Jul 29

An anonymous reader quotes Variety:
Oculus VR headset users just got one more video service to watch in their virtual living rooms: Amazon’s Prime Video service went live on Oculus Go, Quest and Samsung Gear VR headsets with a dedicated Prime Video VR app Wednesday.

In addition to access to the entire Prime Video catalog, Prime Video VR will also feature select 360-degree video films. At launch, these include “Invasion!” from Baobab Studios and “Greenland Melting” from Frontline and NOVA, according to a blog post.

The app offers users a way to watch Prime Video titles in a virtual theater setting, and also comes with voice search for the entire Prime catalog. Prime Video VR is at launch only available to Prime subscribers in the U.S. and the U.K., but there does seem to be a way for users who aren’t Prime subscribers to browse their Amazon Video purchases.

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Jul 26

The Internal Revenue Service has begun sending letters to more than 10,000 cryptocurrency holders, warning about penalties for failing to report income and pay tax on transactions involving virtual currencies. From a report: The agency expects its mailing to be completed by the end of August [Editor’s note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source]. It is sending three variations of one letter, depending on the information it has about the recipient. “Taxpayers should take these letters very seriously. The IRS is expanding efforts involving virtual currency, including increased use of data analytics,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. An IRS spokesman declined to say whether the letters stem from information turned over by digital-currency platform Coinbase. In mid-March of 2018, Coinbase provided data — under a federal court order — on about 13,000 accounts requested by the IRS.

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Jul 26

Alphabet’s autonomous driving and robotaxi company Waymo teamed up with fellow Alphabet company and AI specialist DeepMind to develop new training methods that would help makes its training better and more efficient. TechCrunch reports: The two worked together to bring a training method called Population Based Training (PBT for short) to bear on Waymo’s challenge of building better virtual drivers, and the results were impressive — DeepMind says in a blog post that using PBT decreased by 24% false positives in a network that identifies and places boxes around pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists spotted by a Waymo vehicle’s many sensors. Not only that, but is also resulted in savings in terms of both training time and resources, using about 50% of both compared to standard methods that Waymo was using previously.

What DeepMind and Waymo did with this experiment was essentially automate killing the “bad” training and replacing them with better-performing spin-offs of the best-in-class networks running the task. That’s where evolution comes in, since it’s kind of a process of artificial natural selection. Yes, that does make sense — read it again. In order to avoid potential pitfalls with this method, DeepMind tweaked some aspects after early research, including evaluating models on fast, 15-minute intervals, building out strong validation criteria and example sets to ensure that tests really were building better-performing neural nets for the real world, and not just good pattern-recognition engines for the specific data they’d been fed. Finally, the companies also developed a sort of “island population” approach by building sub-populations of neural nets that only competed with one another in limited groups, similar to how animal populations cut off from larger groups (i.e. limited to islands) develop far different and sometimes better-adapted characteristics versus their large land-mass cousins.

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Jul 18

DoNotPay, a free chatbot that offers AI-powered legal counsel, has a new service called Free Trial Card that will help you cancel free trials before you get charged. Wired reports: The Free Trial Card is a virtual credit card you can use to sign up for free trials of any service anonymously, instead of using your real credit card. When the free trial period ends, the card automatically declines to be charged, thus ending your free trial. You don’t have to remember to cancel anything. If you want, the app will also send an actual legal notice of cancelation to the service. The DoNotPay app will send you an email when you sign up for a service and another when your trial ends — a way of nudging you with the reminder that if you want to convert your trial into a paid subscription, you’ll need to update your payment info and hand over your actual credit card number.

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Jul 16

Two years ago Nasdaq and Citigroup announced a new blockchain system they said would make payments of private securities transactions more efficient. Nasdaq Chief Executive Adena Friedman called it “a milestone in the global financial sector.” But the companies did not move forward with the project, Reuters reported Tuesday, because while it worked in testing, the cost to fully adopt it outweighed the benefits. From a report: Blockchain, the person added, “is a shiny mirage” and its wide-scale adoption may still “take a while.” In a joint statement, the companies said the pilot was successful and they were “happy to partner” on other initiatives. Both companies are also working on other projects. Companies, including banks, large retailers and technology vendors, are investing billions of dollars to find uses for blockchain, a digital ledger used by cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Just last month, Facebook revealed plans for a virtual currency and a blockchain-based payment system. But a review of 33 projects involving large companies announced over the past four years and interviews with more than a dozen executives involved with them show the technology has yet to deliver on its promise.

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Jul 12

President Donald Trump on Thursday night warned Facebook over its plan to create digital currency Libra, a move that poses a new obstacle to the company’s cryptocurrency ambitions. From a report: “Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks,” Trump said in a series of posts on Twitter. In the tweets, the president also expressed scepticism of digital currencies in general. “I am not a fan of Bitcoin and other Cryptocurrencies, which are not money, and whose value is highly volatile and based on thin air,” Trump wrote. “Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity.” Trump’s entrance into the debate over Bitcoin and Libra could mark a significant development for crypto enthusiasts. The White House has largely remained silent on the subject even as federal regulators like the Securities Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission and units of the Treasury Department have grappled with how to regulate virtual coins.

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Jul 10

An anonymous reader shares a report: In America, the freedom of movement comes with an asterisk: the obligation to drive. This truism has been echoed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has pronounced car ownership a “virtual necessity.” The Court’s pronouncement is telling. Yes, in a sense, America is car-dependent by choice — but it is also car-dependent by law. As I detail in a forthcoming journal article, over the course of several generations lawmakers rewrote the rules of American life to conform to the interests of Big Oil, the auto barons, and the car-loving 1 percenters of the Roaring Twenties. They gave legal force to a mind-set — let’s call it automobile supremacy — that kills 40,000 Americans a year and seriously injures more than 4 million more. Include all those harmed by emissions and climate change, and the damage is even greater. As a teenager growing up in the shadow of Detroit, I had no reason to feel this was unjust, much less encouraged by law. It is both.

It’s no secret that American public policy throughout the 20th century endorsed the car — for instance, by building a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense. Less well understood is how the legal framework governing American life enforces dependency on the automobile. To begin with, mundane road regulations embed automobile supremacy into federal, state, and local law. But inequities in traffic regulation are only the beginning. Land-use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code — all these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode, and punishment for those who defy it.

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Jul 09

Netflix Hangouts is a new Chrome extension that tries to make it easier to get away with watching Netflix while you’re supposed to be working. Just go to the show you want to catch up on during work hours, and press the extension’s icon in your Chrome menu to bring up a fake four-person conference call. Then you can sit back and watch the show in the window’s bottom right feed while three fake colleagues get down to business. The Verge reports: The extension was developed by Mschf Internet Studios, which has produced a few internet curiosities like this over the years. There was the Slack channel that offered $1,000 in prize money for the first person to correctly guess each word of the day (it was shut down by Slack after just a week), a man who ate various foods as disgusting ice cream toppings, and who could forget Tabagotchi, the lovable virtual avatar that slowly died as you opened more and more tabs? Netflix Hangouts is the latest in a long line of services designed to let you slack off at work.

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Jul 06

SonicSpike shares a report from Computer Weekly: Almost a third (30%) of the world’s top virtual private network (VPN) providers are secretly owned by six Chinese companies, according to a study by privacy and security research firm VPNpro. The study shows that the top 97 VPNs are run by just 23 parent companies, many of which are based in countries with lax privacy laws. Six of these companies are based in China and collectively offer 29 VPN services, but in many cases, information on the parent company is hidden to consumers. Researchers at VPNpro have pieced together ownership information through company listings, geolocation data, the CVs of employees and other documentation. In some instances, ownership of different VPNs is split amongst a number of subsidiaries. For example, Chinese company Innovative Connecting owns three separate businesses that produce VPN apps: Autumn Breeze 2018, Lemon Cove and All Connected. In total, Innovative Connecting produces 10 seemingly unconnected VPN products, the study shows. Although the ownership of a number of VPN services by one company is not unusual, VPNpro is concerned that so many are based in countries with lax or non-existence privacy laws.

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Jul 05

On July 1st, California became the first state in the nation to try to reduce the power of bots by requiring that they reveal their “artificial identity” when they are used to sell a product or influence a voter. Violators could face fines under state statutes related to unfair competition. From a report: Just as pharmaceutical companies must disclose that the happy people who say a new drug has miraculously improved their lives are paid actors, bots in California — or rather, the people who deploy them — will have to level with their audience. “It’s literally taking these high-end technological concepts and bringing them home to basic common-law principles,” Robert Hertzberg, a California state senator who is the author of the bot-disclosure law, told me. “You can’t defraud people. You can’t lie. You can’t cheat them economically. You can’t cheat ‘em in elections.”

California’s bot-disclosure law is more than a run-of-the-mill anti-fraud rule. By attempting to regulate a technology that thrives on social networks, the state will be testing society’s resolve to get our (virtual) house in order after more than two decades of a runaway Internet. We are in new terrain, where the microtargeting of audiences on social networks, the perception of false news stories as genuine, and the bot-led amplification of some voices and drowning-out of others have combined to create angry, ill-informed online communities that are suspicious of one another and of the government. Regulating bots should be low-hanging fruit when it comes to improving the Internet. The California law doesn’t even ban them outright but, rather, insists that they identify themselves in a manner that is “clear, conspicuous, and reasonably designed.”

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