Tech firm beat Wall Street forecasts with $55bn in revenue, even as it faced antitrust lawsuits
First published on Tue 27 Apr 2021 17.55 EDT
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, more than doubled its profits to a record $17.9bn (£12.9bn) in the first quarter, as the lockdown-enforced surge in the use of digital services fuels an advertising boom for the Silicon Valley giant.
The company, which revealed in filings last week that Google UK’s staff earned an average of £240,000 each last year, said it was “still scratching the surface” over how much money it could make from advertising on its YouTube video service.
In total four-fifths of Alphabet’s $55bn in total revenues came from digital advertising, including another $6bn from Google’s ad network.
The performance smashed Wall Street’s expectations, with profits jumping 162% year on year as total revenues climbed by a third to $55.3bn, prompting investors to push Alphabet’s market value above $1.6tn for the first time.
Only Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are more valuable than Alphabet, which controls the world’s largest advertising business through its dominance of internet search and YouTube.
“Over the last year, people have turned to Google Search and many online services to stay informed, connected and entertained,” said Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s chief executive.
Advertisers clamoured to target consumers online with advertising revenue at Google’s search business, which continues to dominate rivals globally, rising by 30% to $31.9bn. Advertising revenues at YouTube, the world’s most popular video-sharing site, surged 49% to $6bn.
“While famous for its startup culture and offices, this tech giant is, rather unspectacularly, an advertising business,” said Sophie Lund-Yates, an equity analyst at the investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown. “Covid means phenomenal sums of money have shifted to online shopping, so Alphabet’s family of digital advertising businesses have seen revenue skyrocket. An increased reliance on digital, rather than physical, activity is not something that’s likely to dissipate either. Alphabet is in a great spot at the top of the digital food chain.”
The performance boom prompted Alphabet to announce a $50bn share buyback, double the scale of its last scheme in 2019.
Google continues to diversify its business, with its cloud computing division reporting a 46% rise in sales to $4.05bn. Google Cloud, which halved losses year on year to just under $1bn in the first quarter, aims to become a third global player in the sector after Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services.
Google’s Other Bets category, home to businesses and ventures such as the driverless car business Waymo, the life sciences researcher Verily and its “moonshot factory” X, reported a 47% increase in revenues to $198m. Losses at the division inched higher to $1.14bn in the quarter. Alphabet’s corporate costs rose 37.5% to $990m.
Pichai said Alphabet, which employed 140,000 staff as at the end of March, intended to invest more than $7bn in offices and datacentres in the US this year to create “at least 10,000 new full-time jobs”.
Google continues to face fallout from a spate of controversies – including federal inquiries and allegations of anticompetitive business practices and issues with diversity and discrimination.
In October, the company was hit with landmark civil antitrust lawsuits brought by the US Department of Justice and a coalition of states, which allege Google maintained “monopolies through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets”.
In February, the company announced Google would pay a $2.6m settlement to more than 5,500 employees and applicants who had allegedly been subject to discrimination as female engineers or Asians, in California and Washington state.
The company has also had to address internal turmoil over its scientific ethics, after coming under fire for how managers review Google’s scientists’ work. In December, Timnit Gebru, a prominent black scientist, wrote on Twitter that she was fired by Google after she pushed back against the company for trying to suppress her research on the ethics of artificial intelligence. Within months, another member of Gebru’s AI ethics team was let go, escalating the issue.
Executives have also had to make regular appearances on Capitol Hill, and have been called to testify in front of the Senate judiciary antitrust subcommittee.
Last week, a number of smaller apps, including Spotify, Tile and Match, told legislators that Google and Apple “hold data hostage” to stifle their competition. Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic chair of the subcommittee, agreed and said the tech companies “exclude or suppress apps that compete with their own products” and “charge excessive fees that affect competition”.
She said: “The only way apps can get to consumers is through one of these two platforms, which are owned by just two companies. The best thing to do here would be to admit that we have a huge monopoly problem across the board, and put in some stiffer rules and standards to address it.”
Europe’s first fully 3D-printed house gets its first tenants – video
A Dutch couple have become Europe’s first tenants of a fully 3D printed house the first completed home of five for ‘Project Milestone’, in suburb of Bosrijk in Eindhoven.
Inspired by the shape of a boulder, the dimensions of which would be difficult and expensive to construct using traditional methods, it is first legally habitable and commercially rented property where the load-bearing walls have been made using a 3D printer nozzle
Feeling Stuck on Twitter and Facebook? So Is Everyone Else.
Our complicated relationship with social media might be simpler than it feels. Just remember how it started.
It’s a testament to the power of the biggest social platforms that many common complaints about them sound contradictory.
They’re accelerators for extremism that simultaneously uphold suffocating consensus. They’re wastes of attention and should play a smaller role in people’s lives; however, they also need to be improved, refined and purged of bad actors, whoever you think they might be. They’re advanced surveillance machines, but they also routinely serve irrelevant recommendations and ads. They’re cutting-edge behavior modification tools, but they’re also overtly spammy, seeking engagement through clumsy and often misleading notifications.
And for, or despite, all those reasons, people can’t seem to leave them — a point bolstered by financial statements. Facebook, as a company, is doing extraordinarily well, and Twitter saw its revenue grow last quarter.
Still, within the disparate critiques of social media, there is a shared experience for many — a loss of patience with “this site,” or a withering assessment of how people behave “on here.” An urge to type “this hellsite” into the hellsite itself, to like that post about how much the poster hates posting. They’re aware of the irony; still, they can’t stop. They might even suggest it’s their own fault, which it isn’t, at least not entirely. They’re just stuck. Maybe you are too.
What does it mean to be stuck, in platform terms? It’s not the same as being trapped; you’re as free to leave Instagram as you were to join it in the first place. Neither is being stuck a mere habit, or pattern of personal behavior over which you’ve lost some amount of conscious control.
Stuckness, instead, is a largely unforeseen consequence of the manner in which modern social networks became popular and powerful in the first place.
Social networks, even the very biggest, are virtually worthless without people — not just as customers, but as sources of value for other customers. The term of art for this phenomenon is the “network effect,” a concept predating social media and the internet in general. A telephone system, for instance, gets better as more people use it, and is at its best when everyone has a number; likewise, a social network needs multiple users to function at all, but tends to become more compelling the more it connects.
Today’s biggest social networks were founded by people and supported by investors for whom network effects were both a gospel and a plan: build a network, reach a critical mass, watch it grow, then accelerate, creating an insurmountable advantage over anyone else attempting to connect people in similar ways.
In 2012, in an email exchange with Facebook’s then chief financial officer, revealed during a House antitrust subcommittee hearing in 2020, Mark Zuckerberg made his case for buying up smaller competitors, among them, at the time, Instagram:
There are network effects around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.
It’s a tidy way to understand the process that led to the popular internet of today: a bunch of companies trying to establish unassailable and maximally broad networks through the use of different “mechanics” (i.e. styles of sharing or connection or content production). It also hints at the fear that each network could fail as quickly as it succeeded if a critical mass of users had enough reason to leave — producing, basically, a death spiral.
To whatever extent Facebook was “the next Myspace,” it spent much of its first decade fending off, or acquiring, anything that might credibly call itself the next Facebook, frequently altering the environment around the users it already had in the process. Later in the same 2012 email exchange, Mr. Zuckerberg characterized the strategy of buying and incorporating competitors and their “dynamics” and “mechanics” as a way to “buy time” before they could reach threatening scales.
The plan worked, or at least has not failed so far: Nothing has been able to supplant Facebook the way Facebook supplanted others, and its network has remained more or less intact. User-wise, there have been signs in financial disclosures for years that Facebook’s core property is reaching some sort of plateau of activity, which could be explained in countless (again seemingly contradictory) ways: youth exodus, maturity in different markets, misinformation, conflict, boredom, politics.
Still, Facebook remains the only Facebook. And that dominance has led some users to reasonably feel stuck with the platform. The networks people signed up for in the aughts have changed beneath their feet and lasted longer than even their creators might have imagined — realizing network effects to their theoretical extremes, genuinely aspiring to connect everyone, for no more specific purpose than connection itself, which, conveniently, was thought to be worth a lot of money.
Over time, these networks became more strange, leading some users to consider, as network effect theorists had in the past, the possibility of a network that becomes worse as it continues to grow. Many longtime users of established social networks continue to have great experiences, finding new ways to appreciate familiar spaces. Late joiners enjoy the benefit of fresher connections and no baggage. Others are plainly miserable.
Stuck users are subjected to indefinite experimentation. Through their chosen networks within the larger network, users also experience subordinate forms of stuckness, pulled into intense group social dynamics rooted in hasty friend requests made years ago.
Stuckness is struggling to explain why you’re still part of the network that’s making you frustrated, anxious, unhappy or bored. Stuckness is a genuine question that sounds like a humiliating joke: Where else would I read tweets? Stuckness is struggling to quantify, or merely conceptualize, the cost of leaving a network into which you’ve invested time and attention. Stuckness is a basic sense of obligation, co-opted and turned back against you. Stuckness is the lingering, uneasy spirit of the long-passed fear of missing out.
Stuckness is also the inevitable result of a commercialized social and civic space, built only to grow. Stuckness is not quite the same as “needing to be here for work,” but not entirely different, either.
An instructive way to think about this is to imagine every social network as a version of LinkedIn, the platform that helpfully elucidates the space between what we think of as social platforms (feeds) and what we imagine to be more commercial platforms (something like eBay).
LinkedIn, it is fair to say, provides a less-than-joyful experience to some of its users, demanding labor, attention and particular styles of performance, all while subjecting them to upselling, focus-grabbing notifications and an endless stream of content about recruiting, job-hunting and related subjects. Many people joined for a reason: It was a new place to find a job, or to hire people. Years later, however, they find themselves stuck. Leaving has a fuzzy but material cost, even for the happily employed, and LinkedIn’s dominance has ensured that this cost remains, if not high, at least real enough to discourage leaving. Now, consider what distinguishes LinkedIn from Facebook or Instagram. Some “mechanics”? Users’ intentions when signing up?
None of this is to say that the attention of the stuck isn’t drawn elsewhere, to newer platforms that encourage new kinds of communication with freshly assembled networks of people. Joining and forming other networks is one of the more obvious responses to feeling stuck, even if it presages new varieties of stuckness down the line. TikTok and Discord, for example, offered mechanics and experiences that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram did not, at least in the beginning. For the already stuck, however, these networks are often complements, not replacements.
Among some tech investors, this sort of stuckness has inspired a fresh take on what happens to platforms in the long term: not a death spiral, but the slow bleeding of time and attention by more focused competitors, through which users remain present, distracted, but — crucially — available to be drawn back in (consider the rise of Facebook Groups in recent years, or the persistent growth of Facebook Marketplace). Users sticking around to talk about how much they hate sticking around is merely stuckness reproducing itself.
This sort of stuckness isn’t permanent or entirely unexpected, but it is characterized by lasting longer than anyone anticipated. And though recognizing one’s stuckness might not make it easier to leave a social media platform, it has other benefits.
If nothing else, it’s a more genuine form of connection to our fellow user than any platform-generated mechanic can provide: a shared feeling that this — whatever it is — isn’t what we signed up for.
Anker Soundcore Life Q35 review: budget headphones with good noise-cancelling
Long battery life, comfortable fit, Bluetooth 5 with decent sound and features for the money
Last modified on Mon 10 May 2021 02.20 EDT
The latest Bluetooth headphones from Anker offer very long battery life and surprisingly effective noise-cancelling on a budget.
The Soundcore Life Q35 cost £129.99 and replace the Life Q30 as the brand’s top headphones, significantly undercutting leading models from rivals that often cost in excess of £300.
They are fairly bulky compared with some of the best but don’t look ostentatious and are fairly light. The faux leather ear cups are spacious, with a good amount of padding, and don’t clamp your head too hard, while the headband stays well put on your dome. The headphones have enough adjustment to wear comfortably for extended listening periods, feel solidly made and fold up for travel, too.
The Chinese firm Anker, set up by a former Google engineer, originally made its name with high-quality, low-cost portable charging equipment. It has since expanded into other consumer electronics categories, including audio gear under the Soundcore brand, offering a similar level of bang for buck and winning fans by undercutting the competition while maintaining higher than expected quality and good customer service.
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0 with multipoint, 3.5mm, USB-C charging, NFC
Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC, LDAC
Battery life: 40 hours ANC on
The Q35 are Bluetooth 5 headphones supporting the universal SBC and AAC audio standards used by most devices. They also support the high-resolution LDAC format that can be used with most Android devices for higher-quality listening that is usually the reserve of significantly more expensive headphones. They can connect to two devices at once so that, for example, you can answer a call on your phone with them if you’re watching videos on a tablet without having to disconnect first. They also have a standard 3.5mm socket for cabled use.
Their Bluetooth range and stability was excellent with a variety of devices, including Android and Apple smartphones and tablets. Call quality of the microphone was good in quiet environments and did a reasonable job of blocking out background noise – but at the expense of picking up my own voice, meaning I had to speak quite loudly to be clearly heard.
The right ear cup has a pause/play button, which you hold to summon your phone’s voice assistant, and volume up and down buttons. Pressing and holding the volume buttons skip tracks, too, which is unusual for headphone controls but works fine. Take the headphones off and the music will pause; put them back on and it will start again.
The left ear cup has a button for toggling between noise-cancelling and transparency modes, a power button and a USB-C charging port.
The Soundcore app for Android or iPhone is very good, taking care of updates, adjusting settings, sound and noise-cancelling modes.
The noise-cancelling is surprisingly effective for the money, beating the majority of rivals at this price and even some models twice their cost. The noise of a boiler, dishwasher, cars, drills and other rumbling noises were much reduced, while speech was quietened significantly. They can’t quite match the very best in the business from Bose and Sony but otherwise do a very good job, particularly set to the “transport” mode with the Soundcore app.
They also have a transparency mode, which pipes the sounds around you into the headphones and can be triggered quickly for listening out for announcements. It doesn’t sound very natural but gets the job done. Hold your hand on the touch-sensitive surface of the right ear cup or by pressing the ANC button for one second to toggle it on or off.
The Q35 also sound good for the money, with reasonable detail and separation of tones, handling complex pieces better than most competitors, particularly when used with the highest-quality LDAC format and some hi-res audio files.
By default, they have an energised, bass-heavy sound, which will suit pop and electronic music but can override detail in more subtle tracks. There are lots of presets and a full equaliser in the Soundcore app for tweaking the sound to your liking.
However, as with many rivals at this price, the sound is significantly affected by the noise-cancelling. What sounds good and punchy with noise-cancelling active sounds totally overridden by baggy, uncontrolled bass when it is turned off and different again with the transparency mode activated. I recommend never turning the noise-cancelling off, although this will drain the battery quicker, or using the bass-reducer preset if you do.
The headphones have very long battery life lasting just shy of 40 hours between charges with noise-cancelling active, which is 10 more than even Sony’s excellent WH-1000XM4. Turn off noise-cancelling and they will last up to 60 hours.
Anker estimates that the battery will last in excess of 500 full charge cycles while maintaining at least 80% of its original capacity but it is not replaceable, ultimately making the headphones disposable.
They are generally repairable through Anker’s customer service or authorised repair centre in the UK. The company regularly operates trade-in schemes and recycles devices but does not publish impact assessments or sustainability reports.
The Anker Soundcore Life Q35 cost £129.99.
For comparison, the Soundcore Life Q30 have an RRP of £79.99, the Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro cost £129.99, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 cost £289.95, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II cost £249.95, the B&W PX7 cost £349.99, the Sony WH-1000XM4 cost £350 and Apple’s AirPods Max cost £549.
The Soundcore Life Q35 are a comfortable set of very long-lasting Bluetooth headphones that offer surprisingly effective noise-cancelling and good sound for less than half the price of top rivals.
They won’t trouble models such as Sony’s WH-1000XM4 or B&W’s PX7 on sound but the Q35 still offer high-end features such as high-res LDAC audio support and simultaneous connection for two devices. Call quality was fairly average and the sound radically changes when you turn noise-cancelling on and off but these things can be overlooked at a cost of £130 or less.
The battery cannot be replaced, however, ultimately making them disposable and losing a star. And if you only use Apple gear, which do not support the hi-res LDAC audio format, then the predecessor Life Q30 are a better buy at only £80, offering similar features minus the LDAC support.
Pros: good value, good sound, good noise-cancelling, very long battery life, Bluetooth 5 with SBC, AAC and LDAC support, good app, full EQ and lots of presets, comfortable.
Cons: sound heavily affected by noise-cancelling, average microphone, battery cannot be replaced, relatively bulky, may be too bass-heavy for some.
Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro review: cut-price noise-cancelling earbuds
Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Bose-beating noise-cancelling headphones
Bowers & Wilkins PX7 review: Bose-beating noise-cancelling headphones
Apple AirPods Max review: stunning sound, painful price
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review: less business, more modern design
Beats Solo Pro review: Apple’s on-ear noise-cancelling headphones
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review: longer-lasting Bluetooth noise cancellers
Marshall Monitor II ANC review: classic headphones gain noise-cancelling
When It Comes to Taxes, Being Tracked Can Be a Good Thing
With remote work more common now, tax apps that track your location have become relevant for professionals who want to work wherever they want to live.
This article is part of our new series, Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are transforming our lives.
Two months ago, Jeff Sheu, a private equity executive, moved from San Francisco, where he had lived for close to 20 years, to Summerlin, a Las Vegas suburb. During the stay-at-home period of the pandemic, he realized he no longer needed to be in a city where property was expensive, taxes were high, and his quality of life, now that he was married with a small child, had changed.
And with vaccinations available and business travel resuming, he could live somewhere he liked as long as he could get on a plane for work.
“I love California, but over time the cost of living got exorbitantly high,” said Mr. Sheu, who was born and raised in that state and went to the University of California, Berkeley. “I grew apart from California.”
Moving out of a city for more space in the suburbs is a pretty common goal. It often marks a maturation point for Americans with young children, who value well-regarded schools over a nightlife scene.
But given the state Mr. Sheu had left and the high compensation from his work, he was concerned that his departure would not go smoothly. As the managing director of a private equity firm, he is exactly the type of high earner California does not want to lose. When people in his tax bracket leave, the state is likely to audit them to make sure they really have left.
With the May 17 tax filing deadline approaching, people who have moved to another state or are working more remotely need to be extra vigilant with their tax documents. For Mr. Sheu, that involves an app on his smartphone that uses location services to track him all the time. What he is sacrificing in privacy, he is gaining in peace of mind, knowing he will be able to show exactly when and where he was in a particular state, should California’s tax authority come after him.
Tax-starved states are none too happy to see big taxpayers leave. Enter the need to track meticulously where you are all the time.
“As part of the move, there’s a checklist of things to do, like changing your voter registration,” Mr. Sheu said from Atlanta (having been in Tampa, Fla., and Philadelphia in the previous 36 hours, when he had been traveling for work). “Then there’s tracking your days. You can use Excel, but if I get an inquiry from the tax board, it’s just in Excel. They could argue I fat-fingered something. But I’m never apart from my phone. It feels to me like a pretty undebatable way to track where I am.”
Tax apps like TaxBird — which Mr. Sheu uses — and TaxDay and Monaeo were created years ago with a different purpose in mind: to help largely affluent retirees avoid a tax burden when they returned to their second home in a high-tax state. But since the pandemic sent people home, and in the process freed them from being in an office, these apps have become relevant for professionals who want to work wherever they want to live.
These apps operate on a subscription model and are modestly priced. TaxBird, for example, costs $34.99 a year. After a free 90-day trial, TaxDay charges users $9.99 a month. Monaeo is geared more toward high earners and offers more options for its service, charging $99 a month or $999 a year.
“We’ve seen a fourfold increase in our app without any advertising in the past year,” said Jonathan Mariner, founder and president of TaxDay, who was himself audited when he worked for Major League Baseball in New York but lived in Florida. “When people are concerned about privacy, I say you probably have a dozen apps on your phone that are tracking you, and you don’t even know it.”
While each tax app has different levels of precision and features to upload supporting documents, they all fulfill the basic need to prove your location to a tax authority. When it comes time to file taxes, users download reports detailing where they worked with varying degrees of specificity, from a simple day count to more detailed location information.
“Over the past year, it’s becoming a contentious issue between states,” said Chester Spatt, professor of finance at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. “The question is what does it mean to have your employment be in another state in the virtual world? In the physical office world, it was easy.”
With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, states in need of revenue are not going to let the money go without a fight. “This has the potential to become as messy as you can envision it,” said Dustin Grizzle, a tax partner at MGO, an accounting firm. “States are going to say, ‘Hey you’re just using Covid to give you the ability to work remotely.’”
One thing is clear: the pandemic has, in fact, extended these types of tax debates to middle-income earners who would like to live somewhere else. At the center of the debate is a magic number: 183 days — half of the year, plus a day — which is the amount of time most states use to determine if a person has been somewhere else for tax purposes. (There are exceptions: Ohio requires residents to live outside of the state for only five months.)
Residency, though, is something you have to declare; it is not something you can establish by traveling. For many workers, the issue will be where their employer says their office is.
David R. Cohen, a lawyer who focuses on complicated litigation cases, had been traveling from his home in Ohio for decades. During the pandemic, he rented a place in Naples, Fla., with his wife and realized there was no reason to go back to Cleveland in the winter. After renting, he bought a house in Naples a few months ago.
“Covid proved everyone could work remotely,” said Mr. Cohen, who uses TaxBird. “It was at that point that I began to think about residency down here.”
His incentives went well beyond the weather: He reasoned that most of his cases involved multiple jurisdictions, so he was either traveling or working out of his home anyway.
That kind of shift has some states worried. There is currently a tax dispute between New Hampshire and Massachusetts that could end up in front of the Supreme Court. The central question: Where are people working for tax purposes when they are not allowed to go into an office in another state?
When the pandemic started, Massachusetts issued guidance, saying if you normally worked in an office in that state, you would have to continue paying income tax there, even if you were working from home. New Hampshire challenged this by filing a lawsuit.
“There’s a strong argument that the pandemic should change things,” said Eric Bronnenkant, head of tax at Betterment, the financial advising app. “But one of the things I’m concerned about is if the Supreme Court comes down on the side of Massachusetts, other states will say the Supreme Court gave their approval. That will make remote-worker taxation more complex.”
Trading up: one woman’s quest to swap a hairpin for a house
Demi Skipper would like a new house, but she’s not buying one. Instead she’s planning a daring strategy of trades – and millions are following her journey
Last modified on Wed 12 May 2021 09.20 EDT
While many of us were still finding novelty in group Zoom calls last May, Demi Skipper decided she was going to get a house. But not using money. Instead, she was going to trade items.
Now the owner of one of only a few Chipotle celebrity cards in the world, and hoping to reach a house by the end of summer, the 29-year-old’s journey started where many voyages do: in a YouTube hole.
Sitting in the living room of her rented house in San Francisco, she had just finished watching a Ted Talk by Kyle MacDonald, also known as the red paperclip guy, who traded up 14 times to get from a red paperclip to a house in 2006.
MacDonald was a 26-year-old jobless Canadian who traded from a red paperclip to a fish-shaped pen, to a handmade doorknob, before trading it for a camping stove, then a generator, then a keg of beer and a neon sign, followed by a snowmobile, a trip to Yahk in British Columbia, a box truck, a music recording contract, a year’s rent in Arizona, to one afternoon with the rock band Alice Cooper. His strangest trade was then for a Kiss-themed motorized snow globe, which he swapped with snow globe fanatic and actor Corbin Bernsen for a role in a Hollywood film, before trading the movie role for a two-storey farmhouse in Kipling, Saskatchewan, Canada.
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Skipper, a self-described “scrappy entrepreneurial type”, was up to the challenge.
“I can’t buy anything. I can’t use any money. And I can’t trade anyone I know,” she excitedly explains over a 7am video call. She’s used to early mornings as she’s been working 6am to 2.30pm as a product manager for BuzzFeed. “A lot of comments [about my project] are like, ‘You need to get a job’, and I’m like, Oh my gosh, if they knew I’m working like 12-hour days,” she gestures in disbelief.
Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and Ebay are Skipper’s go-tos. She first posted an image of the bobby pin explaining her mission, and traded it for brand new earrings from a woman on Facebook who was excited to take part. People’s eagerness to get involved has been the most surprising thing. “I get probably 1,000 messages a day on Instagram. And a lot of them are like: I don’t have a trade but I live in this state and I’d be willing to drive your car from here to here, or I have a garage or a safe place where you could keep a trade.”
She left the earrings on the porch of a woman keen to get rid of four margarita glasses, which Skipper traded for a vacuum cleaner. Then she had to trade outside of her city to meet a couple who exchanged their kid’s old snowboard for a vacuum cleaner. The snowboard went for an Apple TV. It was the first branded item she received, which made it easier to trade. She then arranged to swap it for a pair of Bose headphones, before finding a man on the neighbourhood app Next Door to trade her for an old Apple MacBook.
A MacBook from a bobby pin: it was a landmark moment. Up until this point, her project, named Trade Me, wasn’t well-known. Now she had the eyes of thousands of people on her. “The next trade was really nerve-racking because it was the first one I had to ship. So I had to trust that the person I was trading with would send me the camera and lenses,” she explained.
The camera went for the first pair of collector sneakers she found. “I reached out and the guy really helped me understand how to tell if sneakers are real.” Skipper then went on to trade two more pairs of sneakers, which the first trader advised her on. Desperate to get out of the sneaker world, Skipper found a man who had been searching for those $1,000 trainers for a long time, and traded them for a brand new iPhone 11 Max.
A family of Trade Me fans offered her a red minivan for the iPhone. While it was the most surprising upgrade, Skipper remembers it as the most emotionally difficult. A couple were so inspired by the project, they drove the van 29 hours from Minnesota to San Francisco with their two kids.
The minivan broke down after its long journey, and Skipper posted this hiccup on her TikTok. What she didn’t foresee was the amount of hate the family soon got, including a lot of Islamophobia. “The worst parts of the internet came out,” she says.
With the minivan no longer working, and unable to spend money to fix it, she was forced to trade down for an electric skateboard which went for the latest MacBook. She swapped that for an electric bike food cart, followed by a Mini Cooper.
The next trade went downhill.
“Ah, the diamond necklace,” she says. She thought it was worth $20,000, but she was quickly told that although it was worth that amount when made, it would only be bought for $2,000. The necklace’s appraisal value was $20,000, but as she quickly learned, this is not the same as the resale value. “It was a soul-crushing moment. I’d just traded this really nice Mini Cooper that was probably worth like $8,000, and I pretty much cut that in a quarter.”
She again then traded down for a Peloton exercise bike. Next was an extremely run- down Mustang, followed by a Jeep, a tiny cabin, a Honda CRV and then three tractors.
Like Kyle Macdonald, Skipper has a large audience. Nearly 5 million people follow her on TikTok. Her most recent trade – the three tractors for a Chipotle celebrity card – was offered to her by the fast-food chain after she posted the video about the tractors. There are only about three in existence. (The owner of this celebrity card gets unlimited free Chipotle food for a year, plus a catered dinner for 50 people.)
Obviously they wouldn’t be so keen to get involved if it wasn’t for the millions of potential customers following Demi’s journey, but Skipper is adamant that anyone can do their own trading project. “There’s this 18-year-old guy in London who’s gotten really far, and he’s not even TikTok-famous, but he’s done it on his own, trading with people he knows,” she remembers.
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While Skipper doesn’t spend any money on trades, she decided early on to pay for shipping. “It doesn’t feel right when you’re trading with someone and then you’re like, ‘Oh, can you pay for my shipping too?’” She’s spent about $4,000 on shipping so far.
Today’s world revolves around money, but cash in and of itself has no actual value. As a society, we’ve agreed on a story of what money is worth. We spend the majority of our time earning it or spending it, but that’s only been the case for the last 5,000 years. Before that, we would directly trade goods and services: I’ll fix your roof if you give me a bag of potatoes. “[You can] say: this is worth this many dollars. But part of trading up is to find the person who finds a different type of value in it,” says Skipper.
Skipper hopes more and more people will trade in this way. “Trading evens the playing field more, because everyone has that bobby pin or paperclip.” Thousands of TikTokers are now tagging her project in their own pursuits for anything from cars to college tuition.
“Honestly, I love that it’s a bit of an F U to capitalism.”
Gaming in colour: uncovering video games’ black pioneers
Jerry Lawson led the invention of cartridges, Ed Smith made a hybrid console/PC, and designer Muriel Tramis won France’s highest honour for bringing history into play. How many more names are forgotten?
In the 1970s, in the fledgling days of the video games industry, an engineer named Gerald “Jerry” Lawson designed one of the earliest game consoles, the Channel F, and also led the team that invented the game cartridge, a defining innovation in how games were made and sold. His son, Andersen Lawson, recalls that he was often working on gaming projects in the garage of their family home in Santa Clara, California. “There have been conversations recently about the struggles he might have had that were related to his colour,” he says. “Was it difficult [for him]? Yes, I’m quite certain. But I never heard any grumblings from him. And I’m also certain that he earned his respect … My father was a person of colour and I think that would inspire young people today to jump in and help move the industry along.”
Black people, and especially black women, are still underrepresented in the video games industry. The Independent Game Developers’ Association records that only 2% of US game developers identify as black; in the UK, meanwhile, according to UKIE’s 2020 census of the entire industry, 10% of its workers are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). But black innovators such as Jerry Lawson have been present and influential since the earliest days of the video games industry – and there is not enough recognition for their achievements.
Lawson was featured in Netflix’s High Score documentary series on the history of video games last year. Born in New York in 1940, he developed a strong interest in electronics during his youth, when he often fixed his neighbours’ small appliances as a hobby. This influenced his decision to become an engineer, and after moving to California, he became a member of Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist collective that included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak among its members. It was his work as an engineer at San Jose-based Fairchild Semiconductor, though, that was truly pioneering. As a side project, he created a coin-op arcade game called Demolition Derby, and as a result he was approached by his bosses to become the lead engineer in the company’s new gaming division. He died from complications of diabetes in 2011, aged 70.
After moving on from Fairchild in 1980, Lawson founded Video Soft, which created games for the Atari 2600. The games were never publicly released, however, and following the notorious North American video game crash of 1983, he shut up shop in 1984 and worked as a consulting engineer thereafter. “Another company had the idea for the console but it was Fairchild that commercialised it,” says Andersen Lawson. “My dad was the person responsible for putting the team together … and they were able to achieve something that has been long since forgotten.”
New York-born Ed Smith, meanwhile, is a retired engineer who helped develop APF Electronics’ Imagination Machine, a hybrid console and home computer system. Companies such as APF expanded into gaming in the 70s and early 80s, providing opportunities for talented engineers. “As a black person, it was more about having the opportunity to be gainfully employed, no matter what area of work I was doing,” Smith tells me. “I had a child at a young age and the biggest thing for me was to get a good job. Luckily, I got into the field of technology and that was the point from which everything else just flowed.”
As well as engineering, his work on the machine included developing schematic diagrams and game testing. Smith’s innovative work at APF was deeply influential to future generations, but the company itself did not withstand the video game crash. “I thought our game would be one of many in the marketplace for years to come… my expectations were that I would be in the industry for the long term; the reality was that after the market tanked, I had to go and work in other areas,” he says.
Eventually, Smith found long-term work in tech sales and retired about two years ago to focus on writing Imagine That!, a book about his life. It recounts his struggles as a young black man in 1960s America. “We had our share of things that caused us to go out and to protest at that time. And it was pretty much the same things that we’re dealing with today – which is unfortunate,” he adds.
A third black innovator from the early days of the video games industry is Muriel Tramis, who is considered to be the first black female video game designer. She lives in France but grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique, in the Lesser Antilles, and began her career as an engineer, programming military drones. She first made her mark on video games while working at French developer Coktel Vision, which she joined in 1986.
Tramis says that this was her happiest time, professionally speaking. “I had found a way to combine IT and literary creativity,” she told the Guardian. “My editor entrusted me with the project management of his adventure games because my engineering training allowed me to understand the technical aspects of development, programming of interactions, and integration of images and sound. He was of Armenian origin and probably for this reason, was very open-minded to diversity.”
Méwilo, the 1987 Atari game that Tramis wrote and directed in collaboration with writer Patrick Chamoiseau, drew on Martinique’s rich history. She says: “When I wanted to create my first script, I wanted it to be in the style of a historical novel. It’s natural that I was inspired by the island’s history, because it was unknown, or poorly known, to the rest of the world and had all the ingredients to create intrigue, drama and mystery. The history of the Antilles is part of the history of France, but this region has known the pain of slavery and colonisation. This is the origin of many traumas which are visible in Creole society and mixed societies in general.”
Tramis left Coktel Vision in 2003, but thinks fondly of her time there. “I liked the period so much that after a detour through virtual reality applied to urban planning, I am about to create my own video game development studio,” she says. “About 30 years after my first game, I am working on a future story.” Her upcoming game features black heroes and shows how skin-colour prejudice is the origin of present-day discrimination.
She was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2018 and says it was an honour not just for herself but for her friends, family, her country and the “sisters” across the world, whom she hopes to inspire. Tramis is keen to encourage more women into technology and science, given the skills shortage in Europe: if women represent 50% of digital users, “they must also be 50% of designers, engineers and technicians”.
Though names like Lawson, Smith and Tramis do sometimes show up in video game history books, the contributions of many other black people in the fledgling days of the industry have gone entirely uncredited. “It parallels what we know about black women’s participation in the space program,” says TreaAndrea Russworm, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, who discusses black women’s contribution to games in her article Replaying Video Game History as a Mixtape of Black Feminist Thought (co-written with fellow black female academic Samantha Blackmon). “The book and film Hidden Figures has made it very obvious to us now that black women were there, but they weren’t headliners: they weren’t the astronauts, but they were the human computers, the labour force that was essential to the program, and they worked for many years unrecognised.
“At the Strong Museum [the US National Museum of Play], where they have archives on Midway and Atari, you can flip through their company newsletters, and you’ll come across photos of black women … they sometimes have a title or a caption saying who they were. But a lot of times, they don’t.”
What to Do If Your Car is Recalled
Recalls are common, but receiving notice can still be unnerving. Here’s what to expect.
Millions of cars are recalled each year, and roughly eight million already have been in 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Getting a notice from the automaker that your vehicle is among them and has a safety deficiency is not only alarming, it can also lead to a flood of questions.
What must I do next? How do I get this taken care of? Is this going to cost me anything?
Even more pressing is how urgent it is to get the problem remedied. The answer is that while minor maintenance can slide a bit without causing major trouble, the safety concerns addressed by a recall are not a footnote for the “maybe someday” section of your to-do list. Recalls vary in urgency, and sometimes repairs cannot be done by the dealer immediately because replacement parts are not available; it can take months until they are. But as a recent South Carolina case makes clear, procrastination can be deadly.
In January, the driver of a 2002 Honda Accord died as a result of a crash in which the car’s airbag deployed. As the 19th death in the United States caused by shrapnel from a ruptured Takata airbag inflater, it was hardly unprecedented. But this time there was a twist: Honda, which recalled the car in 2011, said it had tried more than 100 times to reach the car’s owner by mail, phone and by in-person visits. The faulty inflaters had never been replaced.
The Takata recall, the largest in history, involves 100 million inflaters, including 67 million in the United States. And these recalls are not all a decade old. As recently as March, Ford recalled 2.6 million cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles to replace Takata driver-side airbag components.
Action may be taken for safety threats that arise even when the vehicles are parked. In March, several Hyundai and Genesis models were recalled to correct electrical short circuits that caused a fire risk. In that case, the traffic safety agency advised owners to “park their cars outside and away from homes, other structures and other flammable materials” to prevent property loss.
Recalls are not about customer complaints like a balky air-conditioner or a rusty fender. They are specifically safety issues, even if the danger is sometimes not readily apparent. Correcting the problem should be done as quickly as possible, and, yes, the automaker will pay for it.
They are required to contact owners by mail, but if you’ve been living away from your normal home during the pandemic, there’s a chance you could have missed the notice. And if you bought a used car, the recall notice may not have caught up with you yet.
It’s easy for you to check whether a vehicle has been recalled by entering the 17-digit vehicle identification number (or VIN) on the safety agency’s web page — nhtsa.gov/recalls. The VIN can be found on the car’s registration and often on the insurance card. It’s also visible through the glass on the lower edge of the windshield on the driver’s side.
Checking for recalls is a must, especially if you are buying a used car. Using that search, you will learn if the vehicle was recalled in the past 15 calendar years and whether the issue has been addressed. The report covers major automakers, motorcycle manufacturers and some medium/heavy truck manufacturers.
If the vehicle has not been recalled or if it has but the defect has been repaired, you will get this message: 0 Unrepaired Recalls associated with this VIN. Recently announced recalls may not show up because it takes time for the VINs to be identified, so you may need to check back.
Recalls are carried out by the automaker but can be ordered by the safety agency. The process can start when a carmaker discovers a problem during regular quality checks, or defects emerge through the dealer service network. By law, when an automaker learns of a safety defect it must notify the safety agency promptly.
The process can also begin with consumer complaints filed on the agency database. Those complaints are reviewed, and if an analysis deems further action is needed, an investigation is opened. If that finds a problem, a recall is initiated. In practice, automakers typically begin recalls on their own, before the agency intervenes. The safety agency monitors the process to assure that customer notices are properly issued and that repairs are tracked.
The automaker can choose to repair the defect, replace the vehicle with one of identical or similar specifications, or refund the full purchase price (adjusted for depreciation). If you’ve already paid for repairs that would have been done under the recall, the automaker often must reimburse you.
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