Category Archives: TC

Astronauts land safely after Soyuz launch fails at 20 miles up

A fault in a Soyuz rocket booster has resulted in an aborted crew mission to the International Space Station, but fortunately no loss of life. The astronauts in the capsule, Nick Hague (U.S.) and Alexey Ovchinin (Russia) successfully detached upon recognizing the fault and made a safe, if bumpy, landing nearly 250 miles east of the launch site in Kazakhstan. This high-profile failure could bolster demand for U.S.-built crewed spacecraft.

The launch proceeded normally for the first minute and a half, but at that point, when the first and second stages were meant to detach, there was an unspecified fault, possibly a failure of the first stage and its fuel tanks to detach. The astronauts recognized this issue and immediately initiated the emergency escape system.

Hague and Ovchinin in the capsule before the fault occurred.

The Soyuz capsule detached from the rocket and began a “ballistic descent” (read: falling), arrested by a parachute before landing approximately 34 minutes after the fault. Right now that’s about as much detail on the actual event as has been released by Roscosmos and NASA. Press conferences have been mainly about being thankful that the crew is okay, assuring people that they’ll get to the bottom of this and kicking the can down the road on everything else.

Although it will likely take weeks before we know exactly what happened, the repercussions for this failure are immediate. The crew on the ISS will not be reinforced, and as there are only 3 up there right now with a single Soyuz capsule with which to return to Earth, there’s a chance they’ll have to leave the ISS empty for a short time.

The current crew was scheduled to return in December, but NASA has said that the Soyuz is safe to take until January 4, so there’s a bit of leeway. That’s not to say they can necessarily put together another launch before then, but if the residents there need to stay a bit longer to safely park the station, as it were, they have a bit of extra time to do so.

The Soyuz booster and capsule have been an extremely reliable system for shuttling crew to and from the ISS, and no Soyuz fault has ever led to loss of life, although there have been a few issues recently with DOA satellites and of course the recent hole found in one just in August.

This was perhaps the closest a Soyuz has come to a life-threatening failure, and as such any Soyuz-based launches will be grounded until further notice. To be clear, this was a failure with the Soyuz-FG rocket, which is slated for replacement, not with the capsule or newer rocket of the same name.

SpaceX and Boeing have been competing to create and certify their own crew capsules, which were scheduled for testing some time next year — but while the Soyuz issues may nominally increase the demand for these U.S.-built alternatives, the testing process can’t be rushed.

That said, grounding the Soyuz (if only for crewed flights) and conducting a full-scale fault investigation is no small matter, and if we’re not flying astronauts up to the ISS in one of them, we’re not doing it at all. So there is at least an incentive to perform testing of the new crew capsules in a timely manner and keep to as short a timeframe as is reasonable.

You can watch the launch as it played out here:

Grado takes the wraps off their first pair of wireless headphones

Legacy open-backed headphone maker Grado is taking their classic design into the future with the small Brooklyn company’s first pair of wireless headphones.

The GW100s have a familiar look, but integrate Bluetooth tech and volume controls. They go for $249.

Grado headphones are a favorite of mine; they have a very unique open sound that really resonates and are perfect for home listening. Previous iterations haven’t really thrived as much on the road or in noisy offices because they tend to let in a lot of outside noise and leak a lot of your tunes. The company says that they’ve redesigned the housings and internals of the GW100s to reduce noise leakage by 60 percent — no famed wooden enclosures on this design either.

Part of what’s great about Grado headphones is their history; we toured the company’s tiny Brooklyn HQ a few years back and took a look at their operations… really cool stuff.

It’s tough for a company to make do on just brand legacy alone, and even though audio tech generally has a much longer shelf life than other products, there’s always a time to adapt, especially now as more hardware makers purge headphone jacks from their devices.

In the past few years, the company branched out into some more mobile-friendly products, but the magic wasn’t all there. The wireless GW100s keep the company’s same drivers, though it’ll be interesting to hear what they sound like as the company tunes them to be more amenable to “on-the-go” listening. Speaking of which, they also look like they have a sturdier design than some of the company’s more spartan headbands, which were strangely kind of part of the appeal, but are definitely welcome for something more likely to be chucked in a backpack.

The headphones charge via micro-USB and offer a 15-hour battery life, the company says. They also pack an included 3.5mm cable if you want to use them with your old gear. More details on precise audio tuning are listed on its product page.

Copyright compromise: Music Modernization Act signed into law

Musicians are celebrating as the Music Modernization Act, an attempt to drag copyright and royalty rules into the 21st century, is signed into law after unanimous passage through Congress. The act aims to centralize and simplify the process by which artists are tracked and paid on digital services like Spotify and Pandora, and also extends the royalty treatment to songs recorded before 1972.

The problems in this space have affected pretty much every party. Copyright law and music industry practices were, as you might remember, totally unprepared for the music piracy wave at the turn of the century, and also for the shift to streaming over the last few years. Predictably, it isn’t the labels, distributors or new services that got hosed — it’s artists, who often saw comically small royalty payments from streams if they saw anything at all.

Even so, the MMA has enjoyed rather across-the-board support from all parties, because existing law is so obscure and inadequate. And it will remain that way to a certain extent — this isn’t layman territory and things will remain obscure. But the act will address some of the glaring issues current in the media landscape.

The biggest change is probably the creation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective. This new organization centralizes the bookkeeping and royalty payment process, replacing a patchwork of agreements that required lots of paperwork from all sides (and as usual, artists were often the ones left out in the cold as a result). The MLC will be funded by companies like Pandora or Google that want to enter into digital licensing agreements, meaning there will be no additional commission or fee for the MLC, but the entity will actually be run by music creators and publishers.

Previously digital services and music publishers would enter into separately negotiated agreements, a complex and costly process if you want to offer a comprehensive library of music — one that stifled new entrants to the market. Nothing in the new law prevents companies from making these agreements now, as some companies will surely prefer to do, but the MLC offers a simple, straightforward solution and also a blanket license option where you can just pay for all the music in its registry. This could in theory nurture new services that can’t spare the cash for the hundred lawyers required for other methods.

There’s one other benefit to using the MLC: you’re shielded from liability for statutory damages. Assuming a company uses it correctly and pays their dues, they’re no longer vulnerable to lawsuits that allege underpayment or other shenanigans — the kind of thing streaming providers have been weathering in the courts for years, with potentially massive settlements.

The law also improves payouts for producers and engineers, who have historically been under-recognized and certainly under-compensated for their roles in music creation. Writers and performers are critical, of course, but they’re not the only components to a great song or album, and it’s important to recognize this formally.

The last component of the MMA, the CLASSICS Act, is its most controversial, though even its critics seem to admit that it’s better than what we had before. CLASSICS essentially extends standard copyright rules to works created before 1972, during which year copyright law changed considerably and left pre-1972 works largely out of the bargain.

What’s the problem? Well, it turns out that many works that would otherwise enter the public domain would be copyright-protected (or something like it — there are some technical differences) until 2067, giving them an abnormally long term of protection. And what’s more, these works would be put under this new protection automatically, with no need for the artists to register them. That may sound convenient, but it also means that thousands of old works would be essentially copyrighted even though their creators, if they’re even alive, have asserted no intention of seeking that status.

A simple registry for those works was proposed by a group of data freedom advocates, but their cries were not heard by those crafting and re-crafting the law. Admittedly it’s something of an idealistic objection, and the harm to users is largely theoretical. The bill proceeded more or less as written.

At all events the Music Modernization Act is now law; its unanimous passage is something of an achievement these days, though God knows both sides need as many wins as they can get.

Improbable brings its massive multiplayer platform to Unity game engine

As battle royale games like Fortnite pit more players against each other, studios are starting to realize the potential of bringing a massive online audience together at one time. This ambition has always existed, but Improbable, a well-funded startup aiming to enable these vast online worlds, is looking to bring these experiences to more game developers.

Improbable has announced that it is bringing a game development kit for its SpatialOS multiplayer platform to Unity, a popular game development platform used to create about half of new video games.

Improbable has some pretty grand ambitions for multi-player gaming and they’ve raised some grand venture capital to make that happen. The London startup has raised just over $600 million for their vision to enable digital worlds with vast expanses of concurrent users. The company’s SpatialOS platform allows single instances of an online game to run across multiple servers, essentially stitching a world together with each server keeping an eye on the other, allowing for hundreds of users to see each other and their in-game actions translated in a persistent way on systems across the globe.

The company’s tech opens the door for a lot of game developers to become more ambitious. There are several developers who have released titles on the platform.

Today’s news is a major step for the company, leveraging the popularity of Unity with a lot of younger studios to enable easier MMO development on an engine that is very popular with a wide range of developers. SpatialOS was previously available in a more limited, experimental scope on Unity. It also supports some development on Unreal Engine and CryEngine.

With today’s release, developers building with SpatialOS can craft games that allow for up to 200 players. The game development kit gives developers multiplayer networking and some other related features to expand the playing field, or at least further populate it. Improbable’s involvement goes far beyond just facilitating a download; a game built for SpatialOS will be hosted on Improbable’s servers, where it can be maintained via its host of web tools.

TaxScouts wants to make filing your tax return a lot less tedious

TaxScouts, a U.K. startup founded by TransferWise and Marketinvoice alumni, is the latest online service designed to make filing your tax return a lot less tedious. However, rather than focusing on the bookkeeping part of the problem primarily tackled by cloud accounting software — which is often overkill if you are self-employed or simply earn a little additional income outside of your day job — the company combines “automation” with human accountants to help you prepare your tax submission.

“Doing taxes is either tedious when you have to do them yourself, or expensive when you hire an accountant,” says TaxScouts co-founder and CEO Mart Abramov, who was employee number 8 at TransferWise and also previously worked at Intuit, MarketInvoice and Skype. “We’re automating as much of the admin part of tax preparation as possible in our online app. We then connect you with a certified accountant who will take care of the entire tax filing process for you”.

The headline draw is that TaxScouts charges a flat fee of £99 if you pay in advance, and promises a turn-around of just 24 hours. To help with this, the web app walks you through your tax status, income and expenses without assuming too much prior knowledge. This includes asking you to upload or take a photo of any required documents, such as invoices or dividend certificates. The idea is that all of the admin is captured digitally and packaged up ready for your assigned accountant to take a look.

“As more of the menial tasks are handled by our app this allows accountants to focus on what they do best and not get stuck in admin,” explains Abramov. “They can focus on providing advice and expertise to make sure everything is done right. Our customers get both the benefits of getting a personal accountant and having a simple tool to manage it all, without the huge costs”.

Abramov tells me that TaxScouts’ typical customers are anyone who wants to have their self assessment done for them or who just wants help with tax preparation. This spans self-employed people — from construction workers to professional freelancers — entrepreneurs and company directors, and people who are entitled to some kind of tax relief or refund, such as investors on crowdfunding platforms. He also said that gig economy workers are a good fit.

Moving forward, TaxScouts plans to further develop the automation functionality, including plugging into more data sources beyond its existing integration with HMRC. Abramov says this could include a driver’s Uber data for tracking mileage claims, for example, while I can immediately see how the app could integrate with various fintech offerings that capture transactions and receipts.

To that end, the startup has raised £300,000 in “pre-seed” funding to continue building out the product. Backers include Picus Capital, Charlie Delingpole (co-founder of ComplyAdvantage and MarketInvoice), and Charlie Songhurst (former GM corporate strategy at Microsoft).

RIP “crypto”

RIP “crypto”. You had a good run.

This week veteran cryptographer Matt Blaze, finally gave in — to what must have been a near-constant, low-level drone of ‘CAn Buy Crypto.com???$$$$!’ spam — and sold the pithy domain name he registered in 1993, in the midst of the PC era crypto wars, to use as an encryption policy resource, to Monaco, a Zug, Switzerland-based payments and cryptocurrency platform startup whose self-styled mission is “accelerating the world’s transition to cryptocurrency”, positioning itself at the nexus of the current crypto craze.

So crypto.com now points to cryptocurrencies.

Which seems a fitting moment to say RIP “crypto” as shorthand terminology for an entire domain of cryptographic work that underpins so many more things than just Bitcoin or Ether or Ripple or Litecoin or Zcash — or any of the myriad digital coins that have winked (and more recently minted) into virtual existence over the last decade or so, hoping to hit the crypto jackpot.

Frankly this is not at all fair. But, linguistically, so it goes. Languages live or they die. And to live in linguistic terms means to shift your meaning as word usage ebbs and flows.

The sale of crypto.com tells us not so much that money talks, though clearly there’s that too — domain sellers were speculating that the price for crypto.com could have been a cool $5M-$10M, per this Verge report from March; though the actual price-tag paid by Monaco has not been disclosed.

Mostly it underlines that trying to push as an individual against a surging tide is hopeless. Principled, one-man-stands of linguistic resistance against the crypto(currency) craze are futile at this particular juncture of its technological development. Spam with no end in sight would worry the will of anyone.

So apologies also to the few folks who have written to complain about incorrect use of “crypto” in TC headlines. Using “cryptocurrency” is indeed more accurate if that’s what the story is about. But as a term it’s headline-unfriendly as well as being really quite a horrible mouthful.

And, well, “coin” is too generic unless you’re coin trade press.

Alternative linguistic confections — anyone for ‘cryptoc’? — were never going to fly. So cryptocurrency colloquially colonizing “crypto” was really only a matter of time, given how many joules of attention-energy are being claimed and drained in its name.

Turns out language change can have plenty to do with the price of Bitcoin.

On the flip side, any craze can be a fleeting thing, and it’s entirely possible that, in time, “crypto” could revert to its proper meaning of cryptography should the cryptocurrency hype die back, as hype is wont to do when people get bored — because something that was new and novel becomes properly understood and adopted (and thus less of a conversation starter).

Sustained acceptance can make tongue-tripping nicknames less necessary, and reset the linguistic order.

Equally, though, a nickname can stubbornly stick around for ages — outlasting any nonprofessional understanding of the logic underlying its coinage.

Or at least until evolving usage causes another terminology shift. Think, for example, of the rhythmic swings of “telephone” -> “phone” -> “mobile phone” -> “mobile”.

Crypto(currency) could ultimately even lose the ‘crypto’ prefix should the technology end up becoming so ubiquitous as to be considered synonymous with the generic term “currency”, and usurp/displace that word, sinking back into the accepted conceptual morass that envelopes the idea of money.

Of course the crypto(graphy) community have not been at all happy about the linguistic sands shifting treacherously under their foundational field.

And they do have a point, given that without their founding crypto there could be no, er, ‘crypto’…

“”Crypto” could mean encryption, cryptography, or cryptology, but never cryptocurrency,” one computing academic tells us, adding: “I’ve heard plenty of whinging about the changed meaning of “crypto” and I don’t expect a dignified fall-back.”

“Normal usage says “encryption” is only one application of “cryptography” (building schemes for encryption and similar apps) which together with “cryptanalysis” (trying to break such schemes) makes up “cryptology”,” he adds.

Certainly, don’t expect the original crypto community to migrate to alternative terminology — not willingly, and not anytime soon. Which will probably make for some confused messaging at times. But technology applying pressure points to human communications is just par for the course.

As recently as last month the content on Blaze’s (now former) website included the express declaration that: “This site does not trade in or provide services related to cryptocurrencies. It is concerned with cryptography, computer and network security, and technology policy research.”

It further capped that caveat with an explicit disclaimer — writing: “Warning: Many cryptocurrencies are scams, and I strongly advise against their use as investment vehicles.”

Visitors to crypto.com now will not encounter any such caveats. But most of these folks probably weren’t headed there looking for cautionary tales. Nor seeking Blaze’s contact details. So you really can’t blame him for moving with the times.

For the original crypto community, playing the long game and waiting for the upstart crypto usurper to get linguistically cut back down to size seems the best option.

Sure, they’ve lost this “crypto” war — but many more important crypto wars remain to be fought and (hopefully) won.

And of course, in the far-flung future, who knows how 2018’s crypto craze will be viewed? Perhaps as the pinnacle of a hype-cycle that didn’t end in the wholesale reconfiguration of business and society that the crypto oracles promise, even if they managed to shift the conversation of a certain IT crowd for a while.

On another level, given rising levels of tech-fueled disruptive uncertainty crisscrossing so many facets of life, perhaps it’s fitting for “crypto” to become something of a cipher itself, devoid of fixed meaning.

“Encryption technology is the key to the future of the information revolution,” wrote Blaze in 1996. “It allows businesses and individuals to communicate securely over any inexpensive communication platform without fear of eavesdropping.”

That sentiment at least remains constant.

TraceLink just landed $60 million more to eliminate counterfeit prescription drugs

Just processed by the SEC on this bright Friday afternoon: TraceLink, a software-as-a-service platform for tracking pharmaceuticals and trying to weed out counterfeit prescription drugs in the process, has raised $60 million in Series D funding.

The filing shows that 18 firms participated, including, presumably, Goldman Sachs, whose growth equity arm had led the company’s $51.5 million Series C round roughly 18 months ago. Others of the nine-year-old company’s earlier investors include FirstMark Capital, Volition Capital and F-Prime Capital.

As TC’s Jordan Crook reported at the time of that last round, TraceLink helps pharma companies comply with country-specific track-and-trace requirements through their supply chain, which has grown increasingly important following the passage of the Drug Supply Chain Security Act in 2013. The consumer-protection measure aims to protect consumers from exposure to drugs that could be counterfeit, stolen, contaminated or otherwise harmful.

At the time of its enactment, it also gave the industry one decade before unit-level traceability becomes enforced, meaning the clock is ticking.

Also working in the favor of TraceLink: opioids, whose spread has been rising since the late ’90s, creating ever-growing pressure to isolate vulnerabilities in the pharmaceutical supply chain.

Little wonder the company looks to be preparing for life as a publicly traded company, including by releasing quarterly revenue and customer growth numbers. Indeed, according to its “growth highlights,” released just a couple of weeks ago, the company’s first quarter revenue in 2018 was 69 percent higher than it was in the first quarter of 2017.

TraceLink just landed $60 million more to eliminate counterfeit prescription drugs

Just processed by the SEC on this bright Friday afternoon: TraceLink, a software-as-a-service platform for tracking pharmaceuticals and trying to weed out counterfeit prescription drugs in the process, has raised $60 million in Series D funding.

The filing shows that 18 firms participated, including, presumably, Goldman Sachs, whose growth equity arm had led the company’s $51.5 million Series C round roughly 18 months ago. Others of the nine-year-old company’s earlier investors include FirstMark Capital, Volition Capital and F-Prime Capital.

As TC’s Jordan Crook reported at the time of that last round, TraceLink helps pharma companies comply with country-specific track-and-trace requirements through their supply chain, which has grown increasingly important following the passage of the Drug Supply Chain Security Act in 2013. The consumer-protection measure aims to protect consumers from exposure to drugs that could be counterfeit, stolen, contaminated or otherwise harmful.

At the time of its enactment, it also gave the industry one decade before unit-level traceability becomes enforced, meaning the clock is ticking.

Also working in the favor of TraceLink: opioids, whose spread has been rising since the late ’90s, creating ever-growing pressure to isolate vulnerabilities in the pharmaceutical supply chain.

Little wonder the company looks to be preparing for life as a publicly traded company, including by releasing quarterly revenue and customer growth numbers. Indeed, according to its “growth highlights,” released just a couple of weeks ago, the company’s first quarter revenue in 2018 was 69 percent higher than it was in the first quarter of 2017.

Uber and Lyft apply for electric scooter permits in SF

Uber and Lyft have officially put their respective names into the electric scooter competition. Uber and Lyft are among the eleven companies that applied to operate an electric scooter sharing service within San Francisco city limits. The city, however, will only offer up to five companies permits to operate as part of a one-year test program.

Uber declined to comment but confirmed that it has applied for a permit via JUMP, the bike-share startup Uber acquired for about $200 million in April. Once Uber is cleared to operate electric scooters, the plan is to integrate them into the Uber app and continue fleshing out Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s vision for a full-fledged multi-modal transportation platform.

Lyft also confirmed to TechCrunch that the company applied for a permit, but declined to share any further details. Here’s the full list of companies that applied, via the SF Chronicle:

  1. Bird
  2. CycleHop
  3. JUMP via Uber
  4. Lime
  5. Lyft
  6. ofo
  7. Razor (yes, *that* Razor)
  8. Ridecell
  9. Scoot
  10.  Spin
  11.  USSCooter

San Francisco’s permit process came as a result of Bird, Lime and Spin deploying their electric scooters without permission in the city in March. As part of a new city law, which went into effect June 4, scooter companies are not able to operate their services in San Francisco without a permit. The SFMTA said it’s aiming to notify companies of their permit status by the end of June.

For more information about electric scooter regulation in San Francisco, be sure to check out my previous coverage.

Airbnb creates $10M fund to cover cancelled reservations in Japan after regulatory shift

Airbnb has been one of the breakthrough stories in the wave of shared-economy startups that have emerged out of Silicon Valley, with a valuation of $30 billion for its travellers platform that lets people book private homes as accommodations, as well as other services. But even so, it’s not immune to the force of regulation and the impact it can have on its business.

Airbnb has had to cancel a swathe of reservations in Japan, after a change in local laws required hosts to have specific licenses, but some have failed to get these ahead of the deadline set by regulators.

It’s not clear how many people or hosts have been impacted — the numbers are shifting as hosts receive their licenses — but Airbnb says that it has set up a fund of $10 million to cover any travellers who might get put out as a result of the rules. Some have estimated that as much as 80 percent of bookings have been impacted by the changes.

As Airbnb notes, the cancellations and its resulting moves are a result of changes to the country’s Japanese Hotels and Inns Act. Modified last year to include people using private homes for tourist accommodation for up to 180 days/year, those hosting now have to register and display a license number alongside their listings. The tourism authority (JTA) had set a deadline of June 15 to do this, and those who hadn’t received a license by June 1 had to cancel reservations booked before June 15, and Airbnb has extended this to cover the gap of other travellers so that they have time to make alternative arrangements:

“Any reservation scheduled for guest arrival between June 15 and June 19 at a listing in Japan that does not currently have a license has been cancelled,” Airbnb writes. “Going forward, unless the government reverses its position, we will automatically cancel and fully refund any reservations at listings in Japan that have not been licensed within 10 days of guest arrival.”

The $10 million fund, Airbnb said, will cover “additional expenses for guests who are scheduled to travel to Japan and have had their plans interrupted due to a cancellation.” Those whose reservations are cancelled on or after June 15 because of the license situation will get a full refund and a coupon worth “at least 100% of the booking value” to use on a future Airbnb trip. They will also receive a $100 coupon for an Airbnb Experience. 

Those who are unable to find alternative Airbnb places to stay for their trip will be put in touch with a travel agency in Japan, JTB, to find alternatives.

For those who are impacted by this news, Airbnb will be sending you step-by-step instructions of what to do next, or you can find them here.

This is not the first time that Airbnb has had a stumble on the heels of regulatory changes. In Amsterdam, regulators are preparing to halve the number of nights a property can be let out to 30 nights per year starting in 2019, from 60 nights currently. Berlin and Barcelona have also tried to limit the platform’s growth with their own regulations.

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