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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

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The new Google Nest brand could lock Amazon Alexa and other third parties out of your smart home - CNET

"The Amazon Echo and the Nest Learning Thermostat are two of the biggest hit products of the smart home. They've also worked together for years. You can ask Alexa, the voice assistant built into the Echo smart speaker, to change the temperature on your Nest thermostat. After Google I/O, this important smart home connection looks in danger of being cut.

Google and Nest have been technically part of the same team since last year, but last week at Google I/O, Nest and the Google smart home team joined into a single brand called Google Nest. In addition to a new product -- the Nest Hub Max -- and a few price cuts, the joined brand also means Google will encourage current Nest customers to merge their previously siloed Nest accounts with Google.

You'll still be able to keep your Nest account, but it will be relegated to a "maintenance mode" and it will only receive security updates. New features will all be designated for Google accounts. If you already center your home around Google's smart home products -- such as the Google Home smart speaker -- this shift isn't likely to have a big effect on you. In fact, more functionality is likely to be rolled into the Google Home app to help encourage customers to move away from the separate Nest app.

If you primarily use Nest products and automated recipes involving third party gadgets, your current smart home set up could turn dumb as soon as August 31, 2019. On that date, Google is shutting down the Works with Nest program, which allowed third party developers, including Amazon, to control Nest gadgets.

Developers can join the Works with Google Assistant program instead, and many of the major brands that work with Nest already work with Google, but the two programs have a few fundamental differences that could sever the connections you have set up at home.

One way commands

Works with Nest allowed third party gadgets to both give and receive info from Nest products like the Nest Learning Thermostat. Works with Google Assistant is tailored for Google to give the commands to third party products, not the other way around.

Abode is a good example of a smart home company that currently works with both systems. Abode makes one of our favorite DIY security systems. Different Abode kits include a variety of sensors, sirens, cameras, and even gadgets like switches, lights and dimmers.

If you integrate Abode with Google Assistant, you can control Abode's lights, switches and dimmers with a voice command to a nearby Google Home (or any other gadget with Google Assistant built-in). If you integrate Abode with Nest, you can tell your Nest Cam to start recording if an Abode motion sensor causes an alarm. You can turn the Nest Thermostat to away mode automatically when you arm your Abode system. The integrations are more robust because Nest can both give and receive information from Abode.

"We've always believed the smart home experience is made better for customers through interoperability and companies working together to give consumers choice," said Chris Carney, CEO and co-founder of Abode. "While Google's choice to shut down the 'Works with Nest' program is contrary to our belief and against the direction we think the smart home needs to move, it is consumers who will be impacted the most."

Right now, Nest products can control Abode products, and Abode products can control Nest products. With Google Assistant, Nest products could be forced onto a one way street.

If Works with Google Assistant doesn't allow input from third party devices by August 31st, the effect on the smart home will be widespread. For Abode that would mean you would no longer be able to trigger an action from one device based on the behavior of another one. In other words, that Nest Thermostat away mode automation when you arm your Abode system would no longer work.

This disconnect will be most widely felt by Nest device owners that use Alexa as their voice assistant. A Google representative offered some reassurance on this front, "We're working with Amazon to migrate the Nest skill on Amazon Alexa to ensure a smooth transition for Nest customers prior to winding down the Works With Nest program"

If Google adds the necessary code to Works with Google Assistant that will let Amazon control Nest devices, that code could theoretically allow other affected manufacturers to keep their current functionality as well.

"Abode will do everything we can to make this as painless as possible for our customers and have already begun working on enhancing our existing Google Assistant integration and will be adding additional features as they become available to us," said Carney.

An Amazon representative put the onus for the change on Google, "I would defer you to the device manufacturer for questions about their products."

Triggering change

Works with Nest and the Nest app are capable of a few other features that Google will need to add by September if they don't want customers to feel any interruption in service. The Nest app allows you to assign levels of access to members of your home, the Google Home app doesn't. If you add someone to your home through Google, they have access to all of your devices and can even remove you from the home.

To be clear, the Nest app isn't shutting down, but given the way Google is pushing people towards Google accounts and away from Nest accounts, the Google Home app will be the new center of the combined brand.

You still can't set up Nest gadgets using the Google Home app. Nest also uses smart home triggers with a lot of third party gadgets. With Philips Hue, Lifx, Lutron and other smart lighting companies, you can program your lights to flash red if your Nest Protect senses smoke. You can have them turn on and off at various intervals when your Nest Thermostat knows you're away in order to fool would be intruders.

In these cases, the Nest product is the one sending the info to the third party gadget and controlling them accordingly. Google might be able to add similar functionality to Works with Google Assistant even if the company doesn't want to receive commands from third party gadgets, but Google doesn't have similar triggers yet.

You can create grouped commands called routines for Google Assistant. Say "good morning" to your Google Home, and it can turn on the lights, set the temperature of your thermostat and even play your favorite podcast. You can customize a routine to trigger on any command you'd like and can even schedule routines to start at a certain time so you don't need to use a voice command.

Google has also promised that you'll be able to trigger morning routines from your phone's alarm, and the upcoming Nest Hub Max smart display will be able to automatically relay personalized information when it recognizes that you've walked into the room. These are all effectively triggers, which is what Nest uses to flash your lights red, but as of now, Google doesn't let you fully customize triggers.

Routines are limited to voice commands, schedules, and potentially a few extras determined by Google. You can't train one smart gadget to respond to the input of another. When asked for comment, the involved smart home companies have generally said that they're working on it.

"We're working closely with Google to continue to deliver the best possible experience to our customers," said a representative from Philips Hue. "For now, we recommend they keep an eye on the Nest FAQ and Google's and our social channels for more updates as we approach August 31, 2019."

A representative from Lifx said that they "are in regular contact with the team there to develop integrations as soon as we hear about any changes to the architecture."

Matt Swatsky, the Vice President of Lutron said, "We look forward to working with Google on their Works with Google Assistant program to determine the best way to take care of our joint customers and maximize the Lutron user experience."

Nest has similar triggers that can turn on smart sprinklers from Rachio when the Nest Protect smells smoke. "We're always evolving and upgrading our integrations, so this will be no different," said Chris Klein, the CEO of Rachio.

One of the reasons Google might not add these triggers is the company's renewed focus on privacy. Along with the new Google Nest brand, Google announced privacy initiatives to keep customers informed about what data their smart home was collecting and how it was being used. If your Nest Thermostat is going to trigger your Philips Hue lights, it needs to share data with Philips.

Lots can happen in the interim

Three and a half months is a long time in the tech world. A Google representative offered more reassurance over email, "The majority of our most popular Works With Nest partners are already up and running with the Works with the Google Assistant platform and we're actively collaborating with other partners on the transition. We're also working to improve Assistant Routines so people will be able to replicate the top integrations."

Even in the unlikely worst case scenario, in which Google doesn't add any of Nest's existing functionality to Google Assistant before shutting down Works with Nest, lots of related smart home integrations will continue to function normally. You'll still be able to control your Nest gadgets with your Google Home. Any integrations you've built around Google Assistant will be unaffected.

Some major Works with Nest brands, like August, are minimizing the impact. August, the makers of the August Smart Lock, is part of the Works with Nest program. You can see the status of your Nest gadgets in the August app and set your thermostat to Home or Away when you lock or unlock your door.

The change should have "a very minimal impact for August customers," said Jason Johnson, CEO of August. "Our Google Assistant integration doesn't change and that is a far more popular integration."

Nevertheless, Amazon and Google are certainly capable of letting ongoing battles affect customers, and if Alexa stops being able to control Nest products, that could have a huge and negative impact on a lot of smart home customers.

Google Nest launched with a cool new product, price cuts, and a renewed focus on privacy. The joined brand makes sense given that the two teams were already ostensibly part of the same unit. Still, joining the brands and ending Works with Nest could make a lot of smart homes much dumber, and Google has a lot of work to do before August 31st to make sure that doesn't happen.

Nest Hub Max, a higher-end smart display for Google Assistant: Google's new premium-tier smart display joins the Nest family and adds a camera.

The best home security systems we've tested: Yes, shopping for the best home security system can be a confusing headache. Fortunately, we've done a lot of the legwork for you."

The new Google Nest brand could lock Amazon Alexa and other third parties out of your smart home - CNET

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Meteor that hit Earth came from beyond the solar system - CNET

"The man who argues interstellar object Oumuamua could have been an alien spacecraft now says a meteor that hit Earth's atmosphere in 2014 also came from elsewhere in the Milky Way, perhaps carrying life with it.

Harvard astronomer Abraham "Avi" Loeb and undergraduate student Amir Siraj have drafted a new paper identifying the second cosmic object to visit the inner solar system from beyond (Oumuamua being the first). The paper has been submitted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, but has yet to be peer reviewed.

"The reported meteor entered the solar system with a speed of 60 km/s (134,216 mph) relative to the local standard of rest (obtained by averaging the motion of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun)," Loeb wrote in an email. "Such a high ejection speed can only be produced in the innermost cores of planetary systems -- interior to the orbit of the Earth around a star like the sun, but in the habitable zone of dwarf stars, hence allowing such objects to carry life from their parent planets."

In other words, according to Siraj and Loeb's calculations, something happened a long, long time ago in a star system far, far away that caused some space debris to be launched into interstellar space at a very high velocity. After traveling some unknown number of light-years at high speed, this interstellar interloper the size of a kitchen oven smacked into our atmosphere on Jan. 8, 2014."

Meteor that hit Earth came from beyond the solar system - CNET

Diffraction WRECKS sharpness: Photography physics

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus review: the anti-iPhone - The Verge

"Every year for the past decade, Samsung has released a steady beat of new Galaxy S phones. The early Galaxy S phones were good, but not great, and were such close copies of the iPhone that Apple sued Samsung over them and won.

It took Samsung a few years to hit its stride with high-end hardware, and the last few Galaxy S phones have been considerably better, if a bit predictable. This year’s Galaxy S10 family is no different: these are high-end phones with cutting edge technology and sleek designs.

What Samsung has gained over the past 10 years is an identity. The Galaxy S10 is distinctly Samsung — it’s not a copy of the iPhone or any other device you can buy. In fact, it almost feels like the opposite of the iPhone: if you’ve been frustrated with Apple’s recent devices for lacking headphone jacks, adding notches, or removing fingerprint scanners, Samsung is here for you with a headphone jack, a fingerprint scanner, and a notchless screen design (that has some other compromises). It feels a bit like the S10 is the anti-iPhone.

That isn’t to say there aren’t similarities between Apple’s flagship and Samsung’s. For one thing, both are expensive: the Galaxy S10 starts at $899.99, while the S10 Plus that I’ve been testing for the past week starts at $999.99. You can even option an S10 Plus out to a staggering $1,600 — that’s nearly three times the starting cost of the popular OnePlus 6T.

The other thing that the S10 shares with the iPhone is a lack of a compelling differentiator from its previous iterations. Sure, the screen is bigger and there are some incremental advancements in performance and battery life, but an S10 is not going to change much for you if you have a Galaxy S8 or S9.

That said, the S10 is one of the best phones you can buy right now, and the best Galaxy S phone Samsung has ever made. It’s just going to cost you."

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus review: the anti-iPhone - The Verge

The Galaxy S10 is fantastic - Video - CNET

The Galaxy S10 is fantastic - Video - CNET

HP Spectre x360 15" Gem Cut Review- GTX 1050 Ti MQ + 6 Core CPU

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

MICROPHONES... Here's what you need to know

Have Dark Forces Been Messing With the Cosmos? - The New York Times

"There was, you might say, a disturbance in the Force.

Long, long ago, when the universe was only about 100,000 years old — a buzzing, expanding mass of particles and radiation — a strange new energy field switched on. That energy suffused space with a kind of cosmic antigravity, delivering a not-so-gentle boost to the expansion of the universe.

Then, after another 100,000 years or so, the new field simply winked off, leaving no trace other than a speeded-up universe.

So goes the strange-sounding story being promulgated by a handful of astronomers from Johns Hopkins University. In a bold and speculative leap into the past, the team has posited the existence of this field to explain an astronomical puzzle: the universe seems to be expanding faster than it should be.

The cosmos is expanding only about 9 percent more quickly than theory prescribes. But this slight-sounding discrepancy has intrigued astronomers, who think it might be revealing something new about the universe.

And so, for the last couple of years, they have been gathering in workshops and conferences to search for a mistake or loophole in their previous measurements and calculations, so far to no avail.

“If we’re going to be serious about cosmology, this is the kind of thing we have to be able to take seriously,” said Lisa Randall, a Harvard theorist who has been pondering the problem.

[Sign up to get reminders for space and astronomy events on your calendar.]

At a recent meeting in Chicago, Josh Frieman, a theorist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., asked: “At what point do we claim the discovery of new physics?”

Now ideas are popping up. Some researchers say the problem could be solved by inferring the existence of previously unknown subatomic particles. Others, such as the Johns Hopkins group, are invoking new kinds of energy fields.

Adding to the confusion, there already is a force field — called dark energy — making the universe expand faster. And a new, controversial report suggests that this dark energy might be getting stronger and denser, leading to a future in which atoms are ripped apart and time ends.

Thus far, there is no evidence for most of these ideas. If any turn out to be right, scientists may have to rewrite the story of the origin, history and, perhaps, fate of the universe.

Or it could all be a mistake. Astronomers have rigorous methods to estimate the effects of statistical noise and other random errors on their results; not so for the unexamined biases called systematic errors.

As Wendy L. Freedman, of the University of Chicago, said at the Chicago meeting, “The unknown systematic is what gets you in the end.”

Hubble trouble

Generations of great astronomers have come to grief trying to measure the universe. At issue is a number called the Hubble constant, named after Edwin Hubble, the Mount Wilson astronomer who in 1929 discovered that the universe is expanding.

As space expands, it carries galaxies away from each other like the raisins in a rising cake. The farther apart two galaxies are, the faster they will fly away from each other. The Hubble constant simply says by how much.

But to calibrate the Hubble constant, astronomers depend on so-called standard candles: objects, such as supernova explosions and certain variable stars, whose distances can be estimated by luminosity or some other feature. This is where the arguing begins.

Until a few decades ago, astronomers could not agree on the value of the Hubble constant within a factor of two: either 50 or 100 kilometers per second per megaparsec. (A megaparsec is 3.26 million light years.)

But in 2001, a team using the Hubble Space Telescope, and led by Dr. Freedman, reported a value of 72. For every megaparsec farther away from us that a galaxy is, it is moving 72 kilometers per second faster.

More recent efforts by Adam G. Riess, of Johns Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute, and others have obtained similar numbers, and astronomers now say they have narrowed the uncertainty in the Hubble constant to just 2.4 percent.

But new precision has brought new trouble. These results are so good that they now disagree with results from the European Planck spacecraft, which predict a Hubble constant of 67.

The discrepancy — 9 percent — sounds fatal but may not be, astronomers contend, because Planck and human astronomers do very different kinds of observations.

Planck is considered the gold standard of cosmology. It spent four years studying the cosmic bath of microwaves left over from the end of the Big Bang, when the universe was just 380,000 years old. But it did not measure the Hubble constant directly. Rather, the Planck group derived the value of the constant, and other cosmic parameters, from a mathematical model largely based on those microwaves.

In short, Planck’s Hubble constant is based on a cosmic baby picture. In contrast, the classical astronomical value is derived from what cosmologists modestly call “local measurements,” a few billion light-years deep into a middle-aged universe.

What if that baby picture left out or obscured some important feature of the universe?

‘Cosmological Whac-a-Mole’

And so cosmologists are off to the game that Lloyd Knox, an astrophysicist from the University of California, Davis, called “cosmological Whac-a-Mole” at the recent Chicago meeting: attempting to fix the model of the early universe, to make it expand a little faster without breaking what the model already does well.

One approach, some astrophysicists suggest, is to add more species of lightweight subatomic particles, such as the ghostlike neutrinos, to the early universe. (Physicists already recognize three kinds of neutrinos, and argue whether there is evidence for a fourth variety.) These would give the universe more room to stash energy, in the same way that more drawers in your dresser allow you to own more pairs of socks. Thus invigorated, the universe would expand faster, according to the Big Bang math, and hopefully not mess up the microwave baby picture.

A more drastic approach, from the Johns Hopkins group, invokes fields of exotic anti-gravitational energy. The idea exploits an aspect of string theory, the putative but unproven “theory of everything” that posits that the elementary constituents of reality are very tiny, wriggling strings.

String theory suggests that space could be laced with exotic energy fields associated with lightweight particles or forces yet undiscovered. Those fields, collectively called quintessence, could act in opposition to gravity, and could change over time — popping up, decaying or altering their effect, switching from repulsive to attractive.

The team focused in particular on the effects of fields associated with hypothetical particles called axions. Had one such field arisen when the universe was about 100,000 years old, it could have produced just the right amount of energy to fix the Hubble discrepancy, the team reported in a paper late last year. They refer to this theoretical force as “early dark energy.”

“I was surprised how it came out,” said Marc Kamionkowski, a Johns Hopkins cosmologist who was part of the study. “This works.”

The jury is still out. Dr. Riess said that the idea seems to work, which is not to say that he agrees with it, or that it is right. Nature, manifest in future observations, will have the final say.

Dr. Knox called the Johns Hopkins paper “an existence proof” that the Hubble problem could be solved. “I think that’s new,” he said.

Dr. Randall, however, has taken issue with aspects of the Johns Hopkins calculations. She and a trio of Harvard postdocs are working on a similar idea that she says works as well and is mathematically consistent. “It’s novel and very cool,” Dr. Randall said.

So far, the smart money is still on cosmic confusion. Michael Turner, a veteran cosmologist at the University of Chicago and the organizer of a recent airing of the Hubble tensions, said, “Indeed, all of this is going over all of our heads. We are confused and hoping that the confusion will lead to something good!”

Doomsday? Nah, nevermind

Early dark energy appeals to some cosmologists because it hints at a link to, or between, two mysterious episodes in the history of the universe. As Dr. Riess said, “This is not the first time the universe has been expanding too fast.”

The first episode occurred when the universe was less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. At that moment, cosmologists surmise, a violent ballooning propelled the Big Bang; in a fraction of a trillionth of a second, this event — named “inflation” by the cosmologist Alan Guth, of M.I.T. — smoothed and flattened the initial chaos into the more orderly universe observed today. Nobody knows what drove inflation.

The second episode is unfolding today: cosmic expansion is speeding up. But why? The issue came to light in 1998, when two competing teams of astronomers asked whether the collective gravity of the galaxies might be slowing the expansion enough to one day drag everything together into a Big Crunch.

To great surprise, they discovered the opposite: the expansion was accelerating under the influence of an anti-gravitational force later called dark energy. The two teams won a Nobel Prize.

Dark energy comprises 70 percent of the mass-energy of the universe. And, spookily, it behaves very much like a fudge factor known as the cosmological constant, a cosmic repulsive force that Einstein inserted in his equations a century ago thinking it would keep the universe from collapsing under its own weight. He later abandoned the idea, perhaps too soon.

Under the influence of dark energy, the cosmos is now doubling in size every 10 billion years — to what end, nobody knows.

Early dark energy, the force invoked by the Johns Hopkins group, might represent a third episode of antigravity taking over the universe and speeding it up. Perhaps all three episodes are different manifestations of the same underlying tendency of the universe to go rogue and speed up occasionally. In an email, Dr. Riess said, “Maybe the universe does this from time-to-time?”

If so, it would mean that the current manifestation of dark energy is not Einstein’s constant after all. It might wink off one day. That would relieve astronomers, and everybody else, of an existential nightmare regarding the future of the universe. If dark energy remains constant, everything outside our galaxy eventually will be moving away from us faster than the speed of light, and will no longer be visible. The universe will become lifeless and utterly dark.

But if dark energy is temporary — if one day it switches off — cosmologists and metaphysicians can all go back to contemplating a sensible tomorrow.

“An appealing feature of this is that there might be a future for humanity,” said Scott Dodelson, a theorist at Carnegie Mellon who has explored similar scenarios.

The phantom cosmos

But the future is still up for grabs.

Far from switching off, the dark energy currently in the universe actually has increased over cosmic time, according to a recent report in Nature Astronomy. If this keeps up, the universe could end one day in what astronomers call the Big Rip, with atoms and elementary particles torn asunder — perhaps the ultimate cosmic catastrophe.

This dire scenario emerges from the work of Guido Risaliti, of the University of Florence in Italy, and Elisabeta Lusso, of Durham University in England. For the last four years, they have plumbed the deep history of the universe, using violent, faraway cataclysms called quasars as distance markers.

Quasars arise from supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies; they are the brightest objects in nature, and can be seen clear across the universe. As standard candles, quasars aren’t ideal because their masses vary widely. Nevertheless, the researchers identified some regularities in the emissions from quasars, allowing the history of the cosmos to be traced back nearly 12 billion years. The team found that the rate of cosmic expansion deviated from expectations over that time span.

One interpretation of the results is that dark energy is not constant after all, but is changing, growing denser and thus stronger over cosmic time. It so happens that this increase in dark energy also would be just enough to resolve the discrepancy in measurements of the Hubble constant.

The bad news is that, if this model is right, dark energy may be in a particularly virulent and — most physicists say — implausible form called phantom energy. Its existence would imply that things can lose energy by speeding up, for instance. Robert Caldwell, a Dartmouth physicist, has referred to it as “bad news stuff.”

As the universe expands, the push from phantom energy would grow without bounds, eventually overcoming gravity and tearing apart first Earth, then atoms.

The Hubble-constant community responded to the new report with caution. “If it holds up, this is a very interesting result,” said Dr. Freedman.

Astronomers have been trying to take the measure of this dark energy for two decades. Two space missions — the European Space Agency’s Euclid and NASA’s Wfirst — have been designed to study dark energy and hopefully deliver definitive answers in the coming decade. The fate of the universe is at stake.

In the meantime, everything, including phantom energy, is up for consideration, according to Dr. Riess.

“In a list of possible solutions to the tension via new physics, mentioning weird dark energy like this would seem appropriate,” he wrote in an email. “Heck, at least their dark energy goes in the right direction to solve the tension. It could have gone the other way and made it worse!”

Have Dark Forces Been Messing With the Cosmos? - The New York Times

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Google calls Nest's hidden microphone an 'error' - CNET


"Google's line of Nest Secure had microphones, but you wouldn't know that from the product's specs or the company itself.

It became apparent after Feb. 4, when Google announced that its voice assistant would be coming to Nest Secure. The microphone has never been listed on Nest Secure's technical specifications, and was not publicized from Google. 

In a statement first reported by Business Insider, Google said the omission was a mistake.

"The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs. That was an error on our part. The microphone has never been on and is only activated when users specifically enable the option," a Google spokesperson said in an email to CNET.

The spokesperson added that Nest Secure had the microphone for future features like detecting the sound of glass breaking.

The omission strikes as a privacy concern for many, as the microphone has been on Nest's home security hub since 2017. Google has also been in hot water over privacy issues, facing a $57 million fine in Europe for violating the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation.

The tech giant was also slammed for its location data tracking practices, along with allowing third-party developers to read people's emails on Gmail.

Last September, Google's chief privacy officer Keith Enright told the Senate Commerce Committee that the company has made mistakes on privacy issues. The hidden microphone is Google's latest error in privacy.

Correction: The microphone was on Nest Secure's home security hub, not its cameras. 

Originally published at 7:15 a.m. PT.

Updated at 7:34 a.m. PT: To include details on privacy issues and Google.

Turn your old phone into a home security camera you can watch from anywhere: Give your outdated phone a new life.

Five things to consider before buying LED bulbs: Before you head to the store, learn about the specs to look out for when buying LED bulbs."

Google calls Nest's hidden microphone an 'error' - CNET

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Apple’s clash with Facebook and Google: What you need to know - CNET

"If you want a sense of how much power Apple holds over Silicon Valley, take a look at what the iPhone maker did to Google and Facebook this week.

On Wednesday, Apple yanked enterprise certificates -- digital signatures that both the tech giants used to run software on iPhones and iPads. That shut down internal apps employees at the companies used to communicate with their coworkers, find shuttle buses and test new features that could eventually be released to the public.
It proved to be more a show of power than long-term punishment. Apple, which did not respond to comment, restored both companies' certificates by Thursday. Google said its internal apps are back up and running. Facebook confirmed Apple restored its certificates but said it did not have any new information to share. 
Here's what you need to know.
What's going on?
The spat started after TechCrunch reported that Facebook had taken advantage of an Apple program that lets companies design apps for private corporate use, as well as test apps before they're available to you. Using a certificate from Apple's Developer Enterprise Program, Facebook distributed a market research app that gave the social network access to people's phone and web activity, paying them as much as $20 a month. The data Facebook could view included web searches, location data and even private messages.
The situation got worse when Google revealed that it also used an enterprise certificate for a market research app called Screenwise Meter that gave the company access to a person's phone activity. The search giant offered gift cards to people to download the app.
Apple determined that both companies had violated the rules of its Developer Enterprise Program because they distributed the apps to consumers instead of just employees. Apple blocked the apps by revoking the companies' enterprise certificates -- a move that shut down apps that Google and Facebook employees rely on at their campuses.
What's an enterprise certificate anyway?
An iPhone won't run an app unless it's been signed using a cryptographic stamp of approval called a digital certificate. The certificate lets the iOS operating system verify that an app was written by an authorized party and hasn't been tampered with. Apple signs software downloaded from the App Store with its own certificate. Apps distributed to consumers won't get that certificate until it's been vetted by Apple's staff and made available through the App Store.
Companies have another way to get certificates, though. The Apple Developer Enterprise Program lets them apply for an Apple-supplied certificate for their software. To qualify, companies have to jump through some hoops, as well as pay $299 a year. Once they've qualified, they can use the certificate to approve and distribute software to iPhones and iPads for employee use.
If an employee doesn't install this certificate, "these apps would show up as completely untrusted," said Navin Kumar, lead engineer at Insight Engines. "You wouldn't be able to install or run them. Period."
So how did Facebook and Google misuse their certificates?
They used their certificates to let people outside of their companies install apps on their iPhones without going through Apple's app store and its approval process. That's a big no-no.
Apple lays down rules in no uncertain terms: "Enroll in the Apple Developer Enterprise Program only if you intend to distribute proprietary apps to employees within your organization."
Obviously, ordinary Facebook users don't qualify as employees even if you're paying them $20 a month to see how they use their phones.
What happens when an enterprise certificate is revoked?
iOS won't run the corporate app. Apple supplies companies with enterprise certificates, and it can withdraw them too. When you try to run an an app signed with a revoked certificate, iOS will discover that it's been revoked and refuse to run the software.
That means Apple can block the Facebook and Google market research apps from working for consumers. But the decision also means that apps used by Apple and Facebook employees stopped working.
Okay, but how does this affect me?
The good news is that Apple's move didn't affect other Facebook and Google apps consumers use. Those apps, which include Facebook, Instagram, Gmail and others, were still available in the App Store and running as usual. "This didn't have an impact on our consumer-facing services," a Facebook spokesperson said.
"Internally, though, the move disrupted the daily lives of Facebook and Google employees who test new products and features before they're released to the public -- a process known as "dogfooding." When Apple yanked the companies' enterprise certificates, it could have slowed down the tech giants' product development. As it turned out, though, the disruption only lasted about a day."

Apple’s clash with Facebook and Google: What you need to know - CNET

Friday, February 01, 2019

Net neutrality goes to court - CNET

 "The fate of the Obama-era net neutrality rules could come down to whether the FCC followed proper procedure when it wrote and implemented its repeal of the controversial regulations.
That's the takeaway from nearly five hours of oral arguments Friday, during which the agency defended its "Restoring Internet Freedom" order in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The case pits Mozilla and several other internet companies, such as Etsy and Reddit, as well as 22 state attorneys general against the Republican-led FCC.
It's hard to say exactly how the three judges on the panel, Robert Wilkins, Patricia Millett and Stephen Williams, will decide the case. Legal experts following along are quick to point out that anything can happen and that the oral arguments are just one piece of the process, which involves thousands of pages of briefs arguing for and against the FCC's repeal.
The judges spent a lot of time questioning the lawyers who were challenging the FCC's repeal of the rules. But the arguments that'll likely win the day involve whether the agency adequately considered concerns from the public safety community and whether the agency should've delayed implementation of its deregulation because Congress had changed a key part of the law between the time the FCC adopted its repeal and when it took effect.
Watch this: Net neutrality could be saved by a technicality
"It's hard to come away with much certainty about who will be the big winner," said Matt Schettenhelm, a legal analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. "But the FCC should be encouraged on the question of whether it had authority to deregulate."
Where the FCC may be more vulnerable is in its process, Schettenhelm added.
"If the court rules against the FCC, it's likely to be because it doesn't think it did it in the proper way," he said. "Did they dot all their i's and cross all their t's."
The case
Net neutrality proponents are suing the government, charging that the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, overstepped its bounds when it voted in December 2017 to roll back the Obama-era net neutrality protections, which banned broadband providers from slowing or blocking access to the internet or charging companies higher fees for faster access.
Though little has happened yet, net neutrality supporters fear that the lack of protections ultimately could mean higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. Internet service providers, however, argue the rules make it harder to invest in their networks and improve their ability to serve you.
The vote to repeal the regulations happened more than a year ago, but they didn't officially come off the books until June. The backlash among supporters was immediate. Democrats in Congress unsuccessfully tried to undo the repeal through the Congressional Review Act. Though the measure passed the Senate, it failed in the House.
Several states, including California, Oregon and Washington, have also been passing legislation to protect these principles. Governors in other states, like New York and Montana, have already signed executive orders banning the states from doing business with companies that don't comply with net neutrality.
Then there are the lawsuits, which got their day in court Friday.
Behind the clash
The former, Democrat-led FCC reclassified broadband networks to make them subject to the same strict regulations that govern telephone networks. Supporters say the reclassification was needed to give the rules an underlying legal basis.
The stricter definition provoked a backlash from Republicans, who said the move was clumsy and blunt.
Pai, appointed by President Donald Trump, called the 2015 rules "heavy-handed" and "a mistake." He argued the rules deterred innovation because internet service providers had little incentive to improve the broadband network infrastructure. (You can read Pai's op-ed on CNET here.) Pai took the FCC back to a "light" regulatory approach, pleasing both Republicans and internet service providers.
But net neutrality supporters say there are several things wrong with Pai's analysis and the repeal order, which also abdicated the FCC's authority to oversee broadband networks altogether. The FCC's order also tries to prevent states from passing their own net neutrality regulations. Net neutrality proponents say the rollback and its preemption of state authority is unlawful. And they're asking the federal appeals court to throw out the FCC's repeal.
What's at stake, net neutrality proponents say, is the future of the internet. They fear that without rules of the road to protect the internet as we know it, it may not exist much longer.
"Today we fought for an open and free internet that puts consumers first," Dennelle Dixon, COO of Mozilla, said on Friday. "We believe the FCC needs to follow the rules like everyone else. We argued before the court that the FCC simply cannot renounce its responsibility to protect consumers on a whim. It's not permitted by law, and it's not permitted by sound reasoning."
FCC authority
The big argument in the case is whether the FCC had the right to change its mind and repeal the rules. This is a fight that could be difficult for net neutrality supporters to win, because the courts have generally given discretion to expert agencies, like the FCC, when it comes to technical aspects of regulation.
At issue in this case is whether the FCC should have the latitude to decide whether broadband is a lightly regulated "information service" or whether it's a highly regulated "telecommunications service." The distinction is at the heart of the conflict in the net neutrality debate.
But on this particular issue, the US Supreme Court decided in 2005 in the Brand X case that it was too complicated for the court to decide how to classify broadband. Instead, it deferred to the expertise of the FCC. It's this deference to decide how broadband should be classified that helped the agency win its battle in the same DC Circuit appeals court, which upheld the 2015 rules three years ago.
Still, the attorney representing Mozilla, Pantelis Michalopoulos, tried to argue during oral arguments that the FCC's reasoning in how it classified broadband was flawed in 2005 and is flawed even more now, because many of the services that the FCC used to justify its classification of broadband as an information service, no longer exist.
He said it was as though the FCC was looking at a "surrealist painting that shows a pipe and captions it, 'This is not a pipe.'"
He resurrected the late US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's "the internet is like a pizzeria delivery service" analogy from his dissent in the Brand X case. Scalia argued then that the FCC not classifying broadband as a telecom service was like a pizzeria saying it bakes a pizza and can drive it to your home but that it doesn't offer pizza delivery.
Michalopoulos updated the analogy, saying that the pizza shop no longer bakes pizzas, and instead offers only an Uber Eats delivery service. But because it doesn't offer "pizza delivery," the cars in which it transports that pizza to your home aren't subject to traffic laws.
Judge Williams, who was appointed to the DC Circuit in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, pushed back with his own pizza analogy.
Though the arguments made for interesting thought exercises and brought some laughter to the proceeding, Schettenhelm said that from a legal perspective, they didn't seem to move the needle much.
"I'm not sure the challengers to the FCC made much progress in their argument about how to interpret the statute," he said. "It seems it could still go both ways, and the court has been clear that the FCC gets to decide."
Randolph May, president of conservative think tank The Free State Foundation, said the discussion parsing the technology and function of internet access "devolved into the metaphysical."
"That being so, I see no reason why the court will not again defer to the FCC's classification decision ... because the judges, not having been confirmed as metaphysicians, are likely to follow the Brand X legal precedent," he said. "And if the DC Circuit doesn't adhere to the Brand X precedent granting the agency deference in interpreting the definitions, I think the Supreme Court will."
Procedural issues
Instead, he said, the court may agree with the FCC that the agency was reasonable in how it classifies broadband, but it may have a problem with the way the agency got to this conclusion.
The first issue has to do with whether the FCC considered the effects of the repeal on public safety organizations, which the FCC by law must consider. This is an argument that was brought up by firefighters from Santa Clara, California. They joined the lawsuit against the FCC after Verizon throttled their service last summer, at the height of the wildfires in California,  jeopardizing the lives of first responders and the public.
The Santa Clara firefighters have conceded that Verizon likely didn't violate net neutrality principles, because the carrier mistakenly implemented a commercial service agreement between the company and the fire department. But the firefighters argue that since the FCC's repeal, there is no "cop on the beat" to hear their concerns. This is because as part of its order to repeal, the FCC abdicated its authority to police broadband providers to the Federal Trade Commission.
Stephanie Weiner, who represented the firefighters in the oral arguments, argued that the FCC should have made provisions for public safety in its order.
"There's nothing stopping companies from putting first responders at the back of the line, especially if they offer a commercial paid priority service," she said.
Millett dug in to this issue of paid priority when questioning FCC lawyer Tom Johnson. She pushed Johnson to explain how paid priority works.
"Is it a different line or they just go first? I have no idea how it works,"  she said.
Johnson explained that paid prioritization would not hurt "best effort" internet traffic. And he explained it actually could be beneficial to niche providers like public safety, who could subscribe to a better quality service. But Millett questioned what would happen to a municipality that couldn't afford such a service.
"To make someone go fast, don't you have to slow down or delay someone else?" she asked.
At one point she said she didn't understand the FCC's explanation of how public safety would be unaffected.
Schettenhelm said this exchange might be significant if Millett decides the FCC didn't give enough consideration to the public safety concerns.
Change in the law
Another area where the FCC may be vulnerable has to do with its transparency rule. This is the one aspect of the 2015 net neutrality rules that the FCC kept as part of its repeal. This rule requires internet service providers to disclose how they manage traffic and if they're going to throttle or block access or offer paid priority. This is a key piece of the FCC's light touch approach, because these disclosures are what the FTC can use to hold internet service providers accountable to their customers.
But the section of the Communications Act that the FCC uses to justify this authority was changed in May 2018 when Congress passed the Ray Baum Act. Though petitioners challenging the FCC's repeal argue that the change stripped the FCC of its authority to have a transparency rule, the FCC maintains that its authority was left in tact.
But one thing is clear, the FCC never officially examined or opened public comment on what these changes to the law would mean to its repeal. And the timing of the changes could be problematic, since the law was actually changed between the time the FCC voted to repeal the net neutrality rules in 2017 and when they took effect in June 2018.
"The fact is that the statute doesn't exist anymore," Schettenhelm said. "The FCC could have shown that they were considering what the changes meant to the order before it took effect, and they didn't."
Net neutrality goes to court - CNET:

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Astronomers Capture the Birth of a Black Hole - The Atlantic

The cosmic event AT2018cow, seen through powerful telescopes

"One night in June of last year, a telescope in Hawaii captured something noteworthy in its nightly scan. A luminous dot appeared where nothing had been before, as if someone had switched on a light. A message immediately went out on the Astronomer’s Telegram, an alert system for astronomers around the world.

A scramble ensued. There’s no guarantee unexpected objects in the night sky will stick around. Astronomers directed telescopes of all kinds at the point of light, observing the target in every wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, from optical light to invisible X-rays. Early data revealed the light originated outside the Milky Way galaxy, from a small, nearby galaxy about 200 million light-years away. (Yes, this is actually considered nearby in cosmic standards.)