The Punkt MP02 inches closer to what a minimalist phone ought to be

There’s an empty space in my heart for a minimalist phone with only the most basic functions. Bad for my heart, but good for a handful of companies putting out devices aiming to fill it. Punkt’s latest, the MP02, goes a little ways to making the device I desire, but it isn’t quite there yet. Punkt’s first device included just texting and calling, which would likely have worked as intended if not for the inconvenient choice to have it connect only to 2G networks. These networks are being shut down and replaced all over the world, so you would have ended up with a phone that was even more limited than you expected. The MP02 is the sequel, and it adds a couple useful features. It runs on 4G LTE networks, which should keep it connected for years to come, and it has gained both threaded texting (rather than
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Sen. Harris tells federal agencies to get serious about facial recognition risks

Facial recognition technology presents myriad opportunities as well as risks, but it seems like the government tends to only consider the former when deploying it for law enforcement and clerical purposes. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) has written the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Trade Commission, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission telling them they need to get with the program and face up to the very real biases and risks attending the controversial tech. In three letters provided to TechCrunch (and embedded at the bottom of this post), Sen. Harris, along with several other notable legislators, pointed out recent research showing how facial recognition can produce or reinforce bias, or otherwise misfire. This must be considered and accommodated in the rules, guidance, and applications of federal agencies. Other lawmakers and authorities have sent letters to various companies and CEOs or held hearings, but representatives for Sen. Harris explained that there is
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Loot boxes face scrutiny from an international coalition of gambling authorities

The world of online gaming is changing so quickly that players, developers, publishers and regulators are all scrambling to keep up with each other. Case in point: loot boxes, randomized in-game rewards that may or may not have monetary value or be purchasable with real money, are after years of deployment only now being scrutinized globally for being what amounts to thinly veiled gambling. A suggestive new study from British researchers and a just-announced coalition of governments are the latest indicators that the loot box phenomenon and its derivatives likely won’t continue to be the wild west they’ve been for the last few years. Many factors have led games to resemble services or channels more than pieces of entertainment with a start and end. And that in turn has changed how these games are monetized. As an alternative to a $60 up-front cost or a $10/month subscription, a game may
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Boom’s chief test pilot on the thrill and challenge of going supersonic (again)

“There’s nothing like it out there,” says Commander Bill “Doc” Shoemaker (Ret.), chief test pilot for Boom Supersonic, the startup aiming to make a passenger airliner for transoceanic flights at speeds (as you might guess from the name) faster than sound. Shoemaker, a former Navy aviator, fighter pilot and aeronautics engineer, will have the daunting privilege of being the first to fly the company’s proof of concept single-seater during tests next year. That there’s nothing like Boom is not exactly a controversial opinion — there aren’t a lot of companies out there trying to resurrect supersonic flight. The Concorde is, after all, so well known a cautionary tale of engineering ambition exceeding the constraints of reality that it verges on hackneyed. But Shoemaker isn’t a Silicon Valley startup commentator, he’s a test pilot, and his perspective is that of someone who has worked on and flown dozens of
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NASA’s climate-monitoring space laser is the last to ride to space on a Delta II rocket

This weekend, NASA is launching a new high-tech satellite to monitor the planet’s glacier and sea ice levels — with space lasers, naturally. ICESat-2 will be a huge boon for climatologists, and it’s also a bittersweet occasion: it will be the final launch aboard the trusty Delta II rocket, which has been putting birds in the air for nearly 30 years. Takeoff is set for 5:46 AM Pacific Time Saturday morning, so you’ll have to get up early if you want to catch it. You can watch the launch live here, with NASA coverage starting about half an hour before. Keeping track of the Earth’s ice levels is more important than ever; with climate change causing widespread havoc, precise monitoring of major features like the Antarctic ice sheet could help climatologists predict and understand global weather patterns. Like Aeolus, which launched in July, ICESat-2 is a spacecraft with a
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California is ‘launching our own damn satellite’ to track pollution, with help from Planet

California plans to launch a satellite to monitor pollution in the state and contribute to climate science, Governor Jerry Brown announced today. The state is partnering with satellite imagery purveyor Planet to create a custom craft to “pinpoint – and stop – destructive emissions with unprecedented precision, on a scale that’s never been done before.” Governor Brown made the announcement in the closing remarks of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, echoing a pledge made two years ago to scientists at the American Geophysical Union’s 2016 meeting. “With science still under attack and the climate threat growing, we’re launching our own damn satellite,” Brown said today. Planet, which has launched hundreds of satellites in the last few years in order to provide near-real-time imagery of practically anywhere on Earth, will develop and operate the satellite. The plan is to equip it with sensors that can detect pollutants
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Senator claps back after Ajit Pai calls California’s net neutrality bill ‘radical’ and ‘illegal’

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has provoked a biting senatorial response from California after calling the “nanny state’s” new net neutrality legislation “radical,” “anti-consumer,” “illegal” and “burdensome.” Senator Scott Wiener (D-CA), in response, said Pai has “abdicated his responsibility to ensure an open internet” and that the FCC lacks the authority to intervene. The political flame war was kicked off this morning in Pai’s remarks at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market think tank. You can read them in full here, but I’ve quoted the relevant part below:
Of course, those who demand greater government control of the Internet haven’t given up. Their latest tactic is pushing state governments to regulate the Internet. The most egregious example of this comes from California. Last month, the California state legislature passed a radical, anti-consumer Internet regulation bill that would impose restrictions even more burdensome than those adopted by
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The iPhone SE was the best phone Apple ever made, and now it’s dead

I only wanted one thing out of 2018’s iPhone event: a new iPhone SE. In failing to provide it Apple seems to have quietly put the model out to pasture — and for this I curse them eternally. Because it was the best phone the company ever made. If you were one of the many who passed over the SE back in 2015, when it made its debut, that’s understandable. The iPhone 6S was the latest and greatest, and of course fixed a few of the problems Apple had kindly introduced with the entirely new design of the 6. But for me the SE was a perfect match. See, I’ve always loved the iPhone design that began with the 4. That storied phone is perhaps best remembered for being left in a bar ahead of release and leaked by Gizmodo — which is too bad, because for once the product
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SpaceX announces plan to announce plan to send someone around the moon in planned spaceship

It’s been too long without any kind of outlandish news from any of Elon Musk’s companies, but SpaceX has filled the void with the announcement of a newly redesigned BFR spacecraft and the news that it will fly around the moon with a soon-to-be-named first passenger. Whenever they get around to actually engineering and building the thing, anyway. In a tweet Thursday evening, SpaceX (though it was clearly Musk) announced that it has “signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle.” Attached to the tweet was an image of the BFR itself (above), much changed from its last appearance. It used to look like this: And now it looks like this: The old version was also two-toned, as you can see if you look closely at the ISS render, with the darker part likely corresponding to a heat-resistant surface.
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Nintendo’s NES Switch controllers activate the nostalgia centers (and wallets) of retro gamers

The news that Nintendo would be adding NES games to the Switch as part of its paid online service had a mixed reception, but the company has made up for this controversial decision by releasing wireless NES controllers to play those games with. At $60 they’re a bit steep, but come on. You know you’re going to buy them eventually. Probably next week. The controllers were revealed during the latest Nintendo Direct video news dump, alongside a host of other nostalgia bombs, like a new Animal Crossing and about a million Final Fantasy ports. But first the details of those sweet, sweet controllers. They’re definitely NES-style down to the buttons, meaning they aren’t going to replace your existing Switch Joy-Cons. There’s no force feedback, no shoulder buttons, no gyros. So why do they cost so much? Because Nintendo. At least they’re wireless and they charge up by slotting onto the
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This insect-inspired robot can fly a kilometer on a charge with its flappy wings

The incredible agility of the common house or fruit fly puts every drone and robot to shame, but devices inspired by them are beginning to catch up. A new four-winged flapping robot not only successfully imitates the fruit fly’s hyper-agile flying method, but can travel for up to a kilometer before running out of juice. Robotics researchers at the Delft University of Technology wanted to create a flying platform that could imitate and test theories on how insects fly the way they do, but without tethers or non-animal propulsion like propellers. It’s not just that they want a cool robot: the way insects respond to things like gusts of wind or an imminent slapping hand demonstrate incredible reaction times and control feedback, things that could inform autonomous craft like drones or even small airplanes. Wouldn’t it be nice to know your jet could autonomously and smoothly dodge a lightning bolt?
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The 7 most egregious fibs Apple told about the iPhone XS camera today

Apple always drops a few whoppers at its events, and the iPhone XS announcement today was no exception. And nowhere were they more blatant than in the introduction of the devices’ “new” camera features. No one doubts that iPhones take great pictures, so why bother lying about it? My guess is they can’t help themselves. To be clear, I have no doubt they made some great updates to make a good camera better. But whatever those improvements are, they were overshadowed today by the breathless hype that was frequently questionable and occasionally just plain wrong. Now, to fill this article out I had to get a bit pedantic, but honestly, some of these are pretty egregious.

“The world’s most popular camera”

There are a lot of iPhones out there, to be sure. But defining the iPhone as some sort of decade-long continuous camera, which Apple seems to be doing, is
more iPhone Event 2018 coverage
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Airbnb hosts are offering free rooms to people fleeing Hurricane Florence

With Hurricane Florence rapidly approaching the southeastern seaboard, many are leaving the area and seeking accommodation inland. Hopefully people have shelter lined up, but for a handful of those that don’t, Airbnb hosts are offering their spare rooms for free. Well over 300 hosts from Pennsylvania to Alabama are participating in Airbnb’s Disaster Response Program, by which they can easily offer their room or spare unit to people on the run from Mother Nature, free of charge. They don’t get anything out of it except presumably the satisfaction of helping someone in need. The units available are listed here, and you can (and should) activate your own spot by logging in and finding the “urgent accommodation” option. Technically you can opt to charge instead of be free, but that would be a bit rotten in this situation. You’ll need an account, of course, if you’re looking for a place
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Watch Apple’s ‘Mission: Impossible’ style spaceship HQ tour

Apple kicked off its hardware event today with a charming little video that did double promo duty, both introducing the event in a lighthearted way and giving a quick curated tour of the company’s new “spaceship” headquarters. We don’t always post Apple advertisements here at TechCrunch, but when we do, it’s because they actually show off something new. Well, kind of new, anyway. It’s nice to see it all in motion. A low aerial shot brings us into the scene, the top floor of the spaceship’s exterior, and as the opening strains of the “Mission: Impossible” theme start up, we see our protagonist (Alison, we find out later) blast out of a conference room. A couple of things to note here: the top floor (4, by the way) is filled with outward-facing rooms, surely of various sizes and functions, but the outermost ring, right next to the windows, is where
more iPhone Event 2018 coverage
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Ebay’s HeadGaze lets motor-impaired users navigate the site with head movements

The sophisticated head-tracking system like the one built into the iPhone X may have been intended for AR and security purposes, but it may also turn out to be very useful for people with disabilities. A proof of concept app from an eBay intern shows how someone with very little motor function can navigate the site with nothing but head movements. Muratcan Çiçek is one such person, and relies on assistive technology every day to read, work and get around. This year he was interning at eBay and decided to create a tool that would help people with motor impairments like his to shop online. Turns out there are lots of general-purpose tools for accessibility, like letting a user control a cursor with their eyes or a joystick, but nothing made just for navigating a site like eBay or Amazon. His creation, HeadGaze, relies on the iPhone X’s front-facing
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This unique vacuum-extraction coffee maker is Colombia’s own

If you had a cup of delicious coffee this morning, there’s a good chance those beans came from Colombia, which has famously been growing and selling them for centuries. But the country hasn’t produced any coffee makers — until now, anyway. The FrankOne is a clever device that puts a versatile vacuum-extraction technique in a compact, single-cup form factor. Of course, it’ll have to hit its Kickstarter goal first. Eduardo Umaña, the designer of the FrankOne, explained that he encountered the idea one day when chatting with a Colombian roaster. “He was making coffee then by using the ‘reverse french press’ method and I thought I could improve on that,” Umaña told me in an email. “Some time after, I got very curious to test what high vacuum brewed coffee would taste like. I did some simple experiments and was very surprised by the rich and sweet flavor. One thing
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Adobe supercharges Photoshop’s content-aware fill so you have more options, fewer AI fails

Everyone went nuts for Adobe’s “content-aware fill” in Photoshop when it came out. The boring-sounding feature is in fact an incredibly useful tool, essentially an AI-powered clone stamp that intelligently brought in other pieces of the image to replace your selection. But it still failed in hilarious ways that only an AI is capable of. That should happen a lot less with the hot new tools Adobe is shipping soon. Teased in a sneak peek video today, the new content-aware fill has a ton of new settings that shooters will love playing with. Photographers love tweaking things — that’s just a fact — and the more things they have to tweak, the better. So, what used to look like this… …and would occasionally produce results like this… …now has a whole right-hand menu full of lovely options to choose from. The most important difference is certainly the ability to
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SETI neural networks spot dozens of new mysterious signals emanating from distant galaxy

The perennial optimists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, have joined the rest of the world in deploying AI to help manage huge data sets — and their efforts almost instantly bore fruit. Seventy-two new “fast radio bursts” from a mysteriously noisy galaxy 3 billion miles away were discovered in previously analyzed data by using a custom machine learning model. To be clear, this isn’t Morse code or encrypted instructions to build a teleporter, à la Contact, or at least not that we know of. But these fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are poorly understood and may very well represent, at the very least, some hitherto unobserved cosmic phenomenon. FRB 121102 is the only stellar object known to give off the signals regularly, and so is the target of continued observation. The data comes from the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia (above), which was pointed toward this
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Vtrus launches drones to inspect and protect your warehouses and factories

Knowing what’s going on in your warehouses and facilities is of course critical to many industries, but regular inspections take time, money, and personnel. Why not use drones? Vtrus uses computer vision to let a compact drone not just safely navigate indoor environments but create detailed 3D maps of them for inspectors and workers to consult, autonomously and in real time. Vtrus showed off its hardware platform — currently a prototype — and its proprietary SLAM (simultaneous location and mapping) software at TechCrunch Disrupt SF as a Startup Battlefield Wildcard company. There are already some drone-based services for the likes of security and exterior imaging, but Vtrus CTO Jonathan Lenoff told me that those are only practical because they operate with a large margin for error. If you’re searching for open doors or intruders beyond the fence, it doesn’t matter if you’re at 25 feet up or 26. But inside
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CB Therapeutics’ lab-grown cannabinoids could unlock new medicines and make others affordable

Marijuana may still be on shaky legal ground, but the therapeutic benefits of the psychoactive molecules — cannabinoids — inside the plant are solidly established. Unfortunately, cultivation of that plant is resource-intensive and yields only tiny amounts of some useful medicines. CB Therapeutics, a new biotech company launching today at the Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield, aims to change the game with cannabinoids produced cleanly and cheaply in the lab — out of sugar. Co-founder and CEO Sher Ali Butt says the idea struck him when he was working at cannabis testing lab Steep Hill. CBD, a compound found in the plant but in much lower concentrations than THC, the primary intoxicant, was producing extremely helpful pain and anxiety alleviation for some people without a high. The medicinal possibilities were obvious, but high-CBD strains of cannabis are not only uncommon, but a pain to cultivate and process for that purpose.
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