Today in brighter crypto news: SEC says tokens are securities

Crypto news got a little boost last week after a dark month of crashes, stablecoins and birthdays. The SEC ruled that two ICO issuers, CarrierEQ Inc. and Paragon Coin Inc., were in fact selling securities instead of so-called utility tokens.

“Both companies have agreed to return funds to harmed investors, register the tokens as securities, file periodic reports with the Commission, and pay penalties,” wrote Pamela Sawhney of the SEC. “These are the Commission’s first cases imposing civil penalties solely for ICO securities offering registration violations.”

From the release:

Airfox, a Boston-based startup, raised approximately $15 million worth of digital assets to finance its development of a token-denominated “ecosystem” starting with a mobile application that would allow users in emerging markets to earn tokens and exchange them for data by interacting with advertisements. Paragon, an online entity, raised approximately $12 million worth of digital assets to develop and implement its business plan to add blockchain technology to the cannabis industry and work toward legalization of cannabis. Neither Airfox nor Paragon registered their ICOs pursuant to the federal securities laws, nor did they qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements.

This behavior — a sort of “damn the torpedoes” for the fintech set — was all the rage at the beginning of the year as no clear guidance was available for filing security tokens — essentially pieces of company equity — versus utility tokens which were, in theory, used within the company ecosystem. In fact, ICOed companies contorted themselves into all sorts of knots to appear to fit their “utility token” within the torturous confines of securities law.

“We have made it clear that companies that issue securities through ICOs are required to comply with existing statutes and rules governing the registration of securities,” said Stephanie Avakian, co-director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division. “These cases tell those who are considering taking similar actions that we continue to be on the lookout for violations of the federal securities laws with respect to digital assets.”

The SEC fined both companies $250,000 each. Future ICOs, at least in the U.S., would do well to keep this in mind.

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Move over Le Creuset? A new cookware startup founded by and for millennials is getting down to business

Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine a product or industry that a new e-commerce startup hasn’t tried to remake already, from slippers to mattresses, from luggage to lipstick.

Yet two childhood friends in New York have seemingly struck on a fresh idea: taking on the stodgy and often expensive world of cookware, where one’s options out of college are usually limited to a few pieces of Calphalon or Farberware or, in the best-case scenario, some Le Creuset, the premium French cookware manufacturer founded back in 1925 and known for its vibrant colors, including Marseille, Cerise, and Soleil.

In fact, what the pair are building with their 10-month-old startup, Great Jones, appears to be a Le Creuset for the next generation: a handful of cookware items, including a cast-iron Dutch oven, that come in an array of colorful, if comparatively more muted, tones. Think Broccoli and Mustard.

The cookware is also more affordable than Le Crueset, which charges upward of $300 for a similar Dutch oven, compared with $145 for Great Jones’s new product. In fact, Great Jones’s full collection, which also includes a stainless steel stock pot, a stainless sauce pot, a stainless deep saute and a ceramic nonstick skillet, retails for $395.

Cookware is a smart sector to chase. According to the market consultancy IBIS World, the so-called “kitchen and cookware stores” industry has been growing steadily, reaching revenue of $17 billion last year.

One of the big question questions for Great Jones will be whether its offerings hold up, and whether its customers find them compelling enough to recommend to others.  After all, the old adage tends to hold up that you get what you pay for. And most new products take off because of favorable word of mouth, not merely because they’re Instagrammable.

Great Jones’s 28-year-old founders — Sierra Tishgart, previously a food editor at New York Magazine, and Maddy Moelis, who worked in customer insights and product management at a variety of e-commerce companies, including Warby Parker and Zola — seem to have thought these things through. Indeed, in a recent Forbes profile, they say they conducted extensive interviews with chefs and cookbook authors in their network in order to establish, for example, how to design a comfortable handle.

They also smartly made certain that their introductory offerings come in a range of metals. As even so-so cooks know, stainless steel is ideal for browning and braising; durable nonstick coatings make preparing delicate foods, including eggs and pancakes, less nightmarish.

In the meantime, Great Jones has easily captured the press’s imagination with what they are cooking up — a sign, perhaps, that the industry is ready for a refresh. In addition to Forbes, Great Jones also received recent coverage in the New York Times and Vogue — valuable real estate that most months-old startups can only dream of landing.

Great Jones has also raised outside funding already, including $2.75 million that it closed on last month led by venture capital firm General Catalyst, with participation from numerous individual investors.

Now, the company just needs to convince its target demographic that it should ditch the older, established brands that may not feel particularly modern but are known to be durable, easy to clean, dishwasher safe, and not insanely heavy (among the other things that keep people from throwing their pots in the garbage).

Great Jones also has plenty of newer competition to elbow out of the way if it’s going to succeed.

As the Times piece about the company notes, just a few of the other startups that are suddenly chasing the same opportunity include Potluck, a five-month-old, New York-based startup that sells a $270 “essentials bundle” that features 22 pieces, including utensils; Misen, a four-year-old, Brooklyn-based startup that sells cookware and chefs knives; and Milo, a year-old, L.A.-based startup that’s solely focused on Dutch ovens, to start.

According to Crunchbase, Misen has raised $2 million, including through a crowdfunding campaign; Milo has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding.

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Microsoft acquires FSLogix to enhance Office 365 virtual desktop experience

Back in September, Microsoft announced a virtual desktop solution that lets customers run Office 365 and Windows 10 in the cloud. They mentioned several partners in the announcement that were working on solutions with them. One of those was FSLogix, a Georgia virtual desktop startup. Today, Microsoft announced it has acquired FSLogix. It did not share the purchase price.

“FSLogix is a next-generation app-provisioning platform that reduces the resources, time and labor required to support virtualization,” Brad Anderson, corporate VP for Microsoft Office 365 and Julia White, corporate VP for Microsoft Azure,  href=”https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2018/11/19/microsoft-acquires-fslogix-to-enhance-the-office-365-virtualization-experience/”>wrote in a joint blog post today.

When Microsoft made the virtual desktop announcement in September they named Citrix, CloudJumper, Lakeside Software, Liquidware, People Tech Group, ThinPrint and FSLogix as partners working on solutions. Apparently, the company decided it wanted to own one of those experiences and acquired FSLogix.

Microsoft believes by incorporating the FSLogix solution, it will provide a better virtual desktop experience for its customers by enabling better performance and faster load times, especially for Office 365 ProPlus customers.

Randy Cook, founder and CTO at FSLogix, said the acquisition made sense given how well the two companies have worked together over the years. “From the beginning, in working closely with several teams at Microsoft, we recognized that our missions were completely aligned. Both FSLogix and Microsoft are dedicated to providing the absolute best experience for companies choosing to deploy virtual desktops,” Cook wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

Lots of companies have what are essentially dumb terminals running just the tools each employee needs, rather than a fully functioning standalone PC. Citrix has made a living offering these services. When employees come in to start the day, they sign in with their credentials and they get a virtual desktop with the tools they need to do their jobs. Microsoft’s version of this involves Office 365 and Windows 10 running on Azure.

FSLogix was founded in 2013 and has raised more than $10 million, according to data on Crunchbase. Today’s acquisition, which has already closed according to Microsoft, comes on the heels of last week’s announcement that the company was buying Xoxco, an Austin-based developer shop with experience building conversational bots.

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Inboard opens general availability of its premium electric scooter

Inboard, the startup that sells a range of electric scooters and skateboards, has just opened sales of its first premium scooter — just in time for the holiday season.

The company has already sold 285 of the scooters in a private pre-sale, with 80 percent of the orders coming from the United States and 35 percent coming from inside California.

Best known for its M1 electric skateboard, the “Glider” electric scooter will become the second product in the Inboard suite.

Retailing for $999, the Glider scooter boasts a swappable battery and an integrated app that gives users information about their location while on the go, and provides traffic information and diagnostics and maintenance alerts, according to the company.

“The Glider is the confluence of hardware mastery, software expertise and our team’s relentless ambition to provide safer and smarter urban transportation,” said Inboard co-founder and chief executive, Ryan Evans. “Our goal is not only to release the most advanced e-scooter on the market, but to enter the space responsibly and lead with safety. Our hardware will be the most innovative on the market, but it is our software that truly separates the Glider from the competition – allowing riders a safer and more efficient journey, while providing a fun way to re-imagine your city.”

Inboard pitches itself as a safer scooter, designed for a rider height below the axle centerline and featuring headlights, brake lights, turn signals, bigger tires and a wider deck.

Gliders also come with a three-axis accelerometer to detect board vibrations and inform riders about road obstacles through its app.

Backed with $11.7 million in venture financing from investors, including Upfront Ventures and the battery technology developer LION Smart, European investment firm Sunstone Capital and Sweet Capital, Inboard is betting on the same mobility revolution that has fueled the sky-high funding rounds for companies like Bird and Lime.

The company is betting that the mobility revolution isn’t something that riders will want to rent, but something that they’ll own as the types of people-moving options and services continue to expand.

The Glider’s pre-sale price of $999 is only available via pre-order until 12/31/18, the company said, at which point pricing will be increased to the full price of $1,299.

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NASA chooses the landing site for its Mars 2020 rover mission

Five years and sixty potential locations later, NASA has chosen the Jezero Crater as the landing site for its Mars 2020 rover mission.

Slated to launch in July the Mars 2020 rover mission will touch down at the Jezero Crater as NASA’s exploration of the Red Planet enters its next phase.

The rover will be looking for signs of habitable conditions — and past microbial life — while also collecting rock and soil samples that will be stored in a cache on the Martian surface.

Alongside the European Space Agency, NASA is already studying future missions that will allow the agencies to retrieve the samples and return them to earth. According to NASA, this new landing is the first step of a planned decade-long exploration of Mars.

“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”

The crater is located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator, with some of the oldest and most scientifically interesting landscapes Mars has to offer, according to NASA scientists.

Mission scientists believe the 28-mile-wide crater once held an ancient river delta, and could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater.

NASA thinks it can collect up to five different kinds of Martian rock, including clays and carbonates that may preserve indicators of past life. There’s also the hope that minerals have been swept into the crater over the last billion years which Rover could also collect.

It was the geologic diversity of the Jezero crater that ultimately tipped the scales for NASA scientists, but the site’s contours will make it a bit more tricky for NASA entry, descent and landing engineers, according to a statement from the agency.

“The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater, and a previous mission contemplated going there, but the challenges with safely landing were considered prohibitive,” said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “But what was once out of reach is now conceivable, thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent and landing technologies.”

This Mras mission will be the first to feature new Terrain Relative Navigation technologies to allow the rover to avoid hazardous areas during the “sky crane” descent stage — when the rocket-powered system carries the rover down to the surface.

The site selection is dependent upon extensive analyses and verification testing of the TRN capability. A final report will be presented to an independent review board and NASA Headquarters in the fall of 2019.

“Nothing has been more difficult in robotic planetary exploration than landing on Mars,” said Zurbuchen. “The Mars 2020 engineering team has done a tremendous amount of work to prepare us for this decision.  The team will continue their work to truly understand the TRN system and the risks involved, and we will review the findings independently to reassure we have maximized our chances for success.”

Now that the site has been selected, rover drivers and NASA’s science operations team can start planning for the exploration of the crater once the rover is on the ground. Using information from Mars orbiters, they will map the terrain and try to identify regions that could be the most interesting for the rover to explore.

Mars 2020 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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Instagram kills off fake followers, threatens accounts that keep using apps to get them

Instagram is fighting back against automated apps people use to leave spammy comments or follow then unfollow others in hopes of growing their audience. Today Instagram is removing from people’s accounts who use these apps inauthentic follows, Likes and comments that violate its policies; sending them a warning to change their password to cut ties with these apps, and saying people who continue using these apps “may see their Instagram experience impacted.” Instagram tells me it “may limit access to certain features, for example” for those users.

Instagram is also hoping to discourage users from ever giving another company the login details to their accounts as this can lead to them being hacked or having their account used to send spam. So if you see Instagram follower accounts drop, it’s not because that profile offended people, but because the followers were fake.The renewed vigor for policy enforcement comes amidst the continuing threat of foreign misinformation campaigns on Facebook and Instagram designed to polarize communities and influence elections in the U.S. and abroad. Facebook has said that inauthentic accounts are often the root of these campaigns, and it has removed 754 million fake accounts in the past quarter alone, and stopping these spam apps could prevent them from misusing clients’ accounts. Instagram has been taking down fake accounts since at least 2014, but this is the first time it’s publicly discussed removing fake likes from posts. It now says “We’ve built machine learning tools to help identify accounts that use [third-party apps for boosting followers] and remove the inauthentic activity.”

Some of the most popular bot apps for growing followers like Instagress and Social Growth have been shut down, but others like Archie, InstarocketProX and Boostio charge $10 to $45 per month. They often claim not to violate Instagram’s policies, though they do. The New York Times this year found many well-known celebrities had stooped to buying fake Twitter followers from a company called Devumi.

Users typically have to provide their username and password to these services, which then take control of their accounts and automatically Like, comment on and follow accounts associated with desired hashtags to dupe them into following the unscrupulous user back. The spam app users will now get scolded by Instagram, which will send “an in-app message alerting them that we have removed the inauthentic likes, follows and comments given by their account to others” and be told to change their passwords.

InstarocketProX advertises how it sends fake likes and follows from your account to get you followersOne big question, though, is whether Instagram will crack down harder on ads for services that sell fake followers that appear on its app. I’ve spotted these in the past, and they sometimes masquerade as analytics apps for assisting influencers with tracking the size of their audience. We asked Instagram and a spokesperson told us “Ads are also subject to our Community Standards, which prohibit spammy activity like collecting likes, followers, etc. — so you are correct that ads promoting these services violate our policies. Please feel free to report them if you see them.”

Follower accounts on apps like Instagram have become measures of people’s influence, credibility and earning potential. This is becoming especially true for social media stars who are paid for brand sponsorships in part based on their audience size. Now that brands are even paying “nanoinfluencers” with as few as one thousand followers to post sponsored content, the allure to use these services can be high and lead to an immediate return on illicit investment.

If no one can believe those counts are accurate, it throws Instagram’s legitimacy into question. And every time you get a notification about a fake follow or Like, it distracts you from real life, dilutes the quality of conversation on Instagram and makes people less likely to stick with the app. Anyone willing to pay for fake followers doesn’t deserve your attention, and Instagram should not hold back from terminating their accounts if they don’t stop.

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Virgin Orbit successfully takes its 747 flying launchpad out for a spin

In the next step on its path to getting its low earth orbit payload launch system up and running, Virgin Orbit successfully took its LauncherOne system out for a spin with an actual rocket attached under its wing. 

The company’s specially modified 747-400 carried a 70-foot-long rocket as part of a test flight proving that the carbon-fiber, two-stage rocket works with the plane.

It’s a necessary step toward Virgin Orbit’s plans to begin launching rockets early next year.

The launch took place in Victorville, Calif., near Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach factory and the Mojave Air and Space Port, which serves as an operational launch site for Virgin.

“The vehicles flew like a dream today,” said Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer (Lt. Col, US Air Force, Ret.), in a statement. “Everyone on the flight crew and all of our colleagues on the ground were extremely happy with the data we saw from the instruments on-board the aircraft, in the pylon, and on the rocket itself. From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators.”

The company said that it expects to conduct several more flights of its 747-400, both with and without the LauncherOne rocket. The critical culmination of all of these tests will be a drop test, when a rocket will be released from the 747 (dubbed “Cosmic Girl”) without igniting. 

That test is designed to provide data about the systems aboard the 747 that control detachment and about the rocket’s performance in an atmospheric free-fall.

Virgin Orbit is one of several new companies racing to get new launch systems in orbit. Already capacity-constrained as companies push to launch new satellites into low earth orbit, companies like Virgin Orbit, RocketLab, Relativity Space, ARCA, AstroSpace, Blue Origin, Generation Orbit, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and others around the world have raised hundreds of millions to take payloads into space.

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BuzzFeed News launches a paid membership program (and yes, there’s a tote bag)

BuzzFeed News is giving readers a new way to support its journalism — by paying a monthly or yearly fee.

BuzzFeed might not seem like the most obvious publication to ask readers for financial support, as it doesn’t really have the high-minded appeal of (say) NPR or The New Yorker. However, the company has been working to establish a separate identity for its team focused on real journalism (as opposed to the quizzes and other entertainment for which BuzzFeed is known). In fact, it launched a separate website for BuzzFeed News a few months ago.

In August, BuzzFeed News started giving readers a way to make one-off donations of between $5 and $100. It says the average donation was more than $20, with some readers asking for a way to support the organization on an ongoing basis.

So today, it’s launching a recurring membership program. For $5 a month, readers will receive members-only emails highlighting the latest scoops and taking them behind the scenes of BuzzFeed reporting. For $100 a year, they’ll also receive a BuzzFeed News tote bag.

BuzzFeed memberships

The memberships are available internationally, but you can only get a tote bag if you’re in the United States.

BuzzFeed reportedly missed its revenue target last year by as much as 20 percent, so it’s not surprising that the company is looking beyond advertising for ways to make money. However, in an email to the BuzzFeed team, Global News Director Lisa Tozzi said, “A membership program takes time to build, and we don’t expect it to be a huge portion of BuzzFeed’s revenue in 2019. That’s why we’re investing in it now and hope to see it contribute more to our work over time.”

And if you’re worried that this might be setting the stage for a paywall or meter on BuzzFeed News stories, Tozzi said flatly, “This is not a prelude to any sort of paywall.”

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Now eight parliaments are demanding Zuckerberg answers for Facebook scandals

Facebook’s founder is facing pressure to accept an invite from eight international parliaments, with lawmakers wanting to question him about negative impacts his social network is having on democratic processes globally.

Last week Facebook declined a invitation from five of these parliaments.

The elected representatives of Facebook users want Mark Zuckerberg to answer questions in the wake of a string of data misuse and security scandals attached to his platform. The international parliaments have joined forces — forming a grand committee — to amp up the pressure on Facebook.

The UK-led grand committee said it would meet later this month, representing the interests of some 170 million Facebook users across Argentina, Australia, Canada, Ireland and the UK. But Facebook snubbed that invite.

Today the request has been reissued with an additional three parliaments on board — Brazil, Latvia and Singapore.

In their latest invite letter they also make it clear that Facebook’s founder does not have to attend the hearing in person — which was the excuse the company used to decline the last request for Zuckerberg. (Which was just the latest in a long string of ‘nos’ Facebook’s founder has given the committee.)

“We note that while your letter states that you are ‘not able to be in London’ on 27th, it does not rule out giving evidence per se. Would you be amenable to giving evidence via video link instead?” the grand committee writes now.

We’ve asked Facebook whether Zuckerberg will be able to make time in his schedule to provide evidence remotely — and will update this report with any response. (A company spokesman suggested to us that it’s unlikely to do so.)

Of course Zuckerberg is very busy these days — given the fresh scandals slamming Facebook’s exec team. His political plate is truly heaped.

Last week a New York Times report painted an ugly and chaotic picture of Facebook’s leaders’ response to the political disinformation crisis — which included engaging an external public relations firm which used smear tactics against opponents. (Facebook has since severed ties with the firm.)

The grand committee references this controversy in its latest invitation letter, writing: “We believe that there are important issues to be discussed, and that you are the appropriate person to answer them. Yesterday’s New York Times article raises further questions about how recent data breaches were allegedly dealt with within Facebook.”

The UK’s DCMS committee, which has been spearheading efforts to hold Zuckerberg to account, has spent the best part of this year asking wide-ranging questions about the impact of online disinformation on democratic processes. But it has become increasingly damning in its criticism of Facebook — accusing the company of evasion, equivocation and worse as the months have gone on.

In a preliminary report this summer it also called on the government to act urgently, recommending a levy on social media and stronger laws to prevent social media tools being used to undermine democratic processes.

Although the UK government chose not to leap into action. But even there Facebook’s platform is implicated because Brexit — which was itself sold to voters via the medium of unregulated social media ads (with the Electoral Commission finding earlier this year that the official Vote Leave campaign used Facebook’s funnel to bypass electoral law) — is rather monopolizing ministerial attention these days…

One of the questions committee members are keen to get an answer to from Facebook is who at the company knew in the earliest incidence about the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal. In short they want to know where the buck stops. Who should be held accountable — for both the massive data breach and Facebook’s internal handling of it.

And it is very close to getting an answer to that after the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, gave evidence earlier this month — saying it had obtained the distribution list for emails Facebook sent internally about the breach, saying it would pass the list on to the committee.

A spokeswoman for the DCMS committee told us it has yet to receive this information from the ICO.

An ICO spokesperson told us it will not be publishing the list — adding: “At this stage I’m not sure when it will be sent to the committee.”

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