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The death of “Works with Nest” begins now with Google account migrations

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The death of “Works with Nest” begins now with Google account migrations originally published on Ars Technica

Coming soon to a Nest near you: Your Google account.
Enlarge / Coming soon to a Nest near you: Your Google account.

The smart home company Nest is currently in the middle of a rocky transition from standalone Alphabet company to a full-on merger with Google’s hardware team, where it will exist as a Google sub-brand. The details were announced during Google I/O 2019 and include the debut of the first “Google Nest” product, the shutdown of the “Works with Nest” (WWN) ecosystem, and the death of standalone Nest accounts and the Nest/Google data separation. Until now, the transition has mostly involved news and new products, but now a recent update to the Nest app will let existing Nest users “migrate their account to Google.” Be warned that doing this will break a lot of things and is irreversible.

So far, it looks like the Nest-to-Google transition more or less involves shutting down everything that was unique to Nest and switching to the Google Home/Google Assistant ecosystem. Migrating your Nest account to a Google account basically means jumping ecosystems, leaving behind any “Works with Nest” integrations with other apps or devices. Basic things like the Nest app, website, and Google voice commands will still work, but that’s about it. Amazon Alexa users will probably see the current “Works with Nest” skill stop working, but apparently there is a new ”Google Nest” skill that will replace some of the functionality.

Google’s support page on the transition warns that the process “is not reversible” and that “During the migration process, you will need to remove and disconnect all your WWN third-party product connections (also not reversible).” This means you’ll have to take careful stock of your Nest integrations before you switch and make sure you know what will and won’t break. If you mess up, there’s no going back.

Migrating to a Google account also means tearing down the data separation that used to exist between Nest and Google. Your Nest data will now be held in accordance with the Google Privacy Policy, and Google has a whole page up on what will change here.

Switching to a Google account has some benefits. First, the Google account system is much more robust than a Nest login, with multiple options for two-factor authentication (Nest only supported SMS). Migrating to a Google account will also mean automatic integration with the Google Assistant, where before you had to link your Nest account via an additional setup step.

  • You can find this Nest-to-Google Migration page under “Account” on the app or website.

    Ron Amadeo

  • Google wants you to disconnect all your Works with Nest stuff, which will stop working. For me, my favorite Nest app will stop working.

    Ron Amadeo

Shutting down “Works with Nest” could break all manner of functionality for some people. Going all-in on Nest’s ecosystem meant buying other hardware that supported the Works with Nest ecosystem, and then you could do location-based triggers like have the lights on when you leave the house or blink the lights if your Nest Protect smoke detector picks up a harmful substance. It will also break many third-party control surfaces for the Nest, like my favorite Nest Android app, ThermoStats.

Google’s smart home ecosystem currently has no location-based triggers. Google’s blog post in May said that Home/Away functionality would be coming to the Google Assistant “later this year,” but the more recent support page says this is now scheduled for “early 2020.”

Regardless of whether Nest users choose to switch to a Google Account, the Works with Nest ecosystem will stop accepting new connections August 31. Originally, Google made August 31 a hard shut-off date for Works with Nest, but after receiving complaints, the company relented. Now Google will just lock new device connections on August 31 and let Works with Nest die a slow death.

Google’s support page notes that:

[I]f you choose not to migrate your Nest Account, your existing WWN [Works with Nest] device connections will continue working with your Nest Account and Nest app uninterrupted. But you won’t have access to new features that will be available with a Google Account, the Google Home app, and the WWGA [Works with Google Assistant] program. If we make changes to the existing WWN connections available to you with your Nest Account, we will make sure to keep you informed.

The account merger is just one of many changes Google has been making to the Nest ecosystem lately. Recently, as part of a “commitment to privacy,” Google removed the ability to disable the recording light on the Nest Cam so everyone knows when the camera is recording. Nest customers were not happy about this feature removal, as there are some legitimate reasons for wanting to disable the light. The old Nest settings page suggested disabling the light “if you want your camera to be less noticeable, or if the status light is too bright at night.” Google also announced it was resetting the Nest Cam’s auto-recording feature, which would record video when a Nest smoke detector went off, to make sure customers are “always expressly opting in” to the automatic recording.

The transition from Nest to Google is going to be bumpy. Smart home setups can get pretty complicated behind the scenes as you cross wires with different apps, ecosystems, and control surfaces, and remembering how it all works can be difficult. It would be nice for smart home owners to be able to test Google account migration and see what suddenly stops working, but the irreversibility of Google’s transition process makes it even scarier than it needs to be. Maybe at some point when Nest is fully integrated with Google and cool new features are rolling out, this will all seem worth it. For now, the migration sounds like a painful process with little upside, and since the Google Assistant ecosystem cannot provide a smooth transition for all the Nest features that exist, Nest users are probably better off waiting.

Apple TV+ will launch in November for $9.99, facing off against Disney+ at $6.99

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Apple TV+ will launch in November for $9.99, facing off against Disney+ at $6.99 originally published on Ars Technica

A man in business casual gives a presentation in front of a monstrous video screen.
Enlarge / Tim Cook announces Apple TV+ at an event on March 25, 2019.

Disney earlier this year announced that it will launch its Disney+ streaming TV service on November 12 in the United States for $6.99 per month. Yesterday, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman published a report claiming that Apple’s competing TV service, Apple TV+, will also launch in November, but likely at $9.99.

Both companies are entering an increasingly crowded streaming TV landscape that already includes the likes of HBO, Netflix, CBS, Showtime, and Starz, among others, and will soon see other major entries like HBO Max, offerings from AT&T, and offerings from NBC Universal.

According to the Bloomberg report, which cites people familiar with Apple’s plans, Apple TV+ will launch with a “small selection of shows,” including The Morning Show, Amazing Stories, See, Truth Be Told, and a documentary series about houses called Home. Apple is still mulling over prices, the report says, but is leaning toward $9.99.

The company is also still weighing its options about how to release the content. While Netflix usually releases entire seasons of shows on one day, and HBO releases episodes weekly, one of the options Apple is considering would involve releasing the first three episodes of a season all at once, then pushing episodes weekly after that. Another report this week, this time

by Financial Times

, claimed that Apple is spending $6 billion on original shows and movies this year.

Disney+ will offer original series at a weekly cadence, plus some back catalog content from its various brands (including Marvel, Star Wars, ABC, Fox, Pixar, and many more) in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands starting November 12. The service will then launch in Australia and New Zealand on November 19, with all other regions to follow within two years, according to previous statements by Disney leadership.

YouTube bans robot fighting videos for animal cruelty roughly 10 years too soon

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YouTube bans robot fighting videos for animal cruelty roughly 10 years too soon originally published on The Verge


Image: BattleBots
We all knew it would happen someday. Google, which believes in AI so much it rebranded its Google Research division as Google AI, has begun to side with the robots. On Monday, it was reported that Google’s YouTube took down videos of robots fighting each other (think: BattleBots), saying they violated policies against showing displays of animal cruelty.

Here’s one of the videos that had been determined to show animal cruelty:

This video was posted by Jamison Go, who competed in the last season of BattleBots. Yesterday, he says he received the following takedown notice from YouTube for that video and eight others:


According to the YouTube channel Maker’s Muse, Sarah Pohorecky, who also competed in the last season of BattleBots, got a similar takedown from YouTube. Motherboard reported her channel was also given a strike.

The speed and volume with which these videos were taken down suggests that it was due to some overactive moderation on YouTube’s end. The company has since confirmed to The Verge that the videos were removed in error and that it has no policies prohibiting videos of robots fighting (yet).

It appears most of the videos that were taken down are back up… for now. But watch them quick — you never know when YouTube’s AI will find another way to protect its robot brethren.

Badge life: The story behind DEFCON’s hackable crystal electronic badge

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Badge life: The story behind DEFCON’s hackable crystal electronic badge originally published on Ars Technica

The unadorned "human" badge from DEFCON 27: hackable jewelry.
Enlarge / The unadorned “human” badge from DEFCON 27: hackable jewelry.

Joe Grand/ DEFCON

LAS VEGAS—There are many things that make the DEFCON conference stand above all other hacking conferences. It’s the largest, of course, with over 30,000 attendees, sprawling over four hotels in Las Vegas this year. And there are the Villages, each of them conferences unto themselves appealing to specific security and hacking communities. But the most visible, unifying part of DEFCON is its badges.

The DEFCON electronic badges—which for a time were used every other year because of the effort and budget that went into them—are typically the delivery vehicle for a unifying game. Last year’s badge was a sophisticated puzzle challenge that included a social element and even a built-in text-based adventure. This year’s badges, however, were both deceptively simple and cunningly complex, designed to get DEFCON attendees to interact with each other and explore the whole of the conference rather than falling too deeply into a badge rabbit hole.

Joe Grand, (AKA “Kingpin”), the designer of DEFCON’s very first electronic, hackable badges (used for DEFCONs 14 through 18) returned to the task for this year’s 27th edition of the event at the request of DEFCON founder Jeff Moss (“Dark Tangent”). Just before DEFCON kicked off, Grand spoke with Ars about this year’s badge design and the effort required to put together a real-world electronic quest for about 30,000 friends.

Badged for life

King said Moss “called me out of the blue at the end of December [2018] and he’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to do the DEFCON badge?’ Well, it was a decent amount of time… it would’ve been better to be like the day after last DEFCON.”

King agreed, as he had spent much of 2018 traveling to speak and teach, “and I wanted to stay at home… like this would be a great opportunity to stay at home, work on a project, I can see my family more, I won’t be on the road. Of course, that shows that I’d forgotten the difficulty of actually designing badges.” King acknowledged.

The task of turning out the DEFCON badge “is a full-time effort,” Grand said. “That’s why they call it ‘badge life’.”

Grand told Moss that he wanted to do something simple “that can appeal to as many people as possible, because the puzzles that have been done are amazing, but I didn’t want to exclude people. I kind of put myself in that mindset of like, what if I was attending DEFCON for the first time? What would that feel like?”

Delivery of the badges required for DEFCON 27 came down to the wire, and Grand had to push manufacturing straight from first working prototype to full production. It’s a minor technological miracle that the badges had a relatively low failure rate at the conference—and many of those failures were a result of the hacks performed by attendees.

Grand originally started off designing DEFCON badges as part of an effort “to bring awareness of hardware and hardware hacking to DEFCON,” he said. “In the beginning, we didn’t know how people would respond, so we did a simple kind of artistic badge. And people really liked it.”

After DEFCON 14, electronic badges began to gradually take on a life of their own. “Little by little, you’d see other badges starting to come up, with people creating their own for their parties,” Grand recalled. “And it really was exciting to see this growth. Then every year, I’d always compete with myself. I’m like, ‘what can I do better, what technique can I try, what new art thing can I try?’ And my design aesthetic has always been, even with professional products that I do, just very simple, effective things. Like I’m not a puzzle, my brain doesn’t work like a puzzle master.”

After his fifth year, as “badge life” blossomed in full, “I said I was never going do it again because I… had [already] spoken my mind, right? I had done the artwork that I wanted to do and shared that side of me with other people and whatever. But I’d always said if Jeff ever asked to me again to do it then I’ll do it.”

Magical crystals

The image that served as the foundation for DEFCON 27's theme.
Enlarge /

The image that served as the foundation for DEFCON 27’s theme.

“Jeff sent me a picture of the theme for the conference, for his idea of the theme of ‘Technology’s Promise’,” Grand said. “And it was all pastel colors and clouds and a woman holding a laptop. It was an ad from the ’70s about like the future of technology—the good side of technology. Instead of technology owning you, it’s if technology helped you. And I saw that picture and I was just like, something was just like crystals. I don’t know, it seemed sort of new age-y.”

Moss later posted the image through DEFCON’s Twitter account.

The theme was the flip-side of DEFCON 26’s “1983” tone—the “the inflection point between disorder and dystopia,” as Moss had put it in a Twitter post. The DEFCON 27 theme, Moss said, would be about “a major-key, blue-sky thoughtscape…a future where we have tamed some of the demons that plague us now, and tech supports and inspires instead of controlling and surveilling.”

That idea of crystals resulted in the deceptively simple design of the DEFCON 27 badge collection: a printed circuit board, itself a work of digital art, joined to a piece of hand-cut and hand-polished Brazilian quartz. For speaker, artist, press, and other “colored” badges, the quartz was dyed; rose quartz squares were used for the red “goon” (volunteer) badges. “Every single one of the 28,500 pieces that we’ve made is unique because it’s hand-cut crystal,” Grand said. “The quartz is going to vary in translucency or transparency. And so we put graphics behind it so you can sometimes see it.”

  • The circuit board that powered the DEFCON 27 badge game included parts never used for short manufacturing run electronic devices before, let alone badges.

  • The full array of badges, with the “goon” badge at the top.

  • All lit up: the LEDs on the badges as seen through the quartz crystals mounted on the front of them.

It was the badge as jewelry—the badges could be worn on a wristband sold in DEFCON’s “swag shop,” or as a headband, or (as I wore it) as a bolo tie. The badge lanyard could be pulled through “straps” that are “actually high current jumpers for industrial electronics” made in Japan, Grand explained. (Some attendees who clipped their badges to their lanyards with the provided metal hooks managed to short their badges out as a result.)

There was method to this madness. “There’s a bunch of badges everywhere,” Grand explained, “so [Moss] and I were like, well what if we move up the stack a little bit so the DEFCON badge has a single one and this fits onto the lanyard? So it will be kind of slide it through, and now your badge is up the lanyard so it’s more visible.”

Some of the components are fairly uncommon or had never been used in hackable badges before. “I tried to use some pretty ridiculous complex components,” Grand said.

Researchers are creepily close to predicting when you’re going to die

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Researchers are creepily close to predicting when you’re going to die originally published on Ars Technica

Closeup photograph of test tubes filled with blood.
Enlarge / Samples of donated blood in Vacutainer test tubes with yellow tops.

If death is in the cards, it may also be in your blood.

Measurements of 14 metabolic substances in blood were pretty good at predicting whether people were likely to die in the next five to 10 years. The data was published this week in Nature Communications.

A team of researchers led by data scientists in the Netherlands came up with the fateful 14 based on data from 44,168 people, aged 18 to 109. The data included death records and measurements of 226 different substances in blood. Of the 44,168 people, 5,512 died during follow-up periods of nearly 17 years.

The researchers then put their death panel to the test. They used the 14 blood measurements to try to predict deaths in a cohort of 7,603 Finnish people who were surveyed in 1997. Of those Finns, 1,213 died during follow-up. Together, the 14 blood measurements were about 83% accurate at predicting the deaths that occurred within both five years and 10 years. The accuracy dropped to about 72% when predicting deaths for people over 60 years old, though.

The lineup of apparent markers of doom are perhaps not entirely surprising. Some are already known to signal deadly conditions, such as heart disease, cancers, and diabetes—all leading causes of death in Europe and the United States. The culprits include blood sugar; factors linked to “bad” cholesterol; glycoprotein acetyls and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are linked to inflammation; and albumin, which can indicate kidney and liver problems. Still, some others, such as acetoacetate, aren’t as clearly linked to mortality and require some follow-up research, the authors say.

Nevertheless, “[i]n combination, these biomarkers clearly improve risk prediction of 5- and 10-year mortality as compared to conventional risk factors across all ages,” the authors conclude. “These results suggest that metabolic biomarker profiling could potentially be used to guide patient care, if further validated in relevant clinical settings.”

Knowing whether someone is likely to kick the bucket in the near future may help determine if a patient is, say, too far gone for an invasive surgery. On the other hand, learning of impending doom may also help motivate patients to work on improving their health through lifestyle changes to stall that fate. In line with that, mortality predictions could perhaps one day help determine if modern medicine has found a way to cheat death with new treatments or interventions.

At the moment, researchers are a long way from that. The markers have to be validated in clinical settings—not just cohort datasets. Moreover, all the data in the study came from people of European decent, meaning it may not be applicable to other groups.

Nature Communications, 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-11311-9  (About DOIs).

Porsche to Include Apple Music App in Its Electric Taycan Electric Sports Car

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Porsche to Include Apple Music App in Its Electric Taycan Electric Sports Car originally published on MacStories

Yesterday, Porsche announced that it’s partnering with Apple to integrate Apple Music directly with the in-car entertainment system of the Taycan, which is debuting in September.

The streaming service will be available in Porsche’s fully-electric Taycan first and later, in other models. According to TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec who spoke to Porsche’s North American CEO Claus Zellmer:

The integration means more than an Apple Music app icon popping up on the Taycan’s digital touchscreen. The company wanted the experience to be seamless, meaning no wonky sign-ins, phone pairing or separate accounts. Instead, Porsche is linking an owner’s Apple ID with their Porsche Taycan ID. Apple Music content in the Taycan will be identical to what’s on the user’s iPhone app.

System-level integration with Apple Music will allow Taycan owners to enjoy the service regardless of whether they have an iPhone with them because the Taycan comes with in-car Internet service. The car company announced that it will offer a six-month free trial of Apple Music with the Taycan and incorporate CarPlay support into its in-car entertainment system too.

Direct integration of Apple Music with Porsche’s in-car system, plus six months of free service sounds an awful lot like what satellite radio company SiriusXM offers with many new cars. The move has the advantage of ensuring that Apple’s service will always be available onscreen where it can compete directly with other services. Of course, the downside is that because Apple doesn’t control the hardware its app runs on, it will undoubtedly be subject to the whims of Porsche if it wants to update it, which is part of why CarPlay exists in the first place. Fortunately, regardless of how Porsche handles updates, CarPlay will be available to Taycan owners too. It will be interesting to see whether Apple Music and perhaps other Apple apps make their way into additional manufacturers’ automobiles in the future or if this is a one-off deal.


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A Fungus Could Wipe Out the Banana Forever

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A Fungus Could Wipe Out the Banana Forever originally published on Wired

The banana—or at least the fruit as we know it—is facing an existential crisis. A deadly fungus that has decimated banana plantations in southeast Asia for 30 years has finally done what scientists have long been fearing, and made its way to Latin America—the heart of the global banana export market.

Wired UK

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

On August 8 the Colombian Agricultural Institute announced that it had confirmed that the fungus—a strain of Fusarium oxysporum called Tropical Race 4 (TR4)—had been found in plantations in the north of the country. The country declared a national state of emergency, destroying crops and quarantining plantations in an attempt to avert the spread of the fungus.

But Latin America has been in this situation before. Until the 1950s, the most commonly exported banana variety was the Gros Michel, which was almost totally wiped out by a different strain of the Fusarium fungus. The modern export banana—the Cavendish—took Gros Michel’s place because it was resistant to that early Fusarium strain. Now 99 percent of all exported bananas are Cavendish—with almost all of them grown in Latin America.

“What we’re having is an almost apocalyptic scenario where we’ll probably lose Cavendish as well,” says Sarah Gurr, Exeter University’s chair in food security. Initially discovered in Taiwan in 1989, TR4 is rife throughout southeast Asia and has since been found in Lebanon, Israel, India, and Australia. But until now, Latin America had avoided the pathogen altogether.

“Once it’s in a country it’s very hard to get rid of it,” says Dan Bebber, a senior lecturer in biosciences also at Exeter University. TR4 lives in the soil and can be transmitted on unclean tires or boots, or spread from banana plants when they are replanted in different farms. Once present in soil, it can stay dormant for years before infecting banana plants through their roots, spreading to the water- and nutrient-conducting tissue and starving them of nourishment.

Now that it’s in Latin America—and is likely more widespread than is currently understood—it’s a matter of controlling the spread of the fungus, says Bebber. Making sure any plantation employees or visitors disinfect boots and tires before entering or leaving the site helps, as will trying to maintain the health of the soil, but no countries have managed to successfully contain TR4. In 1997, TR4 was detected in Australia’s Northern Territory, but vigorous quarantine efforts couldn’t prevent the pathogen from spreading to north Queensland in 2015.

“We would expect a pretty rapid spread [in Latin America]” says Bebber. In the extremely low-margin banana industry, relatively little funding is directed toward research into new banana varieties that might be resistant to the disease. Over the past decade, the price of bananas in the UK has stayed steady at £0.94 ($1.13) per kilogram. In the same time period, the price of apples went from £1.51 ($1.82) to £2.08 ($2.51) per kilogram—an increase of nearly 40 percent.

This relentless demand for extremely cheap fruit produced thousands of miles away has driven the industry to concentrate on only a single banana crop, as that allows for more standardized, and thus cheaper, farming and transportation. But growing only a single variety of banana has serious drawbacks. “Monocultures are divine feeding grounds for pathogens,” says Gurr. When a pathogen arrives that infects a certain variety, such as the Cavendish, there is no reprieve in sight.

While things in Latin America look dire, there is a little hope on the horizon. Work is already underway to use Crispr gene-editing to create Cavendish bananas that are resistant to TR4. In 2018, the plant biologist James Dale demonstrated that it’s possible to modify the Cavendish genome using Crispr, and in Norwich a firm called Tropic Biosciences is also experimenting with using Crispr to engineer resistant bananas.

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It also might be possible to cross-breed other banana varieties in the hope of creating offspring that are TR4-resistant and tasty enough to sell to consumers. All of these efforts are still a while away from showing promising results, however, and in July 2018 the European Court of Justice threw the future of gene-edited bananas into doubt after clarifying that Crispr-edited crops would not be exempt from regulations that limit the sale of genetically modified organisms.

UPS has been quietly delivering cargo using self-driving trucks

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UPS has been quietly delivering cargo using self-driving trucks originally published on The Verge


UPS has had autonomous trucking startup TuSimple hauling cargo for it between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, since May as part of a newly publicized partnership between the two companies. The delivery giant made the announcement today alongside the news that its venture arm is taking a minority stake in TuSimple. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

TuSimple had previously run a partnership with the United States Postal Service in May, where the startup’s trucks carried mail on the 1,000-mile stretch between the USPS’s Phoenix, Arizona, and Dallas, Texas, distribution centers. That pilot has since ended, though the two sides are discussing “next steps,” according to a TuSimple spokesperson.

Founded in 2015, TuSimple uses Navistar trucks outfitted with the startup’s own self-driving tech, which sees the world largely through nine cameras. While each truck is outfitted with a pair of LIDAR sensors as well, the startup is focused on developing a vision-based autonomous system — similar to what Tesla uses in its cars. The startup is already backed by Nvidia and Chinese technology company Sina, and it has a headquarters in San Diego, California, and another in Beijing.

TuSimple says it has been helping UPS “better understand the requirements for Level 4 Autonomous trucking in its network” — a reference to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ scale for self-driving vehicles, where Level 4 refers to full autonomy that’s locked to a designated geographic location. The trucks in use still have a safety driver and an engineer on board who monitor the system, like many of the other self-driving pilot programs currently running in the United States.

There are a number of startups and established companies working on autonomous trucking, from Kodiak and Einride to Waymo and even Daimler. (Uber shuttered its program last summer after one of its self-driving SUV test vehicles killed a pedestrian.) TuSimple is one of the few hauling actual commercial cargo, albeit in a limited capacity on just a few routes.

The partnership with (and stake in) TuSimple is just the latest sign of UPS’s ambition to future-proof its business, especially as Amazon builds out its own delivery infrastructure. UPS is working on a drone delivery service, and it has electric trucks in the works, all while matching key Amazon features. Rival FedEx recently announced that it didn’t renew its contract with Amazon, though UPS is still working with the tech conglomerate for now.

The Bonkers Tech That Detects Lightning 6,000 Miles Away

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The Bonkers Tech That Detects Lightning 6,000 Miles Away originally published on Wired

If lightning strikes a few hundred miles from the North Pole, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes, because there’s a global array of sensors that’s always listening, pinpointing lightning strikes in time and space from as far away as 6,000 miles.

This past weekend the North Pole played host to a rare thunderstorm, an event that may become less rare as climate change ramps up. And it would have gone entirely unnoticed by faraway humans if it weren’t for the assistance of a company called Vaisala, which operates the sensor network and uses it to triangulate a lightning strike, feeding the data to outfits like the National Weather Service. “This is a relatively new system, and so our ability to detect lightning that far north has drastically improved over the last 5 to 10 years,” says Alex Young, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, Alaska. “As opposed to: who knows if an event like this happened 30 years ago?”

Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.

First we need to talk about how lightning forms. When the Sun heats the Earth’s surface, air and moisture rise and create water droplets. With enough solar energy, the warm, wet air keeps rising and rising, while the same time, cold air in the system is sinking—leading to a swirling mass called a deep convective cloud, which builds electrical charges that escalate into lightning. Usually Arctic air doesn’t hold enough heat to get all that convection. But in these times of climate change, nothing is normal anymore.

Luckily for Vaisala, lightning betrays itself in a number of ways. We humans know it by the flash of light and the deafening sound, but what our bodies don’t notice is that the massive electrical current of a lightning strike generates radio bursts. For a fleeting moment, a lightning bolt works like a giant, rambunctious radio tower. “If you have a lightning discharge that hits the ground, you might have a channel of charge that’s a few miles long,” says Ryan Said, a research scientist at Vaisala. “And that essentially acts as a temporary antenna in the sky.”

Still, if it weren’t for a quirk in our atmosphere, this signal would be difficult to detect. But the ionosphere—an ionized layer in Earth’s upper atmosphere—reflects a significant amount of the radio signal back to the ground for Vaisala’s devices to detect. Think of these like bigger, more sensitive versions of a loop antenna for receiving AM broadcasts. “If we have a sensitive enough receiver, we can detect these radio emissions at global distances,” says Said. “That’s how, with dozens of receivers around the world, we can monitor lightning anywhere, including up into the Arctic.” (See above for a visualization of strikes around the world.)

The trick lies in essentially triangulating the signal. “We measure the time at which these radio bursts reach the sensors and the direction,” notes Said. If a lightning bolt’s radio burst hits at least three sensors in Vaisala’s synchronized global network, the system can pinpoint when and where the signal originated. Vaisala can even translate the radio signal into sound for our human ears, which you can hear here. (Each pop is a single lightning strike.)

Not that this signal is easy to parse, mind you. You’ve got to account for the reflections off the ionosphere, for instance. So the bulk of the company’s effort, Said explains, “is devoted to properly interpreting those signals so that we can extract reliable information from them.”

Reliability is paramount, because it’s not just the National Weather Service that uses Vaisala’s data. Airports appreciate knowing if a thunderstorm is incoming to plan for delays or cease fueling operations. The system can even work on a forensic level too, perhaps to discern if a lightning strike may have started a wildfire.

So if lightning thinks it can just strike willy-nilly and still escape notice, it’s got another thing coming.


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Apple Puts the AR in ‘Art’ (and in ‘Transparent Sky-Being’)

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Apple Puts the AR in ‘Art’ (and in ‘Transparent Sky-Being’) originally published on Wired

Thanks to a hot desert air mass stalling over San Francisco, the sky was a fogless blue, which made the words stand out even more as they floated upwards past St. Patrick Church in downtown San Francisco. White and uppercase, they rose in perfectly justified blocks, the voice of artist and poet John Giorno intoning them in my headphones: “A vast dome of blue sky / and your mind / is an iron nail in between.” On and on, the uppermost words breaking up and floating away, a Star Wars crawl of Buddhist introspection.

It was breathtaking for its scale—each word was dozens of feet high—yet the lunchtime crowds in Yerba Buena Gardens didn’t even notice. The only people who seemed as rapt as I was, in fact, were the three who were pointing an iPhone XS Plus in the same direction I was and wearing Beats headphones identical to mine. All that Apple was no coincidence: Giorno’s piece, Now at the Dawn of My Life, was one of six pieces in the company’s [AR]T Walk, an augmented-reality public art walking tour that launched this week.

AR, in which virtual objects are integrated into your real-world surroundings, has been embraced by museums and artists (conventional and guerrilla) dating back nearly a decade, and AR- and VR-specific exhibits have been popping up with ever more regularity. Much of that is because AR is easier to build and implement than ever before: Android and iOS feature AR development toolkits that have improved significantly since their 2017 introductions, and Facebook turned its Camera Effects platform into a similar toolkit called Spark AR.

But while all three of those systems—along with wearables like Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap One—have been used to create virtual art in real-world galleries, moving outside those confines and into public spaces has been a more difficult proposition, in no small part because of the challenge of presenting a consistent experience for all users. (More on that in a bit.) The two-hour [AR]T Walks, developed in partnership with the New Museum in New York City, may only be available at five of the more than 500 Apple Stores around the globe, but in scope and scale they’re wildly ambitious, a deployment of AR that’s all but unprecedented outside the world of games.

Each of the walks features the same six pieces, which artists developed with New Museum over the course of a year; the only difference is the cityscapes housing them. For the Walk leaving from San Francisco’s Union Square store, groups venture first down car-free Maiden Lane, where they experience a piece from Chicago artist Nick Cave. (No, not that Nick Cave.) Known for his wearable “soundsuits” that shroud their wearers’ identifying characteristics, Cave uses AR to refashion the idea completely. On the phone screen, you’re presented with a swirling virtual soundsuit that you follow down the street, tapping and swiping at it to see how it reacts. It’s cute, if not mindbending—until you reach the end of the street to find an enormous transparent being perched atop a building, hoovering up those soundsuits to clothe itself in their patterns.

The finale of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, as seen from inside New York’s Central Park.

Apple

The result, as with the best of the pieces in the process, hinges on some painstaking procedural hygiene. Two employees from Apple’s in-store events staff—Today In Apple, as it’s known—lead each group. One carries an iPad that controls the private [AR]T Walk app on the Apple-furnished XS Pluses attendees use; the other acts as a behavioral model, demonstrating at each location exactly how to trigger the AR experience.

About that: If you’re going to create a good shared persistent AR experience—shared meaning it’s visible to anyone in that specific location, and persistent meaning it can be seen on multiple visits to that location—you need a coordinate system so that the AR elements always show up in the same place. Think of it as a three-dimensional version of the origin point in a Cartesian plane, where the X and Y axes cross. Once your phone registers that it’s looking at the anchor, it can then layer in all the AR elements in their proper places based on that starting position.

Even then, things can go wrong. Take this unrelated AR piece of the late Jeffrey Epstein hovering over the site of a President Trump rally in New Hampshire, which artist Nancy Baker Cahill unveiled this week.

As a piece of political trollery, it’s undeniable; as a convincing illusion, less so. It jitters visibly, and seems to have trouble staying anchored to the arena—both immersion-breakers of the highest order.

The [AR]T Walk largely avoids such pitfalls by relying on a preparatory dance at each location. You walk to a very specific area, hold up your phone while facing away from the anchor—usually a sign, which features enough unique high-contrast patterns to be quickly recognizable—and then rotate a full 180 degrees until you face the anchor. The whole thing feels very Apple: incredibly polished and incredibly stable, as long as you did things exactly the way Apple told you to.

The other pieces, distributed throughout three locations covering about a mile and a half of walking, range from the whimsical to the bleak. In Cao Fei’s Trade Eden, a labyrinthine series of conveyor belts ferrying unmarked boxes appears in a plaza, distilling global trade into a fantastical display of futility. Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s This Is It uses a series of midair speech balloons to beckon attendees through a grove of trees, until finally unveiling a cautionary tale seemingly hidden inside a tree.

Peter Rubin writes about media, culture, and virtual reality for WIRED.

Meanwhile, over the course of the walk, an entirely different form of art emerges. A half-dozen people walking through public places, clustering around seeming nothingness and staring at their phones? It might have been commonplace when Pokémon Go first swept the outdoors in 2016, but it still attracts attention. Apple has made no secret of its AR aspirations, but its slow-drip approach has always targeted users inside the home: placing furniture, playing with Legos. The [AR]T Walks are still a drip—small groups, close supervision, very few locations—but they’re also an unmistakeably public drip, one that’s much closer to a stream than ever before.

Besides, any new technology trying to catch a current into the mainstream needs to feel familiar, or at the very least not alienating—and part of that is acclimating people to unexpected new behaviors. Like selfies. Or taking phone calls in public on near-invisible earbuds. Or even walking through the midst of a crowded park during lunch hour, following a winding path no one else can see.

If you don’t happen to live in San Francisco—or New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or London, the other four cities with walks—you’re not totally ARsed. All Apple Stores are currently hosting an additional Nick Cave augmented-reality installation, Amass, as well as free sessions where you can learn to build AR experiences using an iPad app.


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