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The Sun Exchange funds solar installations with micro-investments and bitcoin

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Solar power could transform small communities around the world, but remote villages can’t always scrape together the thousands of dollars required to install the requisite cells. The Sun Exchange wants to change that by leveraging the hearts and wallets of hobby investors who cover the installation costs and then have their share of the revenue trickle in for years to come. There’s even a cryptocurrency!

The whole thing, as explained on stage at Disrupt Berlin today, works like this. First, the Sun Exchange and its partners (solar companies in various sun-drenched locations around the world) locate projects where a small installation — think less than a megawatt — could make a big impact, for instance rural clinics or villages with inconsistent power.

The installation is planned and priced out, and this info is put online at a dedicated page. At that point people can purchase shares in the solar cells, from a few bucks’ worth to a major investment.

Once the costs are covered, the array is constructed and put online within 60 days, its power provided to the community for a usage fee like any utility, and investors (and the company) get a part of that fee proportionate to their ownership of the array. And it really is ownership: “You’re now the proud owner of some solar cells soaking up glorious African sunshine,” the FAQ reads, and the Sun Exchange just handles the leasing and fee collection. (And insurance and paperwork, of course.)

Ideally, it’s a win-win situation. The local community gets reliable, cheap power, and you get a steady (if small) source of income essentially coming straight from the sun.

Founder Abraham Cambridge started working on the business years ago, raising a little money on Indiegogo and building a prototype with it in early 2016. But it was only when he got a bit of angel money that summer (from BoostVC) that he began making it into a real business. A $1.6 million seed round announced last month ought to keep the lights on (though that shouldn’t be a problem with all that solar power.)

“Our main goal is to make the deal look attractive enough to encourage customers to take money out of existing investments that are backing fossil fuels and be put into solar energy,” Cambridge told me. “It’s up to you to decide whether it’s a worthwhile investment.”

There’s also the feel-good factor, which can’t be dismissed. These are investments that might otherwise never have been made. As Cambridge pointed out to me, they’re well below the megawatt scale that established power companies would prefer to deploy. And decentralizing ownership is not just a good idea, it’s only possible right now through small deployments of renewables with manageable costs.

The cryptocurrency side of things isn’t a gimmick. It’s a way to move small amounts of capital from (say) the U.S. to South Africa without fiddling about too much with exchanges and bank fees. You can do a traditional currency exchange in order to pay in rand or another local currency, but that means your returns will be in that currency as well, so you’ll have to convert back if you want to get paid. Using bitcoin can certainly make simple purchases more complicated than they need to be, but for good-size international money transfers, it’s a pretty nice instrument.

And then there’s SolarCoin: it’s another cryptocurrency, one that is awarded to you as a solar power operator for every megawatt-hour of juice your cells generate. They’re not particularly valuable (currently around 50 cents per coin) but hey, it adds up.

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Cambridge has been refining things and smoothing out obstacles since the idea struck him, but said that more than anything the interest shown by users has vindicated the model.

“I spent the first year of the business mapping out obstacles and so the model we’ve been running with is pretty resilient,” he told me when I asked how he had improved things compared with the early stages. “What is stronger is people signing up and using the service, proving wrong the naysayers who said that no one would want to buy solar panels in this way and that bitcoin was a fad.”

The skyrocketing price of bitcoin has also led to larger-than-expected transaction fees, meaning he’s had to adjust the funding process a bit. But Cambridge is confident that will work itself out. In the meantime the site and service are live, as are the initial successful installations. If you’d like to bring a little light into someone’s life and maybe make a buck off it, you can buy some shares at The Sun Exchange now.

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The Echo Spot is my new favorite Alexa device

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I got excited when the Echo Spot debuted. At the time, I tentatively declared it the best Echo at the time, and after living with the device for the better part of a week, my sentiments haven’t really changed.

The latest member of the Echo family slots into the line nicely, delivering the Show’s touchscreen functionality at a much more palatable price point and size. It’s kind of the Dot to the Show’s standard Echo — in other words, “Spot” is what you get when you cross “Show” with “Dot.”

While rumors about a touchscreen Google Home have been floating around for a bit, the Echo line is still the only major player in the space with the functionality — making Amazon its own biggest competitor. And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Spot starts eating into Show sales in a big way. A few case uses aside, there really aren’t that many reasons to plunk down the extra $100 for the Show.

Circle marks the Spot

The biggest change in this most recent round of Echo devices is the fact that Amazon’s actually started to give a crap about design. The Echos were kind of crummy and plasticky looking, betraying a company that was more interested in getting its platforms into the home, rather than actually blending in with them.

The Echo got a nice design makeover, with fabric covers and the like, and likewise, the Spot is a much better looking device than the Show. The first Echo was big and plasticky and clunky, with all sorts of weird, brutalist angles.

The Spot’s a small, half-circle, available in either white or black. The company likely could sell even more if it offered them in a wider variety of colors, but between the two current options, it should fit pretty well into most settings. It’s not bleeding-edge design, but it’s minimal without being boring and is honestly pretty nice looking, so far as alarm clocks go.

An Amazon rep tells me the circular design wasn’t chosen for any particular practical purpose — it was a purely aesthetic decision. There is, however, one big downside to all of that: it really messes with video playback. It’s pretty clear that Amazon didn’t expect too many people to actually watch video on the thing. The screen is 2.5 inches, to the Show’s seven.

When you attempt to watch a video, a big portion of the screen is taken over by big, black letter boxing, adding the already sizable bezel. When the video pops up, there’s an option for zooming in. That will eliminate the letter boxing problem, but you’re going to lose everything on the periphery. It’s a weird sensation — a bit like watching something through a porthole.

Of course, on top of the size and dimensional constraints is the fact that the screen has a 480 x 480 resolution. That means it’s not great for much beyond playing short videos — and, unfortunately, bickering between Amazon and Google means when you ask Alexa to “play YouTube,” she answers, curtly that “web videos are not supported on this device.” Amazon video does have some short form content, but it’s no YouTube. Because nothing is YouTube, except for YouTube.

Similarly, the speakers, which were a key focus on the new Echo and Echo Plus, are nothing to speak of, or hear. The get surprisingly loud, but like the Dot, you’re not going to want to use them for much more than communicating with Alexa. For music playback and the like, there’s an audio out port on the back, Bluetooth playing and multi-room music streaming — in other words, you have plenty of much better options for listening to music through Alexa.

Pillow talk

Amazon designs these device around where they’re intended to be used in the home. And yes, the closest non-smart analog for the Spot is the alarm clock. I had it next to my bed for most of my time with the device. It’s a good size and shape for a nightstand, and mornings are really the most useful time of day for an Echo — it’s when you’re looking for useful bits of info like the weather, traffic and news — the latter of which the Spot delivers as flash briefings. Those are short little news videos from top video providers. Pick, say, TechCrunch, to choose a totally arbitrary example, and it will play Crunch Report.

About a week or so back, Amazon brought alarm clock functionality to the Echo line — the timing was a surefire sign that the Spot was just over the horizon. Ask Alexa to, say, “Wake me up to Thin Lizzy at 6:00AM tomorrow,” and the device will do just that, pulling songs from Amazon Prime. You also can ask it to wake you to radio stations through Tune-In. Handy feature that.

Of course, releasing a device designed to live by the side of your bed really stirs up all of those smart speaker privacy issues we’ve been talking about for a few weeks. As ever, the Echo is always listening, and while the company has added security precautions to ease users’ minds, things get even more tricky when you add a camera into the picture.

As with the rest of the Echo line, there’s a button on top that turns off the microphone, lighting up a red circle around the display to let you know that it’s no longer listening. There’s no voice command to turn the mic off (likely because you then wouldn’t be able to turn it back on with a similar command), but turning off the video camera is accomplished by voice. Strangely, there’s no equivalent to the red ring here. Alexa just cheerfully lets you know that the camera’s off and she’ll turn it back on tomorrow.

Amazon should make this functionality more straightforward in future versions. The company should also consider selling a camera-free model. Honestly, aside from video calling, there aren’t a ton of applications for the feature, so many users likely wouldn’t even miss it.

Screen time

One of the nicest things about the Echo line is the speed with which the company is adding new skills. As of December 2017, Alexa’s ecosystem is a fairly robust one. Though, these screen models are relatively new additions, so the selection of visual tools is still a bit lacking at the moment. With most of the more basic skills, like weather and traffic, the company’s done a decent job creating static images.

That said, there are still some solid skills that make good use of the screen, like the aforementioned video calling. The most compelling, however, is probably smart home camera and baby monitor functionality. The device is compatible with a wide range of devices from big names, like Arlo, August, Nest and Ring. It’s handy having a little screen nearby for checking in when someone’s at the door.

Hitting the spot

I like the Spot. If I was current in the market for an Echo device, this would probably be the one. It’s one of the better looking members in the line and the $129 price seems just about right. The display’s usefulness is hampered somewhat by size and a relative lack of skills that really take advantage of the tech, but it does bring some nice functionality to the table.

As with all of these devices, I recommend that anyone who’s in the market does a cost benefit analysis of the useful features versus privacy concerns. All of that is compounded when you stick the product in a bedroom and add a camera. Amazon’s got ways of disabling all of that, but I’m strongly considering becoming one of those blue electric tape people and covering the thing up most of the time — there just aren’t that many applications for a built-in camera.

If none of this seems particularly concerning to you, however, the Spot quickly shoots up the list of available Echos. It’s a nice addition to the line, and Amazon’s about to sell a whole lot of these.

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Amazon’s latest Echos show the smart home space hitting its stride

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Amazon’s Echo lineup got a refresh earlier this year that included a brand new version of its basic Echo, well as an Echo Plus with integrated smart home hub, and the stalwart Echo Dot – unchanged, but still a compelling device at its price point.

The new lineup of devices also made its way to more markets this year, including an expansion to Canada just this month, which is why I now have a host of Echo hardware kitting out my apartment. The major accomplishment of this refresh, I think, is that it feels less like a new generation of gadget, and more like a coming of age for a modern-day appliance – a whole new category of must-have home furnishings.

Amazon clearly wants to encourage this impression – the new Amazon Echo comes in a host of fabric-covered finishes, and it’s hard to imagine the upholstery look’s connection to furnishings is unintentional. Part of it is about fitting into the decor so that these smart speakers can stand free and clear and unhidden on shelves, tables and surfaces without offending any sensibilities. But it’s also about turning a gadget into something far more approachable, and far more mainstream.

As far as I’m concerned, Amazon has accomplished its task. The Echo (and Echo Plus, and Echo Dot), have all become as key a home device as a light switch, or a couch, or a microwave. The latest generation just firms up that presence with needed improvements in key areas, including in sound reproduction (the new Echo is better than its predecessor, for sure, and the Echo Plus seems to sound a bit better as well despite having apparently similar hardware).

I now use the Echos around the house to control my Hue lights (I don’t remember the last time I flicked a switch), turn on and control the home theater system, check and change the temperature using my Nest thermostat, check news and weather and set kitchen timers. It’s second-nature at this point, and doing the same things, the old, manual way feels hopelessly backwards – even if the actual convenience difference is arguably trivial.

Aspects of the new Echo lineup are questionable, like the integrated smart home hub in the Echo Plus which only supports one of the two major standards for wireless connected home devices. But they don’t detract from the experience – and the ultimate impression that Echo is a home companion that’s destined to become more and more a default option that people live with as reliably as they do their coffee table, or at least their dishwasher.
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Don’t keep cell phones next to your body, California Health Department warns

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The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued a warning against the hazards of cellphone radiation this week. Yes, the thing we are all addicted to and can’t seem to put down is leaking electromagnetic radiation and now California has some guidance to safeguard the public.

The CDPH asks people to decrease their use of these devices and suggests keeping your distance when possible.

“Although the science is still evolving, there are concerns among some public health professionals and members of the public regarding long-term, high use exposure to the energy emitted by cell phones,” said CDPH director Dr. Karen Smith.

The warning comes after findings were offered up this week from a 2009 department document, which was published after an order from the Sacramento Superior Court.

A year ago, UC Berkeley professor Joel Moskowitz initiated a lawsuit to get the department to release the findings after he started looking into whether mobile phone use increased the risk of tumors.

A draft of the document was released in March but the final release is more extensive.

“The cellphone manufacturers want you to keep a minimum distance away from your body and you should find out what that distance is,” Moskowitz told local news station KCRA, shortly after the draft release. “If you keep the device by your body you will exceed the safety limits provided by the FCC.”

According to the Federal Communication Commission’s website, there is no national standard developed for safety limits. However, the agency requires cell phone manufacturers to ensure all phones comply with “objective limits for safe exposure.”

The CDHP recommends not keeping your phone in your pocket, not putting it up to your ear for a prolonged amount of time, keeping use low if there are two bars or less, not sleeping near it at night and to be aware that if you are in a fast-moving car, bus or train, your phone will emit more RF energy to maintain the connection.

Other organizations have warned of the dangers of cell phone radiation exposure as well, including the Conneticut Department of Public Health, which issued similar recommendations in May of 2015.

However, Moskowitz maintains most state and federal health agencies have not kept up with the research. “The preponderance of the research indicates that cell phone radiation poses a major risk to health,” he said in a statement.
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