sullied his own name and reputation, not least by working with Russia to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by releasing embarrassing stolen emails.

The Justice Department said Assange is “no journalist.” But the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and press freedoms, doesn’t distinguish between whether someone is a journalist or not.

“The First Amendment gives journalists no special rights,” says national security lawyer Elizabeth Goitein. in a Washington Post op-ed. “In prohibiting abridgments of ‘the freedom of speech, or of the press,’ it gives equal protection to those who speak, those who write, those who report, and those who publish.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether Assange is a journalist or not.

Under U.S. law, all — regardless of whether a person is a reporter or not — are protected by the same freedoms. With a successful prosecution of Assange, there’s nothing stopping the U.S. government from laying charges against any other American — journalist or otherwise — for receiving and publishing classified information.

“This is not about Julian Assange,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, a prominent lawmaker and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “This is about the use of the Espionage Act to charge a recipient and publisher of classified information.”

“Assange’s case could set a dangerous precedent with regard to the kinds of activities that the First Amendment does not protect — a precedent that could chill even the most careful, skilled professional journalists from pursuing stories involving national security secrets,” said Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, in an op-ed.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the Obama administration considered bringing charges against Assange years ago but was concerned that the charges would prosecute conduct “too similar” to that of reporters at established news organizations.

But now that the Trump administration has brought charges against Assange, journalists once branded by the president the “enemy of the people” could soon be treated as enemies of the state.


Source: Tech Crunch

These ‘microbe-grown’ headphones could be the future of sustainable electronics

The culture of planned obsolescence in electronics produces a huge amount of toxic waste unlikely to go anywhere but a landfill for the next millennium or so. Nature produces some of the strongest and most versatile substances we’ve ever encountered, so why not use them instead? That’s what Finnish design house Aivan has attempted with this concept pair of headphones made from fungus, bioplastics, and other natural materials.

The idea was to replace everything they could with naturally-derived materials, of which there’s a great variety — but some can be a bit difficult to get your hands on.

As Dezeen reports, the Korvaa headset, everything you see here is natural in origin, although that doesn’t mean they just picked it up in the forest.

The main structure of the headphones is 3D-printed, using a bioplastic created as a byproduct of yeast processing lactic acid. The polylactic acid polymer is strong but flexible enough to be used as the crown and cup shell.

The padded earpieces are made from a protein known as hydrophobin that, like artificial foam, is made up of many tiny bubbles — but these are produced by a fungus and reinforced with plant cellulose. They’re covered with mycelium, another fungus-derived material that’s leathery and flexible.

And on top of those would be a mesh created by spinning out synthetic spider silk — something Bolt Threads is trying to do at scale for ordinary garments.

To be clear, these headphones don’t work — they’re just a prototype or concept product right now. But the point wasn’t to create a fully functioning replacement for your existing headphones. Rather the idea is to show that those headphones don’t need to be made, as they are now, entirely of non-biodegradable materials.

“This was certainly only a surface scratch into where biology-engineered materials are going, and what we can do with them in the future,” one of the group’s designers, Thomas Tallqvist, told Dezeen.

The headphones will be on display at a couple design shows in Finland — here’s hoping someone from Audio Technica or Sennheiser drops by and gets inspired.


Source: Tech Crunch

Traffic on Memorial Day: Here’s what 37.6 million road trippers can expect

How, and if, people travel on Memorial Day weekend can provide a fleeting glimpse at the state of the U.S. economy, or at least provide insight into consumer confidence. The upshot this year: a near record-setting travel despite a rising national gas price.

Nearly 43 million Americans were expected to travel in cars, trains and planes over the long weekend — 1.5 million more than the previous year, according to AAA and Inrix, a global transportation company that aggregates and analyzes traffic data collected from vehicles and highway infrastructure.

That’s the second-highest travel volume on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel volumes dating back to 2000, trailing only the bar set in 2005. Orlando, Florida is predicted to be the top travel destination this Memorial Day weekend, followed by New York, Las Vegas, Honolulu and Disneyland’s home Anaheim, California.

“Americans are eagerly anticipating the start of summer, and higher gas prices won’t keep them home this Memorial Day weekend,” Paula Twidale, vice president, AAA Travel said in a statement. “Consumer spending remains strong, helped by solid job and income growth. Families continue to prioritize spending their disposable incomes on travel, and near-record numbers of them are looking forward to doing just that for Memorial Day.”

The majority of those, about 37.6 million, will be traveling by car, translating into travel delays on major roads that could be more than three times longer than normal during evening commutes, according to Inrix.

Inrix and AAA predicted drivers would experience the greatest amount of traffic congestion on Thursday and Friday. But even though those soul-crushing traffic jams are now in the rearview mirror, it’s not all clear roads ahead. People do have to get back home, after all.

Major U.S. cities such as Boston and Washington D.C. are expected to experience triple the travel times on Monday compared to a normal trip.

There is a cost to this kind of traffic congestion. The U.S. Travel Association released a survey Wednesday that found that Americans avoided an estimated 47.5 million auto trips due to highway congestion in 2018. That cost the economy $30 billion in travel spending and 248,000 American jobs, according to the organization’s economists.

The survey also found that for each additional hour that traffic adds to a weekend car trip, travel demand drops by an average of about 18 percent.


Source: Tech Crunch

As the term ‘unicorn’ goes broke from overuse, what’s actually rare?

On Wednesday a few unicorns were born. You’ve already forgotten their names if you learned them at all (Tip: It was Marqeta and Ivalua.)

Don’t worry, I’m not cross with you. It’s merely that there are so many unicorns in the market today — they stampede by the hundred in 2019 — that they are impossible to keep tabs on.

In fact, so many firms now make the cut that we’ve gotten into the habit of torturing the word “unicorn” to mean more than what it was originally tasked to describe. As we wrote recently, there are undercorns now, and decacorns. Toss in minotaurs and horses and the inevitable centacorns and see, we’re all bored.

Paraphrasing Asimov, successive shocks lead to decreasing impact. So has the phrase unicorn lost all meaning. As I joked the other day, it now mostly means “middle-aged startup.” Even our redefinition of the word “startup” allowed for firms to be worth several billion and still claim the title, though that might have been an error.

In today’s world of super- and hypergiant rounds, it’s not impossible to put together a unicorn. And people sure are doing it.

So, now what

“Unicorn” is now only useful as a valuation-descriptor. It no longer implies something rare.

So, what we need is either a redefinition of a unicorn to make it rarer… or, we need an entirely new concept. Regardless of if we change up what “unicorn” itself means, or invent a new word, it has become clear what we need to add to the mix to really tease out the exceptional companies from the merely very good.

Profits.

Zoom, before its IPO, was profitable and growing like hellTransferWise, we recently learned, is profitable and growing as well. Can you name another company worth $1 billion or more that is growing and profitable? I can’t. That means they are rare.

TechCrunch’s Kate Clark and I chatted about this on Equity, and this was our general point of agreement (her tweet here). Profit is what really makes you rare. Not just a high valuation. There’s enough money flying around to print the latter by the dozen. Earning the former? Now’s that’s legendary and hard to find.

Just like a unicorn.


Source: Tech Crunch

Fiat Chrysler-Renault tie up: What the maker of Jeep could gain

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Renault are reportedly in talks that could result in merging vast swaths of their businesses, a move that illustrates the growing desire among automakers to consolidate in an environment of increased regulatory pressure, sales declines and rising costs aimed at bringing next-generation technologies like self-driving cars to market.

Bloomberg, Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal have reported on talks of a tie up that could result in Fiat Chrysler eventually becoming part of the Renault-Nissan Motor alliance. For now, the deal doesn’t include Nissan, according to Bloomberg.

FCA declined to comment.

Fiat Chrysler is best known in U.S. for the company behind the Jeep and Ram trucks. Its business is far larger. Fiat, which has a market value of $20 billion, is also one of Italy’s oldest companies and owns brands like Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia, and Maserati .

Fiat acquired a stake in Chrysler in 2009. The FCA people know today — which employs nearly 200,000 people — was created when the companies merged in 2014.

It’s unclear what deal between FCA and Renault might entail. Some of those details might emerge as early as Monday when Renault’s board meets.

What’s the upshot for Fiat Chrysler? The automaker, which also owns automotive parts business Mopar, has an unbalanced business. Nearly one-third of its employees are in Europe. And yet, most of its profits are derived from the North America market. Such a tie-up could produce considerable cost savings in Europe.

Those cost savings will come in handy if there’s a downturn in sales — a reality that other automakers like GM and Ford are already preparing for. And it allows the company to potentially collaborate or share costs on the expensive endeavor of bringing new technologies to market such as electrification and autonomous vehicles.

FCA, which operates 46 research and development centers, has invested in advanced driver assistance systems like its highway assist feature offered in its Maserati brand. But it has also relied on partnerships such as the one with self-driving vehicle company Waymo .

Last year, the company announced an expanded partnership with Waymo that will add up to 62,000 more Chrysler  Pacifica minivans to Waymo’s self-driving car fleet. The two companies are also working on ways to license Waymo’s self-driving car technology in order to deploy the tech in cars for consumers.


Source: Tech Crunch

To realize its VR dreams, Facebook needs to kill what Oculus has built

Mark Zuckerberg has poured billions into his virtual reality dream, a new platform that Facebook owns.

Facebook bought Oculus and has spent the last five years killing what it was and reinventing it as a Facebook-scale company. It has dumped most of the co-founders, brought in Zuck loyalists to take over the most important decisions and shifted towards accessibility over appeasing the company’s early supporters.

Facebook’s latest release is the realization of all that.

The company’s Quest product, which they released on Tuesday, offers a streamlined version of high-end virtual reality while leveraging time-honed software to make the process of getting up-and-running immeasurably easier. It’s probably the best VR product that’s been built yet, and one that has the mainstream firmly in view.

Facebook needs to lean in on the new device and move away from what got it there.

With past VR releases, there’s always been a key technology to blame or a key feature that was missing, but if the Oculus Quest fails, Facebook may just have to consider that the whole product category doesn’t hold the mass appeal it hoped for. Of more immediate concern should be why they’re maintaining such a differentiated product line in in pursuit of the mainstream when the Quest is largely alone in appealing to the mainstream customer that they actually want.

As the closing of the Oculus acquisition approaches its fifth birthday, one wonders where Facebook’s 10-year-plan for virtual reality begins to show some signs of critical success. Even as the company has built up a niche group of VR gamers and shipped millions of headsets, the company is still grappling with coaxing a mass audience and recouping what it’s invested.

Whether or not the Quest succeeds, you can only wonder how they’ll aim to streamline their current product line as the blank checks from Facebook start running out.

The underpowered $199 Go proved to be a nice piece of hardware for the price, but the year-old system is still ultimately a very forgettable introduction to the medium for new users. How much does Oculus gain from growing the user base of a product that’s best use case is watching Netflix in isolation? Samsung and Oculus made such a concerted push with the Gear VR, throwing free headsets at users, but ultimately developers aren’t investing in these platforms and that’s only going to grow more true.

Meanwhile the company’s bread-and-butter PC-based headset line could have a murky future as well. The latest Rift S which also launched this week to lesser fanfare is basically a lateral move for Oculus and suggests that the company likely isn’t willing to push boundaries on the high-end while it aims to gain its footing in the mainstream. Whether the Quest succeeds or fails, I would not be surprised to see the company fade the high-end into its standalone line over time. The PC will always drive the most high-end experiences, but it’s no place to stake a platform that still needs to prove itself.

Maintaining three distinct product lines isn’t just expensive from a hardware R&D point-of-view, it vastly complicates the company’s relationship with the developers its backing to build stuff that’s worth playing. The economics for VR game developers is already dodgy at best, if Oculus has determined that PC isn’t somewhere it wants to innovate with hardware it should just let the product class run its course and prioritize using the latest mobile chipsets in future standalone releases.

Oculus is a large org, but it’s more redundant than a company setting the stage for a new platform can afford to be. Facing its prolonged degradation, Nintendo reshaped its mobile and home consoles into a single product. Oculus needs to do the same, and they already have.

In 2014, Facebook bought a company that was promising to shape the future of VR by kickstarting it. Appealing to the high-end earned it millions of passionate early users on PC and millions of mobile users that gained an early taste of the platform. As Facebook has absorbed Oculus deeper into its org structure and promoted its own vision for creating a mass audience, the company has created something great with the Quest, perhaps something worth killing the product lines that got it there.


Source: Tech Crunch

This is one smart device that every urban home could use

Living in a dense urban environment brings many startup-fuelled conveniences, be it near instant delivery of food — or pretty much whatever else you fancy — to a whole range of wheels that can be hopped on (or into) to whisk you around at the tap of an app.

But the biggest problem afflicting city dwellers is not some minor inconvenience. It’s bad, poor, terrible, horrible, unhealthy air. And there’s no app to fix that.

Nor can hardware solve this problem. But smart hardware can at least help.

For about a month I’ve been road-testing a wi-fi connected air purifier made by Swedish company, Blueair. It uses an Hepa filtration system combined with integrated air quality sensors to provide real-time in-app feedback which can be reassuring or alert you to unseen problems.

Flip to the bottom of this article for a speed take or continue reading for the full review of the Blueair Classic 480i with dual filters to reduce dust, smoke and pollen   

Review

If you’re even vaguely environmentally aware it’s fascinating and not a little horrifying to see how variable the air quality is inside your home. Everyday stuff like cooking, cleaning and changing the sheets can cause drastic swings in PM 2.5 and tVOC levels. Aka very small particles such as fine dust, smoke, odours and mite feces; and total volatile organic compounds, which refers to hundreds of different gases emitted by certain solids and liquids — including stuff humans breathe out by also harmful VOCs like formaldehyde.

What you learn from smart hardware can be not just informative but instructive. For instance I’ve switched to a less dusty cat litter after seeing how quickly the machine’s fan stepped up a gear after clearing the litter tray. I also have a new depth of understanding of quite how much pollution finds its way into my apartment when the upstairs neighbour is having a rooftop BBQ. Which makes it doubly offensive I wasn’t invited.

Though, I must admit, I’ve yet to figure out a diplomatic way to convince him to rethink his regular cook-out sessions. Again, some problems can’t be fixed by apps. Meanwhile city life means we’re all, to a greater or lesser degree, adding to the collectively polluted atmosphere. Changing that requires new politics.

You cannot hermetically seal your home against outdoor air pollution. It wouldn’t make for a healthy environment either. Indoor spaces must be properly ventilated. Adequate ventilation is also of course necessary to control moisture levels to prevent other nasty issues like mould. And using this device I’ve watched as opening a window almost instantly reduced tVOC levels.

Pretty much every city resident is affected by air pollution, to some degree. And it’s a heck of a lot harder to switch your home than change your brand of cat litter. But even on that far less fixable front, having an air quality sensor indoors can be really useful — to help you figure out the best (and worst) times to air out the house. I certainly won’t be opening the balcony doors on a busy Saturday afternoon any time soon, for example.

Blueair sells a range of air purifiers. The model I’ve been testing, the Blueair Classic 480i, is large enough to filter a room of up to 40m2. It includes filters capable of filtering both particulate matter and traffic fumes (aka its “SmokeStop” filter). The latter was important for me, given I live near a pretty busy road. But the model can be bought with just a particle filter if you prefer. The dual filtration model I’m testing is priced at €725 for EU buyers.

Point number one is that if you’re serious about improving indoor air quality the size of an air purifier really does matter. You need a device with a fan that’s powerful enough to cycle all the air in the room in a reasonable timeframe. (Blueair promises five air changes per hour for this model, per the correct room size).

So while smaller air filter devices might look cute, if a desktop is all the space you can stretch to you’d probably be better off getting a few pot plants.

Blueair’s hardware also has software in the mix too, of course. The companion Blueair Friend app serves up the real-time feedback on both indoor air quality and out. The latter via a third party service whose provider can vary depending on your location. Where I live in Europe it’s powered by BreezoMeter.

This is a handy addition for getting the bigger picture. If you find you have stubbornly bad air quality levels indoors and really can’t figure out why, most often a quick tab switch will confirm local pollution levels are indeed awful right now. It’s likely not just you but the whole neighbourhood suffering.

Dirty cities 

From Asia to America the burning of fossil fuels has consequences for air quality and health that are usually especially pronounced in dense urban environments where humans increasingly live. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas — with the UN predicting this will grow to around 70% by 2050.

In Europe, this is already true for more than 70% of the population which makes air pollution a major concern in many regional cities.

Growing awareness of the problem is beginning to lead to policy interventions — such as London’s ultra low emission charging zone and car free Sundays one day a month in Paris’ city center. But EU citizens are still, all too often, stuck sucking in unhealthy air.

 

Last year six EU nations, including the UK, France and Germany, were referred to the highest court in Europe for failing to tackle air pollution — including illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide produced by diesel-powered vehicles.

Around one in eight EU citizens who live in an urban area is exposed to air pollutant levels that exceed one or more of the region’s air quality standards, according to a briefing note published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) last year.

It also said up to 96% of EU urban citizens are exposed to levels of one or more air pollutants deemed damaging to health when measured against the World Health Organization’s more stringent guidelines.

There are multiple and sometimes interlinked factors impacting air quality in urban environments. Traffic fumes is a very big one. But changes in meteorological conditions due to climate change are also expected to increase certain concentrations of air pollutants. While emissions from wildfires is another problem exacerbated by drought conditions which are linked to climate change that can also degrade air quality in nearby cities.

Action to tackle climate change continues to lag far behind what’s needed to put a check on global warming. Even as far too little is still being done in most urban regions to reduce vehicular emissions at a local level.

In short, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon — and all too often air quality is still getting worse.

At the same time health risks from air pollution are omnipresent and can be especially dangerous for children. A landmark global study of the impact of traffic fumes on childhood asthma, published recently in the Lancet, estimates that four million children develop the condition every year primarily as a result of nitrogen dioxide air pollution emitted by vehicles.

The majority (64%) of these new cases were found to occur in urban centres — increasing to 90% when factoring in surrounding suburban areas.

The study also found that damage caused by air pollution is not limited to the most highly polluted cities in China and India. “Many high-income countries have high NO2 exposures, especially those in North America, western Europe, and Asia Pacific,” it notes.

The long and short of all this is that cities the world over are going to need to get radically great at managing air quality — especially traffic emissions — and fast. But, in the meanwhile, city dwellers who can’t or don’t want to quit the bright lights are stuck breathing dirty air. So it’s easy to imagine consumer demand growing for in-home devices that can sense and filter pollutants as urbanities try to find ways to balance living in a city with reducing their exposure to the bad stuff.

Cleaner air

That’s not to say that any commercial air purifier will be able to provide a complete fix. The overarching problem of air pollution is far too big and bad for that. A true fix would demand radical policy interventions, such as removing all polluting vehicles from urban living spaces. (And there’s precious little sign of anything so radical on the horizon.)

But at least at an individual home level, a large air purifier with decent filtration technology should reduce your exposure to pollution in the place you likely spend the most time.

If, as the Blueair Classic 480i model does, the filtration device also includes embedded sensors to give real-time feedback on air quality it can further help you manage pollution risk — by providing data so you can better understand the risks in and around your home and make better decisions about, for instance, when to open a window.

“Air quality does always change,” admits Blueair’s chief product officer, Jonas Holst, when we chat. “We cannot promise to our consumers that you will always have super, super, clean air. But we can promise to consumers that you will always have a lot cleaner air by having our product — because it depends on what happens around you. In the outdoor, by your neighbours, if you’re cooking, what your cat does or something. All of those things impact air quality.

“But by having high speeds, thanks to the HepaSilent technology that we use, we can make sure that we always constantly fight that bombardment of pollutants.”

On the technology front, Blueair is using established filtration technology — Hepa and active carbon filters to remove particular matter and gaseous pollutants — but with an ionizing twist (which it brands ‘HepaSilent’).

This involves applying mechanical and electrostatic filtration in combination to enhance performance of the air purifier without boosting noise levels or requiring large amounts of energy to run. Holst dubs it one of the “core strengths” of the Blueair product line.

“Mechanical filtration just means a filter [plus a fan to draw the air through it]. We have a filter but by using the ionization chamber we have inside the product we can boost the performance of the filter without making it very, very dense. And by doing that we can let more air through the product and simply then clean more air faster,” he explains.

“It’s also something that is constantly being developed,” he adds of the firm’s Hepa + ionizing technology, which it’s been developing in its products for some 20 years. “We have had many developments of this technology since but the base technical structure is there in the combination between a mechanical and electrostatical filtration. That is what allows us to have less noise and less energy because the fan doesn’t work as hard.”

On top of that, in the model I’m testing, Blueair has embedded air quality sensors — which connect via wi-fi to the companion app where the curious user can see real-time plots of things like PM 2.5 and tVOC levels, and start to join the dots between what’s going on in their home and what the machine is sniffing out.

The sensors mean the unit can step up and down the fan speed and filtration level automatically in response to pollution spikes (you can choose it to trigger on particulate matter only, or PM 2.5 and tVOC gaseous compounds, or turn automation off altogether). So if you’re really not at all curious that’s okay too. You can just plug it in, hook it to the wi-fi and let it work.

Sound, energy and sensing smarts in a big package

To give a ballpark of energy consumption for this model, Holst says the Blueair Classic 480i consumes “approximately” the same amount of energy as running a lightbulb — assuming it’s running mostly on lower fan speeds.

As and when the fan steps up in response to a spike in levels of potential pollutants he admits it will consume “a little bit more” energy.

The official specs list the model’s energy consumption at between 15-90 watts.

On the noise front it’s extremely quiet when on the lowest fan setting. To the point of being barely noticeable. You can sleep in the same room and certainly won’t be kept awake.

You will notice when the fan switches up to the second or, especially, the third (max) speed — where it can hit 52 dB(A)). The latter’s rushing air sounds are discernible from a distance, even in another room. But you hopefully won’t be stuck listening to level 3 fan noise for too long, unless you live in a really polluted place. Or, well, unless you run into an algorithmic malfunction (more on that below).

As noted earlier, the unit’s smart sensing capabilities mean fan speed can be set to automatically adjust in response to changing pollution levels — which is obviously the most useful mode to use since you won’t need to keep checking in to see whether or not the air is clean.

You can manually override the automation and fix/switch the fan at a speed of your choice via the app. And as I found there are scenarios where an override is essential. Which we’ll get to shortly.

The unit I was testing, a model that’s around two years old, arrived with instructions to let it run for a week without unplugging so that the machine learning algorithms could configure to local conditions and offer a more accurate read on gases and particles. Holst told us that the U.S. version of the 480i is  “slightly updated” — and, as such, this learning process has been eliminated. So you should be able to just plug it in and get the most accurate reads right away. 

The company recommends changing the filters every six months to “ensure performance”, or more if you live in a very polluted area. The companion app tracks days (estimated) remaining running time in the form of a days left countdown.

Looks wise, there’s no getting around the Blueair Classic 480i is a big device. Think ‘bedside table’ big.

You’re not going to miss it in your room and it does need a bigger footprint of free space around it so as not to block the air intake and outlet. Something in the region of ~80x60cm. Its lozenge shape helps by ensuring no awkward corners and with finding somewhere it can be parked parallel but not too close to a wall.

There’s not much more to say about the design of this particular model except that it’s thoughtful. The unit has a minimalist look which avoids coming across too much like a piece of ugly office furniture. While its white and gun metal grey hues plus curved flanks help it blend into the background. I haven’t found it to be an eyesore.

A neat flip up lid hides a set of basic physical controls. But once you’ve done the wi-fi set-up and linked it to the companion app you may never need to use these buttons as everything can be controlled in the app.

Real-time pollution levels at your fingertips

Warning: This app can be addictive! For weeks after installing the unit it was almost impossible to resist constantly checking the pollution levels. Mostly because it was fascinating to watch how domestic activity could send one or other level spiking or falling.

As well as PM 2.5 and tVOC pollutants this model tracks temperature and humidity levels. It offers day, week and monthly plots for everything it tracks.

The day view is definitely the most addictive — as it’s where you see instant changes and can try to understand what’s triggering what. So you can literally join the dots between, for example, hearing a street sweeper below your window and watching a rise in PM 2.5 levels in the app right after. Erk!

Though don’t expect a more detailed breakdown of the two pollutant categories; it’s an aggregated mix in both cases. (And some of the gases that make up the tVOC mix aren’t harmful.)

The month tab gives a longer overview which can be handy to spot regular pollution patterns (though the view is a little cramped on less phablet-y smartphone screens).

While week view offers a more recent snapshot if you’re trying to get a sense of your average pollution exposure over a shorter time frame.

That was one feature I thought the app could have calculated for you. But, equally, more granular quantification might risk over-egging the pudding. It would also risk being mislead if the sensor accuracy fails on you. The overarching problem with pollution exposure is that, sadly, there’s only so much an individual can do to reduce it. So it probably makes sense not to calculate your pollution exposure score.

The app could certainly provide more detail than it does but Holst told us the aim is to offer enough info to people who are interested without it being overwhelming. He also said many customers just want to plug it in and let it work, not be checking out daily charts. (Though if you’re geeky you will of course want the data.)

It’s clear there is lots of simplification going, as you’d expect with this being a consumer device, not a scientific instrument. I found the Blueair app satisfied my surface curiosity while seeing ways its utility could be extended with more features. But in the end I get that it’s designed to be an air-suck, not a time-suck, so I do think they’ve got the balance there pretty much right.

There are enough real-time signals to be able to link specific activities/events with changes in air quality. So you can literally watch as the tVOC level drops when you open a window. (Or rises if your neighbor is BBQing… ). And I very quickly learnt that opening a window will (usually) lower tVOC but send PM 2.5 rising — at least where I live in a dusty, polluted city. So, again, cleaner air is all you should expect.

Using the app you can try and figure out, for instance, optimal ventilation timings. I also found having the real-time info gave me a new appreciation for heavy rain — which seemed to be really great for clearing dust out of the air, frequently translating into “excellent” levels of PM 2.5 in the app for a while after.

Here are a few examples of how the sensors reacted to different events — and what the reaction suggests…

Cleaning products can temporarily spike tVOC levels:

 

Changing bed sheets can also look pretty disturbing…   

 

An evening BBQ on a nearby roof terrace appears much, much worse though:

 

And opening the balcony door to the street on a busy Saturday afternoon is just… insane… 

 

Uh-oh, algorithm malfunction…

After a few minutes of leaving the balcony door open one fateful Saturday afternoon, which almost instantly sent the unit into max fan speed overdrive, I was surprised to find the fan still blasting away an hour later, and then three hours later, and at bedtime, and in the morning. By which point I thought something really didn’t seem right.

The read from the app showed the pollution level had dropped down from the very high spike but it was still being rated as ‘polluted’ — a level which keeps the fan at the top speed. So I started to suspect something had misfired.

This is where being able to switch to manual is essential — meaning I could override the algorithm’s conviction that the air was really bad and dial the fan down to a lower setting.

That override provided a temporary ‘fix’ but the unnaturally elevated ‘pollution’ read continued for the best part of a week. This made it look like the whole sensing capacity had broken. And without the ability to automatically adapt to changing pollution levels the smart air purifier was now suddenly dumb…

 

It turned out Blueair has a fix for this sort of algorithmic malfunction. Though it’s not quick.

After explaining the issue to the company, laying out my suspicion that the sensors weren’t reading correctly, it told me the algorithms are programmed to respond to this type of situation by reseting around seven days after the event, assuming the read accuracy hasn’t already corrected itself by then.

Sure enough, almost a week later that’s exactly what happened. Though I couldn’t find anything to explain this might happen in the user manual, so it would be helpful if they include it in a troubleshooting section.

Here’s the month view showing the crazy PM 2.5 spike; the elevated extended (false) reading; then the correction; followed finally by (relatively) normal service…

 

For a while after this incident the algorithms also seemed overly sensitive — and I had to step in again several times to override the top gear setting as its read on pollution levels was back into the yellow without an obvious reason why.

When the level reads ‘polluted’ it automatically triggers the highest fan speed. Paradoxically, this sometimes seems to have the self-defeating effect of appearing to draw dust up into the air — thereby keeping the PM 2.5 level elevated. So at times manually lowering the fan when it’s only slightly polluted can reduce pollution levels quicker than just letting it blast away. Which is one product niggle.

When viewed in the app the sustained elevated pollution level did look pretty obviously wrong — to the human brain at least. So, like every ‘smart’ device, this one also benefits from having human logic involved to complete the loop.

Concluding thoughts after a month’s use

A few weeks on from the first algorithm malfunction the unit’s sensing capacity at first appeared to have stabilized — in that it was back to the not-so-hair-trigger-sensitivity that had been the case prior to balcony-door-gate.

For a while it seemed less prone to have a sustained freak out over relatively minor domestic activities like lifting clean sheets out of the cupboard, as if it had clicked into a smoother operating grove. Though I remained wary of trying the full bore Saturday balcony door.

I thought this period of relative tranquility might signal improved measurement accuracy, the learning algos having been through not just an initial training cycle but a major malfunction plus correction. Though of course there was no way to be sure.

It’s possible there had also been a genuine improvement in indoor air quality — i.e. as a consequence of, for example, better ventilation habits and avoiding key pollution triggers because I now have real-time air quality feedback to act on so can be smarter about when to open windows, where to shake sheets, which type of cat litter to buy and so on.

It’s a reassuring idea. Though one that requires putting your faith in algorithms that are demonstrably far from perfect. Even when they’re functioning they’re a simplification and approximation of what’s really going on. And when they fail, well, they are clearly getting it totally wrong.

Almost bang on the month mark of testing there was suddenly another crazy high PM 2.5 spike.

One rainy afternoon the read surged from ‘good’ to ‘highly polluted’ without any real explanation. I had opened a patio on the other side of the apartment but it does not open onto a street. This time the reading stuck at 400 even with the fan going full blast. So it looked like an even more major algorithm crash…

Really clean air is impossible to mistake. Take a walk in the mountains far from civilization and your lungs will thank you. But cleaner air is harder for humans to quantify. Yet, increasingly, we do need to know how clean or otherwise the stuff we’re breathing is, as more of us are packed into cities exposed to each others’ fumes — and because the harmful health impacts of pollution are increasingly clear.

Without radical policy interventions we’re fast accelerating towards a place where we could be forced to trust sensing algorithms to tell us whether what we’re breathing is harmful or not.

Machines whose algorithms are fallible and might be making rough guestimates, and/or prone to sensing malfunctions. And machines that also won’t be able to promise to make the air entirely safe to breathe. Frankly it’s pretty scary to contemplate.

So while I can’t now imagine doing without some form of in-home air purifier to help manage my urban pollution risk — I’d definitely prefer that this kind of smart hardware wasn’t necessary at all.

In Blueair’s case, the company clearly still has work to do to improve the robustness of its sensing algorithms. Operating conditions for this sort of product will obviously vary widely, so there’s loads of parameters for its algorithms to balance.

With all that stuff to juggle it just seems a bit too easy for the sensing function to spin out of control.

10-second take

The good

Easy to set up, thoughtful product design, including relatively clear in-app controls and content which lets you understand pollution triggers to manage risk. Embedded air quality sensors greatly extend the product’s utility by enabling autonomous response to changes in pollution levels. Quiet operation during regular conditions. Choice of automated or manual fan speed settings. Filtration is powerful and since using the device indoor air quality does seem cleaner.

The bad

Sensing accuracy is not always reliable. The algorithms appear prone to being confused by air pressure changes indoors, such as a large window being opened which can trigger unbelievably high pollution readings that lead to an extended period of inaccurate readings when you can’t rely on the automation to work at all. I also found the feedback in the app can sometimes lag. App content/features are on the minimalist side so you may want more detail. When the pollution level is marginal an elevated fan speed can sometimes appear to challenge the efficacy of the filtration as if it’s holding pollution levels in place rather than reducing them.

Bottom line

If you’re looking for a smart air purifier the Blueair Classic 480i does have a lot to recommend it. Quiet operation, ease of use and a tangible improvement in air quality, thanks to powerful filtration. However the accuracy of the sensing algorithms does pose a dilemma. For me this problem has recurred twice in a month. That’s clearly not ideal when it takes a full week to reset. If it were not for this reliability issue I would not hesitate to recommend the product, as — when not going crazy — the real-time feedback it provides really helps you manage a variety of pollution risks in and around your home. Hopefully the company will work on improving the stability of the algorithms. Or at least offer an option in the app so you can manually reset it if/when it does go wrong.


Source: Tech Crunch

Growth, Kubernetes, rocket launches, gender in tech, and more Luckin Coffee

Housekeeping & Extra Crunch 20% event discount reminder

    • Extra Crunch will not be publishing on Monday due to the Memorial Day holiday in the United States. Publishing will resume as normal on Tuesday.
    • Reminder: if you are an annual member of Extra Crunch, your membership includes a 20% discount on event tickets and exhibitor packages. If you want to claim a discount for one of our upcoming events, such as Sessions: Mobility, Sessions: Enterprise or TechCrunch Disrupt SF, just send an email to extracrunch@techcrunch.com and our customer service team will get you all setup.
    • We have pushed out a product update to the Extra Crunch landing page. Now, you can see a featured list of our member-exclusive top stories, just as you can on TechCrunch’s main page.
    • Finally, if you ever have any challenges with your account — login issues, paywall issues, etc., please do email us at the customer support line at extracrunch@techcrunch.com. Adblock plugins have a tendency to break some of our login functionality (it happens to me too, since I am an adblock plugin user myself), and we can help mitigate any issues you might be facing.

How to see another company’s growth tactics, and try them yourself

Growth marketer and founder of BellCurve.com Julian Shapiro published his third article on Extra Crunch, exploring how to analyze your startup’s competitors to figure out their growth tactics. He explores how to see a company’s A/B tests, ad spend, keyword optimization and other areas for competitive analysis.


Source: Tech Crunch

Which public US universities graduate the most funded founders?

A lot of students attend public universities to lessen the financial burden of higher education. At last tally, tuition and fees at American public colleges and universities averaged around $6,800 a year, per the federal government. That’s far below the $32,600 mean price tag for private, nonprofit institutions.

Yet when it comes to public universities, the old adage “you get what you pay for” clearly does not apply. Leading public research universities in particular have a track record of turning out enviably knowledgeable and successful graduates. That includes a whole lot of funded startup founders.

And that leads us to our latest ranking. At Crunchbase News, we’ve been tracking the intersection of alumni affiliation and startup funding for the past few years. In a story published earlier this week, we looked at which U.S. universities graduated the most founders of startups that raised $1 million or more in roughly the past year.

For today’s follow-up, we’re focusing exclusively on public universities. Starting with a list of top-ranking research universities, we looked to see which have graduated the highest number of funded founders.

For the most part, we used the same criteria as the public-and-private list, focusing on startups that raised $1 million or more after May, 2018. The public list, however, does not separate out business school grads.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

Key findings

Looking at the list above, a few things stand out. First, our top ranker, University of California at Berkeley, is multiples above the rest of the field when it comes to graduating funded founders.

Berkeley is a school that’s generally hard to get into, prominent in STEM and located in the VC-rich San Francisco Bay Area. So seeing it top the list isn’t necessarily surprising. However, the magnitude of its lead — with nearly three times the funded founders of runner-up UCLA — does warrant attention.

Big Midwestern schools also did well, with University of Michigan and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign nabbing the third and fourth spots.

More broadly, the list includes schools from all U.S. regions, including the East Coast, West Coast, South, Midwest and Southwest. So no particular region has a lock on graduating funded entrepreneurs. That’s also not surprising. But it’s good to have some more numbers to back up that notion.


Source: Tech Crunch

Startups Weekly: VCs are drunk on beverage startups

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a newsletter published every Saturday that dives into the week’s most noteworthy venture deals, fundraises, M&A transactions and trends. Let’s take a quick moment to catch up. Last week, I wrote about an alternative to venture capital called revenue-based financing and before that, I jotted down some notes on one of VCs’ favorite spaces: cannabis tech. Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.

This week, I want to share some thoughts — questions, rather — on beverages. Just as my inbox has been full of cannabis-related pitches, it’s also been packed with descriptions of new…drinks. Perhaps the most noted so far is Liquid Death, canned water for the punk rock crowd, because why not? Liquid Death has attracted nearly $2 million in funding from angel investors like Away co-founder Jen Rubio and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Before I tell you about a few other up-and-coming beverage makers, I must beg the question: Does the beverage industry need disrupting?

Founders say yes. Why? For one, because millennials, according to various studies, are consuming less alcohol than previous generations and are therefore seeking non-alcoholic beverage alternatives. Enter Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirits company, for example. Or Haus, launching this summer, an all-natural apéritif distilled from grapes that has a lower alcohol content than most hard liquors. Haus, like any good consumer startup in 2019, is shipped directly to your door.

Bev, a canned wine business that recently raised $7 million in seed funding from Founders Fund, thinks marketing in the alcohol industry is the problem. Founder Alix Peabody designed a line of female-focused canned rosé. If you’re wondering why alcohol needs to be gendered in such a way, you’re not alone. Peabody explained most alcohol brands cater to men, and that’s a problem.

“The joke I like to make is there’s a go-to type of alcohol for every type of bro and we just don’t have that for women,” Peabody told TechCrunch earlier this year.

Finally, the wellness movement is taking over, driving VCs toward some odd upstarts. From wellness chat and journaling apps to therapy substitutes to fitness companies, stick wellness in a pitch and investors will take a second look. More Labs, for example, is backed with $8 million in VC funding. The company is readying the launch of Liquid Focus, a biohacking-beverage that claims to “solve modern-day stressors without the negative side effects.” Finally, Elements, “an elevated functional wellness beverage formulated with clinical levels of adaptogens to give your body exactly what it needs in four categories (focus, vitality, calm, and rest) for specific cognitive functions” (damn, what copy), recently launched. It doesn’t appear to be funded yet, but let’s just give it a few months.

There’s more where that came from, but I’m done for now. On to other news.

IPO Corner

I almost skipped IPO corner this week because no big-name companies dropped or amended their S-1s or completed a highly anticipated IPO, as has been the case basically every week of 2019. But I decided I better give a quick update on Luckin Coffee’s tough second week on the stock market. Luckin Coffee, if you aren’t familiar, is Starbucks’ Chinese rival. The company raised more than $550 million after pricing at $17 per share a little over a week ago. Immediately the stock skyrocketed 20 percent to a roughly $5 billion market cap; then came concerns of the company’s lofty valuation, major cash burn and uncertain path to profitability.  Luckin has dropped around 25 percent since closing its debut trading day. It closed Friday down 3 percent.

More changes at Y Combinator

Y Combinator, the popular accelerator program and investment firm announced this week that it has promoted longtime partner Geoff Ralston to president. This comes two months after former president Sam Altman stepped down to focus his efforts full-time on OpenAI. The promotion of Ralston is an unsurprising choice for YC, an organization that employs roughly 60 people, many of whom have been affiliated with it in one way or another for years.

M&A

Automattic acquires subscription payment company Prospress

Shopify quietly acquires Handshake, an e-commerce platform for B2B wholesale purchasing 

Streem buys Selerio in an effort to boost its AR conferencing tech

As Amex scoops up Resy, a look at its acquisition history 

Fundraising

The Los Angeles ecosystem is $76 million stronger this week as Fika Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm, announced its sophomore investment fund. Fika invests roughly half of its capital exclusively in startups headquartered in LA, with a particular fondness for B2B, enterprise and fintech companies. The firm was launched in 2017 by general partners Eva Ho and TX Zhuo, formerly of Susa Ventures and Karlin Ventures, respectively. The pair raised $41 million for the debut effort, opting to nearly double that number the second time around as a means to participate in more follow-on fundings.

Startup capital

DoorDash raises $600M at a $12.7B valuation
TransferWise completes $292M secondary round at a $3.5B valuation
Auth0 raises $103M, pushes its valuation over $1B
Canva gets $70M at a $2.5B valuation
Payment card startup Marqeta confirms $260M round at close to $2B valuation
Modsy scores $37M to virtually design your home
Sun Basket whips up $30M Series E
Zero raises $20M from NEA for a credit card that works like debit
Nigeria’s Gokada raises $5.3M for its motorcycle ride-hail biz

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another great week of interesting deep dives. This week, TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney went deep on Getaround’s acquisition of Drivy for his latest installment of The Exit, a new series at TechCrunch where we chat with VCs who were in the right place at the right time and made the right call on an investment that paid off. Here are some of the other Extra Crunch pieces that stood out this week:

Equity

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I discuss how startups are avoiding IPOs and VC’s insatiable interest in food delivery startups.


Source: Tech Crunch