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Main article: Reviews

<< Back Forward >>
Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 322

Can a time machine offer us the meaning of life?

20:35 | 22 January

We are continuing our discussion of Ted Chiang’s Exhalations. Today (and one day late thanks to the MLK holiday), I give some thoughts on the first short story of the collection, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and kick off the discussion for the second short story of the collection, the eponymous “Exhalation.”

Previous editions of this “book club”:

Some quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

I was electrified reading this short story. It’s one of the most obvious examples I can give on the power of re-reading the same work multiple times: what begins as a fairly open-ended and fractal plot finally comes all together in its final lines, beautifully inviting the reader to come back around a second time to understand how the various puzzle pieces fit together even better.

Structurally, Chiang has done something marvelous in such a short number of pages. He has taken the familiar trope of the time machine and has managed to create a multi-layered and non-linear narrative about fate and destiny, while also maintaining a sense of progressive plotting. There is the overarching story of the main character talking to His Majesty, but then this story is also a retrospective of multiple tales, all of which interrelate with each other directly and through their messages. Like the Gate itself, this structure is truly a masterwork of craftsmanship.

A bit aggressively, Chiang has laid on his primary theme quite thickly, with the main message of the story bottled up and exhorted in its closing pages. As Eliot Peper pulled out in the reading guide for this story, the primary passage is this:

Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

What Chiang is exploring is the definition of a “lived” existence. It’s one thing to go through the motions and do our work every day, connecting with friends along the way. It is quite something else to understand how our actions affect the world around us, and to viscerally begin to comprehend exactly what our actions mean to us and to others.

In this way, the theme reminds me a bit of the arch-plot of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which the actions of a character in one era have reverberations down through the years. Notes taken by an explorer get read by someone decades later and changes their life, and so we have these chaos/butterfly effect moments where even slight intentions can have long-term historical ramifications.

Chiang is saying something more taut: we aren’t just performing for a future audience — we are actually performing for ourselves, and sometimes for ourselves in the past. We are in fact sending a message back in time. I thought that the Gate, and the fact that it allows people to both travel to the future and to the past, creates this interesting connection. While it is a linear time impossibility that our future destinies are performing for us today, the message behind the theme I think has deep resonance.

At multiple times throughout the story, characters withhold crucial details from themselves in order to heighten the experience of living. Chiang writes, “In pursuing the boy, with no hint of whether he’d succeed or fail, he had felt his blood surge in a way it had not in many weeks.” Knowing the actual surprises of daily life comes with it its own reward, even as further rewards are acquired as we understand the meaning and lessons of how we react in such moments.

Within the TechCrunch world, we talk about startups and the future all the time. There is incredible ambiguity in the work that founders and venture capitalists do every day. Will this decision lead to the right outcome? Am I investing in the right company in the space? Why won’t someone just give me the right answer?

But Chiang is getting to something insightful, which is that the ambiguity in many ways is the definition of living. If we already knew the answer, then what is the point? It’s the satisfaction of acting a certain way at a certain time — even if it may well be fixed in advance — that ultimately provides meaning to our lives. Half the “fun” (and it isn’t fun, is it?) of being an entrepreneur is simply not knowing the answers in the first place.

Finally, I want to point out something that Chiang does better than almost any startup founder, and that is his introduction of the Gate itself. Chiang brilliantly enthralls the reader with this new technology, without ever having to explain in minute detail how the thing works or its patterns.

By having Bashaarat wave his hands through the gate, he visually demonstrates the technology for both the narrator and for us as readers, even while the complexity of the device becomes more apparent over the coming pages. The device (both plot and technology) is explained so naturally and progressively that we never have to stop to think — it’s purpose just comes organically. If only more startup pitches were like this!

All together then, the short story manages to weave a discussion of fate, destiny, truth, ambiguity, and the meaning of existence into a handful of pages based around a small tech device that really is just a backdrop to a deeper human tale. If this isn’t science fiction at its finest, I don’t know what is.

Thank you to Gio, Eliot, Joanna, Justin, Veronica, Bruce, Damion, and Scott who sent me emails related to this short story. Will try to include more reader comments in future editions.

Reading guide to Exhalations

We will read the next short story in the collection, Exhalations, for next week (targeting Tuesday January 28th). Here are some questions to think about as you read and enjoy the story:

  • How does Chiang think about connections, both between individuals, and also between civilizations?
  • What do the various metaphors in the story (air, copper, gold, etc.) mean? Why did he choose these specific metaphors?
  • Chiang chooses this extensive metaphor of the body as machine. Why? What purpose does considering our bodies this way have for the story?
  • The story dwells on memory and death. What message is the author sending about what it means to experience something?
  • This story would seemingly connect with several major global issues today. What are those connections, and how does Chiang try to navigate the controversies of them in this short story?
  • Is the story ultimately hopeful or sad? What emotions resonate for you in this story?

If you have feedback or thoughts you would like me to include, please feel free to email me at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com.

 


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Week in Review: Forget cord cutting, here comes the stream slashing

00:45 | 19 January

Hey everyone, welcome back to Week in Review where I dive deep into a bit of news from the week or just share some thoughts and go over some of the more interesting stories of the week.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

“Cord cutting” might still be a major trend for those walking away from cable subscriptions in favor of online streaming services, but the world of online subscription TV is nearly saturated and as 2020 prepares to inundate us with more services, it’s likely growing time for consumers to stop adding services and start prioritizing.

NBCUniversal delivered some more details this week on its Peacock network and earlier this month we heard more about the mobile-only streaming network Quibi . These launches will come along in the spring, arriving just months after the high-profile launches on Apple TV+ and Disney+. Adding four high-spend streaming platforms in a short time frame could rattle the cages of consumers that have been bumbling along with only a couple streaming service subscriptions.

NBCUniversal’s Peacock seems to walk the line between both worlds, leveraging Comcast subscribers without seeming to invest heavily in original content for the service. Their strategy is pinned on the attractiveness of their existing content library which they’re promoting heavily on both free and paid plans. There could be something here, it feels like a marked return to the early Hulu playbook, which could very well be played out.

I still don’t know what to think of Quibi. They are dropping plenty of cash but spending your way into building a Gen Z network seems like a tall order. They’ve already nabbed a big partnership with T Mobile which seems promising when considering their broader industry adoption and yet it still seems like Snapchat Discover Prime. I’ll withhold judgment until launch but other mobile-first video networks have had less than stellar receptions.

Side note: At this point in the streaming video product life cycle, I would imagine cracking down on password-sharing is going to start being a more attractive option for streaming service operators.

We’ll see how this all shakes out, but it’s getting crowded.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Visa buys Plaid for $5.2 billion
    The biggest acquisition of the week was the very bold purchase of Plaid by Visa. Visa paid up double the banking API startup’s last private valuation. Read more here.
  • Google acquires Pointy
    Google has announced a couple deals in the past few weeks. This week, we heard that they had acquired the Dublin startup Pointy, which builds hardware and software to help physical retailers track product inventory levels. Read more about it in our coverage.
  • Alphabet is a $1 trillion company
    In the current age of big tech, there’s an elite club for public companies worth more than $1 trillion in market cap. This week, Alphabet joined its ranks. Read more here.

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription business had another great week of content. My colleague Darrell Etherington talked a bit about the next frontier of early-stage space investments.

Space Angels’ Chad Anderson on entering a new decade in the ‘entrepreneurial space age’

“Space as an investment target is trending upwards in the VC community, but specialist firm Space Angels has been focused on the sector longer than most. The network of angel investors just published its most recent quarterly overview of activity in the space startup industry, revealing that investors put nearly $6 billion in capital into space companies across 2019.…”

Sign up for more newsletters, including my colleague Darrell Etherington’s new space-focused newsletter Max Q, here.

 


0

Reading Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

21:45 | 14 January

What would we do if we could visit our own pasts or futures? Are we more likely to change our timelines, or will our timelines actually project themselves back on to us more forcefully?

This is the first discussion post of this beta-testing, informal TechCrunch book club, which is starting with the first short story in Ted Chiang’s science fiction collection Exhalation. Join us as we walk through each story in succession in the coming weeks and explore a wider expanse of technology and its effect on society.

The first story in the collection is The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a compact, interwoven series of tales that discusses a time-shifting “gate” that allows people to move forward and backward in time at a specific interval. Chiang takes the familiar device of the time-travel machine and repurposes it for a deeper introspection of how humans consider their own lives and the lives they affect.

For this first week, I want to start with some reading questions (posted below) to think about before presenting deeper thoughts from me and readers. As I mentioned before, you can email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com and include them below in the comments as well. Several communities online on Reddit and Twitter have already begun conversations as well.

My friend and occasional Extra Crunch contributor Eliot Peper wrote in to describe what he considered the most foundational passage of the piece and his thoughts:

“Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.”

This passage resonated with me deeply because it hints at one of the reasons I love reading science fiction like Chiang’s: Not to catch a glimpse into the future, but to inspect the present more closely, and from fresh angles—learning lessons along the way.

We will return next week on Tuesday with more fully-formed thoughts on this short story, as well as a similar reading guide for the second short story, the eponymous Exhalation.

Some questions to ponder about The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate:

  • What is Chiang trying to convey about the meaning of destiny? Are we really “the audience as well as the players”?
  • Do we have agency in our own lives? Can we really affect the future with our own actions?
  • How should we observe what happens around us? Is consideration what is happening enough to bring understanding and contentment, or do we have to have a stake in every outcome for us to feel satisfied?
  • Why did Chiang choose this particular time and setting (historical Baghdad) for this short story?
  • Similarly, why did he choose to include three tales in such a short story? What did this structural device provide us as readers?
  • What does the introduction of the gate imply about how new technology is accepted? Is it believable that such a wondrous device would be accepted so readily?
  • Is the gate “neutral”? Could it be used for good or evil, or does it depend on the user themselves?

 


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Week in Review: Selling out in the Instagram age

17:45 | 5 January

Hey everyone, happy 2020. Welcome back to Week in Review where I dive deep into a bit of news from the week or just share some thoughts and go over some of the more interesting stories of the week.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

Dip a toe into the world of influencers and as you click through Instagram stories, and you’ll see that peddling endorsements for bizarre products is an essential part of the new influencer economy. What’s interesting isn’t that these (often) self-made influencers looking to leverage their fame to and monetize themselves with sponsorship deals, it’s how low the expectations are of their followers and fans when it comes to advertising suspect products.

The age of fanbases considering a celebrity a sellout after hocking junk in commercial appearances is far, far gone. Follower exploitation isn’t even questioned, something that grows less funny when you realize how young most of the fans are of some of these figures.

As you click through actual online influencers with 10 million+ followers advertising weight-loss supplements, juice cleanses and knockoff AirPods, you might be wondering where the bar is and whether it can go any lower. Followers don’t really seem to care for a lot of reasons, but one intriguing thought is that as social media platforms have made fame seem more accessible, user empathy for internet stars has increased and people understand that these figures are just looking for their payday.

Ultimately, high art and capitalism have also never been closer and when you look at the relationship between brand endorsements and some of the top visual artists and musicians, it’s not surprising that those that occupy lesser rungs on the fame ladder don’t mind hocking lesser products. This great piece in The Atlantic by Taylor Lorenz from 2018 reported on how teens were acting like they were selling ads as a way to lend themselves credibility. The “coolness” of advertising has only seemed to accelerate.

It’s clear that the influencer economy has shaped popular culture in ways that make a backlash to influencers “selling out” seem nearly impossible at this point in time. After all, if sticking your name on products that literally contain poison doesn’t dampen your charm, what will?

Evan Spiegel SnapDSC04084

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Snap buys up an AI startup
    This week, TechCrunch reported that Snapchat had bought up a Ukrainian AI startup to build its latest Cameo feature. The $166 million acquisition is a significant purchase for the social media company which spent the bulk of 2019 getting back to basics.
  • Former HBO boss joins up with Apple
    Former HBO exec Richard Plepler has signed an exclusive deal with Apple for his new production company, a move that’s sure to make waves in the entertainment space but could also shift how Apple spends its behemoth original content budgets.

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription business had another great week of content. My colleague Josh Constine started a series with advice for getting your startup press coverage.

Finding the right reporter to cover your startup

Pitch the wrong reporter or publication, and your story won’t see the light of day.

Before you start seeking press, you’ll need to look for reporters who have reach, respect and expertise when you choose who to talk to. You’ll also need to be prepared to accept the truth about your business, even if it hurts. It’s critical that you find a writer who’s a good fit for the business you’re building and the audience you’re seeking…”

Sign up for more newsletters, including my colleague Darrell Etherington’s new space-focused newsletter Max Q, here.

 


0

This new wireless charger from Zens nearly fulfills the promise of Apple’s AirPower

16:37 | 3 January

Apple’s cancellation of its AirPower wireless charging mat was one of the company’s few big public flubs, but the concept behind the cancelled product remains attractive: A wireless charging pad that supports multiple devices, and that isn’t picky about how you set down your device in order to make a connection. Wireless charging accessory maker Zens has actually created such a device with the Liberty Wireless Charger, and while it doesn’t offer everything that AirPower claimed to be able to do, it’s a big step up from current wireless chargers and a a great companion for iPhone, AirPods and Apple Watch.

Coils, coils coils

The Zens Liberty is special because of how it uses the wireless charging coils that are responsible for the charging ability of any wireless chargers – wound circular loops of copper cable that provide the induction power received by devices like the latest iPhones and AirPods charging case. Zens has stacked 16 such coils in an overlapping array – which, conveniently, you can see in pretty much full detail in the transparent glass edition charger that’s available today alongside the fabric-covered version.

These overlapping coils are the key to the unique abilities of the Zens Liberty: Specifically, their arrangement means you can place your devices down in basically any orientation and they’ll begin charging right away. Most charging pads, by comparison, have one, two or sometimes three coils placed in specific locations, meaning you have to make sure your device is properly situated above one to actually get it to start charging. If you’ve been using wireless chargers for any length of time, you’ve probably had the unfortunate opportunity to get this orientation match-up wrong, resulting in a phone that didn’t charge at all when you wake up the next morning.

Zens’ Liberty does indeed solve this annoyance, and I found I was able to put devices down basically however I wanted them and have them charge up.

Flexible seating for two

Up to two Qi-compatible devices can be charged at once, and they’ll each work with up to 15w of power, which is at the top end of what any current devices support. I tested it out with Android phones, iPhones and AirPods (plus AirPods Pro) and found that all worked without issue and basically however I wanted to lay them across the surface. The caveats here are that you should think of the areas around the edges of the charger as basically non-active, so stay around an inch in from the outer surface and you should be fine.

This flexibility may not seem like much (why not just pay attention when you’re putting your devices on a more traditional charger?) but it actually is a very nice convenience. Just that small assurance that you can easily put your device down on the Liberty’s generous surface and not worry too much about checking whether a connection was actually made is a big relief, when you charge a device as much as you do your iPhone or your AirPods.

Apple Watch, too

The Zens Liberty can’t charge the Apple Watch on the pad, the way that Apple had advertised the cancelled AirPower would’ve been able to. But with an accessory, the pad can become a truly all-in one charging station for your mobile Apple kit, Watch included. An officially supported Apple Watch charger with a USB A connector on one end is an add-on option that Zens offers, and it conveniently slots right into a USB port present on the Zens Liberty (and protected/hidden by a rubber flap when not in use).

This port actually supports any kind of USB powered device, so you can also use it with a cable to charge another gadget, like an iPad for instance. But it’s perfectly designed for the new Zens Apple Watch charger accessory, which comes with a little plastic shelf that snaps in to support your Watch when it’s charging. It provides just the right angle for Apple Watch’s Nightstand mode, and is a necessary addition for anyone looking for an all-in one solution.

Bottom line

The Zens Liberty is the best all-around charging option available currently, based on my testing so far. It’s also powered by an included 60w USB-C charger, which comes with two international plug adapters that makes it a great travel brick for other devices, too. That means you can also use standard USB-C power bricks with it, too, rather than requiring some kind of proprietary power adapter.

There are some downsides to keep in mind, however: You should realize that this is a big charger, for instance. That’s good in that it supports multiple devices easily, but it’s also going to take up more space than your average wireless charger. It’s also thick, which allows for the stacked coils and cooling system (this is the only wireless charger I’ve used that has clear and obvious vents, for instance).

That said, the Zens Liberty makes good on the true promise of wireless charging, which is convenience and flexibility. And it’s well-designed and aesthetically attractive, in both the fabric-covered and striking transparent glass designs. Zens is now accepting pre-orders for these, with shipping starting sometime this month, and the standard fabric version retails for 139.99 ($155 USD) while the glass edition is €179.99 ($199 USD), and the Apple Watch USB stick sells for €39.99 ($44.50 USD).

 


0

These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

00:00 | 2 January

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion.

This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would have been good for third place last year behind IBM’s mega deal plucking Red Hat for $34 billion and Broadcom grabbing CA Technologies for $18.8 billion.

Contributing to this year’s quieter activity was the fact that several typically acquisitive companies — Adobe, Oracle and IBM — stayed mostly on the sidelines after big investments last year. It’s not unusual for companies to take a go-slow approach after a big expenditure year. Adobe and Oracle bought just two companies each with neither revealing the prices. IBM didn’t buy any.

Microsoft didn’t show up on this year’s list either, but still managed to pick up eight new companies. It was just that none was large enough to make the list (or even for them to publicly reveal the prices). When a publicly traded company doesn’t reveal the price, it usually means that it didn’t reach the threshold of being material to the company’s results.

As always, just because you buy it doesn’t mean it’s always going to integrate smoothly or well, and we won’t know about the success or failure of these transactions for some years to come. For now, we can only look at the deals themselves.

 


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Gift Guide: Leading VCs recommend their favorite reads from 2019

21:45 | 18 December

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2019 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

As we reach the end of 2019 and approach crunch time for everyone who has procrastinated holiday gift buying, we wanted to highlight a few more great reads that might add value to your life or are just plain old fun.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve asked Extra Crunch members and the TechCrunch editorial staff for their favorite books of the year. Responses covered a huge mix of genres, narrative structures and formats, with titles that would fit the interests of anyone from your techno-nerd co-founder to your craziest second-cousin that you only see around the holidays.

For our last round of book recommendations, we decided to ask the investors who control the capital in Silicon Valley, help catalyze the industry’s biggest winners and ultimately influence what our future will look like. We surveyed a select group of five leading VCs on their top book recommendations for 2019 with the only criteria being that the respondents personally read the title this year and thought it was meaningful. Among our correspondents:

The books could cover any topic, be fiction or non-fiction, and could be old, new or anything in between. Here are the six books that resonated with our panel of investors, all of which they would recommend to you, a friend or a family member looking for a great holiday gift. 

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Josh Wolfe, Lux Capital

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Knopf / 368 pages / May 2019

This year for me it was Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”. The gap between sci-fi and sci-fact keeps shrinking. I contend either our authors are becoming less creative or our scientists more creative. Chiang disproves the former. One of the most provocative stories in this collection is The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling which parallels two protagonists set in the near future and the not-too-distant past. One sub-story centers on a Black Mirror-esque technology that gives high-fidelity perfect recall and recordings of prior experience. The other story is of a tribe that lives by oral tradition has one member encounter an outsider with the technology of writing. Together they make a provocative poignant point on the distinction between being precise and being right—and the meaning in our lives between them.

Summary: “Exhalation” is the latest composition by acclaimed sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, whose short story titled “Story of Your Life” famously acted as the inspiration for the oscar-nominated film “Arrival.” Chiang’s newest work is a collection of science fiction short stories and novelettes that stray away from the speculative dystopian side of the genre. Using common sci-fi motifs such as aliens and A.I. proliferation, the selected writings instead dial-in on the characters living in these imagined universes as they examine how societal and technological evolutions impact the ethical, philosophical and cognitive aspects of the human psyche and existence. 

Price: $16 on Amazon

Theresia Guow, aCrew Capital

Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took on Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime, by Julian Guthrie

Currency / 304 pages / April 2019

The most interesting book to come out in 2019 that tells the story of tech and venture is “Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took on Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime”, by Julian Guthrie. I find it a fascinating read (even if I weren’t included) – with stories that speak to both men and women, to the deals won and lost (Skype, Imperva, F5, Trulia, Facebook, Salesforce and more) and to the history of Silicon Valley through the lens of four outsiders. Despite having to pave their own path, the women jumped in headfirst in the pursuit of their dreams. You will walk away with a different view of how it is to be a woman in this male-dominated industry, and you will get a sense of the important role of male allies. “Alpha Girls” shows that women have long been “hidden figures” behind big companies and key deals. Finally, their stories are being told.

Summary: Silicon Valley’s massive gender gap is no secret, particularly in the notorious ‘boys and bros’ club that is the venture capital industry. In “Alpha Girls” The Women Upstarts Who Took on Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime”, esteemed business journalist, international best-selling author and multi-time Pulitzer nominee Julian Guthrie details the career paths of four leading female VCs (disclosure: our respondent Theresia Guow is one of them) that have played major roles in shaping today’s tech and startup landscape.

Through first-hand accounts, Guthrie explores how Theresia, Magdalena Yesil (Broadway Angels, Salesforce, US Venture Partners), Mary Jane Elmore (Broadway Angels, Institutional Venture Partners (IVP)), and Sonja Hoel Perkins (Broadway Angels, Menlo Ventures) first found there way to the male-dominated world of venture capital, the strategies they used to find recurring success, and how they navigated the structural disadvantages of an industry built for others.

“Alpha Girls” offers tremendous, difficult-to-find depth around the professional, personal, and familial scenarios underrepresented groups in VC encounter as they look to challenge the status quo, find personal success and redefine an entire industry.

Price: $14 on Amazon

Mamoon Hamid, Kleiner Perkins

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Hadit

Penguin Press / 352 pages / September 2018

Our world is rapidly shifting around us – from evolving social norms, to the external stimuli that impact our well-being. It’s a new pace that is acutely felt in how we are raising and educating our kids and young adults. This book deeply explores the societal ramifications, and offers perspective about how we may be doing it all wrong.

Summary: “The Coddling of the American Mind” is a provocative sociological dive into how commonly-accepted modern social and parenting practices have led to increased agitation and tension in today’s youth. Written by attorney, public advocate, and First Amendment specialist Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist and NYU professor of ethical leadership Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind” introduces its thesis by examining issues of censorship and free speech on college campuses, which are occurring at a more frequent clip than ever before.

As the authors debate the potential negative impacts that an overly partisan culture of “safety-ism” might have on mental health and development, they retrace the historical social trends and cultural transformations that led to today’s conditions. 

Price: $17 on Amazon

Maha Ibrahim, Canaan

The Back Channel by William Burns

Random House / 512 pages / March 2019

For the last two years, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a Trustee for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where Bill Burns serves as President. Bill is the consummate statesman and has been a central figure in international diplomacy for decades. The depth of his knowledge is a testament to his commitment to international order and peace. “The Back Channel” provides readers with an inside look into his career in foreign service, from the Cold War and Middle East affairs to modern-day Russia. My respect for Bill was immense before I read the book and it only grew bigger with every chapter.

Summary: Throughout his illustrious, nearly thirty-year career in foreign service, William Burns has held titles that include the US ambassador to Russia and the Deputy Secretary of State. Burns’ memoirs, “The Back Channel,” focuses on the biggest policy decisions of Burns’ tenure.

Burns uses his own notes, declassified State Department documents and primary-source, first-hand analysis to offer up some inside baseball and help readers understand the strategic rationale and key considerations behind some of the most important U.S. foreign policy decisions that have shaped the global geopolitical landscape over the last two decades.

Price: $13 on Amazon

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Dey Street Books / 592 pages / September 2019

Ambassador Power is an icon of courage, compassion and resolve. During her recent book tour, I was fortunate enough to interview her and was struck by her humanity. The stories she writes about her impressive career are both powerful and personal. Ambassador Power immigrated to the US as a child and has since dedicated her life to human rights and equality. She is my age and has accomplished so much in her life, most recently as US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama. I don’t know anyone who, at 22, would voluntarily become a war correspondent (in Bosnia). I suspect she will one day run for political office and I will be a big supporter.

Summary: “Education of an Idealist” is the memoir of former US Ambassador to the United Nations and Pulitzer-award-winning author Samantha Power, detailing her journey from a child in Ireland, to an immigrant growing up in the US, through her Ivy League undergrad and legal education, all the way through her careers in journalism and public advocacy and her time working as a senior advisor to President Barack Obama. Even from a purely narrative perspective, Power’s lengthy journey, which brought her across the globe through warzones and revolutions long before her career in politics, is incredibly compelling on its own.

But Ambassador Power’s reflection offers even more value as she recounts how she overcame personal, professional and internal struggles as she traversed different geographies, environments and stages of her career and life.

Additionally, Power’s writing also offers up valuable lessons for those in the startup world. Power’s move from an external public advocate to a government policymaker, in a roundabout way (or at least in the eyes of startup nerds like us), provides a unique look into the transition, differences and challenges one may come across when moving from an externally focused role to an operational one.

Price: $18 on Amazon 

Jennifer Fonstad, Owl Capital

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich

Simon & Schuster / 416 pages / February 2017

As I read about impeachment proceedings, presidential elections, and racial tensions in today’s political climate, it begged the question – how did we get here?

While not knowing exactly what I was undertaking, I recently read the book, “The First Congress.” The book was a remarkable story about how both ordinary and extraordinary people took the ‘startup’ that was the United States in 1789 and launched us on a remarkable ride.

The book takes us through the critical decisions made by the country’s very first Congress, 1789-1791. This includes establishing the Supreme Court, passing the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution (later called the Bill of Rights), establishing the country’s first revenue ‘stream,’ and picking the location of the nation’s capital (putting our country’s hero – George Washington, in a different light).

It’s hard to fathom our nation as a startup. The country was fresh off of its failure as a Confederation of States, deeply in debt, with no source of revenue yet established. Two of the states had not yet ‘signed on’ to the whole enterprise. And while the Constitution put forth certain operating principles, it fell to this group of men (yes, all men and all white) to put many of the mechanisms in place that still guide and define us today. As one always trying to do what I do better and learn from the past, this was a terrific lesson in both getting this startup off the ground as well as the intended and unintended consequences of those decisions.

Summary: Writer and historian Fergus Bordewich’s “The First Congress” puts us in the room for the First Congress in our country’s history, which saw the admission of several states into the union, the passing of the Bill of Rights and several other of the biggest decisions that shaped the United States.

The book details how the founding fathers debated the United States’ structural and operational systems including the American legal system and national banking system. Additionally, “The First Congress” highlights an interesting yet often overlooked period of US history, where the country was essentially functioning like a startup, grinding and building from scratch, having to create mission statements, organizational hierarchies, operational systems, or otherwise for the very first time.

Price: $12 on Amazon

 


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Review: Driving the track-ready, race-banned McLaren Senna GTR

01:38 | 6 December

The McLaren Senna GTR shouldn’t exist.

This feat of engineering and design isn’t allowed on public roads. It’s built for the track, but prohibited from competing in motorsports. And yet, the GTR is no outlier at McLaren. It’s part of their Ultimate Series, a portfolio of extreme and distinct hypercars that now serve as the foundation of the company’s identity and an integral part of their business model.

The P1, introduced in 2012, was McLaren Automotive’s opening act on the hypercar stage and was an instant success for both the brand and its business. McLaren followed it up with the P1 GTR, then went on to chart a course toward the Ultimate Series of today and beyond.

Since 2017, the automaker has added the Senna, Speedtail, Senna GTR and now the open-cockpit Elva to the Ultimate Series portfolio. While the GTR is certainly the most extreme and limited in how and where it can be used, it follows a larger pattern of the Ultimate Series as being provocatively designed with obsessive intent.

Automotive takes the wheel

Purpose-built race cars that call on every modern tool of engineering and design have historically been produced for one purpose: winning. This objective, nourished by billions of dollars of investment from the motorsports industry, has led to technological and performance breakthroughs that have eventually trickled down to automotive.

The pipeline that has produced a century of motorsports-driven innovation is narrowing as racing regulations become more restrictive. Now, a new dynamic is taking shape. Automotive is taking the technological lead.

mclaren-car-stats-final

Take the McLaren Senna road car, the predecessor to the GTR. McLaren had to constrain the design of the Senna to make it road legal. But the automaker loaded it with active aerodynamics and chassis control systems that racing engineers could only dream about.

McLaren wasn’t finished. It pushed the bounds further and produced a strictly track-focused and unconstrained race car that expands upon the Senna’s lack of conformity. The Senna GTR might be too advanced and too fast for any racing championship, but McLaren said to hell with it and made the vehicle anyway.

The bet paid off. All 75 Senna GTR hypercars, which start at $1.65 million, sold before the first one was even produced.

The Senna GTR is the symbol of a new reality — a hypercar market that thrives on the ever-more-extreme, homologation standards be damned.

Two weeks ago, I had a chance to get behind the wheel of the Senna GTR at the Snetterton Circuit in the U.K. to find out how McLaren went about developing this wholly unconstrained machine.

Behind the wheel

Rr-rr-rr-kra-PAH! The deafening backfire of the GTR’s 814-horsepower 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 engine snapped me to attention and instantly transported me to the moment earlier in the day that provided the first hints of what my drive might be like.

Rob Bell, the McLaren factory driver who did track development for the GTR, was on hand to get the car warmed up. Shortly after he set out, the car ripped down the front-straight, climbing through RPMs with an ear-protection-worthy scream that reverberated off every nearby surface, an audible reminder of how unshackled it is.

As Bell approached Turn 1, the rear wing quickly dropped back to its standard setting from the straightaway DRS (drag reduction system) position, then to an even more aggressive airbrake as he went hard to the brakes from 6th gear down to 5th to 4th. The vehicle responded with the signature kra-PAH! kra-PAH! and then promptly discharged huge flames out the exhaust as the anti-lag settings keep a bit of fuel flowing off-throttle.

I thought to myself, ‘Holy sh*t! This thing is no joke!’

McLaren Senna GTR driver

Sliding into the driver’s seat, I feel at home. The cockpit is purposeful. The track was cold with some damp spots, and the GTR is a stiff, lightweight race car with immense power on giant slick tires. Conventional wisdom would suggest the driver — me in this case — should slowly work up to speed in these otherwise treacherous conditions. However, the best way to get the car to work is to get temperature in the tires by leaning on it a bit right away. Bell sent me out in full “Race” settings for both the engine and electronic traction and stability controls. Within a few corners — and before the end of the lap — I had a good feel for the tuning of the ABS, TC and ESC, which were all intuitive and minimally invasive.

As a racing driver, it’s rare to feel a tinge of excitement just to go for a drive. As professionals, driving is a clinical exercise. But the GTR triggered that feeling.

I started by pushing hard in slower corners and before long worked my way up the ladder to the fast, high-commitment sections. The car violently accelerated up through the gears, leaving streaks of rubber at the exit of every corner.

Once the car is straight, drivers can push the DRS button to reduce drag and increase speed for an extra haptic kick. The DRS button is now a manual function on the upper left of the steering wheel to give the driver more control over when it’s deployed. After hitting the DRS, the car dares you to keep your right foot planted on the throttle, then instantly hunkers down under braking with a stability I’ve rarely experienced.McLaren Senna GTR drive

The active rear wing adds angle while the active front flaps take it out to counterbalance the effect of the car’s weight shifting forward onto the front axle, letting you drive deeper and deeper into each corner. It’s sharply reactive; the GTR stuck to the road, but still required a bit of driving with my fingertips out at the limit on that cold day. I soon discovered that the faster I went, the more downforce the car generated, and the more speed I was able to extract from it.

Tip to tail

In almost any other environment, the Senna road car is the most shocking car you’ve ever seen. Its cockpit shape is reminiscent of a sci-fi spaceship capsule. The enormous swan neck-mounted rear wing is one highlight in a long list of standout features. The Senna road car looks downright pedestrian next to the GTR.

McLaren Senna GTR doors

The rear wing stretches off the back of the car with sculpted carbon fiber endplates and seamlessly connects to the rear fender bodywork. The diffuser that emerges from the car’s underbody — creating low pressure by accelerating the airflow under the car for added downforce — is massive. The giant 325/705-19 Pirelli slicks are slightly exposed from behind, giving you the full sense of just how much rubber is on the ground, and the sharp edges of the center exit exhaust tips are already a bluish-purple tint.

The cockpit shape and dihedral doors are instantly recognizable from the road car. But inside, the GTR is all business. The steering wheel is derived from McLaren’s 720S GT3 racing wheel, a butterfly shape with buttons and rotary switches aplenty. The dash is an electronic display straight out of a race car; six-point belts and proper racing seats complete the aesthetic.

McLaren Senna GTR cockpit

Arriving at the front of the car, the active front wing-flaps are as prominent as ever, while the splitter extends several inches farther out in front of the car and is profiled with a raised area in the center to reduce pitch sensitivity given the car’s much lower dynamic ride-height. In fact, nearly the entire front end of the car has been tweaked; there are additional dive-planes, the forward facing bodywork at the sides of the car have been squared-off and reshaped, and an array of vortex generators have been carved into the outer edge of the wider, bigger splitter surface.

All of these design choices in the front point to the primary area of development from the Senna road-car to the GTR: maximizing its l/d or ratio of lift (in this case the inverse of lift, downforce) to drag.

McLaren pulled two of its F1 aerodynamicists into the GTR project to take the car’s aero to a new level. The upshot: a 20% increase in the car’s total downforce compared to the Senna road car, while increasing aero efficiency — the ratio of downforce to drag — by an incredible 50%. The car is wider, lower and longer than its road-going counterpart, and somehow looks more properly proportioned with its road-legal restrictions stripped away to take full advantage of its design freedom.

McLaren Senna GTR back

This was the car the Senna always wanted to be.

The development process of the GTR was short and to the point. When you have F1 aerodynamicists and a GT3 motorsport program in-house attacking what is already the most high-performing production track car in the industry, it can be. There were areas they could instantly improve by freeing themselves of road-car constraints — the interior of the car could be more spartan; the overall vehicle dimensions and track width could increase; the car would no longer need electronically variable ride heights for different road surfaces so the suspension system could be more purposeful for track use; the car would have larger, slick tires.

All this provided a cohesive mechanical platform upon which to release the aerodynamic assault of guided simulation and CFD.

Senna GTR CFD1 aero side

The GTR benefits from the work of talented humans and amazing computer programs working together with a holistic design approach. What was once a sort of invisible magic, aerodynamics has become a well-understood means of generating performance. But you still have to know what you’re seeking to accomplish; the priorities for a car racing at Pikes Peak are much different than those of a streamliner at Bonneville.

The development team for the GTR sought to maximize the total level of downforce that the tires could sustain, then really kicked their efforts into gear to clean up airflow around the car as much as possible. Many of the aggressive-looking design elements that differentiate the GTR from the Senna are not just for additional downforce but to move air around the car with less turbulence — less turbulent air means less drag. You can’t see it or feel it, but it certainly shows up on the stopwatch, and is often the difference between a car that just looks fast and one that actually is.

I hadn’t asked how fast the car was relative to other GT race cars before I drove it. I think a part of me was fearful that despite its appearance and specs it might be wholly tuned down to be sure it was approachable for an amateur on a track day. And that would make sense, as that’s the likely use-case this car will have. After driving the GTR, I didn’t hesitate for a second to ask, to which they humbly said that it’s seconds faster than their own McLaren 720S GT3 car, and still had some headroom.The Senna GTR is another exercise in exploring the limits of technology, engineering and performance for McLaren, enabled by a market of enthusiasts with the means to support it. And this trend is likely to continue unless motorsports changes the rules to allow hypercars.

McLaren’s next move

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, organizers of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has been working for years to develop regulations that could include them. While these discussions are gaining momentum, it remains to be seen whether motorsport can provide a legitimate platform for the hypercar in the modern era.

The last time this kind of exercise was embarked on was more than 20 years ago during the incredible but short-lived GT1-era at Le Mans that spanned from 1995 to 1998. It saw McLaren, Porsche, Mercedes and others pull out all the stops to create the original hypercars — in most cases comically unroadworthy homologation specials like the Porsche 911 GT1 Strassenversion (literally “street version”) and Mercedes CLK GTR — for the sole purpose of becoming the underpinnings of a winning race car on the world’s stage.

At that time, the race cars made sense to people; the streetcars were misfits of which only the necessary minimum of 25 units were produced in most cases, and the whole thing collapsed due to loopholes, cost, politics and the lack of any real endgame.

Today, the ACO benefits from a road-going hypercar market that McLaren played a key role in developing. Considering McLaren’s success with hyper-specific specialized vehicles in recent years, I’d bet the automaker could produce a vehicle custom-tailored to a worthy set of hypercar regulations. Even if not, McLaren will continue to develop and sell vehicles under its Ultimate Series banner.

And there’s already evidence that McLaren is doubling down. 

McLaren Elva

McLaren shows off the open cockpit Elva.

McLaren’s Track 25 business plan targets $1.6 billion in investment toward 18 new vehicles between 2018 and 2025. The company’s entire portfolio will use performance-focused hybrid powertrains by 2025.

The paint had barely dried on the Senna GTR before McLaren introduced another new vehicle, the Elva. And more are coming. McLaren is already promising a successor to the mighty P1. I, for one, am looking forward to what else they have in store.

 


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Week in Review: Apple’s rebirth as a content company has a forgettable debut

16:00 | 1 December

Hey everyone. Thank you for welcoming me into you inboxes yet again.

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. After dodging your inboxes for a couple weeks as I ventured off to China for a TechCrunch event in Shenzhen, I am rested up and ready to go.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

When Apple announced details on their three new subscription products (Apple TV+, Apple Arcade and Apple News+ — all of which are now live) back in March, the headlines that followed all described accurately how Apple’s business was increasingly shifting away from hardware towards services and how the future of the company may lie in these subscription businesses.

I largely accepted those headlines as fact, but one thing I have been thinking an awful lot about this week is how much I have loved Disney+ since signing up for an account and just how little I have thought about Apple TV+ despite signing up for both at their launches.

It’s admittedly not the fairest of comparisons, Disney has decades of classic content behind them while Apple is pushing out weekly updates to a few mostly meh TV shows. But no one was begging Apple to get into television. The company’s desires to diversify and own subscriptions that consumers have on their Apple devices certainly make sense for them, but their strategy of making that play without the help of any beloved series before them seems to have been a big miscalculation.

At TechCrunch, we write an awful lot about acquisitions worth hundreds of million, if not billions, of dollars. Some of the acquisitions that have intrigued me the most have been in the content space. Streaming networks are plunking down historic sums on series like Seinfeld, Friends and The Big Bang Theory. The buyers have differed throughout these deals, but they have never been Apple.

That’s because Apple isn’t bidding on history, they’re trying to nab directors and actors creating the series that will be the next hits. And while that sounds very Apple, it also sounds like a product that’s an awfully big gamble to the average consumer looking to try out a new streaming service. Why pick the service that’s starting from a standstill? Apple has ordered plenty of series and I have few doubts that at least one of the shows they plan to introduce is going to be a hit, but there isn’t much in the way of an early favorite yet and for subscribers that haven’t found “the one” yet, there’s very little reason to stick around.

Apple tv plus tv app 091019

Other networks with a half-dozen major series can afford a few flops because there’s a library of classics that’s filling up the dead space. Apple’s strategy is bold but is going to lead to awfully high churn among consumers that won’t be as forgiving of bad bets. This is an issue that’s sure to become less pronounced over time, but I would bet there will be quite a few consumers unsubscribing in the mean time leaving those on freebie subscriptions responsible for gauging which new shows are top notch.

Apple has also made the weird move of not housing their content inside an app so much as the Apple TV’s alternative UI inside the TV app. One one hand, this makes the lack of content less visible, but it also pushes all of the original series to the back of your mind. If you’re a Netflix user who has been subconsciously trained never to use the TV app on your Apple TV because none of their content is housed there, you’re really left forgetting about TV+ shows entirely when using the traditional app layout.

We haven’t received any super early numbers on Apple News+, Apple Arcade or Apple TV+, but none of the three appears to have made the sizable cultural splashes in their debuts that were hoped for at launch. Apple’s biggest bet of the three was undoubtedly TV+ and while their first series haven’t seemed to drop any jaws, what’s more concerning is whether the fundamentals of the service have been arranged so that unsatisfied subscribers feel any need to stick around.

Send me feedback
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lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Image via AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Facebook buys a game studio building Light saber Fruit Ninja
    One of the things I wrote about this week was Facebook buying the game studio behind one of virtual reality’s most popular titles, Beat Saber. No details on a price tag for the deal, but the buy brings the hop IP underneath Facebook’s corporate umbrella which seems poised to be eying more VR content acquisitions.
  • Twitter plans for account memorials
    Almost any time Twitter decides to make a big product change, one gets the feeling it was either snuck through or brute-forced by the CEO or another exec. That’s because there often doesn’t seem to be a lot of consideration for caveats that users seem to collectively identify almost immediately. This week was time for another one of these situations, after Twitter announced it was planning to deactivate old unused Twitter accounts en masse, something users realized was just going to lead to deactivating deceased people’s accounts and erasing what they had ever tweeted. Twitter, to their credit, decided to pause and rethink things.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Google appears to bring the hammer down on activism:
    [Google employee activist says she has been fired]

Disrupt Berlin

DISRUPT SF 530X350 V2 berlin

It’s hard to believe it’s already that time of the year again, but we just announced the agenda for Disrupt Berlin and we’ve got some all-stars making their way to the stage. I’ll be there this year, get some tickets and come say hey!

Sign up for more newsletters in your inbox (including this one) here.

 


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Nix Pro 2 and Nix Mini color sensors are powerful, easy-to-use additions to any creative pro toolkit

16:59 | 28 November

Translating the physical world to the digital has been a challenge, especially when it comes to things like color: Color isn’t actually all that static a thing, and the myriad displays and cameras we use can represent them in very different ways. But new gadgets from startup Nix can help cut through the confusion – the Nix line of color sensors, including the accessible Nix Mini (normally $99) and the more sophisticated Nix Pro 2 (normally $349).

These devices are deceptively simple in their use and construction, but do one job remarkably well – with a lot going on behind the scenes to make that possible. They’re main purpose is to give you a digital interpretation of an analog color, which could be the color of any surface you come across. To do this, they house a small lens and sensor inside a diamond-shaped plastic enclosure. Both the Mini and the Pro are easily pocketable, but the Mini is about the diameter of a large coin, while the Pro feels more like a golf ball in the hand.

The sensors include built-in batteries that charge via Micro USB, and since they aren’t really using that much power when in operation, you can get around 3,000 individual surface scans out of a single full battery. Using them is also fantastically easy: You download an app (Nix has three, including one for digital color capture, one for paint, and one for Pro users with additional info useful for professional paint shops and other applications), pair one of the devices (they should show up automatically once charged) and then tap a button in the app to scan a surface, holding the Nix up to said surface.

The process is super quick, and provides different results depending on which app you’re using. In the Nix Paints app, once you select your preferred brand, it’ll give you the closes possible off-the-shelf matches, which is great if you’re doing patch work or repainting a portion of your house. You can also get a palette of complimentary or otherwise matching colors for redecorating. And the ‘Digital’ app lets you see all the HEX and other values you’d use for web or digital product design, and also build palettes that work together for project work.

[gallery ids="1917679,1917680,1917681,1917682"]

Nix Pro provides a range of color readouts that are used by professionals for super-accurate matching and measurement, and you can again use the built-in paint library to match accurately, or the color values to have a batch custom mixed to your specifications.

Nix can scan just about any surface, including all types of paints and fabrics, as well as tile and other flooring. It’s an accessory that really makes quick and painless what has been a pretty messy process in the past, and it also comes calibrated out of the box so there’s nothing the user has to do to ensure color accuracy when actually using it.

 


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