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Communications

Google Now Lets Developers Write Apps For the Assistant On Google Home (techcrunch.com) 5

Google today announced it will open up Home to third-party developers, allowing all developers to start bringing their applications and services to the Google Assistant. Developers can start building "conversation actions" for the Google Assistant, which "allows developers to create back-and-forth conversations with users through the Assistant," writes Frederic Lardinois via TechCrunch. "Users can simply start these conversations by using a phrase like 'OK Google, talk to Eliza.'" TechCrunch reports: While the Assistant also runs on the Pixel phones and inside the Allo chat app, Google says it plans to bring actions to these other "Assistant surfaces" in the future, but it's unclear when exactly this will happen. To help developers who want to build these new Conversation Actions get started, Google has teamed up with a number of partners, including API.AI, GupShup, DashBot and VoiceLabs, Assist, Notify.IO, Witlingo and Spoken Layer. Google has also allowed a small number of partners to enable their apps on Google Home already. These integrations will roll out as early as next week. Given that users will be able to invoke these new actions with a simple command (and without having to first enable a skill, like on Alexa), Google's platform looks to be a rather accessible and low-friction way for developers to get their voice-enabled services to users. Google will have the final say over which actions will be enabled on Google Home.
Earth

US Life Expectancy Declines For the First Time Since 1993 (washingtonpost.com) 110

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Washington Post: For the first time in more than two decades, life expectancy for Americans declined last year (Warning: may be paywalled; alternate source) -- a troubling development linked to a panoply of worsening health problems in the United States. Rising fatalities from heart disease and stroke, diabetes, drug overdoses, accidents and other conditions caused the lower life expectancy revealed in a report released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics. In all, death rates rose for eight of the top 10 leading causes of death. The new report raises the possibility that major illnesses may be eroding prospects for an even wider group of Americans. Its findings show increases in "virtually every cause of death. It's all ages," said David Weir, director of the health and retirement study at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Over the past five years, he noted, improvements in death rates were among the smallest of the past four decades. "There's this just across-the-board [phenomenon] of not doing very well in the United States." Overall, life expectancy fell by one-tenth of a year, from 78.9 in 2014 to 78.8 in 2015, according to the latest data. The last time U.S. life expectancy at birth declined was in 1993, when it dropped from 75.6 to 75.4, according to World Bank data. The overall death rate rose 1.2 percent in 2015, its first uptick since 1999. More than 2.7 million people died, about 45 percent of them from heart disease or cancer.
Communications

US Presidential Election Was Most 'Talked About' Topic In 2016, Says Facebook (phys.org) 54

What may come as no surprise to Facebook users, the social media company announced in a blog post that the U.S. presidential election was the most "talked about" topic on Facebook in 2016. Phys.Org highlights the other most-discussed topics in its report: The bitterly contested election in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton was ranked as the leading issue, followed by Brazil's political developments which included the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, Facebook said in a blog post. On the lighter side at number three was the runaway success of Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game for smartphone users. Other subject matters shared among Facebook's 1.79 billion users were more sober, with the fourth leading topic the "Black Lives Matter" movement, followed by the election in the Philippines of Rodrigo Duterte. Number six on the list was the Olympic games, followed by Brexit, the Super Bowl and the deaths of rock star David Bowie and boxing icon Muhammad Ali. Facebook said it measured leading topics by how frequently an issue was mentioned in posts made between January 1 and November 27.
Transportation

Transportation Department Proposes Allowing In-Flight Phone Calls (go.com) 49

Yesterday, France's Le Monde newspaper issued a report, citing documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, that says American and British spies have since 2005 been working on intercepting phone calls and data transfers made from aircraft. Assuming the report is accurate, national security agencies may soon have their hands full if a new proposal by the Department of Transportation becomes official, which would allow each airline to decide whether its passengers will be permitted to make in-flight phone calls using the aircraft's onboard Wi-Fi system. ABC News reports: The Department of Transportation's proposal leaves it up to airlines whether to allow the calls. But carriers would be required to inform passengers at the time they purchase a ticket if the calls are allowed. That would give passengers the opportunity to make other travel arrangements if they don't want to risk the possibility of sitting near passengers making phone calls. The Federal Communications Commission prohibits using mobile phones to make calls during flights, but not Wi-Fi calls. There is a minimum 60-day comment period and the proposal leaves the door open to an outright ban. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the proposal.
Businesses

Yik Yak Lays Off 60 Percent of Employees As Growth Collapses (theverge.com) 41

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Yik Yak has laid off 60 percent of employees amid a downturn in the app's growth prospects, The Verge has learned. The three-year-old anonymous social network has raised $73.5 million from top-tier investors on the promise that its young, college-age network of users could one day build a company to rival Facebook. But the challenge of growing its community while moving gradually away from anonymity has so far proven to be more than the company could muster. Employees who were affected were informed of the layoffs Thursday morning, sources told The Verge. Yik Yak employed about 50 people, and now only about 20 remain, the company said. The community, marketing, design, and product teams were all deeply affected, one source said. Atlanta-based Yik Yak was founded in 2014 by Furman University students Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington. The app updated the concept of dorm newsletters for the mobile era, letting anyone post comments about school, their campus, or life in general. The fact that comments were anonymous initially helped the app grow, as it encouraged more candid forms of sharing than students might otherwise post on Facebook or Instagram.
Privacy

Watchdog Group Claims Smart Toys Are Spying On Kids (mashable.com) 49

The Center for Digital Democracy has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission warning of security and privacy holes associated with a pair of smart toys designed for children. Mashable reports: "This complaint concerns toys that spy," reads the complaint, which claims the Genesis Toys' My Friend Cayla and i-QUE Intelligent Robot can record and collect private conversations and offer no limitations on the collection and use of personal information. Both toys use voice recognition, internet connectivity and Bluetooth to engage with children in conversational manner and answer questions. The CDD claims they do all of this in wildly insecure and invasive ways. Both My Friend Cayla and i-QUE use Nuance Communications' voice-recognition platform to listen and respond to queries. On the Genesis Toy site, the manufacturer notes that while "most of Cayla's conversational features can be accessed offline," searching for information may require an internet connection. The promotional video for Cayla encourages children to "ask Cayla almost anything." The dolls work in concert with mobile apps. Some questions can be asked directly, but the toys maintain a constant Bluetooth connection to the dolls so they can also react to actions in the app and even appear to identify objects the child taps on on screen. While some of the questions children ask the dolls are apparently recorded and sent to Nuance's servers for parsing, it's unclear how much of the information is personal in nature. The Genesis Privacy Policy promises to anonymize information. The CDD also claims, however, that My Friend Cayla and i-Que employ Bluetooth in the least secure way possible. Instead of requiring a PIN code to complete pairing between the toy and a smartphone or iPad, "Cayla and i-Que do not employ... authentication mechanisms to establish a Bluetooth connection between the doll and a smartphone or tablet. The dolls do not implement any other security measure to prevent unauthorized Bluetooth pairing." Without a pairing notification on the toy or any authentication strategy, anyone with a Bluetooth device could connect to the toys' open Bluetooth networks, according to the complaint.
AT&T

AT&T To Cough Up $88 Million For 'Cramming' Mobile Customer Bills (networkworld.com) 28

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Network World: Some 2.7 million ATT customers will share $88 million in compensation for having had unauthorized third-party charges added to their mobile bills, the Federal Trade Commission announced this morning. The latest shot in the federal government's years-long battle against such abuses, these refunds will represent the most money ever recouped by victims of what is known as "mobile cramming," according to the FTC. From an FTC press release: "Through the FTC's refund program, nearly 2.5 million current ATT customers will receive a credit on their bill within the next 75 days, and more than 300,000 former customers will receive a check. The average refund amount is $31. [...] According to the FTC's complaint, ATT placed unauthorized third-party charges on its customers' phone bills, usually in amounts of $9.99 per month, for ringtones and text message subscriptions containing love tips, horoscopes, and 'fun facts.' The FTC alleged that ATT kept at least 35 percent of the charges it imposed on its customers." The matter with ATT was originally made public in 2014 and also involved two companies that actually applied the unauthorized charges, Tatto and Acquinity.
AI

AI Will Disrupt How Developers Build Applications and the Nature of the Applications they Build (zdnet.com) 60

AI will soon help programmers improve development, says Diego Lo Giudice, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, in an article published on ZDNet today. He isn't saying that programmers will be out of jobs soon and AIs will take over. But he is making a compelling argument for how AI has already begun disrupting how developers build applications. An excerpt from the article: We can see early signs of this: Microsoft's Intellisense is integrated into Visual Studio and other IDEs to improve the developer experience. HPE is working on some interesting tech previews that leverage AI and machine learning to enable systems to predict key actions for participants in the application development and testing life cycle, such as managing/refining test coverage, the propensity of a code change to disrupt/break a build, or the optimal order of user story engagement. But AI will do much more for us in the future. How fast this happens depends on the investments and focus on solving some of the harder problems, such as "unsupervised deep learning," that firms like Google, FaceBook, Baidu and others are working on, with NLP linguists that are too researching on how to improve language comprehension by computers leveraging ML and neural networks. But in the short term, AI will most likely help you be more productive and creative as a developer, tester, or dev team rather than making you redundant.
Government

Congress Passes BOTS Act To Ban Ticket-Buying Software (arstechnica.com) 156

Congress passed a bill yesterday that will make it illegal for people to use software bots to buy concert tickets. Ars Technica reports: The Better Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act makes it illegal to bypass any computer security system designed to limit ticket sales to concerts, Broadway musicals, and other public events with a capacity of more than 200 persons. Violations will be treated as "unfair or deceptive acts" and can be prosecuted by the Federal Trade Commission or the states. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent last week, and the House of Representatives voted yesterday to pass it as well. It now proceeds to President Barack Obama for his signature. Computer programs that automatically buy tickets have been a frustration for the concert industry and fans for a few years now. The issue had wide exposure after a 2013 New York Times story on the issue. Earlier this year, the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman completed an investigation into bots. The New York AG's ticket sales report (PDF) found that the tens of thousands of tickets snatched up by bots were marked up by an average of 49 percent.
Space

John Glenn, First American To Orbit The Earth, Dies At 95 (npr.org) 99

BenBoy writes: John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 -- December 8, 2016) was an American aviator, engineer, astronaut, and United States Senator from Ohio. He was one of the "Mercury Seven" group of military test pilots selected in 1959 by NASA to become America's first astronauts and fly the Project Mercury spacecraft. He passed away today at age 95.
Transportation

Audi Cars Now Talk To Stop Lights In Vegas (ieee.org) 83

Audi says its cars can now tell drivers how many seconds remain until the traffic light turns green. It's the first commercial offering of vehicle-to-infrastructure communication in the United States, it adds. From a report, submitted by an anonymous reader: Of course, nobody would pay much extra for an electronic gadget that just lowered your stoplight waiting anxiety. But this feature is just testing the waters; bigger applications are in view. The cars -- recently manufactured Audi A4 and Q7 models signed onto Audi's prime connection service -- communicate with the Las Vegas traffic management system via 4G LTE, the standard mobile phones use. The countdown appears on the dashboard or heads-up display, then shuts off a few seconds before the light changes (presumably to keep drivers from getting mesmerized). Audi manages the transfer of data with the help of its partner, Traffic Technology Services (TTS), of Beaverton, Ore. The plan is to eventually give drivers the information they need to make fairly ambitious predictions, like choosing the right speed to go sailiing through several green lights in a row. Or the system might bypass the driver and go straight to the engine's "start-stop" system, shutting it down for a long count, then starting it up again seconds before getting a green light.
The Almighty Buck

Every US Taxpayer Has Effectively Paid Apple At Least $6 in Recent Years (arstechnica.com) 193

An anonymous reader shares an ArsTechnica report: Apple has received at least $6 per American taxpayer over the last five years in the form of interest payments on billions' worth of United States Treasury bonds, according to a report by Bloomberg. Citing Apple's regulatory filings and unnamed sources, the business publication found "the Treasury Department paid Apple at least $600 million and possibly much more over the past five years in the form of interest." By taking advantage of a provision in the American tax code, Bloomberg says that Apple has "stashed much of its foreign earnings -- tax-free -- right here in the US, in part by purchasing government bonds." As The Wall Street Journal reported in September, American companies are believed to be holding approximately $2 trillion in cash overseas that is shielded from US taxes. Under American law, companies must pay a 35-percent corporate tax rate on global profits when that money is brought home -- so there is an incentive to keep as much of that money overseas as possible.
Earth

First Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber (nationalgeographic.com) 54

The tail of a beautiful, feathered dinosaur has been found perfectly preserved in amber from Myanmar. It is a huge breakthrough that could help open a new window on the biology of a group that dominated Earth for more than 160 million years. From a report on the National Geographic: The semitranslucent mid-Cretaceous amber sample, roughly the size and shape of a dried apricot, captures one of the earliest moments of differentiation between the feathers of birds of flight and the feathers of dinosaurs. Inside the lump of resin is a 1.4-inch appendage covered in delicate feathers, described as chestnut brown with a pale or white underside. CT scans and microscopic analysis of the sample revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long, thin tail that may have been originally made up of more than 25 vertebrae. NPR has a story on how this amber was found. An excerpt from it reads: In 2015, Lida Xing was visiting a market in northern Myanmar when a salesman brought out a piece of amber about the size of a pink rubber eraser. Inside, he could see a couple of ancient ants and a fuzzy brown tuft that the salesman said was a plant. As soon as Xing saw it, he knew it wasn't a plant. It was the delicate, feathered tail of a tiny dinosaur.
Microsoft

PowerShell Security Threats Greater Than Ever, Researchers Warn (computerweekly.com) 100

Microsoft's Windows PowerShell configuration management framework continues to be abused by cyber attackers, according to researchers at Symantec, who have seen a surge in associated threats. From a report on ComputerWeekly: More than 95% of PowerShell scripts analysed by Symantec researchers have been found to be malicious, with 111 threat families using PowerShell. Malicious PowerShell scripts are on the rise, as attackers are using the framework's flexibility to download their payloads, traverse through a compromised network and carry out reconnaissance, according to Candid Wueest, threat researcher at Symantec.
Movies

Slashdot Asks: Would You Like Early Access To Movies And Stop Going To Theatres? 294

It appears many major stakeholders in the movie industry want to bring new titles to you within days, if not hours, as they hit cinemas. Earlier this year, we learned that Sean Parker is working on a service called "Screening Room", an idea that was reportedly backed by Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams, to bring movies on the same day as they show up in theaters. Apple seems interested as well. It is reportedly in talks with Hollywood studios to get iTunes rentals of movies that are still playing on the big screen. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that several studios are exploring the idea of renting new movies for $25 to $50 just two weeks after they have hit cinemas.

None of such deals have materialized yet, of course, and also it needs to be pointed out that several movie companies have discarded these ideas before because they know that by offering you new titles so early they are going to lose on all the overpriced cold drinks, and snacks they sell you at the theatre. There's also piracy concerns. If a movie is available early, regardless of the DRM tech these companies deploy, good-enough footage of the movies will crop up on file-sharing websites almost immediately.

But leaving all those aspects aside, would you be interested in getting new titles just hours or a week or two after they hit the cinemas? Would you want to end the decades-long practice of going to a theater?

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