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No place is safe from failing US infrastructure

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In the face of rising homelessness, increasing crime and inadequate public transit in San Francisco, many tech influencers are pulling up stakes to geographies that offer a seemingly more welcome climate to conduct business and make investments. But the ongoing disaster in Texas makes one cold truth very clear: No place is safe from America’s failure to invest in infrastructure or take climate change seriously.

The shock of seeing the cradle of America’s energy industry crippled by its inability to prepare its own power grid for the “once in a century storms” that increasingly look to be coming every 10 years (a phenomenon that Texas Tech climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe calls “global weirding”) underscores a point that should have been plain years ago: By refusing to invest in adequate public infrastructure, the country’s leadership has failed to perform the basic duty of protecting the health and safety of its citizens.

And the shocks that result from these investment failures will affect anyone without the means or desire to leave the country entirely.

Decline

This failure reaches from the woefully inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic which is on track to kill half a million people in the U.S., to the millions across the country who faced a week without adequate heat, water and sometimes even food or shelter from the bitter cold bearing down on the nation.

The catastrophe also crystallizes the inanity of many of the issues currently consuming the technology community that holds itself in such high esteem as a pillar of rational discourse and as the architects of America’s future.

The investors, who decried California’s broken, over-regulated dystopia, are now trying to change their ZIP codes for broken, under-regulated dystopias.

The problem is that they’re moving without confronting the substantive issues that make these regions unlivable for large portions of the population. And that’s caused by a historic failure to engage in any politics that isn’t directly tied to the bottom line of the corporations these entrepreneurs have created or their investors have financed.

As Michael Solana, a vice president at Founders Fund, noted in a great piece on his Pirate Wires Substack:

The truth is, had tech workers actually assumed a significant measure of political influence, and led in local politics, San Francisco would today be one of the greatest cities in the world. But not only was such political influence not achieved, it was never attempted. Throughout the most recent technology boom of the last fifteen years, there has been almost no meaningful engagement in local politics from the industry.

Not that the deregulatory streak prized by many in the tech community would have solved Texas’s problem or Florida’s (California is a different kind of disaster).

In Texas, lack of regulations around construction and the state’s independent energy grid have made it more vulnerable to catastrophic climactic events — whether that’s 2017’s Hurricane Harvey or this year’s deadly winter storms, which killed Texans in their homes, vehicles and backyards.

California can claim that its grid failed by fewer megawatts than Texas’s — but the overall result from the natural disasters, blackouts, billions of dollars lost and scores of deaths are much the same.

Surveying this broken world, many in the tech community have decided that the best result is to try the same thing somewhere else. But they’re going to face many of the same problems in Florida or Texas.

Homeowners concerned about construction lowering the value of their properties? Check. Rampant income inequality? Check. Reluctance to put in effective oversight that could ensure failures don’t occur? Check.

The difference those states offer is lower taxes for the wealthy, which means more of an ability to pay privately for the services to ensure that the burdens of climate change don’t fall on these billionaires in their new waterfront homes.

The through-line in all of this is a cynicism and abdication of responsibility papered over by the thinnest lips paying the smallest amount of service to solving climate problems.

One step forward, eleventy-seven back

Don’t think that I’m merely being cynical about what some tech companies are doing when confronted with the rising catastrophe of climate change and decrepit American infrastructure.

Why else would Elon Musk commit $100 million to a carbon capture prize while his publicly traded energy company invests $1.5 billion in Bitcoin? Some analysts estimate that the deal and the resulting skyrocketing price of the cryptocurrency will erase all of the gains in emissions offsets from the use of every Tesla ever made.

“The immediate impact of Tesla’s buy is that the Bitcoin price went up by more than $5,000. We can estimate this will lead to the network consuming an additional 34 TWh of electrical energy per year. That’s about the size of a country like Denmark’s total annual electrical energy requirement. We can also estimate this will result in an additional 17 million metric tons of CO2 being put out by the network every year,” wrote Alex de Vries, the founder of the cryptocurrency analysis site, Digiconomist. “According to Tesla, the amount of CO2 saved by Tesla vehicles adds up to 3.7 million tons. The amount of additional CO2 produced by the Bitcoin network, as a result of Tesla’s buy, would thus amount to more than four times the amount of CO2 saved by all their vehicles to date.”

Some argue that Bitcoin mining uses a disproportional amount of renewable energy to produce the cryptocurrency, but that argument is complicated by the seasonal sources of some renewables that miners (especially Chinese miners who produce the bulk of Bitcoin) rely on for power.

Tesla could potentially make more money from that investment than it has from the sale of cars and  has definitely boosted the emissions spewing mining processes that make Bitcoin’s digital printers go brrrrr.  All of which makes the company’s commitment to combating climate change look a bit specious.

Some hope?

The most frustrating thing about all of this is that entrepreneurs and investors are working on solutions to the climate crisis. Technologies exist that can help address some of the issues that confront these cities. And there’s billions to be made solving something that is very much an existential problem.

Unfortunately unlocking those billions in a timeframe that’s viable for society’s survival is going to require policy movement and the type of engagement that many tech investors would rather hand off to someone else as they move to more temperate, and tax advantaged, climates.

With the waters rising and the temperatures dropping, maybe those tax savings can buy a nice microgrid for power or a bigger boat. Given the projections that put the cost of climate change at nearly half a trillion dollars annually by the end of the century, it’d have to be a pretty big boat.

 

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Identiq, a privacy-friendly fraud prevention startup, secures $47M at Series A

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Israeli fraud prevention startup Identiq has raised $47 million at Series A as the company eyes international growth, driven in large part by the spike in online spending during the pandemic.

The round was led by Insight Partners and Entrée Capital, with participation from Amdocs, Sony Innovation Fund by IGV, as well as existing investors Vertex Ventures Israel, Oryzn Capital, and Slow Ventures.

Fraud prevention is big business, which is slated to be worth $145 billion by 2026, ballooning by eightfold in size compared to 2018. But it’s a data hungry industry, fraught with security and privacy risks, having to rely on sharing enormous sets of consumer data in order to learn who legitimate customers are in order to weed out the fraudsters, and therefore.

Identiq takes a different, more privacy-friendly approach to fraud prevention, without having to share a customer’s data with a third-party.

“Before now, the only way companies could solve this problem was by exposing the data they were given by the user to a third party data provider for validation, creating huge privacy problems,” Identiq’s chief executive Itay Levy told TechCrunch. “We solved this by allowing these companies to validate that the data they’ve been given matches the data of other companies that already know and trust the user, without sharing any sensitive information at all.”

When an Identiq customer — such as an online store — sees a new customer for the first time, the store can ask other stores in Identiq’s network if they know or trust that new customer. This peer-to-peer network uses cryptography to help online stores anonymously vet new customers to help weed out bad actors, like fraudsters and scammers, without needing to collect private user data.

So far, the company says it already counts Fortune 500 companies as customers.

Identiq said it plans to use the $47 million raise to hire and grow the company’s workforce, and aims to scale up its support for its international customers.

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Zynga acquires Echtra, maker of Torchlight 3, to double down on RPG games

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Games company Zynga has been on an acquisition tear the last several years to beef up its activity in particular in mobile and casual-puzzle games, spending over $3 billion to pick up a range of startups across Europe (specifically Turkey and Finland) in the process. Today, however, it’s taking a turn towards more immersive, highly graphic cross-platform experiences. The company has announced that it is acquiring San Francisco’s Echtra Games, the role-playing game publisher behind Torchlight III, which is available on Steam, XBox One, PS4 and Nintendo Switch.

The team will be working on releasing a new title in partnership with Zynga’s NaturalMotion studio, the company said. No other details on that were released for now.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. It’s also not clear who backed Echtra, if anyone.

But Echtra is in some ways a classic example of a gaming startup built out of a burning idea, rather than cold, calculated moneymaking — perhaps the best kind of company you can have.

Max Schaefer, the co-founder and CEO, had previously been at Runic Games, the developer of the original Torchlight series, as well as Diablo and others. Runic was shuttered by its owner, Perfect World, and so in 2016, Shaefer went on to form a new company, Echtra, with some of his Runic colleagues and others in the industry because he saw more life left in the franchise.

The plan will be to bring on Echtra’s team and expertise both to continue building the franchise and to more generally help Zynga build out more of a footprint in cross-platform games, and also gaming technology, in particular around tools built on Unreal Engine, the platform of choice at the moment for RPG and other immersive applications.

“Max and his team at Echtra Games are responsible for some of the most legendary game properties ever created, and they are experts in the action RPG genre and cross-platform development.  I’m excited to welcome the Echtra Games team into the Zynga family,” said Frank Gibeau, Chief Executive Officer of Zynga, in a statement. “This acquisition will be instrumental in growing our iconic licenses and brands from mobile to PCs and consoles, while helping to further expand Zynga’s total addressable market.”

“Echtra Games is delighted to be joining the Zynga family,” added Max Schaefer. “We share Zynga’s vision that cross-platform play is an essential part of the future of RPGs and interactive entertainment and are eager to apply our vast experience and talents to this effort.”

Gaming has been one of the bright spots in the last year — no surprise, since people are spending so much more time indoors and at home because of the pandemic. Zynga, as a consequence of that, has also been on a roll in recent times, with its fourth quarter earnings, released last month, beating analyst expectations. Its revenues of $616 million are the highest ever quarterly bookings posted by the company. Acquisitions are major part of its strategy these days, the company said at the time.

Going for more immersive RPG titles outside of mobile is an ambitious and potentially more expensive undertaking and is a very notable swerve away from the company’s acquisitions in recent years, which have included a majority stake in Turkey’s Rollic for $228 million, Peak for $2.1 billion, 80% of Small Giant Games for $718 million; and Gram Games for $299 million.

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Netflix to release 41 original Indian shows and movies this year

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Netflix said on Wednesday it will roll out 41 Indian films and shows this year, its biggest annual roster of Indian content to date, as the American giant makes further push to win subscribers in the world’s second largest internet market.

The streaming giant, which committed to spending about $420 million on locally produced Indian content in 2019 and 2020, is this year spending significantly more on the new Indian catalog, which is three times larger than the past two years combined.

The new titles feature high-profile Indian actors and producers including Madhuri Dixit, Karan Johar, Manoj Bajpayee, R. Madhavan, Raveena Tandon, Neena Gupta, and Dhanush.

The new roster includes “Bombay Begums,” which follows stories of five women across generations wrestling with desire, ethics, and personal crises, “Decoupled,” a comedy by writer Manu Joseph on India and marriage, and a second season of Emmy-winning drama “Delhi Crime.”

Also in the list are comedy specials that have become immensely popular on streaming services in India. Netflix said comedians including Sumukhi Suresh, Aakaash Gupta, Rahul Dua, and Prashasti Singh — all of whom have participated in comedy shows by Amazon Prime Video — will have shows on the streaming service this year.

Kota Factory, a show that debuted on YouTube about a group of students preparing to compete to get into the prestigious engineering colleges, will premier its second season on Netflix. The Viral Fever, the producer of the show, had collaborated with Indian edtech startup Unacademy, for the first season of the show.

Dice Media’s “Little Things”, which also began its life as native advertisement for a few firms but has since grown into its own show, is getting a fourth season this year.

“Our upcoming lineup features more variety and diversity than we have seen before. From the biggest films and series, to gripping documentaries and reality, and bold comedy formats. We are taking our next big leap in India to bring you more than 40 powerful and irresistible stories from all corners of the country,” said Monika Shergill, Vice President of Content at Netflix India.

“This is just a taste of the films and series to come. We are so excited to share these rich and diverse stories from the best and brightest creators and talent from India to the world,” said Shergill.

R. Madhavan and Surveen Chawla in a still from Netflix’s upcoming show “Decoupled.” (Netflix)

Netflix’s growing catalog in India comes as Bollywood, which churns out more movies than any other film industry, struggles to deliver big hits as theatres across the country report low footfall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, the Indian film industry began releasing several movies directly on streaming services after some pushback from several key players.

Karan Johar said at Netflix’s virtual press conference today that streaming services have attained the level of scale in India that the next “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” — one of the biggest blockbuster films in India, and also one produced by Johar — can release directly on Netflix.

Thanks to the availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data and proliferation of low-cost Android smartphones, more than half a billion Indians came online in the past decade, much of it in the last five years.

YouTube reaches more than 450 million internet users in India, TechCrunch reported in January. (India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad corroborated the figure at a press conference last month.) Disney’s Hotstar has amassed over 30 million paying subscribers in India. Media consulting firm MPA estimates that Netflix has about 5 million subscribers in India, a figure that has grown in recent years as the streaming service inked a deal with India’s largest telecom operator Jio Platforms.

Netflix’s growing focus on India also comes at a time when New Delhi is getting more involved with the nature of content on on-demand streaming services. Until now Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services have operated in India without having to worry too much about the nature of their content. But that’s changing, according to new rules announced by India last week.

“The category classification of a content will take into account the potentially offensive impact of a film on matters such as caste, race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality that may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion,” the new rules state.

Amazon issued a rare apology to viewers in India on Tuesday after some people — including lawmakers with governing Bhartiya Janata Party — objected to some scenes from its political mini-series “Tandav.” Netflix, itself, has faced some heat, too. A police case was filed against two top executives of Netflix, including Shergill, after some people objected to scenes of the show “A Suitable Boy.”

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