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Comcast’s Xfinity X1 Eye-Tracking Remote Lets You Control a TV With Your Eyes

Comcast’s Xfinity X1 Eye-Tracking Remote Lets You Control a TV With Your Eyes

Seven years ago, telecommunications heavyweight Comcast recruited Tom Wlodkowski to make the company's services more accessible to people with disabilities.

Wlodkowski came with an impressive list of accomplishments: He'd run AOL's efforts to make the internet more functional for people with visual and physical impairments; and launched a number of services like AIM Relay, which let people who are deaf or speech-disabled place phone calls. He’s also blind, which meant he knew firsthand some of the challenges that people faced when trying to control a television with a standard remote control.

At Comcast, Wlodkowski built a team dedicated to accessibility. They developed the cable industry’s first voice-guided TV interface, and created a dedicated support center for customers with disabilities. So when Wlodkowski’s team was approached by a Comcast board member, whose sister had ALS and couldn't use Comcast's standard remote, the challenge fell to them: How could they give her more control of her TV?

Remote Rethink

Wlodkowski’s team began researching. They found that many people who had lost their fine motor skills—whether from degenerative conditions or paralysis—used eye tracking devices to interface with their computers. These devices shine an infrared light into your eyes and follow the movement of your pupils, like a cursor on a screen. It lets someone use their gaze like a mouse. To "click," they can either linger on a particular icon or set the device to "blink mode," where closing the eyes registers the click.

Wlodkowski brought these accessibility devices into the lab and, after some experimentation, created a web interface that pairs with them. Comcast customers can visit the interface in a web browser, log in with their Xfinity credentials, and pair their accessibility device to an existing set. Using the special interface, a viewer can control their television with their eyes.

The new web-based remote recreates Comcast's X1 interface, which collates everything on your TV and, in some cases, connected home devices. It offers controls for traditional television channels and on-demand media, plus apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora. It can also talk to Xfinity Home services, which can control smart locks and connected thermostats installed around the home. Now, Wlodkowski says, people will have the option to manage all of that with their eye-gaze software. Users can manage basic TV functions—changing the channel, searching for a movie, adjusting the volume—or more complex tasks, like unlocking the front door, all by moving their eyes around the screen.

An eye-controlled remote may seem to serve a small niche, but Wlodkowski likes to think about accessibility tech as driving broader innovations for consumers. Most people won’t use the new remote today, but building these kinds of products could make new interactions possible for everyone later on. He points to voice controls, which first arose to serve the needs of the blind community decades ago. “Now look at what voice has become. It’s a mainstream product,” says Wlodkowski. “Inclusive design makes better products for everyone.”

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Original author: Arielle Pardes
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Hey Alexa, Why Is Voice Shopping So Lousy?

Hey Alexa, Why Is Voice Shopping So Lousy?

Scroll through Twitter and you'll find all manner of jokes about Alexa's on-demand shopping abilities. In response to internet drama: "Alexa, order me popcorn." In response to sad news: "Alexa, order me a box of tissues." In response to climate change: "Alexa, order us a new planet."

Amazon's chatty bot, like its voice-assistant brethren, was meant to liberate us from our most tedious tasks. That includes buying things—reordering toothpaste, stocking the fridge. But voice commerce remains a largely unfulfilled promise; most of us aren't ordering anything through our smart speakers.

Market research firm Forrester recently tested the commercial capabilities of voice assistants from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. The researchers asked each voice assistant 180 questions about products and services, like "what brands sell liquid laundry detergent?" They then ranked each response as either passing or failing. Overall, the voice assistants failed 65 percent of questions. (For what it’s worth, Google Assistant performed best, followed by Microsoft’s Cortana. Apple’s Siri performed worst.)

"Voice commerce is completely overrated."

Sucharita Kodali, market research analyst

It’s not just the high rate of failure but the way those assistants fail that’s interesting. For some of the questions, assistants redirected the user to the browser—as in, "Sorry, I can’t help with that, but I found something on the web." Other times, the voice assistant simply misunderstood the request. In one case, when asked where to buy diapers, Alexa inexplicably directed the Forrester researchers to the town of Buy in Russia.

Voice assistants can prove less-than-capable in other ways, too. Ask Alexa to buy laundry detergent and it can add some to your Amazon shopping cart without much trouble. But ask for something more specific—say, fragrance-free detergent pods under $25—and it's likely to get tripped up.

"A bunch of companies built Alexa skills and I just wonder, 'Why?'" says Sucharita Kodali, the retail expert at Forrester. "Voice commerce is completely overrated. It doesn’t make sense for most purchases except for a quick replenishment purchase of something you recently purchased from Amazon and your payment and shipping information is stored."

Amazon has the distinct advantage in this space, since it controls both the voice technology and the marketplace. It also sells its own line of products, called Amazon Basics, that are better suited to voice-orders. "Voice commerce is very much in its early stages, and it’s generally for basic commodities, those that can be ordered without being seen," says James Moar, a lead analyst at market research firm Juniper. "The Amazon Basics range is full of products that are simple enough to not need comparison, and so is most able to recommend products to be bought through voice."

For Amazon, voice shopping could create a new way to direct customers to its own products, under the guise of convenience. Patrick Gauthier, the vice president of Amazon Pay, has called voice a "new era in commerce" and compared it to the magnitude of mobile payments or e-commerce. Amazon has been working on this for a while—recall the Dash, which you could speak into to add things to your Amazon Fresh cart. But even Amazon hasn't made much headway yet. Last year, only 2 percent of Amazon’s customers used Alexa’s voice shopping feature.

Arielle Pardes covers personal technology, social media, and culture for WIRED.

The figures don't stand much higher on other voice platforms. Research from Elastic Path, a company that builds ecommerce software, found that only 6 percent of consumers had used a voice-activated device to make a purchase in the past six months. About half of the people it surveyed said they were interested in trying it, but many also identified reasons not to—chiefly, the high rate of miscommunication or errors. (Consider this delightful example, in which a Snopes researcher asked Alexa to order a dollhouse. Alexa’s response: "Now shuffling songs by Bauhaus.") And because shopping is often a visual exercise, it often makes more sense to turn to a screen than to shout into the void.

Of course, that’s changing. The adoption of voice technologies is steadily climbing—millions of people own Alexa- or Assistant-enabled devices—and those assistants are no longer restricted to their cylindrical silos. Amazon sells the Echo Show, an Alexa device with a screen; the Google Assistant can live inside the Nest Home Hub or the Lenovo Smart Clock, both of which have displays. Part of the appeal of those devices is the ability to add visual information to an otherwise audio-first experience: showing the weekly forecast when you ask about the weather, or cueing up a music video when you ask to play a song. Another use for a voice assistant with a screen? Shopping.

You can imagine a future where Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and the Google Assistant reach their full potential as personal shoppers. Screens will be essential, as they "allow things to be compared more easily, making more products a viable purchase through voice," says Moar, the Juniper analyst. "This will be fully realized in the ability to transition between platforms—when you can ask your smart speaker about booking hotels, and it hands off the response request to a smart TV to display a variety of options."

Just think, another wholly new way to window shop.

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Original author: Arielle Pardes
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Analogue Mega SG Review: The Sega Genesis Reborn

I’m not much of a nostalgic gamer. I enjoy modern-but-retro-inspired games quite a bit (Hello. Do you have a moment to talk about Hollow Knight?) but I don’t often pine for the gaming experiences of my misspent youth. They’re usually better as memories.

For example, the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind I remember is lush, vivid, and creepy. I’ll always remember how it felt venturing into the perpetual storm surrounding the Red Mountain, and how amazed I was to see NPCs raise their arms to shield themselves from the swirling red ash. Experiencing Morrowind today wouldn't be the same. It looks and feels dated. Reality can never match those wonderful memories.

So when the Analogue SG Mega arrived at my door I was skeptical. It’s a retro console of sorts. It runs original Sega Genesis cartridges using some impressive technical wizardry (more on that later) but at the end of the day it seemed like just another trip down memory lane—one I’d rather not take. Until I spent some time with it.

Mega Genesis

There is something delightfully transgressive about plugging a 1989 retro console into a 65-inch 4K TV. It’s even more delightful when Sonic the Hedgehog tears across the screen in full 1080p. The picture is sharp and colorful, vivid on a modern TV, and the audio is remarkable. Sonic's iconic bells, whistles, and music were faithfully reproduced through modern speakers.

Like it's sibling, the Super NT, the Mega SG is different from other self-contained retro consoles. Instead of coming bundled with controllers and 20+ games baked inside it like the NES Classic and SNES Classic, it's designed to actually play old Sega Genesis cartridges with pristine accuracy. It's less of a retro console and more of a revival.

[[[[image 8Bitdo controller]]]]

It's also on the expensive side. Most retro consoles cost $100 or less. The Mega SG will run you $190 for the console and $25 per controller. Since controllers are not included, you'll need at least one. Analogue partnered with 8Bitdo to make them, and they run $25 a piece from Amazon or Analogue. For an authentic Sega Genesis experience, you're looking at $240. Which is within striking distance of what you'd pay for something like a refurbished Nintendo Switch.

As a gaming experience, this is a Sega Genesis in all but name. Almost. It plays exactly the way you remember it did. It’s quick, snappy, games are rendered faithfully—even the experience of slotting in a cartridge is nostalgic and satisfying. But there are some modern conveniences, too. The controller is wireless and connects using a little dongle you plug into the front of the console, and there’s a system menu for troubleshooting any issues you might have. You can tweak video and audio, or enter Game Genie-style cheat codes if you're feeling frisky.

It eliminates all the problems you’d likely encounter if you tried to hook an original Genesis up to your TV. It gets out of your way and lets you play your original Sega game cartridges without any fuss, and it does that with some impressive technical design.

A Link to the Past

So, the Mega SG is not just a self-contained retro console, like the highly sought-after NES or SNES Classic systems, and it’s not an emulator like the Nintendo Virtual Console store on the Switch. It’s something else entirely.

When you play a game through an emulator on a console or PC (like DICE), you're using a software suite that simulates a retro console's hardware. Some emulators work well. Others are about as elegant as playing Jenga with oven mitts. They're often awkward and janky, requiring a lot of time and care to load and play games properly. Some emulated games flat out won’t work and you’ll be tempted to seek out ROMs (game files) from less-than-reputable sources all over the internet.

[[[[image of Mega SG Colors]]]]

If you’re an enterprising sort, you can find dozens of video tutorials on how to create a retro game console using a Raspberry Pi and some DIY engineering. But these solutions present a problem: no matter how good your emulator is, it’s not the native environment the game was built for. It’s an approximation. It will never play exactly how it would off an original cartridge because the emulator software always stands between you and the game.

Analogue’s Mega SG does something different. It has an FPGA chip inside—a physical chip designed to become another type of hardware. It’s not emulating Sega games; it’s running them in their native environment. You’re playing the same Mortal Kombat that kids were playing (and hiding from their parents) in the early 1990’s. If emulators are MP3s, the Mega SG is classic vinyl.

Rose-Colored Glasses

The console is a solid piece of engineering. It’s well-made and does its job without fail. The games are what they were three decades ago, for better and worse. Some are charmingly quaint and others are frustratingly difficult in the ways only early console games can get away with.

If you played a lot of Sega games as a kid be prepared to have some memories shattered. No, those combos you pulled off in Mortal Kombat were not actually as impressive as you remember; Yes, Aladdin really was that hard.

Sure, most of these games aren’t going to be as great as we remember, but there’s something fun about searching the internet for an obscure cartridge you half remember playing once (like Romance of the Three Kingdoms III) getting it home, and finding it plays just as well as it did in your youth. It’s like taking home a historical artifact (a moment frozen in time) that you can explore precisely as others did in the ancient past.

Playing games like these reminded me how many Sega Genesis games I never played. Honestly, just search “Sega Games” on eBay and you’ll find a handful of probably-kinda-great games you never got around to playing during the 16-bit era.

I’m still averse to nostalgia, and I don’t want to retread all the hours I poured into Shining Force II as a kid, but after digging into Romance of the Three Kingdoms, I’m definitely interested in exploring more of the games I missed out on, and the Mega SG is the best way to do it.

Original author: Jess Grey
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Comcast’s Xfinity X1 Eye-Tracking Remote Lets You Control a TV With Your Eyes

Comcast’s Xfinity X1 Eye-Tracking Remote Lets You Control a TV With Your Eyes

Seven years ago, telecommunications heavyweight Comcast recruited Tom Wlodkowski to make the company's services more accessible to people with disabilities.

Wlodkowski came with an impressive list of accomplishments: He'd run AOL's efforts to make the internet more functional for people with visual and physical impairments; and launched a number of services like AIM Relay, which let people who are deaf or speech-disabled place phone calls. He’s also blind, which meant he knew firsthand some of the challenges that people faced when trying to control a television with a standard remote control.

At Comcast, Wlodkowski built a team dedicated to accessibility. They developed the cable industry’s first voice-guided TV interface, and created a dedicated support center for customers with disabilities. So when Wlodkowski’s team was approached by a Comcast board member, whose sister had ALS and couldn't use Comcast's standard remote, the challenge fell to them: How could they give her more control of her TV?

Remote Rethink

Wlodkowski’s team began researching. They found that many people who had lost their fine motor skills—whether from degenerative conditions or paralysis—used eye tracking devices to interface with their computers. These devices shine an infrared light into your eyes and follow the movement of your pupils, like a cursor on a screen. It lets someone use their gaze like a mouse. To "click," they can either linger on a particular icon or set the device to "blink mode," where closing the eyes registers the click.

Wlodkowski brought these accessibility devices into the lab and, after some experimentation, created a web interface that pairs with them. Comcast customers can visit the interface in a web browser, log in with their Xfinity credentials, and pair their accessibility device to an existing set. Using the special interface, a viewer can control their television with their eyes.

The new web-based remote recreates Comcast's X1 interface, which collates everything on your TV and, in some cases, connected home devices. It offers controls for traditional television channels and on-demand media, plus apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora. It can also talk to Xfinity Home services, which can control smart locks and connected thermostats installed around the home. Now, Wlodkowski says, people will have the option to manage all of that with their eye-gaze software. Users can manage basic TV functions—changing the channel, searching for a movie, adjusting the volume—or more complex tasks, like unlocking the front door, all by moving their eyes around the screen.

An eye-controlled remote may seem to serve a small niche, but Wlodkowski likes to think about accessibility tech as driving broader innovations for consumers. Most people won’t use the new remote today, but building these kinds of products could make new interactions possible for everyone later on. He points to voice controls, which first arose to serve the needs of the blind community decades ago. “Now look at what voice has become. It’s a mainstream product,” says Wlodkowski. “Inclusive design makes better products for everyone.”

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Original author: Arielle Pardes
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'Star Wars' News: 'The Rise of Skywalker' Got Made On the Run

'Star Wars' News: 'The Rise of Skywalker' Got Made On the Run

Of course, everybody knows that WIRED already broke the biggest Star Wars story of the past couple of weeks when we told you that Lucasfilm failed us all by not putting Emma Thompson in a movie, even though she wants to be in one. Hey, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, you have a new Star Wars trilogy in the works—call her agent! Meanwhile, although things have been relatively quiet on the official movie and TV announcement front since the last time we spoke, it’s not as if nothing is going on. Read the latest Cantina Talk below and see for yourself.

The Rise of Skywalker Got Made On the Run

The Source: The woman responsible for ensuring Episode IX made sense

Probability of Accuracy: She knows what she's talking about.

The Real Deal: The relatively short production schedule for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker meant that certain changes had to be made to the filmmaking process, according to Maryann Brandon, one of the movie's editors. At a recent public appearance, she revealed that the movie was being edited and assembled more or less in real time during shooting. "I was on the set the entire time, and [director J.J. Abrams] got so used to it that he was like, 'You need to be less than 10 feet away from me at all times'—so if the camera would move 10 feet, I would move 10 feet," she said. "I watched what they were shooting, I was cutting what they were shooting the day before." The process, born thanks to the looming deadline (the movie was scheduled for release less than a year after principal photography wrapped, a problem considering the amount of visual effects and post-production necessary), came with certain benefits, Brandon explained. "I had the DP right there to ask questions. If I needed a shot, or if J.J. decided we needed another shot, we would set up in a corner and get a green screen shot of something."

Is Star Wars: Quantum Leap a Thing?

The Source: An anonymously sourced online report

Probability of Accuracy: This one sounds unconvincing, but not impossible ...

The Real Deal: File this one under "Genuine Oddities": The site We Got This Covered ran a report last week claiming that there's potentially a new Disney+ show in the works that will feature "a slate of new characters, who try and go back in time in order to change the outcome of various key events within the Star Wars universe." Citing an unnamed "industry insider," the report also said, "One episode will apparently see them trying to kill a young version of Darth Vader." On the face of it, it seems unlikely—it's a very un-Star Wars concept, and there have been no other reports or leaks to support it—but at the same time, the end of Star Wars: Rebels did introduce the possibility of time travel, so it's not entirely unlikely, either.

The Next Star Wars Videogame Will Redefine the Force

The Source: Official publicity for Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Probability of Accuracy: Prepare to discover new Force abilities in a few months; it's legit.

The Real Deal: We've known it was coming for some time, but the recent E3 confab revealed both a new trailer for, and more details about, the upcoming Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order videogame.

The in-canon game not only will introduce new Jedi, and fascinatingly, new Force abilities (including the ability to slow other people's movements), but also will feature familiar faces and locations at a time when fans haven't previously seen them. Forest Whitaker returns as Saw Gerrera from Rogue One in a time period before that of the film. Also, one of the game's missions takes place on the Wookiee home world of Kashyyyk. The game will be released November 15 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, and is already available for preorder.

Fallen Order Will Start Two Months Early

The Source: Marvel's comic book arm

Probability of Accuracy: It's 100 percent on target.

The Real Deal: As if to prove that Fallen Order is, indeed, in canon, Marvel Entertainment has announced a Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order comic book series by Matthew Rosenberg and Paolo Villanelli. The series, which launches in September—two months before the game's release—will introduce characters from the game, centering around Jedi Master Eno Cordova and his Padawan Cere Junda as they get sent on a simple mission which turns out not to be so simple after all. "Having the chance to introduce audiences to some of the game's cast, and explore a bit of who they are and how they got where they are is really fun," Rosenberg told StarWars.com. "Cere Junda and Eno Cordova are a pair of Jedi that fans are definitely going to want to know more about, and this comic will tell you part of their story you won't get anywhere else."

Finally, the Whole Saga in One Place—a Lego Place

The Source: An official announcement from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and friends

Probability of Accuracy: Entirely true and, as a fan of the Lego Star Wars games, entirely awesome.

The Real Deal: Fallen Order wasn't the only Star Wars game talked about at E3, though. In a surprise announcement, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, TT Games, the LEGO Group, and Lucasfilm announced Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, a new game that will span the entire nine-movie storyline with hundreds of playable characters. "Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga marks our return to the franchise that kicked off the Lego videogame series. The game will give fans an all-new LEGO Star Wars experience with complete freedom to explore the Lego Star Wars galaxy," Tom Stone, managing director of TT Games, said in a statement. The game will be released for Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC in 2020.

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Original author: Graeme McMillan
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Hey Alexa, Why Is Voice Shopping So Lousy?

Hey Alexa, Why Is Voice Shopping So Lousy?

Scroll through Twitter and you'll find all manner of jokes about Alexa's on-demand shopping abilities. In response to internet drama: "Alexa, order me popcorn." In response to sad news: "Alexa, order me a box of tissues." In response to climate change: "Alexa, order us a new planet."

Amazon's chatty bot, like its voice-assistant brethren, was meant to liberate us from our most tedious tasks. That includes buying things—reordering toothpaste, stocking the fridge. But voice commerce remains a largely unfulfilled promise; most of us aren't ordering anything through our smart speakers.

Market research firm Forrester recently tested the commercial capabilities of voice assistants from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. The researchers asked each voice assistant 180 questions about products and services, like "what brands sell liquid laundry detergent?" They then ranked each response as either passing or failing. Overall, the voice assistants failed 65 percent of questions. (For what it’s worth, Google Assistant performed best, followed by Microsoft’s Cortana. Apple’s Siri performed worst.)

"Voice commerce is completely overrated."

Sucharita Kodali, market research analyst

It’s not just the high rate of failure but the way those assistants fail that’s interesting. For some of the questions, assistants redirected the user to the browser—as in, "Sorry, I can’t help with that, but I found something on the web." Other times, the voice assistant simply misunderstood the request. In one case, when asked where to buy diapers, Alexa inexplicably directed the Forrester researchers to the town of Buy in Russia.

Voice assistants can prove less-than-capable in other ways, too. Ask Alexa to buy laundry detergent and it can add some to your Amazon shopping cart without much trouble. But ask for something more specific—say, fragrance-free detergent pods under $25—and it's likely to get tripped up.

"A bunch of companies built Alexa skills and I just wonder, 'Why?'" says Sucharita Kodali, the retail expert at Forrester. "Voice commerce is completely overrated. It doesn’t make sense for most purchases except for a quick replenishment purchase of something you recently purchased from Amazon and your payment and shipping information is stored."

Amazon has the distinct advantage in this space, since it controls both the voice technology and the marketplace. It also sells its own line of products, called Amazon Basics, that are better suited to voice-orders. "Voice commerce is very much in its early stages, and it’s generally for basic commodities, those that can be ordered without being seen," says James Moar, a lead analyst at market research firm Juniper. "The Amazon Basics range is full of products that are simple enough to not need comparison, and so is most able to recommend products to be bought through voice."

For Amazon, voice shopping could create a new way to direct customers to its own products, under the guise of convenience. Patrick Gauthier, the vice president of Amazon Pay, has called voice a "new era in commerce" and compared it to the magnitude of mobile payments or e-commerce. Amazon has been working on this for a while—recall the Dash, which you could speak into to add things to your Amazon Fresh cart. But even Amazon hasn't made much headway yet. Last year, only 2 percent of Amazon’s customers used Alexa’s voice shopping feature.

Arielle Pardes covers personal technology, social media, and culture for WIRED.

The figures don't stand much higher on other voice platforms. Research from Elastic Path, a company that builds ecommerce software, found that only 6 percent of consumers had used a voice-activated device to make a purchase in the past six months. About half of the people it surveyed said they were interested in trying it, but many also identified reasons not to—chiefly, the high rate of miscommunication or errors. (Consider this delightful example, in which a Snopes researcher asked Alexa to order a dollhouse. Alexa’s response: "Now shuffling songs by Bauhaus.") And because shopping is often a visual exercise, it often makes more sense to turn to a screen than to shout into the void.

Of course, that’s changing. The adoption of voice technologies is steadily climbing—millions of people own Alexa- or Assistant-enabled devices—and those assistants are no longer restricted to their cylindrical silos. Amazon sells the Echo Show, an Alexa device with a screen; the Google Assistant can live inside the Nest Home Hub or the Lenovo Smart Clock, both of which have displays. Part of the appeal of those devices is the ability to add visual information to an otherwise audio-first experience: showing the weekly forecast when you ask about the weather, or cueing up a music video when you ask to play a song. Another use for a voice assistant with a screen? Shopping.

You can imagine a future where Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and the Google Assistant reach their full potential as personal shoppers. Screens will be essential, as they "allow things to be compared more easily, making more products a viable purchase through voice," says Moar, the Juniper analyst. "This will be fully realized in the ability to transition between platforms—when you can ask your smart speaker about booking hotels, and it hands off the response request to a smart TV to display a variety of options."

Just think, another wholly new way to window shop.

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Original author: Arielle Pardes
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Neptune Is a Windy, Chilly, and Baffling Planet. Let's Go!

Neptune Is a Windy, Chilly, and Baffling Planet. Let's Go!

It was just after midnight at mission control center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Carl Sagan was exuberant. The Voyager 2 spacecraft had just completed its decade-long mission by making its closest pass to Neptune, before continuing on into interstellar space. It was the first—and so far only—spacecraft to visit the mysterious blue ice giant lurking at the edge of the solar system.

“We are looking at the frontier of the solar system, the last planet,” Sagan told a CNN television crew that had assembled for the occasion. “The level of excitement is the highest I’ve ever seen here.”

Before Voyager 2 made its pass just 3,000 miles above Neptune's atmosphere on August 25, 1989, scientists knew next to nothing about the place. What they found was a planet covered in dense, methane-rich clouds that whipped around Neptune at more than 1,000 miles per hour, making it the windiest spot in the solar system. At the time, the planet was host to the Great Dark Spot, an Earth-sized storm that has since disappeared. Voyager also got a good look at Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, and saw geysers erupting from its surface. This suggested it was tectonically active and perhaps host to a vast subsurface ocean. In addition to Triton, Voyager 2 also found six other moons and four lumpy rings circling the planet.

Voyager 2 captured this image of Neptune's outermost ring, located 39,000 miles out.

NASA/JPL

Voyager’s encounter with Neptune raised as many questions as it answered. But in the 30 years since, NASA hasn’t been back. Data from the Kepler Space Telescope suggests that ice giants like Neptune and Uranus are among the most abundant planets in our galaxy, which makes a strong case for a visit. Returning to Neptune could drastically improve our understanding of planetary formation and dynamics, but the window for organizing such a mission is rapidly closing.

Roughly every 12 years, the planets align in such a way that a Neptune-bound spacecraft launched from Earth can get a gravity assist from Jupiter, which helps shave the travel time down to about 12 years. The window for a Jupiter gravity assist only lasts for a couple of years, and the next one opens in the late 2020s. The problem, says Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is that pulling together a flagship planetary exploration mission usually takes about a decade. That means that if NASA wants to hit the next gravity assist window, planning a Neptune mission needed to start yesterday.

Hofstadter says an ideal flagship mission to Neptune would consist of a large spacecraft carrying at least 10 scientific instruments and an atmospheric probe. These instruments would be used to answer a number of fundamental questions about Neptune. At present, he notes that scientists think that the bulk of Neptune’s mass is water, but they’re far from certain. Furthermore, Neptune defies our best models of planetary formation. Based on these models, which accurately reproduce the formation of all the other planets, Neptune and Uranus should have ballooned in size like the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. But they didn’t—and scientists are at a loss to explain why.

“Right now we're in a situation where we recognize that these ice giants are kind of weird, but we don't understand what they're made of, how they're put together, or why they even exist,” Hofstadter says. “Yet they are everywhere we look in our galaxy, so learning some of these fundamental things is really going to advance our big-picture understanding of how planets form and evolve.”

Hofstadter has hope that a return mission to Neptune is feasible in the next decade. In 2017, he coauthored a report that detailed various mission proposals to Neptune and Uranus. The report will help inform NASA’s next planetary science decadal survey, which determines the agency’s exploration priorities for the coming decade. Work on the decadal survey will begin next year and will likely be finished sometime in 2021 or 2022. But even if a flagship mission to Neptune is selected as a priority and receives the necessary funding, by the time the decadal survey is finished it would take a Herculean effort to pull the mission together in time to hit the gravity assist window.

In light of this dilemma, some planetary scientists have already started discussing what a flagship mission to the outer solar system might look like, so that if the decadal survey green-lights a mission to an ice giant, they can start working on it immediately. A particularly tantalizing plan, according to Hofstadter, involves a collaborative mission between NASA and the European Space Agency. In January, the ESA completed a study of ways it could contribute to a NASA-led mission to the ice giants, such as creating a probe, a sister spacecraft to enable the exploration of Neptune and Uranus, or a lander for Triton. “We’ve started drilling into the details,” Hofstadter says, but whether NASA ends up buying into the ESA’s plan will depend on the results of the decadal survey.

Given the time crunch, Hofstadter says it’s also worth considering smaller mission profiles. Louise Prockter, the director of the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute, couldn’t agree more. In March, Prockter and her colleagues unveiled their plans for Trident, a flyby mission to Neptune’s moon Triton that would launch in 2026 and fly by the moon in 2038.

Prockter describes Triton as the solar system’s “forgotten moon.” This is unfortunate, she says, because Triton is quite unlike any other planetary body in the solar system. Many scientists think that the moon is actually from the Kuiper belt, a massive field of objects from the early solar system that lies beyond Neptune, and became trapped in the planet’s orbit. Based on data from Voyager 2, it also seems to be geologically active, and there’s evidence it may support a vast ocean beneath its surface. Its ionosphere is also 10 times more intense than any other ionosphere in the solar system, which is hard to explain because ionospheric activity is usually correlated with a planet’s interaction with the solar wind, and Triton is rather far from the Sun.

Trident would spend approximately 10 days flying through the area around Neptune, during which it would map nearly all of Triton, study its geysers, determine whether it harbored an ocean, and fly within 300 kilometers of the moon’s “bizarre” surface to study its ionosphere. She says the mission could be accomplished with about $500 million, well under the cost of flagship missions, which tend to start around $1 billion. “We're trying to do something bold that no one thought could be done,” Prockter says.

In July, Prockter will submit the Trident proposal for consideration as part of NASA’s Discovery program. If it gets approved, Trident’s arrival at Triton will almost perfectly coincide with the 50th anniversary of Voyager’s visit.

Justifying large planetary missions is always tough, and the timescales involved with missions to the outer solar system only increase the burden on the scientists who make the case for them. The thing about space exploration, though, is that the most exciting discoveries are rarely anticipated in advance. There is plenty of known science to be done on Neptune, but we’ll never know what we’re missing until we get there.

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Original author: Daniel Oberhaus
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Tech tool aims to predict global water conflicts before they happen

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Artificial intelligence can predict where conflicts over scarce water will break out up to a year in advance and allow action to prevent them, researchers said on Friday.

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FILE PHOTO: A pig feeds on sandbanks which emerged amid Danube River's lowest water levels this year, in Beska, Serbia, October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

An early warning tool that tracks water supplies worldwide and mixes in social, economic and demographic data to flag up potential crises is being developed by the Netherlands-based Water, Peace and Security partnership (WPS).

During tests, the system predicted more than three quarters of water-related conflicts in Mali’s Inner Niger Delta, said WPS, which plans to launch it globally later this year.

“We want to detect conflict early enough...to then engage in a dialogue process that helps to address these conflicts - ideally mitigate them early on or resolve them,” said Susanne Schmeier from the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, which leads the WPS.

Climate change often impacts on water – from driving droughts to sea level rises – which in turn can fuel clashes over diminishing resources and force people to migrate from their home areas.

Previous attempts to predict crises have often failed because the causes of conflict are so varied and can be very locally specific.

The WPS said their tool is a step forward as it draws together advances in remote sensing, machine learning and big data processing to provide alerts that can be acted upon.

The system uses data from NASA and European Space Agency satellites that monitor water resources around the world.

It then analyses the information with data from governments, international bodies and research organizations to identify hotspots of potential conflict.

“The machine learning is able to detect patterns in the data where humans can’t,” said Charles Iceland from the World Resources Institute, which is also working on the system.

The alerts can then be used to further investigate the causes of water conflicts and direct targeted help to areas that need it most, the researchers said.

Artificial intelligence can also give a fuller picture of areas where security concerns mean it is not possible to have staff on the ground, they added.

In tests last year using 2016 data from the Inner Niger Delta, the tool correctly predicted water conflicts would break out further south in 2017 as the population grew while resources were diminished by the diversion of water to cash crops.

“The early warning system serves as a prioritization tool,” Iceland told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We can determine the hotspots - the places you have to really tackle immediately - versus other places that may just be simmering or are fine.”

Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Tencent launches video streaming in Thailand, eyes SE Asia expansion

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd launched its first overseas video streaming service in Thailand on Friday, as it ramps up its presence outside China.

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FILE PHOTO: A Tencent sign is seen during the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

Tencent is diversifying from its core Chinese gaming business, which has been beset by regulatory problems, pushing revenue growth to its slowest-ever in the first quarter.

Tencent’s existing Thai user base made the country a good first target for its push into Southeast Asia, said Jeff Han, Senior Vice President of Tencent Penguin Pictures, which produces original content for the streaming business.

“This is the market we need to first enter to try to see whether an overseas launch could be a success for us, so we can continue the challenge,” Han told reporters in a group interview in Bangkok.

“We have our priority markets... the Chinese-speaking markets, which will be more receptive to our offerings,” he said.

In Thailand, Tencent Video will be called WeTV and feature original Chinese content from Tencent Penguin Pictures with Thai dubbing, and content created with local partners, Han said.

He declined to comment how much the company was investing overseas.

WeTV adds to Tencent’s music streaming service JOOX and the mobile version of PUBG games in Thailand.

Tencent’s video streaming subscriptions increased 43% in the first quarter of 2019 on an annual basis, contributing to a growth in digital content revenue, according to its latest results.

Tencent Video in China claims over 89 million subscribers and more than 200 million daily active users.

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Kirsten Donovan

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Space Photos of the Week: Salt of the Jupiter Moon

Space Photos of the Week: Salt of the Jupiter Moon

Europa, a moon in Jupiter’s orbit, is one of the most interesting places in the solar system. Below its thick crust of ice, the moon has an ocean layer that holds more water than we have here on Earth, making it is a prime spot to look for life beyond our planet. These two global photos of Europa show large regions that appear yellow—a coloration caused by sodium chloride, better known as table salt. The findings, based on visible-light spectral analysis from the Hubble Space Telescope, show that large regions of the surface are covered in plain, old salt, too. We’ve known that this moon’s ocean contained some kind of chemical salt, but the fact that it's the salt that's in our own seas raises the intriguing potential that there could be life there, too.

These are the golden years for galaxy NGC 7773. Hubble captured this spiral in great detail, and you can see a phenomenon that tends to occur in older galaxies: the bar of stars across the middle. Astronomers think this feature, which differentiates spirals from barred spirals, takes form later on in a galaxy’s lifetime, as stellar material gravitates toward the center of the system of stars, gas, dust, and dark matter.

Paging Dr. Bruce Banner: NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope has detected its highest-energy gamma rays yet. Green dots on this colorful map of the sky show where the Fermi instrument detected these bursts of radiation. (The galactic plane of our Milky Way runs along the center.) Scientists are still trying to understand more about these gamma rays, which happen only as the result of the most violent events, such as when a massive star turns into a supernova, or when two neutron stars collide and create a black hole.

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy has been studying the massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way in infrared. This image shows the black hole along with magnetic field lines; as surrounding matter gets sucked up, dust particles and gas get heated up and run across these lines aglow in infrared light. By studying these magnetic field lines, astronomers can better understand how matter and black holes interact. They’re not so worried about our world being devoured, since the Milky Way’s black hole isn’t as active as those in the center of most other galaxies. And why is that? Another good questions for researchers and for SOFIA.

If you’ve ever plunked money into claw machines at an arcade, you understand how difficult it is to snag a stuffed toy from the glassed-in container. Now imagine manipulating the claw on another planet a million miles away. For NASA’s InSight, such feats are a piece of cake: In February the lander placed its instruments onto the Martian surface. Here we see the claw grabbing hold of the Heat Flow Probe, which will take the internal temperature of the red planet.

Mars has a long face: These features in the Cerunius Fossae region are fault features known as graben. These are created when the planet’s crust stretches and moves apart, allowing for material to run down along the fault. You could even say, to the chagrin of everyone but exogeologists, that the dirt on Mars is graben the ground.

Original author: Shannon Stirone
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Snow Peak’s Fire Pit Makes Me Like Camping Again

Snow Peak’s Fire Pit Makes Me Like Camping Again

I first saw Snow Peak’s Pack-and-Carry Fire Pit at Snow Peak Way, the cult outdoor brand's yearly camping retreat. A few fire pits were set up in the field, deep in the wooded recesses of the Columbia River Gorge. Kids of all ages gathered around them, helping themselves to marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers, while their parents warmed their toes beside them.

My husband handed glow sticks to our two kids and they ran around like happy, sticky fireflies in the dimming twilight. “This is amazing,” he said. “We’ve never had this before.”

“What’s ‘this’?” I asked.

“We’ve never been outside and just let the kids go,” he said.

Camping with kids is hard. Doing anything with kids is harder than without them, unless you want to jump in a ball pit, eat ice cream, or talk to a grandma. I have a two-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. They never stop moving, usually in a direction that I do not want them to go.

When we're camping, they sleuth out where I’ve hidden the hatchet and swing it around, pretending to be pirates. They take every single one of our possessions out of their plastic bins and throw them in the dirt. Or else, they cackle and push their faces into other people’s tent walls, like they're trying to reenact a scene from Are You Afraid of the Dark.

“What did you expect?” a friend asked me once. “They’re your kids.”

Like our offspring, my husband and I used to have limitless amounts of energy. A typical weekend day might have consisted of a five-mile trail run, outdoor rock climbing, and then skateboarding to dinner. The outdoors was our playground, and we tackled it at top speed before coming home to pass out. When I planned a leisurely three-day backpacking trip in Hawaii, my husband stopped us at the trailhead at 6 a.m. “You know, I bet we can run this thing,” he said.

I put a water filter and a can of ravioli in my backpack, and we ran the whole trail in under five hours, in 90-degree heat, with a cumulative elevation gain of 5,000 feet and over narrow, rocky, unprotected trails that projected hundreds of feet over a rocky sea. We did it because we could, and also if we cut the backpacking trip short, then we’d have enough time to go surfing before going home.

All of this changed once we had kids. There are plenty of parents who take very small children on very extreme adventures, and I admire them. But I can’t even get mine to hike a mile to see a waterfall, not when there are rocks to throw and sand to put in their shoes. After a few trips where my husband and I guiltily switched off climbing or paddling, while the other one watched two cranky toddlers alone, we started to give up.

Snow Peak

It would be an overstatement to say that a $300 pack-and-carry fire pit changed all of this. But it did help me recalibrate my expectations of what camping could be.

The trip with the Snow Peak fire pit was the first time I'd been camping in years without feeling like I was going to lose my mind. My family and I were outside together, enjoying an early-summer evening without stressing out over why the burner on the camp stove wasn't working, or trying to keep the two-year-old from wandering off and falling into a hornet nest.

The fire pit is versatile, durable, and reliable. It folds down flat for storage in your car, so it doesn't take up valuable space that you need for six billion different stuffed animals. Then it unfolds into an elegant metal basket—no tinkering, no complicated setup. It has a grill top, so you can put your pre-made chicken skewers over the coals while watching your four-year-old learn how to play cornhole with a nearby group of young adults, who will all come over at different times to tell you how adorable she is.

It can grow and change with you, and it will last for the rest of your life. Snow Peak CEO Tohru Yamai designed it over 20 years ago, and in that time has only ever received two customer complaints. You can use it to cook, as a fire pit in areas where there are burn restrictions, or add oven attachments, or hook a small table on it. It looks nice, unlike my tiny, rickety backpacking stove or rusted, ancient Coleman stove. Anyone can use and enjoy it—the crazy young'un I once was, the harassed and wistful parent that I am now, and whoever I'm going to be in the future, when my kids get older.

I haven’t given up on adventure quite yet. I still have my fingers crossed that one day, I'll ask my kids if they want mommy to tie them to a rope and dangle them off some high rock ledge. If they're anything like me, they'll think this is a great idea.

But in the meantime, I’m trying to keep an open mind. My daughter, who used to think camping was alternately boring and scary, now asks when we’re going to go again. Possibilities have started to open back up—wide, flat gravel trails and rustic lodges, creeks with sandy beaches. Instead of dragging our kids on a summer expedition to go mountain-biking in Idaho, maybe we’ll just rent a yurt near a lake. We'll light up the fire pit, toss a few hot dogs on the grill top, and call it a day.

It's taken me four years to figure this out, but maybe it’s an adventure just to have your kids laughing around a fire pit in the dusk, surrounded by tall trees. Sometimes just getting out the door is enough. The fire pit is probably going to last long enough for my daughter to take on camping trips with her own kids. When she does, I hope they give her hell. She deserves it.

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Original author: Adrienne So
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In Praise of Dadfluencers

In Praise of Dadfluencers

All around me, I see good dads. They're kissing boo-boos at the park, rushing to pick their kids up from daycare, they're posting proud photos on Instagram and funny conversations they have with their children on Twitter and Facebook. The role of fathers in America is rapidly evolving, with millennial dads on average far more involved in daily parenting tasks than their own fathers were. Evidence of this shows up in surveys, academic research, and across the internet. Proof of good paternity is everywhere.

On Instagram, dads have posted 3.7 million photos and videos to the hashtag #dadlife. (#Fatherhood has 2 million.) On Twitter, dads sharing gross, relatable, and heartwarming looks at fatherhood have amassed huge followings. Take father of four James Breakwell, aka Xploding Unicorn, who has earned over a million followers sharing observations like, "Just overheard my 5-year-old tell her sisters, '...and that's how you defuse a bomb,' and now I feel like I should probably pay attention."

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Some of the most viral content on the internet celebrates dads. Last week, a video of a dad DJ Pryor having an animated conversation with this 19-month-old son—who can only speak in baby gibberish—got more than 57 million views on Facebook, and landed Pryor on Good Morning America. (If you haven't watched it yet, stop reading and do so immediately.)

Pryor's video was more than cute, though. Pryor was demonstrating in his conversation with his son a vital parenting skill that helps kids learn to speak, as Quartz and linguists like Karla Holloway pointed out. By actively engaging with his son's emerging language skills, Pryor was encouraging him to develop complex verbal abilities. In that way, Pryor's viral video modeled good parenting for millions of people. He became, in that sense, an accidental dadfluencer—a proud social media father offering an example of modern fatherhood for all to see.

Dadfluencers can be anyone from Pryor, who went viral by accident, to a guy on Insta with 100 followers who posts about his toddler's breakfast. Of course it also includes traditional influencer-type dads on YouTube giving straight-to-camera advice about parenting—much like YouTube beauty gurus do—but dadfluencers don't need sponsorships. They make an impact just by being visible to other fathers. When I polled people on Twitter about who their favorite online dads were the answers ranged from Rob Delaney, whose fatherhood is part of his identity and comedy, to journalists who tweet about their kids.

Active engagement from fathers like what Pryor's video showed is on the rise. More fathers in the US are staying home with their kids full-time than ever before, according to the Pew Research Center. Fathers are spending, on average, twice as many hours per week with their kids as fathers did in 1965 (eight hours versus four). More than half (57 percent) of fathers Pew polled in 2015 said they see parenting as a crucial part of their identity. That shift is reflected in their social media posts, and in the public's appetite for #dadcontent of all kinds. One of the reasons Pryor's video went so viral last week is because the public is hungry for everyday images of engaged fatherhood. We eat it up because in so many ways it's new.

Dadfluencers, and all the dads out there stanning for #dadlife, are doing important, needle-moving work. The more people see fathers actively fathering, the more it becomes a normal part of society.

Fatherhood hasn't always been considered central to male identity, the way motherhood has been for women. But cultural norms around masculinity and what it means to be a good man are shifting, and the idea that fathers matter to the family mostly by being the breadwinner is no longer true. "Fathering has changed a lot," says Jeff Cookston, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University who studies fatherhood. "We asked 400 dads to tell us what they do well as parents. Very few mentioned providing for their families. The dads celebrated the time they spend with their kids and nurturing a balanced emotional relationship." That finding is also born out in Pew surveys, which have found that households where the father works and the mom or partner stays home are on the decline—the most common work-parenting balance for two-parent households is that both parents work.

Of course, performative parenthood on social media can inspire eye rolls. I have a dear friend who would prefer all parents to silo photos of their kids on Instagram into a separate account so that she can unfollow them. But dadfluencers, and all the dads out there stanning for #dadlife, are doing important, needle-moving work. The more people see fathers actively fathering, the more it becomes a normal part of society.

This kind of celebration of everyday fatherhood on social media and out in the real world is distinct from the long and insidious tradition of "family as performance," which uses family as props in a social charade. Examples of this are the recent rise of the Wife Guy meme, which uses a wife as an accessory to give a husband credibility, to the way men have historically trotted their kids out to make them look like family men—politicians trotting them out during campaign events but ignoring them while they run for office, or using their family as an excuse when they are fired or need to quit a job ("I want to spend more time with my family"). Sure, some #dadlife content is probably a version of this; there are likely dads who hold their kids for Instagram shots and then hand them back to the other parent the moment the photo shoot is over. But the majority of these viral moments, these photo collections, these tweets, are snapshots of mundane daily events, like Cheerios spilled on the floor. Seeing dad pick up each little O matters.

Active fatherhood is not the creation of social media, but like all social norms, it can be influenced by pressure, which the internet is incredible at turning up or down. And perhaps the most important way influencers help create a world where fathers are a normal part of their children's lives is by making it clear how much they want to be, which can in turn help create structural change that allows fathers to be more involved in their kid's lives.

Consider this: While it's wonderful that dads are spending twice as much time with their kids a week as they did 50 years ago, moms are still spending nearly twice as much as that (eight hours for dads versus 14 hours a week for moms, even moms who work full time). It's important to be clear that most households have yet to achieve equity in parental duties. But a lot of that has to do with social supports and structures not catching up to changing norms. Sixty-three percent of fathers polled in 2017 told Pew that they aren't spending enough time with their kids. As I've reported before, the American work week and school schedule, as well as family leave policies and workplace cultures, are designed for households where one parent (the father, traditionally) works, and the other parent stays home. These systems make it hard for dads to be as present as they want to be, and it hurts everyone in the family. It leads to uneven parenting loads, puts stress and pressure on women, hurts women's working prospects, disables dads from being with their kids as much as they want, and prevents kids from quality time with their fathers.

'Let's turn FOMO culture on its head; we can use the same motivations that can get people excited about Fyre Festival to get people to normalize everyday fatherhood.'

Alexis Ohanian

One dadfluencer in particular thinks this is where social media could help. Serena Williams' husband Alexis Ohanian sees viral dad content as a bellwether for social progress, and a lever by which progressives can encourage change. Since the birth of his daughter Alexis Olympia, the co-founder and managing partner of VC firm Initialized Capital has been on a crusade to support fathers, to encourage paternity leave, and to get more dads to be involved in their children's lives.

"Let's turn FOMO culture on its head; we can use the same motivations that can get people excited about Fyre Festival to get people to normalize everyday fatherhood," Ohanian told me in an interview earlier this year.

"Take the Swedish latte papas," he continued. "Bearded Nordic men who are very out and about with dad life, and they're out drinking lattes with their dad buddies! This is an internet meme that took Scandinavia by storm." Ohanian increasingly sees friends he grew up with, across industries, geographies, and income levels acting more and more like the Swedish papas, repping that #dadlife on Instagram and Facebook. To Ohanian, all the posting about fatherhood helps people to see dads wiping butts and caring for sick kids as normal. That can encourage more fathers to act on their desires to spend time with their kids, to take the paternity leaves they are offered, and to show employers that #dadlife matters.

And look, to those good dads out there who hate social media or are against posting photos or information about their kids online, you're still having an influence. You don't have to be public online about your kid to have an impact. When I spoke to Melinda Gates last month about the shifting gender parenting norms, she said she had just recently been in the park and seen a bunch of fathers wearing their children in "snuggly" baby carriers. "And I thought, good for them. Right? I mean, I have to say back when I was having my kids, you didn't see very many men with snugglies," Gates said. "But I'm thinking great, they're not only doing it, but there are also other men in the park who notice them. And women notice it, and maybe go home and ask for it."

And being out in the world with your child is just one way to set an example. The point is: Dads, good on you. You make your kids and your partner's lives better with every funny tweet about your toddler, every school pickup, every wiped nose. You matter. We see you. Happy Father's Day.

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Original author: Emily Dreyfuss
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It's Time to Switch to a Privacy Browser

It's Time to Switch to a Privacy Browser

There's a new battleground in the browser wars: user privacy. Firefox just made its Enhanced Tracking Protection a default feature, Apple continues to pile privacy-focused features into its Safari browser, and people are more aware than ever before of the sort of information they can reveal every time they set a digital footprint on the web.

If you want to push back against online tracking, you've got several options to pick from when choosing a default browser. These are the browsers that put user privacy high on the list of their priorities.

DuckDuckGo (Android, iOS, browser extension)

You might know DuckDuckGo as the anti-Google search engine, but it's also branched out to make its own mobile browsers for Android and iOS. Not only do they keep you better protected online, they give you plenty of information about what they're blocking.

DuckDuckGo starts by enforcing encrypted HTTPS connections, when websites offer them, and then gives each page you visit a grade based on how aggressively it's trying to mine your data.

It's a good pick for getting maximum protection with minimal effort.

To keep you anonymized online, DuckDuckGo blocks tracking cookies that are able to identify you and your device, and even scans and ranks sites' privacy policies. You can clear tabs and data automatically at the end of each session, or you can wipe this data manually with a single tap. You can even set a timer to automatically clear out your history after a period of inactivity.

The browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox do a very similar job, so you don't have to abandon your favorite desktop browser to take advantage of DuckDuckGo's tight privacy controls. Again, the extensions rank sites for their privacy features, and block attempts to track your activities online.

What really appeals about the DuckDuckGo apps and browser extensions is how simple they are to use. You don't really need to do anything except install them, so it's a good pick for getting maximum protection with minimal effort.

Ghostery (Android, iOS, browser extension)

Get Ghostery for Android or iOS installed, and straight away it gets to work blocking adverts and tracking cookies that will attempt to keep tabs on what you're up to on the web.

Like DuckDuckGo's mobile apps, the Ghostery browser tells you exactly which trackers it's blocking, and how many monitoring tools each website has installed—if you find certain sites that are well-behaved, you can mark them as trusted with a tap.

Or, if you find a site that's packed full of tracking technology, you can block every single bit of cookie technology on it (for commenting systems, media players and so on), even if the site might break as a result.

Ghostery also develops an extension that works with just about every desktop browser out there—again, you can view the trackers on each site you visit, then take appropriate action on them or let Ghostery decide and its AI smarts decide what needs blocking.

Ghostery's tools are a little more in-depth and advanced than the ones offered by DuckDuckGo, so you might consider it if you want to take extra control over which trackers are blocked on which sites.

Tor Browser (Android, Windows, macOS)

Tor Browser stands for browsing "without tracking, surveillance, or censorship" and is worth a look if you want the ultimate in anonymized, tracker-free browsing—unless you're on iOS, where it isn't yet available.

The browser app for Android, Windows and macOS is actually part of a bigger project to keep internet browsing anonymous. The Tor Project routes your web navigation through a complex, encrypted network of relays managed by its community, making it much harder for anyone else to work out where you're going on the web.

As well as this additional layer of anonymity, Tor Browser is super-strict on the sort of background scripts and tracking technologies sites are allowed to run. It also blocks fingerprinting, a method where advertisers attempt to recognize the unique characteristics of your device across multiple sites, even if they can't tell exactly who you are.

At the end of each browsing session, everything gets wiped, including cookies left behind by sites and the browsing history inside the Tor Browser app itself. In other words, private browsing mode is the default.

Because of the extra encryption and anonymity measures, Tor Browser can run slightly slower than other browsers, but in terms of staying invisible on the web, it's the best there is. It can even help you get online in countries where the internet is blocked or censored.

Brave (Android, iOS, Windows, macOS)

Brave is a project from Brendan Eich, once of Firefox developer Mozilla, and its mission includes both keeping you from being tracked on the web, and finding a better way to serve you advertisements. It's a dichotomy that doesn't fully fit together just yet.

There's no doubt about the effectiveness of its tracker blocking technologies though. The browser apps block ads by default and put tight restrictions on the information sites can gather on you through cookies and tracking scripts.

You can block trackers, scripts, and fingerprinting technologies—where sites attempt to identify your particular device—individually, but unlike DuckDuckGo and Ghostery you don't get a detailed breakdown of what's been stopped.

Brave also tries to block phishing attempts over the web, and will force HTTPS encryption where it's available. It's a comprehensive package that strikes a well-judged balance between simplicity and power.

Time will tell whether Brave's attempts to create a new privacy-respecting ad platform are successful, but it's testing the idea of paying users to watch ads and splitting the revenue with content creators. You can also give micropayments to sites you like directly, though all of this is completely opt-in.

Firefox (Android, iOS, Windows, macOS)

As we mentioned at the start, Firefox now blocks third-party cookies by default—those are the bits of code left by advertisers that try to piece together what you're doing across multiple sites to build up a more detailed picture of who you are.

It also gives you a ton of information on each website you visit regarding the trackers and cookies that pages have attempted to leave, and which ones Firefox has blocked. Permissions for access to your location and microphone can be easily managed as well.

All this is on desktop—the mobile apps haven't quite caught up yet—but whichever platform you install Firefox on, you've got a raft of privacy-focused features to take advantage of. On mobile, you can again take control over tracker and cookie blocking, and clear out stored data every time you close down the app.

For even stricter tracker protection and ad blocking to boot, there's Firefox Focus for Android and iOS. It's a stripped-down version of the main browser, without all of the bells and whistles of the full Firefox, but if speed and privacy are your main priorities, it's definitely worth a try.

The main Firefox apps for desktop and mobile hit the sweet spot as far as balancing privacy and convenience go: there's plenty to please those who want to take more control over how their data is collected, but all the usual browser features (like extensions and password syncing) as well.

Safari (iOS, macOS)

Apple continues to add anti-tracking tech to Safari with each successive release on iOS and macOS, though this isn't an option for your browser of choice if you're on Windows or Android of course.

Safari has already declared war on third-party tracking cookies that try and connect the dots on your web activity across multiple sites, and also blocks device fingerprinting techniques that try and identify you from the way your phone or laptop is configured.

Those protections are going to get tightened up even further with the arrival of iOS 13 and macOS Catalina in the fall. The browser will even warn you when you try and use a password that's too weak on a new website or service.

Safari also operates against the backdrop of Apple's commitment to collect as little information about you as possible and to keep most of that information locked away on your device rather than on Apple's servers.

Like most of Apple's products, Safari is an obvious choice if you use a lot of other Apple products in your daily life—you can jump seamlessly between browsing on an iPhone and a Mac, for example.

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Original author: David Nield
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Cosmologists Clash Over the Beginning of the Universe

Cosmologists Clash Over the Beginning of the Universe

In 1981, many of the world’s leading cosmologists gathered at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a vestige of the coupled lineages of science and theology located in an elegant villa in the gardens of the Vatican. Stephen Hawking chose the august setting to present what he would later regard as his most important idea: a proposal about how the universe could have arisen from nothing.

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Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research develop­ments and trends in mathe­matics and the physical and life sciences.

Before Hawking’s talk, all cosmological origin stories, scientific or theological, had invited the rejoinder, “What happened before that?” The Big Bang theory, for instance—pioneered 50 years before Hawking’s lecture by the Belgian physicist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, who later served as president of the Vatican’s academy of sciences—rewinds the expansion of the universe back to a hot, dense bundle of energy. But where did the initial energy come from?

The Big Bang theory had other problems. Physicists understood that an expanding bundle of energy would grow into a crumpled mess rather than the huge, smooth cosmos that modern astronomers observe. In 1980, the year before Hawking’s talk, the cosmologist Alan Guth realized that the Big Bang’s problems could be fixed with an add-on: an initial, exponential growth spurt known as cosmic inflation, which would have rendered the universe huge, smooth, and flat before gravity had a chance to wreck it. Inflation quickly became the leading theory of our cosmic origins. Yet the issue of initial conditions remained: What was the source of the minuscule patch that allegedly ballooned into our cosmos, and of the potential energy that inflated it?

Hawking, in his brilliance, saw a way to end the interminable groping backward in time: He proposed that there’s no end, or beginning, at all. According to the record of the Vatican conference, the Cambridge physicist, then 39 and still able to speak with his own voice, told the crowd, “There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe, and what can be more special than the condition that there is no boundary?”

The “no-boundary proposal,” which Hawking and his frequent collaborator, James Hartle, fully formulated in a 1983 paper, envisions the cosmos having the shape of a shuttlecock. Just as a shuttlecock has a diameter of zero at its bottommost point and gradually widens on the way up, the universe, according to the no-boundary proposal, smoothly expanded from a point of zero size. Hartle and Hawking derived a formula describing the whole shuttlecock—the so-called “wave function of the universe” that encompasses the entire past, present, and future at once—making moot all contemplation of seeds of creation, a creator, or any transition from a time before.

“Asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless, according to the no-boundary proposal, because there is no notion of time available to refer to,” Hawking said in another lecture at the Pontifical Academy in 2016, a year and a half before his death. “It would be like asking what lies south of the South Pole.”

Stephen Hawking and James Hartle at a 2014 workshop near Hereford, England.

Cathy Page

Hartle and Hawking’s proposal radically reconceptualized time. Each moment in the universe becomes a cross-section of the shuttlecock; while we perceive the universe as expanding and evolving from one moment to the next, time really consists of correlations between the universe’s size in each cross-section and other properties—particularly its entropy, or disorder. Entropy increases from the cork to the feathers, aiming an emergent arrow of time. Near the shuttlecock’s rounded-off bottom, though, the correlations are less reliable; time ceases to exist and is replaced by pure space. As Hartle, now 79 and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained it by phone recently, “We didn’t have birds in the very early universe; we have birds later on.… We didn’t have time in the early universe, but we have time later on.”

The no-boundary proposal has fascinated and inspired physicists for nearly four decades. “It’s a stunningly beautiful and provocative idea,” said Neil Turok, a cosmologist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, and a former collaborator of Hawking’s. The proposal represented a first guess at the quantum description of the cosmos—the wave function of the universe. Soon an entire field, quantum cosmology, sprang up as researchers devised alternative ideas about how the universe could have come from nothing, analyzed the theories’ various predictions and ways to test them, and interpreted their philosophical meaning. The no-boundary wave function, according to Hartle, “was in some ways the simplest possible proposal for that.”

But two years ago, a paper by Turok, Job Feldbrugge of the Perimeter Institute, and Jean-Luc Lehners of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany called the Hartle-Hawking proposal into question. The proposal is, of course, only viable if a universe that curves out of a dimensionless point in the way Hartle and Hawking imagined naturally grows into a universe like ours. Hawking and Hartle argued that indeed it would—that universes with no boundaries will tend to be huge, breathtakingly smooth, impressively flat, and expanding, just like the actual cosmos. “The trouble with Stephen and Jim’s approach is it was ambiguous,” Turok said—“deeply ambiguous.”

In their 2017 paper, published in Physical Review Letters, Turok and his co-authors approached Hartle and Hawking’s no-boundary proposal with new mathematical techniques that, in their view, make its predictions much more concrete than before. “We discovered that it just failed miserably,” Turok said. “It was just not possible quantum mechanically for a universe to start in the way they imagined.” The trio checked their math and queried their underlying assumptions before going public, but “unfortunately,” Turok said, “it just seemed to be inescapable that the Hartle-Hawking proposal was a disaster.”

The paper ignited a controversy. Other experts mounted a vigorous defense of the no-boundary idea and a rebuttal of Turok and colleagues’ reasoning. “We disagree with his technical arguments,” said Thomas Hertog, a physicist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium who closely collaborated with Hawking for the last 20 years of the latter’s life. “But more fundamentally, we disagree also with his definition, his framework, his choice of principles. And that’s the more interesting discussion.”

After two years of sparring, the groups have traced their technical disagreement to differing beliefs about how nature works. The heated—yet friendly—debate has helped firm up the idea that most tickled Hawking’s fancy. Even critics of his and Hartle’s specific formula, including Turok and Lehners, are crafting competing quantum-cosmological models that try to avoid the alleged pitfalls of the original while maintaining its boundless allure.

Garden of Cosmic Delights

Hartle and Hawking saw a lot of each other from the 1970s on, typically when they met in Cambridge for long periods of collaboration. The duo’s theoretical investigations of black holes and the mysterious singularities at their centers had turned them on to the question of our cosmic origin.

In 1915, Albert Einstein discovered that concentrations of matter or energy warp the fabric of space-time, causing gravity. In the 1960s, Hawking and the Oxford University physicist Roger Penrose proved that when space-time bends steeply enough, such as inside a black hole or perhaps during the Big Bang, it inevitably collapses, curving infinitely steeply toward a singularity, where Einstein’s equations break down and a new, quantum theory of gravity is needed. The Penrose-Hawking “singularity theorems” meant there was no way for space-time to begin smoothly, undramatically at a point.

5W Infographics/Quanta

Hawking and Hartle were thus led to ponder the possibility that the universe began as pure space, rather than dynamical space-time. And this led them to the shuttlecock geometry. They defined the no-boundary wave function describing such a universe using an approach invented by Hawking’s hero, the physicist Richard Feynman. In the 1940s, Feynman devised a scheme for calculating the most likely outcomes of quantum mechanical events. To predict, say, the likeliest outcomes of a particle collision, Feynman found that you could sum up all possible paths that the colliding particles could take, weighting straightforward paths more than convoluted ones in the sum. Calculating this “path integral” gives you the wave function: a probability distribution indicating the different possible states of the particles after the collision.

Likewise, Hartle and Hawking expressed the wave function of the universe—which describes its likely states—as the sum of all possible ways that it might have smoothly expanded from a point. The hope was that the sum of all possible “expansion histories,” smooth-bottomed universes of all different shapes and sizes, would yield a wave function that gives a high probability to a huge, smooth, flat universe like ours. If the weighted sum of all possible expansion histories yields some other kind of universe as the likeliest outcome, the no-boundary proposal fails.

The problem is that the path integral over all possible expansion histories is far too complicated to calculate exactly. Countless different shapes and sizes of universes are possible, and each can be a messy affair. “Murray Gell-Mann used to ask me,” Hartle said, referring to the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist, “if you know the wave function of the universe, why aren’t you rich?” Of course, to actually solve for the wave function using Feynman’s method, Hartle and Hawking had to drastically simplify the situation, ignoring even the specific particles that populate our world (which meant their formula was nowhere close to being able to predict the stock market). They considered the path integral over all possible toy universes in “minisuperspace,” defined as the set of all universes with a single energy field coursing through them: the energy that powered cosmic inflation. (In Hartle and Hawking’s shuttlecock picture, that initial period of ballooning corresponds to the rapid increase in diameter near the bottom of the cork.)

Even the minisuperspace calculation is hard to solve exactly, but physicists know there are two possible expansion histories that potentially dominate the calculation. These rival universe shapes anchor the two sides of the current debate.

The rival solutions are the two “classical” expansion histories that a universe can have. Following an initial spurt of cosmic inflation from size zero, these universes steadily expand according to Einstein’s theory of gravity and space-time. Weirder expansion histories, like football-shaped universes or caterpillar-like ones, mostly cancel out in the quantum calculation.

One of the two classical solutions resembles our universe. On large scales, it’s smooth and randomly dappled with energy, due to quantum fluctuations during inflation. As in the real universe, density differences between regions form a bell curve around zero. If this possible solution does indeed dominate the wave function for minisuperspace, it becomes plausible to imagine that a far more detailed and exact version of the no-boundary wave function might serve as a viable cosmological model of the real universe.

The other potentially dominant universe shape is nothing like reality. As it widens, the energy infusing it varies more and more extremely, creating enormous density differences from one place to the next that gravity steadily worsens. Density variations form an inverted bell curve, where differences between regions approach not zero, but infinity. If this is the dominant term in the no-boundary wave function for minisuperspace, then the Hartle-Hawking proposal would seem to be wrong.

The two dominant expansion histories present a choice in how the path integral should be done. If the dominant histories are two locations on a map, megacities in the realm of all possible quantum mechanical universes, the question is which path we should take through the terrain. Which dominant expansion history, and there can only be one, should our “contour of integration” pick up? Researchers have forked down different paths.

In their 2017 paper, Turok, Feldbrugge and Lehners took a path through the garden of possible expansion histories that led to the second dominant solution. In their view, the only sensible contour is one that scans through real values (as opposed to imaginary values, which involve the square roots of negative numbers) for a variable called “lapse.” Lapse is essentially the height of each possible shuttlecock universe—the distance it takes to reach a certain diameter. Lacking a causal element, lapse is not quite our usual notion of time. Yet Turok and colleagues argue partly on the grounds of causality that only real values of lapse make physical sense. And summing over universes with real values of lapse leads to the wildly fluctuating, physically nonsensical solution.

“People place huge faith in Stephen’s intuition,” Turok said by phone. “For good reason—I mean, he probably had the best intuition of anyone on these topics. But he wasn’t always right.”

Imaginary Universes

Jonathan Halliwell, a physicist at Imperial College London, has studied the no-boundary proposal since he was Hawking’s student in the 1980s. He and Hartle analyzed the issue of the contour of integration in 1990. In their view, as well as Hertog’s, and apparently Hawking’s, the contour is not fundamental, but rather a mathematical tool that can be placed to greatest advantage. It’s similar to how the trajectory of a planet around the sun can be expressed mathematically as a series of angles, as a series of times, or in terms of any of several other convenient parameters. “You can do that parameterization in many different ways, but none of them are any more physical than another one,” Halliwell said.

He and his colleagues argue that, in the minisuperspace case, only contours that pick up the good expansion history make sense. Quantum mechanics requires probabilities to add to 1, or be “normalizable,” but the wildly fluctuating universe that Turok’s team landed on is not. That solution is nonsensical, plagued by infinities and disallowed by quantum laws—obvious signs, according to no-boundary’s defenders, to walk the other way.

Neil Turok has mounted a challenge to Hartle and Hawking’s “no-boundary” proposal and floated a competing quantum description of the universe.

Gabriela Secara

It’s true that contours passing through the good solution sum up possible universes with imaginary values for their lapse variables. But apart from Turok and company, few people think that’s a problem. Imaginary numbers pervade quantum mechanics. To team Hartle-Hawking, the critics are invoking a false notion of causality in demanding that lapse be real. “That’s a principle which is not written in the stars, and which we profoundly disagree with,” Hertog said.

According to Hertog, Hawking seldom mentioned the path integral formulation of the no-boundary wave function in his later years, partly because of the ambiguity around the choice of contour. He regarded the normalizable expansion history, which the path integral had merely helped uncover, as the solution to a more fundamental equation about the universe posed in the 1960s by the physicists John Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt. Wheeler and DeWitt—after mulling over the issue during a layover at Raleigh-Durham International—argued that the wave function of the universe, whatever it is, cannot depend on time, since there is no external clock by which to measure it. And thus the amount of energy in the universe, when you add up the positive and negative contributions of matter and gravity, must stay at zero forever. The no-boundary wave function satisfies the Wheeler-DeWitt equation for minisuperspace.

In the final years of his life, to better understand the wave function more generally, Hawking and his collaborators started applying holography — a blockbuster new approach that treats space-time as a hologram. Hawking sought a holographic description of a shuttlecock-shaped universe, in which the geometry of the entire past would project off of the present.

That effort is continuing in Hawking’s absence. But Turok sees this shift in emphasis as changing the rules. In backing away from the path integral formulation, he says, proponents of the no-boundary idea have made it ill-defined. What they’re studying is no longer Hartle-Hawking, in his opinion—though Hartle himself disagrees.

For the past year, Turok and his Perimeter Institute colleagues Latham Boyle and Kieran Finn have been developing a new cosmological modelthat has much in common with the no-boundary proposal. But instead of one shuttlecock, it envisions two, arranged cork to cork in a sort of hourglass figure with time flowing in both directions. While the model is not yet developed enough to make predictions, its charm lies in the way its lobes realize CPT symmetry, a seemingly fundamental mirror in nature that simultaneously reflects matter and antimatter, left and right, and forward and backward in time. One disadvantage is that the universe’s mirror-image lobes meet at a singularity, a pinch in space-time that requires the unknown quantum theory of gravity to understand. Boyle, Finn and Turok take a stab at the singularity, but such an attempt is inherently speculative.

There has also been a revival of interest in the “tunneling proposal,” an alternative way that the universe might have arisen from nothing, conceived in the ’80s independently by the Russian-American cosmologists Alexander Vilenkin and Andrei Linde. The proposal, which differs from the no-boundary wave function primarily by way of a minus sign, casts the birth of the universe as a quantum mechanical “tunneling” event, similar to when a particle pops up beyond a barrier in a quantum mechanical experiment.

Questions abound about how the various proposals intersect with anthropic reasoning and the infamous multiverse idea. The no-boundary wave function, for instance, favors empty universes, whereas significant matter and energy are needed to power hugeness and complexity. Hawking argued that the vast spread of possible universes permitted by the wave function must all be realized in some larger multiverse, within which only complex universes like ours will have inhabitants capable of making observations. (The recent debate concerns whether these complex, habitable universes will be smooth or wildly fluctuating.) An advantage of the tunneling proposal is that it favors matter- and energy-filled universes like ours without resorting to anthropic reasoning—though universes that tunnel into existence may have other problems.

No matter how things go, perhaps we’ll be left with some essence of the picture Hawking first painted at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences 38 years ago. Or perhaps, instead of a South Pole-like non-beginning, the universe emerged from a singularity after all, demanding a different kind of wave function altogether. Either way, the pursuit will continue. “If we are talking about a quantum mechanical theory, what else is there to find other than the wave function?” asked Juan Maldacena, an eminent theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who has mostly stayed out of the recent fray. The question of the wave function of the universe “is the right kind of question to ask,” said Maldacena, who, incidentally, is a member of the Pontifical Academy. “Whether we are finding the right wave function, or how we should think about the wave function—it’s less clear.”

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

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Original author: Natalie Wolchover
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Justin Bieber's Challenge to Tom Cruise Tops This Week's Internet News Roundup

Justin Bieber's Challenge to Tom Cruise Tops This Week's Internet News Roundup

It's been a week where everyone's favorite member of the Queer Eye Fab Five—sorry, Bobby—Jonathan Van Ness came out as being genderqueer, where Radiohead released outtakes from OK Computer to foil hackers, and a week where an ice wolf that died over 40 millennia ago was discovered, preserved, in the Siberian permafrost. And that's not all—President Trump also favorited a tweet about Rihanna for some mysterious reason. What else happened on the internet last week? While You Were Offline is here to catch you up.

President Trump Got a Nice Letter from Kim Jong-Un

What Happened: The romance between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un continued last week with a press conference in which everyone discussed a very special letter, one that had clearly driven the president to distraction.

What Really Happened: As anyone who's been paying attention knows, the connection between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un is surprisingly close considering the historically difficult relationship the US has had with North Korea. Trump has talked about falling in love with the North Korean leader, which led to hopes of a denuclearization, even when the second summit ended early and poorly earlier this year. And then, last week, this happened.

Yes, that's the president giddily talking about a letter from the North Korean leader, as if it was a love note sent to an anxious teenager. It was weird, but isn't weird the new normal now? Perhaps we should just appreciate the closeness of their friendship, especially given that the alternative might be much worse.

Still, some couldn't help but be surprised by how not surprising this whole thing was.

But what was in the letter? Oh, that was a whole thing in and of itself, as it turned out.

Wait. See that thing about the CIA? That was something that a whole lot of people noticed, as it turned out.

The actual backstory here is even stranger, in that Kim's brother, Kim Jon-Nam, was murdered in 2017 at the behest of, it's commonly believed, North Korea. (The two women responsible have said that they were tricked into their actions by North Korea.) So Trump is literally announcing to the world that he'd protect someone who'd murder his own brother even if the CIA wanted to gather intel on a foreign enemy. That seems … concerning. Surely someone can clear this up.

As to other US/North Korea topics discussed by the president, well, he didn't handle those so well, either.

That has to have been some letter.

The Takeaway: At least some people were asking the important questions.

When Donald Sat Down With George...

What Happened: The President of the United States went on ABC News to remind voters he's happy to do whatever it takes to get elected.

What Really Happened: With all of his continued claims of "Fake News!" it's no surprise that the president has shied away from interviews with outlets that don't have the name Fox News. Last week, however, he sat down with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos for a conversation, and it's fair to say that the interview contained one genuine news-making moment.

Yes, that's President Trump basically admitting he's open to collude with foreign powers in an election even though it's obviously illegal.

But there's more to this than just that. Trump has, uh, apparently thought this through?

Suffice to say, people were appalled.

It wasn't just those on the left contradicting Trump on this matter, either.

And then there was the chair of the FEC making the rules very clear, while also pointing out how surreal it is that she even had to.

Trump tried to explain himself on Twitter the next day, only to make matters worse.

Ignoring the obvious "I would never be trusted again" line—because foreign diplomats expect everything said to the president is in confidence? Also, isn't the president meant to be loyal to the United States, not whether or not people trust him?—there's also this.

You know this got to President Trump by the fact that, two days later, he called in to Fox News to backtrack and say, sure, "of course" he'd go to the FBI.

And, for those wondering if there was going to be something in his past that reveals the president wasn't exactly truthful here, there was.

The Takeaway: That the majority of elected Republicans kept quiet on this topic before the president corrected the record by reversing himself entirely also didn't go unnoticed during this whole week.

The Dramatic Return of Kellyanne Conway

What Happened: Even for some Trump appointees, it turns out that there is a limit to just how much someone can get away with before they have to be held accountable, which is bad news for someone who has waaaaay overstepped that line.

What Really Happened: Really, before last week, it had been far too long since Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway had been in the news for any reason other than being married to a vocal Trump critic. Remember the days when she'd tell people to buy Ivanka Trump's merchandise or freestyle spin to distract the press? Remember the classic Kellyanne? Turns out, the Office of Special Counsel does.

Indeed, the OSC recommended Conway be removed from federal service for her repeated violations of the Hatch Act. Dammit, this is obviously a partisan hit job and—wait, who put this guy in charge of the Office of Special Counsel investigations?

If that seems like a big deal, it's because … it is.

It's probably fair to say Conway responded as most people expected her to.

Other political figures, however, weren't quite as forgiving:

So, what's next? Who would be responsible for firing Conway?

Indeed, the White House counsel's response to the matter is something special in itself.

Does this mean that Conway just gets to hang on being a hanger on? Perhaps not.

Still, at least her job is safe, as the president declared on Fox News.

The Takeaway: We'll just leave this here.

The Dramatic Departure of Sarah Huckabee Sanders

What Happened: With so much negative attention being focused on President Trump midweek, it was time for a sacrificial lamb to be thrown to the crowds as a distraction technique. Sorry, Sarah.

What Really Happened: As is very clear from the above, what started as a relatively quiet week for Trump had, as we headed into the second half, turned into a nightmare. What was clearly needed was a distraction from all this bad news. At first, it looked like that would be war with Iran, but instead, early Thursday afternoon, the president offered an entirely different, and far more unexpected, distraction to everything that's going on.

Yes, the current White House press secretary will retire from the position by the end of the month, with no replacement currently named. It's the end of an era, for sure, but how will Sanders be remembered? Twitter immediately swung into action to answer that question.

Also, Sanders' departure was an impressive milestone of sorts for the Trump administration.

That's a big deal for just three years, isn't it? I mean, it sure feels like something impressive, and almost makes you long for the days when Sean Spicer was stepping away or Anthony Scaramucci was being fired. Remember Anthony Scaramucci? How could we have forgotten the Mooch? But that's enough about the ghosts of Trump Administration Mouthpieces Past; what's next for Sanders? Again, Twitter had some ideas.

Worryingly enough, other people involved seem to have … other ambitions for a post-White House SHS.

The Takeaway: Think of all the opportunities lost to Sanders now that she's stepping out of the nest so early…

Fight! Fight! Fight!

What Happened: There have been many classic clashes throughout the history of mankind: David versus Goliath, Achilles versus Hector, Ali versus Frazier, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice … But last week, the possibility of something even more epic raised its head and inspired the world.

What Really Happened: Let's end on something resembling a high note. Or, at least, a silly one. What would be the least obvious celebrity meeting you could imagine? Bzzt. You're wrong, because Justin Bieber has one even more unlikely that he shared on Twitter.

It's the fight literally no one has been waiting for, and that's why no one could look away. Needless to say, on Twitter, Bieber's callout caused exactly the reaction you thought it would.

Also unsurprising, some people wanted to help make this fight happen. (Seriously, hasn't Bieber seen the Mission: Impossible movies? This would not end well for him.)

Sadly, this was all for naught, as Bieber later admitted he was just joking. Let's be honest, he just realized how badly he'd lose. That wasn't the end of the matter, however, because Justin had, as it turned out, inspired people with his, uh … bravery?

The Takeaway: Things didn't have to end up this way. In another world, there was a far happier climax to this entire storyline.

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Original author: Graeme McMillan
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PSA to assemble batteries for hybrid, electric cars in Slovakia

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FILE PHOTO: The logo of Peugeot carmaker is seen on a vehicle in Cairo, Egypt, May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

TREMERY, France (Reuters) - French carmaker PSA, owner of the Peugeot, Citroen and DS brands, will start assembling batteries for its hybrid and electric cars at its plant in Trnava, Slovakia, and later at its plant in Vigo, Spain.

The company also expects to assemble batteries at some of its other factories as sales of electric cars pick up, Peugeot’s industrial director Yann Vincent said on Friday at a plant in the town of Tremery in eastern France.

The carmaker currently buys batteries from South Korean company LG and China’s CATL.

Vincent added the company expected rising demand for electric and hybrid cars, as well as for vehicles with automatic gearboxes, to offset falling demand for diesel and manual gearbox cars.

Peugeot expects output of engines at Tremery will fall to 1.7 million this year, down from 1.8 million last year due to falling demand for diesel cars.

Reporting by Gilles Guillaume, Editing by Susan Fenton and Mark Potter

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Factbox: Global tech companies shun Huawei after U.S. ban

(Reuters) - Global technology companies are cutting ties with China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd after the U.S. government put the world’s largest telecom equipment maker on a trade blacklist, citing national security concerns.

The United States has effectively banned its companies from doing business with Huawei, exacerbating an ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war. The ban applies to goods that have 25% or more of U.S.-originated technology or materials, and may affect non-American firms.

Huawei is allowed to buy U.S. goods until Aug. 19 to maintain existing telecoms networks and provide software updates to its smartphones.

Following are companies that have suspended business with the Chinese firm:

** ALPHABET INC: Google on May 19 suspended the transfer of hardware, software and technical services to Huawei, except what it has made publicly available via open source licensing.

** U.S. CHIPMAKERS: Intel Corp, Qualcomm Inc and Xilinx Inc told their employees they will not supply critical software or components to Huawei until further notice, Bloomberg reported on May 19.

** LUMENTUM HOLDINGS INC: The optical components maker said on May 20 it discontinued all shipments to Huawei, adding it “intends to fully comply with U.S. imposed license requirements”. Huawei represented 18% of the company’s total revenue in the latest quarter.

** QORVO INC: The radio frequency chipmaker said on May 21 it expects first-quarter revenue to take a $50 million hit due to a halt in shipments to Huawei. The Chinese firm represents 15% of Qorvo’s total revenue in the year ended March 30.

** ANALOG DEVICES INC: Chief Executive Officer Vincent Roche on May 22 said bit.ly/2QfqzRz his company will not be shipping anything to Huawei for the foreseeable future.

** INPHI CORP: The optical communications chipmaker on May 22 lowered its second-quarter earnings forecast based on its understanding of the U.S. government blacklisting of Huawei, which accounted for 14% of Inphi's bit.ly/2HI5GKW sales in 2018.

** ARM: The British chip designer, owned by Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp, said on May 22 it has halted relations with Huawei to comply with the U.S. ban.

** PANASONIC CORP: The Japanese electronics giant said on May 23 it had stopped shipments of certain components to Huawei. It will still sell some components to Huawei, a point it made clear on its China website.

** NEOPHOTONICS CORP: The optical components maker said on May 23 it wrote down certain inventories as a result of the U.S. ban on Huawei, while “fully complying with the restrictions” by ceasing shipments of products.

** SYNOPSYS INC: The electronic products and software maker said on May 23 the company was restricting trade with Huawei and this will impact its revenue.

** MICRON TECHNOLOGY INC: Chief Financial Officer David Zinsner said on May 23 the chipmaker, which earned 13% of its revenue in the first and second quarter from Huawei, was restricted from exporting additional product to the Chinese company.

** MICROSOFT CORP: The software maker has stopped accepting new orders from Huawei as it moves to comply with the U.S. ban, a South China Morning Post report on May 24 said. The two areas of business between Huawei and Microsoft - Windows operating systems for laptops and other content-related services - have been suspended bit.ly/2HyZNRj.

** IQE Plc: U.K.-based maker of semiconductor wafers used in chips said on May 24 that the U.S. ban of Huawei could lead to delay in orders and the need for adjustment of supplier managed inventory levels, mainly in its wireless business unit. IQE supplies wafers to multiple chip companies, some of whom supply to Huawei.

** MAXLINEAR INC: The maker of radio-frequency chips said it had discontinued all shipments to Huawei and its affiliates and cannot predict as to when it will be able to resume shipments.

** SKYWORKS SOLUTIONS INC: The semiconductor maker on June 4 said it ceased all shipments to Huawei and its affiliates and cannot predict as to when it will be able to resume shipments. The company also lowered its third quarter profit and revenue forecasts.

** EMCORE CORP: The maker of optics components lowered its revenue forecast range for the third quarter by $1 million on June 10, citing negative impact to its chip business from the Huawei-related U.S. export restrictions.

** CREE INC: The LED and chip manufacturer said it does not expect to ship any additional products in the fourth quarter for the Huawei build-out and cannot predict when it will be able to resume shipments. It also lowered its fourth quarter revenue and profit forecasts, citing the Huawei ban and softer-than-expected demand for its LED products as global trade uncertainties persist.

** BROADCOM INC: The communications chipmaker cut its full-year revenue forecast by $2 billion on June 13, citing U.S.-China trade tensions and the ban on doing business with Huawei. The Chinese company accounted for about $900 million, or 4%, of Broadcom’s overall sales last year.

Compiled by Sayanti Chakraborty and Arjun Panchadar in Bengaluru; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Arun Koyyur

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Explainer: Why is Huawei seeking $1 billion patent deal with Verizon?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Huawei is demanding Verizon Communications Inc pay $1 billion to license the rights to patented technology, signaling a potential shift in the embattled Chinese company’s strategy for the U.S. market.

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FILE PHOTO: A Huawei company logo is seen at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Asia 2019 in Shanghai, China June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

A Huawei executive made the demand in a February letter, a person briefed on the matter told Reuters. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letter on Wednesday. The fee would cover licensing of more than 230 patents.

Verizon spokesman Rich Young declined to comment “regarding this specific issue because it’s a potential legal matter.”

However, Young said, “These issues are larger than just Verizon. Given the broader geopolitical context, any issue involving Huawei has implications for our entire industry and also raise national and international concerns.”

Huawei did not respond to a request for comment.

The following explains why the patent dispute is not unusual and how it could be resolved.

How common is patent licensing?

Patent licensing is very common, particularly in complex industries like telecommunications. As technology has advanced, it has become harder to avoid violating — or “infringing” — patent rights. There are millions of U.S. patents in force, and a typical smartphone implicates hundreds of thousands of them.

Companies like Apple Inc, Nokia Inc and Qualcomm Inc own many thousands of patents issued by governments around the world.

It is not unusual for these firms to try to make money from their massive patent portfolios. Nokia, for example, routinely brings in more than $1 billion a year from licensing its patents to others.

Large companies like Verizon will try to identify patents they might be violating, said Gaston Kroub, a patent lawyer in New York. But that can be a challenge because so many patents are granted every year, Kroub said.

“Sophisticated companies like Verizon understand that they could be approached by licensors of any stripe at any time,” Kroub said. The philosophy of wireless carriers and smartphone companies, Kroub said, can be “let’s deal with these claims as they arrive, because we don’t know who will knock on our door next.”

Tom Cotter, a professor of patent law at the University of Minnesota, said it was possible Huawei executives believe Verizon has been infringing their U.S. patents for some time but for business reasons waited until now to seek compensation.

Patent owners “may not enforce their patents for a period of time, but they can choose do to so whenever they want to,” Cotter said. “It happens all the time.”

What happens if Verizon does not pay?

Huawei may end up going to a U.S. court and suing Verizon for alleged patent infringement.

While some licensing disputes are resolved without lawsuits, litigation is fairly common. Huawei and Samsung Electronics Co recently settled a global legal battle on confidential terms.

A defendant in a patent case typically argues that it does not actually infringe the asserted patents, or that they were mistakenly issued and should be revoked.

In a lawsuit, a patent owner can ask a judge to block sales of infringing products. While such injunctions are rarely granted in the United States, the threat of one can motivate a defendant to settle with the patent owner.

Legal experts said Huawei is likely prepared to go to court.

“I don’t know how you can make a demand of $1 billion and not be prepared for the answer to be no, at least at first, and for the need to litigate,” Kroub said.

Has Huawei been an aggressive enforcer of its patents?

Huawei has long been known for defending itself against U.S. patent infringement claims, rather than bringing them. But that could be changing.

George Koomullil, a patent analyst at Pleasanton, California-based technology company Relecura, said that 10 or 15 years ago Huawei applied for a relatively modest number of patents. But the company has been more aggressive about applying for patents since around 2007, and particularly in recent years, Koomullil said.

Huawei may be more inclined to monetize its U.S. patents now that the U.S. government has limited its ability to sell products in the country, Kroub said.

The National Defense Authorization Act last year placed a broad ban on the use of federal money to purchase products from Huawei, citing national security concerns.

Last month, the Trump administration banned Huawei from buying vital U.S. technology without special approval and effectively barring its equipment from U.S. telecom networks.

Kroub said Huawei’s licensing demand could reflect a “desperation to come up with ways of generating revenue in the U.S. market, especially considering the traditional ways of offering products and selling things to business is closed to them.”

Franklin Turner, a government contracts lawyer at McCarter & English in Washington, said the patent licensing demand may also be a way for Huawei to “retaliate” against the United States.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said on Twitter on Thursday that the demand against Verizon was an “attempt by (Huawei) to retaliate against the U.S. by setting the stage for baseless, but costly, patent claims.”

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by David Sherpardson and Karen Freifeld; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Bumble owner to spend $100 million on dating apps

(Reuters) - The owner of dating app Bumble said on Friday it would revamp its holding structure and spend $100 million, as it looks to better compete with Match Group’s Tinder.

The company has created Magic Lab, a holding company for its brands that include dating apps Badoo, Chappy and Lumen, said Andrey Andreev, founder and chief executive officer of the group.

The announcement comes more than one month after Facebook Inc rolled out its dating feature to 14 more countries as it attempts to boost user-engagement on its platform.

Shares of Match Group edged 0.8% lower in afternoon trading.

Reporting by Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Broadcom's $2 billion warning rattles global chip sector

LONDON/BENGALURU (Reuters) - Broadcom Inc sent a shockwave through the global chipmaking industry on Friday with its forecast that U.S.-China trade tensions and the ban on doing business with Huawei Technologies would knock $2 billion off the company’s sales this year.

The forecast, included in the company’s second-quarter results late on Thursday, was the hardest evidence yet of the damage President Donald Trump’s trade war with Beijing may do to the global industry.

Shares in Broadcom fell as much as 8.6%, wiping more than $9 billion off the market value of the company, previously based in Asia but now with its headquarters and main listing in the United States.

U.S. chipmakers Qualcomm, Applied Materials Inc, Intel Corp, Advanced Micro Devices Inc and Xilinx Inc were all down between 1.5% and 3%.

The Philadelphia chip index was down nearly 3% with 29 of its 30 components trading lower. Shares of other Huawei suppliers like Analog Devices Inc, Skyworks Solutions and Qorvo Inc also fell.

European peers including STMicroelectronics, Infineon and AMS ended the day lower.

“We’ll see a very sharp impact simply because (there are) no purchases allowed and there’s no obvious substitution in place,” Chief Executive Officer Hock Tan said on a post-earnings call with analysts on the Huawei ban.

Huawei accounted for about $900 million, or 4%, of the company’s overall sales last year. Broadcom, however, also said the forecast cut “extends beyond one particular customer.”

“We’re talking about uncertainty in our marketplace, uncertainty because of the - of demand in the form of order reduction as the supply chain out there constricts - compress, so to speak,” Tan said.

The semiconductor industry has been grappling with slowing demand since the second half of 2018 with bellwether Texas Instruments warning in April that a cyclical downturn could last for another two years.

That has related chiefly to signs that mobile phone markets in some major economies are increasingly saturated while mass demand in new areas like self-driving cars and internet of things devices for homes and offices is still developing.

The geopolitical risks from the trade conflict and Huawei ban are an additional shock.

“It’s not just Huawei, it’s deeper than that. OEMs [carmakers] aren’t ordering. Inventory concerns, which were supposed to ease, have not gone away,” said one European trader. “Goodbye H2 recovery hopes!”

Broadcom, known for communications chips that power Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS connectivity in smartphones, is also a major supplier to Apple Inc and shares of the iPhone maker were down 1%.

“We believe Broadcom’s 2H19 outlook is not only impacted by the direct Huawei export ban, but also includes the indirect impact from the Huawei export ban to other customers as well as the possible industry-wide impact of the possible additional import tariffs,” Summit Insights Group analyst Kinngai Chan said.

Finisar Corp, which makes sensors for facial recognition, transceivers and other components for telecommunication networks, said in a regulatory filing that ban on Huawei could have continuing negative impact on its future revenue. Huawei represented 10% of its total revenue in fiscal 2019.

The CEO of chipmaker Micron Technology also said the ban on Huawei brings uncertainty and disturbance to the semiconductor industry.

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FILE PHOTO: Broadcom Limited company logo is pictured on an office building in Rancho Bernardo, California May 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Micron will report its third-quarter results on June 25.

“I think you have seen all the companies (Qorvo, Skyworks, Maxlinear, Cree, Inphi, Lumentum, NeoPhotonics) which pre-announced negative for about half their quarter’s impact due to this Huawei export ban,” Chan said.

“The issue now is that there will be a second degree (indirect) impact as well that most companies do not want to talk about. We believe the next wave of companies that should be echoing what Broadcom says are Micron and Western Digital,” Chan added.

Reporting by Helen Reid in London, Arjun Panchadar, Vibhuti Sharma and Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru; Editing by Josephine Mason, Susan Fenton and Patrick Graham

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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