Dota 2 is no longer free to play if you want to have the best experience. In this year’s Dota 2 “Battle Pass” — a premium subscription that usually offers cosmetics and other optional curiosities to the game — Valve bundled one of the most important features it has ever created. Players who buy the Battle Pass can now use an “experimental” Avoid Player feature, which is supposed to keep toxic players away from you. Here’s a different way to say it: Valve is now charging players a minimum of $9.99 to avoid harassers.
I’m glad to see that Valve is finally taking more steps to address its toxic player community and protect Dota 2 players from the worst of the bunch. But it’s telling that the company sees this as an add-on, and not part of the core experience that should be offered to all players for free. Playing the game solo continues to be a wild gamble. Just last night I played a couple rounds of Dota, and while I was placed with a perfectly friendly group of teammates in the first round, in the next game I was subjected to a team of toxic players who argued for 40 minutes and launched vicious racial and homophobic slurs at everyone in the match.
And yes — it’s easy enough to mute others — but Valve hasn’t even taken basic steps to protect players in a game that has been around for six years. I still routinely encounter players with racist and other offensive words in their player names. It’s unconscionable that major developers and publishers like Valve can’t be bothered to implement the most basic player safety features in their games. No major company seems immune to this glaring lapse in responsibility; in my first few months of Battlefield V, I witnessed outrageous amounts of racist harassment on a daily basis that was supposed to be fixed by EA’s allegedly clever moderation AI. (The system couldn’t even seem to block the n-word, and EA never returned my requests for comment about why it was so broken.)
Of course, Valve’s new premium “avoid player” feature probably isn’t even worth paying for in its current state. Players report that the feature merely allows you to express a preference not to play with someone — not a guarantee that you won’t see them again. What the hell is the point of an avoid player feature that doesn’t actually let you avoid players? Why does this lame feature cost $9.99?
Players who buy the Battle Pass also get access to a new high-five feature that they can upgrade over time. But until Valve fixes its community mess, I suggest you leave them hanging.
In Arkady Martine’s debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, an emissary from the distant Lsel Station, is called to the center of the vast Teixcalaanli Empire after her predecessor winds up dead. As she begins to understand the ins and outs of her new role, she also has to figure out how to keep her home station from being absorbed into the Empire, and what happened to her predecessor. Author Martine lays out a fantastic look at how a society’s memory steers cultural and political events, and offers a meditation on the lengths people will go to be free.
The novel is set in the very distant future: humanity has spread throughout the stars, traveling from system to system by way of a stargate-style network. That’s allowed the Teixcalaanli Empire — a hungry, expansion-minded society — to spread its influence throughout inhabited space, its culture and knowledge stretching from system to system. Mahit Dzmare is the ultimate fish-out-of-water when she’s abruptly assigned to replace Ambassador Yskandr Aghavn, who perished in the empire’s capital city. Her home, a self-sustaining habitat, has remained free of the empire’s oversight, something of paramount importance to the inhabitants of Lsel station. She’s seen as a barbarian by the cultured Teixcalaanlis, who view everything from her speech to her station’s burial practices as backwards and outdated.
Unbeknownst to the Teixcalaanlis, the inhabitants of Lsel Station have a particularly advanced technology at their disposal: an Imago, a thumb-sized device implanted in their brainstem that essentially grafts a digital persona into their mind. Think Altered Carbon’s cortical stacks: these devices copy a person’s personality and memories, and exist alongside their host. As Mahit describes it, it’s a technology that allows Lsel Station to pass critical knowledge to future generations of its sparse population. The Imagos are a closely held secret, a critical technology, and mental enhancement that would be seen by the Teixcalaanlis as another example of barbarism.
Mahit faces a major problem: Yskandr died in the capital city, and had been out of touch from Lsel Station for 15 years; as a result, her own Imago — a copy of Yskandr’s personality and memories — is a decade and a half out of date. So while Mahit has trained for years to understand Teixcalaanli’s language and culture, she finds herself in the midst of a tense situation: her predecessor dead and likely murdered, a battle for succession of the imperial throne brewing, and Yskandr — her out-of-date Yskandr — has suddenly vanished from her mind, leaving her without a crucial guide, save for her Teixcalaanli-assigned assistant, Three Seagrass.
That setup is the start to a stunning story that impressively blends together Martine’s fantastic and immersive world, a combination political thriller, cyberpunk yarn, and epic space opera that together make up a gripping read. Mahit’s situation is the perfect introduction to an unfamiliar world, as Martine moves her through the gilded halls of the Teixcalaanli capitol, meeting the politicians she’s been sent to interact with, the fantastical technologies installed in the city, and the poetry that represents the pinnacle of high culture for the empire. Three Seagrass, her devoted aide-de-camp, acts as a sort of cultural interface who brings her up to speed on her surroundings, and guides her as she moves around the city.
When Mahit goes to meet Yskandr’s original assistant, she discovers a bigger plot — and an assassin’s bomb that reveals that there’s more to her predecessor’s death than was originally reported. This leads her down a path to the heart of the Empire’s expansionist ambitions, where the technology in her head might be a critical bargaining chip for the aging Teixcalaanli emperor.
Martine’s book speeds along steadily as Mahit goes further down the rabbit hole of Teixcalaanli politics, and the plot unspools marvelously alongside each revelation about the empire’s culture and society. I’ve picked up similar space opera-type novels in recent years that I’ve largely bounced off of because their characters feel like they’re being used by their authors to sit in rooms and talk at one another, playing out political thought experiments while not much happens. There are certainly a lot of characters who sit in rooms and talk to one another about local politics here, but A Memory Called Empire feels like it does a better job weaving in all of those various elements: Teixcalaanli culture and world building, Lsel’s technology and its stance in the world, and Mahit and Three Seagrass’ relationship as a pair of genuinely interesting characters.
In fact, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller (her real name), Martine is a scholar of the Byzantine Empire, and she noted in an interview in Strange Horizons that much of the novel is inspired by her own work on how that real-world empire interacted with its neighbors. It’s a meditation on how empires — real-world and fictional ones — expand and annex their surroundings. The Teixcalaanli Empire’s influence goes beyond just the warships that she mentions in passing — it’s the empire’s cultural exports that threaten to overwhelm the local cultures that it seeks to dominate.
At the crux of the book is the idea of how an institutional memory helps guide society. The Teixcalaanli have a vast history of poetry, histories, and their own versions of pulp space operas, while the inhabitants of Lsel Station have their own technologies for keeping knowledge around. At the heart of both societies is the same goal: keeping one’s identity intact for future generations so that their legacy moves forward generation after generation. A Memory Called Empire explores the good and the bad of that — bad, in that an expansionist, colonial-minded entity like the Teixcalaanli threaten to overwhelm their neighbors and replace their cultures with their own. But it’s good when you’re fighting for the very survival of your people. Martine threads a delicate needle through both arguments as the plot unfurls, showing off the complex facets where politics and identity mix.
As such, it’s an excellent, gripping novel with a brisk plot, outstanding characters, and plenty to think about long after it’s over.
In April, CBS All Access launched Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone, the latest in a string of remakes of the franchise, and the latest anthology-style show to come from a streaming service. Now, CBS is releasing a new version of it, this time in black-and-white, which harkens back to the style of the original.
The first couple of episodes of the new series cut really close to the original — so much so that reviewer Samantha Nelson noted that they’re a bit weaker than they might have otherwise been. Some viewers complained about another aspect of the show: Peele’s version was in color, a departure from the originals, which came in black and white. Some fans noted that they were adjusting their TV’s settings so that the new episodes would look like the originals.
Now, the black-and-white version will debut on CBS All Access on May 30th, and CBS released a trailer that shows off the change, which also provides a good overview of the series itself. Presumably, the original colored version of the series will also remain available.
Prior to the show’s launch earlier this year, executive producer Simon Kinberg told Vulture that “we did consider doing the whole series black-and-white, because we were so obsessed with the original show,” but ultimately didn’t want to copy its style too much. “The black-and-white felt like it was a step too far. It wasn’t honoring it, but a carbon copy of it.”
Instagram brought music to its Stories feature last summer, allowing users to add background music to accompany their posts. Users can add music to the post, and customize it with specific clips for certain pictures or videos. In December, Instagram added some additional musical features, allowing users to respond to questions with songs, along with countdowns and question stickers for live videos.
On Thursday, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling for the company to be broken up, saying that CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s “focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks,” and that he should be held accountable for his company’s mistakes. Now, Facebook has responded an op-ed of its own, saying that its size isn’t the real problem, and that its success as a platform shouldn’t be punished.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications wrote the piece, and in it, he agrees with Hughs that “companies should be held accountable for their actions,” and that tech companies such as Facebook shouldn’t be the ones handling all of the “important social, political and ethical questions” for the internet.
But he notes that breaking Facebook up — as Hughes calls for — would be the wrong way to go. “The challenges he alludes to,” Clegg writes, “including election interference and privacy safeguards, won’t evaporate by breaking up Facebook or any other big tech company.” He goes on to reiterate many of Facebook’s regular talking points: that it’s been a net-positive for the world by connecting everyone, allowing businesses thrive and for people to raise lots of money for important causes around the world.
Notably, Clegg sidesteps what’s probably the op-ed’s main focus: Zuckerberg himself. Hughes notes that while the CEO is a good person, he holds far too much power at Facebook, and can’t be held accountable there — he calls the shots. “The government must hold Mark accountable,” Hughes wrotes.
He pushes back against Hughes’ argument that Facebook dominates too much of the online world, and counterintuitively, argues that the company actually isn’t a monopoly, saying that its revenue only makes up 20 percent of the advertising marketplace. Besides, Hughes is misunderstanding anti-trust law, and those laws are out of date and wouldn’t be effective anyway.
Clegg argues that Facebook’s size and scale aren’t the real problems — it’s that size and scale that’s allowed it to innovate and reach billions of people. He ticks off the things that Facebook has been working on in the last couple of years: removing terror and hate-related content, disrupting efforts from foreign governments trying to interfere in elections, and protecting users’ data. “That would be pretty much impossible for a smaller company,” he writes.
But that line underscores Hughes’ point: none of those problems would be possible with a smaller company, and that all of the problems that Facebook is trying to solve are exacerbated by Facebook’s incredible reach around the world. The problems won’t “evaporate,” but they might be a bit more manageable within a smaller footprint.
Updated May 11th, 2019, 1:53PM ET: Updated to include Zuckerberg’s separate comments.
I haven’t loved some of Wes Anderson’s earlier movies, but I really enjoyed The Darjeeling Limited when I watched it this past weekend.
One thing I thought was particularly smart about the movie was how many small physical attachments Anderson gives his characters, which it’s clear they’ll eventually have to shed in order to grow. Passports, itineraries, and literal luggage are being carried around the entire movie, begging to be left behind.
This also plays into how explicitly Anderson’s characters often work. They’re all jaded and willing to plainly state what’s wrong with them, and these items offer a simple almost-storybook way of illustrating every beat.
Check out nine trailers from this week below.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
I thought the first Far From Home trailer made the film seem a little too cheery — like a road trip movie just for the sake of cool scenery. But it turns out, the first trailer was just a big lie to cover up tons of Endgame spoilers, which make this new trailer look a lot more compelling. The movie comes out on July 2nd.
The first trailer for Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of Watchmen is here. The show is trying to take the themes and imagery of the original comic and expand them into a bigger story that works on TV. There are certainly plenty of links here, but I have a hard time telling exactly what the show is going to be like just yet. The series starts this fall.
It: Chapter 2
I was going to make some generic comment here about how returning to obviously evil places is a dumb idea, but wow this trailer is legitimately very good and scary. When you’ve got a scene this tense, just letting it play out is absolutely the way to go. The movie comes out on September 6th.
Quiet, creepy, (mostly) single location horror films are in right now, and for good reason: they all look really good! This trailer starts out weird in that… it plays creepy music over a bunch of totally normal stuff, but eventually, it twists into a very The Witch / It Comes at Night vibe. The film comes out this fall.
The CW put out a brief first teaser for its next DC series: a Batwoman adaptation that has Ruby Rose playing Kate Kane, a recent reinvention of the character. The show was only picked up earlier this year, so it’s not clear exactly when the first season is going to arrive.
Rim of the World
Netflix’s latest original seems to be based on the pitch, “What if we made a movie we could immediately autoplay after people finish Stranger Things, and maybe if we’re lucky no one will notice the difference?” On the one hand, it’s a fun, nostalgic adventure. On the other, it’s from the Terminator Salvation guy. It comes out on May 24th.
Awkwafina stars in this Sundance hit with a depressingly quirky twist — that an entire family must hide from their grandmother that she’s dying. The film is based on real events from director Lulu Wang’s life, which she’s previously shared on This American Life. It comes out on July 12th.
I am Mother
I am Mother is a sci-fi thriller with a very Moon-ish approach: it’s about one human, stuck in some futuristic station, who suddenly finds herself questioning everything when another human arrives. My colleague Adi Robertson reviewed the film at Sundance, and she wrote that it doesn’t offer “an incredibly smart or memorable take on artificial intelligence, but the film still taps into some potent cultural anxieties.” It comes out on June 7th.
I have to tell you, I don’t understand what’s happening in the slightest here.
If you’re looking for a tech gift to give to your mom, or a mom that you’re celebrating on Mother’s Day, your time is running out. Thankfully, there are several last-minute deals that you can check out, either in person or online (although you may have a slightly late gift if you buy online).
If you need a gift in hand for mom on Sunday
The Apple Watch Series 4 is still $50 off at both Amazon and Best Buy, starting at $349 for the option with a 40mm case. If your mom wants a slightly bigger watch, the 44mm model is $30 more. The Series 4’s standout features include its edge-to-edge display, its fall detection feature, and its ability to take an electrocardiogram (EKG) using electrodes built into the Watch. The discounted Series 4 is available in several colors at both retailers, though if you live near a Best Buy, you may be able to find one in-store to gift to Mom on Mother’s Day.
If you’re a Sam’s Club member, you can take advantage of its day-long sale, which ends later today. You can get $200 off of the Samsung Chromebook Pro. At $399, it’s the best price we’ve seen for this model, which has a backlit keyboard, an Intel Core m3 processor, and 4GB of RAM.
Facebook’s Portal and Portal Plus smart displays have been discounted since mid-April, but the deal will come to an end on Sunday night. If your mom is a hardcore Facebook user and loves to chat on Facebook Messenger, it might be worth checking out. The $199 Portal is 50 percent off, and it currently sits at $99.99. The larger Portal Plus is currently $100 off at $249.99 (usually $349.99 by itself). This promotion is running at Best Buy and Amazon.
The Google Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL just released this week and several retailers are including a $100 gift card when you purchase one. These phones start at $399 (the 3A XL costs $479) and the retailers participating in this deal include Best Buy, B&H Photo, and Google Store. Check your local Best Buy’s in-store inventory online before going, and you may be able to find a phone (or just the $100 gift card) to give to mom on Sunday.
If mom can wait a few days to receive a gift
Amazon’s waterproof Kindle Paperwhite is still $40 off of its usual $129.99 price. This is the best e-reader that you can buy, thanks to its crisp 300ppi display and waterproofing. At $89.99, it’s only $20 more than the base model Kindle, which lacks both of the features noted above.
Back Market, a refurbished marketplace, is offering Verge readers a 10 percent discount on phones, laptops, wearables, and more until Sunday night with the offer code BMVERGE. Back Market has most of the latest iPhones in stock, including the iPhone XR in several colors for about $100 off of its usual $749 price. If you don’t need an iPhone with the latest processor and camera, the iPhone 8 with 64GB of storage is $430.
Today is Free Comic Book Day, and if you can’t make it to your local comic store, there’s one book that you can find online: Germ Warfare: A Very Graphic History, written by Max Brooks, the author of World War Z. The 44-page graphic novel is a free download from the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, and looks at humanity’s history with biological warfare.
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense commissioned the project, which was illustrated by J. Nino Galenzoga and colored by Joel Santiago and Patricia Beja. The group was founded in 2014 to “provide for a comprehensive assessment of the state of U.S. biodefense efforts, and to issue recommendations that will foster change.”
Brooks notes that he wrote the book for the commission because he recognized the dangers that diseases and epidemics pose to the public, especially at a time where many question whether or not vaccines work. (They do.) “Preventing the next plague begins with education, and as taxpayers and voters we need to understand what we’re up against,” he says. “the experts can’t help us if we don’t help ourselves. We need to find an informed middle ground between blind denial and blind panic.”
The comic is a quick read, and is designed to provide a broad look at our relationship with germs and how they’ve been used throughout history for malevolent purposes. Brooks covers the earliest known instances of germ warfare, Scythian archers dipping their arrows into animal dung and Mongolians catapulting dead bodies over city walls, and works his way up to more recent efforts, such as when European colonists deliberately infected Native Americans with smallpox, countries experimented with germ warfare programs during the First and Second World Wars, to when a cult tried to infect an Oregon town in 1984.
Brooks also uses the book to examine the history behind the efforts to treat diseases throughout the ages, through the recognition that measures like doctors washing their hands, keeping drinking water free from waste, and vaccines stopped or slowed the transmission of diseases. He also uses the book to outline the steps that can be used to stymie such efforts, from effective regulations like food inspections, to effective disease monitoring from federal agencies.
The book is an interesting (and pointed) look at the issue, with a key takeaway: the most effective tool for any biowarfare attack is ignorance and public apathy.
A new report from The New York Times says that the Federal Trade Commission is having trouble agreeing on a suitable punishment for Facebook’s privacy lapses, and that its members are specifically trying to determine whether or not CEO Mark Zuckerberg should be held personally responsible.
The Times’ report says that the FTC wants to make a statement with a massive penalty against the company (the largest thus far was handed down in 2012, $22.5 million, against Google), but its members haven’t been able to decide just how far they want to go to make such a statement. The report cites people familiar with the talks who say that not only are they unable to come to an agreement on the size of the fine, but “one of the most contentious undercurrents throughout the negotiations has been the degree to which Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, should be held personally liable for any violation of the agreement.”
FTC chairman Joseph Simons reportedly has the three Republican members of the commission ready to approve a deal, with the remaining two Democratic members holding out for a stiffer punishment. But Simons is reportedly trying to avoid a party-line decision, which could lead to political fallout or potential litigation. Moreover, a response perceived as soft could undermine the public’s faith in the FTC’s ability to adequately oversee tech companies, especially as Europe has implemented its own, stronger regulations. The Commission is expected to vote on the matter soon.
One of Fortnite’s most iconic locations is no more. Today, after a few weeks of teasing, the Fortnite volcano has finally erupted, and it has taken out various parts of the island. Most notably, Tilted Towers — the busiest area of Fortnite’s island — has been almost entirely destroyed.
The event started out when a mysterious spaceship-like vault located in Loot Lake opened up, transporting players to a strange new dimension. There, six previously removed items from the game appeared encased in glass, and players had to work together to break one free so that it could return to the game. Also, there was a fancy desk, for some reason. While fan favorites like airplanes and the Infinity Blade were featured, it was the drum gun that was eventually chosen. (Epic says the new weapon won’t appear during the Fortnite World Cup qualifiers this weekend.)
Following that, players were sent back to the island, and the volcano erupted in a massive stream of lava that darkened the sky around the map. Blasts of lava shot out across the map, most notably laying waste to Tilted Towers. The once bustling area, previously filled with lots of tall buildings, is now a fiery wreck, though it retains its name. At present, the volcano is still smoking, and other areas, like Retail Row, have also been damaged.
In a blog post, Mozilla says that it’s identified the issue, and it’s begun rolling out a fix for users. “The fix will be automatically applied in the background within the next few hours. No active steps need to be taken to make add-ons work again.” (Emphasis Mozilla’s.) The company says that users shouldn’t try deleting and re-installing extensions, because it’ll remove any accumulated data. The fix that’s being rolled out won’t apply to Firefox ESR or Firefox for Android, and Mozilla says that it’s working to release a patch there as well.
Mozilla says that it’s using the Studies system to fix the error quickly, and if you’ve disabled that, you’ll need to reenable it. The post runs users through the steps that they need to take to make sure it’s on, to check and make sure that it’s been applied. The company also says that it’s working on a fix that won’t involve that system.
Nearly 10 years ago, YouTube started displaying a banner to Internet Explorer 6 users, warning that support for Microsoft’s browser would be “phasing out” soon. It was a message that appeared on all YouTube pages, at a time when IE6 users represented around 18 percent of all YouTube traffic. Frustrated by supporting the aging browser, a group of YouTube engineers had hatched a plan to kill Internet Explorer 6.
“We began collectively fantasizing about how we could exact our revenge on IE6,” reveals Chris Zacharias, a former Google and YouTube engineer. “The plan was very simple. We would put a small banner above the video player that would only show up for IE6 users.” A group of engineers implemented this banner, knowing that most YouTube employees using the company’s staging environment wouldn’t even see it. At the time, Google had acquired YouTube a few years prior to the IE6 banner and the video sharing site hadn’t really fully adapted to Google’s infrastructure and policies.
YouTube engineers had created a special set of permissions called “OldTuber,” so they could bypass Google’s code enforcement policies and make changes directly to the YouTube codebase with limited code reviews. Zacharias and some other engineers were granted OldTuber permissions, allowing them to put the banner in place with very little oversight. “We saw an opportunity in front of us to permanently cripple IE6 that we might never get again,” admits Zacharias.
The banner appeared in July 2009, and the press coverage immediately approved of Google’s push to kill off Internet Explorer 6 support on YouTube. “The first person to come by our desks was the PR team lead,” explains Zacharias. Every major tech publication was asking why YouTube was threatening to kill of IE6 support, at a time when the browser was still used frequently. “We eagerly told them [PR] everything about what we had launched and helped them craft the necessary talking points to expand on the narrative already established by the media.”
Two Google lawyers also wanted to know why YouTube had the banner in place. “They immediately demanded that we remove the banner,” reveals Zacharias. The lawyers were worried that Chrome was being promoted first as an alternative browser, prompting fears about EU regulators looking for anti-competitive behavior. But it turns out the YouTube engineers had programmed the banner to randomly display browsers like Firefox, Internet Explorer 8, and eventually Opera, and they demonstrated this to the lawyers. “Content with the demonstration, the lawyers quickly retreated back to their desks without any further concerns,” says Zacharias.
The banner spread to other Google properties. The Google Docs team added a similar message warning about IE6 support. “One of their engineers testing in IE6 had noticed the YouTube banner pretty shortly after it went live and immediately took it to their manager as evidence as to why they should do the same,” explains Zacharias. Google internal chatter centered on the Docs team adding the IE6 banner, so the original YouTube engineering team “somehow bypassed detection as the originators of the IE6 banner inside of Google.”
The result was a massive dip in Internet Explorer 6 traffic to YouTube. “Within one month, our YouTube IE6 user base was cut in half and over 10 percent of global IE6 traffic had dropped off while all other browsers increased in corresponding amounts,” says Zacharias. “The results were better than our web development team had ever intended.”
YouTube engineering management eventually realized what had happened, but it was too late and they “begrudgingly arrived at the conclusion that the ends had justified the means.” The rebel YouTube engineers succeeded with their secret plan to kill Internet Explorer 6, and by April 2012 IE6 usage had dropped below one percent in the US. Even Microsoft was celebrating IE6’s death.
Overcast is one of the best podcasting apps out there, and it’s introducing a new feature that should make it even more useful to listeners: the ability to share clips of episodes to share online.
The app’s latest update allows users to converts an excerpt of a podcast into a short video, which can then be shared on social media, (or by email or text message). Developer and Overcast founder Marco Arment notes in a blog post that people have long been able to share podcast episodes, but that it’s been a cumbersome process, and that it’s easier to share a short video than it is an audio link.
To share a clip in the app, click on the share icon in the top right-hand corner, and select the “Share Clip” option. That will bring you to the interface to select the desired segment of the episode you’re listening to. You can then customize it a bit to share it as straight-up audio, a vertical, landscape, or square video, and add on a “Shared from Overcast” badge, if you so wish.
Arment uses his post as an opportunity to stump for the health of the overarching podcasting industry, taking a stab at recent startup Luminary, which launched earlier this week with a resounding thud. That app launched with considerable backing from venture capitalists, branding itself as the “Netflix of podcasting,” and coming with a large roster of premium shows. However, because it also launched with a free tier for people to listen to existing shows, many creators felt that the app was using their shows to lure listeners in to get them to sign up for its exclusives. As a result, numerous studios have since pulled their shows.
Many in the podcasting world see Luminary’s launch as a threat to what’s up until now, been a fairly open system. Arment says that “for podcasting to remain open and free, we must not leave major shortcomings for proprietary, locked-down services to exploit,” and notes that sharing podcasts isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. Hopefully, this update will make the practice a bit easier to accomplish — and maybe make it easier to introduce someone to a show they haven’t yet heard.
The Times says that “Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps,” as well as a number of others. The report cites users who point out that Apple’s Screen Time app has some drawbacks that the popular third-party apps came with, like the ability to shut down certain apps, less-granular scheduling, and that children were able to work around Apple’s web-filtering tools. They also pointed out that third-party apps could be used across iOS and Android platforms, making it difficult for parents to oversee Android devices.
The report features interviews with developers who found their apps pulled from the store abruptly, faced unclear and vague instructions for changes, or unresponsive support from the company. In many cases, the developers note that being booted from the App store can be devastating to their companies — Amir Moussavian the CEO of OurPact, says that 80 percent of its revenue came from the App Store.
Apple maintains that the apps violated its rules, that third-party apps could gather too much data on devices, and that the actions weren’t related to the company’s debut of its own screen-monitoring tools.
Earlier this week, developers for two apps, Kidslox and Qustodio, filed an antitrust complaint against Apple in the European Union, and last month, Kaspersky Lab filed an antitrust complaint after its own screen-time management app was removed from the store. They aren’t the first to be worried about the company’s reach when it comes to the App Store: Spotify filed an antitrust complaint of its own against Apple, saying that the technology company was giving itself an unfair advantage against third-party music streaming services.
Neuromancer author William Gibson famously wrote the script for a sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens years ago, but was ultimately never filmed — we got Alien³ instead. Last year, Dark Horse Comics resurrected the script for a new comic book, and now, the script is getting another adaptation, this time as an audio drama from Audible.
Gibson’s Alien III is set after the events of Aliens, and picks up the story of Ripley, Hicks, Newt, and what’s left of the android Bishop, as they arrive in the territory of the Union of Progressive Peoples, a Soviet Union-like nation. They’re boarded by the soldiers, and as one might expect, a face-hugger latches on to one of them, and everyone has to deal with an infestation of Xenomorphs. Gibson’s script isn’t exactly a long-lost secret: it’s floated around the internet for years, but an audio drama will bring it nearly to what it was originally intended.
In addition to audiobooks of the original movie novelizations (including Alien³), the audiobook publisher has released a number of original Alien tie-in audio dramas over the years, often narrated with a full cast and sound effects. Alien III will get the same full-cast treatment, and will even include one of the original actors from the franchise: Michael Biehn, who played Corporal Hicks in Aliens.
Over the past month, an AI called Dadabots has been endlessly generating and streaming death metal on YouTube, as spotted by Motherboard. Made by musical technologists CJ Carr and Zack Zukowski, this algorithm is only one of many death metal algorithms the duo has developed over the years, with each one trained on a single artist’s discography.
The training method for Dadabots involves feeding a sample recurrent neural network whole albums from a single artist. The albums are split up into thousands of tiny samples, and then it creates tens of thousands of iterations to develop the AI, which starts out making white noise and ultimately learns to produce more recognizable musical elements.
This particular version of Dadabots has been trained on real death metal band Archspire, and Carr and Zukowski have previously trained the neural network on other real bands like Room For A Ghost, Meshuggah, and Krallice. In the past, they’ve released albums made by these algorithms for free on Dadabots’ Bandcamp — but having a 24/7 algorithmic death metal livestream is something new.
Carr and Zukowski published an abstract about their work in 2017, explaining that “most style-specific generative music experiments have explored artists commonly found in harmony textbooks,” meaning mostly classical music, and have largely ignored smaller genres like black metal. In the paper, the duo said the goal was to have the AI “achieve a realistic recreation” of the audio fed into it, but it ultimately gave them something perfectly imperfect. “Solo vocalists become a lush choir of ghostly voices,” they write. “Rock bands become crunchy cubist-jazz, and cross-breeds of multiple recordings become a surrealist chimera of sound.”
Carr and Zukowski tell Motherboard they hope to have some kind of audience interaction with Dadabots in the future. For now, you can listen to it churn out nonstop death metal and comment along with other people watching the livestream on YouTube.
Coincidentally, the copyright repercussions of training a musical AI on a single artist is a thorny gray area without any legal precedent guiding it, so music like this may not be so freely available on the internet in the future. “I won’t mince words,” Jonathan Bailey, CTO of iZotope said of the issue in The Verge’s recent dive into AI-created music and copyright. “This is a total legal clusterfuck.”
On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission settled a case with Onixiz, the owners of i-Dressup, an online flash game website dedicated to dressing up virtual dolls and designing clothes. According to the complaint, the website violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and risked its young users’ data security.
i-Dressup operated pretty much like any flash game website you remember from the early 2000s. It featured timeless classics like “Sexed-Up Style,” “Floral Hats,” and the “Feminine Ruffle,” some of which you are still able to play on other dress-up sites that have apparently ripped the games and republished them.
COPPA requires companies that provide online services or are targeted to children under 13 to maintain specific privacy standards, like receiving parental consent and providing “reasonable” data security for its young users. The FTC complaint claims that i-Dressup failed the test for compliance on both of those fronts.
The data security problems were particularly pronounced. In 2016, Ars Technica reported that the site exposed the passwords belonging to more than 5.5 million user accounts in plaintext and a hacker was able to download millions of credentials by using a SQL injection attack, which exploited vulnerabilities in i-Dressup’s security infrastructure, or lack thereof. According to the press release, about 245,000 of those users were under 13 years of age.
It wasn’t until 2018 that the website was finally forced offline by the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs as a response to the 2016 data breach. In a statement at the time, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said, “Children are extremely vulnerable on the internet and we must do all we can to protect them from being exploited by advertisers or tracked by internet predators.” Who these predators were is unclear, but they certainly weren’t addressed in the FTC’s press release this week.
In the comments of posts on the website’s Facebook page “i-Dressup.com Dress up games for people who love fashion,” reactions to the website’s removal included one user writing, “I cannot open i-dressup.Its showing SQL ERROR…why?? I am scared.” Others said, “,this was my favorite game in the world.i just cant belive it was hacked” and “I can’t play the game.”
In order to settle the case for the COPPA violations, i-Dressup’s owners will pay out $35,000 in civil penalties, which will go to the US Treasury. According to the FTC, i-Dressup’s owners are “prohibited from violating COPPA in the future, and can’t sell, share, or collect any personal information until they implement a comprehensive data security program and get independent biennial assessments.” It’ll also be required to submit annual compliance certificates to the agency in the future as well.
No word from i-Dressup on whether it’ll relaunch in the future.