Here’s the latest action:

thiel-singularity.jpgSingularity Institute, the quirky group that thinks machines will take over — Peter Thiel, the former CEO of PayPal, and leader of the Founders Fund, graces the pages of the Mercury News and the SF Chron today with his views about how machines are likely to be directing human affairs sometime in the future, possibly within 30 years. The Merc asks why he’s a lead backer of the institute. Thiel responds: Science and technology are the domains in Western civilization where the most is happening, and this is pushing at the very frontiers of it. It is at the very core of what our civilization is fundamentally about. It is where innovation is happening. The group has occasional weekend conferences, the next being this weekend.

Xobni, the secretive email company, reveals big-name backersXobni, the unlaunched company that promises to revolutionize email by giving you more control over it, has announced more top investors: VCs First Round Capital and Ron Conway’s Baseline Ventures, Atomico Investments (co-founded by Nik Zennstrom of Skype fame) and individual angels Ariel Poler (the chairman of Stumbleupon), Paul Buchheit (the creator of Gmail), Saar Gur (a partner at Charles River Ventures), Tom Pinckney (founder of SiteAdvisor) and Paul Graham. The San Francisco company announced in March a first round of $4.2 million in capital, naming only Khosla Ventures and Y Combinator.

Rapleaf, a reputation company, now apparently selling your data — Entrepreneur Auren Hoffman founded Rapleaf to track consumer reputations online, across Websites — an improvement over eBay, which tracks your reputation for activity on that site alone. However, CNET’s Stefanie Olsen writes about the other related activities Hoffman has launched of late, including Upscoop and Trustfuse, the latter selling your data to marketers. We’ve requested comment from Hoffman, but have yet to hear back.

VC tax debate resumes — Let’s face it, the VCs and their private equity counterparts should be paying full income tax on the carry portion of the profits they make from their firm’s investments, because its not their own money they are risking. We explain the reasons here. However, the tax debate rages on in Washington. Dan Primack covers the latest. He notes that Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) had the day’s most explosive line, when he claimed this entire issue was sparked by the “extravagant lifestyle of one man.” He’s referring, of course to Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, who have a penchant for stone crabs that cost $400, or $40 per claw.

Another VC firm says VC model is broken — One of the oldest venture capital firms in Washington state will not raise a new fund, a decision that Northwest Venture Associates founder Tom Simpson said is driven in part by the tough economics now facing venture capitalists (see John Cook’s piece in the Seattle PI ). “I think the fund model is very broken for a variety of reasons,” said Simpson. “One, there is just too much money out there… As a result, valuations are getting bid up. Number two, you are seeing a huge number of ‘me too’ companies being formed… This follow the move by Sevin Rosen Funds last year to return up to $300 million to its investors after making similar complaints about the landscape.

Video company Vudu launches with 5,000 vidoes via set-top box — Details are here (NYT’s Pogue ) and here (Mercury News). They company has a lot against it. It charges $400 for a box that connects to your TV, which is expensive for most people — who have cheaper alternatives like Comcast. However, it’s got plenty of benefits too. There’s 5,000 movies that begin playing instantaneously. There’s no computer involved, no waiting and no monthly fee, as Pogue explains. Picture quality is great, the remote control is nifty, and you pay by movie (not month).

Japan creates initiative to recover edge in search engine technologyDetails in FT. Tokyo, alarmed by the global dominance of Google and other foreign internet services, is spearheading a project to try to seize the lead in new search technologies for electronic devices

Amazon will unveil e-book reader in October — The device, called the Kindle (see NYT story) will let people read books electronically and will cost $400 to $500. It will wirelessly connect to an e-book store on Amazon’s site. This is too expensive, and thus offers little advantage over regular books. Also this fall, Google, plans to start charging users for full online access to the digital copies of some books in its database, according to people with knowledge of its plans.

Spock, the Silicon Valley company offering a people search engine, has tagged the President with lots of compliments — See the President’s page.

World Vital Records, a Provo, Utah aggregator genealogy information, raises around $1.2M — This is the company’s first round of funding, and is just the latest in a string of online family-tree companies to go more aggressively after this industry, including newbies Geni to Verwandt. Backers of WVR include vSpring Capital, Provo Labs and TTP Capital Advisors of Japan, according to a regulatory filing cited by PE Week.

Jobster cofounder leaves — Phillip Bogle, the co-founder of job site Jobster has left, reports John Cook at the Seattle PI. Bogle is possibly headed to work with a more “deeply technical” mobile startup.

Finally, the winners of the Seedcamp start-up competition in Europe are:

Project Playfair: The unlaunched Scottish company hopes to be like hypertext but for numbers. “It’s Excel 2.0,” Seedcamp founder and Index Ventures partner Saul Klein says; one potential application would be to link cells between spreadsheets, so people working together could separately work seamlessly on the same data set.

Zemanta: If you insert a body of text (only text in Slovenian, for now) into a text box on the site, the Slovenian company will go and find other information on the web that it thinks is most relevant to parts of your text, then link pieces of your text to that content. You then cut and paste Zemanta’s linked text into your web publishing platform. Sounds useful for splogging.

Kublax: Like Mint, Wesabe, Buxfer and a range of other startups, the unlaunched London company is trying to help people organize their personal finances. It lets you sync your bills and bank accounts to help you see where you’re spending money, where other people are spending money (using anonymous comparisons based on aggregate behavior), and where you can save. This is not new idea, so we’re not sure why this was named a winner.

TableFinder: OpenTable and Live Bookings are two leading restaurant-booking web sites — TableFinder’s plan is to aggregate information from both sites to help people more easily find and place reservations. It eventually wants to become a marketing platform for restaurants.

Buildersite: Domestic construction in the UK is worth £10bn and this London company hopes to get some of that through creating a trusted environment for homeowners and independent contractors to meet each other and do business. Over 3,000 tradesmen are using the site already. It plans to make money through charging a five percent fee on successful projects.
RentMineOnline: eBay, but for people who want to rent things, not buy them (this is not a new idea)