April 25, 2019

Stop letting babies watch TV, begs World Health Organization

The occasional Netflix binge might seem like a harmless distraction to you and me, but the World Health Organization says those same personal standards should never be applied to babies and toddlers. In a new report, WHO insists that sedentary behavior in children up to five years of age puts them at a dramatically increased risk of developing habits links to obesity and all the nasty health effects that come with it. Previous WHO guidance on "screen time" for children had already placed restrictions on the amount of sedentary time young children should spend watching TV and playing with gadgets like smartphones and tablets. These low-energy activities contribute to poor health, it's thought, and now the guidelines have become even more strict. “Achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people’s lives,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. “Early childhood is a period of rapid development and a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains.” The group cites increasingly troubling statistics regarding not just childhood obesity but the risks of sedentary lifestyles among adults. WHO says nearly a quarter of adults and a whopping 80 percent of adolescents fail to meet the minimum physical activity recommendations, and the thought is that these habits begin early in life and can be hard to break once an already-unhealthy individual reaches adulthood. So what should kids be doing if not staring at a digital screen? WHO has some ideas:
The pattern of overall 24-hour activity is key: replacing prolonged restrained or sedentary screen time with more active play, while making sure young children get enough good-quality sleep. Quality sedentary time spent in interactive non-screen-based activities with a caregiver, such as reading, storytelling, singing and puzzles, is very important for child development.
A full list of individual recommendations based on age can be found on the organization's website.
April 25, 2019

HBO shares new ‘Game of Thrones’ photos ahead of the bloodiest, longest episode yet

The Lady of Winterfell looks a little shaken in the image at the top of this post, and it's certainly no secret why. The epic confrontation we've all been anticipating as Game of Thrones' final season reaches the halfway mark this Sunday is almost here. And in advance of the high-stakes battle of Winterfell that will give the show it's bloodiest and longest episode to date, HBO has released a new batch of images teasing the struggle to come. Some of the images appear to be taken directly from the teaser for Episode 3 that fans will have seen this past Sunday at the end of the previous episode, while others give us a tiny hint of what we're in store for during the upcoming episode that will fall just shy of the 90-minute mark. Among them are depictions of Jaime Lannister and Brienne fighting together on what appears to be the front line. We see Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow seemingly far above the action, watching it unfold, as well as Tyrion Lannister and Varys huddled down below, in the safety (or, rather, the pseudo-safety) of the Stark crypts. We also get an image of Sansa and Arya Stark seeming to confer atop the castle fortifications. Last week's episode set the stage nicely for what's sure to go down as one of the most unforgettable in the series' history. Bran left us wondering if he'll be able to lure the Night King to the Godswood, where he can be dealt with, somehow, once and for all. Or is he bypassing Winterfell to go make trouble for Cersei while his minions lock Winterfell down? It's safe to say the body count in this episode will be high, and there's a new undercurrent of tension to boot between Jon and Dany now that he's told her his secret. As far as the battle itself, it's been touted as the most sustained action sequence ever filmed for a TV show or movie, so it will no doubt be an intense sequence of events to watch unfold. Which will be good news for those of you who've been anxious during the season's first two episodes which have been heavy on the table-setting and exposition. Your patience is about to be rewarded.
April 25, 2019

HBO shares new ‘Game of Thrones’ photos ahead of the bloodiest, longest episode yet

The Lady of Winterfell looks a little shaken in the image at the top of this post, and it's certainly no secret why. The epic confrontation we've all been anticipating as Game of Thrones' final season reaches the halfway mark this Sunday is almost here. And in advance of the high-stakes battle of Winterfell that will give the show it's bloodiest and longest episode to date, HBO has released a new batch of images teasing the struggle to come. Some of the images appear to be taken directly from the teaser for Episode 3 that fans will have seen this past Sunday at the end of the previous episode, while others give us a tiny hint of what we're in store for during the upcoming episode that will fall just shy of the 90-minute mark. Among them are depictions of Jaime Lannister and Brienne fighting together on what appears to be the front line. We see Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow seemingly far above the action, watching it unfold, as well as Tyrion Lannister and Varys huddled down below, in the safety (or, rather, the pseudo-safety) of the Stark crypts. We also get an image of Sansa and Arya Stark seeming to confer atop the castle fortifications. Last week's episode set the stage nicely for what's sure to go down as one of the most unforgettable in the series' history. Bran left us wondering if he'll be able to lure the Night King to the Godswood, where he can be dealt with, somehow, once and for all. Or is he bypassing Winterfell to go make trouble for Cersei while his minions lock Winterfell down? It's safe to say the body count in this episode will be high, and there's a new undercurrent of tension to boot between Jon and Dany now that he's told her his secret. As far as the battle itself, it's been touted as the most sustained action sequence ever filmed for a TV show or movie, so it will no doubt be an intense sequence of events to watch unfold. Which will be good news for those of you who've been anxious during the season's first two episodes which have been heavy on the table-setting and exposition. Your patience is about to be rewarded.
April 25, 2019

Young stars love to destroy planet atmospheres, new study suggests

New exoplanet discoveries have been piling up fast in recent years, and whenever astronomers confirm the existence of another planet there's always an immediate interest in whether or not that planet could support life. For many newly-discovered worlds the answer is a firm "no." They're either too hot, too cold, or they're just big balls of gas, but when a rocky world is discovered to be just the right distance from its star the possibility of life remains. A new research paper published in Astronomy & Astrophysics Letters explains how even some planets in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" of their parent stars can be doomed to harsh fate with no possibility of supporting life as we know it. For a planet to support life as we know it on Earth, it needs to have an atmosphere of some kind. Many young planets are believed to form atmospheres early on, which sounds like great news for anyone hoping that mankind finds extraterrestrial life out in the cosmos some day, but there's a bit catch. Young planets are often in orbit around young star, and scientists are beginning to realize now more than ever just how difficult it is for a planet to hang onto its atmosphere in the face of an active young star. The paper explains that abundant M-dwarf type stars, which are considered the most plentiful in our neck of the woods, may make life very difficult for the planets that orbit them. Unlike stars like our own Sun, M-dwarf type stars go through particularly active streaks at a young age, spewing elevated amounts of X-ray and ultraviolet radiation for billions of years. It's that radiation that can rapidly strip a nearby planet of its atmosphere. In fact, even a planet with an Earth-like atmosphere could completely lose it within a little as one million years if it were orbiting a particularly active young star. This isn't great news for alien hunters, but it does tell us a good deal about how unique Earth truly is, and it could help narrow down our search for extraterrestrial life in the future.
April 25, 2019

Disney+ release may prompt a wave of Netflix cancellations, new survey reveals

Earlier this month, Disney officially took the wraps off of Disney+, its highly anticipated streaming service designed to compete with the likes of Netflix and HBO. With streaming being all the rage these days, and with Disney already boasting an absolute treasure trove of content, getting into the streaming game certainly makes a whole lot of sense. From what we can gather so far, Disney's streaming strategy appears to be incredibly well thought out. In addition to a vast library of compelling content -- which will include all 30 seasons of The Simpsons -- the company signaled a willingness to offer Disney+ at a discount should users opt to bundle it with services like ESPN+ and Hulu. And speaking of price, the $6.99 price point Disney revealed last week is remarkably cheap and does a solid job of undercutting Netflix. With Disney+ slated to roll out this coming November, it stands to reason that the nascent streaming service will quickly amass an impressive number of subscribers. What remains to be seen, though, is if consumers will view Disney+ as an "add-on" service to be enjoyed alongside Netflix or if Disney+ is so compelling that it might actually prompt some Netflix subscribers to cancel their subscriptions altogether. Tackling this very issue, Streaming Observer recently conducted a survey of 602 Netflix subscribers in order to assess the impact Disney+ might have on Netflix. Somewhat surprisingly, 12.3% of respondents indicated that they "might cancel Netflix and get Disney+" while 2.2% of respondents indicated that they are planning to cancel Netflix no matter what. The report adds:
With just under 14.5% of subscribers indicating they might leave the service, that represents nearly 9 million customers. That represents $116.9 million a month of potential lost revenue for Netflix. This echoes the anger many subscribers expressed in 2017 when learning Netflix would be losing Disney content. Of course, the reality is many people who threaten to cancel won’t actually follow through and do so. However, even if it’s just the 2.2% of subscribers who indicate they will definitely cancel that end up doing so, that still represents 1.3 million domestic customers at a time when Netflix’s growth in the US is stalling.
I certainly agree with the sentiment here, which is to say that many people may talk a big game when it comes to cancelling Netflix but not many people actually follow through. Further, with Netflix continuing to pump out fresh content at a breakneck pace, it's hard to envision a large group of users -- except for, perhaps, die-hard Disney fans -- opting for Disney+ over Netflix. As for Netflix subscribers keen on trying Disney+, 37.5% of respondents indicated a plan to take the new streaming service for a test run. There's plenty more information to be gleaned from the survey, which can be viewed in its entirety over here. My personal take is that Disney+ is incredibly compelling -- especially at the $6.99 price point -- but it's truly hard to imagine any one service really giving Netflix a run for its money at this point.
April 24, 2019

The NSA now thinks the phone surveillance program it once defended isn’t worth it anymore

The National Security Agency appears to have done a complete about-face over the controversial electronic spying program that whistleblower Edward Snowden brought to light almost six years ago now, involving the bulk collection of metadata related to Americans' phone calls and text messages. The NSA once defended the program -- which was secretly launched during the George W. Bush administration without court approval -- as vital to US national security interests. The nation was still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and officials later said tools like this program help the nation's espionage professionals deal with the new realities of terrorism. Now? The "logistical and legal burdens of keeping it outweigh its intelligence benefits," a new Wall Street Journal report quotes unnamed officials as saying about the controversial phone surveillance. "The National Security Agency has recommended that the White House abandon a U.S. surveillance program that collects information about Americans’ phone calls and text messages," the Journal reports. It continues: "The latest view is rooted in a growing belief among senior intelligence officials that the spying program provides limited value to national security and has become a logistical headache." The report goes on to note that the messy thicket of legal and compliance issues are the reason the agency actually decided to stop relying on the program earlier this year. Its legal authority only extends through December unless Congress decides to re-up it, which is what the agency is recommending here is not needed anymore. https://twitter.com/trevortimm/status/1121156633369829380 Naturally, privacy advocates have greeted this news with, shall we say, a bit of incredulity. That's partly because of how staunchly the agency once defended the program and described it as an indispensable part of the country's defense against terrorism and terrorist networks. In fact, Obama's former NSA director, Gov. Keith B. Alexander, once told The New York Times in an interview that "he saw no effective alternative to the NSA's bulk collection of telephone and other electronic metadata from Americans." According to today's report, it will be up to the Trump White House and not the spy agency itself to decide whether to call on Congress to renew the surveillance program. And at least at the moment, the administration doesn't appear to have yet made a decision whether it will do so.
April 24, 2019

Netflix was testing a cheaper, mobile-only plan, but it might already be dead

While Netflix is about to increase prices for some users, it’s also conducting several price-related tests in other markets which include cheaper pricing options. One such test was just halted in Korea, as the company apparently decided against rolling out cheaper, mobile-only subscription options to customers. The move doesn't necessarily mean that other markets won’t get cheaper access to Netflix, but it might indicate that well-developed countries such as South Korea aren’t going to get mobile-only subscriptions any time soon. “The tests have concluded,” Netflix told The Korea Herald. “These tests we conduct may not get rolled out as member plans. Netflix will continue its efforts to provide the best entertainment experience for its members.” “We are constantly looking for ways including testing to make Netflix more enjoyable and accessible for our members,” Netflix added. The company had been testing monthly subscriptions of just 6,500 won ($5.70), but the caveat was that you’d only get to use the service on mobile devices. The cheapest regular Netflix subscription costs 3,000 won ($2.60) more in the region. Netflix had been testing a plan that costs just 1,625 won ($1.41) per week. South Korea isn’t the only Asian country where Netflix has tried cheaper, mobile-only plans. It did the same thing in India last month, asking for 250 rupees ($3.63) per month for service -- half that of the regular 500 rupee monthly price. The company tested a similar price in Malaysia last November, the Herald notes. Netflix toyed with other pricing structures in Europe as well recently, although it hasn’t made any official changes to the regular subscriptions.
April 24, 2019

AT&T CEO confirms that 5G subscription plans won’t come cheap

In a mobile world where carriers are seemingly obsessed with squeezing every spare cent they can from subscribers, it was a pleasant surprise to see T-Mobile CTO Neville a few weeks back promise that T-Mobile's 5G data plans won't be more expensive than the company's existing 4G plans. Unfortunately, it looks as if the same can't be said for AT&T. During AT&T's earnings conference call today, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson relayed that 5G pricing could very well be tiered and that users keen on enjoying the maximum data speeds afforded by 5G will have to pay a little bit extra for the privilege. "I will be very surprised if as we move into wireless, the pricing regime in wireless doesn’t look something like the pricing regime you see in fixed line," Stephenson explained. "If you can offer a gig speed, there are some customers that are willing to pay a premium for 500 meg to a gig speed, and so forth. So I expect that to be the case. We’re 2-3 years away from seeing that play out." Truth be told, pricing surrounding 5G data plans is something of a moot point given how early we are into the 5G roll out. AT&T, for example, began rolling out its 5G network in late 2018 across 12 U.S. cities. Since then, the number of cities with support for AT&T's 5G network has grown to 19. While seemingly encouraging, it's not anything consumers can enjoy just yet given that there are no 5G capable smartphones for AT&T at the moment. Interestingly, the various carrier approaches we've seen with respect to 5G vary wildly. With T-Mobile promising not to charge extra for 5G and AT&T hinting that it may employ a tiered pricing matrix, Verizon has opted for a $10 add-on for consumers wanting to take advantage of 5G.
April 24, 2019

Facebook could be fined up to $5 billion by the FTC due to privacy violations

Facebook has been dealing with one privacy-related scandal after another for more than a year now, a reality that's about to present the social networking company with a seriously heavy financial penalty. The company shared its first quarter results for 2019 Wednesday afternoon, and as part of that disclosure came Facebook's acknowledgement that it expects a multibillion-dollar fine to come down from the US Federal Trade Commission. Facebook is anticipating anywhere from a $3 billion to $5 billion fine, which will certainly be a record-setting penalty for the company. The fact that such a punishment appears set to be announced soon isn't a surprise. The FTC hasn't confirmed the existence of an investigation into Facebook that it reportedly launched after the company's Cambridge Analytica scandal, though The Washington Post reported earlier this year that the agency was considering a “record-setting fine” against the company for not adequately protecting user data. "In the first quarter of 2019, we reasonably estimated a probable loss and recorded an accrual of $3.0 billion in connection with the inquiry of the FTC into our platform and user data practices," the company added as part of its earnings announcement today. "We estimate that the range of loss in this matter is $3.0 billion to $5.0 billion. The matter remains unresolved, and there can be no assurance as to the timing or the terms of any final outcome." It's a huge black eye for a company that can't seem to get its privacy issues under control, but also worth noting is the fact that the FTC's is by no means the only major investigation under way into the social networking giant. As CNBC reported today, Facebook is also "currently thought to be under investigation by several domestic and foreign agencies that could wager fines against the company for its privacy practices." Likewise, the Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a complaint against Facebook in recent weeks, "seeking damages for any person harmed by Facebook’s targeted advertising practices for housing, which it alleged were discriminatory."
April 24, 2019

Implant turns brain signals into synthesized speech

People with neurological conditions who lose the ability to speak can still send the brain signals used for speech (such as the lips, jaw and larynx), and UCSF researchers might just use that knowledge to bring voices back. They've crafted a brain ma...