Technology

Technology

London museum is livestreaming a key 21st-century artifact—festering sewage

Enlarge / The last remaining piece of a monster fatberg that was discovered in Whitechapel sewers last September.

You can now feast your eyes on a festering chunk of solidified sewage as it ages, not-so-gracefully, inside a specially-designed isolation case that is being livestreamed from a museum in London.

Is there anything more 21st century than that?

The rancid refuse was chipped off an infamous sewer clog discovered in London late last year called the Whitechapel “Fatberg”—the preferred term for such muck monsters. The complete clog clocked in as an epic 250-meter-long, 130-metric ton mass of congealed excrement and waste, thought to be one of the largest—if not the largest—fatbergs ever identified. Authorities found it blocking a Victorian-era sewer line in the eastern Whitechapel area of the city. They spent nine long weeks in a subterranean war, hacking and blasting away the hardened blob of feces, fats, wet wipes, and various other detritus.

As Thames Water authorities donned biohazard suits to do battle in the bowels of the city using pressure hoses and shovels, curators at the Museum of London smelled a fresh opportunity to document our times.

“We always knew, I think, that it would have been a quirky story,” Andy Holbrook told Ars recently in an interview. He’s the collection care manager of the Department of Conservation and Collection Care at the Museum of London. The fatberg “kind of appeals to the child-like sense of things that are gross,” he explains. But at the same time the museum was running a season of themed exhibits called “City Now City Future.”

It was “all about thinking about how city infrastructure is and how it might be in the future,” Holbrook said. “The fatberg story fit really nicely into that.” With changing lifestyles, diets, and infrastructure, as well as growing populations, “maybe fatbergs are just a product of this time and we won’t have them in the future,” he said. That got the museum thinking: “this thing is like a piece of 21st-century archeology.”

Holbrook and his colleagues talked Thames Water into handing over a couple of manageable chunks. One is about the size of a shoebox while the other is a bit smaller. The rest of the dislocated fatberg is in the hands of a waste company that will convert it into 100,000 liters of biodiesel.

At the museum, curators tackled the novel challenge of trying to preserve the putrid pieces, packed with pathogens, feces, and hidden life. They built a three-box system to protect themselves and patrons from the toxic specimens and gave the chunks several months in quarantine to dry out and stabilize. The petrified hunks went from a brown, fecal color to more of a bone-like ivory, Holbrook said. In the museum, mold grew on them and flies hatched out. The chunks also went from smelling like pungent, raw sewage to a “damp Victorian basement.”

The team also sent stinky slivers off to a lab for analysis (PDF). There, chemists assessed the composition in terms of fats, metals, and fecal content. The main ingredient of the Whitechapel fatberg is palmitic acid, an unsaturated fat found in butter, palm oil, and olive oil, as well as meat, cheeses, and milk.

The current hypothesis for the fatberg’s formation is that that such fat from cooking residue and waste went down the drain, separated into a fatty layer on the wastewater surface, and reacted with calcium deposits to form a soap in a process called saponification. Such saponified solids then act as sticky scaffold that glom onto sewer walls, grow, and snare other debris, slowly forming a monstrous mass.

From February to the start of July, the museum put the extracted excrement on exhibit, describing it as something like the picture of Dorian Gray but for society: the dark, disgusting side of ourselves. It was a hit, to say the least. In addition to hordes of visitors and engagement with the museum, curators saw an unexpected artistic response to the petrified muck. There was a musical written about it and poems composed, Holbrook said. One young boy requested a fatberg-themed birthday cake.

One artist endeavored to recreate fatbergs representing different neighborhoods in London with the nuanced fatberg aromas. For instance, one fatberg replica was inspired by a hipster-dense area of the city. “It still had the strong smell of fatberg,” Holbrook said, but with notes of coffee and beard oil. Another representing an area with a high-density of Indian restaurants had a hint of curry in the background, Holbrook said.

It “has been pretty amazing,” he said, reflecting on all of the artistic responses.

The Fatberg livestream

Given the popularity, the museum moved to add the sewage to its permanent collection—and set up a livestream from quarantine. Even though the chunks are now in isolation, the action hasn’t stopped. Since the exhibits, the preserved fatberg has sprouted new mold growth, identified as aspergillus.

As for Thames Water, the utility hopes the fatberg frenzy helps encourage people to only flush down drains the “three Ps.” That is, pee, poop, and (toilet) paper.

Images of the fatberg chunks and analysis courtesy of the Museum of London

Technology

Seattle startup Rainway raises $1.5M to pursue vision of streaming games to any device

Rainway CEO Andrew Sampson at Techstars Seattle Demo Day in April. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Game-streaming technology startup Rainway has raised $1.5 million in seed funding to build out its team and expand its service for playing high-end video games on any device.

Startup Spotlight: Rainway lets people play PC games on any device

The funding from Palo Alto-based GoAhead Ventures is the latest sign of momentum for Rainway since it moved permanently from Atlanta to Seattle after participating in the Techstars Seattle startup accelerator this year.

Rainway makes a web-based platform that lets you access your PC or cloud service provider from any remote device to play games, transmitting your inputs and your games’ outputs back and forth. As long as your remote device is Internet-enabled and can run reasonably high-definition video (the current benchmark is whether or not it can run a YouTube video at 60 frames a second without buffering), you can play just about anything on it that your host computer can run, regardless of the remote device’s horsepower.

“We have demos of people playing games like Destiny 2 on a Chromebook or Fortnite on an Android tablet, or my favorite, an Intel Compute Stick running Overwatch,” said Andrew Sampson, Rainway’s CEO and co-founder.

Rainway is in an open beta, with almost 85,000 users, and is projected to hit 100,000 within the next couple of months. Its standard service is free, but its planned premium tier will give paid users additional options, such as extra seats in its party mode. The company plans to have Rainway out of beta by the end of the year.

The startup works out of Madrona Venture Group’s new Create33 space in Seattle, with a distributed workforce that stretches from Seattle to California, Canada, and Belgium. Sampson and Evan Banyesh, co-founder and CTO, moved to Seattle from Atlanta initially to participate in the TechStars program, before relocating permanently.

Demonstrating the capabilities of Rainway in his office, Sampson had an old IBM ThinkPad set up with Rainway, explaining that it was linked to a PC that was 150 miles away. I used it to play a few minutes of the 2016 Doom. As far as I could tell, the game might as well have been installed on the laptop in the office.

Sampson showed me a video he’d taken of Bandai Namco’s Project CARS running at high graphics settings via Rainway, streaming from San Francisco to Seattle via the WiFi network in a local Starbucks.

“We spend a lot of time trying to make sure that we can work on all the most public wifi networks, because we understood that a lot of people even today are on mobile networks,” he explained.

The Rainway client’s dashboard, from the official press kit.

Setting up Rainway’s reasonably simple. Download and install its client on your gaming computer, link Rainway to your Steam account, and leave the computer running with Rainway up. From there, you can connect to Rainway via a web browser with your remote device to play your games. Someone in the room with your computer will see it launch and run games seemingly by itself, as with a remote desktop. There’s an option in the works to run games via Rainway in a “hidden desktop” mode, which would allow someone else to use the computer as you’re accessing it.

The application is strictly peer-to-peer, without much data passing through Rainway’s servers besides some brokerage information and metadata. In the event your connection drops, the program is set up to automatically respond by pausing the game, typically by acting as if you’d hit the Escape key.

“The goal is to keep the latency as low as possible so that you can have this really high-fidelity experience,” Sampson says. “You can feel like you’re sitting in front of your PC at home no matter where you’re at. Our goal ultimately is to bring PC gaming to every screen that has an Internet connection.”

Another potentially interesting application for Rainway is that you can use it to “trick” games into an online multiplayer mode. For example, the recent release Cuphead only offers “couch co-op”: you can play it cooperatively with a friend, but that friend has to be in the room with you, playing on the same computer. Via Rainway, however, you can have a friend remotely dial into your system to play the game with you. (Did you ever use third-party tools back in the day to trick your original Xbox into system linking to distant consoles so you could play the first Halo online? It’s a lot like that.)

Rainway’s new in-game user interface. (Rainway Image)

This can be done via an upcoming feature that Sampson calls “party mode,” where you can start a lobby, send your friends an invite link, and immediately start playing the game together.

Banyesh and Sampson, who met in 2016, initially started working on a different project.

“The goal was to bring the computer into the browser, so everything from file browsing to task management and screen sharing, all in the web browser,” Sampson said. “We’d use this to manage a network of computers all from a single interface, and we would license this to other companies for their use internally.

“We built a lot of interesting technology, but at the end of the day, we realized one, we weren’t really passionate about it. I think we were building technology in search of a problem, an two, sales suck. I don’t personally like sales and I hope I never have to do sales like that again… What we ended up doing was looking at our users, because we had an end-user version that you could download, and we saw that most people were using it to play video games.

“So it made sense to us at that point to pivot. Let’s take this one core feature that everyone loves so much, optimize it for gaming, and turn that into a product. We started doing that in March of 2017, and here we are.”

Rainway says it will use the new funding initially to grow its team, which numbered nine prior to the investment, with the goal of accelerating its development on platforms such as Android, iOS and game consoles.

Technology

Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics

When we think about designing our dream home, we don’t think of having a thousand roommates in the same room with no doors or walls. Yet in today’s workplace where we spend most of our day, the purveyors of corporate office design insist that tearing down walls and bringing more people closer together in the same physical space will help foster better collaboration while dissolving the friction of traditional hierarchy and office politics.

But what happens when there is no office at all?

This is the reality for Jason Fried, Founder and CEO of Basecamp, and Matt Mullenweg, Founder and CEO of Automattic (makers of WordPress), who both run teams that are 100% distributed across six continents and many time zones. Fried and Mullenweg are the founding fathers of a movement that has inspired at least a dozen other companies to follow suit, including Zapier, Github, and Buffer. Both have either written a book, or have had a book written about them on the topic.

For all of the discussions about how to hire, fire, coordinate, motivate, and retain remote teams though, what is strangely missing is a discussion about how office politics changes when there is no office at all. To that end, I wanted to seek out the experience of these companies and ask: does remote work propagate, mitigate, or change the experience of office politics? What tactics are startups using to combat office politics, and are any of them effective?

“Can we take a step back here?”

Office politics is best described by a simple example. There is a project, with its goals, metrics, and timeline, and then there’s who gets to decide how it’s run, who gets to work on it, and who gets credit for it. The process for deciding this is a messy human one. While we all want to believe that these decisions are merit-based, data-driven, and objective, we all know the reality is very different. As a flood of research shows, they come with the baggage of human bias in perceptions, heuristics, and privilege.

Office politics is the internal maneuvering and positioning to shape these biases and perceptions to achieve a goal or influence a decision. When incentives are aligned, these goals point in same direction as the company. When they don’t, dysfunction ensues.

Perhaps this sounds too Darwinian, but it is a natural and inevitable outcome of being part of any organization where humans make the decisions. There is your work, and then there’s the management of your coworker’s and boss’s perception of your work.

There is no section in your employee handbook that will tell you how to navigate office politics. These are the tacit, unofficial rules that aren’t documented. This could include reworking your wardrobe to match your boss’s style (if you don’t believe me, ask how many people at Facebook own a pair of Nike Frees). Or making time to go to weekly happy hour not because you want to, but because it’s what you were told you needed to do to get ahead.

One of my favorite memes about workplace culture is Sarah Cooper’s “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings,” which includes…

  • Encouraging everyone to “take a step back” and ask “what problem are we really trying to solve”
  • Nodding continuously while appearing to take notes
  • Stepping out to take an “important phone call”
  • Jumping out of your seat to draw a Venn diagram on the whiteboard

Sarah Cooper, The Cooper Review

These cues and signals used in physical workplaces to shape and influence perceptions do not map onto the remote workplace, which gives us a unique opportunity to study how office politics can be different through the lens of the officeless.

Friends without benefits

For employees, the analogy that coworkers are like family is true in one sense — they are the roommates that we never got to choose. Learning to work together is difficult enough, but the physical office layers on the additional challenge of learning to live together. Contrast this with remote workplaces, which Mullenweg of Automattic believes helps alleviate the “cohabitation annoyances” that come with sharing the same space, allowing employees to focus on how to best work with each other, versus how their neighbor “talks too loud on the phone, listens to bad music, or eats smelly food.”

Additionally, remote workplaces free us of the tyranny of the tacit expectations and norms that might not have anything to do with work itself. At an investment bank, everyone knows that analysts come in before the managing director does, and leave after they do. This signals that you’re working hard.

Basecamp’s Fried calls this the “presence prison,” the need to be constantly aware of where your coworkers are and what they are doing at all times, both physically and virtually. And he’s waging a crusade against it, even to the point of removing the green dot on Basecamp’s product. “As a general rule, nobody at Basecamp really knows where anyone else is at any given moment. Are they working? Dunno. Are they taking a break? Dunno. Are they at lunch? Dunno. Are they picking up their kid from school? Dunno. Don’t care.”

There is credible basis for this practice. A study of factory workers by Harvard Business School showed that workers were 10% to 15% more productive when managers weren’t watching. This increase was attributed to giving workers the space and freedom to experiment with different approaches before explaining to managers, versus the control group which tended to follow prescribed instructions under the leery watch of their managers.

Remote workplaces experience a similar phenomenon, but by coincidence. “Working hard” can’t be observed physically so it has to be explained, documented, measured, and shared across the company. Cultural norms are not left to chance, or steered by fear or pressure, which should give individuals the autonomy to focus on the work itself, versus how their work is perceived.

Lastly, while physical workplaces can be the source of meaningful friendships and community, recent research by the Wharton School of Business is just beginning to unravel the complexities behind workplace friendships, which can be fraught with tensions from obligations, reciprocity and allegiances. When conflicts arise, you need to choose between what’s best for the company, and what’s best for your relationship with that person or group. You’re not going to help Bob because your best friend Sally used to date him and he was a dick. Or you’re willing to do anything for Jim because he coaches your kid’s soccer team, and vouched for you to get that promotion.

In remote workplaces, you don’t share the same neighborhood, your kids don’t go to the same school, and you don’t have to worry about which coworkers to invite to dinner parties. Your physical/personal and work communities don’t overlap, which means you (and your company) unintentionally avoid many of the hazards of toxic workplace relationships.

On the other hand, these same relationships can be important to overall employee engagement and well-being. This is evidenced by one of the findings in Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work Report, which surveyed over 1900 remote workers around the world. It found that next to collaborating and communicating, loneliness was the biggest struggle for remote workers.

Graph by Buffer (State of Remote Work 2018)

So while you may be able to feel like your own boss and avoid playing office politics in your home office, ultimately being alone may be more challenging than putting on a pair of pants and going to work.

Feature, not a bug?

Physical offices can have workers butting heads with each other. Image by UpperCut Images via Getty Images.

For organizations, the single biggest difference between remote and physical teams is the greater dependence on writing to establish the permanence and portability of organizational culture, norms and habits. Writing is different than speaking because it forces concision, deliberation, and structure, and this impacts how politics plays out in remote teams.

Writing changes the politics of meetings. Every Friday, Zapier employees send out a bulletin with: (1) things I said I’d do this week and their results, (2) other issues that came up, (3) things I’m doing next week. Everyone spends the first 10 minutes of the meeting in silence reading everyone’s updates.

Remote teams practice this context setting out of necessity, but it also provides positive auxiliary benefits of “hearing” from everyone around the table, and not letting meetings default to the loudest or most senior in the room. This practice can be adopted by companies with physical workplaces as well (in fact, Zapier CEO Wade Foster borrowed this from Amazon), but it takes discipline and leadership to change behavior, particularly when it is much easier for everyone to just show up like they’re used to.

Writing changes the politics of information sharing and transparency. At Basecamp, there are no all-hands or town hall meetings. All updates, decisions, and subsequent discussions are posted publicly to the entire company. For companies, this is pretty bold. It’s like having a Facebook wall with all your friends chiming in on your questionable decisions of the distant past that you can’t erase. But the beauty is that there is now a body of written decisions and discussions that serves as a rich and permanent artifact of institutional knowledge, accessible to anyone in the company. Documenting major decisions in writing depoliticizes access to information.

Remote workplaces are not without their challenges. Even though communication can be asynchronous through writing, leadership is not. Maintaining an apolitical culture (or any culture) requires a real-time feedback loop of not only what is said, but what is done, and how it’s done. Leaders lead by example in how they speak, act, and make decisions. This is much harder in a remote setting.

A designer from WordPress notes the interpersonal challenges of leading a remote team. “I can’t always see my teammates’ faces when I deliver instructions, feedback, or design criticism. I can’t always tell how they feel. It’s difficult to know if someone is having a bad day or a bad week.”

Zapier’s Foster is also well aware of these challenges in interpersonal dynamics. In fact, he has written a 200-page manifesto on how to run remote teams, where he has an entire section devoted to coaching teammates on how to meet each other for the first time. “Because we’re wired to look for threats in any new situation… try to limit phone or video calls to 15 minutes.” Or “listen without interrupting or sharing your own stories.” And to “ask short, open ended questions.” For anyone looking for a grade school refresher on how to make new friends, Wade Foster is the Dale Carnegie of the remote workforce.

To office, or not to office

What we learn from companies like Basecamp, Automattic, and Zapier is that closer proximity is not the antidote for office politics, and certainly not the quick fix for a healthy, productive culture.

Maintaining a healthy culture takes work, with deliberate processes and planning. Remote teams have to work harder to design and maintain these processes because they don’t have the luxury of assuming shared context through a physical workspace.

The result is a wealth of new ideas for a healthier, less political culture — being thoughtful about when to bring people together, and when to give people their time apart (ending the presence prison), or when to speak, and when to read and write (to democratize meetings). It seems that remote teams have largely succeeded in turning a bug into a feature. For any company still considering tearing down those office walls and doors, it’s time to pay attention to the lessons of the officeless.

Technology

From Stratolaunch to startup: Chuck Beames raises his sights to York’s satellites

York Space Systems satellite
An artist’s concept shows a York Space Systems satellite in orbit. (York Space Systems Illustration)

Two years ago, Chuck Beames presided over Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s effort to build the biggest airplane in the world. Now he has his eyes set on another big frontier: small satellites.

Beames, who left the president’s post at Allen’s Stratolaunch venture in 2016, is gearing up for his first launch as executive chairman and chief strategy officer for York Space Systems, a startup based in Denver.

“It’s very exciting,” Beames told GeekWire during an interview on the sidelines of last week’s SmallSat Conference in Logan, Utah. “We’re really democratizing space for the entrepreneur.”

Beames can’t say too much about his time at Stratolaunch, due to confidentiality requirements that still apply. But he has lots to say about his latest gig, which began last year. “I’d known about York for a while before I joined the team,” he said.

Chuck Beames
Chuck Beames is executive chairman and chief strategy officer for Denver-based York Space Systems. (York Space Systems Photo)

Founded in 2012, York has been working on a spacecraft platform, or bus, that can be adapted for a wide variety of satellite applications. York’s S-class satellite can carry instrument payloads weighing as much as 85 kilograms (187 pounds), for a total mass of 160 kilograms (352 pounds), Beames said.

That capacity on the small side when compared with, say, NASA’s 6.5-ton James Webb Space Telescope. But it’s heftier than the typical CubeSat range of 12 kilograms (26 pounds) for a satellite the size of a shipping box.

“The CubeSat is great,” Beames said. “But it’s very much geared toward academic research. That’s where it came from. So there ends up being inherent limitations in the design.”

Beames said York is targeting a different sort of sweet spot: “low-cost, industrial-grade, meaning a very predictable design life.”

“We can design to launch on every launch vehicle,” he said. “Everything from a very rough ride on a solid rocket to a rideshare on a Falcon 9, to rideshare on an ESPA ring for the Air Force. Our first one is going to be on a Rocket Lab Electron.”

That first launch is due to take place by the end of the year at Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch facility. York’s Harbinger Mission will carry a Finnish-made Iceye synthetic aperture radar instrument, BridgeSat’s optical communications system, and a field-emission electric-propulsion thruster system from Austria’s Enpulsion.

The mission is backed by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Systems Defense Command, and could literally serve as a harbinger for rapid-response national security launches.

For Beames, the price point is a big selling point. He said the base model costs in the range of $1 million, and upgrades such as a beefed-up 3,000-watt power system bring the cost to “not much more than that, frankly.”

That lowers the cost of admission for entrepreneurs trying to get into the thick of the satellite services market. “They no longer have to raise $30 to $50 million to build their first satellite,” Beames said.

York’s strategy for keeping the cost low is to automate as much as they can at their satellite manufacturing facility on the campus of Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“The most expensive thing in the modern economy is people,” Beames said. York’s workforce currently stands at less than 30 employees. “That’s everything,” Beames said. “It’s optimized to take costs out.”

There’s a long list of competitors in the satellite-building business, ranging from heavyweights such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace to more recent entrants such as Millennium Space Systems, which is due to be acquired by Boeing. But that doesn’t faze Beames.

“I think competition’s a good thing,” he said. “Just as we saw in the early days of the personal computer business, there are a lot of different ideas on what’s the right thing, what’s the right equipment to fill the niche, who has the right vision. Time will tell.”

There’s one thing Beames is already sure of: In this space race, there’ll be more than one winner.

“It’s big, and I think it’s going to be a 10x thing in the next few years,” he said.

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Technology

A year with Apple's 5K iMac: Still the best Mac for your money


 

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A year with Apple’s 5K iMac: Still the best Mac for your money

It’s been over a year since Apple refreshed its iMac lineup with updated hardware and added Thunderbolt 3. After long-term daily use of the computer in that period, now is probably a good time to reflect on the iMac, and how we feel about the machine a year after release.

The iMac 5K has been AppleInsider’s main video editing machine since it was released. To make it more useful for the workload, we opted for the highest-specification model with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 512-gigabyte SSD, a setup that was cheaper than the new top-spec i9 MacBook Pro released in July.

The iMac 5K is the only new Mac that allows you to easily add third-party RAM. Taking advantage of this, we added another 32 gigabytes, and now it is equipped with 40 gigabytes for only $3,000 —$300 less than the 32-gigabyte model from Apple.

The best comparison to make with it is against the iMac Pro, the next tier up in terms of specification. For $2,000 more in terms of cost, you’d get an 8-core processor, 32 gigabytes of RAM and 1 terabyte of SSD storage in the base model.

It may seem worth it to go with that over the iMac 5K because it should easily outperform the iMac 5K, right?

Initial thoughts

Before we get into performance testing, let’s discuss what we like and don’t like about the iMac 5K.

The design of the iMac 5K and iMac Pro is iconic and high quality, but it’s been 6 years since the last redesign, and the large chin is starting to look a bit dated. The 5K display, however, remains amazing, due to its high detail, brightness, and color accuracy.

We love the large amount of ports in the back, especially the Thunderbolt 3 ports, which we use to connect a 40TB storage area network device that can be accessed by two Macs at the same time, with the high bandwidth offered by Thunderbolt 3 providing very fast transfers to both desktops.

The keyboard and mouse supplied with the iMac are great, with few Bluetooth connection issues since buying it. The batteries stay charged for weeks, and they recharge incredibly quickly as well, which is handy since you have to flip the mouse over to do so.

Onto the internals, the 2017 iMac 5K switched over to Intel’s Kaby Lake processors, which added hardware acceleration for the HEVC codec, the current standard for 4K video streaming.

It also introduced desktop-class graphics chips for the first time in years, and even the cheaper Radeon Pro 570 is substantially faster than the best graphics options in older models from 2015.

Our iMac 5K has the Radeon Pro 580, which is actually the same graphics chip that came in the new Blackmagic eGPU, which is mostly marketed towards MacBook Pro users. We have previously compared the eGPU-equipped Core i9 2018 MacBook Pro with the 2017 5K iMac and the iMac Pro, and found that, even with the extra power of the eGPU, it isn’t enough to beat our iMac 5K.

Performance

Starting with Geekbench 4’s CPU test, the iMac 5K gets the best single-core score across the models we tested, but also the worst multi-core score, mainly due to the differences in the amount of cores. Under Geekbench 4’s graphics test, the iMac Pro is the clear winner.

In Cinebench R15, the iMac 5K is not far from the 2018 i9 MacBook Pro in its results, and that’s mostly because of the thermal design of the MacBook Pro. The iMac Pro simply destroyed both machines in the test.

We also looked at video gaming performance with Unigen’s Heaven Benchmark. The iMac Pro did extremely well here, and the iMac 5K easily did better than the MacBook Pro.

Onto the real world tests, the Lightroom export test showed the iMac 5K sits between the i9 MacBook Pro and the iMac Pro in the results.

The Final Cut Pro X video editing tests started with Bruce X, with the iMac 5K actually scoring incredibly close to the iMac Pro. A 20 second 4K clip stabilization test surprised us, as the iMac 5K was ahead of the other Mac systems by a huge amount.

The i9 MacBook Pro destroyed the iMac 5K in the HEVC to HEVC export test, even topping the iMac Pro, because the 8th-gen processor is using the latest QuickSync encoding and decoding technology. The iMac Pro’s Xeon CPU doesn’t have integrated graphics to enable QuickSync, but the raw power allows it to still get the job done quickly.

Moving on to a 5min 4K export, the iMac Pro was actually the slowest in this test, again due to the lack of QuickSync. The MacBook Pro was slower than the iMac 5K, due to the thermal throttling of the processor and the less powerful graphics.

For our Canon RAW 60 frames per second test, the iMac 5K was right behind the iMac Pro, while the MacBook Pro was extremely slow. We also tested timeline smoothness during this test, and the iMac Pro was the only one that played it back at the full 60 frames per second.

Overall, the top-spec i9 MacBook Pro performs worse than the 2017 iMac 5K in almost all of the tests we ran, which is completely unexpected based off the spec sheet.

We were also surprised at how close the iMac 5K performed compared to the iMac Pro, even beating it in some tests thanks to QuickSync.

The one-year opinion

After working in video editing full-time on the iMac 5K since it was released, I can tell you it’s really up to the job. I’ve used a top-spec 2016 15-inch MacBook Pro a few times, and it paled in comparison. We shoot and edit everything in 4K and perform a lot of stabilization, and since this processes almost twice as fast on this iMac 5K compared to the MacBook Pro, the time savings really add up throughout the day.

We export everything in 4K as well, which again is faster on the iMac 5K, so this machine really is the best bang for the buck for this particular situation.

On the negative side, the fans spin up and get loud when exporting longer 4K videos. I personally prefer using Google Chrome as a browser, and even with 40GB of RAM, the fans can sometimes kick up really loud when I’m researching and opening a bunch of tabs at once. This is more on Google than on Apple’s hardware, though.

Apple recently added HDR editing support to Final Cut Pro in the 10.14 update, but of course, there’s still no HDR display in any Mac device. This hints that Apple will either be working with a company like LG to bring us a new HDR display, or Apple will do it themselves in the next iMac or iMac Pro, or maybe even the rumored Apple Cinema Display, but that remains to be seen.

Overall, the 2017 top-spec iMac 5K is one of the best performing Macs ever made, and in our opinion, the best bang-for-your-buck Mac in terms of performance.

How to get the lowest price on Apple’s iMac 5K

Apple authorized resellers are currently discounting every iMac 5K by $80 to $200 thanks to instant rebates and/or coupon discounts. For the latest deals and up-to-date pricing, please visit the AppleInsider 2017 27-inch iMac 5K Price Guide.

Technology

Global unicorn exits hit multi-year high in 2018

Unicorn exits are taking flight.

With the IPO window wide open, an apparent record number of venture-backed companies privately valued over $1 billion have launched public offerings this year. Crunchbase data shows 23 unicorn IPOs globally so far in 2018, well outpacing full-year totals for 2016 and 2017.

Collectively, this year’s newly public unicorns are doing pretty well too. Most priced shares around or above expectations. We’re also seeing a lot of impressive aftermarket gains. At least six are currently valued at more than $10 billion.

Meanwhile, unicorn M&A volumes are chugging along as well, with at least 11 deals so far this year. Big transactions like Walmart’s $16 billion acquisition of Flipkart and Microsoft’s $7.5 billion purchase of GitHub have helped boost the totals.

It all adds up to some enormous numbers. We’ll delve into those in more detail below, focusing on year-over-year comparisons, geographic breakdown, biggest exits and more.

How 2018 compares to prior years

First off, a bit of context. A lot of startup-related metrics are on track to hit multi-year or record highs in 2018. These are lofty times for supergiant funding rounds, venture capital fundraising and unicorn investment, to name a few. Given that pattern, it’s not surprising to see a pickup in unicorn exits too, including some really big names like Xiaomi, Spotify and Dropbox.

That said, if one focuses on anticipated exits, as opposed to the ones that already occurred, even this year’s phenomenal IPO streak may seem comparatively humdrum. There’s mounting excitement around the potential for even bigger offerings next year from Uber, Airbnb, Didi Chuxing and others.

If markets don’t implode in the next few months, and at least some of these household names make it to market, it’s likely 2019 will be an even bigger year for unicorn IPOs than 2018. Unfortunately, however, we don’t have hard data on the future, so we’re left comparing this year to the prior two in the chart below:

As you can see, we’re already well ahead of last year’s totals. On the IPO front, not only are the 2018 unicorn offerings more numerous, they’re also bigger. In 2017, out of 16 unicorn IPOs, there were two at initial valuations above $10 billion (Snap and online insurer ZhongAn). So far this year, there have been five.

Geography of unicorn exits

The exiting unicorns are also a geographically diverse bunch, with the U.S. and China accounting for the lion’s share and Europe trailing a distant third.

In the chart below, we look at the geographic breakdown in more detail:

While the U.S. produced the largest number of unicorn exits, they weren’t the biggest. Notably, this year’s most valuable IPOs and M&A deal involved companies based in Europe and Asia.

Of the six 2018 debuts currently valued at $10 billion or more, detailed below, only one, Dropbox, is a U.S. company. In the chart below, we look at who topped the rankings:

Adding it up

The grand tally of 2018 exits provides a clear counterpoint to skeptics (your author included), who questioned whether fast-growing unicorn populations and valuations would hold up with acquirers and public market investors.

It appears prices are keeping up nicely. The vast majority of U.S. unicorn exits this year, for instance, were close to or above private market valuations. Among U.S. IPOs the only big fizzle was Domo. While Dropbox looked like a “down round IPO” at first, strong aftermarket performance has the company above its highest reported private valuation.

The year’s largest unicorn IPO — China’s Xiaomi — also managed to slightly top its last reported private valuation, even after pricing shares for its June IPO far below initial projections.

All these giant exits add up. The unicorns that went public this year currently have a collective market capitalization north of $200 billion. Add in roughly $45 billion from M&A deals, and we’re talking close to a quarter of a trillion (!) dollars in post-exit value.

These big exits come as investors continue to funnel record sums into high-valuation private companies. So far this year, investors have poured more than $200 billion into venture and growth-stage startups, with more than $70 billion going into companies already valued at $1 billion or more.

In sum, we’re seeing big numbers all around — going in as investments and coming out as exits. Eventually, all parties wind down. But for now, this one rages on.

Technology

Gaming in Asia may be crypto’s killer dApp

As money and talent flows into the crypto and blockchain worlds, a persistent question keeps coming up: what is going to be the “killer app” that drives adoption for these nascent technologies? The answer may well be quite simple: gaming in Asia.

That’s the theory for Cryptokitties, the notable purveyor of cute cats. The company has started expanding into China, Japan, and Korea as it attempts to capture a large market of gamer and crypto enthusiasts there, and it is building on the playbook pioneered by Uber when it launched in China in 2014.

Back in March, Andreessen and Union Square Ventures led a $12 million Series A round into Cryptokitties. A portion of that money went into Cryptokitties’ ambitions to expand into Asia. In fact, Cryptokitties’ largest user markets have been, and still are, the U.S. and China, followed by Russia.

For those unfamiliar with Cryptokitties, it’s often been alluded to as a digital version of Beanie Babies. Cryptokitties are virtual collectibles in the form of cute cats that can be bought, sold, collected and traded with cryptocurrency, with all the transactions listed on the blockchain. Owners who purchase these kitties can then breed them with other kitties to produce new baby kitties.

The company is part of Axiom Zen, the Vancouver and San Francisco-based design studio that originally built the game. Since its launch in 2017, Cryptokitties has also built a third-party app platform for crypto developers called the Kittyverse, open-sourced their digital asset licensing platform, and started a crypto gaming investment fund. The company currently has about 70 employees and is headquartered in Vancouver.

One of the main purposes why Cryptokitties raised venture capital was for geographical expansion. Having ample capital to not worry about cash flow as the company steps on the gas is certainly quite helpful. But as a business, Cryptokitties was already doing fine. Back in June when I was having a discussion with the company, Cryptokitties was already profitable starting in week three.

The company has successfully differentiated itself from many other crypto decentralized apps (dApps for short) companies out there by proving that they could make money first and have a sustainable user base. Jimmy Song from Blockchain Capital once said, you can make money three ways in crypto, and those are “selling mining machines, starting up Crypto exchanges, and organizing Crypto conferences.” Nonetheless, Cryptokitties was an outlier. With its newly raised money, the team was looking to deploy the capital for hiring, building out it’s Kittyverse, and expanding in Asia.

Asia and China has a Large and Untapped Crypto Gaming Market

Benny Giang, one of the co-founders of Cryptokitties, has been tasked with Cryptokitties Asia expansion since late 2017. Since then, the team has launched Cryptokitties in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. During the launch, in order to avoid another one of Ethereum’s network clogs like what happened in late 2017, the iOS app launch was initially limited to 5,000 new players, based on selected WeChat accounts.

Benny believes blockchain games in Asia are a huge untapped market but with increasing competition. Whereas the intersection of gaming and blockchain users is still pretty limited in the Americas, in Asia, that audience is significantly larger. This is primarily due to three reasons: 1) the awareness of cryptocurrency and blockchain is more prevalent in Asia, 2) the regulatory markets are more developed and sophisticated (for better or worse) in China, Korea, and Japan, and 3) there is a proportionally higher number of gamers in Asia than the U.S.

China is the biggest market in this intersection, but there have been challenges. As Cryptokitties launched and grew in the last year, the company saw competition and copycats (pun intended) from China moving quickly into the market. In the beginning of 2018, just as Cryptokitties was launching in China, Xiaomi, the mobile phone maker that recently IPO-ed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, launched their own crypto collectible called Cryptobunny. Baidu, the large search engine of China, also recently launched Cryptopuppy.

Go to Market Learnings from Uber in China – Identifying the Right Local Partners and Hires

As Benny and team began doing research on the Asia market, they realized that working in a market that’s twelve hours away is not easy. Taking some of its lessons from Uber’s experience in China, they decided that they needed to localize their go-to-market approach.

One of the reasons Uber ended up exiting the Chinese market was that it did not successfully build a product catered to Chinese citizens. Despite the large sum of money it was pouring into the Chinese market, Uber was still losing market share to Didi. Another suggested reason for the failure was that Uber should have gone to market with a local partner like Didi instead of going head to head with them. The Cryptokitties team knew that they wanted to expand correctly, and subsequently identified a local partner in China to target the market there.

In January 2018, Axiom Zen partnered with Animoca Brands to publish the Cryptokitties game on mobile in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Animoca is a Hong Kong-based, privately-held developer and publisher of games, with a number of games using popular IP such as Garfield, Ultraman, and Doraemon. By working with Animoca, Cryptokitties was able to build out a localized website for its Chinese-speaking audience, provide native-speaker support services, and host numerous giveaway events.

In my discussion with him, Benny provided some insightful advice on go to market strategy in Asia. First, he mentioned that for a blockchain gaming company like themselves, it is best to find two local partners – one in blockchain and one in gaming – to help navigate the landscape. This kind of well-thought-out, go-to-market strategy requires hard work and local community understanding that very few cryptocurrency teams have achieved.

Currently, most Western crypto companies do not apply a traditional tech-oriented go-to-market strategy when trying to expand into other regions. Instead, most of them choose to leverage their “global communities.” They would incentivize these regional token holders to do local marketing and encourage them to find more token supporters and buyers in their region. Nonetheless, that type of marketing approach effectively identifies people who want to make a quick buck, rather than users who can sustain a platform.

Secondly, tasteful and culturally-appealing design is also very important when it comes to dApps. Cryptokitties originally differentiated themselves from other dApps by creating beautiful cats on the blockchain that immediately caught people’s attention. They have also decided to apply a similar local strategy in China.

Momo Wang is the creator of the highly popular Tuzki character, a black and white line drawing of a bunny that’s used widely across various instant messaging platforms, particularly WeChat .

The popular character Tuzki (Photo courtesy WeChat)

Cryptokitties hired Momo as a brand ambassador and contributor to the Artist Series to design kitties for them. By doing so, they are able to appeal to an audience who may have a different local taste.

Benny adds that it is essential for dApp companies to create beautiful websites and great user experiences that appeal to local communities. However, there are also cons when building beautiful websites for a blockchain company that is decentralized by nature. Smooth user interfaces in the form of a traditional website or an app fall under the jurisdiction of a traditional tech business. Internet companies in China, for example, require approval and licensing from the government to be able to operate and serve its citizens.

China has become the wild west of crypto and blockchain, and there will continue to be unforeseen obstacles. It certainly isn’t easy for Cryptokitties to be the first western dApp company to venture into China, but in the next five years, we’ll see a significant number of Western companies heading east – and these early learnings will be invaluable.

Technology

3 Ways Technology is Changing the American Home

3 Ways Technology is Changing the American Home

Over the past decade or so, the notion of the “smart home” has transitioned from a futuristic concept to reality. While it’s been a slow curve, we’ve finally reached a point where it’s safe to say that technology is fundamentally altering the American home. Whether this shift is positive or negative remains to be seen. […]

The post 3 Ways Technology is Changing the American Home appeared first on ReadWrite.

Technology

Who Goes There?: The Thing returns to the tabletop

Enlarge / The boardgame for the book is better crowd?
Charlie Theel
Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

Few moments linger in my brain like a particular scene in John Carpenter’s movie The Thing. In the cold of an Antarctic night, the group corners and confronts a mutated imitation of their pal Bennings, its eyes wide and mouth gaping. They give it the torch and burn it down. The moment is as unsettling as the film is iconic.

Carpenter’s work was an imaginative take on the novella Who Goes There? by John Campbell. As good as the transition to film was, we now have another interpretation—one made of cardboard and plastic. The new board game from Certifiable Studios means you too can now snuff out an insidious alien life form.

First contact with Who Goes There? is all about flipped expectations. While the Antarctic setting is a barren hellscape devoid of luxury, the box certainly is not. There are miniatures for each character, two boards, dual-layered player mats, hundreds of cards (running the gamut from weapons to literal junk), and even an incorrigible dog miniature that serves as the turn marker. It screams “over the top” as only a Kickstarter release can.

Who Goes There? is a semi-cooperative game where one side represents the unaltered human research team and the other side an infected group of hostile lifeforms. This might sound like a social deduction game, the kind with design principles that favor larger groups (as seen in Mondo’s take on the same subject matter). But instead of a game yearning for at least a half-dozen warm bodies, Who Goes There? is perfectly fine with three or four. In fact, to push beyond that number would require expansion sets—and would move the time to play this lengthy three-hour experience into the truly “unbearable” range. So: three or four players it is.

Instead of social deduction, the game straddles a design space similar to Dead of Winter. It’s a survival game about fighting the elements amid a team of people whose mental acuity is deteriorating. As you take risks, such as searching outside or foregoing nutrition, you will draw “vulnerable” cards. One such card will eventually infect a squad member and create patient zero. It is up to the players to then spread this infection or to hold it back, depending on their grasp of the game’s tempo and on strategic concerns.

While paranoia sits uncomfortably in the background, the bulk of your game time will be spent searching. You scrounge new equipment while inside the base, possibly gathering materials to craft your own gear. Maybe you’ll commit to repairing the boiler-room or the all-important door sealing the elements out. Most importantly, you’ll explore the exterior of your base, looking for the oddly named “helicopter points” needed to escape back to civilization at game’s end. At all times, it feels like there is just enough going on to keep your decisions meaningful and your attention focused.

The game runs on an action point system that is relatively straightforward. Player boards list each option available to you, and both environments—inside and out—offer interesting actions on which to spend your points. Your primary goal is amassing those helicopter points, but you will need to increase your effectiveness through crafted gear in order to combat the rising difficulty. Equipment such as knives, fire-axes, and fur coats will increase the pool of dice you roll when battling the elements or the actual Thing. Yes, the Thing appears when searching outdoors, and it will batter you about with its tentacles before slipping back behind a wall of snow.

Part of the brilliance of the game’s crafting mechanism is that the best gear requires multiple pieces. Often you will struggle to find perfect components for the desired recipe. This means you must trade cards with other players—but this risks infection. When receiving an item from another person, that person has the opportunity to spread their alien disease (should they be infected). This is handled by setting a fantastic plastic clicker to either the “clean” or “infected” side, then passing it alongside your card. A complicated incentive structure means that you don’t want to infect haphazardly, but risk is still present and paranoia ramps up with every trade.

Those moments of exposure are threaded throughout the gaming experience. In later turns, you will need to bunk with another mate, again risking infection.

The sense of roleplay and character ownership here dovetails superbly with the game’s RPG elements. You earn experience while risking your hide outside and facing greater threats. You can then spend your accumulated experience points on unlocking new abilities and traits—or even an asymmetric die that’s rolled into your action pool.

With obstacles encountered and foes bested, you eventually prepare for the end. Once the turn marker arrives at the helicopter position, we shift gears. The last 2-3 hours were building to this very moment—and it must deliver. Those precious helicopter points that you’ve been hoarding are now crucial, but as a new player, you likely don’t have a strong understanding of what they mean. This is entirely an artifact of the complicated end game, which takes a couple of explanations (and perhaps even an anti-climactic resolution) before you have it straight.

To put it succinctly, this is the part of our story where things go off the rails a bit.

Seat assignments

The complicated end game involves the group leader—determined by character assignment—picking which players to include on the chopper ride back to civilization. For the good guys to win, they want to pick as many fellow humans as possible. The infected imitations, meanwhile, desire a helicopter full of mimics but must include at least one clean team member.

Thematically, this makes sense. The aliens need a clear-headed pilot to get them back to civilization so they can destroy it. It also works from a design perspective because it requires that the infected don’t simply spread their disease to every player.

But the problem, which is significant, is that the player in charge must choose which people to include with virtually no information. The traitors in the group have little reason to sabotage or betray during the course of the game, so they play it straight.

As a leader, you likely then play the odds. You choose the players with the least amount of vulnerable cards and hope for the best. Such a situation occurred in my most recent play where I was dealt only a single vulnerability card the entire game. (And you guessed it—I was infected.)

Once the helicopter team is decided, you total up helicopter points from the imitation group, then subtract this from the humans’ helicopter points. The result must be more than six times the number of good guys in the game. There’s a die roll that adds points to all this, and I haven’t even mentioned that players can be eliminated during play, which means they’re on the outside looking in and the humans have likely lost. Does this sound fun yet?

I could spin much more yarn dissecting the failure of the ending, but it’s ultimately very simple. The situation is disheartening because Who Goes There? is a fantastic survival game in all other respects. It simply crashes and burns at the worst possible moment—forgivable, perhaps, in a short game but crippling after three hours at the table.

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