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22
Feb

China’s Xinjiang surveillance is the dystopian future nobody wants


In July 2009, deadly riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China. Nearly 200 people died, the majority ethnic Han Chinese, and thousands of Chinese troops were brought in to quell the riots. An information battle soon followed, as mobile phone and internet service was cut off in the entire province. For the next 10 months, web access would be almost nonexistent in Xinjiang, a vast region larger than Texas with a population of more than 20 million. It was one of the most widespread, longest internet shutdowns ever.

That event, which followed similar unrest in neighboring Chinese-ruled Tibet in 2008, was the sign of a new phase in the Chinese state’s quest to control its restive outer regions. The 2009 shutdown was the first large-scale sign of a shift in tactics: the use of technology to control information.

“Xinjiang has gotten little attention, but this is where we’re really seeing the coming together of multiple streams of technology [for surveillance] that just hasn’t happened in other contexts before,” said Steven Feldstein, fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Nine years later, Xinjiang has seen the widespread implementation of sophisticated high-tech surveillance and monitoring technology, what BuzzFeed called “a 21st century police state.” But what happens in Xinjiang does not stay in Xinjiang. The technologies piloted there are already spreading across all of China, and there are even early signs that Chinese companies are beginning to sell some of this technology to other authoritarian-minded countries. If this trend continues, the future of technology, particularly for those in the Global South, could more resemble what’s happening in Xinjiang than developments in Silicon Valley.

Xinjiang is the home to the Uyghurs, a Turkic people who mostly follow Islam and have a distinct culture and language. Not surprisingly, the region has a tenuous relationship with Beijing, which is more than 1,400 miles away. Protests, riots and even terrorist attacks have been connected to the Uyghur struggle, which gives cover to Chinese authorities to implement the harshest strategies there.

“Abuses are most apparent in Xinjiang because of the lack of privacy protections but also because the power imbalance between the people there and the police is the greatest in China,” said Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The power imbalance between the people there and the police is the greatest in China.”

That is why security investment in Xinjiang skyrocketed after the riots. According to Adrian Zenz, a lecturer at the European School of Culture and Theology who has written extensively about the police presence in Xinjiang and Tibet, the region’s security forces doubled between 2009 and 2011 to more than 11,000 people. And it kept growing: In 2017, he documented more than 65,000 public job advertisements for security-related positions in Xinjiang, and last year Amnesty International estimated that there were 90,000 security staff in the region, the highest ratio of people to security in any province in China.

Several new tools and tactics accompanied this rise in security personnel, most notably the implementation of “convenience police stations,” a dense network of street corner, village or neighborhood police stations designed to keep an eye out everywhere and rapidly respond to any threat, perceived or real. But there were also corresponding investments in security technology on a globally unprecedented scale. It started with a drive to put up security cameras in the aftermath of the 2009 riots before evolving into something far more sophisticated, as Xinjiang turned into a place for state-connected companies to test all of their surveillance innovations.

“The rule of law doesn’t exist,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International. “They are able to pioneer new methods of control that, if successful, they could use elsewhere in China.”

Today, Xinjiang has both a massive security presence and ubiquitous surveillance technology: facial-recognition cameras; iris and body scanners at checkpoints, gas stations and government facilities; the collection of DNA samples for a massive database; mandatory apps that monitor messages and data flow on Uyghurs’ smartphones; drones to monitor the borders. While there’s some debate over how advanced the system tying these technologies together is, it’s clear that China’s plan is for a fully integrated system that uses artificial intelligence to rapidly process massive amounts of information for use by the similarly massive numbers of police in convenience stations.

“[Xinjiang] represents a very new frontier and approach when it comes to online surveillance and oppression.”

For Uyghurs, it means that wherever they go, whomever they talk to and even whatever they read online are all being monitored by the Chinese government. According to The New York Times, “When Uighurs buy a kitchen knife, their ID data is etched on the blade as a QR code.” BuzzFeed documented stories of family members too scared to speak openly to relatives abroad. And the combination of all of these tools through increasingly powerful AI and data processing means absolute control and little freedom.

“It’s one thing to have GPS tracking. It’s another thing to monitor social media usage of large populations,” said Feldstein. “But to do that in combination with a large DNA database of up to 40 million people and to integrate those methods with other modes of surveillance and intrusion — that represents a very new frontier and approach when it comes to online surveillance and oppression.”

The result, at least for China, is a massive success. Violence in the region has fallen as riots, protests and attacks are now rare in Xinjiang. Part of that is due to the presence of the state, but it’s also related to a rise in fear, as no one is sure how pervasive the Chinese surveillance apparatus is.

“People can never be sure if they are free from monitoring,” said Nicole Morgret, project coordinator at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “The fear is such that even if the surveillance is not complete, people behave as if it is. The technology is being rolled out so quickly.”

That is because access to the actual platforms being used by the Chinese authorities is limited, and much of the knowledge about surveillance technology comes from observations by the few journalists who can report from Xinjiang or through looking at public tender and budget documents. Or, increasingly, the knowledge comes from observing how other regions in China are being monitored and how Chinese tech companies abroad are deploying or marketing similar tools.

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The fear is such that even if the surveillance is not complete, people behave as if it is.

Nicole Morgret, Uyghur Human Rights Project

While the Xinjiang model may be extreme even for China, it is starting to influence policing across the country. The advent of the surveillance state in Xinjiang has come alongside China’s increasingly tightening control over national information flows, including the blocking or removal from app stores of many foreign apps, VPNs and platforms, most recently Skype.

“The question a lot of people have [is] … to what extent is this going to be rolled [out] across the rest of China and packaged and sold to other repressive governments around the world?” said Morgret. “You can definitely see parts of it being implemented in China proper, such as the police database and collecting DNA samples from certain people. I certainly suspect the government has ambitions to create this type of total surveillance across the country.”

The government has a powerful tool at its disposal, as last year, a new cybersecurity law went into effect that greatly broadens the power of the state to further control information. It requires foreign companies to maintain data centers in China, something Apple, for example, is complying with, leading the nonprofit watchdog group Reporters Without Borders to warn journalists working in China not to use iCloud anymore to store data. WeChat, China’s do-everything app, is already suspected of sharing user data with the state.

There are other signs that Xinjiang’s policing innovations are entering the rest of China. The country is planning to integrate footage from its estimated 176 million surveillance cameras into a “police cloud” system, linked to national identity cards, making it possible that in the near future, everyone in China could be tracked anywhere. A model of this was demonstrated earlier this month when news reports emerged that new facial-recognition glasses are being used by police in train stations and airports across the country, tracking travelers ahead of the Lunar New Year.

Considering all of this, it’s no surprise that China is already the world’s biggest market for surveillance software and hardware, estimated by industry researcher IHS Markit at $6.4 billion in 2016, a figure expected to triple by 2020. China’s tech giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are also jumping in, investing heavily in surveillance technology to take advantage of this boom.

These companies are starting to sell some of these tools abroad as well. In Ecuador, a Chinese ECU911 Integrated Security Service system, the development of which was connected to the state-owned China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation, was deployed in 2016 and credited with a 24 percent drop in crime. A more worrisome case was uncovered by Human Rights Watch, which found evidence that the Ethiopian government was using telecom-surveillance technology provided by the Chinese telecom giant ZTE to monitor the political opposition, activists and journalists.

“China wants to become a world leader in AI, and that includes a lot of these security applications that are already earmarked for exporting.”

Other companies are following ZTE’s path. Yitu Technology, an AI facial-recognition company, has already set up offices in several African countries and is looking to expand to Europe, where it sees potential due to recent terrorist attacks — the same rationale initially used to expand the surveillance state in Xinjiang. These examples are few and not yet a sign that the Xinjiang model is having a big global impact, but even if the overseas market for Chinese surveillance technology remains limited for now, many observers think that could quickly change.

“Now that China is delving into this new technology realm and is repressing very successfully and effectively, it is by nature that other dictatorial regimes would try to emulate this,” said Feldstein.

“I think we’re on the threshold of this exploding,” said Zenz. “China wants to become a world leader in AI, and that includes a lot of these security applications that are already earmarked for exporting.”

While the technology itself is not necessarily harmful, the concern is that in the wrong hands, it could empower repressive governments around the world to further abuse human rights. And the number of these regimes is growing, as recently released reports from the Economist Intelligence Unit and Freedom House show that around the world, free speech and democracy are falling and censorship, authoritarianism and autocracy are rising.

“The Chinese government is leading on thinking around mass surveillance, and it has the impact of influencing other countries to think, ‘Well, we could have an authoritarian government but look outwardly stable by putting in these systems to make sure that even if people are discontented, we can still keep them down by ensuring that every move is monitored,’” said Wang. “As this technology becomes cheaper, that reality might become more possible even for countries without massive resources like the Chinese government.”

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Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang

In Xinjiang, there are no signs that the massive buildup in both police presence and surveillance technology will recede anytime soon, despite the perceived success in limiting violence and protests thus far. If anything, it looks like things will get a lot worse. More and more Uyghurs, perhaps as many as 120,000, are being rounded up and sent to reeducation camps for minor offenses. Increasingly, any outward expression of religion or cultural expression is being seen as subversive, with even elderly intellectuals facing arrests, like the 82-year-old Islamic scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim, who died earlier this year in a reeducation camp. Now Uyghurs are also being forced to hand over DNA samples and put spyware on their phones. Meanwhile, spending on both technology and human-security presence is expected to rise even further.

“It is going to crazy heights and there are no sign of it abating … quite to the contrary, the state officials are really into intelligent, big data processing, networking of information, storing all the information and linking it up, applying AI and predictive policing for it,” said Zenz.

At least one facet of the Xinjiang model has gone global. Internet shutdowns, like what happened in Xinjiang in 2009, are now common around the world. Just this past year, there were widespread internet shutdowns in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the English-speaking region of Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya and more than 30 other countries. Often the causes are similar to what took place in Xinjiang — ethnic tensions, riots or political events such as elections.

“It’s an increase around the world,” said Melody Patry, a spokesperson with Access Now. “Moreover, the phenomenon of repeat offenders is on the rise. … When a government issues a first internet shutdown, they are more likely to issue others.”

But China has moved on, and internet shutdowns are now rare. According to Access Now, there was only one documented shutdown in China in all of 2016. While uninformed observers could see this as a sign of progress, in actuality it shows that the next frontier of digital surveillance and state control is not blocking information access but harvesting it with a purpose.

“You don’t need these blackout shutdowns anymore when you have much more fine-grained mechanisms of control … that can very early on detect potential issues and problems, and in turn promote self-policing, self-censorship,” said Zenz. “Because people know what consequences there are.”

The shift in China is that the internet, which was initially seen as a threat due to its ability to allow users to access information, is now being perceived differently. What was back in 2009 blamed for the riots is now the source of information empowering the Chinese government to preemptively arrest and detain not only Uyghurs but also, increasingly, Chinese human rights lawyers, feminist activists and journalists around the country before they can post something inflammatory on a website or share sensitive content on WeChat.

“The internet … has become a great source of information that can be intelligently processed at capacity and speed that was not possible 10 years ago,” said Zenz. “What we see is a moving from a mere firewall that just blocks or an instant response, like the deletion of messages, to proactive self-censorship.”

The global rise in shutdowns, which Access Now notes are getting more sophisticated and fine-tuned, shows that China’s Xinjiang model has a market in an increasingly technological, authoritarian world. How quickly other countries follow China’s move toward more total, personalized and data-driven control depends on both the need and the availability of the tools pioneered in Xinjiang on the global marketplace.

Images: Getty Images/Sino Images (Urumqi skyline); Malcolm Brown (Uyghur protests); Silk Road hitchhikers (Id Kah Mosque)

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22
Feb

Amazon may open up to six more automated stores this year


Amazon may have opened its automated convenience store a year late, but it looks like it’s been a pretty big success. Recode learned that the company plans on opening six more of its Amazon Go stores in 2018. It’s not clear where these stores will be located, though Recode reports that more locations are likely in Seattle, and Amazon is in talks with the developer of The Grove in Los Angeles.

Amazon Go is billed as the convenience store of the future. There are no checkout lines; you can simply walk in, grab what you want, and leave. You scan in with a smartphone app, and then an AI tracks what you take from the shelves and automatically charges you for them.

A big sticking point for the expansion of Amazon Go stores, which focus on convenience-type items such as grab-and-go sandwiches, is how well the AI would handle a busy store. Now, it looks as though the technology has acquitted itself well.

Source: Recode

22
Feb

Lighthouse’s AI-powered security camera is now shipping


Lighthouse’s intelligent 3D security camera was supposed to ship in September, but now it’s finally available for purchase. The camera is priced at $299. At checkout, you can choose either a $10/month AI service plan (with a 90-day free trial) or a lifetime plan of $200, with no further payments required.

The camera is powered by AI and a 3D sensor that can supposedly distinguish people from pets and recognize faces. Its onboard laser (similar to the 3D sensing devices used by self-driving cars) can measure the structure of what it sees and therefore differentiate objects and people from one another. Because of this capability, Lighthouse promises that you won’t be bothered by false security alerts from shadows or pets because the camera can tell small objects from large ones.

The AI also understands normal speech patterns, so you can ask the camera questions like, “Did anyone walk the dog between 10 and 11 am?” The different types of tech within the camera work in tandem to deliver a full experience.

“Custom optics for a time-of-flight camera that directly measures the 3D structure of the environment,” CEO Alex Teichman says in a blog post. “Recurrent neural networks for computer vision specifically tailored for use cases within the home. And a natural language interface to simplify — and amplify — the user experience.” It will certainly be interesting to see if this camera lives up to its promises, as facial recognition and smart alerts in recent cameras, such as Nest’s Cam IQ, have been disappointing.

Source: Lighthouse

22
Feb

Discord signs eSports pros to use its chat app


Discord has become something of a gaming chat-app phenomenon lately, partnering with Spotify for in-chat soundtracks, adding video chat and screensharing and bringing verified official game channels to its service. Now the company plans to expand into the eSports realm by partnering with more than 20 teams, including Team Liquid, DreamHack, and almost every Overwatch League team out there. The program launches February 22nd on the company’s verified servers and will let team members and fans chat, share news and discuss upcoming matches.

Team Liquid, the eSports powerhouse from the Netherlands, already uses Discord for its official communications. “When it came to making a decision on what voice communication software Team Liquid would use to communicate and create community with our fans,” the team wrote in a statement, “there was no question that Discord was the obvious choice. There’s simply nothing that rivals the quality of the product.”

22
Feb

Google faces lawsuit for firing critic of anti-diversity memo


Google fired James Damore last year, in part, because of a leaked memo alleging that the company culture unfairly targeted white males and political conservatives. Now Google is being sued by a former employee who claims he was targeted for speaking out against Damore on internal message boards, according to The Guardian. Tim Chevalier, a site reliability engineer who identifies as queer, transgender and disabled filed a lawsuit saying, in part, that he was ousted for “calling out discrimination and harassment for what it was.”

“It is a cruel irony that Google attempted to justify firing me by claiming that my social networking posts showed bias against my harassers,” Chevalier said via a prepared statement. His suit claims that he was singled out for frittering away too much of his day on social activism and for referring to Damore’s memo as misogynistic, among other reasons.

For its part, Google said that “lively debate” was an important pillar of company culture, and that the “overwhelming majority” of employees adhere to its communications guidelines. “But when an employee does not, it is something we must take seriously. We always make our decisions without any regard to the employee’s political views.”

Source: The Guardian

22
Feb

Flying with a VR headset isn’t as dorky as it sounds


As a somewhat regular flyer, I had always been intrigued by the concept of wearing a head-mounted display for some immersive in-flight entertainment. However, I never really found the “cinema” part of existing “personal cinema” headsets pervasive at all. Watching a tiny video through those headsets is like sitting in the last row of an empty theater. I’m not going to pay $800 for that.

Then came the smartphone-powered VR headsets, but their three-degree-of-freedom (3DoF) tracking for just the head was never precise enough for prolonged usage. It wasn’t until the Vive Focus, HTC’s $630 standalone 6DoF VR device, that I finally decided to give virtual reality a chance to prove itself as a worthy alternative to those in-flight touchscreens. Luckily for me, my wife didn’t forbid me from bringing this bright blue headset to our vacation, as long as it would fit into my carry-on.

Thankfully, the device isn’t as bulky as it looks. With the back support band folded in, the headset takes up about the same amount of space as my DSLR kit plus a flash unit, so even a regular-size camera shoulder bag will accommodate it. If I slip the headset into my backpack with its pair of inside-out tracking cameras facing downward, I still have plenty of space for its wireless controller plus my hoodie. Luckily, the backpack still fits under the seat in front of me on economy-class journeys.

Many flights these days allow the use of portable electronic devices even during takeoff provided that they are set to airplane mode. Normally, I’d be watching a video on my smartphone or tablet soon after getting on a plane, but for my first flight with my Vive Focus, I decided to put on this headset right before the plane took off. And that was how I came across a fundamental flaw of the device.

I was getting familiar with the futuristic-space, port-like world and menus of Vive, but as soon as the plane left the ground, I could see myself drifting away from the virtual platform. It was almost like I was flying in the virtual world, and as fun as this sounds, it was a little freaky, as it was out of my control. If you have a fear of heights, you definitely won’t want to try this.

This issue persisted until the plane was no longer ascending. I later faced the same issue when the plane was descending, except this time I sank into the virtual ground instead. Any sudden turbulence would also cause the virtual world to drift a little. According to HTC, such acceleration or deceleration would indeed confuse the 6DoF sensors on the Vive Focus, but it’s now looking into letting users switch to 3DoF tracking so that they can at least watch videos or navigate around menus during takeoff and landing. Such a “vehicle mode” would also let us use the headset with ease while taking other transportation.

My experience was otherwise smooth. I spent a good amount of time watching my preloaded videos — with my earphones plugged in, of course — using the Moon VR Player, which has better file compatibility than the default video player app. It also supports both conventional and 360-degree videos. Not that I would watch 360-degree videos on a plane, of course — at least not in economy class, where people can see me.

Unlike the “personal cinema” headsets, I could use the controller to pull the virtual screen closer to me — imagine gazing at a 55-inch TV from just two feet away — and even reposition it when my seat was reclined. And of course, with the sharp 2,880 x 1,600 AMOLED screen backed by 6DoF tracking, it really felt as if I was inside a cinema with an IMAX-like screen, especially that one time when I nodded off to Blade Runner 2049 on an early flight and then woke up confused as Ryan Gosling walked through a deserted city on my massive virtual screen. For a second, I forgot that I was still on the plane.

There were, however, moments when it was obvious that I was looking through a pair of lenses. Like most other higher-end VR headsets (including the Oculus Rift and Windows Mixed Reality devices), the Vive Focus uses Fresnel lenses, which consist of ring-shaped prism facets. This is in order to drastically reduce weight and space, but it’s not perfect. While the rings are usually not that apparent when placed right in front of our eyes, part of them does light up when the screen displays high-contrast images, mainly due to the reflective nature of the grooves between the rings. This can become rather distracting while watching an intense dark movie scene; but then again, this is a common issue among the current crop of high-end VR headsets.

I don’t recall taking the Vive Focus off due to discomfort or nausea after extended usage, as long as its back support band was positioned in a way such that my head wasn’t leaning on it. I also made sure that the interpupillary distance for the two lenses was optimal to begin with — there’s a slider for that on the bottom right side — to keep everything in focus.

While a typical 3DoF VR headset would usually last for mere minutes before I had to take a break, the Vive Focus could easily stay on my head for at least 15 to 20 minutes during my flights, with breaks for food, drinks or toilet between each session. With that in mind, the three-hour battery life was plenty for my four-hour flight between Hong Kong and Tokyo, let alone some shorter domestic flights in Japan. Plus, I could keep it charged while using it.

Of course, it would be a waste to just watch videos on the Vive Focus. After all, this is the first 6DoF VR headset that doesn’t need to be powered by a PC. The question here is whether the 6DoF tracking would also make a notable difference for other seated VR experiences, like gaming, while on a plane. More importantly, I was curious as to how careful I would have to be with my movements to avoid disturbing my neighbors.

To be honest, the Vive Focus didn’t offer many apps optimized for a seated user, which is understandable given that its main selling point is “world-scale” tracking. Its Viveport app library is still growing — it had a little under 50 apps at the time of writing — but that’s not to say I didn’t have fun with the few games I came across.

In general, the best titles required relatively little body movement, so at no point did I have to worry about bumping into nearby passengers. Even for a racing game like VR Karts: Sprint, the steering was handled by merely twisting the wrist that held the controller, so my elbow was barely a threat to the passenger on my right. Similarly, in Fancy Shooter, I could aim ninja stars at fruits by just looking at them and then click on the controller to fire. I didn’t even need to move my head much in Super Puzzle Galaxy unless I wanted to take a closer look at the puzzles, but that was when I became mindful of not getting too close to my neighbor’s knee.

Despite the small body movements while seated, the Vive Focus’ 6DoF tracking was still key to making the whole VR experience enjoyable over a longer period on my flights. In contrast, if I were to use a 3DoF headset such as a Samsung Gear VR or a Google Daydream View, I could probably watch videos just fine, but it wouldn’t last long due to the less natural feel from the head-only tracking: The virtual world wouldn’t respond to my leaning forward, backward or sideways. It’s the same with their games, even though they do offer a larger collection. It would also be hard for me to go back to the lower display resolution on those headsets.

Does the Vive Focus make a good travel companion? I’m hooked. Once I’m locked into my own VR world, the immersive experience far outweighs what other people may think of me wearing this blue headset in public — although I would still pick the white version personally. It’s just nice to have an IMAX-like cinematic experience all to myself.

But is this the ultimate replacement for the conventional in-flight entertainment systems? There are some clear advantages, including the fact that you can throw in a good number of high-quality movies that you would actually watch onto a microSD card, plus the VR games are bound to be more fun than the in-flight games, if any. Sure, you can get similar results with a Gear VR or Daydream setup, but that would mean making do with 3DoF tracking plus a lower display resolution, and together they would make my flights even more tiring.

Of course, there’s always space for improvement for the Vive Focus, and that’s also assuming that you could get hold of a unit in the first place. The fact that it’s still limited to the Chinese market means it’s missing out on the absolute latest videos from the likes of Google Play and Netflix, so until someone figures out a way to slap Daydream onto this Vive Wave-based device, you’ll have to source your videos elsewhere. It would also be nice if someone could make a music player with a great visualizer for the headset, which may help one relax while traveling.

The device does need more 6DoF VR games optimized for a seated user, but that’s less of a concern for me. With developers claiming that they’ve been able to port their games from other VR platforms to Vive Wave in just three hours, hopefully the Vive Focus’ library will continue to grow. That said, the Vive Focus sets the benchmark for in-flight VR entertainment.

22
Feb

Airbnb rolls out luxury rentals and new benefits for users


Airbnb is once again shaking up how its customers find and book accommodations. At a press conference in San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium on Thursday, the company unveiled a slew of new reservation and website features including new property types, new rental tiers, and “Airbnb Collections” for large groups. The company also announced its commitment to reinvest within its user communities through its revamped Superhost and Superguest programs which will launch later this year.

Currently, Airbnb users can still only search for places to stay under the same three property types they’ve been able to over the past decade: Shared Space, Private Room and Entire Home. However, those options are a bit dated given the wide variety of places the service now offers. As such, Airbnb is updating its property listings to also include Vacation Home, Unique Space (think treehouses), B&B, and Boutique for hotels. This should allow hosts to better differentiate their offerings from others while enabling users to more easily find the kind of space they want to rent. These new categories should roll out some time this summer.

The company is also making room for more diverse traveling groups. Airbnb already works just fine if you’re on your own or with a few friends, but trying to find space for, say, your company’s entire marketing department or a full wedding party can be a challenge. To that end, Airbnb is launching its Collections feature today. Available through Airbnb for Family and Airbnb for Work, these accommodations will allow users to search for “social stays, weddings, honeymoons, and group getaways,” according to the company’s release, with an option for dinner parties coming later this year.

Airbnb is also launching two new tiers of rentals. Airbnb Plus is effectively the company’s version of Twitter’s verified account feature. Some 2,000 homes in 13 cities, all of which have been verified for quality based on a 100-plus point checklist, will be available on the new tier. This way, you won’t be unpleasantly surprised by the living conditions once you arrive. It also benefits hosts by providing design consultations, professional photography services and top placement in search results. There’s no word yet on whether these will cost significantly more than non-verified units. The other new tier is for ballers only, mind you. Beyond by Airbnb will offer luxury rentals with ‘world-class hospitality” later this spring.

Finally, Airbnb has committed to reinvesting in its community. To start, the company is expanding its Superhost program with 14 new and updated benefits including greater exposure on the site, custom URLs and deals on various smart home devices. On the flip side, the company will launch a Superguest program, first as a 10,000-person pilot program in the summer, then expanding out to the full community by the end of the year. This program will offer various benefits throughout your trip.

22
Feb

Netflix will stream the terrible-looking ‘ReBoot’ reboot


By the mid-90s, Saturday morning cartoons were a blur of occasionally brilliant animated comedy and a ton of trash made to sell toys. One rose above the rest for sheer novelty: ReBoot was one of the first shows anywhere to be completely computer-generated, and it was set within a computer, turning programs and viruses into heroes and villains. It was kinda wild, a futurist TRON-for-kids that pushed young viewers to think about technology. Revival-happy Netflix just released a trailer for a new ReBoot television show…and it looks like a far cry from the original.

Reboot: The Guardian Code starts off in live-action at a high school where a few teens get thrown together in a secret room, while elsewhere a hooded hacker stereotype plucked from a stock photo cackles gleefully in front of a slew of bargain-bin keyboards and computer parts. It quickly becomes clear that the show follows a sucked-into-the-video-game premise, looking much like a Disney channel series riffing on last fall’s rebooted Jumanji film.

We do see one familiar face — Megabyte, the original series’ charismatic antagonist — but the wonderful Hexadecimal is gone, as are the old show’s protagonists Bob, Dot and Enzo. Who knows if the new series ends up veering more toward the ReBoot of our childhoods, but we remain skeptical that it could live up to our nostalgia-inflated expectations. See for yourself when the series debuts on Netflix on March 30th…unless you’re in Canada, where you can only watch it on YTV when it starts airing in June.

Via: io9

Source: ReBoot: The Guardian Code trailer (YouTube)

22
Feb

Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory saved from uncertain fate


Arecibo Observatory, which is the second-largest radio telescope in the world, is under new management. A group led by the University of Central Florida will take over the operations of the telescope from the National Science Foundation, which was considering shutting down the observatory.

The telescope’s fate had previously been uncertain. Back in 2016, the National Science Foundation announced that it was exploring different options in regard to Arecibo. There wasn’t enough funding to continue supporting the telescope, so the NSF was looking at partnering with other organizations, scaling back or shutting down Arecibo entirely. That same year, the observatory was the first to capture repeating cosmic radio bursts, which have helped us understand the nature of our galaxy and the universe around it.

This murky situation was made much worse by the events of Hurricane Maria. The hurricane decimated the region of Puerto Rico in which the telescope is located, also called Arecibo. The telescope was damaged as well, but repairs were quickly made and the observatory was back up and running a week after the storm, albeit on generator power. (Almost one-third of Puerto Rico’s residents are still without power, five months after Hurricane Maria hit). While the NSF decided not to shut down the telescope, it wasn’t clear what would happen.

But now, this new agreement ensures that Arecibo Observatory will remain open. It is scheduled to take effect on April 1st. UCF and its partners, Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan and Yang Enterprises, Inc. in Oviedo, also plan to expand the operations of the telescope. It’s good news for the scientific community, and also for Puerto Rico.

Source: University of Central Florida

22
Feb

iPad App of the Year ‘Affinity Photo’ Updated With RAW Improvements and Limited-Time Free Add-On Brush Packs


Affinity Photo, which Apple named the iPad App of the Year for 2017, was today updated with a suite of “more powerful professional features,” according to developer Serif. To celebrate the new update, users can also download three add-on brush and filter packs for free starting today.

Specifically, version 1.6.7 of Affinity Photo lets users shoot direct in RAW or HDR video from within the iPad app, and introduces upgrades for RAW processing so that the clarity of RAW images has improved. There’s direct integration from the iOS Files app, enhancements to Drag and Drop, the ability to add personalized fonts, and much more, which you can glimpse in the Version History on the iOS App Store.

We’ve listed a few updates below:

– Save overwrites back to the same location, without needing to create a copy
– A new ‘Solo Layer View’ mode, allowing you to isolate individual layers instantly
– A new ‘Show Touches’ option to create more detailed screen captures – great for users who create tutorials
– Added ‘Average blur” filter from desktop
– Brand new shadows / highlights algorithm in Develop
– Brand new clarity algorithm in Develop
– New “Solo” layer option in layer properties panel
– New preferences option to show touches – good for screen recording
– Enhanced angle / tilt support for Apple Pencil
– Snapping candidates can be selected by hovering over them whilst in a drag

Starting today and lasting for the next two weeks (expiring March 8), Serif is also offering a trio of packs for free, available for Affinity Photo owners to download on the web. These include the Luminance Brush Pack (normally $9.99) with 13 light effect brushes, the Retouch Brush Pack ($9.99) with 20 retouch brushes, and Live Filters Macro Pack (already free) with 28 “non-destructive” live filter layers.

The base Affinity Photo for iPad app costs $19.99 on the iOS App Store [Direct Link] and is compatible with the 9.7-inch, 10.5-inch, and 12.9-inch iPad Pro, iPad Air 2, and iPad from 2017. For users with an iPad Pro, Serif notes that the app has been optimized for use with the Apple Pencil.

Tag: Affinity Photo
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