Start Up No.921: commute with Google!, stream with Google!, the Instagram penthouse, AI imaginings, and more

Revolutionary in its day, is Gmail crimping people now? Photo by Peter Forret on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google hasn’t updated Gmail, Drive, Photos storage limit in 5 years. Now what? • CNBC

Jordan Novet:


2013 was the most recent time Google raised the [Gmail storage] limit — bringing it up 50% to 15GB.

But now it’s been five years since Google gave free users more room for stuff. (Google did introduce free and unlimited storage of images and videos through Google Photos in 2015, but if you want that free tier, you’ll need to be okay with content getting compressed or resized.)

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

My specific situation was helped along because a few years ago bought a Chromebook as a sort of backup computer. The purchase happened to come with a perk: 100GB of free storage.

But last month, Google emailed me and let me know that the extra storage would soon be going away. It turns out the promotion lasted two years.

As of today, I’m back to being just another Google account holder with 15GB of standard-issue free storage. But my data takes up more than 21GB. When I checked my Gmail inbox this morning, there was a pink banner on top instructing me to free up space or pay. In Google Drive, the icon on the left that shows how much space is left is now colored red. Conveniently there is a link below to “UPGRADE STORAGE.”

These days, through the Google One plan the company introduced this year, you can have 100GB for $19.99 per year. And $9.99 per month now gets you 2TB of storage, 100% more than before. Those prices aren’t crazy — and I understand Google’s desire to get customers paying for storage so it can grow and further diversify away from advertising — but it’s the principle of the thing.

I keep thinking back to Larry Page’s words “all the storage I need.” Did Page and others believe that would only be applicable for a few years? I hope not.


Gmail is the world’s biggest email service, so any increment must cost Google heftily. It’s either that, or the world’s running out of storage. (Wouldn’t that be a thing? No room left on the internet.)
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Pushing the limits of streaming technology • Google blog

Catherine Hsiao:


Streaming media has transformed the way we consume music and video, making it easy to instantly access your favorite content. It’s a technically complex process that has come a long way in a few short years, but the next technical frontier for streaming will be much more demanding than video.

We’ve been working on Project Stream, a technical test to solve some of the biggest challenges of streaming. For this test, we’re going to push the limits with one of the most demanding applications for streaming—a blockbuster video game.

We’ve partnered with one of the most innovative and successful video game publishers, Ubisoft, to stream their soon-to-be released Assassin’s Creed Odyssey® to your Chrome browser on a laptop or desktop. Starting on October 5, a limited number of participants will get to play the latest in this best-selling franchise at no charge for the duration of the Project Stream test.

The idea of streaming such graphically-rich content that requires near-instant interaction between the game controller and the graphics on the screen poses a number of challenges.  When streaming TV or movies, consumers are comfortable with a few seconds of buffering at the start, but streaming high-quality games requires latency measured in milliseconds, with no graphic degradation.


So… it’s PC gaming except done by streaming? So you could have lower-spec PCs, and bin your console? Maybe a worry for Sony and Microsoft.
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Microsoft Surface event 2018: 5 things to expect • The Verge

Tom Warren:


Microsoft is holding a media event on Tuesday in New York City. Described only as a “moment of your time,” the event is likely to focus on Surface hardware, Windows 10 features, and Microsoft’s new productivity push to win back consumers. Microsoft’s Surface chief, Panos Panay, will be attending the event and it will be the company’s first big Surface / Windows press event since former Windows chief Terry Myerson departed over the summer. It’s a chance for Microsoft to show where Windows is heading, unveil the latest Surface hardware, and perhaps surprise us with something new.


TL;DR: refreshes of the existing stuff, but without adding USB-C if it doesn’t already have it.
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HP attempts to refresh the two-in-one with the leather-and-metal Spectre Folio • Ars Technica

Valentina Palladino:


The Spectre Folio may look like a convertible that’s covered in leather, but it’s not that simple. The leather is actually built into the PC—you can’t remove it, and HP doesn’t want you to. The leather soft chassis adheres to the magnesium and aluminum hard chassis in a construction that you won’t be able to see with your own eyes—it’s all under the surface.

While it’s classified as a convertible, it can flex into positions that were previously limited to tablets with keyboard covers. It can act as a laptop but instantly slide down into tablet mode as well. Instead of the traditional tent mode that other convertibles can achieve, the screen portion of the Spectre Folio can sit in a slot in front of the keyboard, turning it into a device ideal for photo and video viewing.

The Spectre Folio will have either an FHD or 4K touchscreen, both of which support inking, and the device will come with a stylus as well. It runs on 8th Gen Intel Core i5 and i7 Y-series processors and can support up to 8GB of RAM and 2TB of storage. HP claims the device will last at least 18 hours on a single charge. While super thin, the Spectre Folio contains two Thunderbolt 3 ports and one USB Type-C port, all of which support charging.


A picture (below) from The Verge shows how the keyboard is covered by the screen when you want “tablet time”; the screen can then lay flat outward, or flat inward. At least they’re trying.

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3rd-generation Chromecast leaks ahead of Google’s launch • 9to5Google

Ben Schoon:


It’s been over three years since Google last refreshed its most popular product, the Chromecast. We’ve been hearing bits of information for the past few months about a possible refresh incoming, and now it seems someone has gotten their hands on the 3rd-generation Chromecast a bit early.

A Redditor posted this weekend an image of a new Chromecast he bought from a local Best Buy which was unboxed to find something that looks a bit different from a typical Chromecast. While none of the internal specifications have come out due to this leak, we can see how Google has altered the design of the beloved streaming dongle.

The comparison picture posted shows the 3rd-generation Chromecast right alongside a 2nd-generation model, and the differences are clear. Both do share the same basic design with a circular body housing the components and an HDMI cable attached to connect to the TV. According to the Redditor, this new hardware ditches the magnetic connector that allows easy management of that HDMI cable, though.


Over three years since the Chromecast was updated? Did they find the Platonic form, or did it hit market saturation early? (I suspect the latter.) The Chromecast has always struck me as an odd device in that it does so little for Google: it might reveal a bit of what people do at home, but it isn’t crucial to anything.
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Take control of your commute with Google Maps • Google blog

Ramesh Nagarajan is group product manager for Google Maps:


Why are commutes so stressful? They’re unpredictable and long. Commute data in 25 North American cities tells us daily commute times during rush hour traffic can be up to 60% longer than what you expect when you start your drive—resulting in a lot of stress, missed meetings, and skipped breakfasts. According to historical Google Maps data, people in North America spend a full day per month commuting—which almost adds up to a two-week vacation each year.  Plus, a bad commute can negatively impact the rest of your day, long after the actual commute is over.

Today, we’re rolling out new features on Google Maps to help you take control of your daily commute— enabling you to plan ahead, prepare for the inevitable disruptions, and possibly avoid them altogether. Oh, and we’ll also help you have a bit of fun along the way…

…Sprinting to the subway station only to find that your train is delayed is our least favorite way to start the day. Now, transit riders in 80 regions worldwide will be able to see exactly where their bus or train is in real time on the map. This will help you plan your day more efficiently—you’ll know if you can spend an extra few minutes grabbing coffee, or if you really do need to make a run for it to catch your bus. And in Sydney, we’ve partnered with Transport New South Wales to show how full you next bus or train is – so you’ll know whether or not you’ll get a seat. This feature will be coming to more cities around the globe soon.


That’s quite a nifty feature. Open data, one assumes, so Apple could use it in time. Set a timer…
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Fully driverless Waymo taxis are due out this year, alarming critics • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:


Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, is planning to launch a driverless taxi service in the Phoenix area in the next three months. It won’t be a pilot project or a publicity stunt, either. Waymo is planning to launch a public, commercial service—without anyone in the driver’s seat.

And to date, Waymo’s technology has gotten remarkably little oversight from government officials in either Phoenix or Washington, DC.

If a company wants to sell a new airplane or medical device, it must undergo an extensive process to prove to federal regulators that it’s safe. Currently, there’s no comparable requirement for self-driving cars. Federal and state laws allow Waymo to introduce fully self-driving cars onto public streets in Arizona without any formal approval process.

That’s not an oversight. It represents a bipartisan consensus in Washington that strict regulation of self-driving cars would do more harm than good.

“If you think about what would be required for some government body to examine the design of a self-driving vehicle and decide if it’s safe, that’s a very difficult task,” says Ed Felten, a Princeton computer scientist who advised the Obama White House on technology issues.


Pretty much impossible to prove “safe”. But how safe? Safer than a human? My suspicion is that they will be safer than humans in general, but do some strange things leading to accidents when humans wouldn’t have.
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A penthouse made for Instagram • NY Times

Sapna Maheshwari:


This penthouse apartment in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood is awash in natural light, with high ceilings, gleaming hardwood floors and a rooftop deck. The living room area includes a sofa in the rosy hue known as millennial pink, the kitchen comes equipped with a floor-to-ceiling wine fridge, and the library nook is filled with books chosen for their appearance, not their contents. The white walls are spotless, and there is never any clutter.

Nobody lives here.

The 2,400-square-foot space — which rents for $15,000 a month — was designed as a backdrop for Instagram stars, who have booked it through October.

It was opened in August by Village Marketing, an agency that connects advertisers like the eyewear company Warby Parker and the Equinox fitness company to the social media personalities known as influencers. The ones who work with Village Marketing — mostly stylish young women who are paid to promote products on Instagram — have amassed huge followings with images that capture an idealized version of daily life.


SHOCKING! Well no, not really. Spaces reserved for modelling have existed for decades – as long as portraiture. What has happened is that Instagram has created a new slice of people who do that too. It’s a democratisation, not a debasement.
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A wise man leaves Facebook • The New York Times

Kara Swisher:


When tech executives don’t like a thing I have written, I typically get a call full of gnashing teeth and why-are-you-so-mean plaintiveness. But when I recently declared on Instagram that I was sick of Instagram and had major issues with the service, [Instagram co-founder Kevin] Systrom texted and asked me why. It was neither a suck-up nor did he try to debate me.

So, I told him: It’s performative; it makes people feel badly, even if it’s beautiful; it has turned into a brag book of strivers; it is a museum and not a place to connect; it has stolen too many of its ideas from Snapchat. That said, I saw the good side, too, and wanted him to make it easier to find the many delightful things, like photographers and funny people, that made the platform joyful.

Unlike other hot-house-flower zillionaires I cover, this criticism did not slay Mr. Systrom. Maybe I am setting a low bar, but I admire him for being someone who can always take it, and that quality will be sorely missed at Facebook.

Even more important, unlike Mr. Zuckerberg, who in a recent podcast with me was unable to articulate how he felt about the high price society had paid for his success, Mr. Systrom is reflective and self-critical about the challenges that social media faces and the damage that it has done.

That was the case at a recent talk I had with him at a hopelessly hip coffee place in San Francisco, where I was left with one thought: He should be the chief executive of Facebook.

One thing he said seemed particularly wise, so I asked him if I could put it on the record, and he agreed.

“Social media is in a pre-Newtonian moment, where we all understand that it works, but not how it works,” Mr. Systrom told me, comparing this moment in the tech world to the time before man could explain gravity. “There are certain rules that govern it and we have to make it our priority to understand the rules, or we cannot control it.”


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Imaginary worlds dreamed by BigGAN • Letting neural networks be weird

Janelle Shane:


These are some of the most amazing generated images I’ve ever seen. Introducing BigGAN, a neural network that generates high-resolution, sometimes photorealistic, imitations of photos it’s seen. None of the images below are real – they’re all generated by BigGAN.

The BigGAN paper is still in review so we don’t know who the authors are, but as part of the review process a preprint and some data were posted online. It’s been causing a buzz in the machine learning community. For generated images, their 512×512 pixel resolution is high, and they scored impressively well on a standard benchmark known as Inception. They were able to scale up to huge processing power (512 TPUv3′s), and they’ve also introduced some strategies that help them achieve both photorealism and variety. (They also told us what *didn’t* work, which was nice of them.) Some of the images are so good that the researchers had to check the original ImageNet dataset to make sure it hadn’t simply copied one of its training images – it hadn’t.

Now, the images above were selected for the paper because they’re especially impressive. BigGAN does well on common objects like dogs and simple landscapes where the pose is pretty consistent, and less well on rarer, more-varied things like crowds. But the researchers also posted a huge set of example BigGAN images and some of the less photorealistic ones are the most interesting.


Keep reading, though, and you’ll encounter some truly weird images. The clocks are in some ways the oddest: familiar yet wrong. How long before entire films are being generated like this? It would be like a waking dream.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.921: commute with Google!, stream with Google!, the Instagram penthouse, AI imaginings, and more

  1. ” No room left on the internet”. Blessed are thou if you never heard that, I got it a few times about quotas being reached, i-drives being full… Is a strong hint that one should dead pan “yeah, they’re cleaning it up” next time the internet is down.

  2. re remote gaming, nVidia does that with the Shield (Android) line + PCs with an NVidia GPU, I think MS does that with Windows too… and I think Google is thinking about it mostly for Android and ChromeOS, though maybe Windows too.

    It works OK over a LAN, but I don’t see how it can work over the internet except in the most ideal of cases, and even then, only with “future tech”. Action gaming gets iffy at less than 60 fps (120 is preferred these days), that’s 1s/60 = 17ms per frame. There’s no way you can send the data (even if a single packet) over the the server, have the server generate outcome + image, and send that back to the client in 16ms. Just the roundtrip travel time is several time that (my current ping to is 58ms, x2 for round trip), then you’ve got rendering, then you’ve got bandwidth at least on the way back (even if they compress 10:1, 1920x1080x4bytes/10 is still a lot of data).

    So you’re talking several frames of lag, not inconceivably in the 20-50 range ie 0.5 to 1s. That’s unusable. I’m sure they’re trying to speculatively render stuff, and nVidia has started using AI to downgrade rendering in parts of the image it won’t be noticed, but still… We get one of those cloud gaming announcement every year or two. Hasn’t worked until now, can’t work today either.

    And I don’t see the point:
    – if you’re on a PC, you’ll get a better experience buying a midrange $200 graphics card and playing at 1080p than paying $20/month (and that won’t allow more than 1080p either)
    – if you’re on Mobile, ditto, pay $150 extra and get a Pocophone F1 instead of a Redmi Note 5, it has all he oomph that’s needed to play any game, for $300.

    Of course if you’re on Apple and must pay $800+ for an eGPU, that’s different. My answer then: get a real PC.

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