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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

best products of adobe max 2017 dji zenmuse x7

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.

best products of adobe max 2017 dell ultrasharp 32 8k monitor

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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