Total eclipse of the Hart: Peter Thiel becomes the richest New Zealander


Peter Thiel’s spook software outfit Palantir has more than doubled in value since it listed on the New York Stock Exchange on October 2 – likely edging the entrepreneur ahead of Graeme Hart to become the richest New Zealand, citizen.

Back-of-the-envelope calculations now have Thiel worth just under $11 billion against Hart’s $10b, according to NBR’s Rich List (the third and fourth-placed Todd and Mowbray families on only $4b and $3b respectively).

Palantir listed at US$7.25 a share and closed Friday at US$18.15 for a market cap of US$34.08 billion.

An SEC filing also revealed that Thiel personally, plus funds he controlled, owned 17.7 per cent of Palantir – substantially above previous guesstimates of 10 per cent – valuing the Thiel’s stake at just under US$5.8 billion.

Thiel is reported to have made around US$2.3 billion from his early investments in Facebook and PayPal.

That means that, in rough terms, his wealth could now be around US$8.1b or $10.99b.

Total eclipse of the Hart? Peter Thiel is closing in on the richest New Zealander. Photo / Getty Images
Total eclipse of the Hart? Peter Thiel is closing in on the richest New Zealander. Photo / Getty Images

It could go higher. In the buildup to its public listing, after Palantir shared some of its internal metrics with Morgan Stanley bankers, the bank returned with a value range of US$36b to US$41b.

In the end, its NYSE debut was more muted, with a $16b market cap.

The Denver-based Palantir (named after the all-seeing crystal ball that the evil wizard Saruman uses to spy on his enemies in Tolkien) creates data-mining software – used by intelligence around the world, including our own (keep reading) to find patterns in masses of intercepted communications.

Pre-listing filings revealed Palantir’s business wasn’t as large or lucrative as some thought. (For 2019, it posted a loss of US$579.6 million, roughly even with 2018, on revenue that increased 25 per cent to $742m).

And Donald Trump – whose administration had sent business Palantir’s way, for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and other areas – seemed to be on the way out (as confirmed by the result of the November 4 election).

But on November 4, Palantir reported third-quarter revenue of US$289m – way above analysts’ expectations, and 52 per cent ahead of the year-ago quarter (it lost US$847m, but only because it took an US$847.8m charge for stock-based compensation).

Its full-year revenue guidance was bumped up to US1.1b, and it forecast full-year operating earnings of between $US130m and US$136.m.

More, Palantir could reveal there was plenty in its pipeline for the post-Trump age.

New contracts in the quarter included a US$91m deal with the US Army, a US$36m contract with the National Institutes of Health and a US$300m renewal with an un-named aerospace customer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the outsize voting rights for insiders setup at Facebook (where Thiel remains a director), Palantir and Karp will still be able to maintain majority control even if their stake falls as low as 6 per cent. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has used his super voting rights to repeatedly brush aside reform bids by the NZ Super Fund and other investors in the social network).

Afghanistan to NZ

Co-founded by Thiel and Alex Karp in 2004, Palantir makes software that helps security and law enforcement clients like the NSA, CIA and FBI mine mountains of “big data” from electronic surveillance.

Its software is credited with helping US authorities hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.

Our GCSB and SIS won’t confirm or deny if they are Palantir customers but the company has an office in Wellington and the GCSB has advertised for staff proficient in Palantir’s software. Born-and-bred Kiwi Jonty Kelt was until recently one of Palantir’s most senior executives. And a Herald investigation uncovered that the NZ Defence Force has spent more than $7.2m with Palantir since 2012.

Peter Thiel was a big financial backer of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and spoke at that year's Republican National Convention. This year, he's turned off the tap. Photo / AP
Peter Thiel was a big financial backer of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and spoke at that year’s Republican National Convention. This year, he’s turned off the tap. Photo / AP

And on its website currently, as part of a recruitment campaign for software engineers, Palantir says, “We meet problems where they live. Wherever our users are — whether it’s Afghanistan or Atlanta, New York or New Zealand — we are there too”.

Thiel hit local headlines in 2017 when it was revealed he had been made a New Zealand citizen since 2011 – despite spending just 11 days in the country.

The German-born, Californian-resident entrepreneur’s Kiwi passport was fast-tracked as he invested millions in local startups including Xero and Vend.

Thiel subsequently lost enthusiasm for local tech investments but did become a prolific buyer of property around Queenstown and Wanaka, as featured in the Vice documentary, Hunt for the Bunker People.

His interest in NZ did perk up recently with an investment in a photo management startup. Perhaps, flush, from the successful Palantir listing, other local investments could follow.

The art of the Thiel

Thiel donated millions to the Trump campaign in 2016, and spoke at the Republican National Convention in the run-up to the election.

However, a recent Wall Street Journal report said Thiel has become disillusioned with Trump over his coronavirus response.

The paper noted the billionaire was not down to speak at this year’s Republican convention, and he has not donated any money to the Trump 2020 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.



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Giant Arecibo Observatory on brink of ‘catastrophic failure’


An auxiliary cable helping support a metal platform in place above the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has broken. Photo / Arecibo Observatory, via Facebook

Giant, aging cables that support one of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes are slowly unravelling in the US territory of San Juan, pushing an observatory renowned for its key role in astronomical discoveries to the brink of collapse.

The Arecibo Observatory, which is tethered above a sinkhole in Puerto Rico’s lush mountain region, boasts a 305m wide dish featured in the Jodie Foster film Contact and the James Bond movie GoldenEye.

The dish and a dome suspended above it have been used to track asteroids headed to Earth, conduct research that led to a Nobel Prize and helped scientists trying to determine if a planet is habitable.

“As someone who depends on Arecibo for my science, I’m frightened. It’s a very worrisome situation right now. There’s a possibility of cascading, catastrophic failure,” said astronomer Scott Ransom with the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, a collaboration of scientists in the US and Canada.

The damage done by a broken cable that supported a metal platform. Photo / Arecibo Observatory, viaAP
The damage done by a broken cable that supported a metal platform. Photo / Arecibo Observatory, viaAP

Last week, one of the telescope’s main steel cables that was capable of sustaining 544kg snapped under only 283kg. That failure further mangled the reflector dish after an auxiliary cable broke in August, tearing a 33m hole and damaging the dome above it.

Officials said they were surprised because they had evaluated the structure in August and believed it could handle the shift in weight based on previous inspections.

It’s a blow for the telescope that more than 250 scientists around the world were using.

The facility is also one of Puerto Rico’s main tourist attractions, drawing some 90,000 visitors a year. Research has been suspended since August, including a project aiding scientists in their search for nearby galaxies.

One of the largest single-dish radio telescopes at the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Photo / Arecibo Observatory, via AP
One of the largest single-dish radio telescopes at the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Photo / Arecibo Observatory, via AP

The telescope was built in the 1960s and financed by the Defence Department amid a push to develop anti-ballistic missile defences. It’s endured more than half-century of disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes. Repairs from Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, were still under way when the first cable snapped.

Some new cables are scheduled to arrive next month, but officials said funding for repairs has not been worked out with federal agencies. Scientists warn that time is running out. Only a handful of cables now support the 816-tonne platform.

“Each of the structure’s remaining cables is now supporting more weight than before, increasing the likelihood of another cable failure, which would likely result in the collapse of the entire structure,” the University of Central Florida, which manages the facility, said in a statement on Friday.

University officials say crews have already noticed wire breaks on two of the remaining main cables. They warn that employees and contractors are at risk despite relying heavily on drones and remote cameras to assess the damage.

The observatory estimates the damage at more than $12 million and is seeking money from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that owns the observatory.

Foundation spokesman Rob Margetta said engineering and cost estimates have not been completed and that funding the repairs would likely involve Congress and discussions with stakeholders. He said the agency is reviewing “all recommendations for action at Arecibo”.

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“NSF is ultimately responsible for decisions regarding the structure’s safety,” he said in an email. “Our top priority is the safety of anyone at the site.”

Representatives of the university and the observatory said the telescope’s director, Francisco Cordova, was not available for comment. In a Facebook post, the observatory said maintenance was up to date and the most recent external structural evaluation occurred after Hurricane Maria.

The most recent damage was likely the result of the cable degrading over time and carrying extra weight after the auxiliary cable snapped, the university said. In August, the socket holding that cable failed, possibly the result of manufacturing error, the observatory said.

The problems have interrupted the work of researchers like Edgard Rivera-Valentin, a Universities Space Research Association scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas. He had planned to study Mars in September during its close approach to Earth.

“This is the closest Mars was going to be while also being observable from Arecibo until 2067,” he said. “I won’t be around the next time we can get this level of radar data.”

The observatory in Puerto Rico is considered crucial for the study of pulsars, which are the remains of stars that can be used to detect gravitational waves, a phenomenon Albert Einstein predicted in his theory of general relativity. The telescope also is used to search for neutral hydrogen, which can reveal how certain cosmic structures are formed.

“It’s more than 50 years old, but it remains a very important instrument,” said Alex Wolszczan, a Polish-born astronomer and professor at Pennsylvania State University.

He helped discover the first extrasolar and pulsar planets and credited the observatory for having a culture that allowed him to test what he described as wild ideas that sometimes worked.

“Losing it would be a really huge blow to what I think is a very important science,” Wolszczan said.

An astronomer at the observatory in the 1980s and early 1990s, Wolszczan still uses the telescope for certain work because it offers an unmatched combination of high frequency range and sensitivity that he said allows for a “huge array” of science projects. Among them: observing molecules of life, detecting radio emission of stars and conducting pulsar work.

The telescope also was a training ground for graduate students and widely loved for its educational opportunities, said Carmen Pantoja, an astronomer and professor at the University of Puerto Rico, the island’s largest public university.

She relied on it for her doctoral thesis and recalled staring at it in wonder when she was a young girl.

“I was struck by how big and mysterious it was,” she said. “The future of the telescope depends greatly on what position the National Science Foundation takes … I hope they can find a way and that there’s goodwill to save it.”
– AP





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GoPro Hero 9 review: Return of the king


Business

GoPro has learned a lot and their years of experience shows with the Hero 9 Black. Photo / Supplied

I can’t remember the last time I had my hands on a new GoPro camera and many years have passed since the California-based company were at the peak of their popularity. This isn’t exactly their fault – casual users migrated to their smartphone cameras and adventurous videographers have been unable to leave their homes in recent months.

The Hero 9 Black is arguably GoPro’s most significant release in a while so I’m revisiting the camera to see if the new features are worth paying attention to. Is an action camera still a necessary part of your video toolkit?

Design

The $669 bundle includes the camera, a hand grip, magnetic swivel clip, a 32GB SD camera and two batteries in plastic-free packaging.

The camera itself looks noticeably different from the 2019 model with its new 1.4-inch colour display on the front and 2.27-inch touchscreen on the back. The front screen is helpful when taking selfies as you no longer have to guess if you’re in frame.

The Hero 9 is larger and heavier than the Hero 8 but this slight increase in size provides space for the two screens, a bigger battery and removable lens cover. In the event that you scratch the lens, it can easily be removed and replaced.

The $669 bundle includes the camera, a hand grip, magnetic swivel clip, a 32GB SD camera and two batteries in plastic-free packaging. Photo / Supplied
The $669 bundle includes the camera, a hand grip, magnetic swivel clip, a 32GB SD camera and two batteries in plastic-free packaging. Photo / Supplied

A separate case isn’t necessary for mounting to other accessories. Instead, two prongs can be flipped out from the bottom of the camera and they’re compatible with all previous GoPro mounts. The usual power and mode buttons are still here but the rear touchscreen is where you’ll find all the settings.

Performance

Scrolling through the menu reveals a massive list of video resolution and frame-rate settings. The most notable options include 5K at 30fps, 4K at 60fps, and 1080p at 240fps. The 5K 30fps option captures incredibly crisp video and it’s the best I have seen from a camera of this size. 5K might seem excessive but it provides flexibility when editing and the option of taking high-resolution stills from the video.

The 23.6MP sensor delivers sharp 20MP photos but the colours do appear a little oversaturated. The microphone provides wind reduction but the audio quality from my mid-range smartphone is better.

I compared the Hero 9 to a friend’s Hero 8 and I was able to get approximately 25 per cent longer battery life.

Features

Hypersmooth 3.0 is the standout feature on the GoPro Hero 9 Black and the result is stable video even in the most challenging conditions. Footage shot on a galloping horse or off-road bike looks surprisingly steady.

Another excellent feature is horizon levelling so if the camera goes off-angle then it will automatically correct the shot. I remember deleting hours of footage on an old GoPro after discovering the camera had lost balance so these concerns are now a thing of the past.

The 23.6MP sensor delivers sharp 20MP photos but the colours do appear a little oversaturated. Photo / Chris Tarpey
The 23.6MP sensor delivers sharp 20MP photos but the colours do appear a little oversaturated. Photo / Chris Tarpey

The Hero 9 also comes with “power tools”, which are a collection of smart capture settings. These include a webcam mode, timelapse options, scheduled captures and Hindsight. While this feature does drain the battery, Hindsight ensures you won’t miss a moment by recording 30 seconds before you press the shutter button.

Verdict

In recent years GoPro has been competing with the likes of DJI and Sony in the action camera market. Healthy competition has forced GoPro to innovate after multiple generations of forgettable releases and shrinking market share. GoPro has learned a lot and their years of experience shows with the Hero 9 Black. The Hypersmooth and horizon levelling features are unmatched and their 5K video quality sets a new standard for action cameras.

With lockdown over (fingers crossed) and summer on the way, maybe it’s time to get adventurous again.



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Back up or head to our homepage….



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First ‘space cab’ off the rank: SpaceX makes history with first taxi flight to International Space Station


SpaceX’s Falcon rocket thunders into the night from Kennedy Space Centre on Monday. Photo / AP

SpaceX has launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on the first full-fledged taxi flight for Nasa by a private company.

The Falcon rocket thundered into the night from Kennedy Space Centre on Sunday (Monday NZT) with three Americans and one Japanese, the second crew to be launched by SpaceX.

The Dragon capsule on top — named Resilience by its crew in light of this year’s many challenges, most notably Covid-19 — reached orbit nine minutes later.

It is due to reach the space station late Monday and remain there until spring.

“And Resilience rises …,” a launch commentator announced at liftoff.

Nasa astronauts, from left, Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi, on their way to the launch pad. Photo / AP
Nasa astronauts, from left, Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi, on their way to the launch pad. Photo / AP

Sidelined by the coronavirus himself, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar.

He tweeted that he “most likely” had a moderate case of Covid-19. Nasa policy at Kennedy Space Centre requires anyone testing positive for coronavirus to quarantine and remain isolated.

Sunday’s launch follows by just a few months SpaceX’s two-pilot test flight. It begins what Nasa hopes will be a long series of crew rotations between the US and the space station, after years of delay.

"And Resilience rises ...," a launch commentator announced at liftoff. Photo / AP
“And Resilience rises …,” a launch commentator announced at liftoff. Photo / AP

More people means more science research at the orbiting lab, according to officials.

Cheers and applause erupted at SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, after the capsule reached orbit and the first-stage booster landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic.

Moments before liftoff, Commander Mike Hopkins addressed the employees of Nasa and SpaceX.

“By working together through these difficult times, you’ve inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” he said. “And now it’s time for us to do our part.”

The flight to the space station — 27.5 hours door to door — should be entirely automated, although the crew can take control if needed.

As the capsule settled into orbit, SpaceX reported pressure pump spikes in the capsule’s thermal control system, but flight controllers worked quickly to clear the issue.

Nasa astronaut Shannon Walker on her way to launch pad 39A for the SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station. Photo / AP
Nasa astronaut Shannon Walker on her way to launch pad 39A for the SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station. Photo / AP

With Covid-19 still surging, Nasa continued the safety precautions put in place for SpaceX’s crew launch in May.

The astronauts went into quarantine with their families in October. All launch personnel wore masks, and the number of guests at Kennedy was limited. Even the two astronauts on the first SpaceX crew flight stayed behind at Johnson Space Centre in Houston.

Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, travelled from Washington and joined Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine to watch the launch.

“I didn’t start breathing until about a minute after it took off,” Pence said during a stop at SpaceX Launch Control to congratulate the workers.

The first astronauts launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company have splashed down. Video / NASA

Outside the space centre gates, officials anticipated hundreds of thousands of spectators to jam nearby beaches and towns.

Nasa worried a weekend liftoff — coupled with a dramatic nighttime launch — could lead to a superspreader event. They urged the crowds to wear masks and maintain safe distances. Similar pleas for SpaceX’s first crew launch on May 30 went unheeded.

The three-men, one-woman crew led by Hopkins, an Air Force colonel, named their capsule Resilience in a nod not only to the pandemic, but also racial injustice and contentious politics.

Crowds on the beach in Cape Canaveral, Florida, watch the launch in this 3.5-minute time exposure. Photo / AP
Crowds on the beach in Cape Canaveral, Florida, watch the launch in this 3.5-minute time exposure. Photo / AP

It’s about as diverse as space crews come, including physicist Shannon Walker, Navy Commander Victor Glover, the first black astronaut on a long-term space station mission, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, who became the first person in almost 40 years to launch on three types of spacecraft.

They rode out to the launch pad in Teslas — another Musk company — after exchanging high-fives and hand embraces with their children and spouses, who huddled at the open car windows.

Musk was replaced by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in bidding the astronauts farewell.

Besides its sleek design and high-tech features, the Dragon capsule is quite spacious — it can carry up to seven people. Previous space capsules have launched with no more than three. The extra room in the capsule was used for science experiments and supplies.

The four astronauts will be joining two Russians and one American who flew to the space station last month from Kazakhstan.

The first-stage booster is expected to be recycled by SpaceX for the next crew launch. That’s currently targeted for the end of March, which would set up the newly launched astronauts for a return to Earth in April. SpaceX would launch yet another crew around August or September next year.

SpaceX and Nasa wanted the booster recovered so badly that they delayed the launch attempt by a day, to give the floating platform time to reach its position in the Atlantic over the weekend following rough seas.

The astronauts rode out to the launch pad in Teslas - another Elon Musk company. Photo / AP
The astronauts rode out to the launch pad in Teslas – another Elon Musk company. Photo / AP

Boeing, Nasa’s other contracted crew transporter, is trailing by a year. A repeat of last December’s software-plagued test flight without a crew is off until some time early next year, with the first astronaut flight of the Starliner capsule not expected before the Northern Hemisphere’s summer.

Nasa turned to private companies to haul cargo and crew to the space station after the shuttle fleet retired in 2011. SpaceX qualified for both. With Kennedy back in astronaut-launching action, Nasa can stop buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. The last one cost US$90 million ($130m).

The commander of SpaceX’s first crew, Doug Hurley, noted it’s not just about saving money or easing the training burdens for crews.

“Bottom line: I think it’s just better for us to be flying from the United States if we can do that,” he said.



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Coronavirus Covid-19: Can ‘superspreaders’ be targeted for vaccination?


A new model has suggested how so-called “superspreaders” could be targeted for a Covid-19 vaccine – but experts question whether it’d be needed in coronavirus-free New Zealand. Photo / AP

A new model has suggested how so-called “super-spreaders” could be targeted for a Covid-19 vaccine – but Kiwi experts question whether that’d be needed in coronavirus-free New Zealand.

A team of Australian scientists have developed a theoretical model for a new vaccination strategy that would have the biggest impact — with the least amount of resources — on suppressing the spread of the coronavirus.

That’s based on pin-pointing locations visited by people most likely to become superspreaders, and vaccinating them.

The research team used anonymised location data for the movements of 600,000 people in Shanghai and Beijing who were on a messaging app called Momo.

The team analysed a staggering 56 million location visits in just 71 days.

The research team used anonymised location data for the movements of 600,000 people in Shanghai and Beijing who were on a messaging app called Momo. Photo / AP
The research team used anonymised location data for the movements of 600,000 people in Shanghai and Beijing who were on a messaging app called Momo. Photo / AP

“Focusing on the locations where a potential superspreader visits and vaccinating all direct and indirect contacts in the cluster at those locations is the most effective method,” said Professor Bernard Mans, of Macquarie University’s Department of Computing.

“We found this approach would be as good as vaccinating identified superspreaders based on an accurate contact list, and significantly better than random vaccinations.”

A superspreader is someone who transmits an infectious disease to an unexpectedly large number of other people.

The researchers then calculated all the other people they would have come in direct and indirect contact with and then extrapolated these trends to develop a model to test the theoretical effectiveness of a vaccine strategy.

Using the location data, they ranked people into six classes by the number of places they’d visited — the higher the number the more contacts.

For example, Class 1 meant the person had only stayed at home or visited local shops and been in contact with up to five people.

A person in Class 2 would have also gone to a coffee shop or a bus stop and been in direct and indirect contact with up to 15 people.

A Class 3 person would have gone to a local train station or the office, a small park or a swimming pool and been in close proximity to up to 25 people, whereas a Class 6 person had visited highly populated public places like universities, airports and stadiums and potentially been in direct and indirect contact with more than 100 people.

The Class 6 people are clearly more likely to become superspreaders.

“Our research shows that to be effective, it’s not about who exactly a superspreader has been in contact with 24-7 but where they’ve been that should be the focus of vaccination,” Mans said.

Past research has shown for privacy reasons, people often won’t reveal all their contacts or they forget all the people who they’ve met — so it was unreliable.

Mans pointed out that until now, current theoretical vaccination strategies were not designed to capture indirect transmissions and potentially miss out on individuals’ numerous indirect links, such as people who get into a lift after them.

Focusing on location means you can easily discover indirect as well as direct contacts.

But Professor Michael Plank, a University of Canterbury mathematician and Covid-19 modeller with Te Punaha Matatini, questioned how such a system could be implemented without accessing people’s private information.

“You’d need to think about privacy issues and the practicality of identifying these people, and how realistic it’d actually be to put this into practice.”

Even if a voluntary approach targeting superspreaders was tried, he said, it could incentivise people to meet the criteria – or not to, if they opposed vaccines – which made the concept tricky.

Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker also saw some clear issues.

“A lot of work has done here to identify which categories of people are most important, and how to reach those categories with vaccination,” Baker said.

“But it’s a whole other level to say that, we’re going to identify specific individuals.”

In any case, Baker felt the strategy wasn’t so relevant to a country like New Zealand, which has eliminated the virus from the community, and more applicable to regions like the US and Europe, where there was widespread transmission.

“Those countries are in a race against time to try to protect those that are most vulnerable, but here, we could take another approach, because the drivers really are quite different.”

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods has signalled vulnerable people and frontline Covid-19 workers – including border and healthcare staff – will likely be the first to receive a vaccine when it becomes available.

People more susceptible to Covid-19 include older communities as well as Māori and Pasifika.

The Health Ministry was still working through the details, but there would be three priority groups: those at risk of spreading Covid, those at risk of contracting Covid, and those with increased risk of increased mortality and morbidity with Covid.

New Zealand will be receiving 1.5 million doses under its first vaccine pre-purchase deal – enough to immunise 750,000 people – and agreements with other vaccine makers are expected to be announced before Christmas.



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Fibre risk: How to make a 111 call from a landline during a power cut



Old-school copper-line phones have their advantages: such as continuing to work during a power cut. Image / 123rf

The Commerce Commission has finalised its 111 Contact Code “to protect people who rely on their home phones to contact 111 emergency services in a power cut.”

It boils down to: You can no longer rely on your landline during power cuts in the age of fibre and fixed-wireless, so get a mobile phone as a backup. If you’ve got patchy mobile coverage, your phone company has to help you out with an alternative, such as a battery-powered uninterruptable power supply.

For a big gob of us, this discussion is moot. The Commerce Commission’s latest annual report on the telecommunications sector says another 13 per cent of us ditched our home phone last year. Some 46 per cent of households are now mobile-only.

But for the rest, why was a new code required?

An old-fashioned analogue telephone on a copper line doesn’t need electricity. If plugged straight into your line, it works fine through a power-cut.

But a phone on a UFB fibre and fixed-wireless internet connection – that is, what most of us use today – requires a modem to connect it to the internet for calling, and that modem requires power (fixed-wireless is when a mobile phone network is used to deliver broadband to a home or business).

The new code says to consumers: get a mobile phone you can use to make emergency calls instead, or install an uninterruptable power supply (UPS). Since a decent UPS costs hundreds, it can be tricky to set up and might only last a fraction of the length of a power cut, a cheap mobile phone on pre-pay is your best bet, if you don’t have a mobile. A basic “burner” (a cheap mobile phone, usually used by crims or mayors having affairs as a disposable) will cost as little as $40. Emergency calls are free.

If you have poor or no mobile coverage, or poor mobile coverage, then your phone company has to help you out with a UPS or other solution.

That brings us to telcos’ obligations under the new code.

That is, service providers must tell new customers, and remind existing customers at least once a year, that their home phone may not work in a power cut. Providers must also tell their customers how they can protect themselves and where to go for further support.

Home phone customers who don’t have an alternative way to contact 111 in a power cut can apply to their provider if they are at particular risk of needing to call emergency services for health, security or disability reasons. If they qualify, their provider will work with them to determine the right product for their particular needs, at no cost to the consumer.

The code comes into effect in February next year, though providers have until August 2021 to make the process for extra support available to vulnerable consumers.

If your phone company doesn’t follow the code, you can complain to the Telecommunications Disputes Resolution Service, which provides a free, independent resolution service.

The emergency calling problem has taken on a sense of urgency for Spark. Customers in Devonport and Mirimar have been told to upgrade from copper lines to fibre or fixed-wireless fixed by December 18 – or switch to another provider.

Other areas could follow this “forced march” if the pilot is successful. (While new legislation, being phased in between January 2020 and 2022, will give Chorus the right to pull out copper in areas where UFB fibre and/or fixed wireless is offered, the network operator said last week that it was not about to do so anywhere and that it would complain to the ComCom about consumers being rushed, in its view.)

Beyond emergency calling, the move from copper to fibre or fixed-wireless could cause problems for some security or medical alarms.

Spark says all customers who move off copper will be offered a cheaper plan, and that it has tested affected equipment.

A spokeswoman said: “Spark has tested a number of special devices to check that they work on the wireless network, although there may be many others we are not aware of. For this reason, we won’t be moving customers with any type of special device across until we can make sure there is a wholly appropriate solution available.”

POSTSCRIPT: In an emergency, should I phone 111 or 112?

After a recent debate in the geek community over whether it’s best to call 111 or 112 from your cellphone in an emergency, Police posted a notice encouraging people to dial 111.

112 is an international emergency number that works in almost every country, including NZ (where a 112 call will be automatically rerouted to 111).

It’s not correct that 112 will give you an inside edge getting through. When you dial 111 on your mobile, your phone will also try to reach any available network (that is, if you’re a Vodafone customer, it will also try to reach a Spark or 2degrees tower if necessary).

Still, 112 is handy to remember when your travelling, since it works everywhere, and emergency numbers differ (the US is 911 and Australia 000, for example).

In an emergency, it can be better to send a text than attempt a voice call. A text is easier for any mobile network to handle, and if there’s overloading, Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees’ systems will all automatically keep trying to deliver a text until things clear up.

One final point: in Australia, there’s an additional emergency number, 106, which the hearing or speech-impaired can text in an emergency.

Here, you can text 111, but only if you’ve registered your number.



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Airbnb details hundreds of millions in losses ahead of planned IPO


Business

Airbnb might be widely used, but the business has been bleeding money. Photo / 123RF

Airbnb was losing money even before the pandemic struck and cut its revenue by almost a third, the home-sharing company revealed in documents filed Monday ahead of a planned initial public offering of its stock.

The San Francisco-based company has yet to set a date for the IPO but it is laying the groundwork by filing financial records with US securities regulators.

The documents show that leading up to the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, Airbnb was spending heavily on technology and marketing to grow its business. The company said it was expanding its operations and adding new programs, like tours and other experiences that travellers could book through its website.

Its revenue jumped 32 per cent to $4.8 billion in 2019, but it reported a net loss of $674 million that year. The company also lost money in 2018 and 2017.

This year, Airbnb said, revenue fell 32% to $2.5 billion in the first nine months as travelers cancelled their plans after the pandemic crippled travel and forced lockdowns around the world.

The pandemic forced a financial reckoning, the company said. In May, Airbnb cut 1,900 employees, or around 25% of its workforce, and slashed investments in programs, like movie production, not related to its core business.

Airbnb funded operations with $2 billion from various sources, including a $1 billion investment from private equity firms Silver Lake and Sixth Street Partners.

Now, the company said, demand is rebounding as some travellers see home rentals as safer than crowded hotels. The number of nights and experiences booked, which plummeted more than 100% in March and April, were down 28% in July, August and September.

Airbnb said that indicates its business model is resilient and can adapt to future travel needs, including an increase in business travellers who want to work from a rental home.

“We believe that the lines between travel and living are blurring, and the global pandemic has accelerated the ability to live anywhere,” the company said.

Airbnb said it currently has 7.4 million listings run by 4 million hosts worldwide. Eighty-six per cent of its hosts are outside the U.S. and 55% are women, the company said.

The company said it had 54 million guests in 2019.

Airbnb was founded 12 years ago by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia — classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design — and Nate Blecharczyk, a software engineer. Their first listing was Chesky and Gebbia’s apartment in San Francisco.

Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, will receive a multi-year equity grant worth an estimated $120 million in lieu of a salary, the company said. The award will vest if he meets stock-price targets over the next decade.

Airbnb’s massive growth hasn’t been without complications.

The company has angered some cities that accuse it of promoting over-tourism and making neighbourhoods less affordable by taking housing off the market. Cities like Los Angeles, Barcelona, Paris and even Airbnb’s home city of San Francisco have passed laws restricting its rentals.

The company has tried to clean up its couch-surfing reputation by adding luxury rentals and promising to verify each of its properties to make sure the photos on its website match the accommodations.

It has also been cracking down on parties since a 2019 shooting at an illegal Airbnb house party in California. The shooting left five people dead.

In the meantime, relationships with its hosts have sometimes frayed. Earlier this year, hosts were infuriated when Airbnb allowed guests to cancel and get full refunds amid the pandemic. Airbnb later promised $250 million to hosts to make up the shortfall.

More recently, the company said it will set aside 9.2 million shares for a host endowment, which will fund projects for hosts when its value tops $1 billion. It also named a 15-member host advisory committee to distribute those funds and meet regularly with Airbnb leadership.



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Two telltale signs you’re being phoned by a scammer


Business

Police and ANZ say there has been a big increase in scamming in the past year. Here’s what a scam call sounds like. Video / Leon Menzies

A legitimate phone company would never call you out of the blue and ask for remote access to your computer, or for your credit card details before an over-the-phone fix, an industry group warns.

The New Zealand Telecommunications Forum (TCF) is marking International Fraud Awareness Week by urging New Zealanders to follow the “two golden rules” to minimise their risk of falling victim to scam phone calls.

“Firstly, go with your instinct – if something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. Hang up and report the call to your phone provider,” TCF chief executive Geoff Thorn says.

“Secondly, be wary of any ‘out of the blue contact’ by an organisation. A telecommunications company would never call a customer out of the blue and request remote access to their devices. If this happens to you, it is a scam, and the best action you can take is to hang up.

It is only when a customer has requested assistance to troubleshoot a technical issue that a provider will suggest remote access, Thorn says.

So, the request will always be initiated by the customer and additional security measures will be in place.

Similarly, a telco would never ask for credit card details over the phone to fix or diagnose a problem.

Scam callers can be clever and persuasive, and in particular like to target those who may be more vulnerable. We are encouraging Kiwis to check in with their friends and family who might fall into this category and help them be more aware of the sorts of scams that are around,” says Thorn.

“The TCF has a scam prevention process in place which enables scam calls to be notified and blocked across all New Zealand networks. While this process does a good job at keeping many scam calls at bay, the sheer volume of scams means there are calls which still reach consumers, so we urge Kiwis to be vigilant”, says Thorn.

Main types of scam calls

• “Wangiri” (One Ring) Fraud – Typically a missed call from an overseas number, with caller hanging up after one ring or less. The intention of the scammer is to entice you to call back, upon which you are charged premium rates from the overseas provider while a message plays to encourage you to stay on the line for as long as possible. Best action – do not call an unknown overseas number back, wait for the caller to contact you again to ensure it is genuine.

• “Technical Support” Scam – Scammers will often purport to be from a trusted provider (often a computer company or your telecommunications provider) seeking to gain remote access to your computer to “fix” some issue, or to sell unnecessary and overpriced “support packages”. Usually these callers are from overseas, but disguise themselves by routing their call through a New Zealand phone number. Best action – hang up and contact the company directly on their number listed in the phone book or on their website.

• “Government Grant” Scam – Calls made from someone offering free money in the form of a Government grant or similar. Best action – hang up and contact the organisation directly on their number listed in the phone book or on their website.

• “Inland Revenue” Scam – Calls made from someone claiming to be from the IRD, and attempting to collect payment over the phone. Best action – hang up and contact the IRD directly on their number listed in the phone book or on their website.

If you have any suspicions, hang up immediately. Photo / 123rf
If you have any suspicions, hang up immediately. Photo / 123rf

• “Telco provider” Scam – Calls made from someone claiming to be from your telecommunications provider, and attempting to collect payment over the phone on billing arrears, may be made by scammers. Best action – hang up and contact the company directly on their number listed in the phone book or on their website.

• “Targeted Impersonation” Scams – Impersonation scams come in several guises (commonly police or community scams). The defining characteristic of these scams is that scammers will specifically target you and your friends/family members as victims. These scams may be elaborate and involve several steps in order to research and capture your personal information. Best action – if you receive a suspicious call, do not engage with caller, but hang up immediately and report the suspicious call to the Police.

If you do get stung by a scam, report it to Netsafe or Cert NZ.



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Solomon Islands to ban Facebook


World

By RNZ

The Cabinet of the Solomon Islands has agreed to ban Facebook, citing a need for stricter cybercrime legislation and regulation.

The Communications Minister, Peter Shanel Agovaka, confirmed the decision to the Solomon Times newspaper, saying public misuse of the platform was the main concern.

“Abusive languages against ministers, Prime Minister, character assassination, defamation of character, all these are issues of concerns”, Agovaka said.

He said country was lacking legislation on internet usage and cybercrime which was particularly worrying when it came to what children were accessing and being exposed to.

“The use of the internet now in Solomon Islands needs to be properly regulated to safeguard our young people from harmful content,” he said.

The minister said this was not an attack on freedom of expression pointing out that freedom of the press was still protected.

Agovaka also said the decision would not require Parliament’s approval.

Communications Minister Peter Shanel Agovaka. Photo / RNZ
Communications Minister Peter Shanel Agovaka. Photo / RNZ

“The Government is still in discussion with the operators to work out how this can be done. The operators shall need to establish a firewall to block Facebook.”

However, Agovaka said the initial decision, made last week, did not take into consideration the economic impacts of the decision which would be investigated fully before the ban was imposed.

There are only four countries in the world where Facebook is banned around the clock they are China, Iran, Syria and North Korea.



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