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Scientists rename human genes to stop Microsoft Excel from misreading them as dates

There are tens of thousands of genes in the human genome: minuscule twists of DNA and RNA that combine to express all of the traits and characteristics that make each of us unique. Each gene is given a name and alphanumeric code, known as a symbol, which scientists use to coordinate research. But over the past year or so, some 27 human genes have been renamed, all because Microsoft Excel kept misreading their symbols as dates.

The problem isn’t as unexpected as it first sounds. Excel is a behemoth in the spreadsheet world and is regularly used by scientists to track their work and even conduct clinical trials. But its default settings were designed with more mundane applications in mind, so when a user inputs a gene’s alphanumeric symbol into a spreadsheet, like MARCH1 — short for “Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1” — Excel converts that into a date: 1-Mar.

This is extremely frustrating, even dangerous, corrupting data that scientists have to sort through by hand to restore. It’s also surprisingly widespread and affects even peer-reviewed scientific work. One study from 2016 examined genetic data shared alongside 3,597 published papers and found that roughly one-fifth had been affected by Excel errors.

“It’s really, really annoying,” Dezső Módos, a systems biologist at the Quadram Institute in the UK, told The Verge. Módos, whose job involves analyzing freshly sequenced genetic data, says Excel errors happen all the time, simply because the software is often the first thing to hand when scientists process numerical data. “It’s a widespread tool and if you are a bit computationally illiterate you will use it,” he says. “During my PhD studies I did as well!”

Examples of gene symbols being rendered as dates in Microsoft Excel.
GIF: The Verge

There’s no easy fix, either. Excel doesn’t offer the option to turn off this auto-formatting, and the only way to avoid it is to change the data type for individual columns. Even then, a scientist might fix their own data, but as soon as someone else opens the same spreadsheet in Excel without thinking, errors will be introduced all over again.

Help has arrived, though, in the form of the scientific body in charge of standardizing the names of genes, the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee, or HGNC. This week, the HGNC published new guidelines for gene naming, including for “symbols that affect data handling and retrieval.” From now on, they say, human genes and the proteins they expressed will be named with one eye on Excel’s auto-formatting. That means the symbol MARCH1 has now become MARCHF1, while SETP1 has become SEPTIN1, and so on. A record of old symbols and names will be stored by HGNC to avoid confusion in the future.

So far, the names of some 27 genes have been changed like this over the past year, Elspeth Bruford, the coordinator of HGNC, tells The Verge, but the guidelines themselves weren’t formally announced until this week. “We consulted the respective research communities to discuss the proposed updates, and we also notified researchers who had published on these genes specifically when the changes were being put into effect,” says Bruford.

As Bruford makes clear, the art of naming genes is very much driven by consensus. Like the lexicographers charged with updating dictionaries, the Gene Nomenclature Committee has to be sensitive to the needs of those individuals who will be most affected by their work.

This wasn’t always the case, mind. In the early, frontier days of genetics, gene naming was often a playground for creative scientists, leading to notorious genes, including “sonic hedgehog” (yes, named for that Sonic) and “Indy” (short for “I’m not dead yet”; a reference to the gene’s function, which can double the life span of fruit flies when mutated).

Now, though, the HGNC has taken matters firmly in hand, and current guidelines don’t cede much ground to whimsy or ego. The focus is on practical concerns: how do we minimize confusion? For that reason, gene symbols should be unique, and gene names should be brief and specific, says the committee. They cannot use subscript or superscript; can only contain Latin letters and Arabic numerals; and should not spell out names or words, particularly offensive ones (a rule that should hold true “ideally in any language”).

And while the decision to rename genes is not taken lightly, it’s not unusual, says Bruford. Many gene symbols that can be read as nouns have been renamed to avoid false positives during searches, for example. In the past, CARS has become CARS1, WARS changed to WARS1, and MARS tweaked to MARS1. Other changes have been made to avoid insult.

“We always have to imagine a clinician having to explain to a parent that their child has a mutation in a particular gene,” says Bruford. “For example, HECA used to have the gene name ‘headcase homolog (Drosophila),’ named after the equivalent gene in fruit fly, but we changed it to ‘hdc homolog, cell cycle regulator’ to avoid potential offense.”

But Bruford says this is the first time that the guidelines have been rewritten specifically to counter the problems caused by software. So far, the reactions seem to be extremely positive — some would even say joyous.

After geneticist Janna Hutz shared the relevant section of HGNC’s new guidelines on Twitter, the response from the community was jubilant. “THRILLED by this announcement by the Human Gene Nomenclature Committee,” tweeted Hutz herself. “Finally!!!” responded Mudra Hegde, a computational biologist at the Broad Institute in Massachusetts. “Greatest news of the day!” said a pseudonymous Twitter user.

Bruford notes that there has been some dissent about the decision, but it mostly seems to be focused on a single question: why was it easier to rename human genes than it was to change how Excel works? Why, exactly, in a fight between Microsoft and the entire genetics community, was it the scientists who had to back down?

Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment, but Bruford’s theory is that it’s simply not worth the trouble to change. “This is quite a limited use case of the Excel software,” she says. “There is very little incentive for Microsoft to make a significant change to features that are used extremely widely by the rest of the massive community of Excel users.”

Bruford doesn’t seem bitter about the situation, though. After all, she says, it wouldn’t do to wait on a hypothetical Excel update to fix these problems when a long-term solution can be introduced by scientists themselves. Microsoft Excel may be fleeting, but human genes will be around for as long as we are. It’s best to give them names that work.



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Acer Chromebook Spin 713: the Chromebook to buy

Several Chromebooks came out this year vying to become the best “premium” Chromebook of 2020. Two big factors set Acer’s Chromebook Spin 713 apart from the rest.

The first is its 3:2 display. Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook, Asus’ Chromebook Flip C436, and many of last year’s top contenders like the Pixelbook Go all used a 16:9 aspect ratio — a more square 3:2 screen is taller and gives you significantly more vertical space.

The second is the price. The Spin 713 starts at $629 (and has been on sale for $529 already). That’s fairly midrange as Chromebooks go, but it significantly undercuts some competitors from Samsung, Google, and Asus. By unveiling the Galaxy and the C436 at CES 2020, the companies essentially posed the question: can a Chromebook be worth $1,000?

The Acer Chromebook Spin 713 head-on.

The 3:2 screen gives you 18 percent more vertical screen space than a 16:9 display.

The existence of the Spin 713 says that the answer to that question is no (for now). It’s not a perfect Chromebook, but it offers similar specs and performance benefits to those high-end competitors at a much lower cost. There’s no other way to say it: this is the best Chromebook I’ve used this year.

Almost every feature of the 713 is excellent. The keyboard is one of the best keyboards I’ve ever used on a Chromebook, with a smooth and comfortable texture, decent travel, backlighting, and a satisfying but quiet click. The port selection means you’re unlikely to need a dongle: there are two USB-C ports, a USB-A, a headphone jack, a microSD slot, and something you don’t see on thin Chromebooks every day: HDMI. The Gorilla Glass trackpad is quite smooth and has no issues with palm rejection (though it’s a slightly stiffer click than some of the best touchpads out there).

A few corners have been cut, but the fact that they’re even worth mentioning is a testament to how excellent this laptop is. For one, there’s no biometric login — fingerprint or facial — which is a feature that Samsung and Asus have both built into their devices. The downward-firing stereo speakers are also not great. The music was tinny and even at maximum volume was just barely loud enough to be heard from across my living room.

USB-C and HDMI on the right.

But the main drawback is the design — and again, by “drawback,” I really mean “aspect that’s not quite as exceptional as everything else.” The Spin’s chassis isn’t necessarily ugly, but I’d call it utilitarian. It’s on the bulky side at 3.02 pounds. (Holster the pitchforks — I know that’s not heavy in the grand scheme of laptops, but it’s noticeably heavier than the Galaxy and the Go.) There’s a shiny aluminum lid and a plastic keyboard deck, and it’s all a sort of drab gray color. And there’s a clunky bottom bezel with a large Acer logo that dates the screen a bit. Again, the 713 isn’t an eyesore, but it’s not what I’d call stylish: It just looks like something I might expect to see on a school laptop cart.

The upside of that is that this Chromebook is quite sturdy. I was afraid of putting the Galaxy down too hard on my desk while I was testing it, but I would be quite comfortable battering the Spin around in my backpack all day. There’s very little flex in the keyboard and screen. Acer says it’s able to survive drops of up to 48 inches and downward force of up to 132 pounds. I didn’t test those claims, but I’d believe it.

But the absolute highlight of this Chromebook, as I mentioned earlier, is the display. If you’ve been using a 16:9 display your whole life and you try a 3:2, you’ll probably never want to go back. You get noticeably more vertical screen space, and I could comfortably stack windows side by side without ever having to zoom out.

Aspect ratio aside, the 713’s touch display is gorgeous, delivering a sharp picture and vibrant, accurate colors. Side-by-side, it actually looked better than the MacBook Pro’s screen: I would say it’s not too far from the screen of the Galaxy Chromebook, which was one of the company’s primary justifications for its $1,000 price tag. The only thing to note is that the Spin’s screen is glossy, and I did experience some glare when using it in direct sunlight.

A user types on the Acer Chromebook Spin 713.

The aluminum chassis adheres to the MIL-STD 810G military standard, Acer says.

The Spin 713 carries Intel’s Project Athena label, which is meant to certify that the laptop’s performance and battery life are up to Intel’s standards. A host of higher-end 2020 Chromebooks, including the Galaxy and the C436, have earned this distinction but have still yielded disappointing battery life results. I’m relieved to say that the Spin 713 delivers comparable performance to those devices without that drawback. I got eight and a half hours with my usual load of around a dozen Chrome tabs and apps at 50 percent brightness. It also charges quickly, juicing from zero to 35 percent in 30 minutes.

The model I tested, which costs $629, has a Core i5-10210U processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. (You can configure it with an i3 or an i7, and can jump up to 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage as well.)

I didn’t encounter any performance issues with that system when I ran it through my daily load of office work, which included bouncing between 10–12 Chrome tabs and spreadsheets, Slack, Twitter, Spotify, streaming, and occasional photo editing. It’s a load that has given weaker systems (like Lenovo’s $279 Chromebook Duet) some trouble. Everything was smooth and stable, with nothing freezing or randomly quitting. The fans (this Chromebook contains fans, unlike the Galaxy and the Go) did an excellent job of cooling the chassis, and I never once heard them.

The Acer Chromebook Spin 713 laid out flat.

The Spin automatically switches to tablet mode when you flip the screen around.

This configuration worked so well that I’m comfortable saying the i7 model is really best for developers and other power users who are coding or running desktop Linux applications. Everyone else can stick with the Core i5 model and save the cash.

The 713 supports all the latest Android apps, which are in varying stages of development for Chrome OS. Some are still just blown-up versions of their Android counterparts, which makes them hit-or-miss on a laptop screen. (Slack, for example, is somewhat glitchy and crashed a couple times, and you can’t highlight in the Google Docs app without physically holding down and dragging the cursor, as you would on a phone screen.) This isn’t the worst problem for an operating system to have — these apps have fine browser counterparts — but it does mean there’s something of a learning curve to figuring out where you’ll use what. Other apps, on the other hand, have adapted well to Chrome OS over the years; Spotify now has a nice laptop interface, for example.

The Acer Chromebook Spin 713 in tent mode, from the side.

You can use the Spin in tent mode as well.

The Acer Chromebook Spin 713 in tent mode from above.

Use gesture controls to swap between windows.

Apps aside, Chrome OS as a whole ran smoothly and looked great on this system. There’s a nice tablet mode that uses Android-esque gesture controls as well.

If you’re deciding between the Spin 713 and the $1,000 Galaxy Chromebook or the $849 i5 model of the Pixelbook Go, I would say you need a pretty good reason not to choose the Spin.

Specifically, if you’re looking for a laptop for everyday multitasking, office work, and streaming, and you’re going to shell out an extra couple hundred for those devices, what you’re really paying for is design. That’s the primary department where both of those computers, despite other drawbacks, are top of their class (and one where the 713 is very much not). You’ll want the Galaxy if your top priority is a bold look that turns heads and the Pixelbook if you need a sleek and elegant vibe. If those aren’t your top priorities and you just want a good Chromebook, don’t bother with those and just get the Spin.

The more interesting comparison is to Asus’ Chromebook Flip C434, which offers less powerful specs (a Core M3 instead of an i5 and 64GB of storage rather than 128GB) for a slightly lower price ($599 for the model with 8GB of RAM). The C434 also has a 3.3-pound aluminum chassis and the same port selection minus the HDMI, but small bezels give it a more premium look.

The Acer Chromebook Spin 713’s keyboard from above.

The Spin 713 is a better choice than the Galaxy Chromebook and the Pixelbook Go (for most people).

To a certain extent, the best choice comes down to your preferences. But if you’re stuck between the two, I think the 713 is worth buying for the screen alone. The 3:2 panel is a game-changer, and the extra storage, standout keyboard, and HDMI port are icing on the cake. Personally, I would pay a bit more.

In short, some people thought 2020 might be the year of the premium Chromebook, the year companies proved that it was worth paying $1,000 for a nice Chrome OS device. The Spin 713 shows that, for the majority of us, it’s still not. 2020’s best Chromebook doesn’t look like a fancy, flashy, high-end machine — it looks like this.

Photography by Monica Chin / The Verge

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Go read this FT story about how Microsoft’s roots in China could help it acquire TikTok

Why, exactly, is Microsoft — purveyor of office software, cloud services, and high-end laptops — so well positioned to buy viral video app TikTok? We’ve previously looked at how the acquisition fits Microsoft’s future ambitions, but a new report from The Financial Times explains how the US tech giant has been preparing for this sort of deal for decades by nurturing connections with China’s tech elite.

As the FT explains, Microsoft has been involved in the Chinese tech world for far longer than many rivals. Its research labs in China have functioned as incubators for local talent from the 1990s onwards, and many top Chinese tech executives (including Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance) have worked for the company in the past.

Yuan Yang, one of the article’s authors, noted on Twitter that this connection led the ByteDance founder to approach Microsoft after President Trump threatened to ban TikTok:

“The soft power of Microsoft in China is immense,” one former Microsoft China executive, told the FT. “For the most part, Chinese employees leaving have a soft spot for Microsoft.”

Microsoft has also sweated hard to keep its software in use in China. About 90 percent of Chinese computers use Windows (even though piracy is rife), while Microsoft’s search engine Bing has survived in the country by censoring search results while others have been driven out. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn and GitHub are also operational in China, with the FT noting that these are two of only three major foreign-owned platforms that host user-generated content available in the country. The third is Amazon’s reviews system.

And this closeness extends to the political sphere, too. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited America in 2015 to meet US tech CEOs at the US-China Internet Industry Forum, for example, it was Microsoft that hosted the event.

This sort of goodwill can’t be bought overnight, and could help Microsoft secure the acquisition of TikTok while avoiding Beijing’s anger. As another former Microsoft China executive told the FT: “All the pre-existing connections between ByteDance and Microsoft meant there were lines of trusted communications that could be taken advantage of.”

The deal to acquire TikTok is obviously still extremely provisional, and rests on the whims of a would-be autocratic leader who bristles at the idea of foreign interference: President Trump. But if you want to find out more about how Microsoft has been working on these relations for years, go read The Financial Times’ excellent report.



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The big takeaways from Samsung’s Unpacked announcements

Samsung’s big Unpacked event went off with just a few hitches. It’s nice to know that even when an event is online some kind of logistical issue can cause AV problems and delay the beginning of a keynote. Makes everything feel a little more normal.

I tease — the event itself was actually well executed. Samsung didn’t fake an auditorium but still did its best to make the occasion feel big. Microsoft and Apple went much further at embracing a new online format, but Samsung managed it fairly well. There were definitely cringe moments (Samsung kept showing Bluetooth pairing interfaces?), but overall it was a strong event. Plus, Samsung had a much more diverse and engaging set of presenters than any other tech keynote in recent memory. Bravo, Samsung.

But what about the products? Well, my big question was what the flagship would be and the answer is obvious: it’s the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. You can read my writeup in the link below, but do not miss the video from Becca Farsace — who actually got to use the Note 20 for a brief period of time.

As for that Galaxy Z Fold 2, Samsung pushed off a bunch of details until September 1st. For today, it mainly spent its time talking about how the second edition of the Fold had addressed all the durability concerns expressed by the press and YouTubers (one of my videos made a brief appearance). The message was refreshingly honest and direct: the first one wasn’t great, we’re fixing it.

At the end, Samsung’s TM Roh held a scripted interview where he laid out Samsung’s priorities for the coming years: foldable and 5G. The Fold 2 is going to be a big test of that.

Samsung didn’t mention Bixby, its digital assistant, a single time. I’m told it’s still on the phones and hasn’t been de-commissioned or anything — but woof. That’s an inside joke, by the way. On The Vergecast podcast we have decided that Bixby is actually a dog butler with shoes. It’s a thing. We’ll make better jokes on this week’s Vergecast, where we will absolutely be breaking down all of Samsung’s announcements.

Anyway, there’s plenty to catch up on if you missed it, so here’s the links.

Samsung news

The biggest announcements from Samsung’s 2020 Unpacked event.

Samsung announces Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra . I wrote up my thoughts on the main device of the day, the Note 20 Ultra. The regular Note 20, I’m sad to say, does not seem very special.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s best attempt at offering the best you can get on Android. The regular Note 20 is a lot less ambitious but still fairly pricey, probably thanks to those 5G radios. Whether either can live up to or exceed expectations is a question for the review — which we’ll bring to you later this month.

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S7 Plus tablet has a 120Hz OLED display and 5G. The screen on the Tab S7 Plus sounds like it’s amazing.

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 is thinner, lighter, and more expensive. I dearly wish these weren’t so huge.

Samsung announces Galaxy Buds Live with active noise cancellation and bean-shaped design. I just need to point out that Samsung’s own website for this product let one “Beans” product naming through, confirming Samsung had originally been calling them beans. It is an act of sheer cowardice to back away from such excellent and on-point branding. Anyway, this detail from Chris Welch on Samsung’s noise canceling is fascinating:

But with the unconventional design of the Galaxy Buds Live and their lack of in-ear tips or an actual seal, Samsung’s noise canceling works a bit differently here compared to what you’d experience from the AirPods Pro or Sony 1000XM3 earbuds. The company says that the Galaxy Buds Live are designed to cut down on very low, constant frequencies like the sound of an airplane cabin or the rumble of a train. But they’ll let the bulk of most sounds through — and that’s intentional.

How Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 compares to its predecessors and competitors.

Samsung announces the Galaxy Z Fold 2 with bigger screens and better cameras. Chaim Gartenberg:

The biggest question, of course, is how durable the Galaxy Z Fold 2 will be. The original Fold was infamously delayed for months after the first review units of the $1,980 phone began to fail due to the fragility of the plastic-covered panel. Samsung eventually did release the Fold after taking time to engineer a more robust model of the device, but it still had to caution users to handle the phone with kid gloves, with warnings about dust and applying “excessive pressure” to the touchscreen when tapping it.

Microsoft and Samsung have a special partnership for Xbox Game Pass on Android.

How to preorder the Samsung Galaxy Note 20.

Samsung guarantees three ‘generations’ of Android OS updates for some Galaxy phones. Yours truly:

Samsung says it will happen for phones from the Galaxy S10 and newer, but that some of its lower A-series phones may not be up to it. In a statement to The Verge, Samsung clarifies that the guarantee “applies to S, N and Z Series. A Series will support until hardware allows.”

Samsung will let you reserve a Galaxy Z Fold 2 today ahead of official preorders.

Tech news

Instagram launches Reels, its attempt to keep you off TikTok.

Google is sending a complicated privacy email to everyone — here’s what it means. Me again:

Google is returning to having humans analyze and rate anonymized audio snippets from its users. However, it’s also taken the major step of automatically opting every single user out of the setting that allows Google to store their audio. That’s why you might be getting an email today: Google would like you to opt back in to the program, and it’s trying to provide clearer information detailing what it’s all about.

Android TV’s new home screen will now recommend movies, TV shows, and apps. Seems like every TV platform needs to make a little on the side with these subscriptions.

The other update arriving on Android TV is a reworked subscription flow that makes it easier to subscribe to paid subscriptions, like TV streaming services. Where you’d normally have to grab your phone to complete the process, or painstakingly use a TV remote to fill out your credentials, the new addition lets you authorize the payment and automatically set up a subscription by linking your Google account from Android TV with just a few clicks.

Microsoft integrates Android apps into Windows 10 with new Your Phone update. Microsoft’s embrace of Android and how quickly that hug has turned into genuinely useful features on Windows is remarkable.

Microsoft cuts xCloud iOS testing early as its future on Apple devices remains unclear. Tom Warren:

The future of xCloud on iOS remains unclear and potentially out of Microsoft’s hands. The issues appear to be related, in part at least, to Apple’s rules on in-app purchases through its App Store. Microsoft is avoiding in-app purchases with the Google Play Store version of Xbox Game Pass that will include game streaming (xCloud).

More from The Verge

Apple and Google’s COVID-19 tracking system will make its full US debut in new Virginia app. As Nicole Wetsman makes clear, this solution won’t solve everything. Nevertheless, I would like to see something like it in every state, nationwide:

Apps that automate the contact tracing process can help flag people who were near someone with COVID-19, even if they may not remember interacting. They can also provide instant notification of a possible virus exposure. But they’re not a replacement for manual contact tracing, because they’re only able to monitor the contacts between people who have smartphones and decide to use the app. The VDH said it’s not using the app as part of its own contact tracing process, but that it offers a way for users to track their own potential exposures.

NASA astronaut on SpaceX Crew Dragon return: ‘Sounded like an animal’. Loren Grush gets into what that descent was like for the astronauts:

“I did record some audio of it, but it doesn’t sound like a machine. It sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all the puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmospheric noise,” Behnken said during a press conference following the landing. “It just continues to gain magnitude as you descend down through the atmosphere.”

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US Army esports team unbans commenters who asked about American war crimes

The US Army’s esports team is unbanning Twitch users it blocked from its streams for asking about American war crimes, and says it will be returning to Twitch soon.

In a statement sent to The Verge, a spokesperson for the army said the esports team would be “reinstating access for accounts previously banned for harassing and degrading behavior” and that it was “reviewing and clarifying its policies and procedures for the stream.” The esports outfit, which paused streaming last month after accusations it was violating the first amendment by banning users, said it would “resume streaming on Twitch in the near future, but a specific date has not been set at this time.”

The US military’s use of esports as a recruitment tool has come under scrutiny in recent months. Reports have highlighted how the US Army’s esports channel has used misleading prize giveaways to push users to recruitment pages, and how viewers have been banned for asking army streamers about war crimes committed by the US military.

This last point has led to complaints by free speech advocates, who argue that a video game stream run by the US military is the same as any other public forum overseen by the government, and thus has to uphold first amendment principles. As one attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, Katie Fallow, said in a statement: “The Army and Navy can’t constitutionally delete comments or ban people from these Twitch channels simply for asking questions about issues they would rather not address.”

Last month, the Knight First Amendment Institute wrote to both the Army and Navy’s esports teams asking them to unban users and publish clear policies for their accounts. The institute has previously sued President Donald Trump for blocking critics on Twitter under the same grounds. It won its case and the president was forced to unblock dozens of users.

“The team is reviewing and clarifying its policies and procedures for the stream and will provide all who have been banned the opportunity to participate in the space as long as they follow the team’s guidelines,” said the US Army in a statement. “Personal attacks, crude language, pornographic material, harassment and bullying will not be tolerated on the stream, and action will be taken if individuals choose to engage in this behavior.”

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California labor commissioner sues Uber and Lyft for alleged wage theft

Uber and Lyft are committing wage theft by misclassifying drivers as independent contractors, California’s labor commissioner alleges in separate lawsuits against the companies. The classification of drivers as freelance workers has deprived them of “a host of legal protections in violation of California labor law,” the lawsuits say.

“The Uber and Lyft business model rests on the misclassification of drivers as independent contractors,” said California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower in a statement. “This leaves workers without protections such as paid sick leave and reimbursement of drivers’ expenses, as well as overtime and minimum wages.”

The pair of lawsuits are the latest legal challenges against Uber and Lyft in California, the state where both companies were founded and prospered — and now find themselves increasingly at peril.

In May, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with city attorneys of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, sued the companies, arguing that their drivers were misclassified as independent contractors when they should be employees under the state’s AB5 law that went into effect on January 1st. Becerra recently filed a motion for a preliminary injunction that could compel the ride-hailing companies to reclassify drivers as employees immediately. California’s state court is expected to rule on the attorney general’s preliminary injunction on Thursday.

These latest lawsuits are of a similar vein. The state’s labor commissioner has received nearly 5,000 claims from drivers for lost wages. But García-Brower is seeking to recover wages owed to all of the state’s Uber and Lyft drivers, as well as expenses for a wide range of statutory violations and damages.

If drivers were classified as employees, Uber and Lyft would be responsible for paying them minimum wage, overtime compensation, paid rest periods, and reimbursements for the cost of driving for the companies, including personal vehicle mileage. But as independent contractors, drivers receive none of these benefits.

In a statement, Uber claimed the lawsuit is ill-timed due to the coronavirus pandemic. “The vast majority of California drivers want to work independently, and we’ve already made significant changes to our app to ensure that remains the case under state law,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “When 3 million Californians are without a job, our leaders should be focused on creating work, not trying to shut down an entire industry.” A Lyft spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This flurry of lawsuits and court rulings comes ahead of the November election, when California voters will vote on an Uber-and-Lyft-backed ballot measure that would override AB5 by classifying ride-hail drivers and other gig economy workers as independent contractors.

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Alleged Twitter teen hacker’s hearing got zoombombed big time

Last Friday, a 17-year-old Florida high school graduate, Graham Ivan Clark, was arrested and charged as the “mastermind” behind the massive bitcoin scam that ensnared the accounts of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Apple, and more — after he allegedly posed as a member of Twitter’s IT department and used Twitter’s own admin tools to break into those accounts.

This morning, I woke up early to hear what he — or his lawyer — had to say about that. It was so easy I didn’t even have to get to a desk. The court had publicly revealed last week it’d hold hearings over Zoom, no password required, so I tuned in with my phone from bed.

Apparently, it was too easy. So easy that trolls decided to zoombomb the entire hearing, spewing disgusting noises, piping in distracting music in several different languages, cursing out the court, and eventually hijacking the stream with a PornHub clip, according to cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs. (I stopped watching after I realized the 17-year-old defendant wasn’t going to show up, and I just listened to the rest with my earbuds.)

Judge Christopher Nash spent more time rapidly force-ejecting trolls than he did delivering his decision — which, by the way, was to keep Clark’s bail at $725,000, over six times the $117,000 in bitcoin he’s said to have gotten from the Twitter scam. While the judge did have to approve each attendee that joined, there was no way for him to tell from their usernames that they weren’t journalists or well-meaning members of the public, and he explained that Florida is supposed to allow them to attend.

Judge Nash and both parties’ lawyers remained admirably composed throughout, often resuming their arguments after each outburst as if nothing had happened. But eventually, the judge gave up on letting the public attend any future hearings in the case, saying future ones will be password protected.

And before he could formally end the hearing, trolls got the last word: “Fuck all you n*****s, fuck Mason, fuck Rolex,” they said, seemingly referring to the two other hackers who were charged on July 31st. That (and presumably the PornHub clip) were enough for the judge, who abruptly pulled the plug on the session.

Interestingly, the prosecution revealed that they suspect this isn’t Clark’s first bitcoin scam. Both sides’ lawyers referenced an earlier search warrant where California and Florida teamed up to seize his property last year, including $15,000 in cash, over $4 million in bitcoin, and his personal computers, as the Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this week.

His lawyer stated today that he gave up 100 bitcoins (roughly $1.1 million) and was allowed to keep the rest, but the prosecution argued today that having $3 million in assets made him a flight risk, and they suspected that money came from earlier crimes. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t quite hear if the judge agreed with the former argument over all the zoombombs, but he’s no longer requiring Clark to prove that he earned those other bitcoins. Perhaps he can use them to pay bail.

The Tampa Bay Times also linked Clark to a home invasion in January where two teens reportedly broke into an apartment, both were shot by a resident, and one was killed. Neither one was Clark, but he was also stopped for questioning at the scene and marked as likely involved; his mother allegedly told a deputy that “ever since her son was involved in a homicide at the beginning of the year, he has been harassed by several individuals.”

Last month, Clark was also caught doing 72 miles per hour in a 45mph zone while driving a 2017 BMW, according to traffic records. If he didn’t pay the fine, he would have been due to appear in court tomorrow.

Journalists will still have a way to attend future hearings. We’ll let you know if they get zoombombed despite the password protection.



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DoorDash launches online DashMart convenience stores to sell snacks and groceries

DoorDash on Wednesday announced the launch of a chain of virtual convenience stores the company is calling DashMart, which will sell snacks, groceries, and other food-related products from partner restaurants. These stores don’t have brick-and-mortar locations. Instead, they exist solely on the DoorDash app, kind of like a ghost kitchen if it were a CVS or 7-Eleven instead.

Right now, the company says DashMart is available in eight cities in the US: Chicago, Illinois; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Dallas, Texas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; the greater Phoenix, Arizona area; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Redwood City, California. But DoorDash is planning to expand that to more locations in the future, starting with a broader rollout in California and the inclusion of Denver and Baltimore to its list of supported city markets.

According to its press release, these DashMart stores are “are owned, operated, and curated by DoorDash.” That may sound like a strange new business model for DoorDash, which specializes mostly in coordinating the pickup and delivery of takeout. But the company clearly sees a big market opportunity in being the logistical partner and provider for other types of food delivery, not just freshly made meals.

DoorDash already supports convenience stores like 7-Eleven, CVS, and Walgreens, letting you create a shopping cart of items from those locations for a DoorDash driver to pick up and deliver. And there’s plenty of money to be made in the convenience store and grocery markets that on-demand apps and e-commerce barely touch. Amazon, having dominated online selling, has spent the last half-decade or so building out a physical retail footprint — comprised of Whole Foods stores, Amazon Go locations, and now full-blown grocery stores — to gain a foothold in those markets.

DoorDash can’t compete on the level of Amazon without having physical locations and the kind of complex and massively expensive logistics network the Seattle tech giant provides. But DoorDash can keep its edge over competing food delivery apps like Postmates and Uber Eats by offering a wider variety of items for which customers may normally use grocery delivery or a traditional Amazon order. It’s not clear what the margins are here for DoorDash; perhaps it’s buying items in bulk and reselling them or cutting special deals with wholesale providers for better rates. But DashMart clearly presents a more direct line of revenue than just being the delivery middleman for existing stores.

That more one-to-one relationship with customers seems like another reason why DoorDash is positioning DashMart as not just a way to order snacks and over-the-counter goods, but also as a kind of online boutique marketplace for rarer food items. “We’ve expanded our partnerships with national brands like The Cheesecake Factory and Nando’s, as well as with local restaurants such as Brother’s BBQ in Denver and Corey’s NYC Bagel Deli in Chicago. All of these brands have chosen DashMart to sell their fan-favorite retail products, offering them another avenue for growth,” the company explains.

Say you want a bottle of hot sauce from a barbecue restaurant you like. DoorDash says its plan is to sign those establishments up for DashMart to make it so customers can order and have delivered those items they would otherwise have had to go to a physical location to purchase. Presumably, DoorDash gets a cut of the sale, too. It’s a smart play, if enough customers end up willing to pay the associated fees to have those items delivered instead of simply buying them on Amazon or using a different avenue, like grocery delivery or curbside pickup, to obtain them on their own.

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Apple and Google’s COVID-19 tracking system will make its full US debut in new Virginia app

This week, Virginia plans to release a COVID-19 exposure notification app based on the specifications published by Apple and Google in April. The app, called COVIDWISE, is the first fully deployed implementation of Apple and Google’s system in the US, and was beta-tested by the state department of health.

The specification is designed to preserve patient privacy, particularly around their location and whether they have tested positive for COVID-19. “No location data or personal information is ever collected, stored or transmitted to VDH as part of the app,” a health department official told Virginia Public Media, which first reported the news. “You can delete the app or turn off exposure notifications at any time.”

If someone tests positive for the coronavirus, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) will give them a PIN number that they can choose to use to report that result within the app. Then, other users of the app should get a notification if their phones were near the sick person at some point in the past 14 days. However, those notifications will only go out to phones when the exposure met a threshold for a strength and duration of the Bluetooth signal that can be estimated as a user being within six feet of the other user for 15 minutes (based on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention definition of ‘close contact’).

Apple and Google’s system relies on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and does not track physical location through GPS. Instead, it collects and stores signals from nearby phones. Phones trade anonymous keys, which change every 15 minutes. The companies announced their partnership in April and released the system’s API to health departments in May.

Apps that automate the contact tracing process can help flag people who were near someone with COVID-19, even if they may not remember interacting. They can also provide instant notification of a possible virus exposure. But they’re not a replacement for manual contact tracing, because they’re only able to monitor the contacts between people who have smartphones and decide to use the app. The VDH said it’s not using the app as part of its own contact tracing process, but that it offers a way for users to track their own potential exposures.

The more people who download the app, the more effective it will be. “If enough of the population downloaded this app and enabled it on their phone, we would have an automated way of figuring out who you have been around,” Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts in Virginia, told VPM.

Alabama launched a close pilot for its own exposure notification app, called GuideSafe, this week. The pilot is open to anyone in the state with a .edu email address. It’s part of the state’s return-to-campus plans, said University of Alabama at Birmingham President Ray Watts. The app is aiming for 10,000 downloads each on Apple and Android phones.

Twenty US states are interested in apps that use the Apple and Google system, Google said last week. Alabama, South Carolina, and North Dakota each had projects in development in May. The Association of Public Health Laboratories is also building a national server that will allow apps to work across state lines.

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Samsung Galaxy Unpacked 2020: the five biggest announcements

Samsung’s anticipated Unpacked 2020 event is all packed up. The Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra are now real things, as are the Galaxy Tab S7 tablet, the Galaxy Watch 3, and the Galaxy Buds Live (FKA “Beans”). Also, it announced the new Galaxy Z Fold 2. In case you missed out on the presentation or just want to see the main highlights of the show without having to watch through the show yourself, we’ve distilled them all into bite-size bits below.

The smaller Note 20 is on the left, Note 20 Ultra on the right.

Becca Farsace / The Verge

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra are loaded with powerful specs, starting at $1,000 for the Note 20 and $1,300 for the Note 20 Ultra. Each have the Snapdragon 865 Plus processor with 5G support, as well as an IP68 rating for waterproofing and support for wireless charging, but they differ in a few major ways.

Samsung put a 64MP telephoto lens in the Note 20 (versus the Ultra’s 12MP telephoto lens), but the Ultra has a 108MP wide-angle lens (compared to the Note 20’s 12MP offering) along with 5x optical zoom. The pricier Note 20 Ultra has a 120Hz refresh rate OLED screen, along with more RAM and microSD support.

Of course, Samsung had to have something else up its sleeves. As a final announcement, it showed off the successor to the original Galaxy Fold foldable phone. When it’s closed, the outside display that’s visible is much bigger than before. It’s 6.2 inches, whereas the main screen that comes unfolded when you open the device stretches to 7.6 inches. Samsung said that it reinforced the overall structure of the phone to make it stronger and improved the hinge, so hopefully it’s more durable than the first-generation model. Samsung says we’ll get more info on September 1st regarding availability and pricing.

Image: Samsung

Another product that leaked extensively ahead of its official unveiling, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are the company’s latest wireless earbuds. They look like little jelly beans and they’re smaller in size compared to the Galaxy Buds Plus, but they pack in even more advanced tech, like active noise cancellation. We already think the Buds Plus are the best overall wireless earbuds, so these could improve on the formula even more. Samsung showed off how easily it is to connect to multiple devices, which is something that Apple’s AirPods are known for, so we’ll have to see how well that turns out in the finished product.

Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

The Galaxy Watch 3 is a thinner smartwatch than Samsung’s previous models, and it features a bigger 1.4-inch display. It’s also more expensive that the last iteration Galaxy Watch, bumping up the price by $70. It will be available in 41mm and 45mm sizes.

Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

Samsung announced two sizes of the Tab S7 tablet, consisting of an 11-inch and a 12.4-inch lineup. Both run Android 10 with OneUI software, feature the powerful Snapdragon 865 Plus processor, and their displays have a fast 120Hz refresh rate, though only the larger of the two has an OLED screen. The smaller device has an LCD screen.

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