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An Ohio City’s Campaign Got More People to Buy Electric Cars

In 2016, the city of Columbus, Ohio, won a nationwide Department of Transportation challenge and was named America’s first smart city. This contest was not just for bragging rights, like some kind of Mensa for municipalities; the award came with $40 million in DOT funding for testing better transportation policies, with an additional $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. As part of Smart Columbus’ plans to make moving around more safely more sustainable, the foundation asked the city to increase adoption of battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids through an electrification program. And it succeeded.


This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.

The electrification program, which Ars wrote about last year, involved several different approaches to getting more local residents to switch to battery electric vehicles. The city assembled a fleet of 12 BEVs and PHEVs for a “ride and drive” road show, visiting communities and places of work to give people an opportunity to try out an EV—something that just under 12,000 people did over the course of two years.
The city created an experience center with a second fleet of test-drive plug-ins. This provided another 400 people with test drives from 2018 but also entertained more than 30,000 visitors from opening, educating them about alternative powertrains as well as shared mobility. On top of that, Smart Columbus conducted an online education campaign and worked with 35 area car dealerships, training staff so they could sell EVs. And finally, it worked with the local utility, AEP Ohio, to build out public level 2 and DC fast charging infrastructure in the region.

In 2016, before the grant was awarded, BEV and PHEV sales were just 0.4 percent in the seven-county region. When the electrification program began in April 2017, the goal was to boost this to 1.8 percent of new vehicle sales—or 3,200 EVs—by March 2020. And it worked; over the course of those 35 months, 3,323 new BEVs and PHEVs found homes in the region. Plug-in sales actually reached as high as 2.4 percent in Q4 2018 and 1.6 percent in Q4 2019. (2019 was a disappointing year nationally for plug-in sales, so we can forgive the year-on-year decrease.) Smart Columbus estimates that the program will cut carbon emissions by 1,850 tons over 10 years.

The outreach program also helped increase the odds that other locals will switch to electric powertrains too. Favorable perceptions of BEVs and PHEVs rose from October 2017 to March 2020 (BEVs: 48 percent to 62 percent; PHEVs: 57 percent to 65 percent). And whereas in October 2017, only a third of those surveyed said they were somewhat or extremely likely to purchase a BEV or a PHEV, by March 2020 that had grown to just over half.

“We’re thrilled to see the progress and success of the smart city program over the years,” said Paul Keating, senior director of philanthropy at Vulcan, the company that oversees the business and charitable activities of the late Paul Allen. “Columbus has demonstrated how a region can develop new transport systems through innovation to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. And in doing so, Columbus has created a model that can be replicated nationwide.”

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.

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Citizen Isn’t Here to Be Your Free-Speech Platform

Welcome to the summer of 2020, where hot dogs, beach balls, and road trips are joined by protests, oximeters, and arguments about section 230(c). And, every week, your Plaintext newsletter.

The Plain View

I have become a Citizen addict. Citizen is an app, currently active in 18 cities, that’s sort of a supercharged police scanner—its home screen is a map of the area around your location that pinpoints disturbances. These include user-contributed videos of fires, police activity, and lately, major protests. Since my New York City neighborhood has become a hot spot for social upheaval in recent weeks, the baseline of nearby incidents and emergencies has dramatically elevated, and the distance to various conflagrations and marches is often reported not in miles but feet. Accompanied by the unrelenting soundtrack of overhead helicopters, my use of Citizen has been both inspiring (the uprising is long overdue!) and alarming (already fragile Covid-affected businesses in my neighborhood have been hit hard by vandalism and looting).

Citizen’s founder and CEO is Andrew Frame, a hacker turned entrepreneur who was behind the VoIP app Ooma. “The original foundation for Citizen was really ‘What does the future of public safety look like?’” he tells me, while heading to the airport for his first plane trip since the virus hit. “Step one is opening up the 911 system. So, it’s a shared system, and everybody has access to the same information in real time.” Frame says that in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of new users have flocked to the app. (Though Frame wouldn’t share actual numbers, he didn’t dispute a recent report in Forbes that estimated 600,000 new users, for a total of around 5 million overall.) Once people get that information, he says, it’s up to them to figure out what to do with it—whether to rush out and document an incident, join a protest, or cower in their apartments. (In some cases, he says, people have left their apartments after learning through Citizen that the building was on fire.) “We try to stay as neutral as possible politically—we create the transparency,” he says.

But as other platforms have learned, staying neutral is a difficult balance to strike when your decidedly nonneutral users express themselves within the app. Each incident reported on Citizen invites comments, and in our politically fractured environment, these often break out into political discussion. That’s fine, but not when commenters complain about the protests with hate speech and racism, and I’ve been taken aback at some of the intolerance displayed by my supposedly liberal NYC neighbors, including some comments expressing unbridled venom towards people of color. App store reviewers have noted it too—a recent user talked of deleting the app, because “there’s a ton of racist comments.”

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After 25 Years of Streaming, the World Can’t Live Without It

Glaser believed it was time for a commercial service. When he launched his on April 25, 1995, the first customers were ABC News and NPR; you could listen to news headlines or Morning Edition. It wasn’t the user-friendliest—you had to download his Real Audio app to your desktop and then hope it made a successful connection to the browser. At that point, it worked only on demand. But in September 1995, Progressive Networks began live streaming. Its first real-time broadcast was the audio of a major league baseball game—the Seattle Mariners versus the New York Yankees. (The Mariners won.The losing pitcher was Mariano Rivera, then a starter.) The few who listened from the beginning had to reboot around the seventh inning, as the buffers filled up after two and a half hours or so. By the end of that year, thousands of developers were using Real.

Other companies began streaming video before Glaser’s, which introduced RealVideo in 1997. The internet at that point wasn’t robust enough to handle high-quality video, but those in the know understood that it was just a matter of time. “It was clear to me that this was going to be the way that everything is going to be delivered,” says Glaser, who gave a speech around then titled “The Internet as the Next Mass Medium.” That same year, Glaser had a conversation with an entrepreneur named Reed Hastings, who told him of his long-range plan to build a business by shipping physical DVDs to people, and then shift to streaming when the infrastructure could support it. That worked out well. Today, our strong internet supports not only entertainment but social programming from YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and others.

I can’t imagine sheltering in place without streaming. Take the online event last weekend to commemorate composer Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. Since it couldn’t take place in an actual theatre, it was hastily packaged as an internet spectacle, captured from the chic quarantine quarters of Broadway’s top crooners. Technical difficulties delayed the start for almost an hour, reminiscent of the choppy online launch of the Wax cult movie some decades ago. But once it got going, it had an intrepid sort of magic, merging consummate professionalism with feisty DIY. The highlight was a boozy performance of the Sondheim classic “The Ladies Who Lunch,” rendered in Zoom-like fuzziness from the respective living rooms of three awesome divas, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, and a gloriously insouciant Meryl Streep. Yes, the show was thrown together, but in another sense it was very long in the making. Twenty-five years long.

One day we will hug again. Until then, see you in stream-land.

Time Travel

In April 2003, Apple introduced the iTunes Store. After the keynote presentation, I went backstage to talk to CEO Steve Jobs. “The Internet is perfect for the delivery of music,” he told me. “It’s like it was built for the delivery of music. Napster proved that. So why wouldn’t all the music be delivered that way?”

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Here’s Who Should Really Be Advising Trump on the Economy

It’s me again, from self-isolation. The only way I know that it’s Friday is that this newsletter goes out and my weekly food delivery arrives. The difference is that with the newsletter, there’s no note that some of the items aren’t available at this time.

For now, this weekly column is free for everyone to access. Soon, only WIRED subscribers will get Plaintext as a newsletter. You’ll get to keep reading it in your inbox by subscribing to WIRED (discounted 50%), and in the process getting all our amazing tech coverage in print and online.

The Plain View

A few “esteemed executives, economists, scholars, and industry leaders” were startled this week to find that the president had publicly announced their participation in one of several “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups,” intended to help kickstart the economy. Apparently for some of these individuals, the While House was not meticulous about providing advance notice, let alone an opportunity to decline.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking advice from business leaders, though committees like this are usually opt-in. But is this group really the one that will yield the best or most innovative responses? Let’s examine the list of conscripts, which is divided up by industry sector.

The first leader cited, in the agriculture category, is a lobbyist from Georgia named Zippy Duvall. I know that it’s childish to make fun of someone’s name, but starting off with a guy named Zippy isn’t exactly a confidence builder. Looking over the other categories, most include the CEOs of large companies, but there are some wild cards. The food section, for instance, includes lots of fast-food executives, but also celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck, and Jean-George Vongerichten. (I love it that those culinary icons will be on the same call as the head of Waffle House.)

The 15 people listed in the technology category include the usual CEO suspects—Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, Larry Ellison, and so on. Other tech figures are parceled into different industries: Amazon head Jeff Bezos in the retail sector, Elon Musk among the manufacturers, and Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi in transportation.

It’s a formidable lineup, but perhaps CEOs of public companies are not the best sources of innovative ideas. If you are going for innovation, why not bypass the executive suite and go straight to the most creative people in those companies? Also, those CEOs may be constrained in their comments by the knowledge that they are speaking to a self-styled authoritarian who metes out retribution to those who contradict him. So, just in case this newsletter hits the West Wing, here’s an alternative list of people who might, as the White House suggests, “chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity.”

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9 Amazon Workers Describe the Daily Risks They Face in the Pandemic

After this interview was conducted, the driver reported that Whole Foods has instituted more protections for workers, including social distancing measures, temperature screenings, and providing gloves.

Warehouse worker, early sixties, California

I’ve been with Amazon 11 months now. I went there with the idea that it was just going to be a temporary job until I could find something that was better suited for me. When I first started there, it was a great job, because it’s only part-time, it’s fairly flexible, and it gave me the opportunity to look for other things. I have been going to work through the pandemic, but I am starting to contemplate staying home because of some of the issues at Amazon.

Amazon, at least our facility, hasn’t enforced the policies as much as they could have. One problem we’re encountering is that once we’re on the floor and we’re doing our work, they don’t mandate social distancing. People aren’t staying 6 feet away. Instead of going around me, workers cut right in front of me, they bump into me. I’ve asked, please, 6 feet away, but they just ignore me and keep on going. Every time I’ve gone to management, their response is, “There’s nothing we can do about it, if there’s a problem you can just stay home.”

My feeling is they want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to enforce it, so it’s not really happening. We have no hand sanitizers. We have no wipes. They’re not providing face masks.

My biggest concern is my parents, they’re 82 and 88 and they live close by. I call them every day to make sure they’re OK, but I’m very hesitant to go see them because I don’t know what I might be bringing to them. Especially my father. He’s 88, he’s blind, he’s frail. I don’t want to make him sick. So until this is all done, I can’t come up and see them, because I can’t risk making them sick.

Warehouse worker, early thirties, Florida

I previously worked in events and conferences, but when the virus hit, they started cutting my hours, so I applied to work at Amazon. I’ve been there about three weeks, or maybe a month. At my location, I was noticing that they have wipes, but they’re not actually disinfecting wipes. I picked up the can the other day to check, and they’re not. They’re for painters to use to remove paint that drips onto the floor. [An Amazon spokesperson disputes this: “Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer are already standard across our network, and the procurement teams have worked tirelessly to create new sources of supply to keep these critical items flowing.”]

Amazon is trying to do social distancing. They put markers on the floor, but the thing is, a lot of people are not taking this seriously. If there’s no supervisors on the floor that care, it’s not being enforced. I’ve had to tell people to back off from me a few times.

It’s very scary. I’m a single mom. My mom lives with me, and she doesn’t have any income. She has a lung condition, and she’s older, she’s 72. I try to stay away from them. I haven’t held my 6-year-old son since I started at Amazon. It’s very hard. He still doesn’t understand it. He’s always mad at me, he says that I’m mean.

I feel like this job is essential because people need deliveries, but it’s also essential for me because I need the money to feed my family. My son’s dad stopped working too, so it’s not like I’m getting child support. I have no choice. But I’m also thinking of stopping because I don’t want to put my family at risk. I’m not the only one thinking of not going to work. Amazon needs to take care of what they have, and I don’t think they’re doing that.

Warehouse worker, late twenties, Washington

The first US case of Covid-19 was in Seattle, so I was like, this is really bad news. I was thinking ahead, planning for quarantine and stuff, buying food. As the story got worse, I wondered what Amazon was going to do. I’ve worked there for two years. For me, the pay is good. I know it’s not the best pay in the world, but the benefits and pay work well for me. I’ve become friends with a lot of the people I work with. But now, with all the craziness, and with the recent Covid-19 case at my warehouse, I feel like they’re not doing enough. They’re putting profits over people right now, that’s what I want to express.

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Life in Pandemic and Echoes of Soviet Russia

Like a nation of Raskolnikovs, we lead underground lives. In the Soviet era, intellectuals and artists had a surreptitious means of communications, a stealth distribution system, called samizdat. It is an ad hoc means of publishing information, based on a DIY spirit. Though the current impetus is to avoid a virus as opposed to the secret police, I feel very much like, in 2020, we have been thrust into samizdat culture. Instead of going to movies, plays, and concerts, we are sharing home-made experiences from our individual bunkers. Every night, countless people capture performances in their living rooms. I’ve watched scuffling cabaret artists who would have otherwise been performing in Sid Gold’s Request Room, a local piano bar. (Venmo tips welcome.) The other night I saw one of my favorite albums, Satellite Rides by the Old 97’s, performed by the lead singer, one of a constant stream of home concerts presented by a service called Stageit. As great as these are, seeing performers squinting at comments on a screen is a poor substitute for the roar of a crowd cheering them on to an encore.

Also reeking of samizdat are the online replacements for the social interactions we used to routinely enjoy. The secondhand comfort provided by these virtual memorial services, dinner dates, birthday parties, and seders are evocative of the furtive pleasures we once imagined our Cold War counterparts had to settle for.

What seems most Soviet of all is the bleached-out tone of our newly drab existence. (Maybe it’s exacerbated by all those Clorox wipes we use?) It’s especially brutal for those who are living alone or have lost jobs. It’s like we’re living in the numbing monochrome from the movie The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, a downer of a spy thriller set in East Berlin.

I apologize for the bleakness here. (Maybe I should get out more?) So let me end this on a brighter note. This plague will end. We will once again leave our homes and gather. And maybe we will emerge with lessons that, in some ways, will make our new lives richer than they were before we ever heard the word coronavirus. Perhaps the recent converts to bread baking will supercharge a movement away from processed foods. Our samizdat performances might infuse art with a new intimacy; concerts in actual living rooms, with real audiences in them, might flourish. And those virtual gatherings will have taught us how precious our friends and loved ones are, spurring us to gather more often, and be nicer to each other when we do. Plus, we’ll party harder.

Nice thoughts to have. But for now our new iron curtain remains drawn, and we’re holed up in isolation, policed not by barbed wired and guards but a dispiriting biological threat. It’s not classic oppression. It just feels like it.

Time Travel

Last week, Ira Einhorn died in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Holly Maddux. She was 30 years old when he killed her in September 1977, furious that she was leaving him. Einhorn was well known in his hometown of Philadelphia, as well as in hippie and new age circles, and his 1979 arrest (Holly’s body was found in his closet) shocked the city and his extensive network of friends. When I wrote a book about the case in 1988, he was a fugitive. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that he was found and, with much effort, extradited to the US. The verdict dispatching him permanently to prison came in 2002. I was there, writing for Newsweek about the case I had been following for decades, which is now completely closed:

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During a Pandemic, the Big Event Is No Events

Hi, everybody, and congrats for making it through another week. We’ll do this seven days at a time. The Plain ViewThis past Wednesday, “after much deliberation,” the organizers of the Aspen Ideas Festival, scheduled for late June and early July, canceled the event. Like every other events team faced …

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Amazon’s New ‘Essential Items’ Policy Is Devastating Sellers

Bernie Thompson is exactly the kind of entrepreneur Amazon likes to celebrate. In 2009 the former Microsoft developer started his own electronics company, Plugable Technologies. He now employs 35 people in Redmond, Washington, and primarily sells his signature laptop docking stations through Amazon. In 2016, CEO Jeff Bezos highlighted Plugable in a letter …

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Has the Coronavirus Killed the Techlash? 

Hi, all, and welcome back to Plaintext. The dumbest thing that happened to me this week was that during an open Zoom session in which Sarah Frier and I were talking about our books, some retromingent troll took over screen sharing to bomb us with images that would turn the …

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The ‘Surreal’ Frenzy Inside the US’ Biggest Mask Maker

Mike Bowen can’t remember exactly when the calls started. As the co-owner and executive vice president of Texas mask manufacturer Prestige Ameritech, he says the last few months have been a blur. His office phone and cell now ring practically nonstop, and Bowen says he often ends the day …

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