Category Archives: Fun

New Coding Language Kotlin Taking Silicon Valley By Storm 

By: Klint Finley of Wired

YOU’LL FIND MILLIONS of apps in the Google Play store, many of them written using the powerful, stable, workhorse programming language Java. If it were a car, Java would feature a fast, reliable engine but not antilock brakes, power steering, or cup holders. Totally drivable. Not exactly a joy ride.

In May Google gave Android developers another option when it announced it would start supporting a new programming language called Kotlin, which offers most of the same basic features as Java plus the coding equivalent of seat warmers and a killer sound system. This means programmers can write safer, more reliable code with less work. That’s good news for users because it should translate into apps with fewer bugs and crashes. But it’s even better news for programmers, because it means spending more time working on the interesting parts of code and less on more routine matters—the things that make programming a rewarding career or hobby. “Working with it just brings a smile to your face,” says Christina Lee, an Android developer at Pinterest and Kotlin enthusiast.

Companies like Pinterest, Basecamp, and Square had already been using it, but now that it has the official support of Google, you can expect to find Kotlin in more and more places. “Kotlin is what our development community has already asked for,” Android product manager Stephanie Saad Cuthbertson said during the announcement of Kotlin support at Google’s IO conference in May.

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Chile Extends National Parks By Over 10 Million Acres

By: Trevor Nace of Forbes

Chile set aside 11 million acres of land for national parks aided by the largest private land donation from a private entity to a country. The conservation effort of the Tompkins Foundation helped pave the way for Chile to greatly expand its conservation of the pristine Patagonia wilderness.

The Tompkins foundation was established by Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the previous CEO of Patagonia, and the late Doug Tompkins, the co-founder of North Face and Esprit. The couple, known for purchasing large chunks of land in Patagonia for conservation, have always had the ambition to protect and conserve the Patagonian wilderness for generations to come.

However, their efforts weren’t always well received by the Chilean government and citizens. The Tompkins were accused of attempting to split Chile in two to form a new state or as CIA spies intending to infiltrate the Chilean government. It took decades to build the trust of Chile that their intentions were well founded and this move to donate 1 million acres of land to the Chilean government solidifies their relationship with Chile. Tragically, Doug Tompkins wasn’t able to witness the culmination of decades of his work as he passed away in 2015 due to severe hypothermia during a kayaking accident.

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Study Shows Yoga Can Substitute For Physical Therapy And Painkillers 

By: Allison Aubrey 

If you’re tired of popping pain medicine for your lower back pain, yoga may be a good alternative.
New research finds that a yoga class designed specifically for back pain can be as safe and effective as physical therapy in easing pain.
The yoga protocol was developed by researchers at Boston Medical Center with input from yoga teachers, doctors and physical therapists.
During the class, trained instructors guide participants through gentle poses, including cat-cow, triangle pose and child’s pose. Simple relaxation techniques are part of the class as well. More difficult poses, such as inversions, are avoided.
A guidebook that details the poses taught during the class is freely available, as is a teacher training manual.
The findings, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, are in line with new guidelines for treating back pain from the American College of Physicians. The group recommends that people with back pain should avoid pain medicines if possible, and instead opt for alternatives such as tai chi, yoga and massage. As we’ve reported, those guidelines are aimed at people with run-of-the-mill back pain, rather than pain due to an injury or other diagnosed problem.
Who was in the study? Researchers recruited 320 racially diverse, predominantly low-income participants in the Boston area, all of whom had chronic low back pain. The study lasted one year.
What did participants in the study do? Participants were divided into three groups. One group was assigned to a weekly yoga class for 12 weeks. Another group was assigned 15 physical therapy (PT) visits. The third group received an educational book and newsletters. For the remainder of the year — roughly 40 weeks — participants in the yoga group were assigned to either drop-in classes or home practice. The PT group was assigned to either “PT booster sessions” or home practice.

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Canada Helps Their Transient Communites By Teaching Them BeeKeeping 

By: Marilla Steuter of CBC

Helping homeless people in Montreal reintegrate into society by teaching them to care for bees may seem like an unusual approach, but organizers of the Accueil Bonneau honey program say it’s been a real success story.

“When they get to be hands on, they see that it’s all about being confident and being at peace with the bees,” said Geneviève Kieffer Després, director of communications and special projects.

Accueil Bonneau, a local group that offers a drop-in day centre and variety of services for homeless men, partnered with Montreal urban beekeeping company Alvéole four years ago.

Now the program, whose aim is to teach job skills and encourage social interaction, has 60 hives in seven locations across the city. 

“The most important thing is that it’s not just a job. It’s learning to do something you love and getting rewarded for it. That is something we want to teach,” she said.

‘Like therapy

John Levasseur, an apprentice in the program, sees beekeeping as “meaningful” work.

He says bees are “so important, not only economically, but as a barometer” for the environmental state of the world. 

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New Tech Can Translate Sign Language To Written Text 

By: Luke Dormehl 

Voice-based dictation tools may be old news from in terms of technology, but not everyone is able to fully take advantage of them. For deaf people who use signing as their primary means of communication, available options are far more limited. That’s even more frustrating when you consider the challenges that may confront a person trying to converse with folks who are not proficient in signing.

A Dallas-based startup is setting out to set things right, though. Called KinTrans, the team has developed smart tech capable of translating sign language into voice and text, and voice taken to text or sign language automatically.
The results allow signers and non-signers to communicate together in their own languages, effectively, effortlessly, and instantaneously.

“What makes this technology exciting is the ability to open up conversations between signers and speakers in the marketplace, workplace, schools, health care, and civic centers,” Catherine Bentley, cofounder and business development officer at KinTrans, told Digital Trends. “Traditionally, communicating in these settings has been difficult; requiring friends or family who sign and interpret, or professional interpreters on-site or off-site through video, and even using pen and paper. None of these dependencies are scalable — plus they lack privacy and independence for the signer.”

KinTrans’ tech relies on a 3D camera which tracks the movement of a signer’s hands and body when they sign out words. When requested, it can then translate the signed words into written English (or, currently, Arabic, although additional languages will follow in the future). Alternatively, voice can be translated into signed words communicated by an animated avatar on the screen. According to its creators, the system is already able to recognize thousands of signed words with an accuracy of around 98 percent.

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New Tech Allows For SDR To Be Converted Into HDR. In Other Words E.T. in High Definition Is An Option!

By: Sebastian Anthony of Ars-Technica 

Researchers at the French research institute Bcom, with the aid of a wunderkind plucked from a nearby university, have developed software that converts existing SDR (standard dynamic range) video into HDR (high dynamic range) video. That is, the software can take almost all of the colour video content produced by humanity over the last 80 years and widen its dynamic range, increasing the brightness, contrast ratio, and number of colours displayed on-screen. I’ve seen the software in action and interrogated the algorithm, and I’m somewhat surprised to report how good the content looks with an expanded dynamic range.

But garbage in, garbage out, right? You can’t magically create more detail (or more colour data) in an image. Well, you can—Google produced detailed face images from pixellated source images—but philosophically it is no longer the same image. When a film is cropped for TV broadcast, or you receive a blocky low-bitrate stream from Netflix, or Flickr changes the JPEG profile on an uploaded photo… are those the same image as the artist/director/videographer intended? Or are they different?

Does it even matter? If you’re a broadcaster with a ton of archived SDR footage and millions of colour-thirsty potential customers who might pay for a special HDR channel, surely the only question is whether it’s technically possible to convert SDR content to HDR, and whether that converted footage is subjectively enjoyable to viewers. Remaining objectively faithful to the original is just an added bonus.

Tone Expansion

Accurate colour reproduction via tone mapping and gamut mapping—altering the colours and brightness of an image so that they appear correctly on a certain type of display—is a mature and well-understood topic. Tone and gamut expansion, however—taking one shade of red, for example, and expanding it into multiple different shades—is a new topic with not much research behind it. What we do know, though, is that the human perception of both contrast and colourfulness appear to be closely connected with luminance—the Stevens and Hunt effects respectively.

Conveniently, this ties in with one of the main improvements of HDR displays: while conventional SDR/HDTV content (and thus SDR displays) maxes out at around 100 nits of luminance (which is very dim), HDR-certified displays tend to be in the 1,000+ nits range. So, that’s where Bcom’s SDR-to-HDR work begins: by amping up the luminance of SDR images.

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Six-Wheeled Delivery Robots To Hit The Streets This Month

By: Sean O’Kane 

A small number of Americans will soon be able to have food and other goods delivered to them by an adorable semi-autonomous robot. Starship Technologies announced the first two commercial partnerships for its ground-based delivery robots in the US today — one with DoorDash in Redwood City, California, and one with Postmates in Washington, DC. The commercial trials will see these services start making deliveries in the coming weeks using Starship’s six-wheeled robots within a four-mile-wide test area in each city.

The DoorDash trial will take place in Redwood City’s downtown business district, and Starship will run its Postmates pilot in the northwestern part of Washington, DC’s city limits. (Starship Technologies marketing lead Henry Harris-Burland said the company can’t yet share the exact location.) DoorDash and Postmates customers will see the robots pop up as a delivery option in the respective apps, and it won’t cost any more than a typical delivery.

Starship Technologies’ robots have already driven thousands of miles in cities around the world, and the company even helped get legislation put in place to make the testing possible in Washington, DC. While these will be the company’s first two commercial trials in the US, Starship has already performed deliveries in the UK and Germany thanks to partnerships with services like Just Eat, Pronto, and Hermes. Other companies, like Amazon and Alphabet, have made a few airborne drone deliveries in the US thanks to early partnerships with businesses like 7-Eleven and Chipotle.

 

Once an order is placed and the robot delivery method selected, the customers will receive a notification when their delivery is on the way. The robots are capable of carrying up to 20 pounds of cargo, and their top speed of just four miles per hour means they typically stick to navigating sidewalks. Customers will be able to track the delivery on a map, and will receive a notification when it’s arrived. In all, the trips should take between 15–30 minutes.

Starship Technologies' six-wheeled delivery robotPhoto: Starship Technologies

When the robot arrives, customers will be texted a custom link that they have to tap in order to unlock (and open) the robot’s hatch. That’s just one of the safety measures Starship has built to ensure that the goods don’t get swiped in transit — others include the cameras, GPS, built-in alarms, and a two-way radio on each robot.

The Starship robots are lined with cameras and sensors that let them navigate autonomously as long as the company has already mapped out the delivery area. But early Postmates and DoorDash customers shouldn’t expect these trips to be fully autonomous. While Starship has been mapping these two cities (among others) for months now, they haven’t covered every street and sidewalk. Harris-Burland says these commercial trials will employ a mix of semi-autonomy and human control, with Starship employees remotely piloting the robots when needed.

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#RIPVine

By: Seth Fiegerman 

Vine’s six seconds of fame are about to come to an end.

Twitter will officially phase out its beloved six-second video service on Tuesday and replace it with a “pared-down” camera application instead.

If you’re an active Vine user, this is your last chance to download your old videos before the app changes over.

Vine Camera, the next iteration of Vine, will let users create six-second looping videos and share them directly on Twitter. But the dedicated Vine sharing platform and community appears to be dead.

The Vine website will live on as an archive for the many videos uploaded by users since its launch in 2013, but no new videos will be added to it.

Twitter first revealed plans to kill of Vine in October. No reason was provided, but the move was announced just hours after Twitter confirmed significant job cuts in a desperate bid to be profitable.

Twitter’s failure with Vine mirrors the broader struggles with Twitter itself. Despite being beloved by a loyal community of millions, Vine suffered from Twitter’s muddled product vision, inability to keep up with competitors and an unclear path to mainstream success.

Snapchat and Instagram each expanded their video offerings, luring away users who might otherwise have created or consumed Vine videos.

Vine dropped out of the top 100 free apps in Apple’s App Store at the beginning of this year and continued to fall after that, according to data from App Annie, which tracks app rankings.

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McDonald’s Restaurants Are Hitting Refresh On Their Delivery Methods

By Stephanie Strom 

Welcome to McDonald’s! May I take your order — and bring it to your table?

McDonald’s on Thursday announced changes that could reshape the diner’s experience, saying that it would expand its digital self-serve ordering stations and table service to all of its 14,000 American restaurants.

The company said once people order at one of the stations — sleek, vertical touchscreens — they will get a digital location device and can take a seat. When their burgers and fries are ready, the technology will guide a server to the table to deliver the food with a big smile and a thank you.

“Typically, the majority of our crew is behind the counter, and that counter literally has been a barrier between our crew and the customer,” Steve Easterbrook, chief executive of McDonald’s, said at an event Thursday in a newly renovated and outfitted McDonald’s on Chambers Street in New York.

Customers will still be able to order food the old-fashioned way, at the counter. But the move to self-order systems and table service is one way to address one of the biggest problems the company’s restaurants have faced in recent years: slower food delivery to customers, caused by more items on the menu. The thinking is that customers will be more willing to wait if they are sitting at a table instead of waiting at a counter.

But it also raises some questions for the company: What does it mean for workers, and is the chain up for a change this big?

Mr. Easterbrook said the new system would not reduce costs. But it would mean that workers might have slightly different jobs.

“We’ve not cutting crew; we’re redeploying them,” he said.

McDonald’s has tested the order system in 500 revamped restaurants, or what it calls its “just-for-you experience,” in New York, Florida and Southern California and is now introducing them in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago. Around the globe, the new program is in some 2,600 McDonald’s restaurants.

Mr. Easterbrook and other company executives said some 44,000 customers have been served at tables using the new system in the United States. Families and groups have been the biggest users, but the company expects the screens to attract customers of all kinds as they become more widespread. The self-serve stations, the company says, make it easier to customize an order.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to personalize and elevate the experience of our customers in the United States,” said Chris Kempczinski, the new president of United States operations.

Many of the company’s customers, though, do not enter the restaurant. About 60 to 70 percent of sales come from its drive-through lanes.

“A lot of customers are never going to see this technology,” Dick Adams, a restaurant consultant, said. “It’s just not going to be that big a factor for most franchisees outside big cities.”

The company also announced that it would roll out a mobile order-and-pay system that would also change the way customers get their orders, including customers ordering from their cars.

Much of what is coming to the United States has already been tried in markets like Canada, Australia and Britain, where roughly one-quarter of transactions are done on in-store screens.

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Have We Found The Source Of Consciousness?

By: Fiona Macdonald 

Scientists have struggled for millennia to understand human consciousness – the awareness of one’s existence. Despite advances in neuroscience, we still don’t really know where it comes from, and how it arises.

But researchers think they might have finally figured out its physical origins, after pinpointing a network of three specific regions in the brain that appear to be crucial to consciousness.

It’s a pretty huge deal for our understanding of what it means to be human, and it could also help researchers find new treatments for patients in vegetative states.

“For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness,” said lead researcher Michael Fox from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard Medical School.

“A lot of pieces of evidence all came together to point to this network playing a role in human consciousness.”

Consciousness is generally thought of as being comprised of two critical components – arousal and awareness.

Researchers had already shown that arousal is likely regulated by the brainstem– the portion of the brain that links up with the spinal cord – seeing as it regulates when we sleep and wake, and our heart rate and breathing.

Awareness has been more elusive. Researchers have long thought that it resides somewhere in the cortex – the outer layer of the brain – but no one has been able to pinpoint where.

Now the Harvard team has identified not only the specific brainstem region linked to arousal, but also two cortex regions, that all appear to work together to form consciousness.

To figure this out, the team analysed 36 patients in hospital with brainstem lesions – 12 of them were in a coma (unconscious) and 24 were defined as being conscious.

The researchers then mapped their brainstems to figure out if there was one particular region that could explain why some patients had maintained consciousness despite their injuries, while others had become comatose.

What they found was one small area of the brainstem – known as the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum – that was significantly associated with coma. Ten out of the 12 unconscious patients had damage in this area, while just one out of the 24 conscious patients did.

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