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31
Jul

Discovery acquires HGTV parent company in $14.6 billion TV deal


Discovery Communications is acquiring Scripps Networks Interactive in a $14.6 billion deal announced today. Once finalized, Discovery will produce around 8,000 hours of original programming yearly and 7 billion short-form video streams monthly. It will also control approximately 20 percent of ad-supported, pay-TV audiences in the US and host eight of viewers’ top 10 favorite channels.

With the acquisition, Discovery will not only expand its channel portfolio, it will also gain a large portion of the US female audiences that Scripps channels currently attract. The combined company will claim 20 percent of primetime female viewership. Discovery, home to TLC, Animal Planet and Discovery Channel outbid Viacom for the purchase of Scripps, which includes HGTV, Food Network and Travel Channel among its channel offerings. The deal will save the companies around $350 million in costs and will give Discovery more leverage when negotiating contracts with distributors. It will also help Discovery’s position if it decides to offer a skinny bundle of its programming in the future, which is important as viewers continue to move towards streaming and on-demand viewing over scheduled broadcasts.

“We believe that by coming together with Scripps, we will create a stronger, more flexible and more dynamic media company with a global content engine that can be fully optimized and monetized across our combined networks, products and services in every country around the world,” said Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav in a statement.

Discovery is paying 70 percent cash and 30 percent stock for the deal, which is expected to close in early 2018.

Source: Discovery Communications

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31
Jul

Technology is failing to create transparent supply chains


During the early days of globalization, it was relatively easy for corporations to either hide, or be ignorant of, human rights and environmental atrocities committed along their supply chain. Factories and producers were shifting manufacturing or sourcing of raw materials to an increasingly complex network of suppliers, but there was no incentive to look into how a supplier produced, for example, raw cotton or shoe soles. As long as the price was cheap and the quality was good, companies saw little need to ask further questions.

That changed, though, in the early ’90s, when nonprofits and journalists began to undercover vast labor and environmental issues connected to suppliers of large corporations, shining a spotlight on the dark side of the global consumer market. This led to the development of an array of supply chain technologies — RFIDs, remote sensing, satellite monitoring, even blockchain-based tools. Many were marketed as solutions, aimed at making it easier to monitor and respond to human rights and environmental violations along supply chains. The results, however, have been mixed.

“I applaud the efforts that NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have made,” said Michael Rohwer, Information and Communications Technology Associate Director at Businesses for Social Responsibility. “We would not see companies making so much effort [without NGOs].”

One of the issues that NGOs helped bring to light was about conflict minerals, which fueled the Congolese Civil War of the 1990s — widely considered the deadliest war since World War II. Evidence grew that many of the minerals being mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ended up, after trading hands countless times, in factories producing goods for major US technology companies. Smartphone, laptop and tablet sales were partly to blame for a conflict that was killing millions.

In 2010, activists achieved a major victory when the Dodd-Frank Act was passed with the inclusion of Section 1502, which mandated companies to do due diligence and report if their products contained conflict minerals to the Securities and Exchange Commission. This was followed shortly by the passing of the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which went even further and required all large companies doing business in the state to disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains.

Thinking about change was not enough.

“[These laws] really caused companies to think more about how they could collect information about what is necessary to drive transparency in the supply chain,” said Rohwer.

Thinking about change was not enough. In 2015, analysis of these disclosures found that three years after the regulations had passed, few companies could accurately source their minerals. That same year, massive wildfires fueled by rampant deforestation connected to palm oil, the most consumed food oil in the world, burned 2.5 million hectares of rainforest. And this happened just two years after the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse, in which more than 1,100 people — mostly women — died while producing clothing in unsafe conditions for global brands including Joe Fresh, Primark and Benetton.

villagers-attempt-to-extinguish-a-fire-b

A forest fire in Riau, Indonesia.

It turned out that fixing supply chains was a lot harder than expected. One of the early complaints, and reasons that many companies could not fully comply with Section 1502, was the sheer difficulty of mapping those intentionally complex supply chains.

“There is definitely a decline in leverage the further away you are from a particular company,” said Rohwer. “Even two degrees of separation is enough to change the leverage formula.”

In response to both the documented atrocities and the new laws, a plethora of tools meant to illuminate supply chains emerged. On the hardware side are technologies like RFIDs, which can increase supply chain visibility, and newer tools like Stardust, a dustlike tracker that helps assess the authenticity of goods along a supply chain and is nearly impossible to detect and alter — some believe it could address illegal timber.

There are also software tools that allow for better aggregating, analyzing, visualizing and verifying of supply chain information, like Global Traceability’s Radix Tree, a platform that enables buyers to collect information from suppliers to establish a chain of custody. The latest trend “revolution” in supply chains is blockchain, the digital distributed ledger that powers Bitcoin.

“We’re seeing a lot of progress in attempts to utilize technology … For many of them, however, the jury is still out on how effective they can be.”

There is even a conference, SCTECH, which promises to “[empower] Supply Chain Executives to make informed decisions and select the right technology for their business processes.” But while technology is driving change across the industry, some question whether these high-tech solutions are actually helping create a transparent and ethical supply chain. “We’re seeing a lot of progress in attempts to utilize technology,” said Kilian Moote, Project Director for KnowTheChain, a Humanity United project. “For many of them, however, the jury is still out on how effective they can be.”

One of the areas that has seen the most positive media attention is remote sensing, at the forefront of which are companies like Orbital Insight and Descartes Labs, which both see potential for their technologies to help fill information gaps in supply chains around the world. The technology itself is getting far more powerful: Satellites are both increasing technological capability in quality (the amount and breadth of data they can collect) and quantity (how often they can collect data over a piece of the earth).

This has led to some important breakthroughs, such as the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) alerts system launched by the nonprofit World Resources Institute, which works with Orbital Insight. GLAD automatically analyzes data and sends alerts when a particular region in the tropics looks like it is being deforested.

So far, though, the applications of satellites to make information more ethical and transparent has been limited to a few initiatives like GLAD. Mostly, companies are using satellites for other purposes: to better understand crop yields or to spy on a competitor’s supply chain. Orbital Insight and Descartes Labs are focusing primarily on the commercial applications of their products first and not yet doing much on the ethical side, though both plan to. In fact, many of these tools showcased at conferences or in press releases are not yet being utilized on a wide scale.

“There are promising concepts. The question is, will they move beyond pilots, and can they get to a place where wide-scale adoption is not only possible but actually happening?” said Moote. “And at that point we’ll know if there is a market for these tech solutions.”

It’s not even clear that technology itself matters. Simple tools with actionable plans could be more effective than fancy, expensive ones. For example, one of the most successful tools is the self-described tech-agnostic Laborlink, a product of Good World Solutions, which supplies workers around the world with a secure, anonymous method of providing information about working conditions in their factories. It addresses one of the key weaknesses of the system that was implemented after the initial wave of revelations about working conditions in the 1990s, in which auditors enter factories at regular intervals and conduct checklist walk-through examinations.

“Auditing just does not have that many data points,” said Beth Holzman, Director of Engagement and Operations at Laborlink. “It’s specifically focused on a [narrow] compliance checklist to understand what is happening in a factory and doesn’t really get into any wider analysis, which can reflect more the reality on the factory floor.”

Auditing is haphazard and unreliable, with well-documented cases of fake reports. Moreover, workers’ voices are only tangentially included, with Holzman estimating most audits only include statements from 10 to 20 workers maximum. As factories and plantations can have upward of 1,000 workers, this can be woefully inadequate.

Laborlink thrives partly because it does not rely on the latest smartphones or high-tech, remote-sensing technology. It utilizes whatever technology people already have. In Cambodia or India, this can be simple feature phones with SMS capability, whereas in China, the ubiquitous app WeChat is commonly used.

“We really are trying to ensure that, in the use of technology, we’re putting workers at the heart of this process.”

“We really are trying to ensure that, in the use of technology, we’re putting workers at the heart of this process,” said Holzman. “They have the ability to provide data and can use tech to better their own engagement.”

This approach has been successful in creating knowledge about what’s taking place in factories and giving companies that care an opportunity to address those concerns.

“We’ve reached a million workers and gathered 3.5 million data points,” said Holzman. “That information can be shared with factory managers to say, ‘How would you actually work to improve supply chain practices?’”

Other low-tech actors making a difference are NGOs. It is because of them that we have supply-chain accountability legislation, and it’s often them, or their partners on the ground, who are spreading the word about unsafe working conditions or illegal deforestation.

“Improvements in technology at the local level have been instrumental in communities’ ability to participate in the protection of their forests,” said Emma Lierley, Forest Communications Manager with Rainforest Action Network. “And improvements in this area could be of great benefit.”

But RAN does not expect technology itself to be the solution. It has been working on supply-chain issues since its inception, and it focuses on both environmental degradation and human rights violations in tropical-forest regions. To RAN, the idea that multinational corporations lack knowledge about what’s really happening in their supply chains when it can find out and publish verifiable reports is incredulous.

“Time and time again we have seen companies use new tools and technology to further obfuscate the issue rather than to truly take responsibility for the conflicts in their supply chain,” said Lierley. For example, shipping data on who is buying and selling palm oil could illuminate how supply chains connect to labor violations widely documented in Southeast Asia, but it is prohibitively expensive and often inaccessible to third parties like NGOs or journalists. Similarly, access to mapping data about land ownership could allow NGOs to connect illegal deforestation and fire to global companies, but the data remains under lock in Indonesian government and corporate databases.

“The lack of transparency in palm oil supply chains comes down to a lack of willpower, not a lack of tools,” said Lierley.

This can be demonstrated by the companies that have made progress. Years ago Nike was the poster child for labor violations in its subcontractors’ factories, but after years of hard work in collaboration with NGOs and academia, it has become a model in the shoe industry, recently releasing a map of all of its factories. Similarly, Intel, once complicit along with most of the technology industry as likely using conflict minerals, has, after doing a detailed public analysis with the NGO Resolve, officially declared its supply chain as conflict free.

Neither used fancy technology as an end-all solution, and both spent years figuring out an actionable plan. The problem itself was clear from the start.

“If you want to know what is going on in your supply chain, you don’t need tech to find that,” said Moote. “You need technology to solve the problem.”

conflict-minerals.jpg

Technology cannot be a solution by itself. All it can do is provide better information — perhaps more-accurate information, perhaps more-actionable information, perhaps better-organized information, but in the end just information. And sometimes information alone is not enough.

Sasha Lezhnev, Associate Director of Policy at the Enough Project, a leading NGO that helps raise awareness about conflict minerals, believes tools need real human support to be effective.

“Technology can help on conflict minerals, but it has limitations,” said Lezhnev. “For example, digital scanning of minerals can improve tracing at mines, but human intelligence is needed to verify claims of minerals traders of being conflict free or not.” Without the latter, the former is not useful.

While change has been made by a few companies like Intel or Nike, it is not happening quickly enough and is not widespread enough to have made supply chains more ethical than they were before the digital revolution.

The data is still grim. There are 45.8 million people still suffering in conditions of modern slavery, often working on tea plantations, seafood ships, poultry farms or factories supplying global supply chains. Even in the formal sectors, the situation has not changed much. Many more have lost their lives in factory disasters or accidents since Rana Plaza, and if workers try to stand up, they face violence like what is taking place in Cambodia, a major hub of global textile production.

“Technology can never be the solution around the fundamentals of human nature.”

The environment is suffering too. Deforestation is still continuing, and if action isn’t taken soon, there won’t be any orangutans left in Borneo, among other major problems. The existence of human and environmental violations along global supply chains is not a problem of technology but a problem of the wider global society.

“There are so many variables that exist … governance, corruption, shrinking of civil space,” said Moote. “You can’t decouple those trends; they impact the utilization of technology. Technology can never be the solution around the fundamentals of human nature.”

The problem may not be that we don’t understand the origins of our products but rather whether understanding is enough to make industry, consumers or governments act any differently. Satellites, blockchain tools, artificial intelligence and massive datasets can’t solve that.

Image credits: MONUSCO / Sylvain Liechti (Conflict-free mine); Getty Images / Barcroft Media (Indonesian fire); Enough Project (mineral pan).

31
Jul

Alphabet is using salt and antifreeze to store power from wind farms


The latest from Alphabet’s experimental X division? A storage solution for renewable energy. Code named “Malta,” the system uses tanks of salt and antifreeze (or another hydrocarbon liquid) to create and store energy.

Per Bloomberg:

“The system takes in energy in the form of electricity and turns it into separate streams of hot and cold air. The hot air heats up the salt, while the cold air cools the antifreeze, a bit like a refrigerator. The jet engine part: Flip a switch and the process reverses. Hot and cold air rush toward each other, creating powerful gusts that spin a turbine and spit out electricity when the grid needs it.”

Salt can apparently store energy for days, so this would give energy companies that are dumping off electricity generated from wind farms and solar panels a place to hold it. According to Bloomberg’s sources, California had to dump off over 300,000 megawatts of electricity (which could’ve powered “tens of thousands” of homes) already this year. That’s a lot of wasted juice.

This isn’t a full-on X experiment like Project Loon, however. It isn’t fully funded yet, but Alphabet has built a proof of concept in a Silicon Valley warehouse and is working to find business partners for a commercial prototype that can connect to the electrical grid.

From here it’s a lot of testing build materials that can be sourced cheaply, and making sure the thermodynamics are good to go.

Salt-based storage could be cheaper than things like lithium-ion batteries by quite a bit, but from the sounds of it, this is still a ways off from being ready for market. Largely because current gas and oil prices are low and investors don’t see short-term pay-offs with alternative fuels. Good thing Alphabet isn’t exactly hurting for money, then.

Source: Bloomberg

31
Jul

The best VR headsets and accessories for dorms


We’ll be the first to admit that a virtual-reality session isn’t terribly conducive to bonding with new friends in the dorm. But, hey, a few of us here at Engadget are introverts, so you don’t need to explain to us the value of strapping on a headset and momentarily blocking out the stress of classes and meeting new people. Included in our back-to-school guide are many of the usual suspects, like the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Daydream View. We also recommend the optional Rift and Gear VR controllers, as well as games like Rock Band VR and Farpoint. Enjoy your escape from the real world, but remember to take a social break from time to time.

Source: Engadget’s 2917 Back to School Guide

31
Jul

Amazon’s new show only exists to sell you more stuff


Amazon is blending commerce and entertainment again with a new show called Overhaul in which YouTube stars makeover their homes with products you can easily purchase on Amazon. The show will be on a special Amazon hub that will give viewers quick access to items featured on the show as well as inexpensive alternatives. “Amazon Home is constantly looking to innovate and find ways to bring our customers inspiration when searching for products,” Amazon’s director of home innovation, Kristiana Helmick, told Business Insider. “The Overhaul series is a great opportunity to provide our customers with some curation and guidance when searching through our large selection of products and we continue to look for new and different ways to do that.”

The company has been playing around with different ways to link social media influencers with product sales. Earlier this year, Amazon launched an “influencer program” that allowed popular social media personalities to set up a page on its site with lists of Amazon products they recommend for their followers. In March, the company launched its first live TV show, Style Code Live, which was its take on a QVC-like shopping channel. However, it was cancelled shortly thereafter in May.

The first two episodes of Overhaul will feature YouTube baking star Rosanna Pansino and beauty vlogger Teni Panosian. The six-episode series is set to premiere in September.

Source: Business Insider

31
Jul

Scientists want to create animal feed out of light and electricity


Figuring out how to feed the Earth’s population is no small feat, which is why a recent development is so exciting. Researchers at the Lappeenranta University of Technology and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have figured out a way to produce single-cell protein from electricity and carbon dioxide. It can be manufactured anywhere energy (wind farms, solar energy, etc.) and light are available.

The aim of this is to eventually develop this protein into a source of food for animals. Not only will it allow for on-demand food production for livestock, but it also has the potential to free up swaths of land that are currently used to store fodder. This protein-based feed could help ease the onerous environmental impact of raising and maintaining livestock.

In the future, this protein could be used for human consumption as well. “In the long term, protein created with electricity is meant to be used in cooking and products as it is,” says Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, one of the principal scientists on the project.” The mixture is very nutritious, with more than 50 per cent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates. The rest is fats and nucleic acids. The consistency of the final product can be modified by changing the organisms used in the production.”

Currently, it takes about two weeks to manufacture just one gram (.03 ounce) of the protein. It’s also 10 times more efficient than photosynthesis. While that might seem impressive, both efficiency and speed need to increase drastically before this can be considered for commercial use; the next step is to embark on a pilot program to test the product. “The idea is to develop the concept into a mass product, with a price that drops as the technology becomes more common,” explains Jero Ahola, one of the scientists on the project.

Via: Science Daily

Source: Lappeenranta University of Technology, LUT

31
Jul

Hackers leak HBO episodes, ‘Game of Thrones’ info online


Netflix isn’t the only video service suffering form a hack: HBO has been breached as well. Hackers have gotten their mitts on 1.5 terabytes of data according to Entertainment Weekly, which apparently includes an episode of Ballers and Room 104 in addition to what may or may not be text related to next week’s Game of Thrones installment. The hackers promise more will be leaked.

“Hi to all mankind. The greatest leak of cyber space era is happening,” an email to reporters says. “What’s its name? Oh I forget to tell. Its [sic] HBO and Game of Thrones……!!!!!! You are lucky to be the first pioneers to witness and download the leak. Enjoy it & spread the words. Whoever spreads well, wi will have an interview with him. HBO is failing.”

For its part, HBO has issued an email of its own to employees saying that its tech team and outside experts were assessing and addressing the situation.

“I have absolutely no doubt that we will navigate our way through this successfully,” chairman and CEO Richard Plepler writes.

“Data protection is a top priority at HBO, and we take seriously our responsibility to protect the data we hold,” a statement given to Entertainment Weekly says.

Comparatively, Sony lost “under a hundred” terabytes of data in the leak that gave us an inside look at how the studio works. Game of Thrones hasn’t leaked yet, so this could be a bluff from the hackers. If that changes, well, now fans of the books and the show will be able to commiserate over spoilers.

Source: Entertainment Weekly

31
Jul

Gboard on iOS adds YouTube and Maps everywhere there’s a keyboard


Gboard might not be the fastest input method for your device, but that doesn’t negate its utility. Swapping to it within a text message thread or Facebook Messenger is faster than jumping into another app to get, say, an image from Google and then copying and pasting the link.

Now, Google is adding Maps and YouTube to the party on iOS and they work how you’d expect, with dedicated tabs that appear when you hit the G button. Sending your location is like dropping a GPS pin in iMessage and searching for a YouTube clip is as easy as doing so within its app. Hell, you can even submit your own digital finger-paintings as Doodle candidates.

These add-ons are cool (and useful!), but it’d be great to see Google add some quality of life improvements like and key-press speed or Gmail syncing for predictive text. You know, stuff SwiftKey has offered for years.

Source: Google

31
Jul

Classic action game ‘Another World’ is headed to your turntable


If you’ve played Éric Chahi’s classic action-adventure Another World (aka Out of this World), there’s a good chance you remember the soundtrack. Large chunks of the game were punctuated by silence, but you knew something special was happening whenever Jean-François Freitas’ ethereal, Vangelis-like score began to play. Now, you can relive those moments on your turntable. Black Screen Records is releasing a vinyl (plus a CD, we’d add) version of the soundtrack, making it available for the first time beyond the deluxe editions of the game’s 20th anniversary release.

The track list includes both the music common to all versions of the game as well as the intro and endgame music specific to the Amiga and 2004 Windows versions.

You can pre-order the soundtrack ahead of its August 18th ship date, and you might want to do that if you’re determined to get the most fanciful copy possible. Black Screen is selling an exclusive orange record, while the French get a blue record at the official Another World store. You’ll otherwise have to ‘settle’ for old-school black vinyl unless you’re willing to wait for a future US exclusive. It’s a bit overkill given the relatively short running time (you can likely finish listening in the time it takes to make dinner), but it might hit the spot if you still have fond memories of incinerating guards and running away from mysterious beasts.

Source: Black Screen Records

31
Jul

The VR successor to ‘Second Life’ is now in public beta


Sansar, the VR platform by Second Life creator Linden Lab, is now available for everyone to explore. The public “creator beta” follows a private “creator preview,” which allowed developers and aspiring level designers to try Sansar’s building tools. That period was crucial given, like Second Life, Linden Lab is banking on the community to populate Sansar with interesting experiences. Today, there are “hundreds” of places to explore, including museums, theaters and tropical temples. Some are virtual postcards, while others have games and stories inside them. Everything is free to try too, whether you’re playing on a PC, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

Last week the team behind AltSpaceVR, one of the most popular social VR , announced it would be closing down next month. The company had run into funding problems, and outlined in a frank blog post how it had struggled to secure a new funding round. Linden Lab is hoping to avoid a similar fate through its unique business model, which involves taking a small cut of marketplace purchases. With Sansar, anyone can design and upload a virtual object — a chair, a car, anything really — and then sell it to other users. The recipient can then use it to speed-build their own experience, whether it’s a private home or a bombastic game for the public.

Everyone can create three personal lots, or “experiences,” for free. The “Creator” subscription, which costs $9.99 per month, takes that to five and promises speedier customer support over email. The “Super Creator” tier, meanwhile, comes with 10 experiences, even faster email responses and live web chat. The “Professional” package, finally, grants you 20 experiences, email, web chat and phone support for $99.99 per month. Pricing could change in the future, however, depending on user feedback during the creator beta. Linden Lab says it’s also working on entrance fees, so creators can charge users access “on the door” for specific experiences.

Inside Sansar, you can create an avatar, speak to other people and pick up objects — the usual social MMO fare. While it’s playable with a monitor, mouse and keyboard, Linden Lab has clearly designed it with VR headsets in mind. Last year, I tried an early build with an Oculus Rift and two Touch controllers, chatting with chief executive Ebbe Altberg from opposite sides of the planet. It’s a novel experience that Facebook has since tried to replicate with its VR app Spaces. The difference with Sansar is its deep, but newcomer-friendly level builder; Linden Lab hopes everyone will craft their own experiences that slowly attract new people to the platform.

Still, it’s unclear how popular virtual reality will become. Oculus Rift and HTC Vive sales are stable, but slower than some people expected. Linden Lab is bullish about the medium’s future, but it’s telling that Sansar is also playable through a laptop or PC. If you want to try the beta out for yourself, the Sansar app is available to download through the company’s website.

Source: Sansar

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