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Rock-star programmer: Rivers Cuomo finds meaning in coding

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“Hi, I’m Rivers from the band, Weezer,” Rivers Cuomo says with a slight smile and a wave. He turns away from the camera for a bit, before launching into his best infomercial pitch. “Imagine you’re on tour, and you’re sitting in your dressing room or your tour bus. You’re backstage. You have stage fright, you’re stressing out. You’re pacing back and forth. And then on top of that, your tour manager is constantly calling you, asking you logistical questions.”

As far as internet pitch videos go, it’s not the most universal. If anything, the three-minute clip loses any hope of populist appeal by the end. In a final shot, the singer in a maroon SpaceX hoodie is the last up the ramp onto a private jet. The plane door closes revealing a Weezer flying “W” logo.

“Download Drivetimes now, on GitHub,” Cuomo adds in voice-over. “This is CS50X.”

It’s not the most polished app pitch video, and Cuomo’s elevator pitch could probably do with a bit of refining before approaching venture capitalists about a seed round. As far as final projects for online programming courses go, however, it’s something to behold. The images alternate between pages of code, Google spreadsheets and POV shots as he takes the stage for a co-headlining tour with the Pixies.

It helped earn Cuomo a 95 in the class.

But while, in its current configuration, the Drivetime tour scheduling tool might have limited appeal, the musician’s final project from Harvard’s follow-up course, CS50W, is immediately apparent for an army of fans who have followed his quarter-century-plus career. This week Cuomo dropped more than 2,400 demos totaling more than 86 hours. Spanning 1976 to 2015, the songs range in quality from tape-recorded sketches to more polished fare. Some would eventually find their way onto Weezer’s 13 albums, or assorted side projects. Others wouldn’t be so lucky.

Available through Cuomo’s “Mr. Rivers’ Neighborhood” site, the tracks are gathered into nine bundles, each available for $9 a piece. “By the way,” Cuomo writers at the bottom of a disclaimer, “this market is my final project for a course I’m taking in web programming.”

For half-a-decade, the platinum-selling rock star has been moonlighting as a computer programming student.

“I was always a spreadsheet guy,” Cuomo tells TechCrunch. “Around 2000, I think I started in Microsoft Access and then Excel. Just keeping track of all my songs and demos and ideas. Spreadsheets got more and more complicated to the point where it was like, ‘Well, I’m kind of almost writing code here in these formulas, except it’s super hard to use. So maybe I should actually do programming instead.’ ”

It would be an odd side hustle for practically any other successful musician. For Cuomo, however, it’s the next logical step. In the wake of the massive success of Weezer’s self-titled debut, he enrolled as a sophomore at Harvard, spending a year living in a dorm. He would ultimately leave school to record the band’s much-loved follow-up, Pinkerton, but two more more enrollments in 1997 and 2004 found the musician ultimately graduating with an English BA in 2006.

CS50 found Cuomo returning to Harvard — at least in spirit. The course is hosted online by the university, a free introduction to computer science.

“I went through some online courses and was looking for something that looked appealing and so I saw the Harvard CS50 was very popular,” Cuomo says. “So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll give this a shot.’ It didn’t take immediately. The first week course was using Scratch. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s like kind of click and drag type of programming, and you’re making a little video game.”

A six-week course stretched out for six months for the musician. That same year, the musician — now a father of two — played dozens of shows and recorded Weezer’s 10th album, the Grammy-nominated White Album.

“When we hit Python halfway through the course,” Cuomo says, “I was just amazed at how powerful it was and intuitive it was for me, and I could just get so much done. Then by the end of the course, I was writing programs that were really helping me manage my day-to-day life as a traveling musician and then also managing my spreadsheets and managing my work as a creative artist.”

For Cuomo, productivity has never been much of an issue. The band has two albums completed beyond this year’s Black Album, and he’s already begun work on two more follow-ups. What has seemingly been a bigger issue, however, is organizing those thoughts. That’s where the spreadsheets and database come in.

The “thousands” of spreadsheets became a database, cataloging Cuomo’s own demos and work he was studying from other artists.

“For years it seemed like kind of a waste of time or an indulgence,” he says. “I should be writing a new song or, or recording a song rather than just cataloging these old ideas, but I’ve found that, years later, I’m able to very efficiently make use of these ancient ideas because I can just tell my Python program, ‘Hey, show me all the ideas I have at 126 BPM in the key of A flat that start with a third degree of the scale and the melody and are in Dorian mode and that my manager has given three stars or more to.’ ”

He admits that the process may be lacking in some of the rock and roll romanticism for which fans of the bands might hope. But in spite of drawing on pages of analytics, Cuomo insists there’s still magic present.

For Cuomo, productivity has never been much of an issue. Given his level of productivity, however, organizing all of those thoughts can get tricky. That’s where the spreadsheets and database come in.

“There’s still plenty of room for spontaneity and inspiration in what we traditionally think of as human creativity,” Cuomo explains. “One of my heroes in this realm is Igor Stravinsky. There’s a collection of his lectures called “The Poetics of Music.” And he had a note in that collection. He said he has no interest in a composer that’s only using one of his faculties, like a composer that says, ‘I am only going to write what pops into my head spontaneously when I’m in some kind of a creative zone. I won’t use any of my other tools.’

“He says, ‘No, I prefer to listen to the music of a composer who’s using every faculty at his disposal, his intuition, but also his intellect and his ability to analyze and categorize and make use of everything he has.’ I find that those ended up being the most wild and unpredictable and creative compositions.”

And there’s been no shortage of compositions. Cuomo says the band has two albums completed beyond this year’s Black Album, and he’s already begun work on two more follow-ups. After decades of feeling beholden to the 18-month major label album release cycle, the singer says that after the Demos project, he has a newfound interest in finding more ways to release music directly to fans.

“I don’t feel like I’m really good at understanding the big-picture marketplace and how to make the biggest impact in the world,” he says. “My manager is so good at that, but I just told them like, ‘Hey, this feels like something here. First of all, it’s really fun. The fans are really happy. It’s super easy for everyone involved.’ The coding part wasn’t easy, but for everyone else, it’s a couple of clicks and you’ve got all this music, and it’s a cheap price, and there’s no middleman. PayPal takes a little bit, but it’s nothing like a major label. So, this could be something. And there’s just something, it feels so good when it’s directly from me to the audience.”

For now, computer science continues to take up a major chunk of his time. Cuomo estimates that he’s been spending around 70% of his work hours on programming projects. On Wednesday nights, he helps out with programming for a meditation site (another decades-long passion), and he plans to take Harvard’s follow-up CS50M course, which centers around developing for mobile apps.

There are, however, no immediate plans to quit his day job.

“I can’t see me getting a job at a startup or something or maintaining somebody’s website,” he says. “But maybe the line between rock star and web developer is getting blurred so that musicians will be making more and more use of technological tools. Besides just the music software, we’ll be making more and more use of means of distribution and organization and creativity that’s coming out in the way we code our connection to the audience.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Facebook predicts ‘significant’ obstacles to ad targeting and revenue in 2021

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While Facebook’s fourth quarter earnings report included solid user and revenue numbers, the company sounded a note of caution for 2021.

In the “CFO outlook” section of the earnings release, Facebook said it anticipates facing “more significant advertising headwinds” this year.

“This includes the impact of platform changes, notably iOS 14, as well as the evolving regulatory landscape,” the company wrote. “While the timing of the iOS 14 changes remains uncertain, we would expect to see an impact beginning late in the first quarter.”

Facebook has already been waging a bit of a campaign against Apple’s upcoming privacy changes, which will require app developers to ask users for permission in order to use their IDFA identifiers for ad targeting — although the PR focus has been the impact on small businesses, not Facebook.

Facebook also highlighted two broad economic trends that it says has benefited from during the pandemic: The “ongoing shift towards online commerce” and “the shift in consumer demand towards products and away from services.” But again, it took a cautious stance, writing that “a moderation or reversal in one or both of these trends could serve as a headwind to our advertising revenue growth.”

As for those fourth quarter earnings earnings, Facebook reported $28.1 billion in revenue, of which $27.2 billion came from ads, with earnings per share of $3.88. Wall Street analysts had predicted EPS of $3.22 and revenue of $26.4 billon.

Facebook also reported an average of 1.84 billion daily active users and 2.80 billion monthly active users for the quarter, up 11% and 12% year-over-year, respectively.

“We had a strong end to the year as people and businesses continued to use our services during these challenging times,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a statement. “I’m excited about our product roadmap for 2021 as we build new and meaningful ways to create economic opportunity, build community and help people just have fun.”

As of 4:45pm Eastern, Facebook shares were up 0.7% in after-hours trading.

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How trading apps are responding to the GameStop fustercluck

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The furor surrounding GameStop and its stock price has consumed social media, business television, and the hopes and dreams of many retail investors. It has even convinced some folks that causing short-term economic damage to a few hedge funds is similar to shaking up the global financial market.

It isn’t, but a lot of folks are doing some downright risky things with their personal capital all the same. And some of them are making those investments — bets, let’s be honest — on platforms that have lowered barriers to buying and selling stocks by cutting trading fees to zero. Apps and services like Robinhood, Public, M1 Finance and Freetrade.

After noting reports that some traditional brokers were limiting access to GameStop and other so-called meme stocks, TechCrunch was curious what the newer, app-based investing services were doing for their own users.

A spokesperson for M1 Finance, a Midwest-based consumer fintech player that offers a basket of banking and investing services — more on its growth here and here — told TechCrunch via email that it wasn’t taking “specific” steps regarding individual stocks.

But the company also provided a statement from its CEO, Brian Barnes. In his comment, Barnes drew a delineation between investing, and trading, which he likened to a casino, adding that his firm “question[s] whether short-term trading is predictable, sustainable or repeatable.”

It isn’t for nearly anyone, of course. Barnes went on to say that his company thinks that “ownership of great companies and assets at reasonable prices that compound for long periods of time is the most straightforward and repeatable way to build wealth,” and that they have focused their company more around that ethos, “forego[ing] the mania of the moment.”

Turning to the well-known Robinhood, an impressive 2020 growth story, TechCrunch asked the same question regarding warnings or other guardrails for users concerning certain equities.

In an email a Robinhood spokesperson directed TechCrunch to a comment that its CEO, Vlad Tenev, made on CNBC earlier today:

Like other brokerages do, we monitor volatility and we take steps as appropriate like raising the margin requirements. I do think it’s wrong to assume though that most of our activity is characterized by trading of volatile stocks. As I’ve said before, most of our customers are what’s called buy and hold. They deposit and buy over the long term.

Robinhood changed margin requirements for GameStop and AMC Entertainment to 100%, TechCrunch understands. And like M1, Robinhood doesn’t allow users to short equities. So, there’s that.

Something notable about the companies we are discussing is that not one of them wants to be labeled as the place where folks like to trade a lot. Which amuses me as cutting fees to zero, which they have largely done, is at once a great way to democratize investing, and, also, a great way to encourage folks to trade more frequently. And as the apps and services that offer free trading often make money when users trade (read this), their chatter about their users being focused on buying and holding always rings slightly thin.

Anyhoo, some apps are going as far as adding warnings. Public, a company that TechCrunch recently covered, said that the company has added “‘High Risk’ safety labels” to the meme stocks that are causing so much ruckus.

Public has long had a stated focus on building community over trading, which led to us having a question or two about when it is going to kickstart its monetization plans. The company did just hire a CFO, which makes this move appear in concert with its general ethos, so more to come there we presume.

And, finally, U.K.-based Freetrade. TechCrunch has covered the service before, making it a good company to rope into this group. Per the company, Freetrade restricts small-cap stocks to the subscription tier of its service, which should limit access amongst its user base to GameStop and other memetic equities.

The company also stressed that it does not offer options or “any other form of leveraged derivatives” and has made “huge investment in investor education and financial literacy.”

So there’s a general bent toward either building products that are not tuned for day trading in silly stocks or providing some protection against users’ worst instincts amongst the cohort of companies that have also made it inexpensive to trade. There’s tension there, akin to this.

But they can only do so much. People are dumb, and it’s not looking like that’s going to get much better anytime soon.

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SoftBank teams with home goods maker Iris Ohyama for new robotics venture

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You’d be forgiven for being underwhelmed by the output from SoftBank Robotics thus far. The firm’s best-known product to date is almost certainly Pepper, a humanoid robot designed for greeting and signage that grew out of it 2015 acquisition of French robotics company, Aldebaran.

There’s also the matter of the investment firm’s acquisition and eventual sale of Boston Dynamics. The deal certainly went a ways toward accelerating the company’s go-to-market approach, but Boston Dynamics changed hands fairly quickly, when it was sold to Hyundai late last year (SoftBank maintains 20%).

The latest wrinkle in SoftBank’s robotic ambitions is nothing if not interesting. The firm announced today that it is joining forces with Iris Ohyama. The Japanese brand, which will hold a 51% stake in the venture (with SoftBank controlling the remainder), is best known for its home goods. The company makes a broad range of products, that includes, as Reuters put it, “everything from rice to rice cookers.”

You’ll be able to add robotics to that list, soon enough. The newly formed Iris Robotics has set an extremely aggressive goal of $965 million in sales by 2025. In a joint press release, the company noted Covid-19-related concerns as a major catalyst in the launch of the division. Certainly that makes strategic sense. There’s little question that the past year has kickstarted serious interest in robotics and automation.

The first couple of products from the venture don’t appear especially ambitious out of the gate, however. To start, it seems they’ll be rolling out “Iris Editions” of a pair of existing devices: Bear Robotics’ restaurant robot Servi and cleaning robot, Whiz.

Here’s a quote from SoftBank Robotics CEO (forgive the Google translate),

With the urgent need to realize the new normal in the corona virus, various new expectations are being placed on robots. This strong partnership with Iris Ohyama is a huge step forward for the expansion and penetration of robot solutions. Taking full advantage of the strengths of both companies, we will respond quickly to the challenges facing society.

Certainly the technical ambitions seem more modest than what the folks at companies like Boston Dynamics are currently working on, but Iris Ohyama seems well positioned to make some headway in the home robotics category to start.

 

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