Government

Loot boxes face scrutiny from an international coalition of gambling authorities

Posted by | Activision Blizzard, Gaming, Government, online gambling | No Comments

The world of online gaming is changing so quickly that players, developers, publishers and regulators are all scrambling to keep up with each other. Case in point: loot boxes, randomized in-game rewards that may or may not have monetary value or be purchasable with real money, are after years of deployment only now being scrutinized globally for being what amounts to thinly veiled gambling.

A suggestive new study from British researchers and a just-announced coalition of governments are the latest indicators that the loot box phenomenon and its derivatives likely won’t continue to be the wild west they’ve been for the last few years.

Many factors have led games to resemble services or channels more than pieces of entertainment with a start and end. And that in turn has changed how these games are monetized. As an alternative to a $60 up-front cost or a $10/month subscription, a game may be released for free but supported with in-game purchases of various kinds, including loot boxes.

Loot boxes usually contain a random reward, such as a new item for your in-game character. They can be earned by playing the game (usually a lot), but often can also be bought. Not only this, but the items have a sort of black market value and are traded among players and indeed gambled in a highly unregulated economy that reports put on the order of billions of dollars.

Although gaming companies compare it to collecting baseball cards or getting a toy in a box of cereal, the reality is plainly more complex than that, and the idea has led to extreme versions where players are constantly urged to buy in-game currencies and rewards. There’s no doubt that companies like EA and Tencent have made enormous amounts of money by luring players into purchases in “free to play” games.

The report, instigated earlier this year by an Australian parliamentary committee, was conducted by David Zendle and Paul Cairns, of York St. John University. The study is a limited one, they are quick to point out, but there is essentially nothing else on the topic and even the most basic research is warranted. “Such work is urgently needed,” they write in the introduction.

For their study, they surveyed thousands of gamers recruited from Reddit about their habits and spending. What they found was that gamers tending toward “problem gambling” habits (i.e. spending or behavior that negatively affects everyday life and relationships) spent considerably more on loot boxes than normal gamers — yet that wasn’t the case for general microtransactions like outright buying an in-game item or currency.

In the summary issued today to Australia’s Committee on Environment and Communications, they write:

We found that the more severe an individual’s problem gambling, the more they spent on loot boxes. The relationship we observed was neither trivial, nor unimportant. Indeed, the amount that gamers spent on loot boxes was a better predictor of their problem gambling than high-profile factors in the literature such as depression and drug abuse.

As anyone with a critical eye for research will have noted by now, and as the researchers point out, this correlation could go either way. In either case, however, it doesn’t look good for the practice:

It may be the case that loot boxes in video games act as a gateway to other forms of gambling, leading to increases in problem gambling amongst gamers who buy loot boxes.

However, it is important to note that an alternative explanation for these results may also be true. The key similarities between loot boxes and gambling may lead to gamers who are already problem gamblers spending large amounts of money on loot boxes, just as they would spend similarly large amounts on other kinds of gambling. In this case, loot boxes would not be providing a breeding ground for the development of problem gambling so much as they would be allowing games companies to exploit addictive disorders amongst their customers for profit.

The researchers conclude that either way, the practice merits more research and possibly regulation. It’s not the same as ordinary gambling, they say, but it’s similar enough that it warrants controls like those exerted on, say, online poker, to prevent harm and abuse.

Governments around the world are split on how to characterize loot boxes, with Belgium taking a severe enough stance that Blizzard was forced to stop offering loot boxes for real money in its popular team shooter Overwatch. But French and German authorities disagreed and have to a certain extent accepted the argument that the practice is more like opening a Kinder Egg or collectible card game pack.

But this uncertainty is itself galvanizing, apparently. A coalition of 15 gambling authorities, including the U.K., France, Portugal, Norway and the U.S. (via tech-savvy Washington State’s gambling commission), issued a shared declaration that they intend to look into these shenanigans and they expect the companies involved to play ball:

We are increasingly concerned with the risks being posed by the blurring of lines between gambling and other forms of digital entertainment such as video gaming. Concerns in this area have manifested themselves in controversies relating to skin betting, loot boxes, social casino gaming and the use of gambling themed content within video games available to children.

We commit ourselves today to working together to thoroughly analyse the characteristics of video games and social gaming. This common action will enable an informed dialogue with the video games and social gaming industries to ensure the appropriate and efficient implementation of our national laws and regulations.

We anticipate that it will be in the interest of these companies whose platforms or games are prompting concern, to engage with [gambling] regulatory authorities to develop possible solutions.

Tying it to kids is a good way to stay on the moral high ground, but there aren’t a lot of problem gamblers in the under-18 bracket. The truth is that while kids are certainly at risk, the problems associated with loot boxes threaten all gamers and indeed the basic economic grounding of gaming itself.

A letter of intent is a start and may cause a change in the ecosystem as developers and publishers aim to make their loot box systems less exploitative (as some have already done) and (what is more likely) engage in a charm offensive to normalize the practice and distance it from more traditional gambling. At the very least it is good to know that there is action afoot in an area that has frustrated and certainly lightened the wallets of millions of gamers.

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10 critical points from Zuckerberg’s epic security manifesto

Posted by | Apps, Election Interference, Facebook, Facebook Election Interference, Facebook Policy, Facebook Security, Government, Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile, Personnel, Policy, Talent, TC | No Comments

Mark Zuckerberg wants you to know he’s trying his damnedest to fix Facebook before it breaks democracy. Tonight he posted a 3,260-word battle plan for fighting election interference. Amidst drilling through Facebook’s strategy and progress, he slips in several notable passages revealing his own philosophy.

Zuckerberg has cast off his premature skepticism and is ready to command the troops. He sees Facebook’s real identity policy as a powerful weapon for truth other social networks lack, but that would be weakened if Instagram and WhatsApp were split off by regulators. He’s done with the finger-pointing and wants everyone to work together on solutions. And he’s adopted a touch of cynicism that could open his eyes and help him predict how people will misuse his creation.

Here are the most important parts of Zuckerberg’s security manifesto:

Zuckerberg embraces his war-time tactician role

“While we want to move quickly when we identify a threat, it’s also important to wait until we uncover as much of the network as we can before we take accounts down to avoid tipping off our adversaries, who would otherwise take extra steps to cover their remaining tracks. And ideally, we time these takedowns to cause the maximum disruption to their operations.”

The fury he unleashed on Google+, Snapchat, and Facebook’s IPO-killer is now aimed at election attackers

“These are incredibly complex and important problems, and this has been an intense year. I am bringing the same focus and rigor to addressing these issues that I’ve brought to previous product challenges like shifting our services to mobile.”

Balancing free speech and security is complicated and expensive

“These issues are even harder because people don’t agree on what a good outcome looks like, or what tradeoffs are acceptable to make. When it comes to free expression, thoughtful people come to different conclusions about the right balances. When it comes to implementing a solution, certainly some investors disagree with my approach to invest so much in security.”

Putting Twitter and YouTube on blast for allowing pseudonymity…

“One advantage Facebook has is that we have a principle that you must use your real identity. This means we have a clear notion of what’s an authentic account. This is harder with services like Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube, iMessage, or any other service where you don’t need to provide your real identity.”

…While making an argument for why the Internet is more secure if Facebook isn’t broken up

“Fortunately, our systems are shared, so when we find bad actors on Facebook, we can also remove accounts linked to them on Instagram and WhatsApp as well. And where we can share information with other companies, we can also help them remove fake accounts too.”‘

Political ads aren’t a business, they’re supposedly a moral duty

“When deciding on this policy, we also discussed whether it would be better to ban political ads altogether. Initially, this seemed simple and attractive. But we decided against it — not due to money, as this new verification process is costly and so we no longer make any meaningful profit on political ads — but because we believe in giving people a voice. We didn’t want to take away an important tool many groups use to engage in the political process.”

Zuckerberg overruled staff to allow academic research on Facebook

“As a result of these controversies [like Cambridge Analytica], there was considerable concern amongst Facebook employees about allowing researchers to access data. Ultimately, I decided that the benefits of enabling this kind of academic research outweigh the risks. But we are dedicating significant resources to ensuring this research is conducted in a way that respects people’s privacy and meets the highest ethical standards.”

Calling on law enforcement to step up

“There are certain critical signals that only law enforcement has access to, like money flows. For example, our systems make it significantly harder to set up fake accounts or buy political ads from outside the country. But it would still be very difficult without additional intelligence for Facebook or others to figure out if a foreign adversary had set up a company in the US, wired money to it, and then registered an authentic account on our services and bought ads from the US.”

Instead of minimizing their own blame, the major players must unite forces

“Preventing election interference is bigger than any single organization. It’s now clear that everyone — governments, tech companies, and independent experts such as the Atlantic Council — need to do a better job sharing the signals and information they have to prevent abuse . . . The last point I’ll make is that we’re all in this together. The definition of success is that we stop cyberattacks and coordinated information operations before they can cause harm.”

The end of Zuckerberg’s utopic idealism

“One of the important lessons I’ve learned is that when you build services that connect billions of people across countries and cultures, you’re going to see all of the good humanity is capable of, and you’re also going to see people try to abuse those services in every way possible.”

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Panasonic to move its European HQ out of the UK because Brexit

Posted by | amsterdam, Asia, Brexit, corporate tax, Europe, european union, Gadgets, Government, Japan, Panasonic, tax haven, United Kingdom | No Comments

Chalk up yet another Brexit deficit: Japanese electronics firm Panasonic will be moving its European headquarters from the UK to Amsterdam in October because it’s worried about the tax implications if it stays, the Nikkei Asian Review reports.

The company is concerned it could face tax liabilities if the UK shifts its corporate tax regime as a result of Brexit.

Laurent Abadie, CEO of Panasonic Europe, told the publication Japan could treat the U.K. as a tax haven if the country lowers its corporate rate — as the government has indeed suggested it will to try to make itself a more attractive destination for businesses once it’s outside the European Union’s trading bloc.

In November 2016 the UK Prime Minister announced a review of the country’s corporate tax rate — saying the government could move to substantially cut the rate below the current 20%.

Prior to that, former chancellor George Osborne pledged to cut the rate to below 15%.

At the same time as announcing the rate review, the PM unveiled a package of business-focused measures — intended to try to quell fears around Brexit. Although a rate cut evidently isn’t friendly to every business.

In the case of Panasonic, it’s concerned that if the U.K. gets designated a tax-haven by Japan it could be saddled with back taxes back home. So moving to stay regionally headquartered within the European Union removes that risk.

Abadie also told the Nikkei Asian Review that moving its regional HQ to continental Europe will help it avoid any barriers to the flow of people and goods thrown up by Brexit.

The shape of any deal — or even whether there will be a deal between the UK and the EU, post-Brexit — still remains to be seen just a few months before the UK is scheduled to exit the EU, in March 2019. So businesses are having to make key decisions based on possible or potential outcomes.

Meanwhile the UK’s regulatory influence in the region continues to be diminished…

In terms of trade, access to talent, and regulatory influence, we’re relegating ourselves to the second division.

— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) August 30, 2018

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Court rules warrants are needed for cops to access smart electrical meter data

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, Internet of Things, privacy, smart home, utilities | No Comments

You can tell a lot about what’s going on in a home from how much electricity it’s using — especially when that information is collected every few minutes and recorded centrally. It’s revealing enough that a federal judge has ruled that people with smart meters have a reasonable expectation of privacy and as such law enforcement will require a warrant to acquire that data.

It may sound like a niche win in the fight for digital privacy, and in a way it is, but it’s still important. One of the risks we’ve assumed as consumers in adopting ubiquitous technology in forms like the so-called Internet of Things is that we are generating an immense amount of data we weren’t before, and that data is not always protected as it should be.

This case is a great example. Traditional spinning meters are read perhaps once a month by your local utility, and at that level of granularity there’s not much you can tell about a house or apartment other than whether perhaps someone has been living there and whether they have abnormally high electricity use — useful information if you were, say, looking for illicit pot growers with a farm in the basement.

Smart meters, on the other hand, send exact meter readings at short intervals, perhaps every 15 minutes, and these readings may be kept for years. With that much detail you could not only tell whether someone lives in a house, but whether they’re home, whether the fridge has been opened recently, what room they’re in, how often they do laundry, and so on. The fingerprints of individual devices on the house’s electrical network aren’t that difficult to figure out.

To be sure this can help the utility with load balancing, predicting demand and so on. But what if the government wants to do more with it, for example to establish whether someone was home at a certain time in a criminal investigation?

A group of concerned citizens sued the city of Naperville, Illinois, which mandated smart readers several years ago, alleging that collection of the data was unconstitutional as it amounted to an unreasonable search.

An earlier court decision essentially found that by voluntarily sharing electricity consumption data with a third party, residents surrendered their right to privacy. No privacy means it’s not a “search” to ask for the data.

But as the 7th Circuit pointed out in its ruling on appeal (hosted at the EFF), there isn’t really a third party: the city collects the data, and city authorities want to use the data. And even if there were, “a home occupant does not assume the risk of near constant monitoring by choosing to have electricity in her home.” So it is a search.

Collecting the data is not an unreasonable search, however, when it is done with no “prosecutorial intent,” the court ruled. That means that when the city is acting in its own interest as far as administrating and improving the electrical grid, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to collect this information without a warrant.

But should it be required for more than that, for instance in a criminal investigation, a warrant would certainly be required.

This distinction is important and not always observed. Systematic collection and analysis of metadata can produce remarkably detailed records of a person’s movements and habits, and it can be difficult to find and plug the holes by which that data pours out of protected containers like the Fourth Amendment.

Although it’s possible that this could be appealed up to the Supreme Court, it seems unlikely as this is not a major issue of free speech or government access. A warrant for electrical usage is rarely, one presumes, a matter of life or death, but could indeed be critical in a court battle — for which reason requiring a warrant is not an unreasonable requirement.

It seems more likely that the city of Naperville, and others in its position, will abide by this decision. That’s a win for your privacy and a foot in the door for other data collection practices like this one.

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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches tonight to ‘touch the sun’

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Gadgets, Government, hardware, NASA, parker solar probe, science, Space, TC | No Comments

NASA’s ambitious mission to go closer to the Sun than ever before is set to launch in the small hours between Friday and Saturday — at 3:33 AM Eastern from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to be precise. The Parker Solar Probe, after a handful of gravity assists and preliminary orbits, will enter a stable orbit around the enormous nuclear fireball that gives us all life and sample its radiation from less than 4 million miles away. Believe me, you don’t want to get much closer than that.

If you’re up late tonight (technically tomorrow morning), you can watch the launch live on NASA’s stream.

This is the first mission named after a living researcher, in this case Eugene Parker, who in the ’50s made a number of proposals and theories about the way that stars give off energy. He’s the guy who gave us solar wind, and his research was hugely influential in the study of the sun and other stars — but it’s only now that some of his hypotheses can be tested directly. (Parker himself visited the craft during its construction, and will be at the launch. No doubt he is immensely proud and excited about this whole situation.)

“Directly” means going as close to the sun as technology allows — which leads us to the PSP’s first major innovation: its heat shield, or thermal protection system.

There’s one good thing to be said for the heat near the sun: it’s a dry heat. Because there’s no water vapor or gases in space to heat up, find some shade and you’ll be quite comfortable. So the probe is essentially carrying the most heavy-duty parasol ever created.

It’s a sort of carbon sandwich, with superheated carbon composite on the outside and a carbon foam core. All together it’s less than a foot thick, but it reduces the temperature the probe’s instruments are subjected to from 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 — actually cooler than it is in much of the U.S. right now.

Go on – it’s quite cool.

The car-sized Parker will orbit the sun and constantly rotate itself so the heat shield is facing inward and blocking the brunt of the solar radiation. The instruments mostly sit behind it in a big insulated bundle.

And such instruments! There are three major experiments or instrument sets on the probe.

WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) is a pair of wide-field telescopes that will watch and image the structure of the corona and solar wind. This is the kind of observation we’ve made before — but never from up close. We generally are seeing these phenomena from the neighborhood of the Earth, nearly 100 million miles away. You can imagine that cutting out 90 million miles of cosmic dust, interfering radiation and other nuisances will produce an amazingly clear picture.

SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons investigation) looks out to the side of the craft to watch the flows of electrons as they are affected by solar wind and other factors. And on the front is the Solar Probe Cup (I suspect this is a reference to the Ray Bradbury story, “Golden Apples of the Sun”), which is exposed to the full strength of the sun’s radiation; a tiny opening allows charged particles in, and by tracking how they pass through a series of charged windows, they can sort them by type and energy.

FIELDS is another that gets the full heat of the sun. Its antennas are the ones sticking out from the sides — they need to in order to directly sample the electric field surrounding the craft. A set of “fluxgate magnetometers,” clearly a made-up name, measure the magnetic field at an incredibly high rate: two million samples per second.

They’re all powered by solar panels, which seems obvious, but actually it’s a difficult proposition to keep the panels from overloading that close to the sun. They hide behind the shield and just peek out at an oblique angle, so only a fraction of the radiation hits them.

Even then, they’ll get so hot that the team needed to implement the first-ever active water cooling system on a spacecraft. Water is pumped through the cells and back behind the shield, where it is cooled by, well, space.

The probe’s mission profile is a complicated one. After escaping the clutches of the Earth, it will swing by Venus, not to get a gravity boost, but “almost like doing a little handbrake turn,” as one official described it. It slows it down and sends it closer to the sun — and it’ll do that seven more times, each time bringing it closer and closer to the sun’s surface, ultimately arriving in a stable orbit 3.83 million miles above the surface — that’s 95 percent of the way from the Earth to the sun.

On the way it will hit a top speed of 430,000 miles per hour, which will make it the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

Parker will make 24 total passes through the corona, and during these times communication with Earth may be interrupted or impractical. If a solar cell is overheating, do you want to wait 20 minutes for a decision from NASA on whether to pull it back? No. This close to the sun even a slight miscalculation results in the reduction of the probe to a cinder, so the team has imbued it with more than the usual autonomy.

It’s covered in sensors in addition to its instruments, and an onboard AI will be empowered to make decisions to rectify anomalies. That sounds worryingly like a HAL 9000 situation, but there are no humans on board to kill, so it’s probably okay.

The mission is scheduled to last seven years, after which time the fuel used to correct the craft’s orbit and orientation is expected to run out. At that point it will continue as long as it can before drift causes it to break apart and, one rather hopes, become part of the sun’s corona itself.

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled for launch early Saturday morning, and we’ll update this post when it takes off successfully or, as is possible, is delayed until a later date in the launch window.

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NASA’s Open Source Rover lets you build your own planetary exploration platform

Posted by | DIY, Education, Gadgets, Government, jpl, mars rover, NASA, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs.

The story is this: after Curiosity landed on Mars, JPL wanted to create something a little smaller and less complex that it could use for educational purposes. ROV-E, as they called this new rover, traveled with JPL staff throughout the country.

Unsurprisingly, among the many questions asked was often whether a class or group could build one of their own. The answer, unfortunately, was no: though far less expensive and complex than a real Mars rover, ROV-E was still too expensive and complex to be a class project. So JPL engineers decided to build one that wasn’t.

The result is the JPL Open Source Rover, a set of plans that mimic the key components of Curiosity but are simpler and use off the shelf components.

“I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others,” said JPL’s Tom Soderstrom in a post announcing the OSR. “We wanted to give back to the community and lower the barrier of entry by giving hands on experience to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers.”

The OSR uses Curiosity-like “Rocker-Bogie” suspension, corner steering and pivoting differential, allowing movement over rough terrain, and the brain is a Raspberry Pi. You can find all the parts in the usual supply catalogs and hardware stores, but you’ll also need a set of basic tools: a bandsaw to cut metal, a drill press is probably a good idea, a soldering iron, snips and wrenches, and so on.

“In our experience, this project takes no less than 200 person-hours to build, and depending on the familiarity and skill level of those involved could be significantly more,” the project’s creators write on the GitHub page.

So basically unless you’re literally rocket scientists, expect double that. Although JPL notes that they did work with schools to adjust the building process and instructions.

There’s flexibility built into the plans, too. So you can load custom apps, connect payloads and sensors to the brain, and modify the mechanics however you’d like. It’s open source, after all. Make it your own.

“We released this rover as a base model. We hope to see the community contribute improvements and additions, and we’re really excited to see what the community will add to it,” said project manager Mik Cox. “I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others.”

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Newly legal 3D-printed gun blueprints targeted by state lawsuits

Posted by | 3d printing, defcad, defense distributed, firearms, Gadgets, Government, gun control, guns, lawsuit, Opinion | No Comments

Hot on the heels of the effective legalization of 3D models used to print firearm components, 21 states have filed a joint lawsuit against the federal government, alleging not only that decision is dangerous but also that it’s illegal for a number of reasons. But the lawsuit may backfire via the so-called Streisand Effect, further entrenching the controversial technology.

Earlier this month brought the news that the U.S. government dropped its case against Cody Wilson and his companies dedicated to the proliferation of 3D models of firearm parts. There are still restrictions on how guns can be made and sold, but the files containing 3D data and allowing people to print components seem to have been determined not to fall under those rules.

This was unwelcome news for those in favor of stricter gun control laws, a group apparently including the attorneys general of 21 states. Bob Ferguson, AG for Washington, announced that his team would be leading a lawsuit intended to block the federal actions that legalized this particular form of data.

“These downloadable guns are unregistered and very difficult to detect, even with metal detectors, and will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history. If the Trump Administration won’t keep us safe, we will,” he said in a press release issued today.

They allege that the administration needs the Defense Department to sign off on the decision, and that Congress needed to be notified 30 days in advance. The decision is also held (owing to a lack of on-record citations or consultations) to be “arbitrary and capricious,” and thus illegal under the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Tenth Amendment also gives states the right to regulate firearms, and the filers say that the federal action deprives them of this right and is therefore unconstitutional.

That’s all well in order, but the danger posed by these files is overestimated, as is the ability of the government, state or federal, to curtail their distribution. If this lawsuit is successful, it will have little or no effect on 3D printed guns at all.

“The status quo – which currently ensures public safety and national security by prohibiting publication of firearm design files on the Internet – should be maintained,” reads a letter sent from a number of AGs to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and AG Jeff Sessions.

At the risk of dipping into an extremely charged debate and sensitive political topic (I’ve added the “Opinion” tag just in case), the status quo does no such thing. It must be said that if effective gun control is the goal, there are far more important steps to pursue. Loopholes abound in existing regulations, for instance gun show purchases of unregistered firearms and “80 percent lowers,” which are a quite legal method for creating them.

Furthermore, any attempt to remove something from the internet is doomed to failure, as we have seen again and again, often enough that the phenomenon has its own nickname, the Streisand Effect. Workarounds for illegal content are numerous and effective, and presumably the type of person interested in printing their own gun will not be shy about using a VPN or torrent site. If anything, a concerted effort to remove something from the internet usually causes that thing to be permanently maintained online as a sort of middle finger to the authorities. It’s not in the internet’s DNA to forget.

While it’s true that outlawing the 3D models would give prosecutors and investigators more to work with, the nefarious actors of the world haven’t been waiting with bated breath on the outcome of the previous lawsuit. Criminals, terrorists, foreign adversaries and so on in the first place don’t even need these files to obtain or create unregistered guns in the first place, nor would their being illegal deter them in the least.

The lawsuit may, it is true, tie up and possibly bankrupt Wilson and his supporters, but that’s not much of a victory and certainly doesn’t make anyone safer. Unfortunately this particular demon isn’t going back in the box.

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PSA: Drone flight restrictions are in force in the UK from today

Posted by | Civil Aviation Authority, drone, drones, Europe, Gadgets, Government, hardware, regulations, robotics, United Kingdom, unmanned aerial vehicles | No Comments

Consumers using drones in the UK have new safety restrictions they must obey starting today, with a change to the law prohibiting drones from being flown above 400ft or within 1km of an airport boundary.

Anyone caught flouting the new restrictions could be charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft — which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

The safety restrictions were announced by the government in May, and have been brought in via an amendment the 2016 Air Navigation Order.

They’re a stop-gap because the government has also been working on a full drone bill — which was originally slated for Spring but has been delayed.

However the height and airport flight restrictions for drones were pushed forward, given the clear safety risks — after a year-on-year increase in reports of drone incidents involving aircraft.

The Civil Aviation Authority has today published research to coincide with the new laws, saying it’s found widespread support among the public for safety regulations for drones.

Commenting in a statement, the regulator’s assistant director Jonathan Nicholson said: “Drones are here to stay, not only as a recreational pastime, but as a vital tool in many industries — from agriculture to blue-light services — so increasing public trust through safe drone flying is crucial.”

“As recreational drone use becomes increasingly widespread across the UK it is heartening to see that awareness of the Dronecode has also continued to rise — a clear sign that most drone users take their responsibility seriously and are a credit to the community,” he added, referring to the (informal) set of rules developed by the body to promote safe use of consumer drones — ahead of the government legislating.

Additional measures the government has confirmed it will legislate for — announced last summer — include a requirement for owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the CAA, and for drone pilots to take an online safety test. The CAA says these additional requirements will be enforced from November 30, 2019 — with more information on the registration scheme set to follow next year.

For now, though, UK drone owners just need to make sure they’re not flying too high or too close to airports.

Earlier this month it emerged the government is considering age restrictions on drone use too. Though it remains to be seen whether or not those proposals will make it into the future drone bill.

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NASA’s 3D-printed Mars Habitat competition doles out prizes to concept habs

Posted by | 3d printing, Gadgets, Government, hardware, mars, NASA, science, Space | No Comments

A multi-year NASA contest to design a 3D-printable Mars habitat using on-planet materials has just hit another milestone — and a handful of teams have taken home some cold, hard cash. This more laid-back phase had contestants designing their proposed habitat using architectural tools, with the five winners set to build scale models next year.

Technically this is the first phase of the third phase — the (actual) second phase took place last year and teams took home quite a bit of money.

The teams had to put together realistic 3D models of their proposed habitats, and not just in Blender or something. They used Building Information Modeling software that would require these things to be functional structures designed down to a particular level of detail — so you can’t just have 2D walls made of “material TBD,” and you have to take into account thickness from pressure sealing, air filtering elements, heating, etc.

The habitats had to have at least a thousand square feet of space, enough for four people to live for a year, along with room for the machinery and paraphernalia associated with, you know, living on Mars. They must be largely assembled autonomously, at least enough that humans can occupy them as soon as they land. They were judged on completeness, layout, 3D-printing viability and aesthetics.

So although the images you see here look rather sci-fi, keep in mind they were also designed using industrial tools and vetted by experts with “a broad range of experience from Disney to NASA.” These are going to Mars, not paperback. And they’ll have to be built in miniature for real next year, so they better be realistic.

The five winning designs embody a variety of approaches. Honestly all these videos are worth a watch; you’ll probably learn something cool, and they really give an idea of how much thought goes into these designs.

Zopherus has the whole print taking place inside the body of a large lander, which brings its own high-strength printing mix to reinforce the “Martian concrete” that will make up the bulk of the structure. When it’s done printing and embedding the pre-built items like airlocks, it lifts itself up, moves over a few feet, and does it again, creating a series of small rooms. (They took first place and essentially tied the next team for take-home case, a little under $21K.)

AI SpaceFactory focuses on the basic shape of the vertical cylinder as both the most efficient use of space and also one of the most suitable for printing. They go deep on the accommodations for thermal expansion and insulation, but also have thought deeply about how to make the space safe, functional, and interesting. This one is definitely my favorite.

Kahn-Yates has a striking design, with a printed structural layer giving way to a high-strength plastic layer that lets the light in. Their design is extremely spacious but in my eyes not very efficiently allocated. Who’s going to bring apple trees to Mars? Why have a spiral staircase with such a huge footprint? Still, if they could pull it off, this would allow for a lot of breathing room, something that will surely be of great value during a year or multi-year stay on the planet.

SEArch+/Apis Cor has carefully considered the positioning and shape of its design to maximize light and minimize radiation exposure. There are two independent pressurized areas — everyone likes redundancy — and it’s built using a sloped site, which may expand the possible locations. It looks a little claustrophobic, though.

Northwestern University has a design that aims for simplicity of construction: an inflatable vessel provides the base for the printer to create a simple dome with reinforcing cross-beams. This practical approach no doubt won them points, and the inside, while not exactly roomy, is also practical in its layout. As AI SpaceFactory pointed out, a dome isn’t really the best shape (lots of wasted space) but it is easy and strong. A couple of these connected at the ends wouldn’t be so bad.

The teams split a total of $100K for this phase, and are now moving on to the hard part: actually building these things. In spring of 2019 they’ll be expected to have a working custom 3D printer that can create a 1:3 scale model of their habitat. It’s difficult to say who will have the worst time of it, but I’m thinking Kahn-Yates (that holey structure will be a pain to print) and SEArch+/Apis (slope, complex eaves and structures).

The purse for the real-world construction is an eye-popping $2 million, so you can bet the competition will be fierce. In the meantime, seriously, watch those videos above, they’re really interesting.

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Trump just noticed Europe’s $5BN antitrust fine for Google

Posted by | Android, antitrust, eCommerce, Europe, Google, Government, Margrethe Vestager, Mobile, tax, trump, Twitter | No Comments

In other news bears shit in the woods. In today’s second-day President Trump news: ‘The Donald’ has seized, belatedly, on the European Commission’s announcement yesterday that Google is guilty of three types of illegal antitrust behavior — with its Android OS, since 2011 — and that it is fining the company $5 billion; a record-breaking penalty which the Commission’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, said reflects the length and gravity of the company’s competition infringements.

Trump is not! at all! convinced! though!

“I told you so!” he has tweeted triumphantly just now. “The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google . They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!”

I told you so! The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google. They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2018

Also not so very long ago, Trump was the one grumbling about U.S. tech giants. Though Amazon is his most frequent target in tech, while Google has been spared the usual tweet lashings. Albeit, on the average day he may not necessarily be able to tell one tech giant from another.

Vestager can though, and she cited Amazon as one of the companies that had suffered as a direct result of contractual conditions Google imposed on device makers using its Android OS — squeezing the ecommerce giant’s potential to build a competing Android ecosystem, with its Fire OS.

Presumably, for Trump, Amazon is not ‘one of our great companies’ though.

At least it’s only Google that gets his full Twitter attention — and a special Trumpian MAGA badge of honor call-out as “one of our great companies” — in the tweet.

Presumably, he hasn’t had this pointed out to him yet though. So, uh, awkward.

Safe to say, Trump is seizing on Google’s antitrust penalty as a stick to beat the EU, set against a backdrop of Trump already having slapped a series of tariffs on EU goods, and Trump recently threatening the EU with tariffs on cars — in what is fast looking like a full blown trade war.

Even so, Trump’s tweet probably wasn’t the kind of support Google was hoping to solicit via its own Twitter missive yesterday…

.@Android has created more choice for everyone, not less. #AndroidWorks pic.twitter.com/FAWpvnpj2G

— Google Europe (@googleeurope) July 18, 2018

#AndroidWorksButTradeWarsDon’t doesn’t make for the most elegant hashtag.

But here’s the thing: Vestager has already responded to Trump’s attack on the Android decision — even though it’s taking place a day late. Because the EU’s “tax lady”, as Trump has been known to vaguely refer to her, is both lit and onit.

During yesterday’s press conference she was specifically asked to anticipate Trump’s tantrum response on hearing the EU antitrust decision against Google, and whether she wasn’t afraid it might affect next week’s meeting between the US president and the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

“As I know my US colleagues want fair competition just as well as we do,” she responded. “There is a respect that we do our job. We have this very simple mission to make sure that companies play by the rulebook for the market to serve consumers. And this is also my impression that this is what they want in the US.”

Pressed again on political context, given the worsening trade relationship between the US and the EU, Vestager was asked how she would explain that her finding against Google is not part of an overarching anti-US narrative — and how would she answer Trump’s contention that the EU’s “tax lady… really hates the US”.

“Well I’ve done my own fact checking on the first part of that sentence. I do work with tax and I am a woman. So this is 100% correct,” she replied. “It is not correct for the latter part of the sentence though. Because I very much like the US. And I think that would also be what you think because I am from Denmark and that tends to be what we do. We like the U.S. The culture, the people, our friends, traveling. But the fact is that this [finding against Google] has nothing to do with how I feel. Nothing whatsoever. Just as well as enforcing competition law — well, we do it in the world but we don’t do it in a political context. Because then there would never, ever be a right timing.

“The mission is very simple. We have to protect consumers and competition to make sure that consumers get the best of fair competition — choice, innovation, best possible prices. This is what we do. It has been done before, we will continue to do it — no matter the political context.”

Maybe Trump will be able to learn the name of the EU’s “tax lady” if Vestager ends up EU president next year.

Or, well, maybe not. We can only hope so.

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