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 …
Netflix’s new fantasy series, Sweet Tooth, first looks like a crudely fictionalized version of 2020. A disease colloquially referred to as The Sick spreads rapidly among humans while overwhelming infrastructure, grinding daily life to a halt, and racking up a body count. When this story begins, society tries to put itself together again. An unnamed narrator calls it “The Great Crumble.”
This disaster, however, can’t be contained even to the extent of COVID-19. No cure or vaccination has been discovered, so most humans opt to live in isolation either as individuals or as disease-free groups. This withdrawal has allowed nature to essentially step into the void—animals previously only seen in a zoo roam free, and landscapes grow out in full to replenish what society previously destroyed for resources.
Oh, and in Sweet Tooth, the next generation of kids appears to include half-animal/half-human individuals called Hybrids. The ratio of column A to column B varies—some talk, some don’t; many look like traditional kids with small animal features; all retain abilities like heightened hearing or smell—but no one seems to know anything for sure. Why did this evolution happen? How many are there? And, most pertinent, what makes Hybrids immune to The Sick? In the face of all that mystery, some portions of this new world look at Hybrids as a hopeful evolution of humanity, a group of individuals society should protect and help thrive. Others, though, see Hybrids as a hindrance to humanity getting past The Sick and returning to normalcy. In particular, Hybrids’ immunity to The Sick has swaths of this new world curious about whether their DNA can be harvested for treatment or prevention.
In the middle of this whole mess sits Gus, a deerboy Hybrid who simply lived a quiet life in an isolated Yellowstone cabin with his father until, well, you can probably see where this is headed. Luckily, that predictability doesn’t make the journey ahead any less fun.
Grin, grim, grin again
So, our Tom Sawyer-loving deerkid has to set off on a country-traversing adventure of his own, and throughout, he’ll encounter numerous individuals with unknown motives who may want him dead or may partner up to become a found family of sorts. I watched a large portion of the series with a teen sibling, and needless to say they were able to call out many of the individual episode’s twists and turns. Sweet Tooth covers a lot of well-worn movie and TV territory, but it will still likely have you in for the long haul if you’re fond of any of the numerous kids-versus-the-world adventures of yore (from The Goonies to Harry Potter).
That said, I was amused by the series’ unique approach to some common aspects of its intersecting genres (kid adventure, post-apocalypse). When Gus and his first new partymate (a former football player turned hunter/assassin named Tommy Jeppard, aka Big Man) inevitably encounter a militarized group of people, that community isn’t full of former cadets or marines. Instead, this amateur army learned its tactics because they were previously a devoted group of friends who played games like Overwatch or Halo. And the scientists who remain and must sort out this disease mess aren’t former government lab jockeys; they used to be regular-old medical care providers. They very much continue to grapple with the trauma of watching all these patients of The Sick deteriorate as this new world asks them to step up and lead, so these docs have their humanity in tact rather than operating only with some “anything for the greater good” mentality.
It would be very, very easy for Sweet Tooth to become too dark, too emotionally heavy, or too tiresome for viewers who have lived some of this stuff IRL in the last 16 months. Again and again, the show gave me flashbacks to when I used to follow The Walking Dead, which I had quit watching entirely after hours and hours of despair. Like TWD, Sweet Tooth has our heroes going through cycles where they encounter many different groups of people who initially seem nice and helpful only to reveal themselves to be something else later on, often with tragic results. (When will people in TV and film learn that there may be no scarier, more dangerous place than white picket fence-lined suburban neighborhoods? Sigh.) In another notable zombie-brains-show similarity, the bad guys (whether that’s a disease or a disassociated lunatic military man) seem to come out on top more often than not, at least in these first eight episodes.
Despite that, Sweet Tooth never veers entirely into ruin porn or nihilism. Mostly, that’s because of its central figure. Unlike Rick Grimes (The Walking Dead), June (Handmaid’s Tale), or many other characters existing in an apocalyptic new reality, Gus is still a kid. The world hasn’t beaten him down into expecting the worst all the time, and his general optimism and wonder keep this story feeling light enough despite many gut punches along the way. Sweet Tooth‘s source comic wrapped in 2013, and production on this Netflix series began long before COVID-19 took over. The creative team had already made a few decisions to tone down the bleakness of the source material, and the benefits of those choices are only amplified by the context viewers bring to the show in summer 2021.
I have yet to actively seek out any pandemic-related pop culture. Maybe my appetite for it will eventually change, though let’s revisit that in a decade. But given how all-encompassing this ongoing global situation has been, of course you can’t help but consume some of it, even by accident. For me, the stuff that works so far has had some degree of optimism or hope underneath the adversity, chaos, and tragedy. The risotto episode of How to With John Wilson, for instance, includes overrun grocery stores and scenes from hospitals, but it ends by underscoring our need for human interaction and the newly realized immense value in it.
On the surface, Sweet Tooth isn’t about the pandemic at all. This show is for teens, and it is not subtle about hammering home a central idea regarding humanity’s role in destroying our planet through climate change and an insatiable thirst for more. However, the show’s plot prominently features a worldwide pandemic, making it impossible to not think about that through the lens of these eight episodes. Ultimately, Sweet Tooth points to a few positive messages amid the disease darkness.
First, don’t be jerks to the youngest generation. We don’t yet know how this will impact them, and they are the future who will unravel this mess and navigate its lasting impact. Additionally, pushing forward necessitates extending kindness to others. The weight of the world is emotionally on everyone’s shoulders (if not physically, to a large extent). And when it’s impossible to know when your next event, trip, family reunion, or whatever thing you look forward to will happen, some other kind of hope must exist for you to believe in if you want any chance at emotional and mental survival. Gus gives that hope to admittedly broken-down individuals like Big Man, and it’s easy to imagine him spreading that optimistic outlook wider in S2 given the pessimistic way things wrap this time around.
Traditionally, summer always felt like a dumping ground for networks to try unusual things as people vacation or generally get out more; bigger series headliners tend to wait for fall returns or premieres accordingly (see Y: The Last Man or The Foundation in 2021). But recent years have seen surprises emerge at the end of spring and become their own critical darlings (HBO’s Los Espookys) or megafranchises (Stranger Things). Whether Sweet Tooth can travel the same surprise path to stardom remains to be seen, but it’s at least nice to have a new show worth following as we enter another summer where travel might be complicated (though, mercifully, not as complicated as it is in Sweet Tooth).
Most games lose relevance after a few years, but the indie rocket-building game Kerbal Space Program is a bit different. It’s a glitchy, 10-year-old underdog of a game with a cult following of programmers, engineers, astronaut candidates, and your typical lay explosion enthusiasts, and it has a unique and active community of modders who’ve been fixing bugs, adding new features, and generally keeping the game fresh for nearly a decade.
In the game, you are the omniscient director of a space program composed of literal little green men (and beloved little green woman Valentina Kerman—we see you, trailblazer) that you send skyward in spacecraft of your own design. It often feels like watching those blurry old videos of rockets launching only to come straight back down in an explosion of fiery schadenfreude: you feel a little bit frightened, a little bit sadistic, and you really want to try it again.
Art imitates life
One of the most prolific Kerbal modders is Chris Adderley, Nertea in the game, who is an engineer at the Canadian space company MDA by day, designing ground-based systems that retrieve data from spacecraft. But in his off time, Adderley gets into the pilot’s seat himself. He started playing Kerbal Space Program soon after its release, and in 2013 started building his first mod for the game—a pack of spare parts, including a xenon fuel tank and a magnetoplasmadynamic thruster (just try saying that three times fast).
Since then, he’s designed dozens of additional mods, including a Mark IV Spaceplane and space station add-ons like centrifuges and inflatable habitats.
“I build stuff that I’d like to see us as a species build in the future,” says Adderley.
Recently, Addlerley decided to take some of the most plausible far-future theoretical rocket engine concepts and build them in the game—introducing a way for gamers to try out these sci-fi concepts in a simulated environment that can teach us how they might actually work, on a more practical level, in the future.
Adderley combed through dozens of scientific papers that outlined theoretical blueprints for these ultra-advanced propulsion systems, looking for those that were most realistic.
“Everybody tries to sell their project as the propulsion system of the future,” says Adderley. “You need to kind of think a little bit critically about what people have hand waved.”
He crunched the numbers, considered how much power a specific engine would need, how to deal with the heat produced, and how you’d harness the energy to propel the virtual rocket further. “That was superfun, which might be a supernerdy statement, but you know.”
In the end, he built out 13 different engine concepts, including fusion engines—like The Expanse‘s Epstein drive is theorized to be—fission engines, and antimatter rockets.
Though we don’t yet have the technology to implement these specific-impulse demons, there is some real world value in being able to simulate advanced engines in a low-stakes environment. In fact, it’s such a great sandbox that engineers at SpaceX and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have used Kerbal graphics in their presentations. In 2018, NASA released Open MCT, a telemetry data visualization software designed for operating spacecraft, to the public on Github. It’s costly and time-consuming to test these systems on real spacecraft, so some participants ran their programs through Kerbal instead.
For Sumontro Sinha, an aerospace engineer and fusion researcher at the Propulsion Research Lab at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Kerbal is the go-to for testing out new ideas and training new engineers.
“Instead of Powerpoint slides and pages of equations, just make the ship and see how it works,” he says. “If it works in Kerbal, then it has a good chance of working in real life.”
The spherical tokamak fusion engine is based on the fictional spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, sans HAL the killer AI. Adderley found the actual science behind it in a NASA study, in which the paper’s lead author, Craig Williams, says NASA funded a number of projects focused on developing advanced propulsion systems. Williams’ team designed an engine that uses the energy produced by a fusion reaction to generate thrust. Fusion occurs naturally in the interior of stars like our sun, where lightweight atoms are superheated to the point where their electrons and neutrons decouple and neutrons, normally repellant to one another, fuse together and produce massive amounts of energy. One of the biggest challenges in producing this energy on Earth is that you need a way to confine the resultant plasma and harness its power.
One way to do this is with a tokamak, a device that generates a donut-shaped magnetic field that keeps the superheated plasma in place. In Williams’ engine prototype, this tokamak would be nearly spherical—more like a donut hole. The exhaust produced would propel the vehicle to over 166,000 mph, taking passengers to Jupiter in just under 4 months. To put that into perspective, the deep space probe Voyager is traveling away from our solar system at 35,000 mph.
When Williams’ paper came out in 2001, the authors wrote that the capability to produce this type of engine might be 30 years out. Now that it’s 2021, Williams is revising his estimate. “We’re probably not any closer,” he says. His paper came out in an era of enthusiasm for advanced propulsion, but much of that zeal has waned until recently. “You can’t really make much progress when there’s no active program going on, “ he says. “Until you start the clock again, that 30-year projection will just keep moving forward.” Bummer. But in the decades between now and humanity’s era of two-week Saturn vacations, you can still try out your own digital version of Williams’ engine.
Ride the nuclear lightning
The Afterburner fission fragment rocket engine is based on another NASA-funded engine concept study from 2011 that utilizes the energy created in nuclear reactions to propel a spacecraft forward. Reactors filled with Americium, a highly radioactive rare material that is a byproduct of uranium-driven nuclear reactions, generate fission products that flow down a chamber. This chamber is injected with hydrogen gas, which gets intensely excited when it meets up with the fission fragments and generates a plasma that is funneled through a powerful magnetic nozzle as thrust.
With this breakthrough, a round trip to Mars would take 292 days, including a 60-day stay on the planet. While the engine is slower overall than a fusion engine would be, it’s far closer to what we’re technologically capable of at present.
“The nuclear thermal rocket is a technology that is getting developed, and it’s already been demonstrated,” says Jason Cassibry, who leads the Propulsion Research Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In April, DARPA selected three contractors to demonstrate the first phase of a nuclear thermal rocket, and NASA and the DOE put out a call for similar preliminary designs in February. Cassibry says fission fragment and nuclear pulse engines are not far behind, but they have additional engineering hurdles to face, including figuring out how to divert all that energy away from the hull of the spacecraft so it doesn’t burn up in space.
If you’re of a certain generation, chances are you have imagined (or, at this point in your adulthood, built) your own home arcade that resembles something out of the golden ’80s era. One useful path to making this a reality, especially in tighter quarters, is the “multicade,” an invention that squishes multiple games into a single cabinet.
But what if your old-school gaming dreams revolve around something bigger and bulkier, particularly pinball? Until recently, your options were either buying a bunch of original pinball cabinets or building your own ground-up emulation solution. And the latter is complicated by the realities of how pinball plays and feels.
I’ve wondered how long it would take for that to change in the gaming-nostalgia market, especially as companies like Arcade1Up produce and sell more multicade cabinets for home use. The time for change is now, evidently, thanks to a handful of manufacturers producing pinball multicades. Arcade1Up in particular launched three distinct pinball emulation cabinets this year, each revolving around a different license.
Thanks to Arcade1Up, I’ve gone hands-on with arguably the most interesting product in its 2021 pinball line: a collection of 10 classic tables, all created by Williams during its arcade heyday but emulated for more convenient home play. What exactly does $600 get you in terms of emulation and build quality?
Time to get Mad and Medieval
Arcade1Up Digital Pinball (Attack from Mars)
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The Arcade1Up pinball system is largely the same across all three models released this year. Most of the physical cabinet is preassembled inside its box, and finishing the construction—which resembles a classic pinball machine, complete with buttons and a plunger—is simple enough with a standard screwdriver. The biggest catch will be getting the cabinet’s biggest, heaviest piece through doors or over stairs. This portion measures 34 inches long, 17 inches wide, and 16.5 inches tall. (Luckily, you can unscrew this base chunk in a pinch.)
Once fully built, this cabinet’s tallest backplate gets up to 60 inches in height, while the default legs bring the flippers up 35 inches from the floor. These include twistable feet that you can adjust to even out the set’s balance. At roughly 65 percent the size of a standard pinball cabinet, the Arcade1Up version will more likely fit in your favorite playroom, though it looks better in isolation rather than sitting next to an official table of the era.
Peek over the fake coin doors, and you’ll quickly see where Arcade1Up’s system differs hugely from the real thing: a 24-inch LCD panel, offset by a significant bezel all around (wood on top and bottom, aluminum on the left and right). Beneath the screen, Arcade1Up relies on an Android-fueled SoC, which pumps a 720p video signal to the screen, along with an analog receiver for the plunger, an accelerometer to sense your real-life “tilts,” and four solenoids that thump along with your gameplay. Two of them are positioned near the flipper buttons to replicate the sense of striking a pinball, while two fit deeper inside the chassis to replicate midgame bumps.
With the backplate attached and a single AC adapter plugged into a wall outlet, the machine is ready to rock. Part of the kit offers two crucial pieces to the pinball-emulation puzzle: a smaller LCD screen, which provides score information and midgame animations, and a pair of surprisingly robust speakers.
My virtual choice: The real classics
The backplate, by the way, is a printed poster that doesn’t change regardless of which virtual game you’re playing. My cabinet highlights the original Williams table Attack From Mars, while Arcade1Up’s two other 2021 models are decorated with Star Wars and Marvel characters, respectively. Sadly, for the Attack From Mars cabinet, Arcade1Up didn’t get a great source for the side cabinet art (especially on the backplate’s sides). Those images are a bit warped and low-res. Should your default home arcade have dim lighting, you may not even notice.
Power the system on, and after an admittedly overlong loading screen, Arcade1Up’s interface pops up, revealing a selection of 10 games as powered by Zen Studios’ digital-pinball ecosystem. The Williams machine I tested includes the following:
Attack from Mars
The Getaway: High Speed II
No Good Gofers
Red & Ted’s Road Show
Tales of the Arabian Nights
Should you purchase either of the other two 2021 models, you’ll get 10 virtual tables created by Zen Studios for previously released console and PC game collections, as opposed to recreations of real-life classics. That’s why I requested this model in particular. I was more interested in recreating familiar classics than playing Zen Studios’ digital-only inventions.