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Business and Technology News


VR puts Oakland students in the rooms where Hamilton happened

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 10:00:00 UT

[...] on Monday, she and her classmates at Aspire Golden State College Preparatory Academy were able to travel virtually to historic sites related to the life of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury secretary and the subject of the hit musical now playing in San Francisco. The goal is to help students “engage more deeply with Alexander Hamilton’s story,” Suzanna Bobadilla, a product marketing manager for the company’s Social Impact Team, wrote in a blog post. By releasing these images in the midst of the “Hamilton” craze — taking people to “the room where it happened,” in the lyrics of a popular number from the musical — the Mountain View company is not throwing away its shot to capture more market share for its Google Expeditions in classrooms. Google Expeditions, the arm of the company that offers the virtual field trips, has already been used by more than 1 million students to experience places like the Great Wall of China and underwater explorations. By releasing the Hamilton-related images, which also will be available to the public, the company is “clearly piggybacking on a historical figure that is interesting to people right now,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst of Jackdaw Research, a firm that studies the technology industry.

SF clean power program’s customers could face higher PG&E fee

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 00:15:35 UT

Every time a California community starts buying electricity on behalf of its residents — as San Francisco does with its new CleanPowerSF program — the state’s traditional utilities get stuck with excess electrons that they’ve already bought but no longer need. Customers of such “community choice aggregation” projects pay a monthly fee to the utilities designed to cover the costs of that excess power. On Tuesday, the state’s three big, investor-owned utilities filed a formal proposal with California energy regulators to change the way the fee is calculated, arguing that the current system no longer works. Instead of spreading the costs of unneeded power fairly between utility customers who join a community choice program and those who don’t, the current system places too much burden on the latter, according to the utilities. At some point the customers who are left behind are going to face a really unreasonable burden, said Steve Malnight, PG&E’s senior vice president of strategy and policy. This year, PG&E customers who don’t belong to a community choice program will pay $180 million more to cover the costs of excess electricity than those who do, the company estimates. In other words, the company believes, customers outside of community choice areas such as Marin and San Francisco, as well as people in those communities who decided not to join, are paying a disproportionate amount to cover those costs. PG&E joined Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric in Tuesday’s proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Novato oxygen equipment supplier pays $11.4 million in settlement

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 00:12:36 UT

A major supplier of home oxygen equipment has agreed to pay $11.4 million to settle accusations that it profiteered by filing false reimbursement claims with the government and arranging kickbacks with sleep-testing clinics, federal officials said Tuesday. Justice Department and health care officials announced the settlement with Pacific Pulmonary Services, which is based in Novato and has more than 100 outlets in 20 states. The government alleged that the company submitted reimbursement claims to Medicare and other federal programs, starting in 2004, without a physician’s approval as required by law. In the alleged kickback scheme, the suit said Pacific Pulmonary referred patients to sleep-testing clinics, mostly in the East Bay, in exchange for the clinics’ agreement to refer those patients to the company for sleep-therapy equipment that was billed to the government. “Home oxygen equipment and related supplies are some of the most fraudulently billed items of durable medical equipment,” Steven Ryan, head of the inspector general’s office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement.

Biogen shares jump as earnings, Spinraza sales beat forecasts

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 00:03:13 UT

The company’s mainstay drugs are treatments for multiple sclerosis, a group under increased threat since Roche Holding entered the market last month with Ocrevus. Though Biogen is entitled to a share of Ocrevus sales through a royalty agreement, analysts worry that may not be enough to make up for its loss of market share and diminished ability to raise prices. Ocrevus is most likely to hit sales of Biogen’s drug Tysabri, Chief Financial Officer Paul Clancy said on a conference call, and could also hurt sales of the company’s top drug, the multiple sclerosis pill Tecfidera. Biogen’s multiple sclerosis drugs bested expectations for the quarter, helped by $545 million in sales of the Tysabri injection that beat analysts’ average estimate of $481 million. The CEO has promised to boost sales by focusing on Spinraza and creating ways to keep patients on the company’s lead product, Tecfidera. Spinraza, developed in partnership with Ionis Pharmaceuticals Inc., has proved an unexpected windfall to Biogen, dashing from late-stage trials to U.S. approval in just a few months last year. In the more severe cases of spinal muscular atrophy, a disease in which babies lack a crucial nerve protein, the condition is a death sentence which Spinraza has been shown in many cases to avert.

Palantir, Labor Department reach settlement over discrimination

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 23:58:46 UT

Palantir Technologies entered into a consent decree with the Department of Labor Tuesday to settle charges that it discriminated against Asian job applicants. The company was co-founded and funded by prominent venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who is now an adviser to President Trump. Palantir routinely eliminated Asian candidates during the hiring process “despite being as qualified as white applicants,” according to the government’s complaint filed in September. “We settled this matter, without any admission of liability, in order to focus on our work,” Lisa Gordon, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement. [...] the Palantir lawsuit was distinctive because critics usually charge the valley’s tech companies with not hiring enough black and Latino engineers in favor of white and Asian employees.

Business News Roundup, April 26

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 23:44:18 UT

Google has sprinkled some new ingredients into its search engine in an effort to prevent bogus information and offensive suggestions from souring its results. The announcement in a blog post Tuesday reflects Google’s confidence in a new screening system designed to reduce the chances it will highlight untrue stories about people and events, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “fake news.” Besides taking steps to block fake news from appearing, Google also has reprogrammed a popular feature that automatically tries to predict what a person is looking for as a search request as being typed. Google is also adding a feedback option that will enable users to complain about objectionable autocomplete suggestions so a human can review the wording. Mylan engaged in a campaign to squash a rival to its EpiPen allergy treatment and artificially inflate the price of the drug to maintain a market monopoly, French drugmaker Sanofi said in a lawsuit filed Monday. Mylan, which once controlled more than 90 percent of the market for epinephrine allergy injectors, is already under scrutiny over the skyrocketing prices of its EpiPen product. Sanofi said Mylan offered “unprecedented” price rebates to persuade government officials, insurance companies and pharmaceutical benefit managers not to reimburse patients for Sanofi’s competing Auvi-Q allergy treatment. Netflix is in talks to distribute programs in China through, the streaming-video provider controlled by Baidu, gaining access to a market that has long eluded the world’s largest pay-TV service. Netflix has been looking for a way to enter China as part of its plan to amass a global audience for its burgeoning library of exclusive shows, from “House of Cards” to “Stranger Things.” Purchases of new U.S. homes unexpectedly increased in March to an eight-month high, indicating housing demand remained strong at the start of the spring buying season, Commerce Department data showed Tuesday. Single-family home sales increased 5.8 percent to a 621,000 annualized pace (median forecast called for a 584,000 rate). While mortgage costs remain above pre-election levels, they’re becoming less of a curb on the market, with the average 30-year fixed rate falling last week to the lowest since November. New-home sales account for about 10 percent of the residential market and are tabulated when contracts are signed; existing-home sales, which rose 4.4 percent last month, are based on contract closings.

A rhino swipes right, Soylent issues recall, and solar jobs soar

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 22:32:49 UT

The world’s last male northern white rhino has joined the Tinder dating app as wildlife experts make a last-chance breeding effort to keep his species alive. “I don’t mean to be too forward, but the fate of the species literally depends on me,” says the profile for the rhino, whose name is Sudan. In a post on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration website, Soylent says the voluntary recall comes to make sure people who are allergic or severely sensitive to milk won’t be at risk. Coal energy production only employed 160,000 workers, with 54,000 of those jobs in mining. Competition from natural gas was the major factor in a decline in coal jobs since 2012.

Uber claims it will having flying cars in Texas and Dubai by 2020

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 22:26:25 UT

[...] he took to a Dallas stage on Tuesday to announce that Uber will offer a flying-car taxi service in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Dubai by 2020 — something he said “fits cleanly into our mission” and Uber’s focus on “big bold bets.” “It’s natural for Uber to turn its eyes to the air: push a button, get a flight,” he said to an audience of several hundred people gathered for a three-day summit called Uber Elevate. Uber is among a bevy of well-funded companies pursuing the sci-fi vision of flying cars. Rather than creating its own flying machines, it wants to partner with other companies, both for the aircraft and the infrastructure. Somewhat ironically, Holden said Uber also would bring its expertise on working with government and communities, because it already has relationships with regulatory authorities. For that matter, plenty of observers noted that Uber may be relieved to have a chance to focus on futuristic visions instead of the present controversies engulfing it, such as a lawsuit over its self-driving car project and accusations of toxic workplace culture and sexism. It also has agreements with real estate companies — Texas’ Hillwood Properties and Dubai Holdings — to start scouting places for “vertiports;” Holden said it’s identified four sites in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In October, Holden published a 99-page white paper outlining Uber’s vision of air transit, including vehicles that would travel 100 to 150 mph, eventually making it cheap enough for the masses to use as daily transport. Plenty of big obstacles remain, such as creating a new air traffic control system and persuading regulators, experts said.

Google, Fiat Chrysler begin offering rides in self-driving cars

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 22:19:36 UT

DETROIT — Fiat Chrysler and Google for the first time will offer rides to the public in the self-driving vehicles they are building under an expanding partnership. The companies announced in the spring of last year that they would build 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans. Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, said Tuesday that it will allow hundreds of people in Phoenix to take rides in the vehicles so that it can get feedback on the experience. Waymo isn’t the first to put regular passengers in self-driving cars in the race to develop the technology. Boston startup nuTonomy is giving taxi rides to passengers in Singapore and Boston, and announced Tuesday that it had received approval to expand its testing program to two more neighborhoods in Boston. “This collaboration is helping both companies learn how to bring self-driving cars to market, and realize the safety and mobility benefits of this technology,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik in a statement. Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for the car shopping site Autotrader, says studies have shown that a majority of Americans are still reluctant to ride in a fully self-driving car.

Shareholders re-elect Wells Fargo directors, some just barely

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 21:48:29 UT

Wells Fargo shareholders re-elected all 15 of the company’s directors at the company’s annual meeting in Florida Tuesday, despite calls that some should be jettisoned for not acting sooner to prevent the fraudulent-account scandal that has engulfed the San Francisco bank since September. A vote as low as 53 percent is highly unusual in the corporate world, where directors are routinely re-elected with percentages in the high 90s. In 2016, only 44 directors at the 3,000 U.S. companies in the Russell 3000 index failed to win a majority vote, according to the Council of Institutional Investors. Both are members of the board’s corporate responsibility committee, which oversees political, environmental and consumer lending risks, as well as customer service and complaints. Peña is a former U.S. secretary of the energy and transportation departments. The overall vote is “a significant show of opposition to board members,” said Greg Waters, a research director with Glass Lewis, a San Francisco firm that advises large shareholders how to vote in corporate elections. After the vote was announced, Sanger said that stockholders had sent the board “a message of clear dissatisfaction.” The shareholder, Bruce Marks, CEO of the nonprofit Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, would not stop demanding to hear from each individual director about their knowledge of fraudulent account openings. Institutional Shareholder Services, another proxy advisory firm, recommended voting against 12 directors for “failure to provide sufficient timely risk oversight.” “I am surprised that everybody received a majority vote,” said Jason Shloetzer, an associate business professor at Georgetown University. Shloetzer said receiving a low percentage of the vote could have “a negative spillover effect” for Wells Fargo directors serving on other corporate boards. The state’s two largest public pension funds — the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System — both voted against the company’s nine longest-tenured directors for oversight failures. Berkshire Hathaway, the bank’s largest shareholder with a roughly 10 percent stake, said it was voting in favor of the entire slate of directors. A report on the investigation issued April 10 found “mass terminations” of employees for sales practice violations dating back to “at least 2002.” Wells Fargo said last week it would increase the size of a preliminary class-action settlement to $142 million to cover claims arising from fraudulent accounts dating back to 2002. Based on preliminary results, here is the approximate percentage of shareholder votes cast in favor of each Wells Fargo director at Tuesday’s annual meeting.

Business News Roundup, April 25

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 23:26:20 UT

Tesla will nearly double its Supercharger electric car charging network this year to 10,000 public charging units globally, up from 5,400, the company said Monday. The Palo Alto company plans to begin producing the mass-market Model 3 later this year and plans to expand its current annual vehicle production from 80,000 last year to 500,000 by the end of 2018. [...] recently, Tesla buyers got free lifetime Supercharger privileges as part of their purchase. The Redwood City tech company announced Monday that it signed a six-year lease for approximately 16,000 square feet at an office building in Oakland. According to Oracle’s website, the company has just one other field office in the East Bay — in Pleasanton. The woman seen sobbing in a viral video after an American Airlines flight attendant took away her stroller now has a lawyer — the same attorney representing a man dragged off a United Express flight this month. Chicago lawyer Thomas Demetrio says the flight attendant was “out of control” and nearly hit one of the woman’s two children with the stroller. An American Airlines spokesman said Monday that the company has been in contact with the woman and refunded her tickets and upgraded her to first class for the rest of her trip to Argentina. The airline says the woman’s doublewide stroller was tagged to be checked as cargo at the door to the plane, but instead she took it into the cabin, leading to the confrontation with a flight attendant before a flight from San Francisco to Dallas. Two weeks earlier, airport police in Chicago dragged a passenger off a United Express plane after he refused to give up his seat to make room for an airline employee. The Supreme Court on Monday turned away an appeal from General Motors Co. seeking to block dozens of lawsuits over faulty ignition switches that one plaintiffs’ attorney said could expose the company to billions of dollars in additional claims. A federal appeals court ruled last year that GM remains responsible for ignition-switch injuries and deaths that occurred pre-bankruptcy because it knew about the problem for more than a decade but kept it secret from the bankruptcy court and owners of cars with the faulty switches. The decision also opens GM to claims that any cars sold by the company before bankruptcy lost value because of the scandal.

Republicans want to muzzle database of consumer complaints

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 23:25:07 UT

WASHINGTON — Consumers filed nearly 300,000 complaints last year about their dealings with banks, credit card issuers and other financial services companies. [...] Republicans working to overhaul the financial regulation law known as Dodd-Frank want to bar publication of information from that database, which industry groups have long criticized as potentially misleading and incomplete. “Once the damage is done to a company, it’s hard to get your reputation back,” responded Bill Himpler, executive vice president of the American Financial Services Association, a trade group representing banks and other lenders. Initially, GOP lawmakers wanted to require that consumer complaints be verified as accurate before they were published. The legislation would relax some of the law’s financial rules and give Congress and the White House more control over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which runs the complaints database. Companies select from among nine responses, such as “Company disputes the facts presented in the complaint” or “Company believes complaint is the result of an isolated error.” Detractors note that the Federal Trade Commission has a database of consumer complaints regarding data security, deceptive advertising and identity theft. The FTC does not publish individual complaints but makes them available to law enforcement to assist in fraud investigations.

Samsung cracks, Hasbro flushes, Fitbit burns, allegedly

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 22:59:53 UT

The nearly all-glass design of Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus makes them beautiful, SquareTrade said, but also “extremely susceptible to cracking when dropped from any angle.” Hasbro’s revenue surpassed Mattel’s for the first time in 17 years thanks in part to hot sales of a board game called Toilet Trouble. In Pie Face, players got hit with a face full of whipped cream. In Toilet Trouble, players take turns flushing a plastic toilet that spits water at their faces. Hasbro’s profit in the quarter jumped 41 percent, thanks also to rising demand for mobile games and classics like Monopoly, which replaced old-time pieces like the wheelbarrow, thimble and boot with a dinosaur, a penguin and a rubber ducky. A Wisconsin woman told ABC News that her 2-week-old Fitbit Flex 2 exploded and caused second-degree burns on her arm.

Silicon Valley takes on the flying car

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 22:56:22 UT

More than a dozen startups backed by deep-pocketed industry figures like Larry Page, a Google founder — along with big aerospace firms like Airbus, Uber and even the government of Dubai — are taking on the dream of the flying car. The approaches by the companies vary, and the realization of their competing visions seems far in the future, but they have one thing in common: a belief that one day regular people should be able to fly their own vehicles around town. The company has attracted intense interest because of Page and its chief executive, Sebastian Thrun, an influential technologist and self-driving-car pioneer who is the founding director of Google’s X lab. The flight, just 15 feet above the water, circled over the lake about 20 or 30 yards from shore, and after about five minutes Robertson steered back to a floating landing pad at the end of a dock. The company hopes to create an audience of enthusiasts and hobbyists, who can now pay $100 to sign up for a $2,000 discount on the retail price of a Flyer to “gain exclusive access to Kitty Hawk experiences and demonstrations where a select few will get the chance to ride the Flyer.” Two years ago, Thrun recruited two other pioneers, Robertson and Todd Reichert, who were aerospace engineers from AeroVelo, a University of Toronto spin-off company that won a coveted prize for a human-powered helicopter and set the land speed record for a bicycle last year. In 2015, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began developing an air traffic control system meant for managing all sorts of vehicles. While electric propeller-driven motors seem promising, today’s battery technology cannot support flights of a reasonable distance, say a 30- or 50-mile commute. “How is this going to work? I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but we can’t even take our cell phones on airplanes today because of fears about battery fires,” said Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, who is researching personal air transport for NASA.

AT&T plays underdog, and bully, in cable war

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 22:49:22 UT

In Nashville and Louisville, Ky., AT&T has sued to make it harder for rival broadband providers to use utility poles. In San Francisco, AT&T has fought efforts to open up apartment buildings to more Internet service providers. In other words, AT&T has positioned itself as the incumbent telecommunications juggernaut that has acted to hamper competitors locally. While two-sided messaging is used by many big companies, any evidence that the telecom company thwarts local rivals could make the deal tougher and invite costly conditions, telecom antitrust experts said — even though they still expect the acquisition to be approved. “Antitrust officials may have a hard time buying AT&T’s argument that it will expand broadband competition and not seek to harm competitors if they find the company is actively working to block new broadband players from entering the markets AT&T already dominates,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge, a consumer group, and a former senior antitrust official at the Justice Department, who opposes the merger. Yet even as AT&T was spreading that message on Capitol Hill, the company was acting like a powerhouse in Nashville by fighting against new competitors on several fronts, city officials said. “For every month they delay, that’s one more month they have 90 percent of the market and not 50 percent of the market,” John Burchett, Google Fiber’s director of public policy, said on a panel in December hosted by the trade group Incompas. After hearing Google’s complaints, a member of the city-county Metropolitan Council, Anthony Davis, proposed legislation to accelerate the attachment process, which was approved in September. AT&T’s DirecTV belongs to a trade group that in February petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to overturn a San Francisco ordinance that prohibits exclusive deals for access to wiring inside buildings with multiple dwelling units. Broadband providers would have benefited from exclusive rights to wiring within apartment buildings. San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell said the rule was intended to open up competition to companies like Webpass, a subsidiary of Google Fiber, and Sonic, which have struggled for access.