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Amazon to Buy Maker of the Roomba for $1.7 Billion

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Hey, Alexa, tell Roomba to vacuum the bedroom.

Amazon announced on Friday that it had reached an agreement to buy iRobot Corp., the maker of the Roomba robotic vacuum, for $1.7 billion, adding to its growing roster of smart home products.

“We know that saving time matters, and chores take precious time that can be better spent doing something that customers love,” Dave Limp, senior vice president of Amazon Devices, said in a statement announcing the acquisition.

Amazon will acquire iRobot, including its debt, for $61 per share in an all-cash transaction, according to the statement. The purchase would be Amazon’s fourth-largest acquisition after the company bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in 2017 and the movie studio MGM for $8.5 billion last year. Last month, Amazon announced a foray into medical services with an agreement to spend $3.9 billion to acquire One Medical, a chain of primary care clinics around the United States.

The Roomba and iRobot’s other cleaning devices, including robotic mops and air purifiers, join a portfolio of Amazon-owned smart home devices that includes Ring doorbells and Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant and speaker. iRobot also makes an educational robot called Root that allows children to experiment with coding.

The Roomba first hit dirty floors in 2002, to the delight of lazy people and the bemusement of pets, particularly cats. The New York Times described it as “easy, effective and fun,” and a product that quickly became “a member of the household.”

The $200 early version struggled around corners and chair legs, even falling down stairs. But 20 years later, the Roomba j7 can, according to the company, recognize over 80 common objects (including cords and pet waste), returns to its dock once its chores are complete and then empties itself. The most expensive option sells for $999.99.

While iRobot is best known for its roving cleaning equipment, the technology powering these tools is also sucking up troves of spatial data used to map users’ homes. Some digital rights groups have expressed concern that this data could help companies like Amazon find out information about the size of homes and even their contents, right down to the brand.

iRobot reported $255.4 million in revenue in the second quarter of 2022, a 30 percent decrease over the previous year. Amazon reported $121.2 billion in revenue in the second quarter, up 7.2 percent from a year earlier but down slightly from the 7.3 percent revenue growth it reported in the first quarter of this year. It was Amazon’s slowest growth in more than two decades after the company began to come down from its high pandemic demands.

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Lessons learned after living in an off-grid rental

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Confession: when I booked a working vacation at an InForest cabin this summer, I wasn’t looking for an introductory course on sustainable living. I just wanted to escape the city without sacrificing the creature comforts my three teenagers demand. I got that, but took away so much more.

I thrive on the reenergizing effects of nature, and escape to the mountains, beach, or desert whenever I can. It’s something that’s become increasingly possible for many thanks to advances in solar panels, battery storage, data coverage, and flexible work-from-anywhere policies that have proliferated in the days since COVID-19. Now people can get their work done from just about any place that brings them joy.

InForest cabins are completely off the grid, but that doesn’t mean you have to go without modern luxuries thanks to advances in solar power and Starlink internet. Can you spot the dish?
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

I knew going in that my energy demands would push the already-well-equipped solar-powered cabin to its limits. I had all the gear I needed to work remotely while also keeping my family entertained. That means one e-bike, a video projector, two Bluetooth speakers, five phones, two laptops, one tablet, three smartwatches, and a Starlink RV internet-from-space kit to keep it all connected. That’s on top of the lights and full suite of kitchen appliances and utility devices already inside the cabin. 

For one week this summer I was able to work and play from the middle of a forest in Sweden, despite being totally disconnected from the grid. The experience gave me a taste of what’s currently possible with off-grid tech, and a better understanding of the compromises required when resources are scarce — lessons I’ve since applied to daily life now that energy prices in Europe have gone through the roof.

The Concept

InForest is owned and operated by Jesper (40) and Petra Uvesten (41) who had the dream of creating a series of off-grid cabins for people looking to get closer to nature. The couple opened the doors of their first eco-friendly and self-sufficient cabin, Ebbe, in 2020. The Vilgot and Esther cabins soon followed. Each is named after one of their three children.

Jesper and Petra in front of one of the InForest cabins named after their three children.

Jesper and Petra in front of one of the InForest cabins named after their three children.
Photo: InForest

Jesper also works a full-time job with the EU working on rural development, while Petra is a dedicated triathlete. The two run InForest alone, although they also have occasional part-time help so they can take holidays. Their goal is to expand from three to 10 houses. 

The three small cabins are situated in a dense forest dotted with tranquil lakes and hunting blinds in the hills of southern Sweden, about two hours east of Gothenburg or three hours west of Stockholm. The cabins are handmade by Treesign, a local builder of tiny homes. Each house had to be hauled into position by a truck along several miles of dirt roads.

I booked Esther, named after Jesper and Petra’s daughter and oldest child who (rightly) insisted that the biggest of the three houses carry her name. 

The Tech

The Esther house is powered by a large solar array on the rooftop, with six 320W panels helping to keep a pair of 2.4kWh lithium-ion batteries charged. Each house is fitted with an inverter to provide 220V AC to wall outlets located everywhere you’d hope to find one. 

Power generation benefits immensely from Sweden’s long summer days. Jesper tells me that their solar system is configured to provide about 1.5kW of charge per hour, which is enough to recharge half-empty batteries to full in about two hours. All excess energy is then diverted to the outlets. When the sun goes down, the house is wholly dependent upon the batteries for electricity.

Sweden’s short winter days present a real challenge for the cabins

Sweden’s short winter days present a real challenge for the cabins as the low, weak sun can’t keep the batteries charged. That means InForest cabins can only be booked from about March to mid-October. Jesper hopes to extend the season by purchasing an EV with bi-directional charging capabilities.

Ideally he’d like to buy a Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck but it’s not scheduled to come to Sweden any time soon, so maybe the new Volvo EX90 SUV coming in 2024 instead. Whatever he buys, he can charge its relatively large 100kWh-plus battery at home before driving to each cabin every few days to charge their much-smaller batteries. Jesper or Petra already have to visit each cabin every two to three days anyway to clean them and refill the water tanks. 

Jesper stands in front of the utility closet where all technology can be found. A water hose connects at the back of the house to replenish the 250-liter tank. We brought our own clothesline.

Jesper stands in front of the utility closet where all technology can be found. A water hose connects at the back of the house to replenish the 250-liter tank. We brought our own clothesline.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

Fresh water comes from a 250-liter (66 gallon) water tank. The house is also fitted with a 10-liter (2.6 gallon) water heater, which is enough for about five to seven minutes of hot water.

The cabin’s LED lights, a kitchen fan, a DC refrigerator / freezer, heating fan, and water pump all require electric power. Jesper estimates that each house consumes about 100W per hour when idle, allowing the batteries to power the house for about two days without any charging. 

The houses require more than just electricity, however. They’re also equipped with a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) system for the combined air and water heater and also for the stove and oven. There’s also a waterless composting toilet from Separett that InForest takes care of after guests check out.

InForest houses are designed to be serviced, which is why all of the technology is housed in a utility closet that can be accessed from the outside to avoid interrupting guests. External connectors allow the water to be refilled and, eventually, the batteries to be recharged, just as soon as Jesper and Petra find a suitable EV.

The Experience

I’ve never been so aware of my water usage, thanks to a gauge mounted on the wall inside the bathroom. InForest says its 250-liter tanks provide enough water for about three days of average usage by two adults. Jesper says guests typically use about 41.6 liters (11 gallons) of water per person per day when staying in their cabins, compared to 140 liters (27.5 gallons) per person in the typical Swedish household. I was traveling with a family of five, including three image-obsessed teenagers. So, challenge accepted!

This water gauge is my mortal enemy — and agent of change, as it turns out.

This water gauge is my mortal enemy — and agent of change, as it turns out.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

Seeing how much water we had left on that gauge accomplished more than any amount of scolding could. In our seven days in the house, we only had to have the water refilled once, I’m proud to say. But that meant a fairly severe (but simple) change in behavior, like shutting off the water while lathering up in the shower or brushing teeth. Things I never did before, I must admit. It also meant devising a dishwashing method that would conserve as much energy and water as possible. 

I just wish the cabin was also equipped with a power meter. I have no idea how close we came to emptying its batteries, or how much surplus power all those panels produced during the day. As I’ve learned when reviewing solar generators, it’s easier to modify energy consumption habits when you see them mapped over time. Having said that, not knowing if the power would shut off at any moment was a strong motivator for everyone to keep their social media consumption devices plugged in during the day while the sun was actively powering the ports.

The urine-diverting toilet also lacked a meter, but seeing paper begin to sprout from the poop chute on our last day was a pretty good indicator that it was getting full. Fortunately, it’s ventilated so it was odorless. The toilet collects solid waste in a biodegradable bag that is tossed onto an off-site compost heap after guests depart.

1/9

Esther’s kitchen is fully stocked with all the appliances you’d expect, except a dishwasher.
Photo: InForest

Purists who quote Thoreau often tell me that I’m doing it wrong when I share my off-grid experiences. I’m supposed to totally disconnect and leave my gadgets at home. But I prefer to strike a balance, bending the will of nature to my needs at one moment, then giving myself over to its wilderness at the next. The grass can’t be greener on the other side if I’m living life on the fence. 

Lessons learned in that week at my InForest rental have turned into new habits upon my return. I still shut off the tap when brushing my teeth and while lathering up in the shower. I’ve unplugged a dozen rarely used gadgets that had been slowly leeching power. I’m also investigating having my home fitted with solar panels and battery backup. Although I have access to what seems like a never-ending supply of electricity and hot water here in Amsterdam, high energy prices make resources I’ve previously taken for granted suddenly feel scarce.

Of course, I’ve known I should do these things for years. But somehow, attaching emotional memories (stress!) to the idea has made it easier to change my behavior. And let’s be honest, saving money is a strong motivator as well.

My biggest takeaway is this: technologies have progressed so much that off-grid living is a more viable option than I had previously thought, without having to make too many compromises. But it’s a good idea to try it for yourself before fully committing.

InForest isn’t alone in providing off-grid getaways. A Google search will likely yield multiple local providers near you. Otherwise, Airbnb’s May redesign makes it easier to find experiences like off-the-grid living for those who want to go to the woods to try living a bit more deliberately.

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You deserve more than $2 for running your phone’s data through Amazon

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Amazon is offering some users a whole $2 a month for only one teeny, tiny thing in return: that they route their traffic through an Amazon server so the company can keep track of which Amazon ads they’ve seen. It’s apparently been doing this for months.

I’m not sure who needs to hear this, but you Should! Not! Do! That!

The offer is part of Amazon’s Shopper Panel app, an “invitation-only” program that gives you up to $10 a month in Amazon credit for uploading receipts for purchases you made at places other than Amazon and filling out surveys. I’ll say again: even if you were willing to basically give up your privacy, which you probably shouldn’t be, why would you do it for just a few dollars? If there’s anything more personal than your internet traffic, it’s a list of the things you’ve bought. Receipts can and have been used as evidence in court.

That’s a lot of descriptive text for a single toggle.
Image: Amazon

If you were to join the waitlist for the Shopper Panel program, get accepted, and then turn on Ad Verification, you’d then be asked to turn on an always-on VPN for your phone, according to an FAQ on Amazon’s site. The company says this isn’t actually installing a VPN on your device; instead, it’s making it so all your DNS traffic goes to an Amazon server, which lets the company know when you see “Amazon’s own advertising or ads from third-party businesses that advertise through Amazon Ads.”

In my opinion, that’s not much better than if it were running a VPN. Sure, all of your traffic won’t be going through Amazon, but in theory your phone is still asking Amazon for directions every time it tries to connect to a server. (That’s what DNS does.) Amazon says the app “will only use the app permissions to confirm the ads from Amazon that you see” and that it “does not receive or share any personal information with third-parties,” but you’ve really got to trust it on that.

And, again, the upside of this (provided that you’ve kept the “VPN” on for the vast majority of the month) is that at the end you get… $2.

Amazon is far from the first company to have a program like this. Facebook had one that gave users $20 gift cards each month to run a VPN on their phone, and in 2012 Google said it’d pay users $5 every three months for running a Chrome extension that tracked their usage. Another part of the program offered $20 a month if you used a special router that tracked your entire household’s internet usage.

The thing that stands out about all of these programs, Amazon’s included, is just how little money they pay the people who willingly submit to a big tech panopticon. If you’re the type of person who’s not bothered by a lack of privacy, you should at least demand more from some of the most valuable companies in the world.



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Elon Musk’s promised Twitter exposé on the Hunter Biden story is a flop that doxxed multiple people

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Free-speech crusader Elon Musk isn’t happy with Twitter’s years-old decision to suppress a news story about Hunter Biden’s laptop just ahead of the 2020 presidential election. So in an effort “to restore public trust” in Twitter, Musk indicated last month that he would release internal communications showing how it all went down.

That arrived Friday night in the form of a lengthy and arduously slow tweet thread (it took a full two hours to complete) from journalist Matt Taibbi, who Musk appears to have leaked the documents to and coordinated for his findings to be posted to Twitter.

Taibbi later deleted a tweet showing Jack Dorsey’s email address

Taibbi’s thread includes screenshots of emails between Twitter’s leadership, members of the Biden campaign, and outside policy leaders. At one point, there’s even a “confidential” communication from Twitter’s deputy general counsel.

The emails show Twitter’s team struggling with how to explain their handling of the New York Post story that broke the news of Hunter’s leaked laptop files — and whether they made the correct moderation decision in the first place. At the time, it was not clear if the materials were genuine, and Twitter decided to ban links to or images of the Post’s story, citing its policy on the distribution of hacked materials. The move was controversial even then, primarily among Republicans but also with speech advocates worried about Twitter’s decision to block a news outlet.

While Musk might be hoping we see documents showing Twitter’s (largely former) staffers nefariously deciding to act in a way that helped now-President Joe Biden, the communications mostly show a team debating how to finalize and communicate a difficult moderation decision.

“I’m struggling to understand the policy basis for marking this unsafe,” one former communications staffer wrote. “Will we also mark similar stories as unsafe?” asked another.

Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of trust and safety at the time, said the company had decided to err on the side of caution “given the SEVERE risks here and lessons of 2016.” Jim Baker, Twitter’s deputy general counsel, weighed in to agree that “it is reasonable for us to assume that they may have been [hacked] and that caution is warranted.”

Musk claims this is proof of government meddling, but it plainly is not

The emails don’t show how the initial decision was reached — just that there were emails afterward in which leaders at Twitter discussed whether it was the correct choice. Taibbi reports that Jack Dorsey, who was then Twitter’s CEO, was not aware of the decision.

Musk seems to read the events as proof of government meddling. “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” he wrote in response to one leaked email. But the email appears to show the Biden campaign, which is not a government entity, flagging tweets to Twitter for “review” under their moderation policies before the election took place. Taibbi says, “there’s no evidence — that I’ve seen — of any government involvement in the laptop story.”

Meanwhile, Taibbi’s handling of the emails — which seem to have been handed to him at Musk’s direction, though he only refers to “sources at Twitter” — appears to have exposed personal email addresses for two high-profile leaders: Dorsey and Representative Ro Khanna. An email address that belongs to someone Taibbi identifies as Dorsey is included in one message, in which Dorsey forwards an article Taibbi wrote criticizing Twitter’s handling of the Post story. What appears to be Khanna’s personal Gmail address is included in another email, in which Khanna reaches out to criticize Twitter’s decision to restrict the Post’s story as well.

The story also revealed the names of multiple Twitter employees who were in communications about the moderation decision. While it’s not out of line for journalists to report on the involvement of public-facing individuals or major decision makers, that doesn’t describe all of the people named in the leaked communications. And given the fervor around Hunter’s laptop, the leaked materials could expose some of those people to harassment. “I don’t get why naming names is necessary. Seems dangerous,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote tonight in apparent reference to the leaks.

Taibbi later deleted the tweet that included Dorsey’s email address. The one including Khanna’s is still up as of this writing. The Verge reached out to Taibbi for comment but didn’t immediately hear back. Twitter, which had its communications team dismantled during layoffs last month, also did not respond to a request for comment. Khanna and Dorsey also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.



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