Dec 27

Researchers aim to recreate intense emotional experience astronauts reported on seeing Earth from space for the first time. From a report: The spectacle of Earth suspended in space was so overwhelming for Edgar Mitchell that the Apollo 14 astronaut and sixth man on the moon wanted to grab politicians by the scruff of the neck and drag them into space to witness the view. Such drastic measures may not be necessary, however. Scientists are about to welcome the first participants on an unprecedented clinical trial that aims to reproduce the intense emotional experience, known as the “Overview effect,” from the comfort of a health spa.

If the trial goes well, what led Mitchell to develop “an instant global consciousness” and a profound connection to Earth and its people could be recreated with nothing more than a flotation tank, a half tonne of Epsom salts, and a waterproof virtual reality (VR) headset. “There’s a lot of division and polarisation and disconnection between people,” said Steven Pratscher, a psychologist and principal investigator on the trial at the University of Missouri. “We’d like to see if we can recreate the Overview effect on Earth to have an impact on those issues.” Pratscher will recruit about 100 volunteers who are willing to don the VR headset and clamber into a dark, salt-laden flotation tank at the city’s Clarity Float spa. The silence and buoyancy will mimic the sensation of floating in space, while the VR headset plays high-definition, 360 degree immersive video recorded by the Silicon Valley startup, SpaceVR.

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Dec 26

Games have long served as a training ground for AI algorithms, and not without good reason. From a report: Games — particularly video games — provide challenging environments against which to benchmark autonomous systems. In 2013, a team of researchers introduced the Arcade Learning Environment, a collection of over 55 Atari 2600 games designed to test a broad range of AI techniques. More recently, San Francisco research firm OpenAI detailed Procgen Benchmark, a set of 16 virtual worlds that measure how quickly models learn generalizable skills. The next frontier might be Mega Man, if an international team of researchers have their way. In a newly published paper [PDF] on the preprint server Arxiv.org, they propose EvoMan, a game-playing competition based on the eight boss fights in Capcom’s cult classic Mega Man 2. As they describe it, competitors’ goal is to train an AI agent to defeat every enemy and evaluate their performances by common metrics.

Why Mega Man 2? The paper’s coauthors assert that few other environments test an AI’s ability to win against a single enemy, or how well an AI generalizes to win matches against waves of enemies or coevolves to create increasingly difficult enemies. To this end, in EvoMan, an AI-controlled Mega Man — a robot equipped with a powerful arm cannon — must beat eight so-called Robot Masters equipped with different weapons. Every time a Robot Master is defeated, the agent acquires its weapon, making it easier to defeat the bosses who remain. As proposed, EvoMan challenge entrants would train their agents on any four enemies and measure how well their learned strategy scales up to a whole set of enemies. The agents would be expected to learn how to identify and react to general patterns like avoiding being shot or shooting at the direction of the enemy, and to deplete an enemy’s health from 100 energy points to 0 by the end of each match.

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Dec 26

The network’s furthering of lies from foreign adversaries and flagrant disregard for the truth have gotten downright dangerous. Garrett M. Graff, writing for Wired earlier this month: Monday’s split-screen drama, as the House Judiciary Committee weighed impeachment charges against President Trump and as the Justice Department’s inspector general released a 476-page report on the FBI’s handling of its 2016 investigation into Trump’s campaign, made one truth of the modern world inescapable: The lies and obfuscations forwarded ad infinitum on Fox News pose a dangerous threat to the national security of the United States. The facts of both dramas were clear to objective viewers: In the one instance, there’s conclusive and surprisingly consistent evidence that President Trump pushed Ukraine to concoct dirt on a domestic political rival to affect the 2020 presidential election, and in the other, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that the FBI was proper to investigate Trump’s dealings with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

But that set of facts is not what anyone who was watching Fox News heard. Instead, Fox spent the night describing an upside-down world where the president’s enemies had spun a web of lies about Trump and Ukraine, even as Horowitz blew open the base corruption that has driven every attack on the president since 2016. Sean Hannity, who had long trumpeted the forthcoming inspector general report and expected a thorough indictment of the behavior of former FBI director James Comey and other members of the “deep state,” had a simple message for his viewers during Fox’s Monday night prime time: “Everything we said, everything we reported, everything we told you was dead-on-center accurate,” he said. “It is all there in black and white, it’s all there.” Except they weren’t right and it wasn’t there. But Fox News’ viewers evidently were not to be told those hard truths — they were to be kept thinking that everything in their self-selected filter bubble was just peachy keen.

Over on Fox Business, Lou Dobbs said the mere fact that the IG found no political bias in the FBI’s investigation of Trump and Russia in 2016 was de facto proof of the power of the deep state. John Harwood, long one of Washington’s most respected conservative voices in journalism, summed up Fox’s approach Monday night simply: “Lunacy.” It’s worse than lunacy, though. Fox’s bubble reality creates a situation where it’s impossible to have the conversations and debate necessary to function as a democracy. Facts that are inconvenient to President Trump simply disappear down Fox News’ “memory hole,” as thoroughly as George Orwell could have imagined in 1984. The idea that Fox News represents a literal threat to our national security, on par with Russia’s Internet Research Agency or China’s Ministry of State Security, may seem like a dramatic overstatement of its own but this week has made clear that, as we get deeper into the impeachment process and as the 2020 election approaches, Fox News is prepared to destroy America’s democratic traditions if it will help its most important and most dedicated daily viewer. The threat posed to our democracy by Fox News is multifaceted: First and most simply, it’s clearly advancing and giving voice to narratives and smears backed and imagined by our foreign adversaries. Second, its overheated and bombastic rhetoric is undermining America’s foundational ideals and the sense of fair play in politics. Third, its unique combination of lies and half-truths has built a virtual reality so complete that it leaves its viewers too misinformed to fulfill their most basic responsibilities as citizens to make informed choices about the direction of the country.

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Dec 25

Computer engineer George Hilliard says he has built an electronic business card running Linux. From his blog post: It is a complete, minimal ARM computer running my customized Linux firmware built with Buildroot. It has a USB port in the corner. If you plug it into a computer, it boots in about 6 seconds and shows up over USB as a flash drive and a virtual serial port that you can use to log into the card’s shell. The flash drive has a README file, a copy of my resume, and some of my photography. The shell has several games and Unix classics such as fortune and rogue, a small 2048, and a small MicroPython interpreter.

All this is accomplished on a very small 8MB flash chip. The bootloader fits in 256KB, the kernel is 1.6MB, and the whole root filesystem is 2.4MB. So, there’s plenty of space for the virtual flash drive. It also includes a writable home directory, on the off chance that anyone creates something they want to keep. This is also saved on the flash chip, which is properly wear leveled with UBI. The whole thing costs under $3. It’s cheap enough to give away. If you get one from me, I’m probably trying to impress you. In a detailed write-up, Hilliard goes on to explain how he came up with the design and assembled all the components. Naturally, there were some problems that arose during the construction that he had to troubleshoot: “first, the USB port wasn’t long enough to reliably make contact in many USB ports. Less critically, the flash footprint was wrong, which I worked around by bending the leads under the part by hand…”

Impressively, the total cost of the card (not including his time) was $2.88 — “cheap enough that I don’t feel bad giving it away, as designed!”

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Dec 17

Rewound, the basic music player app released last week that you could skin to make your iPhone look remarkably like an iPod Classic, has been pulled from the App Store, according to Rewound blog post published on Medium. The Verge reports: The blog says that Apple pulled the app because it copied the iPod’s design, charged for Apple Music features, and people could mistake the app for an Apple product. The blog makes the case that the app had a pretty basic interface that looked nothing like an Apple app, and the iPod classic skins didn’t come preinstalled. (You had to download them after you had already installed the app.) We’ve asked Apple for comment, and we’ll update this story when we hear back.

The Rewound blog says the iOS app can’t be updated without “breaking the app for all 170,000+ users,” but the developer, Louis Anslow, says he will attempt to bring the app back in some way. On a GoFundMe page for continued development of Rewound, Anslow says he will “try some tweaks to get Rewound resubmitted” on the App Store and that the GoFundMe will help support development of a web app and an Android app. On the GoFundMe page, Anslow says it “isn’t clear if Apple will ever allow Rewound back on the [App Store],” and states that “we are not promising fully finished versions” of any of the apps.

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Dec 16

66-year-old Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy reveals what they’ll do after Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Kennedy says that streaming “is a really important transition… What we’ve been focused on these last five or six years is finishing that family saga around the Skywalkers. Now is the time to start thinking about how to segue into something new and different.”

Kennedy also blames the poor box office of the 2018 movie Solo on the release of too many Star Wars movies too quickly, and remembers getting Disney’s okay on a “pause” before future films.

“We’re literally making this up from whole cloth and bringing in filmmakers to find what these stories might be,” Kennedy said. “It can take a while before you find what direction you might want to go. We need the time to do that.” The next “Star Wars” film is expected to arrive in 2022, and that’s essentially all that’s known about it. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has an idea for a “Star Wars” movie, but it’s in the early stages, according to Kennedy. Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed “The Last Jedi,” is also developing more “Star Wars” films.

Kennedy said she plans to make key decisions about the direction of the franchise in the coming weeks. But some things she already knows. While the “Skywalker” saga is ending, the company won’t abandon the characters created in the most recent trilogy. Additionally, she said, the plan is to move beyond trilogies, which can be restricting. “I think it gives us a more open-ended view of storytelling and doesn’t lock us into this three-act structure,” she said. “We’re not going to have some finite number and fit it into a box. We’re really going to let the story dictate that.”

The article also notes that George Lucas complained there was “nothing new” in The Force Awakens, according to Bob Iger’s recent book The Ride of a Lifetime. And though that film was a commercial and critical success, the Times also writes that “Debates over the franchise persisted.”

“The Last Jedi,” for example, was criticized in some circles for going too far in subverting “Star Wars” tropes. Kennedy says the company heeds feedback from “Star Wars” fans. For example, Lucasfilm decided to revive “The Clone Wars” TV series for Disney+ following a prolonged campaign by viewers. “It does matter what they say and what they care about,” Kennedy said. “All of those things play a role in our decision making.”

Aside from films, Lucasfilm has ample “Star Wars” material in the works, especially for Disney+. The studio is working on shows starring Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Diego Luna as his rebel spy character from “Rogue One.” Additionally, the company is experimenting with new formats. Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab, a virtual reality and augmented reality unit founded in 2015, this year released a VR series called “Vader Immortal” that puts users face-to-face with Darth Vader and trains headset users to wield a lightsaber.

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Dec 15

An anonymous reader quotes Mike Melanson’s “This Week in Programming” column:

WebAssembly is a binary instruction format for a stack-based virtual machine and this week, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) dubbed it an official web standard and the fourth language for the Web that allows code to run in the browser, joining HTML, CSS and JavaScript… With this week’s news, WebAssembly has officially reached version 1.0 and is supported in the browser engines for Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer, and the Bytecode Alliance launched last month to help ensure “a WebAssembly ecosystem that is secure by default” and for bringing WebAssembly to outside-the-browser use.

Of course, not everything is 100% rosy. As pointed out by an article in The Register, WebAssembly also brings with it an increased level of obfuscation of what exactly is going on, giving it an increased ability to perform some surreptitious actions. For example, they cite one study that “found ‘over 50 percent of all sites using WebAssembly apply it for malicious deeds, such as [crypto] mining and obfuscation.’” Nonetheless, with WebAssembly gaining this designation by W3C, it is, indeed, time to pay closer attention to the newly nominated Web language standard.

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Dec 15

Long-time Slashdot reader 140Mandak262Jamuna brings news of a triumph for a Tesla power project in South Australia: about 900 residential rooftop solar panels, coupled with storage batteries, “all linked up to central control, to form what they are calling a ‘Virtual Power Plant.’”

Nothing virtual about it, distributed power plant would have been a better name. That project, designed to link 50,000 homes and their solar panels, is just 2% complete. About 1000 homes. That 2% complete project had enough juice and control to step in, detect the frequency drop, increase power from the batteries and save the day.

But does this have implications for the future? “The opportunity for Virtual Power Plants to reach a large scale will benefit all energy users through added competition to deliver services at reducing prices,” says the executive general manager of emerging markets and services for the Australian Energy Market Operator (in the linked-to article above from Teslarati).

The original submission from 140Mandak262Jamuna argues this could be a game-changer for renewable energy:

This is unprecedented. The electric utilities have been government-sanctioned monopolies for over a century, protected from competition… The battery bank will stabilize the grid so well, there will be no surge pricing for peaker power plants…

At present the Return-on-Investment comparison between solar/wind storage versus gas turbine power plants include the surge pricing benefit in favor of the gas power plants. It will be gone.

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Dec 14

In 30 minutes an exclusive clip from the yet-to-be-released Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will premier in the videogame Fortnite.

An anonymous reader quotes the Verge:

We’ve known about the clip premiere since last week, but Epic disclosed some more concrete details Thursday night at the Game Awards. The studio says it’ll open the gates of its virtual world starting at 1:30 p.m. EST. The clip will start airing at the Risky Reels drive-in movie theater at 2 p.m. EST. Speaking with Game Awards host Geoff Keighley yesterday, Epic’s worldwide creative director Donald Mustard hinted that there would be some sort of involvement from director J.J. Abrams. We don’t know if that means a live pre-show, or perhaps the director himself will intro the clip before it airs.

Fortnite is also offering skins of Star Wars characters Rey and Finn, according to the article, with Mustard envisioning Fortnite as a world where all intellectual property “can live together.” The Verge also predicts that the clip will eventually be available elsewhere online, while Business Insider believes “countless” Fortnite players will stream the event live on YouTube and Twitch.

Meanwhile, J. J. Abrams has also asked Lucasfilm to release the original Star Wars trilogy in its original pre-Special Edition format, according to Nerdist.com, but “I’ve been told that, for reasons that I quite don’t understand, that that’s not necessarily possible.”

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Dec 11

“Facebook will now use information about your Oculus activity, like which apps you use, to help provide […] more relevant content, including ads” — assuming you’ve connected your Oculus ID to your Facebook account. UploadVR reports: The company is updating its privacy policy and rolling out new social VR features backed by your “Facebook identity” with the intention of “clarifying how Oculus data is shared with Facebook to inform ads when you log into Facebook on Oculus.” “These changes won’t affect third-party apps and games, and they won’t affect your on-device data,” according to the company. For years now, buyers of Facebook VR headsets needed an Oculus ID to operate the system that could be optionally connected to your “Facebook identity” — in other words, you could connect the two accounts. More recently, to access certain features like concerts in Venues, Facebook started requiring the use of the Facebook account. According to the company’s terms, this account “must … use the same name that you use in everyday life.”

With this most recent change “If you choose not to log into Facebook on Oculus, we won’t share data with Facebook to allow third parties to target advertisements to you based on your use of the Oculus Platform,” according to Facebook. But denying that connection may also make it difficult to connect with others using virtual reality on Oculus systems. […] Facebook suggests that for those who log into the account it will target “relevant content” based around “Oculus activity” including “which apps you use” with examples given including “Oculus Events you might like to attend or ads for VR apps available on the Oculus Store.” The company says this “won’t affect your on-device data” which, based on our previous reporting, Facebook says is the location where “3D maps of your environment” are kept. “We don’t collect and store images or 3D maps of your environment on our servers today — images are not stored anywhere, and 3D maps are stored locally on the headset [for Quest] and on your local PC, where you have access to delete it [for Rift S],” a Facebook representative originally wrote in an email. Facebook also says the changes “won’t affect third-party apps and games” and “if you choose not to log into Facebook on Oculus, we won’t share data with Facebook to allow third parties to target advertisements to you based on your use of the Oculus Platform.”

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