How to Turn Off Alexa’s Creepy ‘Whisper Mode’

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I love my smart speaker—as much as one can ever love a piece of privacy-stealing technology that only exists to gather information about you, I suppose—but that doesn’t mean I don’t find many things about it creepy, in a dystopian sort of way. And one of the things I find creepiest about Alexa is the fact that if you…

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Amazon’s Echo Buds are back down to their lowest price of $90

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Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Amazon’s Echo Buds wireless earbuds are $40 off at Amazon, which brings them down to their lowest-yet price of $90. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this deal, but it doesn’t happen regularly. (It happened once before in January 2020.) If you’re in the market for wireless earbuds, these are a particularly good value if you’re seeking a solid set of noise-canceling buds. They utilize Bose noise-reduction technology to help block out sound, and they’re also worth the price, thanks to their excellent sound quality and comfortable fit.

Image: Remedy Entertainment

Several sites are offering discounts on the Steam version of Control Ultimate Edition, but the best one I’ve seen yet (thanks to Slickdeals) is happening at…

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How the police’s grasp on bureaucracy makes their budget so hard to cut

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Thousands of protesters gathered at McCarren Park in Brooklyn for a massive march around Williamsburg, making a loud call for the defunding of the police force. This comes after NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio promised ‘intense change’ with police reform proposals amid calls to defund law enforcement, including shifting resources from NYPD and publicizing officers’ disciplinary records. Brooklyn, NY on June 7th, 2020. | Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Real change takes time, willpower, and sustained resistance — and the technology to make police brutality visible to policymakers

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In Colorado’s peach country, the season that wasn’t

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From market stands to restaurant menus, anyone looking around Denver at the end of summer can see proof of Colorado’s peach harvest. But some 200 miles west, in swaths of the state’s peach-growing capital, the tractor-trailers have all but stopped running and the farm workers have largely gone home.

“Usually I would see 15 or 20 trucks a day leaving the peach-packing facilities, and I haven’t seen one in several days,” Palisade farmer Scott High told The Denver Post last week. “We would sell in excess of a million pounds of peaches (normally), and we’re not selling any this year. So there’s a million pounds less just from our company alone.”

At High’s 188-acre High Country Orchards — and many other farms in Mesa County — the peach crop was decimated this year literally overnight, when a freeze early in the morning of April 14 caught the trees’ blossoms by surprise and sent farmers into a panic, the likes of which they hadn’t experienced in over 20 years.

“I’ve been farming since 1999,” High said, “and this is the first time we’ve lost a crop.”

During an already trying year, Colorado peach farmers watched this summer as crop yields swung wildly between zero and 100%. For consumers around the state, that meant less of a precious summer commodity — the Palisade peach — but more fruits filling in from the state’s other peach-growing parts. You can still find Palisade peaches, too, if you know where to look.

William Woody, Special to The Denver Post

A ripened peach sits ready for packaging at High Country Orchards near Palisade, Colorado, on July 16, 2009.

High’s fellow Palisade farmer Charlie Talbott says he remembers “pretty catastrophic crop loss” before this season, during four summers in the decade between 1989-99. After a two-decade run of successful harvests, he estimates the Palisade farms that did manage to survive this season came out with as little as 10% of their normal yield.

“It’s a very meek sum for us,” Talbott said of his own harvest, which suffered 85-90% loss. “It was just too cold for too long” that April night. Every year around the same time he prepares to watch the weather forecast like a hawk.

“I’d give up a twelfth of my life if I could skip April,” he said with a laugh.

But nature in this part of Colorado is usually on the peaches’ side. In the Grand Valley, an adiabatic wind known locally as the “million dollar breeze” compresses and warms as it comes off the mountain, usually working to protect even tender buds from an early spring frost. According to Talbott, what happened and what survived this year “didn’t follow any of the rules.”

Around 10 peach varieties made it through, just depending on their frost-hardiness and exact location in the valley, he explained.

Gwen Cameron’s 38-acre Rancho Durazno was one such successful farm. Located just five miles east of High Country Orchards, it’s situated alongside the Colorado River and at the mouth of De Beque Canyon.

On the morning of April 14, Cameron and her father Thomas took to their orchards with an X-Acto knife. They sliced sample buds open to check if they were green or brown, and they estimated about 50% loss, then they got to thinning, methodically.

The peach is a desert-thriving fruit that builds its flavor over hot summer days and seals it in during cooler nights. Farmers across the region thin their fertile peach trees for fewer but plumper fruits. They let them hang longer and pick them only once they’re juicy and tree-ripe.

But technology also plays its part — from her phone, Cameron can track varying air temperatures at points around the farm. If even one spot is off, she employs a propane heater or a wind machine to keep the peach trees on track.

As the season went on, Cameron said she and her dad kept trying to estimate their yield, “and we just tended to be wrong every time. We had more fruit than we thought even as we were picking it,” she said. “By the end, I think we’re pretty darn close to 100% of what we had last year.”

Her neighbors a mile down the road, Trent and Carolyn Cunningham, fared worse with about 45% of their usual crop, but still better than the farms across town. “One of our orchards had absolutely not one peach,” Carolyn wrote over email, “while our other places did fair.”

Juan Carlos Mendez Ruiz steps up ...
Nina Riggio, Special to the Denver Post

Juan Carlos Mendez Ruiz steps up on a harvesting ladder at High Country Orchards in Palisade on Aug. 29, 2019.

“The peaches that I have tasted this year are delicious,” lamented High with High Country Orchards. “There just aren’t that many.”

About an hour east and 1,000 feet up, Delta County experienced the same cold snap in mid-April, but the peach blossoms there were less advanced and more frost-hardy. As a result, this summer they had “far greater success” than Palisade, Talbott said.

At the Boulder County Farmers Markets, Paonia-based First Fruits is having a banner year, according to BCFM sourcing coordinator Matt Collier. Between First Fruits and Rancho Durazno, the market is still selling about a thousand pounds a week of peaches through its online ordering system.

These are the peaches you’ll find on Denver restaurant menus like The Plimoth’s, just north of City Park, where chef Pete Ryan showcases late summer varieties on a half-dozen menu items, at least.

“I don’t screw around when it comes to peaches,” Ryan said, as he was heading to the Wednesday farmer’s market to pick up a few more boxes of First Fruits’ Red Globes for his preserves and salads and grilled pork and pot du crème that week. He has sourced peaches from First Fruits exclusively for the last seven years.

“I just love them because they’re juicy and sweet and this time of year is, like, the best,” he said. “At least in my mind, we’re going to be celebrating peaches until the weekend after Labor Day.”

From Palisade to Paonia, the peaches that survived 2020 have a little life left. Then it will be on to pears and apples, which are already starting to pop — “Can you believe that?” Ryan asked.

And Talbott says he’s been able to appreciate the time off this summer, even though it’s felt a little “surreal.”

“You lose the efforts and the revenue potential for an entire year when you lose a crop,” he said. “And it is a sucker punch. But when you get over feeling sorry for yourself, (…) I think it helps one actually focus on the blessings and remember what truly matters most.”

Even with smoke from the Pine Gulch fire hanging in the air, Talbott says Palisade’s other prized fruit — the wine grape — is holding strong. And as for the peach orchards that have gotten “a break” in 2020, he said by 2021 they’ll be ready for an even bigger return.

“We’ll keep the wolf from the door,” he said of surviving the loss now, “and be ready to brush ourselves off and fight the good fight next year.”

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RTD’s new chief faces big challenges at cash-strapped transit agency

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The incoming leader of the Regional Transportation District has overseen huge budgets and dug into daily operational details at other transit agencies. She has negotiated difficult labor contracts, including in a city notorious for union strife.

She’s also managed a board of directors rife with complexity and conflicting interests.

Debra Johnson is the new RTD CEO
Provided by RTD

Debra Johnson, the new general manager and CEO.

Debra Johnson will need all of those skills in Denver when she takes the reins as RTD’s new general manager and CEO, inside and outside observers say. She’s coming aboard at a time when the metro area’s transit provider faces not only tremendous fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but also budget imbalances, underfunded rail projects, and an outside review that kicked off this month.

That review could recommend drastic changes to the setup of the 51-year-old district, which has struggled to repair fraying public trust caused in part by service cuts and fare hikes.

The last time RTD hired a new boss from outside the agency was in 1995, when it tapped Cal Marsella in another time of turmoil. He would become the father of FasTracks, the massive transit expansion approved by voters in 2004.

With its vote Tuesday for Johnson, who’s spent six years at Long Beach Transit as deputy CEO, the elected board made history by installing a woman in the top job for the first time.

“I think it’s good they went for an outsider. It’s clear the agency really needs some new blood,” said David Bragdon, the executive director of TransitCenter, a New York City-based research and advocacy organization.

Johnson will confront problems here that have also plagued her most recent employers, which include agencies in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Chief among them: years of falling or stagnating ridership, long before the pandemic shoved those numbers over a cliff earlier this year, along with tax revenue. As of earlier this month, RTD’s average weekday ridership had recovered slightly but still was at about 140,000, down 60% from normal.

Bragdon likes what he sees in Johnson’s background, suggesting her extensive experience with operations could help guide the agency to new long-term thinking. He’s long been critical of RTD’s focus on building suburban commuter rail lines at the expense of expanded urban bus service under the $5.6 billion-and-counting FasTracks initiative.

“RTD basically became a construction company for a number of years and basically overlooked the nuts and bolts of operating,” he said.

But the new CEO will have a bumpy political landscape to navigate, reporting to one of the few elected transit boards in the country — a body made up of members representing 15 districts across a sprawling service area covering 2,342 square miles. There’s also high outside interest in how RTD operates that goes all the way up to the Colorado governor’s office.

Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is among the state politicians behind a new “accountability committee” that began meeting this month to perform an independent top-to-bottom review of RTD over the next year. He talks about the need for new approaches — while remaining adamant that RTD also must finish the way-underfunded $1.5 billion northwest commuter rail line promised to voters in Longmont and Boulder, where he lives.

Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

A young man walks on the platform to an RTD train at Union Station on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020 in Denver.

Relationship-driven leader who’s “politically astute”

Johnson, who’s still negotiating a contract and salary with RTD, was not available for an interview last week. But in her public video presentation for the job, it was clear she was seeking to fulfill a career ambition.

Though this will be her first time as CEO, aside from a brief interim stint at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, she said: “I have been preparing to lead at this level for more than 25 years.”

Those who have worked with her say that’s not an overstatement.

Former colleagues, a former agency board member and her current boss portrayed Johnson as a relationship-driven leader who works long hours, building trust within their agencies and in their communities that has outlasted her. Her rise accelerated in San Francisco, where she was director of administration, safety and training from 2007 to 2012.

She left to become deputy chief operations officer at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, where she says she developed a $1.1 billion annual operating budget.

In San Francisco, during a particularly acrimonious period, she didn’t hesitate to visit warring labor representatives on their own turf, inside their union halls, recalled Kenneth A. McDonald, SFMTA’s chief operating officer at the time.

That showed courage, said McDonald, now the CEO of Long Beach Transit, which serves more than a dozen cities in Southern California. In 2014, he recruited Johnson from Los Angeles to be his No. 2.

“She is very politically astute,” he said in an interview. “The ability to negotiate through competing agendas is something she does every day. To do that, you have to be flexible and agile.”

Shalonda Baldwin, who worked with Johnson in San Francisco and L.A., said she “knows the business of transportation, she understands public governance and she’s about consensus-building. I don’t doubt her ability to move RTD at this time.”

Whatever shakes out, RTD’s board and its new leader are largely in tune as they begin “this new adventure,” as Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede put it Tuesday.

Added Director Claudia Folska, who represents parts of the east and southeast metro area: “I think she’s going to do wonderful, wonderful things for the district. People — whether they use RTD or they don’t — will benefit from having a great public transit system that’s multimodal.”

Union President Lance Longenbohn says he is hopeful about the approach Johnson will bring after hearing favorable word from his counterparts elsewhere and speaking with her last week.

He sees potential for improvement in working conditions — which, before the pandemic, included significant overtime because of an operator shortage that forced frequent cancellations of bus and train runs.

“RTD used to be a job where people literally lined up the block to try to get the job,” Longenbohn said. “And you know, we’ve lost that. We’ve become a company that is no longer a shining example. It’s unfortunately (become) the company that is looked at as, ‘What’s the problem, what the heck is going on?’”

Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

An RTD bus picks up one passenger at the S Allison Parkway and W Virginia Avenue stop outside of Lakewood City Commons heading northbound on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

Rough waters to navigate at RTD

Johnson will start her new role with an early celebration when RTD opens the N-Line, a 13-mile commuter rail line from Denver to Thornton, on Sept. 21.

But much of the fall agenda will be heavy.

The same day, RTD is set to begin a monthlong trial in Denver District Court to settle disputes with Denver Transit Partners, the private consortium that built and operates three other FasTracks rail lines. They’re fighting over reimbursement claims for significant costs that resulted from finicky crossing-gate technology. DTP now seeks $111 million from RTD, which has lodged $27 million in counter-claims.

Meanwhile, RTD’s board is weighing options to close a pandemic-driven shortfall next year that’s projected at $166 million, or roughly 20% of the operating budget.

Amid all the uncertainty, some board members recently urged a pause in RTD’s underway Reimagine RTD initiative, which has sought community input to craft a long-term plan for its future, separate from the new state review committee.

Malcolm Heinicke, a San Francisco lawyer and longtime SFMTA board member who stepped down this year, has kept in touch with Johnson all these years. He isn’t surprised to see her reach her goal of leading an agency — especially one with deep issues.

He was among those who entrusted her to fill that agency’s interim CEO role for about two months in 2011, after the top two leaders stepped down during a time of labor strife. He credited Johnson with helping to repair some of the agency’s problems.

Heinicke suggested she’s clear-eyed about what awaits in Denver.

“Let me put it this way: I know for a fact that Debra had many options for where she could take her career,” he said. “And I think it speaks to her dedication and passion that she chose this opportunity and all the challenges that come with it.”

New technology export rules in China could affect TikTok sale to a US company

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Plans for a TikTok sale may have a new obstacle, with China implementing new rules on AI technology exports, The New York Times reported. The new export control rules, which focus on technology the Chinese government considers sensitive, could mean that TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, might need a license before it can sell TikTok to an American company.

The updated regulations prohibit exporting technology including text analysis, voice recognition, and content suggestions without a license from the Chinese government. According to The Wall Street Journal, a Chinese government official told state-run Xinhua News Agency that ByteDance should “seriously and cautiously” consider halting talks for a sale of TikTok.

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