A Smart Home Neighborhood: Residents Find It Enjoyably Convenient Or A Bit Creepy

Lennar New Home Consultant Brittney Svach is selling “smart homes” at the Amazon Experience Center in Black Diamond, Washington, about an hour south of Seattle.

Joshua McNichols/Joshua McNichols

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Joshua McNichols/Joshua McNichols

When the Ferguson family decided they wanted to live in the Seattle suburb of Black Diamond they weren’t in the market for a smart home. But they wound up with one, a house packed with Internet-connected devices.

Fifteen-year-old Macey Ferguson loves it. “I just feel really fancy,” she says about having Amazon’s Alexa there to turn on the lights for her, or to remind her when to go to cheerleading practice. “I feel like she’s my little servant, or butler.” Her older brother uses it for math homework, her younger sister for calling grandma. Her three-year-old brother asks Alexa for cake recipes so he can stare longingly at the photos.

Kelli Ferguson, the mom in this household, is more ambivalent. On the one hand, it’s nice to ask Alexa to heat up the house before crawling out of bed in the winter. On the other, there’s all those cameras. “If I’m walking on our street, I walk on the other side of the street,” she said, meaning the side without the smart homes. “Just because I don’t feel like being on everyone’s cameras.”

Living in a smart home neighborhood, the Fergusons experience both convenience and surveillance. And that’s typical in Black Diamond, where Lennar Homes offers smart homes as part of a 4,800 unit development that includes other builders. This neighborhood isn’t a one off. There are smart home developments in suburbs outside of cities such as Miami and San Francisco. Lennar is making Amazon tech standard on each of the 45,000 homes it builds this year.

This partnership between builders and Amazon benefits both sides. Amazon wants to push for wider adoption of its Echo smart speaker. Lennar relies on Amazon to help distinguish it from other home builders in communities like Black Diamond.

But do users really need smart home technology?

Amazon really wants you to think so. In Black Diamond, the pitch starts at the Amazon Experience Center, a model home just around the corner from the Fergusons.

Lennar New Home consultant Brittney Svach throws out commands like a smart home samurai, using her voice to lock the door, start up the robot vacuum, dim the lights, close the blinds, and call up a feed on the smart television from one of the home’s many surveillance cameras. “Alexa, show me the backyard,” she commands. Up pops a video. “And now we can spy on whoever’s having a drink out on the patio,” she says with a smile.

Amazon has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to build a market of consumers hungry for smart homes. A Zillow survey says smart homes technology is down the list of desired home features, lagging far behind air conditioning and ample storage. It’s roughly as important as a hot tub for those shopping for a home.

But Dave Garland thinks the technology will take off once people try it. He’s with Second Century Ventures, an investment arm of the National Association of Realtors. “There’s a new narrative when it comes to what ‘home’ means,” he says. “It means a personalized environment where technology responds to your every need. “

Black Diamond resident Drew Holmes buys that line. Like the Fergusons, he wasn’t looking for a smart home, but the technology came with the one he happened to like. Now he enjoys all the smart home features. “I would not live without them,” he said.

His favorite is a Ring doorbell that logs visitors. “I have teenagers,” he said. “It’s nice to confirm when they come home. And I have proof of it.”

Therron Smith had a very different reaction to the smart home pitch. “The thought of having cameras in every room and that potential exposure… just kind of made us nervous about it,” he says.

Smith works in tech, and says that’s how he knows the risks. It’s not just cameras, even light switches capture information. “That data’s not just sitting there, just… empty,” he says. “Somebody’s gonna look at it and leverage it, to try to turn a profit, or try to create an ad, or try to create some revenue.”

When newcomers purchase a home in Black Diamond, they’re not just buying property – they’re staking out a position on how far they’ll allow tech companies to intrude into their lives. That’s something many us will need to navigate if this technology becomes standard in more neighborhoods.

You can learn more on how Amazon is changing us by subscribing to the KUOW podcast, “Primed.”

Editor’s note: Amazon is one of NPR’s recent financial supporters.

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Republicans Ask For Whistleblower, Hunter Biden to Testify in Impeachment Inquiry

Republicans are asking that Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, testify as a witness in the impeachment inquiry.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Republican lawmakers are asking that the impeachment inquiry into President Trump hear publicly from Hunter Biden and the anonymous whistleblower whose allegations prompted the probe.

In a letter to Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who is leading the inquiry, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes said that calling these witnesses would help ensure the investigation “treats the President with fairness.”

House investigators will start questioning witnesses in open sessions next week. Democrats involved in the inquiry haven’t officially responded to the request from Nunes. But as NPR’s Tim Mak notes, “the rules approved by the House for the impeachment inquiry require that Democrats approve GOP witness requests.” Therefore, “Republicans are unlikely to get most, if any, of their desired witnesses.”

House GOP members have criticized these procedures – for example, in his letter on Saturday, Nunes said the “Democrats’ resolution unfairly restricts Minority rights.”

Nunes said the anonymous whistleblower should testify “because President Trump should be afforded an opportunity to confront his accusers.”

The whistleblower accused Trump of inappropriately pressuring Ukraine to investigate the activities of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The demand allegedly happened in a controversial call on July 25 between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The whistleblower did not claim to have heard the exchange between the two leaders but instead relied on “multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call.” The Republicans are also requesting to question “all individuals relied upon by the anonymous whistleblower in drafting his or her secondhand complaint.”

Republicans also want to hear from a business associate of Hunter Biden, a former Democratic National Committee staffer, a former contractor at the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS and several current and former U.S. officials who have already testified behind closed doors in the impeachment inquiry.

Those officials are David Hale, the No. 3 official at the State Department, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former National Security Council staffer Tim Morrison. In Morrison’s closed-door deposition, he told lawmakers that while he was concerned about the content of the July 25th call leaking, he did not think Trump had done anything illegal.

Lawmakers have questioned a number of other witnesses to the inquiry in closed sessions. In the past week, they’ve released transcripts from those sessions, including Volker’s, and most recently from National Security Council Ukraine specialist Alexander Vindman and former National Security Council Russia specialist Fiona Hill.

The transcripts – along with the White House’s log of the Ukraine call and other public statements — largely corroborate the account of the whistleblower.

Trump has called the inquiry a hoax and denies that anything was inappropriate about the call. Several senior White House officials are refusing to appear for the probe, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

On Friday, Mulvaney filed a motion to join a federal lawsuit filed by Charles Kupperman, a former top White House aide. Both men had been subpoenaed by House Democrats — although they later withdrew Kupperman’s subpoena — and have been told by the president not to comply. They’re asking a judge to decide whether current and former top aides to Trump are immune from being questioned by the lawmakers.

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Instagram Will Test Hiding ‘Likes’ On Some U.S. Accounts Starting Next Week

Adam Mosseri speaks onstage at the WIRED25 Summit 2019 in San Francisco, California. He said some users will no longer see the “like” counter, but it won’t impact “the whole U.S. at once.”

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for WIRED

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Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for WIRED

Like seriously, if you post something to the ‘gram and not one of your followers hits “like” is it even worth sharing?

Beginning next week, some U.S. users of Instagram will be able to test this theory as the social media platform will begin hiding the “likes” counter that appears underneath a posted photo or video.

“Right now we’re testing making like counts private, so you’ll be able to see how many people liked a given photo of yours or a video of yours, but no one else will,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram announced Friday.

His comments were made during Wired 25, a symposium that features conversations with leaders from science, technology and entertainment.

Mosseri said the platform will not impact “the whole U.S. at once” but is intended to “depressurize” the platform, particularly for younger users.

“It’s about young people,” Mosseri said. “The idea is to try to ‘depressurize’ Instagram, make it less of a competition and give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love, things that inspire them.”

Mosseri did not outline specifics on when or how long Instagram’s pilot program would last. But it comes months after the company tested hiding likes in several other countries including Australia, Canada, Ireland and Japan.

We’re currently running a test that hides the total number of likes and video views for some people in the following countries:

✅ Australia
✅ Brazil
✅ Canada
✅ Ireland
✅ Italy
✅ Japan
✅ New Zealand pic.twitter.com/2OdzpIUBka

— Instagram (@instagram) July 17, 2019

In a tweet, Mosseri said he welcomes the feedback on the experiment from U.S. users.

“Heads up! We’ve been testing making likes private on Instagram in a number of countries this year. We’re expanding those tests to include a small portion of people in the US next week. Looking forward to the feedback!”

Heads up! We’ve been testing making likes private on Instagram in a number of countries this year. We’re expanding those tests to include a small portion of people in the US next week. Looking forward to the feedback!

— Adam Mosseri (@mosseri) November 9, 2019

Not a good marketing strategy for business purposes… an option to the user, yes if it’s a choice but disabling is from seeing likes completely will ruin instagram’s users in the US. Don’t “like” the idea 🤮

— ginam_chronicles (@GinaMChronicles) November 9, 2019

Instagram is not the first platform to experiment with so-called “demetrication” — where digital and social media companies reduce the importance they place on public metrics.

Facebook (Instagram’s parent company), YouTube and Twitter have also tested removing the public engagement metrics from their platforms.

The move to deprioritize likes has not been well-received by everyone. As Wired notes, some have complained “that hiding engagement metrics will make it harder to determine whose follower count is legitimate.”

Others lament a move in this direction will impact marketing strategy for businesses using the platform to attract advertisers and customers.

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3 Dead In Australian Bushfires As Country Braces For Summer

Firefighters work to contain a bushfire along Old Bar roadon Saturday.

Darren Pateman/AP

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Darren Pateman/AP

Three people are dead and more are missing after wildfires erupted on the southeastern coast of Australia, according to the New South Wales Police, fueled by more than two years of drought that has impacted almost all of the region.

As of 12:30 a.m. local time, 74 brush fires are burning across NSW, from Brisbane to Sydney, with 43 out of control, according to the NSW Rural Fire Service. One fire near Hillville is listed at the emergency warning level, having already burned more than 41,000 acres. The largest fire, at Carrai National Park, has burned almost 320,000 acres.

NSW RFS reported that at least 150 homes had been destroyed by the fires, but firefighters are using favorable weather conditions this weekend to contain the fires, before conditions are expected to worsen next week.

The Australian Red Cross is assisting with evacuation, reunification and donation efforts, and South Australia has sent firefighters and emergency workers to the region.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with NSW in their time of need. SA is deploying a specialist team to assist with the devastating bushfires.
Inspiring to see dedicated @CFSAlerts, @SA_MFS, @SA_Ambulance and @SAEnvirWater workers flying out to NSW to lend a hand.
🙏 for your service pic.twitter.com/gGJF0B9Nxz

— Steven Marshall, MP (@marshall_steven) November 8, 2019

The NSW Police reported Saturday morning that a third person was confirmed dead after their body was found in a burnt-out building north of Taree, about 215 miles north of the capital of Sydney. Police said identity and cause of death could not be determined at the time, but said that the home belonged to a 63-year-old woman.

On Friday, two deaths were confirmed as bushfires spread across the coast, spreading with dry and hot winds. One body was found in a burnt vehicle, police said; another woman was found severely burned and later died at Concord Hospital.

In a press briefing Friday, NSFW Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons thanked the work of firefighters in the region, but said that the fight was far from over. Although the number of emergency warning level fires decreased from 17 Friday to one Saturday, the weather outlook remains grim.

“We’ve got a return to some worse conditions as we head into early next week, particularly Tuesday and Wednesday,” Fitzsimmons said.

The NSW Bureau of Meteorology said that there is “a high chance of warmer than average day time temperatures” from November to January. This trend, coupled with another report from the BoM that there is a low likelihood of the drought breaking for the rest of the year, could point to additional devastating fires for the next three months. Although there had been some rainfall of note earlier in November, the NSW Department of Primary Industries reported that 99.4% of the state remains in drought.

Even if the fires are managed for the rest of the year, Fitzsimmons said Australia still had the summer months ahead, bringing major heat waves, dry winds and the worst of their fire conditions.

The smoke from the fires could even be seen from space, as satellite imagery caught the massive trails making their way south over the Tasman Sea.

Smoke from fires in #NSW can be seen travelling over the Tasman sea. High to Very High fire danger for rest of today see https://t.co/IdujjSdV1I. For more visit https://t.co/Ss766eSCrL #NSWRFS pic.twitter.com/Dm1Bb8zWHL

— Bureau of Meteorology, New South Wales (@BOM_NSW) November 9, 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison painted a grim picture of the coming months for the rest of Australia in a press conference Friday.

“There are other states where the risk is also high,” Morrison said, adding that a nationwide emergency meeting of fire and emergency services chiefs had been called earlier that day.

“We’re expecting very similar conditions in Western Australia over the next few days. We currently have 31 out of 37 districts in Western Australia in the high fire rating, and three of those will go to catastrophic in the days ahead.”

Morrison said that similar conditions were expected in northern and southern Australia, but did not acknowledge the role of climate change in these fires. Morrison had previously defended his country’s action on climate change and attacked climate activist Greta Thunberg for spurring “needless anxiety” at the United Nations meeting last month amid widespread criticism.

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