GB Studio lets anyone create a Game Boy game


GB Studio

Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the Game Boy’s release in Japan. If you’re like our editors, that brings back all kinds of nostalgic memories. We’ve certainly come a long way since then — so far, in fact, that you can now create your own Game Boy games. Last week, developer Chris Maltby released the code for GB Studio, a free tool for building real Game Boy ROMs.

GB Studio lets users create 2D mini-games without any programming, thanks to an Electron application. You can design your graphics in any editor that creates PNG files, and music comes courtesy of GBT Player. When you’re done, you simply export as a ROM file that can be played on Windows, Mac and Linux. You can build a HTML5 version that works on mobile, and if you have a USB cart, you could even play your games on that now 30-year-old Game Boy you’ve hung onto since the 90s.

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China’s startup ecosystem is hitting back at demanding working hours

In China, the laws limit work to 44 hours a week and require overtime pay for anything above that. But many aren’t following the rules, and a rare online movement puts a spotlight on extended work hours in China’s booming tech sector. People from all corners of society have rallied in support for improvements to startup working conditions, while some warn of hurdles in a culture ingrained in the belief that more work leads to greater success.

In late March, anonymous activists introduced 996.ICU, a domain name that represents the grueling life of Chinese programmers: who work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week with the threat of ending up at ICU, a hospital’s intensive care unit. The site details local labor laws that explicitly prohibit overtime work without pay. The slogan “Developers’ lives matter” appears at the bottom in solemn silence.

A project called 996.ICU soon followed on GitHub, the Microsoft-owned code and tool sharing site. Programmers flocked to air their grievances, compiling a list of Chinese companies that reportedly practice 996 working. Among them were major names like e-commerce leaders Alibaba, JD.com and Pinduoduo, as well as telecoms equipment maker Huawei and Bytedance, the parent company of the red-hot short video app TikTok.

In an email response to TechCrunch, JD claimed it doesn’t force employees to work overtime.

“JD.com is a competitive workplace that rewards initiative and hard work, which is consistent with our entrepreneurial roots. We’re getting back to those roots as we seek, develop and reward staff who share the same hunger and values,” the spokesperson said.

Alibaba declined to comment on the GitHub movement, although founder Jack Ma shared on Weibo Friday his view on the 996 regime.

“No companies should or can force employees into working 996,” wrote Ma. “But young people need to understand that happiness comes from hard work. I don’t defend 996, but I pay my respect to hard workers!”

Bytedance declined to comment on whether its employees work 996. We contacted Huawei but had not heard back from the company at the time of writing.

996.ICU rapidly rocketed to be the most-starred project on GitHub, which claims to be the world’s largest host of source codes. The protest certainly turned heads among tech bosses as China-based users soon noticed a number of browsers owned by companies practicing 996 had restricted access to the webpage.

The 996 dilemma

The 996 list is far from exhaustive as it comprises of voluntary entries from GitHub users. It’s also hard to nail down the average work hours at a firm, especially a behemoth with tens of thousands of employees where policies can differ across departments. For instance, it’s widely acknowledged that developers work longer than their peers in other units. Anecdotally, TechCrunch has heard that bosses in some organizations often find ways to exploit loopholes, such as setting unrealistic KPIs without explicitly writing 996 into employee contracts.

“While our company doesn’t force us into 996, sometimes, poor planning from upper management forces us to work long hours to meet arbitrary management deadlines,” a Beijing-based engineer at a professional networking site told TechCrunch. This person is one of many sources who spoke anonymously because they are not authorized to speak to media.

china office workers

BEIJING, CHINA APRIL 25, 2018: Passenger on a train in the Beijing Subway. Donat Sorokin/TASS (Photo by Donat SorokinTASS via Getty Images)

Other companies are more vocal about 996, taking pride in their excessively diligent culture. Youzan, the Tencent-backed, Shopify -like e-commerce solution provider, explicitly demanded staff to live out 996 work styles. Employees subsequently filed complaints in January to local labor authorities, which were said to have launched an investigation into Youzan.

A lot of companies are like Youzan, which equates long hours of work with success. That mindset can easily lure programmers or other staff into accepting extra work time. But employees are hardly the only ones burning out as entrepreneurs are under even greater pressure to grow the business they build from scratch.

“The recent debate over 996 brings to light the intense competition in China’s tech industry. To survive, startups and large companies have no choice but to work extremely hard. Some renown entrepreneurs even work over 100 hours a week,” Jake Xie, vice president of investment at China Growth Capital, an early-stage venture fund, told TechCrunch.

“Overtime is a norm at many internet companies. If we don’t work more, we fall behind,” said a founder of a Shenzhen-based mobile game developing startup. Competition is particularly cut-throat in China’s mobile gaming sector, where creativity is in short supply and a popular shortcut to success is knocking off an already viral title. Speed, therefore, is all it matters.

Meanwhile, a high-performing culture brewing in China may neutralize society’s resistance to 996. Driven individuals band together at gyms and yoga studios to sweat off stress. Getting group dinners before returning to work every night becomes essential to one’s social life, especially for those that don’t yet have children.

alibaba

Photo source: Jack Ma via Weibo

“There is a belief that more hours equals more learning. I think some percentage of people want to put in more hours, and that percentage is highest for 22 to 30 years old,” a Shanghai-based executive at a tech company that values work-life balance told TechCrunch. “A few people in my team have expressed to us that they feel they cannot grow as fast as their friends who are working at companies that practice 996.”

“If you don’t work 996 when you’re young, when will you?” Wrote 54-year-old Jack Ma in his Weibo post. “To this day, I’m definitely working at least 12 to 12, let alone 996… Not everyone practicing 996 has the chance to do things that are valuable and meaningful with a sense of achievement. So I think it’s a blessing for the BATs of China to be able to work 996.”

(BAT is short for Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent for their digital dominance in China, akin to FANNG in the west.)

Demanding hours are certainly not unique to the tech industry. Media and literature have long documented the strenuous work conditions in China’s manufacturing sector. Neighboring Japan is plagued by karoshi or “death from overwork” among its salarymen and Korean companies are also known for imposing back-breaking hours on workers, compelling the government to step in.

Attempts to change

Despite those apparent blocks, the anti-996 movement has garnered domestic attention. The trending topic “996ICU gets blocked by large companies” has generated nearly 2,000 posts and 6.3 million views on Weibo. China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV chronicled the incident and accused overtime work of causing “substantial physical and psychological consequences” in employees. Outside China, Python creator Guido van Rossum raised awareness about China’s 996 work routine in a tweet and on a forum.

“Can we do something for 996 programmers in China?” He wrote in a thread viewed 16,700 times.

The 996 campaign that began as a verbal outcry soon led to material acts. Shanghai-based lawyer Katt Gu and startup founder Suji Yan, who say they aren’t involved in the 996.ICU project, put forward an Anti-996 License that would keep companies in violation of domestic or global labor laws from using its open source software.

But some cautioned the restriction may undermine the spirit of open source, which denotes that a piece of software is distributed free and the source code undergirding it is accessible to others so they can study, share and modify the creator’s work.

“I strongly oppose and condemn 996, but at the same time I disagree with adding discretionary clauses to an open source project or using an open source project for the political game,” You Yuxi, creator of open-source project Vue, which was released under the MIT license, said on the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, Weibo. (Gu denies her project has any “political factors.”)

Others take a less aggressive approach, applauding companies that embrace the more humane schedule of “9 am to 5 pm for 5 days a week” via the “995.WLB” GitHub project. (WLB is short for “work-life balance.”) On this list are companies like Douban, the book and film review site famous for its “slow” growth but enduring popularity with China’s self-proclaimed hippies. WeWork, the workplace service provider that bills itself as showing respect for employees’ lives outside work, was also nominated.

While many nominees on the 996 list appear to be commercially successful, others point to a selection bias in the notion that more work bears greater fruit.

“If a company is large enough and are revealed to be practicing 996, the issue gets more attention. Take Youzan and JD for example,” a Shanghai-based developer at an enterprise software startup told TechCrunch.

“Conversely, a lot of companies that do practice 996 but have not been commercially successful are overlooked. There is no sufficient evidence that shows a company’s growth is linked to 996… What bosses should evaluate is productivity, not hours.”

Or, as some may suggest, managers should get better at incentivizing employees rather than blindingly asking for more hours.

“As long as [China’s] economy doesn’t stall, it may be hard to stop 996 from happening. This is not a problem of the individual. It’s an economic problem. What we can do is offering more humane care and inspiring workers to reflect, ‘Am I working at free will and with passion?’ instead of looking at their work hours,” suggested Xie of China Growth Capital.

While a push towards more disciplined work hours may be slow to come, experts have suggested another area where workers can strive for better treatment.

“It seems almost all startups in China underfund the social security or housing fund especially when they are young, that is, before series A or even series B financing,” Benjamin Qiu, partner at law firm Loeb & Loeb LLP, explained to TechCrunch.

“Compared to 996, the employees have an even stronger legal claim on the above since it violates regulations and financially hurts the employee. That said, the official social credit and housing fund requirement in China appears to be an undue burden on the employer compared to the Silicon Valley, but if complied with, it could be understood as an offset of the 996 culture.”

A number of my interviewees spoke on conditions of anonymity, not because their companies promote 996 but, curiously, because their employers don’t want to become ensnarled in the 996 discussions. “We don’t need to tell people we support work-life balance. We show it with action,” said a spokesperson for one company.

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Anaxi launches feeds to help developers manage their notifications

Anaxi, the software development tool that helps developers get a better view of their projects in Jira and GitHub, is launching a small but nifty addition to its iOS and web apps today that allows developers to cut down on the steady stream of notifications and updates those services create.

The company, which was founded by former Apple engineering manager and Docker EVP of product development Marc Verstaen and former CodinGame CEO John Lafleur, rightly argues that tools like GitHub and Jira weren’t really made for personal productivity. Developers waste a lot of time going through updates and tickets in Jira, for example, some of which may be relevant and timely, while others are only distractions. In the end, you end up constantly switching context from ticket to ticket, which tend to be grouped in chronological order, and you may still miss important information.

Anaxi also argues that having a Slackbot constantly emit notifications for every new event only creates more distractions. “As a result, more and more developers turn off those notifications to avoid interruptions,” the team writes. “But then, you’re back to square one with all notifications being in chronological order.”

The way the team is trying to bring more clarity into this process is through feeds. The idea here is to allow developers to create dedicated feeds for whatever they need to focus on — maybe that’s a sprint or a single component of an app they are working on. That way, whatever you are looking at in Anaxi is relevant to your work because you can create filters based on issue, priority, status and any other label you want to track. From inside Anaxi, you can then also comment on tickets.

Anaxi first launched last September. At the time, it was an iOS-only service, but the team has since launched a web client, too. While the service does cache some data locally, no information is ever shared with Anaxi itself. Instead, the service pulls its data directly from the services it supports. The team is considering some server-side features, though, to maybe use machine learning to prioritize tickets or perform other more advanced analytics. As Verstaen and Lafleur tell me, though, this will be very transparent to users — and is also still a while out. In the near future, the team is more focused on adding support for GitHub Enterprise users and Jira Server, which will open up the service to more enterprise users.

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Asus was warned of hacking risks months ago, thanks to leaky passwords

A security researcher warned Asus two months ago that employees were improperly publishing passwords in their GitHub repositories that could be used to access the company’s corporate network.

One password, found in an employee repo on the code sharing, allowed the researcher to access an email account used by internal developers and engineers to share nightly builds of apps, drivers and tools to computer owners. The repo in question was owned by an Asus engineer who left the email account’s passwords publicly exposed for at least a year. The repo has since been wiped clean, though the GitHub account still exists.

“It was a daily release mailbox where automated builds were sent,” said the researcher, who goes by the online handle SchizoDuckie, in a message to TechCrunch. Emails in the mailbox contained the exact internal network path where drivers and files were stored.

The researcher shared several screenshots to validate his findings.

The researcher didn’t test how far the account access could have given him, but warned it could have been easy to pivot onto the network. “All you’d need is send one of those emails with an attachment to any of the recipients for a real nice spearphishing attack,” he said.

The researcher’s findings would not have stopped the hackers who targeted Asus’ software update tool with a backdoor, revealed this week, but reveals a glaring security lapse that could have put the company at risk from similar or other attacks. Security firm Kaspersky warned Asus on January 31 — just a day before the researcher’s own disclosure on February 1 — that hackers had installed a backdoor in the company’s Asus Live Update app. The app was signed with an Asus-issued certificate and hosted on the company’s download servers. More than a million users were pushed the backdoored code, researchers have estimated. Asus confirmed  the attack in a statement and released a patched version.

Through the company’s dedicated security email, the researcher warned Asus of the exposed credentials. Six days later, he could no longer log in to the mailbox and assumed the matter was resolved.

But he found at least two other cases of Asus engineers exposing company passwords on their GitHub pages.

One Asus software architect based in Taiwan — where the company has its headquarters — left a username and password in code on his GitHub page. Another Taiwan-based data engineer also had credentials in his code.

“Companies have no clue what their programmers do with their code on GitHub,” said the researcher.

A day after we alerted Asus to the researcher’s email, the repos containing the credentials were pulled offline and wiped clean. Yet when reached, Asus spokesperson Randall Grilli told TechCrunch that the computer maker was “unable to verify the validity” of the claims in the researcher’s emails. “Asus is actively investigating all systems to remove all known risks from our servers and supporting software, as well as to ensure there are no data leaks,” he added.

Granted, this isn’t an issue limited to Asus. Other companies have been put at risk by exposed and leaked credentials or hardcoded secret keys. Last week, academics found more than 100,000 public repos storing cryptographic keys and other secrets.

Among the most famous examples of exposed credentials was Uber, in which an engineer mistakenly left cloud keys in a GitHub repository, which when discovered and exploited by hackers was used to pilfer data on 57 million users. Uber was later ordered to pay $148 million in a data breach settlement.

But given Asus knew of the issues months ago amid a backdoor threat that affected more than a million users, you would have hoped for a better, more active response.

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Microsoft revived and killed Clippy in a single day


STAN HONDA via Getty Images

The dream of the ’90s was alive in Microsoft Teams this week when Microsoft’s old office assistant, Clippy, showed up. If you used Microsoft Office between 1997 and 2001, you likely remember Clippy as the animated paperclip that popped up and offered tips for using the software. Microsoft did away with Clippy in 2001, so people were surprised to see Clippy stickers appear in Microsoft Teams this week. And they were even more surprised when, just a day later, Microsoft offed the little guy again.

As The Verge reports, on Tuesday, Clippy appeared as an animated pack of stickers for Microsoft Teams. The stickers were released on the Office Developer GitHub page, but by the next day, they had vanished. Clippy was around just long enough to rally old fans, and there’s now a user petition to bring Clippy back.

The stickers seemed harmless enough, like a fun little inside joke for those who remember Clippy. But it looks like the broader (and probably more corporate) branding side of the company was not pleased. In 2001, Microsoft called Clippy “the little paperclip with the soulful eyes and the Groucho eyebrows.” The company described the paperclip as an “electronic ham” who “politely” offered hints for using Microsoft Office. Like any popup that offers unsolicited content, though, Clippy could also be a nuisance. It looks like Microsoft wanted to squash any memories of its misguided office assistant, but it might be too late for that.

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