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Twitter is auditing itself for toxicity

July 30, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Bloomberg

Whether it’s the veil of anonymity, the controversial nature of political discourse, or both — conversations on social media can quickly turn into emotionally charged quarrels. To combat these ongoing issues, Twitter has cracked down on fake accounts, added extra verification steps for new users, and acquired Smyte — a software company that’s dedicated to preventing spam and abuse. Now the social networking site is turning to university experts to promote healthier dialog.

Leiden University’s Dr. Rebekah Tromble will head a team of researchers to investigate the formation of echo chambers and underlying causes of uncivil discourse. The joint project will look to measure how communities take shape around political discussions, and observe any problems that manifest. To do this, the researchers will gauge how frequently Twitter users engage with diverse viewpoints, and develop algorithms that determine whether a conversation is ‘uncivil’ — one that breaks politeness norms — or ‘intolerant’, responses that fall more in line with hate speech, racism, or xenophobia:

“In the context of growing political polarization, the spread of misinformation, and increases in incivility and intolerance, it is clear that if we are going to effectively evaluate and address some of the most difficult challenges arising on social media, academic researchers and tech companies will need to work together much more closely,” Dr. Tromble said.

In the past, Leiden studies have indicated that the similarity of opinions in echo chambers tends to foster hostility and resentment towards people with opposing perspectives.

Oxford University researchers are also joining Twitter’s initiative to cultivate a healthier, less discriminatory online space. Social psychology professor Miles Hewstone says communicating with individuals from different backgrounds is a proven method for reducing prejudice, and his team is interested in determining whether the positivity of an interaction online is transferred when a user logs off.

In an age where the boundaries between online and real-world identities have become increasingly blurred, and words can be used as weapons, such initiatives may prove useful for Twitter. After all, the rush of happiness we experience after a pleasant online conversation with a stranger is very much real.

Tech News

The Morning After: Tesla made a surfboard

July 30, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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How’s your Monday morning going? We’ve got news on how long you’ll have to wait for the third part of Stranger Things, and an AI can predict a movie’s audience based on its trailer. Meanwhile, NASA’s picking its favorite looks for Mars habitats — and isn’t even using Pinterest for inspiration.

The Duffer Brothers are taking their time to get things right.
Netflix won’t premiere ‘Stranger Things’ season 3 until summer 2019

That season three teaser is all you’re getting for now. Netflix exec Cindy Holland has revealed that the third installment of the Duffer Brothers’ show is launching sometime in summer 2019 — a longer wait than the 15 months between the first two seasons.

They’ll now have to build a one-third-scale version of their designs.NASA contest finalists show off their Mars-habitat models

We haven’t even sent humans to Mars, but let’s talk houses. NASA launched the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge back in 2015 to find suitable artificial housing for the first wave of Martian residents, and now the agency has narrowed the contestants down to five after seeing the realistic virtual models they created.

Nope, sold out.Tesla made a $1,500 surfboard

More functional than a flamethrower.

Less eye strain.YouTube’s dark mode reaches Android users

iOS users got the option in March, but YouTube is finally rolling out its “dark theme” to Android phones. If you have it on your phone, you’ll find it your Settings’ General section. It’s not certain how soon everyone will get the feature (we’ve asked Google for comment), though — it may take some days to arrive.

But wait, there’s more… After Math: The price of doing business Fox AI predicts a movie’s audience based on its trailer Netflix launches Riverdale’s Sabrina spin-off on October 26th DJI’s leaked Mavic 2 drone will come in ‘Pro’ and ‘Zoom’ versions

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Tech News

NASA contest finalists show off their Mars habitat models

July 29, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Team SEArch+/Apis Cor

Yes, we’ve yet to successfully send humans to Mars, but we already need to start thinking how we can stay there for long stretches of time — or even for good. NASA launched the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge back in 2015 to find a suitable artificial housing for the first wave of Martian residents, and now the agency has narrowed the contestants down to five after seeing the realistic virtual models they created. The agency and its project partner, Illinois’ Bradley University, judged 18 teams’ models created using a specialized software.

According to TechCrunch, the software requires various details about the structures creators are designing. In other words, the teams couldn’t just come up with a concept that looks good — they had to make sure their habitats’ wall thickness, heating, pressure sealing and other elements can actually withstand harsh Martian conditions.

The five teams split a $100,000 cash pot earmarked for this stage of the competition, with the two top teams taking home $20,957.95 each. One of the top teams, Zopherus from Arkansas, has envisioned a habitat built by moving 3D printers that can deploy rovers to retrieve local materials for construction.

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AI. SpaceFactory of New York designed a cylindrical habitat for max space usage.

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Team Kahn-Yates of Jackson, Mississippi, which got third place, features a design with translucent dots to let the light in. It was also created to withstand Mars’ massive dust storms.

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SEArch+/Apis Cor from New York prioritized creating a habitat that lets the light in but can provide strong radiation shielding.

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Finally, Team Northwestern University from Illinois has conjured up a design that features a spherical shell with an outer parabolic dome. They also want to make building one as easy as possible by using an inflatable vessel as base for a 3D printer, so it can quickly print out a dome with cross beams.

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The five teams now have to prove their ideas are feasible by 3D printing — autonomously, that is — part of their structures and to create a one-third-scale version of their design. Monsi Roman, NASA’s Centennial Challenges program manager, said: “We are thrilled to see the success of this diverse group of teams that have approached this competition in their own unique styles. They are not just designing structures, they are designing habitats that will allow our space explorers to live and work on other planets.”

Tech News

After Math: The price of doing business

July 29, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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Elon Musk just can’t seem to stay out of the news. After last week’s tirade against the Thai cave rescue diver, his girlfriend took to Twitter to defend his large donations to the GOP as “the price of doing business in america [sic].” But that price differs depending on who you ask. For right-wing troll Alex Jones, that price is a 30-day timeout from Facebook and Yahoo, but for MoviePass that price could well be the company’s entire operation.

83 million active paying users: Family plans have long been a staple of mobile carriers as a means of locking in customers (and their families) to long-term contracts and now the practice is bleeding over into streaming services as well. It seems to be working for Spotify, which announced it’s added 8 million new paid subscribers in the last fiscal quarter.

$5 million in loans: MoviePass might not be around for much longer. The company suffered a service outage this week because it didn’t have the funds to buy a sufficient number of tickets, forcing MoviePass’ parent company to borrow $5 million. This is the second such outage this month alone.

$0: If you live in Japan and your iPad was damaged in the recent, deadly flooding, there is a silver lining. Apple announced this week that it will repair or replace any of its products damaged by the rising floodwaters free of charge.

$71.3 billion: Disney and Fox’s proposed merger took another step towards completion this week when the companies’ respective shareholders voted to approve the multi-billion dollar deal. There’s still work to be done before the merger is scheduled for completion early next year. The companies must shed 22 regional sports networks to comply with DOJ anti-trust demands, for example.

30 days: Alex Jones will have to go back to shouting his conspiracy theories on street corners for the next month after both YouTube and Facebook have issued temporary bans on his use of their platforms (as well as removed a number of community standard-violating videos). This, of course, is barely a slap on the wrist and will likely do nothing to dissuade him from arguing that fluoride in the water supply turns frogs gay or whatever he’s making up this week to sell his snake oil brain supplements.

0 loot crates: As the makers of Star Wars Battlefront II can attest, the inclusion of loot crates in modern games is quickly becoming a toxic asset for developers. That’s why Turn 10, makers of the Forza racing series, announced that they’ll be phasing out the crates in Motorsport 7 and won’t include them at all in Horizon 4.

Tech News

The first ‘blockchain baby’ is here

July 27, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

When you read the news that they put a baby on the blockchain, your reaction makes you one of two types of people. Either you think, Mon dieu, is there anything the magical fairy dust known as blockchain can’t solve? Or you think: Surely this is child abuse.

For the past few years, techies have frothed and proselytized over the potential salvation of blockchain, the tech behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. So it’s hard to even know what babies and blockchain could even have to do with each other. Typically, outside of grifter circles, blockchain is associated with vaporware, shady fraudulent ICO’s, or solving things that aren’t suited at all for blockchain’s “distributed ledger” system. Oh, and largely solving things that aren’t even problems.

Rather than try and part the foolish with their actual money, for once the crypto craze might be doing some useful good — which is how a baby ended up on the blockchain. In this instance, the international organization AID:Tech is using the technology as a way to get charitable donations to their destinations: as in, getting soon-to-be moms in need funds for things like vitamins and medical care.

Of course, we think, why not just give it to already-established care orgs — why make a whole blockchain mess out of it? This is an extremely reasonable question, seldom asked in the presence of crypto-critters. AID:Tech is a medical aid project positioned to combat the huge problem of fraud in the world of charitable donations, and to help at-risk women with their medical information. And on July 13th, a baby was added to a blockchain ledger (a first). This was followed by two more births on the 19th.

The idea of grafting blockchain to charity was to prevent fraud — which seems ironic given cryptocurrency’s reputation. Founder Joseph Thompson told CIO in a March interview:

In 2009, I ran 151 miles in the Sahra Desert as part of the tough world marathon, the 6-day Marathon des Sables. For the race, I raised over $120k for a charity I trusted. But the funds did not go where they were intended to.

With this experience, I became a cynic and decided never to donate again. But I always wanted to solve this problem. In 2010, I then saw the potential of Blockchain for traceability, and then the United Nations included this goal as part of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].

And so, in December 2015, hundreds of Syrian refugees at a camp in Lebanon took part in AID:Tech’s pilot program. The org partnered with the Irish Red Cross to give 500 digital credit cards to the refugees for use in a supermarket, each pre-loaded with $20 — in total, $10K was distributed to 100 Syrian refugee families.

“A traditional paper voucher system was simultaneously in place. These are problematic because fraudulent copies inevitably emerge,” wrote Irish Times. “Within a matter of hours, the same thing was

Tech News

Chocolate, bioterrorism and the birth of Brazilian funk

July 27, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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In the 1990s, the cacao farmers of Brazil fell into a collective depression. Some hanged themselves, others dosed themselves with rat poison, still others walked around crying and saying they didn’t have anything to eat. The cacao pods on orchards throughout Bahia sat stagnant on their branches, rotting from the inside out. A coven of foreign, tightly gnarled stalks covered the trees themselves. The country had been the world’s third-largest producer of cocoa beans, but it had fallen from grace and even had to import beans from West Africa to satisfy its residents’ sweet tooth.

Juliana Pinheiro Aquino remembers it well. “My father was depressed. He was very sad,” she said.

About a century earlier, her great-grandmother’s brother, Firmino Alves, had founded the city of Itabuna and started the tradition of farming cacao in Bahia. “He called all his friends to help him,” Aquino said, describing the land rush of the late 1800s. Alves and his friends grew fabulously wealthy thanks to cacao and the mass of workers who helped them farm it. “Cacao was like the golden fruit,” Aquino said, “so everyone was raised with a lot of money.”

Aquino spent the first few years of her life on the Pinheiro family’s large-scale farm, living near her celebrity uncle who used his wealth to buy several Ford dealerships. Then, after a falling out, her father bought his own farm, Fazenda Santa Rita. When witches’ broom hit, Aquino said that within a couple of years, they had lost their entire fortune.

Her family wasn’t alone. More than 200,000 people, directly and indirectly, lost their jobs. Bahia experienced a mass exodus as people flocked from the farms to nearby cities, creating overpopulation and, with it, poverty and crime: Brazil now boasts 17 of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities, which historian Claudio Zumaeta linked directly to the collapse of cacao. Meanwhile, parts of the rainforest were wrecked, and Bahia’s biodiversity irreparably affected as farmers razed their trees to control the disease.

How could devastation happen on such a definitive level, especially in an area that had been farming cacao for more than 100 years? Two words: Moniliophthora perniciosa. The fungus causes a disease called witches’ broom that spells disaster for cacao farming, systematically transforming healthy trees into possessed messes with rotting pods and nasty-tasting beans.

The witch behind witches’ broom Expand

Witches’ broom is one of the most insidious diseases that can affect cacao trees, causing “yield reductions that range from 50 to 90%,” writes Lyndel W. Meinhardt et al., in a 2008 article in Molecular Plant Pathology called “Moniliophthora perniciosa, the causal agent of witches’ broom disease of cacao: What’s new from this old foe?”

Moniliophthora perniciosa is thought to have developed in the Amazon, like cacao. The fungus attacks trees in five phases: infection, green broom, necrosis, dry broom

Tech News

Centauro is a disaster-response robot that looks like a horse

July 26, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

IIT

These days, most robots under development seem to be based on humans. However, a tweak to these designs might actually make robots more effective and stable. Centauro is based on the design of a centaur, hence the name, and its four legs on wheels provide movement and freedom that have been unachievable with comparable bipedal models. Its human-like torso and arms allow it to perform fine motor functions.

The robot stands 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) tall and weighs 93 kgs (just over 200 lbs). Its skeleton is composed of lightweight metals, and its body is covered in 3D-printed plastic. Batteries can keep Centauro operational for about 2.5 hours. The robot is not autonomous; it requires a human operator, which is a job that takes quite a bit of training.

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Disaster response is the main goal for Centauro, and its leg structure give it added mobility in precarious areas and situations. “It will be able to navigate in affected man-made environments, including the inside of buildings and stairs, which are cluttered with debris and partially collapsed,” the Centauro Project’s website says. Its four legs provide full the much-coveted six degrees of freedom movement.

Centauro is based on Momaro, which was introduced at the DARPA Robotics Challenge by the University of Bonn. It was the top-ranked robot at the competition, so it was only natural that Momaro’s ingenious design would provide inspiration for other robots, like Centauro. The platform was built by the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) and is funded by the EU. The CENTAURO Consortium is coordinated by the team at the University of Bonn that developed Momaro.

Tech News

Virgin Galactic breaks Mach 2 in third powered test flight

July 26, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic conducted another test of its VSS Unity, taking it out on a third rocket-powered supersonic flight this morning. After being released from the VMS Eve carrier craft, the VSS Unity flew higher than it has previously, reaching a peak altitude of 170,800 feet and entering the mesosphere for the first time. It also reached speeds of Mach 2.47 during its 42 second rocket burn. The first and second VSS Unity powered test flights reached altitudes of 84,271 feet and 114,500 feet and speeds of Mach 1.87 and 1.9, respectively.

Updated key stats from today’s test flight:
Release altitude: 46,500 ft
Burn time: 42 seconds
Boost Mach: 2.47
Apogee: 170,800 ft, 32.3 miles, 52 km
Re-entry Mach: 1.7

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 26, 2018

The VSS Unity replaced Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which crashed in 2014, killing one of its pilots. The company says that tests like the one performed today allow it to collect cabin data like temperature, pressure, thermal response, vibration and radiation.

“The flight was exciting and frankly beautiful,” said pilot Mike “Sooch” Masucci. “We were able to complete a large number of test points which will give us good insight as we progress to our goal of commercial service.”

Tech News

Congress seeks more info on Amazon's facial-recognition tech

July 26, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Chris Wattie / Reuters

Yesterday, the ACLU published a report showing that Amazon’s Rekognition facial mapping software could have some serious problems with accuracy. A test scanned every current member of the House and Senate and compared them to a database of 25,000 mug shots — and matched 28 of those lawmakers with various mugshots. It hasn’t taken long for some politicians to craft a response. Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) and Representatives Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL 4th district) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA 11th district) sent a letter to Amazon and Jeff Bezos asking for more information on Rekogntion, specifically concerning its sale to law enforcement agencies.

Today’s letter from Markey, Gutiérrez and DeSaulnier said that “the efficacy and impact of [facial recognition] technology are not yet fully understood,” going on to note that “serious concerns have been raised about the dangers facial recognition can pose to privacy and civil rights, especially when it is used as a tool of government surveillance.” Other concerns include its accuracy as well as the “disproportionate impact on communities of color.” Between all these concerns and the ACLU’s report about Rekognition’s reliability problems, Markey, Gutiérrez and DeSaulnier have submitted a number of questions to Amazon.

First among the information the senator and representatives are seeking are any internal accuracy or bias assessments that Amazon itself has performed. Specifically they’re looking to have that data broken down by race, gender, skin pigmentation and age; the group is also asking for details on how Amazon has tested for accuracy and bias and if those tests have been independently verified. They’re also interested if Rekognition can recognize whether the data uploaded to its system includes children under the age of 13, something that would require Amazon to be following the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Other requests include info on all the agencies that use or have used Rekognition as well as any that have contacted Amazon about it. Additionally, Markey, Gutiérrez and DeSaulnier are looking to find out if Amazon conducts any audits on how various law enforcement agencies use Rekognition to make sure it isn’t being misused. Finally, they want to know if and how the software is being used in conjunction with “police body-camera technology” or any other “public-facing camera networks.”

This isn’t the first such grilling Amazon has received by the hands of the government; earlier this year, two more Democrats from the House of Representatives sent similar requests to Amazon and Bezos. What the response was hasn’t been revealed yet, but Markey, Gutiérrez and DeSaulnier are looking for a response by August 20th.

This comes a few months after the ACLU revealed how Amazon was selling Rekognition to various law enforcement agencies; perhaps most notable was a pilot project in Orlando that drew plenty of pushback from lawmakers, city residents and Amazon employees alike. (The city declined to renew its

Tech News

In nuclear politics, one size doesn't fit all

July 26, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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No one wants to use nuclear weapons. Even President Harry S. Truman, the only leader in history to actually order and carry out a nuclear strike, was hesitant to use the United States’ atomic arsenal after witnessing the power of the bombs first-hand.

On July 16th, 1945, the US successfully detonated the world’s first atomic warhead, an implosion-type plutonium bomb that transformed the New Mexico desert into radioactive green glass. Six days later, President Truman wrote the following passage in his journal:

“We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark. … This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.”

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The first strike on Hiroshima, Japan, killed 80,000 people and injured 70,000. The bomb was a uranium-based gun-type model and it scorched the earth bare. A second strike followed three days later on the city of Nagasaki, killing 40,000 people and injuring 60,000. In both attacks, most of the victims were civilians.

Truman ordered the first strike. It’s unclear if he asked for the second one or if military leaders took the initiative themselves — but it is obvious that Truman stopped a third strike in its tracks. When the president received a memo with plans for a third nuclear attack in Japan, he responded immediately with a note scrawled directly on that message, reading, “It is not to be released over Japan without express authority from the President.”

There hasn’t been another hostile nuclear strike in 73 years. Today, there are an estimated 15,000 atomic warheads in the world, with more than 90 percent of those owned by the US and Russia. Nine countries are known to have nuclear weapons: the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, France, Israel, China and North Korea. International treaties and agreements over the decades have attempted to curtail the growth of existing nuclear stockpiles and prevent new programs from going live.

Nagasaki, before and after the nuclear strike

That was the idea behind the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has flirted with nuclear technology and covert weapons programs since the 1970s, when it ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty alongside the US, Russia, the UK and 40 other regions. Despite signing on to the world’s most binding agreement to halt the creation of nuclear weapons, Iran (and many other countries, including the US and Russia) secretly continued developing its warhead programs.

Hidden enrichment and testing facilities have been found buried in Iranian mountains