GitHub’s scandalized ex-CEO returns with Chatterbug

Translation earbuds might eliminate some utilitarian reasons to know a language, but if you want to understand jokes, read poetry, or fall in love in a foreign tongue, you’ll have to actually learn it. Unfortunately, products like Rosetta Stone leave people feeling burned after claiming the process should be easy while never helping you practice talking with a real native speaker. You know, the skill you actually want. Just memorizing vocabulary doesn’t make you fluent.

So after teaching millions of people to code better, a team of former GitHub co-founders and executives this week launched Chatterbug to combine the best of online and face-to-face foreign language learning. Starting with German, Chatterbug uses a homegrown video chat alternative to Skype that lets you simultaneously talk, type, read, and screenshare your way to becoming conversational.

But one of the co-founders’ past may cast a shadow over Chatterbug. Tom Preston-Werner resigned from his role as CEO and co-founder of GitHub following an investigation into allegations of harassment and intimidation of a female employee by he and his wife Theresa Preston-Werner.

GitHub employee Julie Horvath told TechCrunch that Theresa had bullied her about not writing negatively about the company, said she could read employees’ private chats and had spies at the startup, and verbally bullied her.

While an independent investigation claimed to have found no evidence of illegal behavior or gender-based harassment on Tom’s part, it did conclude that the former CEO showed “mistakes and errors of judgment” and “insensitivity to the impact of his spouse’s presence in the workplace and failure to enforce an agreement that his spouse should not work in the office.”

Ex-GitHub CEO and Chatterbug co-founder Tom Preston-Werner

We asked Tom how he’s building Chatterbug differently this time around. “With some hindsight, the organic management structures at GitHub were a double edged sword. It unleashed a lot of creativity, but was fragile in handling conflict” says Preston-Werner. “From the very beginning of Chatterbug I’ve had serious conversations with the other founders on how to use those experiences to create a more robust channel of communications.”

Former GitHub head of comms and Chatterbug co-founder Liz Clinkenbeard tells TechCrunch “In retrospect, I think one of the major challenges at GitHub back then was that the company’s fairly flat structure sometimes made it difficult to know who to talk to about problems, and how to resolve them before they escalated.” With Chatterbug, she says the team has “been very open and deliberate about wanting to foster a safe and supportive work environment.”

It’s possible that Tom’s inclusion on the team could make it tougher for Chatterbug to hire talent, especially women. Though at least it seems the company is taking office demeanor and harassment issues seriously as it grows.

“I’ve always tried my best to empower my teammates and create a work environment that every employee will love. I haven’t been perfect at that endeavor in the past” admits Preston-Werner. “But I’ve learned much from those experiences and intend to use that knowledge to ensure that Chatterbug is a safe, welcoming, and productive place to work for women and other folks traditionally underrepresented in the tech industry.”

Cutting Skype Out Of Language Learning

Scott Chacon discovered what was broken about the current crop of language learning tools when he tried to pick up French via Duolingo and Japanese through Skype chats before spending time in the two countries. “I realized there was a gap between the digital apps that are super flexible but aren’t very effective at teaching conversation with real people, and the tutoring systems or in-person schools that were inflexible and super difficult to do” Chacon tells TechCrunch.

So he started building his own tools that would blossom into Chatterbug. The former GitHub co-founder and CIO recruited GitHub’s Clinkenbeard, director of engineering Russell Belfer, and Preston-Werner over late 2015 and early 2016. They raised a $1.8 million seed round from SV Angel and Berlin’s Fly Ventures to have early-stage allies on both sides of the pond.

Setting goals in Chatterbug

Now after some private trials starting in March, Chatterbug just launched the public beta of its German learning program, with Spanish and French coming next. And right out of the gate, it’s trying to set reasonable expectations for how fast people can pick up a new tongue. “The most difficult part of being in the business is that Rosetta Stone and other companies try to sell the idea that language learning can be easy” Chacon says. “Learning a language is not easy. It’s like a marathon.”

That’s why one of the first things you do in Chatterbug is adjust a slider for when you want to be fluent by, and it tells you how frequently you’ll have to study and be tutored. The app then gives you a foundation of vocabulary using “spaced repetition”, a study method employed by medical students where questions you get wrong get shown more often while you’re displayed fewer questions like those you got right.

Chatterbug understands when you almost get an answer right

Then Chatterbug schedules you for one-on-one tutoring over its video chat system designed specifically for language learning. Rather than having to commit to a weekly session time, only learn when your particular tutor is available, or fall behind if you miss a group class, you just punch in when you want to practice. Chatterbug pairs you with whatever appropriate tutor is available, gets them up to speed on your progress, and provides a personalized curriculum of exercises to do together based on what you’ve been screwing up.

The heavy engineering background of the Chatterbug team allowed it to create a WebRTC-based video chat that lets you view files together with your tutor and see each other’s cursors as well as talk and type. That’s a huge improvement over trying to pass PDFs back and forth or figure out what exercise the teacher is discussing.

Chatterbug’s video chat lets you talk, type, view files, and see each other’s cursors

The pricing model flexes to accommodate your pace. You can get all the self-study features plus one live lesson a month for €15 or eight for €80 with extra sessions costing €12 each if you want to take a vacation next year. Or for €195 you get unlimited sessions and can learn a language in just a few months. Chatterbug is also going B2B, appealing to businesses trying to educate employees by offering discounts and easy expensing.

Turning Anyone Into A Teacher

Chatterbug co-founder Liz Clinkenbeard

The startup’s data-driven approach could make it quick to expand to more languages and identify what’s toughest to learn. Chatterbug gives you the option to have it store recordings of your video sessions, and even give it permission to use them for research. Clinkenbeard studied linguistics at Harvard, and is using her expertise to help the company determine what are the most common vocab and grammar mistakes to help you avoid them.

Long-term, turning native speakers into tutors could offer new employment options to those lacking other quantifiable skills. “After leaving GitHub, I wanted my next project to be something that would positively impact a lot of people. As a filter, I’d ask myself ‘could this idea lead to the creation of a million jobs?’” says Preston-Werner.

Chatterbug faces a wide range of competitors like Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, Busoo, Babbel, and HelloTalk — some with deep pockets and a penchant for downplaying the difficulty of reaching fluency. Being real with people doesn’t always make for great marketing, and people who failed with other products exhibit a “healthy amount of skepticism” says Clinkenbeard. Then there’s the looming threat of advancing translation technology, like the new Google auto-translating Pixel Buds headphones.

Still, “I don’t think it will destroy the need for language learning” says Chacon. “At some point, in-person translators will be obsolete. Not sure if that’s in 5 years or 45 years.” But even if we solve information translation, culture translation will still be in demand. “You don’t want to wear an ear bud while you’re getting married” he laughs. At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and xenophobic, understanding your fellow humans without a technological intermediary could generate some much-needed empathy.

Facebook Résumé? The feature is in testing, company confirms

Why it matters to you

The tool could make applying for the jobs that already exist inside Facebook Marketplace easier.

Facebook could soon help job seekers land a new gig. A web developer recently spotted the option to add a Facebook résumé, suggesting that the social media giant is testing the option as a way to expand the job postings inside Marketplace. Facebook later confirmed that a feature called “work histories” is currently being tested.

The feature allows users to pull the work experience that Facebook already included in profiles into a separate résumé, where options like contact information, experience, and education can all be edited. Screenshots of the option include a notice that the information doesn’t cross-post to profiles.

Facebook says the feature is designed to help users find work directly within the platform, so the feature probably isn’t something that users will link to on an application outside the platform. Instead, the option will likely expand the job ads inside of Facebook Marketplace that the company launched earlier this year.

The feature currently allows Facebook users to search for nearby jobs and even subscribe to notifications about new job postings. After clicking on the apply option for a job, Facebook automatically fills out several fields based on profile data, including name, education, and work experience. The résumé option could streamline the process, particularly for details job seekers may want on their resume but off their public profile.

As a feature that’s only in testing, there are a number of unknowns. A test of the feature also doesn’t necessarily mean that the tool will see a wide-spread launch.

The resume tool — if it actually launches — could be competition for the social media network designed for professionals, Linked In. The job listings in Marketplace already encroach on LinkedIn territory and the résumé feature could potentially drive more traffic to those job ads. Outside of those job ads, the Facebook Workplace, a variation of the platform designed for teamwork in the office, suggests professional use is a potential focus for the social media network.

Adding features first launched by other networks isn’t uncommon for the social media giant. Facebook now has live video first available through Twitter’s Periscope, and both a Snapchat-like Facebook Camera and Stories.

Editor’s Recommendations

6 best products showcased at Adobe MAX 2017 conference

The annual Adobe MAX show draws a huge crowd of creatives from all fields eager to learn about the latest innovations in Adobe’s products. But the show also attracts many big names in tech, from Google to Microsoft, who are eager to show off their new products to such a large audience of creative power users. After browsing the show floor, getting hands-on demos, and speaking with representatives, here are what we found to be the best photo and video products at Adobe MAX 2017.

Best software: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC

best products of adobe max 2017 lightroom cc screenshot

Well, duh. We couldn’t go to MAX and not expect to see great new things from the company that puts it on. Adobe unveiled many new tools and technologies at the show, but the completely redesigned Lightroom CC is the most important for photographers (and, perhaps, the most controversial).

With an emphasis on unifying interfaces across devices, Lightroom CC presents a completely revamped UI with a much sleeker, more modern appearance. compared to the previous version of the program (which lives on, rebranded as Lightroom Classic). In a live demonstration, Adobe showed how it was possible to seamlessly move from a Microsoft Surface Book 2 to an Apple iPad Pro to an iPhone 8, with all your photographs and settings synced across devices thanks to the cloud.

What’s more, every tool and setting that’s available in the desktop version is also available in the mobile versions, and because Adobe now stores your original RAW files in the cloud, you can produce high-quality edits on any device, anywhere. There are still some tools from Classic that have yet to make the move to CC, but knowing Adobe, we expect software updates will bring new features to the program regularly.

Longtime Lightroom users may struggle with the choice to stick with Lightroom Classic or switch to the new Lightroom CC, but fortunately the existing Creative Cloud Photography Plan includes both versions of the app, which should help ease the transition.

Best computer: Microsoft Surface Book 2

With oodles of power and a stunning display, Microsoft’s latest Surface Book is an incredibly capable notebook computer and tablet in one, the perfect mobile editing station for photographers. While we covered all the details in our Surface Book 2 hands-on review, one new tidbit of information at MAX is that Adobe now natively supports the Surface Dial in both Photoshop and Premiere Pro. As the Surface Book 2 also supports on-screen Dial controls, this gives photo and video creatives improved workflows when using the Surface Dial.

While the Surface Book 2 looks identical to the previous version, everything under the hood has changed. That doesn’t just mean more horsepower, but even the internal design of the hinge has changed. The new mechanism can better support the screen in any given position, which helps when using the Surface Dial on-screen, as otherwise you may inadvertently tilt the monitor.

Best input device: Logitech Craft Keyboard

On the surface, the new Logitech Craft Keyboard looks like a standard low-profile wireless keyboard with a copycat Surface Dial bolted on (Logitech calls it the creative input dial). In practice, it’s much more than that.

Logitech’s driver is context sensitive and includes specific commands for many applications. Press down on the dial to bring up a list of commands, then tap the side (it’s touch sensitive) to move through the list, and simply rotate the dial to adjust the selected parameter. In Adobe Photoshop, for example, you can adjust brush width and opacity (and much more) while in Google Chrome you can cycle through tabs.

In the former, the input dial allows frictionless rotation for smooth adjustments, while in the latter, a physical ratchet mechanism engages to provide satisfying tactile feedback. This may sound like a small detail, but it makes a huge difference in actual use and feels much better than the vibration-based haptic feedback of the Surface Dial.

Best camera: DJI Zenmuse X7

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Yup, it’s a drone camera — designed to be used with the DJI Inspire 2 — but the Zenmuse X7 is an impressive imaging device by any standard. With a Super35 sensor that produces 6K RAW footage, it’s the lightest and smallest way to get true cinema quality aerial shots — and, at $2,700, it’s also one of the most affordable.

While we covered the details of the X7 when it launched, what we didn’t appreciate at the time was just how compact the system is. Seeing it in person was very impressive. DJI developed a new lens mount with bespoke lenses housed in carbon fiber, and each of the three primes available could fit in the palm of your hand.

Sadly, DJI wasn’t flying the Inspire 2 at the show — the company’s booth only had sufficient space for flying its smaller drones — so we didn’t get to see the X7 in action. Hopefully we can get our hands on a review model in the near future to see if its performance stacks up to its specs.

Best external storage: LaCie 2Big Dock

When the cloud just isn’t enough for, LaCie has you covered. Available in 12, 16, or 20-gigabyte capacities, the company’s latest two-drive RAID offers plenty of storage — but that’s not all. The Thunderbolt 3-equipped external drive also serves as a media dock, with both CompactFlash and SD card slots as well as a standard USB 3 input on the front for connecting thumb drives, cameras, or simply charging your phone.

The 2Big Dock houses two enterprise-class hard drives and offers speeds of up to 450 megabytes per second when in a RAID 0 configuration (which splits files across both drives). It can connect to a computer via Thunderbolt 2 or 3 (the latter of which uses a USB Type C port). When connected over Thunderbolt 3, the 2Big Dock provides sufficient power to keep a laptop charged, so that’s one less cable you’ll need.

Honorable mentions

With over 12,000 attendees, this was the biggest Adobe MAX show ever. There were numerous companies with cool and interesting products on display, and we simply weren’t able to spend enough time with all of them, but there a couple we should still draw attention to.

The HP ZBook X2 boasts impressive performance in a mobile workstation and uses a matte screen that is excellent for creative work, albeit a bit small for our tastes. The design isn’t what we’d call pretty, with large bezels and sharp angles that make it look like something out of Battlestar Galactica, but it does have plenty of features, including HP Quick Keys that control 18 shortcuts in Adobe apps. It can even power dual 4K displays when docked.

best products of adobe max 2017 hp zbook x2

We also were impressed with Dell’s UltraSharp 32 8K monitor. In addition to incredible detail from its 7,680 x 4,320 pixel resolution, it provides excellent color and dynamic range thanks to 10-bit processing. At a little under $4,000, it’s certainly targeting high-end users — but that’s not half bad for all the quality and resolution it gives you.

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Editor’s Recommendations

Brighten your home in 64,000 shades of white through Wiz Connected Lights

Why it matters to you

Wiz Connected Lights offers various lighting options that you can control anywhere based on your mood.

There is no shortage of companies designing ways to light your home for your every need.

 Wiz Connected Lights is hoping its voice-controlled lighting system will be the last one you ever need to buy.

The system was rolled out in North America in late August and features smart LED light bulbs, recessed lighting, and sensors, among other things, to keep your home well-lit. No smart home hub is required to turn on the system, which lights up through an app that allows you to “pair and share” in 30 seconds.

To activate Wiz Connected Lights, link up the lighting system to your home’s Wi-Fi using an intelligent setup system that is quick and easy. All you have to do is screw in your Wiz light bulb or plug in a Wiz luminaire.

Then, download the company’s app, which you can find on Google Play and the Apple App Store, which allows you to “pair and share” by tapping on your screen once and quickly clicking your light switch three times. Wiz does the rest, identifying the lights and activating them in under a minute.

There are multiple ways to light up the Wiz Connected Lights system, including through Wi-Fi on the app, remotely on your mobile network, using the Wizmote infrared remote control, through preset scheduling, or through voice commands via Amazon Echo or Google Home. You can access two preferred light modes with a simple click.

You can also use the app to remotely set up and control different rooms for different lighting options. Guests are also able to control your lighting if you give them access to your Wi-Fi network and Wiz app.

The Wiz Connected Lights system comes equipped with 64,000 shades of white and 16 million colors you can choose from. If you’re away from home, you can use the app to access vacation mode and turn your lights on.

The system can also connect and interact with a number of motion-detection cameras, sensors, mobile GPS, and even the weather app. One such example is the Nest camera, which can turn your lights on when it detects movement. It can also change the lighting to fit the mood when the temperature changes.

In fact, the Wiz Connected Lights include various preset white light functions such as cozy, warm, daylight, cool, focus, relax, and bedtime. It also includes more dynamic lighting options such as fireplace, mojito, forest, ocean, romance, and sunset.

You can buy the WiZ smart LED lights for $24.95 for a single adjustable white bulb, or $34.95 for a single full color and controllable white bulb.

Editor’s Recommendations

Google officially flips on its internet-beaming balloons in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is in trouble. Approximately 3 million of its residents are still without electricity after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, and 30% lack access to drinkable water. Exacerbating the process of recovery is the fact that communication infrastructure in general, and the internet specifically, is experiencing trouble across the U.S. territory.

Enter Alphabet’s Project Loon, which on October 20 announced that it had officially switched on its balloon-powered internet for some Puerto Rican residents. That’s right giant balloons are providing digital connectivity for some people who might otherwise go without. 

“Working with AT&T, Project Loon is now supporting basic communication and internet activities like sending text messages and accessing information online for some people with LTE enabled phones,” explains the company in a blog post. “This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this. As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.”

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The balloons, which are now being deployed in a post-disaster setting for the second time, typically stay in the stratosphere for 100 days. They work by relaying signals from ground stations to people out of the reach of cell towers. With the use of an LTE mobile phone, people in affected areas can use that signal to connect to the internet — communicating with loved ones and getting much needed information in the process.  

“Project Loon is still an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work, but we hope it helps get people the information and communication they need to get through this unimaginably difficult time,” the company explained. 

While Project Loon is far from perfect, how well it performs (or doesn’t) in Puerto Rico may be a sign of things to come. In the future, post disaster internet may be a thing we all take for granted — even if clean drinking water still isn’t.

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Apple sued for alleged trademark infringement tied to animoji feature on iPhone X

Why it matters to you

Apple’s new animoji feature may come as a result of some cool new tech in the iPhone X — but it may not be called animoji for long.

Apple is set to go through yet another lawsuit. The company has been sued by a Japanese firm, Emonster kk, which alleges that Apple stole the name “animoji” for the new animated emoji feature on the iPhone X. According to Emonster kk, it holds the U.S. trademark for the term “animoji,” and says that Apple’s use of the term is a “textbook case” of trademark infringement.

The animoji feature itself basically uses the new front-facing camera technology to map out the user’s face and apply facial movements to animate a character. It was shown off as a feature that could be included in Snapchat, and will debut on the iPhone X when the phone launches in November.

The story first broke in a report from Reuters, and Apple has declined to comment.

Emonster kk actually launched an app called Animoji in 2014, and a trademark was registered for the name of that app. According to the company, Apple had full knowledge of the app because it was actually available for download in the App Store. It will be seeking an unspecified amount in damages and a court order aimed at blocking Apple from using the term while the lawsuit is pending.

Apart from the Animoji feature, the iPhone X is hailed as being Apple‘s most innovative phone in the past few years. For starters, it finally offers wireless charging, and while many Android phones have offered wireless charging for years, Apple adopting it should help push the technology to a much higher level of availability. Of course, the $999 base price tag could be a little problematic for many would-be buyers. Despite that, however, anticipation for the iPhone X has apparently resulted in someone lackluster iPhone 8 sales — which was to be expected.  On top of that, Apple is said to be dealing with some serious stock issues. When the phone does finally launch in November, it’s likely that it will go out of stock pretty quickly.

We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome of the animoji lawsuit is, but we’ll update this article as we get more information.

Editor’s Recommendations

For those who want to watch the world burn, there’s Geostorm

This is probably how Geostorm came about: at some point a year or two ago, a bunch of Warner Bros. executives were sitting in front of a dartboard marked “big American concerns,” trying to decide what their next disaster film should be about besides digital tsunamis and improbably exploding buildings. On the dartboard: terrorism, climate change, natural disasters, worldwide political conflict, the Democrats, the Republicans, Donald Trump, isolationism, globalism, hackers and identity theft, technological changes, scientific overreach, family tensions, and adorable kids getting separated from their beloved doggos. “How many darts do we throw?” asked one exec. “Eh, this seems like a lot of work,” said another, to cover up the fact that he was terrible at darts. “Let’s just cram the whole board in there and call it a day.”

Hence Geostorm, an overstuffed, comically lousy thriller that tries to worry about all these things at once, and doesn’t do a particularly convincing job of worrying about any of them. The directorial debut of Dean Devlin (co-writer of Independence Day, its incoherent sequel, and the original Stargate movie) emerges from the kind of cheerfully sloppy aesthetic that produced disaster films like 2012, Into The Storm, and San Andreas. The actual point of the film is watching CGI cities around the world get destroyed by firestorms and tornados, as the foreshadowing sets up a technologically induced worldwide storm that will devastate the entire planet. Everything else is just set dressing, a way of trying to make the stakes personal for the audience. But just as trying to keep up with every geopolitical crisis on the planet all at once can be overwhelming, trying to track Geostorm’s name-checked concerns and its barely present characters is likely to tax viewers’ attention spans. Horror movies help people process some of our worst fears, but there’s a reason most movies don’t try to address every human fear at the same time.

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Gerard Butler stars as Jake Lawson, the snappish, arrogant engineer who designed and built a weather-control system in response to the rising number of natural disasters around the world. The system is commonly referred to as Dutchboy, after the fairy-tale story of a little boy who saved a Holland town by plugging a leak in a dike with his finger. Dutchboy consists of a global network of satellites surrounding the world, ready to disrupt storm systems with bombs, or employ high-energy lasers to… well, that part isn’t exactly clear. Something-something altering the conditions that let high-pressure systems form, or whatever. Point is, an international coalition of concerned countries built a giant space system that can incinerate anything on earth through a variety of means.

And yet somehow, no one ever even conceived of the idea that it might be used as a weapon. When the system somehow drops a polar vortex on a tiny town in Afghanistan and turns all the residents into dramatically fragile icicles, America attributes the problem to a system error and hides it from the world. (Which is odd, since UN soldiers discover the problem in the first place.) Then Hong Kong goes up in flames, and the US somehow covers that up as well. Turns out Dutchboy is due to be handed off from sole American control (somehow affected through a multi-country coalition on the International Space Station, one of the many plot points that makes not the faintest whiff of sense) in two weeks, and America’s president (Andy Garcia) refuses to turn over a damaged product. It’s pretty clear from the president’s first briefing exactly who’s behind the sabotage and what they want, but all the characters are ridiculously far behind the audience. It takes them a full hour into the film to even conceive that someone’s hacked and weaponized Dutchboy, and that those obliterated cities aren’t just software glitches.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Devlin and his co-writer Paul Guyot cram that first hour with characters and complications. Jake’s estranged brother Max (Jim Sturgess), a State Department official with a longstanding grudge against his cocky older brother, is put in charge of Dutchboy for political reasons. He’s dating Secret Service agent Sarah Wilson (Abbie Cornish), which they both have to keep quiet because of some kind of departmental fraternization rule. His old college buddy Cheng (Daniel Wu, now some form of climatologist in Hong Kong) gets an early whiff of the Dutchboy conspiracy, mostly so the cameras can accompany him on a frantic tear around Hong Kong, in the kind of calculated international action sequence that makes a blockbuster look friendlier to overseas audiences. Jake has a moppety daughter (Talitha Eliana Bateman), who’s mostly in the story to precociously analyze his character, then weep beautifully for the camera when he’s in danger. And when Jake arrives on the ISS to fix the problem, he meets a broadly multicultural crisis team who mostly have only the tiniest hint of story function, but at least give Geostorm a more diverse face.

All this character business takes a long and tedious time to set up, and it’s often handled in the clunky manner common to action movies that aren’t too particular about how information reaches the audience — as long as it shows up in time to frame the next set of explosions. Among the highlights: Max has far too many scenes with sassy hacker Dana (Zazie Beetz), who takes potshots at his girlfriend and spouts riveting lines like, “The user logs have been wiped clean! We have no digital fingerprints!” (She also compares a particular tempting risk to “going on a roller coaster eating Chipotle.”) Jake spends some charisma-free time fencing with the ISS chief scientist, Ute (Alexandra Maria Lara), who spends the whole movie trying to get him to take her seriously by competently proving him wrong, and still just gets a series of Butlerian smirks for her troubles. He also protagonist-splains Dutchboy’s working processes to the people who are actually running it, in an apparent bid to make himself the year’s most obnoxious protagonist. And then, a grim analysis of Dutchboy scenarios prompts the grim line, “They all end the same way… a geostorm.”

Geostorm is fundamentally devoted to making “geostorm” happen as a term, which explains why when things get critical on the ISS, a board lights up with “TIME TO GEOSTORM: 90 MINUTES,” and a friendly computer voice starts laying out the geostorm countdown. Maybe no one anticipated that Dutchboy could be weaponized, but the programmers sure as hell anticipated that they’d need themselves some kind of highly detailed, graphics-intensive geostorm warning. What they didn’t anticipate was that brothers Jake and Max would somehow find a way to get over their mutual grudges and work together, with Jake on the ISS and Max on the ground. Devlin and Guyot do bring some clever structural mechanics to the story, with twin mysteries playing out planetside and in orbit. It’s just that both play out the same way, with people staring at onscreen code and barking about their latest findings, or reminding each other of their past character conflicts before rapidly moving on.

Photo: Warner Bros.

And of course, this being a disaster movie, it’s all punctuated with disasters. “C’mon, aren’t you a little bit curious to watch the world burn?” sneers one revealed villain toward the end of the film, in a line that’s mostly cribbed from Heath Ledger’s Joker. But copycatting aside, the audience almost certainly is curious to see the world burn, or at least splinter under car-sized hailstones and cold waves that chase people around Brazil, exactly like the laughably memorable “fleeing from cold” sequence in The Day After Tomorrow. For viewers who are only in it for the disaster-porn, Geostorm’s main problem is that these sequences play out too similarly, with the camera finding one “face of the catastrophe” victim to follow around as things fall apart, and then the usual glossy CGI weather tearing glossy CGI cities to shreds. The effects in Day After Tomorrow had more weight and gravitas, and were more convincing; there’s a glib feeling of frantic speed to Geostorm’s disaster sequences that make them feel a bit like the hilariously elaborate cosmic deathtraps of the Final Destination movies.

And when the final plan is revealed, it’s a pretty stupid one. “I’m turning the clock back to 1945, when America was a shining city on a hill!” another villain yells, by way of explaining what the geostorm’s catastrophes are meant to accomplish. The moment feels like a self-conscious reference to Trump’s “make America great again” speeches, and their callbacks to an era an awful lot of people wouldn’t want to relive. But Geostorm doesn’t have time to examine the impact of these kinds of politics, or even to chuckle over the irony and insanity of trying to eke some political gain out of obliterating humanity. It’s one quick shouted moment in a long frantic rush of shouted moments and only partially formed ideas about current events. Geostorm could just as well have originated with someone channel-surfing through news channels and family melodramas, getting half-glimpses of reports on terrorist attacks and political commentary. “This would probably make a pretty good movie,” that theoretical exec might have thought. “As long as it ends in… a geostorm.”

Will Ferrell stars in PSA campaign to remind you to put your phone away

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Will Ferrell is here to remind you that technology can be terrible.  

A new PSA campaign, produced by Common Sense Media, features the Emmy-winning comedic actor being unable to put down his phone and making his family’s attempt at “device-free dinner” incredibly awkward. 

The campaign was released in tandem with the San-Francisco-based nonprofit’s most recent media use census

The report found that that children 8 years old and under spend a whopping 48 minutes a day staring at a mobile screen. It also found that 42 percent of children now own their own tablets. 

Both of these figures show a stark increase from previous years. These hilarious yet somber ads show us that maybe we should be, uh, doing something about this. 

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Common Sense Media hopes these ads will encourage families to have device-free dinners of their own. 

The organization’s website contains tips to plan a successful device-free dinner. For example: Establish consequences if your kids are using their phones too much. And maybe don’t invite Will Ferrell over. 

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Apple makes an unexpected deal to improve cell service in Puerto Rico

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The ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico is making some strange bedfellows.

On Wednesday, Apple announced that it will, with AT&T’s help, enable the 900 MHz Band 8 ban cell service on many iPhones in Puerto Rico. That band can only connect to Google’s Project Loon.

“We are working with AT&T to activate cellular service for iPhone users in Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. Apple engineers have created a special carrier settings update which users connected to Wi-Fi or who are connected to a cellular network will automatically be prompted to download throughout the week,” said Apple in an official statement.

Devastated on an almost unprecedented scale by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico has struggled to rebuild core parts of its infrastructure, including basic communication technologies. Many people reported being unable to contact friends and families via cellphones and the internet. 

900 MHz (a 3G Extended GSM network) is not the normal band for cell communications and is not even one licensed for use in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. However, it is the communication band supported by Google’s Project Loon project. 

Earlier this month, Google got the okay to float its still-experimental, helium-balloon-based connection technology over the storm-ravaged island. The Loon balloons are designed to provide internet connectivity for rural areas and operate, more or less, as unmoored cell-towers, floating in the stratosphere and staying aloft for six months. A network carrier, like AT&T, communicates from the ground with the nearest Loon balloon and the balloons communicate with each other. Google’s balloons can provide up to a 10 Mbps LTE connectivity for cellphone owners on the ground.

However, before AT&T iPhone owners (iPhone 5c and above running iOS 10 and higher) can connect to Google’s Loon balloons, they need a crucial carrier update which will enable the 900 MHz Band 8. The iPhone’s mobile broadband radio already supports the provisional band, it’s just not enabled on the phone so the device doesn’t waste battery power scanning for a band that usually doesn’t have service.

The update is comparatively tiny (it can be measured in kilobytes), but the question remains: If there’s limited connectivity, how are Puerto Rico’s iPhone users going to download it?

According to StatusPR, a governmental web site dedicated to tracking Puerto Rica’s infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Maria, more than half of the U.S. territory’s cell towers are out of commission and 75% of cell antennas are still not functional.

There are pockets of connectivity and, overall, StatusPR reports 61% of the Puerto Rican telecommunication system is back online. This, however, includes wired and wireless systems. It’s not clear if AT&T iPhone customers can also download that carrier update from wired systems.

We’ve contacted AT&T for clarification and will update this story with their response.

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Alphabet’s Project Loon deploys LTE balloons in Puerto Rico

Alphabet’s Project Loon has officially deployed its LTE balloons to Puerto Rico, the team announced this afternoon. In a blog penned by Project Loon head Alastair Westgarth, the company says it’s working with the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Aviation Authority, FEMA, and other cellular spectrum and aviation authorities to bring connectivity to parts of the island still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Loon’s official LTE partner for the initiative is AT&T, which is helping Loon use its fleet of stratospheric helium balloons to bring functions like text messaging and minor web browsing access to Puerto Rico residents who have LTE-equipped smartphones.

“We’ve never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace, and we’re grateful for the support of AT&T and the many other partners and organizations that have made this possible,” Westgarth writes. “Thanks to the Pan-American and Puerto Rican governments’ aviation authorities and air traffic controllers, who enabled us to send small teams of balloons from our launch site in Nevada to Puerto Rico. Thanks also to SES Networks and Liberty Cablevision who helped quickly set up essential ground infrastructure so that the balloons could get internet connectivity.”

Loon’s balloons have been used in a number of regions across the globe since 2013, including one other high-profile disaster relief effort in Peru after the country was struck with massive rains and extreme flooding back in May of last year. Yet the effort in Puerto Rico marks the fastest deployment, and its aimed at helping nearly 3.5 million residents of the island regain connectivity. As of early October, when the FCC first gave Loon the green light to operate in Puerto Rico, nearly 83 percent of cell towers were still down.