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Zoom dilemmas solved! Expert advice on making video chats less awkward and more fun | Australian lifestyle

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With many parts of Australia still in lockdown, connecting with others can feel increasingly challenging.

Whether video calls are stifling your usual banter with friends, or the problem is actually hearing them at all over a patchy internet connection, Zoom fatigue is real.

Fortunately, after 18 months of video conferences, virtual classes and online events, lessons have been learned when it comes to making digital connections feel a little less alienating – particularly by those who now run them for a living.

We’ve asked professionals at the coal face of the pivot-to-virtual to share their insights into solving some common video chat dilemmas.

What to do when … you have little kids

Tim Cuthell, a youth librarian at Casey Cardinia Libraries, recommends keeping video calls with kids interactive. Stories and songs are a great way to make that intimate connection. If you’re reading a story, he suggests bringing the book close to the screen so the child can see the pages.

Tobey enjoying finger rhymes during Casey Cardinia Library children’s story time
Tobey enjoying finger rhymes during a Casey Cardinia Libraries story time. Photograph: Joy Tan/Casey Cardinia Libraries

Consider telling stories using your hands or props. Lots of songs and rhymes involving hand claps or hand movements (such as finger rhymes, like five little ducks) work really well on a screen. If you want to use a puppet, it doesn’t have to be bought, you can make your own using cardboard cutouts you move around the screen.

Cuthell says having fun with what you’ve got is one of the challenges of lockdown, and recommends activities like making a shaker with rice in a jar that kids can use to groove along.

For older kids, digital coding is a good activity, with Scratch and Python two languages you can learn for free at home. If they create something like a video game with newly acquired coding skills, it can be shown to family or friends with functions like share screen on Zoom.

For adults interacting with kids on Zoom, Cuthell advises “be prepared to laugh at yourself”. He says wearing bright colours, dressing up and having a disco, or playing around with filters and backgrounds are ways to make the online experience more fun.

He also recommends bringing the same level of energy as you would for doing an activity in person. “It’s about getting the energy up and not being put off by there being a distance between you.”

What to do when … you find video socially awkward

Brett Blewitt, from team building and event facilitators Masters of Fun, is well aware that digital catchups can quickly spiral. “If all you’re talking about is the word that won’t be named, you lose motivation to catch up with friends because you leave the conversation more anxious.”

Young woman working from home
‘The most important thing is finding the impetus to have fun.’ Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

His solution is to add a bit more structure. “When you put a game behind it, you’re moving away from talking about the obvious, which is the whole reason we’re on Zoom in the first place.”

Here are a few of Blewitt’s suggestions:

  • You can download online board games to play in a group, like Monopoly or code names, with websites like Horse Paste. Turning quizzes or crossword puzzles into group activities can also work.

  • Create an at-home MasterChef experience with your friends. Give everyone a core ingredient and 20 minutes to cook something with it. At the end of the time, everyone comes back to show what they’ve created and eat together.

  • Have a roster with friends and take turns each week running a 20-minute fitness class.

Blewitt says at the end of the day, “the most important thing is finding the impetus to have fun”.

What to do … for a special occasion

When it comes to organising celebrations from birthdays to baby showers, Joshua Mason Browne, a creative director at FCM Meetings and Events, recommends coming back to basics. He says despite being socially distanced, thinking about ways to connect over shared food, music and play are “simple things … that make us feel less stressed” and more “connected to one another”.

Young woman is celebrating her birthday with friends and relatives during quarantine. She’s doing a video call with laptop
Connecting over shared food, music and play can make us feel less stressed. Photograph: FilippoBacci/Getty Images

Before the event, Browne also says you can encourage a sense of occasion by designing a virtual background so everyone feels like they’re in the same room, or suggesting a theme everyone has to dress up for.

  • Food: Being able to share food and drink can be as simple as sharing a recipe or designing a cocktail that everyone prepares before the event. If all your guests are in the same city, you can also consider ordering everyone the same food to be delivered.

  • Music: Playing music over video calls is hard, because you end up losing the ability to communicate. That issue can be overcome by using an app everyone can tune into, like Spotify’s Group Session function. Have your guests collaborate on the playlist so everyone gets to hear the music they want. They can also add songs throughout the event like a jukebox.

  • Play: Organising game activities will depend on the group of people you’re catering for, but aim for any activity to be designed around collaboration. Browne recommends free gaming platform Kahoot because it offers the ability to personalise games, or play standard versions. For a baby shower, he recommends the game Who’s That Baby? where you have guests send through baby photos of themselves, and create a multiple choice competition to guess who each photo is during the party.

Finally, he suggests opening up the video chat an hour before the formal proceedings start. This gives early arrivals an informal moment to connect casually, or potentially cook and prepare together.

What to do … if your internet is really slow

Zoran Tasevski, the managing director of Technetics Consulting, says there are a couple of workarounds for joining video calls when you have a slow internet connection:

Girl leaning back on chair while remote learning
Slow internet connection? Try these workarounds. Photograph: Jamie Grill/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Option 1: Connect to a phone hotspot. “If you don’t have a 4G or 5G connection on your own phone, ask someone else who does to enable the hotspot on their smart phone and connect to it, which will allow you to wirelessly connect to the internet. Depending which area you’re in, if Telstra doesn’t have a strong 4G or 5G signal you can try another provider by asking someone else in the family if they have a different connection with Optus or Vodafone.”

Option 2:Buy a 5G wifi hot spot device like this one … Then you can connect your laptop or iPad wirelessly to it.”

Option 3: “Buy a data sim card from any provider that has good wireless internet coverage in your area and insert it into a wireless router like this one from TP-Link. Everyone in the house can connect to this wireless router and you can also take the wireless router with you anywhere. Sometimes it works faster than an NBN connection!”

Other ways to stay social instead

Stephanie Bendixsen, presenter and video games content creator, has a curated list of virtual games to play together with friends or family you can’t see in person.

  • Gartic Phone: “All you need is access to a web browser to play this free version of the telephone game. One person will be prompted to write out a sentence or idea, the next person will have to draw it. The third person will receive the image without the message and will have to interpret what the drawing is. You don’t need fantastic art skills, in fact it’s funnier if you don’t.”

  • Jackbox Party Pack: “Includes several kinds of word games, drawing games, trivia games, which are really well produced with fun graphics and voice dialogue. One person needs to own the game via video game platform Steam and everyone else who is participating just needs access to a browser.”

  • Among Us: “This game came out a couple of years ago, but became really popular in the last 12 months because of live streaming, people saw how fun and social it is. It’s a deception-based game where you play astronauts trying to repair a ship, but two unknown players are trying to sabotage the effort. It’s fun because it’s discussion-based, you watch people trying to keep a straight face when they’re lying to their friends or sometimes people sound guilty when they’re not. Everyone does need to own the game.”

  • Fall Guys: “Can be played on PC or console, and is fun for everyone, even kids. In a candy world aesthetic, you play a jellybean thrown into an obstacle course. It’s very simple but very funny and chaotic.”

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Big tech’s pro-climate rhetoric is not matched by policy action, report finds | Environment

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The world’s biggest tech companies are coming out with bold commitments to tackle their climate impact but when it comes to using their corporate muscle to advocate for stronger climate policies, their engagement is almost nonexistent, according to a new report.

Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook and Microsoft poured about $65m into lobbying in 2020, but an average of only 6% of their lobbying activity between July 2020 and June 2021 was related to climate policy, according to an analysis from the thinktank InfluenceMap, which tracked companies’ self-reported lobbying on federal legislation.

The report also sought to capture tech companies’ overall engagement with climate policy by analyzing activities including their top-level communications as well as lobbying on specific legislation. It found that climate-related engagement levels of three of the five companies – Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft – had declined compared to the previous year.

Tech companies, which have some of the deepest pockets in corporate America, have been racing to come out with increasingly ambitious climate pledges. Amazon has a target to be net zero by 2040 and to power its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, and Facebook has a target of net zero emissions for its entire supply chain by 2030.

In 2020, Microsoft pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to have removed all the carbon the company has ever emitted. Apple has committed to become carbon neutral across its whole supply chain by 2030.

And Google has pledged to power its operations with 100% carbon-free energy by 2030, without using renewable certificates to offset any fossil-generated power. “The science is clear, we have until 2030 to chart a sustainable course for our planet or face the worst consequences of climate change,” the Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, said in a video announcing the policy.

Yet this strong pro-climate rhetoric is not being matched by action at a policy level, according to the report. “These gigantic companies that completely dominate the stock market are not really deploying that political capital at all,” said the InfluenceMap executive director, Dylan Tanner.

Tech companies have not been entirely silent. Apple, for example, has expressed support for the Biden administration’s proposed clean energy standard, which aims for all US-generated electricity to be renewable by 2035.

But these efforts are significantly outweighed by those of big oil and gas companies, which have ramped up their climate lobbying over the same timeframe, according to the report. “Most of their political advocacy is devoted to climate change and it’s negative,” said Tanner.

A lack of engagement is especially disappointing given the new momentum around climate action under the Biden administration, said Bill Weihl, a former Facebook and Google sustainability executive and now executive director of Climate Voice, which mobilizes tech workers to lobby their companies on climate action. “The dominant business voice on these issues is advocating against the kind of policies that we need,” he said.

Joe Biden’s $3.5tn budget reconciliation bill, which includes large investments for climate action, is facing fierce opposition from some industry groups. The US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s most powerful business lobbying group, has said it will “do everything we can to prevent this tax raising, job killing reconciliation bill from becoming law”. All of the tech companies, with the exception of Apple, are members of the Chamber.

“Our best chance to lead the planet to safety in the race against climate change is through this reconciliation bill, yet InfluenceMap has shown that big tech is still MIA on climate in Congress,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and longtime advocate for climate legislation.

Microsoft and Apple declined to comment on the report and Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Amazon said the company engages at local, state and international levels to “actively advocate for policies that promote clean energy, increase access to renewable electricity, and decarbonize the transportation system”.

A Facebook spokesperson said “we’re committed to fighting climate change and are taking substantive steps without waiting for any legislative action”, adding that the company supports the Paris climate agreement goals and helped found the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.

But these actions are not enough given the scale of the crisis, said Tanner. The UN warned in a report published on Friday that even if current climate emissions targets are met, the world is still on a “catastrophic pathway” for 2.7C of heating by the end of the century. “We’re running out of time,” Tanner said, “physically on climate but also on a public policy level.”

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Some of you have dirty green credentials • The Register

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TechUK – the UK’s digital trade association representing computer giants and start-ups alike – has called on firms to check their green credentials and make sure they stand up to scrutiny.

The warning comes as UK businesses were told to brush up on their eco-claims or risk public humiliation and enforcement action by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Businesses have until the New Year to make sure their environmental claims – such as those regarding energy consumption, packaging, recycling, and product lifecycle assessments – comply with the law and are not simply an exercise in greenwashing.

As part of its efforts to steer companies, the CMA has published a six-point Green Claims Code in a bid to make it clear that anyone spouting eco-friendly claims “must not omit or hide important information” and “must consider the full life cycle of the product.”

The CMA is targeting sectors that some onlookers may regard as low hanging fruit including textiles and fashion, energy-hungry travel and transport, and fast-moving consumer goods.

However, any sector and the companies that operate within it – including tech – could fall within the CMA’s crosshairs.

In a statement, Andrea Coscelli, chief exec of the CMA, said: “We’re concerned that too many businesses are falsely taking credit for being green, while genuinely eco-friendly firms don’t get the recognition they deserve. Any business that fails to comply with the law risks damaging its reputation with customers and could face action from the CMA.”

However, there are worries the new rules may lead to confusion. In its evidence to the CMA, techUK said the six principles set out in the guidance were “not specific enough” and also called for more information to help tech firms. It also warned that different variables made in lifecycle assessments could lead to misleading results [PDF].

In a statement, Susanne Baker, associate director for Climate, Environment and Sustainability, techUK, told us: “The CMA’s guidance is important for any company making a green claim about their services, products and company. With more green claims being made by the tech sector than ever before, it’s absolutely vital that these aren’t deemed to be greenwashing.

“Firms have until the new year to address this and will need to think carefully about any green claim they make, be sure they can substantiate them, that they aren’t misleading, and are truthful and accurate,” she said.

The CMA announced that it was investigating the impact of green marketing on consumers last year when it found that 40 per cent of green claims made online could be misleading – suggesting that thousands of businesses could be breaking the law.

In June, The Register reported how a shortage of plastics – rather than a desire to protect the planet — could be one reason why recycled plastics may be working their way into laptops and other gadgetry.

Amazon recently found itself fending off a whistle-blower’s claims alleging it dumped unsold goods to landfill, and later bragged that it had achieved lower carbon “intensity” in its business practices. The latter claim was shot down by an unimpressed scientist close to The Reg who remarked that the fact Amazon’s business was growing was not “helpful to Earth”, and the fact it polluted less per unit of activity didn’t change the bottom line “which is that they are polluting more this year than they did last year.”

Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced the electric car maker will stop accepting Bitcoin payments for its vehicles, due to the “increasing use” of fossil fuels, particularly coal, to support Bitcoin’s electricity-hungry mining and transaction processing.

An Intel sponsored report by non-profit Resilience First, highlighted in June the role of tech in reaching net-zero carbon emission goals. However, making chips has been a dirty business, with a 2002 study concluding that a single 2g semiconductor chip required a whopping 1.6kg of secondary fossil fuels and 72g of chemical inputs to be put into production. ®

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Fivetran nears five times its unicorn valuation as it plans further growth

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The data integration business growing its EMEA HQ in Dublin is set for further expansion following a $5.6bn valuation and key acquisition.

Silicon Valley-headquartered Fivetran has announced $565m in Series D funding alongside a deal to acquire HVR.

This latest funding round sees the automated data integration provider’s value reach $5.6bn just over a year after it first reached unicorn status.

The funding round from new and existing investors included General Catalyst, CEAS Investments and Matrix Partners. Andreessen Horowitz led the round, which also brought in new investors Iconiq Capital, D1 Capital Partners and YC Continuity.

In total, Fivetran has raised $730m to date. And in tandem with its Series D funding round, the company also announced a $700m cash and stock deal to acquire data replication business HVR.

‘Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure’
– MARTIN CASADO, A16Z

For Fivetran’s mission to help businesses make use of the data they have, in a way that is quicker and requires fewer resources, HVR brings database replication performance along with enterprise-grade security.

“HVR is a recognised leader for enterprise database replication and shares our same vision – to make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity,” said Fivetran CEO George Fraser. “Their product is the perfect complement to our automated data integration technology and will be instrumental for us to help enterprise organisations that want to improve their analytics with a modern data stack.”

Fraser added that the latest injection of funding from investors will enable the company to expand its capabilities and accelerate its global growth.

Fivetran established its EMEA HQ in Dublin in 2018. The following year, fresh investment saw the company plan to double its Irish workforce. Last summer, a $100m funding round saw these expansion plans furthered.

In terms of market opportunity, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Martin Casado says Fivetran is a “critical component” of the modern data stack, which represents “a paradigm shift for global enterprises, with billions of dollars of revenue at stake”.

“Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure,” said Casado.

The acquisition deal has been approved by the boards of both companies and is expected to close in early October, subject to regular approvals.

Customers from both companies are expected to benefit from each of the business offerings. On the side of Fivetran, this client list includes Autodesk, DocuSign, Forever 21, Lionsgate and Square, while HVR services dozens of Fortune 500 brands.

“Combining HVR and Fivetran will enable a next-generation solution that will better inform business decisions by providing the freshest data available,” said HVR CEO Anthony Brooks-Williams.

“We’re thrilled to be joining forces with Fivetran and look forward to what this incredible opportunity will provide for our growing team, partners and customers.”

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