Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.
Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.
“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.
That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.
For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free.
Lots of news has surfaced from China’s gaming industry in recent weeks as the government …
Recently, our coverage of the work-from-home universe expanded to include “gaming” chairs. This is because, in spite of their branding, they’re not much different from average office chairs—and in a year when remote work has become ever more commonplace, they’re sometimes a competitively priced home-office option.
But what about the inverse idea of a traditional office-chair company launching a gaming chair? That’s the idea behind Herman Miller’s latest line of Logitech-branded chairs, which caught our eye when the company reached out with a loaner chair. Herman Miller’s decades of $1,000-and-up chairs have never previously included a gaming-branded product, while Logitech, better known for peripherals like keyboards, mice, and headsets, has never produced its own chairs. We were curious what the mashup would produce.
The quick answer is simple enough: it’s an existing Herman Miller chair model with a mild aesthetic tweak. And while it’s as solid as you might expect from a $1,499 home office chair, its game-specific branding doesn’t quite add up.
Unboxing and (lack of) assembly
The best part about the Herman Miller x Logitech Embody chair is the unboxing experience—if your home is suitable for it.
When reviewing a pair of gamer chairs in October, my colleague Jim Salter received each chair as its disassembled parts, and his initial setup included two different versions of the unboxing-and-assembly process. HM, conversely, ships the Embody in a larger-than-average, 40-inch-tall box, and its unboxing process is decidedly simple: open box, pull off a single cardboard mount, and roll the chair out, already assembled.
Should your ideal office or gaming environment be easy to reach from your preferred outside door, then it’s a matter of lugging the chair (38-inches tall, 26-inches wide at its most shrunken state) inside. But if you need to move the chair through narrow doorways or over stairs—or if you ever want to ship it in a smaller box in the future—be warned that there’s no official way to neatly disassemble and reassemble the Embody. Herman Miller only offers Embody buyers a “recycling” disassembly manual, which requires, among other things, a variety of Torx bits and a hammer to tear it apart.
Adjusting for office use
Weirdly, the model I received included a “welcome” booklet printed on fancy paper stock, but that booklet included zero instructions on how to adjust the chair to my liking. Since this chair has a few unique levers and a trippy grid of bracing points on its back, I opted to search the Internet for a setup guide. When I received the chair in October, I could only find a non-Logitech manual for the older Embody model online, though Herman Miller has since uploaded a Logitech-branded manual.
Unsurprisingly, those manuals are nearly identical, pointing to the same seven points of customization. Where the Logitech manual differs is its lack of recommendations. The normal Embody manual points out ideal or proper tweaks, accounting for things like when your feet touch the ground or how your shoulders shouldn’t lift when elbows touch the arm rests. The Logitech version’s manual does not.
Everything that has proven time-tested about the Embody applies to the Logitech model. Its adjustable seat depth, in particular, is a customization godsend, ensuring that bigger and taller users can enjoy as much under-thigh leverage as they might desire. I easily found an ideal tilt adjustment, which means I can enjoy a gentle, comfortable curve of increasing resistance as I lean back.
Most of my early testing on the Embody revolved around working on Ars articles at my desk, and this was the more comfortable way to use the chair. Its arm rests fan forward in a way that promotes sitting upright and resting elbows while typing, and its back support revolves around a “flat or curved” adjustment dial. The latter essentially operates as a lumbar adjustment, but it works less as a pad to sink that portion of your lower back into and more like an active support meant to promote even posture while actively using a computer.
Quibbles with gaming use
Once I moved my attention to gaming on the Herman Miller x Logitech Embody chair, on the other hand, I ran into personal usability gripes.
My biggest is with the armrests, which are designed to guide the right hand either to a keyboard or to very mild mouse use. If I’m playing games at my desk on PC, my right hand is locked onto a mouse, but the specific shape of the Embody’s armrest is sloped and weighted in such a way that my elbow isn’t supported if I go beyond micro-movements with my mouse. I’m surprised that the Logitech version of the Embody doesn’t let users change the arm rest’s angle so that an arm’s rotation toward a mouse pad is better supported.
Worse is the armrests’ clear focus on upright mouse-and-keyboard use, which is wonderful for an average day’s duties on a computer but less so should you lean back and hold a gamepad. Doing this exposes the armrests’ shallower bases closer to the chair’s back. If I’m not sitting at Herman Miller’s preferred “upright” position while holding a gamepad, my elbows slip off. The solution has been to adjust the back-support curve in a way that leads my elbows to the armrests’ sweet spot, but even when I do that, my posture continues to degrade over time with a gamepad. This is when my forearms fall back and become my arms’ resting point, which is worse in terms of posture. A deeper position for elbows to rest comfortably would fix this and prove better for my back.
More than any of this is the sense that the Embody is designed to keep you forward-and-upright while sitting, which is arguably the right call for an hours-every-day office chair. But whenever I turned the chair away from my desk and toward my living room TV, I always felt like I was at work. There’s nothing in this chair that manages to combine best-in-class posture support with coziness. The adjustable back support either pushes firmly into your back to ensure lumbar support, or it gives way as an uncomfortable curve. And there’s no headrest that my noggin can splash back on when things go awry in a tricky, modern game like Demon’s Souls.
Aesthetics, fabric, and bottom line
In good news, the aesthetic touch-up is in line with Logitech’s more tasteful strides in recent years. You can barely tell it’s a “gaming chair” from the front, since the only indication is a “G” marker on the chair’s face. (The letter receives a different black stitching than the rest of the black chair, so it’s visible, but mild.) On the back, the Embody’s plastic back-support grid is set off with a bold teal coloration, and the black-and-teal grid will be up to personal taste. I’m personally a fan, as this shade of teal doesn’t look particularly garish or clashy, but the color makes it easier to tell that this is a plastic grid than you might notice with the same grid in black.
Otherwise, again, this is identical to the default Embody, with an apparent exception to its fabric construction. Though I do not have another Embody to compare with, I’ve seen reports about the fabric used on the Logitech model, including a mild tweak to its padding—enough so that dedicated Herman Miller users have called the Logitech update a preferable option of this model for anyone set on the Embody as a home chair option.
That’s assuming you have $1,499 to devote to a new chair, either for your home office or your favorite gaming room. And when we take a hard look at ergonomics in a chair you use frequently, the Herman Miller x Logitech Embody hits many crucial notes—adjustability on multiple axes, room to comfortably shift, and promotion of proper posture. The thing is, you can likely find those in solidly built chairs for hundreds less, whether or not they include gaming logos or branding.
I enjoyed testing this version of the Embody, as it’s a dependable chair without issues like uneven wheels, squeaky joints, or other things that are easy to take for granted. And I appreciated that it left good-enough alone instead of adding questionable updates like “racer”-minded redesigns. Still, I didn’t send the loaner back convinced that I needed to swap out my existing chairs or that Herman Miller had solved problems in the gaming-chair spectrum.
One way to track the evolution of popular music is to examine its subgenres. Think of how “rock” begat “punk rock,” which begat “post-punk,” as a simple example. Electronic and ambient music include an even bigger universe of subgenres, with hyperspecific names like “UK bass,” “chillwave,” and “electroacoustic.”
But what happens when a genre emerges not because of its artistry, but because of its discoverability?
This is the place “YouTubecore” finds itself in. YouTube famously hinges on an algorithm that guesses viewers’ interests to keep them clicking and viewing, and we’ve seen how weirdly that algorithm can go, both in innocent and diabolical ways.
In the case of music, however, YouTubecore has emerged in ways we never saw from MTV, radio, or other traditional platforms: as an explosive response to average computer and smartphone users wanting chill, ambient music. Through this, the new-age trend of the ’80s has made a surprising return, fueled by Generation Z’s musical interests and some Silicon Valley code, and those combined forces are unearthing ethereal surprises from the past and present.
Traits and early examples
The concept of YouTubecore is admittedly open-ended in terms of genre and style, but for our purposes, we can limit it to soft, instrumental fare—specifically, an algorithm-driven hierarchy of ambient albums that leans, for one reason or another, to the island nation of Japan. The YT uploads in question tend to include complete albums as opposed to individual songs, and some of the most popular examples were uploaded by anonymous users, not the original artists, often decades after their original releases. And none of the albums previously enjoyed particular commercial success.
Some consider Midori Takada’s forgotten 1983 album Through the Looking Glass to be one of the first YouTubecore albums. Uploaded in 2013, the original video has since been delisted, but it did go on to accrue millions of views—which was followed by Takada playing a set of worldwide tour dates, including her first in the United States. Other albums by different artists followed suit, many from the same 1980s Japanese ambient scene.
The most famous upload of them all (not ambient, but too known to not mention) came in 2017, when a video of the 1984 city pop song “Plastic Love” by Mariya Takeuchi became mind-bogglingly popular. Once a Japanese bargain-bin staple, people started buying it for $60 a pop in the United States. It has 45 million views today, along with an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of fan art, vaporwave remixes, and memes.
From YouTube to the hotel lobby
Benjamin Wynn, who performs under the name Deru, is an LA-based composer and television sound designer known in part for his work on Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. His ambient work 1979, named after the year of his birth, has gathered almost 4 million views since the account Tape Counter uploaded it in 2015, one year after the album’s original release. The video strips away much of the album’s context, as 1979 is a mixed-media project with peripheral content including a collaborative photo album, an invented philosophy, and a limited run of pico projectors (created with the assistance of Robert Crespo, who made circuit boards for Mars rovers) containing visuals for each song.
Wynn’s label owner first noticed the uncanny YouTube popularity of 1979, which was soon followed by YouTube revenue payouts for each video play. Typically, YouTube’s Content ID system identifies and tags copyrighted material, then redirects view-based revenue to performers instead of faceless uploaders. But YouTube is a different revenue beast than services like Spotify, primarily because it pays per complete play; in Wynn’s case, a play of 1979 is 44 minutes long.
Wynn watched the video comments skyrocket into the thousands. Then he and his wife were vacationing in Tokyo when he heard 1979 play on hotel-lobby speakers—without any Japanese promotional efforts that he knew of. And while YouTube revenue for the video hasn’t been huge, its exposure has had one noticeable effect: physical sales. The 1979 vinyl edition is now on its fourth pressing.
Wynn has never had contact with the uploader. “At one point I was thinking, ‘I should just give my next record to this person!'” Wynn says. “But they have a lot of uploads that didn’t take off, so clearly this isn’t a 1:1 correspondence.”
“My only complaint is that it feels utterly random,” Wynn continues. “I can’t bank on the algorithm associating my name with this video; I’ve put out videos since then that haven’t received the same attention.”
Research on trends like “Hair Dryer Sound”
Without official answers from YouTube parent company Alphabet, musicians and fans alike are left guessing how its algorithm has driven this subgenre’s millions of views.
“Maybe [YouTube] scrapes through the actual sound waves, and it finds [and suggests] something similar?” record reissuer Yoskue Kitazawa says, calling to mind sound-analysis services like Shazam. “YouTube does have an auto-caption function, and it might do the same thing with audio.”
Massimo Airoldi, a professor at Emlyon Business School, co-authored a 2016 paper titled Follow the algorithm: An exploratory investigation of music on YouTube. It proposes that the algorithm partially leans on sequential viewing: if a significant number of users watch video B after video A, the two are considered related and therefore recommended. Within this framework, genres stop being simple technical distinctions and become granular concepts based on crowdsourced human-behavior patterns. Utilizing neural networks, the study estimates that viewing habits cause the algorithm to connect videos via recommendations, thereby knitting tight genre cliques in the process.
Seven out of 50 video clusters the researchers identified are deemed “situational” music. This designation doesn’t operate under the standard concept of genres but rather the context in which the music takes place. This includes relaxation music like “Ambient/Chillout,” “Sounds of Nature,” and the ASMR-affiliated “Hair Dryer Sound.” The paper concludes that situational music, sometimes deemed trivial by musicologists, is growing in popularity. They also found a cluster of “Ethiopia/South Sudan Music,” suggesting the context of a local scene comparable to ’80s Japanese ambient music.
This prediction was, of course, correct, with the rise of ambient YouTubecore being fueled by twin elements: “[The music] can be seen in both ways, either as relaxing instrumental backgrounds or as high-art examples of some avant-garde scene,” Airoldi says.
Watch time is also mentioned in Airoldi’s research, which makes sense as YouTubecore’s album-length videos typically exceed 40 minutes.
Setting the stage with GeoCities searches, vinyl translations
In the years before YouTubecore, Western DJs and bloggers set the stage for it to come into the mainstream. Musician Spencer Doran released an influential Japanese ambient mix in 2010 called Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo. Online mixes in general remain popular to this day: since I began researching for this article, a video titled “Japanese jazz while driving on a warm night” has been popping up in my recommendations relentlessly; it’s up to 1.2 million views as of press time.
Since 2014, Jen Monroe’s blog Listen To This has brought Japanese music to English-speaking audiences, often with an emphasis on out-of-print music. Before the YouTubecore movement took off, her work required jumping through serious hoops: “Cold emails to strangers begging for records I suspect they have, sending PayPal payments to Japan for CDs hoping that they ever show up, [and] clawing through pop-up ads on Google-translated content scraper sites and ancient Blogspot posts.”
Diego Olivas followed in Monroe’s footsteps with his blog Fond/Sound and connected YouTube channel. He discovered music through old GeoCities websites and ordered vinyl from Japan. Then, as a way to expose this data to the English-speaking Internet, he took pictures of those albums’ liner notes, ran them through OCR (optical character recognition) software, and copied the text into Google Translate. As YouTubecore arose, labels sent him takedown notices. Some Discogs record slingers posed as label owners and sent fake takedown notices to manufacture scarcity.
Both Monroe and Olivas tell me that quite a few blogs like theirs are written in Japanese.
How much authenticity drives the algorithm?
Leyland James Kirby has made music as the Caretaker since the late ’90s, employing a trademark sound created from distorted waltz records. Driven by the concept of memory, his initial work focused on the ballroom scene in The Shining before moving on to memory conditions—specifically anterograde amnesia and dementia.
A 2011 upload of his album An Empty Bliss Beyond This World by user alteredzones currently has 3.6 million views. Kirby’s own 2019 upload for Everywhere At the End of Time, his six-hour album portraying dementia, currently has 5.2 million views and 95,000 comments. Videos about that album also recently blew up on TikTok.
Kirby has never promoted his work save for giving the occasional interview. “When I saw videos of my work getting millions of listeners, I thought to myself that something must be happening, as I knew I hadn’t paid for views or gamed the system,” he says. He attributes it to the quality: it’s “based on the sound contents and ideas contained within the work,” Kirby says. “For the algorithm to pick this kind of work up, it already needs existing engagement from an audience.” Based on the data he’s seen, 12 percent of the video’s recent views have come from the algorithm, while over 50 percent have come from direct searches.
Wherever the views come from (Kirby’s work certainly appears relentlessly in my YouTube sidebar), Kirby is careful to make room for at least some authenticity driving listeners to his music: “I think it’s genuine in the sense nothing has been bought,” he says. “It’s a straight success.”
As 2020 has dragged on, it has become harder to look at our living rooms as an escape. Ars Technica has long been a work-from-home enterprise, but even we no longer think of plopping on the couch after a long work day as the best way to unwind.
Still, more time at the house, whether alone or with families, has led us to different TV, film, and streaming options. Sometimes, we still use TV as a way to collapse at the end of the day. Other times, we sneak streams and videos into our workday, especially if we’re juggling a full house from 9-5.
Hence, this is a different “favorite Ars binges” list than we’ve prepared in the past, and we invite you to share the series and streams that have proven comfortable or cozy during your own weird 2020.
Less COVID, more choux
All I’ve wanted this year are adorable British bakers fretting over soggy bottoms, lousy lamination, and whether their sponges are “scrummy.“ I love baking and have long watched The Great British Baking Show. But revisiting all the old episodes and binging on my favorite bakes—even the tensest of judgings—has been my safe haven from this hellish year, along with my particular working news beat of doom and despair. I would happily live a double life in that baking tent, savoring that bucolic English setting and soaking up every detail of baking precision.
Oh, we should prepare for “significant disruption of our lives,” CDC’s Nancy Messonnier says. “Wow, the puff on that choux pastry is so good… I should make eclairs this weekend.” Goodness, New York City hospitals are getting overwhelmed—I should look up Nadiya’s marshmallow fondant recipe. Trump is pulling the US out of the World Health Organization? During a raging pandemic?! Oooo, it’s the Baked Alaska #bingate scandal episode! US deaths just topped 200,000. Mary Berry’s Charlotte royale really does look like a giant brain. There were over 170,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases today. Can we all just agree that Kim Joy’s choux space turtles in a melting chocolate galaxy sphere is the best freaking dessert ever?? —Beth Mole, Health Reporter
Quite ridiculous, that’s how much
I have a guilty pleasure on YouTube—the long-running variety/stunt channel How Ridiculous. The series’ three leads—Scott Gaunson, Brett Stanford, and Derek Herron—began recording fairly elaborate trick shots, bottle flips, and other basic stunts in their backyards in 2009 as a lark. The channel’s popularity skyrocketed after the trio added “dropping heavy things from great heights” to its repertoire, which is how I discovered them several years ago.
This is not highbrow content—but that’s a large part of the appeal. It’s just three goofballs having a blast with silly concepts like “bowling ball vs anvil,” involving dropping one thing on another thing from extreme heights. That’s fine by me. Where else are you going to see somebody drop a 660-pound stainless steel Hulk Fist onto a refrigerator from a 45-meter tower?
HR has collaborated with other YouTube personalities pretty frequently. In one crossover, the guys got to fire the main gun of an M4A2E8 “Easy 8” Sherman Tank through ten refrigerators—which, spoiler alert, did not go well for the fridges. They’ve also gotten various YouTube blacksmiths and engineers to build things for them, ranging from a trampoline strong enough to bounce a car to a ten-foot forged steel “droppin’ sword.”
You’ll absolutely learn things by watching the channel—in particular, how surprisingly durable both Go-Pro cameras and cheap rubber dinosaur toys really are—but not because the show itself is particularly educational. It’s pure, dumb fun, and that’s OK. —Jim Salter, Technology Reporter
No heroes on board
One more from me [Jim Salter], if you’ll allow it:
Avenue 5, now streaming on HBO, is a blackly humorous romp featuring Hugh Laurie (House, MD) in a sci-fi setting. Avenue 5 is one of a series of enormous planetary cruise liners operated by the world’s dumbest capitalist, who happens to be aboard when things go very awry.
The show itself isn’t really sci-fi at all—it’s a rather dark parody of human foibles, something like what you’d get if you rewrote Atlas Shrugged along the lines of A Confederacy of Dunces. There are no heroes onboard Avenue 5, which somehow works in its favor. You might think a never-ending crescendo of bumbling, failure, and pettiness could be rough to binge, as the majestic ship limps its way through the solar system.
Yet Avenue 5‘s biggest strength is the way it deftly builds on its own running jokes. The ship and its situation get more ridiculous with every episode, as the characters’ bad decisions accumulate. Its only real flaw is its sheer relentlessness about its own theme of human failure. —J.S.