Grimes, and Alanis Morrissette will judge an avatar singing TV show

Are you more comfortable singing behind a virtual persona than you are on a real stage? Your reality TV show has arrived. Pitchfork and AV Club report that Fox is launching a “world’s first” avatar singing competition series, Alter Ego, that will have celebrity judges gather in real life to gauge the performances of amateur singers who use avatars to “reinvent themselves.”

You’ll likely recognize the judge panel. Canadian artists Grimes (pictured above) and Alanis Morrissette will join and Nick Lachey in critiquing the music, while Emmy winner Rocsi Diaz will host the affair. Alter Ego debuts sometime in the fall.

It’s an unusual concept, but not necessarily a bad one. In theory, this could help budding talent overcome stage fright or self-esteem issues by using an avatar as a stand-in. It’s certainly a fitting show for a tech-savvy artist like Grimes. It’s just a question of whether or not audiences enjoy the concept. Anonymizing music shows like The Masked Singer have been hits, but they still involve a physical presence for the participants — there’s a chance viewers might not be so thrilled about digital concerts.

Source: Engadget –
Grimes, and Alanis Morrissette will judge an avatar singing TV show

Ubisoft sued in France over alleged 'institutional harassment'

Ubisoft is facing new legal action over alleged sexual harassment throughout the company. Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun report that French workers union Solidaires Informatiques and two former Ubisoft staffers have sued the game developer for allegedly enabling a culture of “institutional sexual harassment.” It was supposedly easier for Ubisoft to tolerate misconduct than to address problems, according to the union.

The lawsuit targets several existing and former Ubisoft workers, including former managers Cecile Cornet (head of human resources), Tommy Francois (editorial VP) and Serge Hascoët (global creative director). Company chief Yves Guillemot is also under scrutiny not for direct involvement, but because he’s inherently “responsible” for what happens at Ubisoft.

Ubisoft told Kotaku it had “no further details to share” in response to the claim against the gaming giant. It previously said that it had investigated all claims and taken an appropriate response.

There were already complaints that Ubisoft hadn’t fully tackled allegations like these. Bloomberg sources said that accused managers remained in senior positions, and that staff were reporting sexist and racist activity that went unaddressed.

There’s no certainty the lawsuit will succeed, let alone force institutional changes at Ubisoft. However, it’s evident the company’s initial efforts weren’t enough to satisfy employees. If the allegations are accurate, Ubi might need to take more drastic steps if it’s going to prevent misconduct and the ensuing fallout.

Source: Engadget – Ubisoft sued in France over alleged ‘institutional harassment’

Soft robot plays piano thanks to 'air-powered' memory

Soft robots still tend to rely on hard electronics to function, but a new invention might reduce that need for unyielding chips. UC Riverside researchers have developed pneumatic computer memory that they used to help a soft robot play the piano.

Instead of conventional transistors and electric circuits, the “air-powered” memory relies on microfluidic valves that control airflow. Atmospheric pressure in a given valve represents a binary “0,” while a vacuum indicates a “1.” The researchers’ memory has a complex-enough array of these valves to function like an 8-bit RAM chip — not exactly powerful, but good enough that a pair of soft robot hands can play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” at a slow but steady pace.

The absence of positive pressure makes this particularly safe — there’s no danger of the memory exploding in mid-use.

The technology is far from ready for everyday use. Besides needed improvements to complexity and speed, a robot would need soft versions of processors and other components to completely eliminate the need for rigid electronics. The goal is clear, however. Pneumatic memory could at least reduce the need for chips in soft robots, and points to a future of completely flexible robotics that shouldn’t hurt you if there’s a collision.

NSO spyware was allegedly used to target activists and journalists

Critics have previously claimed that NSO Group spyware was misued to target the media and other innocent people, but new findings might have revealed the extent of that misuse. The Washington Post has shared a multi-partner investigation claiming that NSO’s Pegasus software was used to successfully hack 37 phones, including journalists, activists and the two women closest to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The victims were on a 2016-era list of 50,000 phone numbers from countries believed to conduct both extensive surveillance and use of NSO tools, such as Hungary and Saudi Arabia. The list included 1,000 people who didn’t obviously fit the software’s intended criminal targets, including over 600 politicians, 189 journalists, 85 humans rights activists and 65 business executives.

Roughly a dozen Americans working overseas were on the list, but the investigation partners couldn’t conduct forensic studies on most of their phones or find evidence of successful hacks. NSO previously said Pegasus couldn’t be used to snoop on American devices.

NSO flatly denied the claims stemming from the investigation. It maintained that the information had “no factual basis,” and rejected the notion that Pegasus was used to target Khashoggi or his associates. It maintained that it shut down access “multiple times” over past abuses, and that the list was too large to be focused solely on numbers its client countries would have targeted. The company went so far as to hire a libel attorney, Thomas Clare, that accused the investigation partners of having “misinterpreted and mischaracterized” data while making “speculative and baseless assumptions.”

NSO has historically pinned abuse claims on the countries themselves, and has said it reviewed the human rights records of a given nation before doing business.

The report comes a year and a half after Facebook sued NSO for allegedly enabling call exploit attacks against WhatsApp, and mere months after Citizen Lab claimed that NSO software was used to hack Al Jazeera journalists’ iPhones using an iMessage flaw. However true the accusations might be, they’ll at least affect NSO’s reputation — they cast doubt on the company’s assertion that it only serves customers pursuing obvious targets like terrorists.

Source: Engadget – NSO spyware was allegedly used to target activists and journalists

More leaks suggest the next iPhone might have an always-on display

Add another major voice to the chorus of those claiming the next iPhone could have an always-on display. As 9to5Macnotes, Bloomberg‘s Mark Gurman used his weekly “Power On” newsletter to say the 2021 iPhone will potentially have an “Apple Watch-like” always-on display with better battery life in addition to a 120Hz refresh rate, a smaller screen notch, an A15 chip and video recording upgrades.

Gurman didn’t outline the always-on screen functionality. However, a past leak from Max Weinbach suggested Apple would use an LTPO (low-temperature polycrystalline oxide) panel that, like on the Apple Watch and a few Android phones, could drop to extremely low refresh rates to offer persistent information without a large hit to battery life. You might see some notifications, battery life and the clock without having to wake up your phone.

The writer also used his newsletter to narrow the time frame for a long-rumored MacBook Pro redesign. He now expects Apple to start mass production of the mini LED-equipped laptops in the third quarter of 2021 (aka this summer) with a launch between September and November. That’s still somewhat vague, but it does suggest you won’t have to wait until next year (or watch for a surprise early announcement).

The new MacBook Pros are rumored to have a ‘flat’ design like the new iMac (minus the colors) while using a more powerful take on Apple’s M1 chip that could support up to 64GB of RAM and more ports. Mini LEDs could deliver a screen that offers high contrast ratios and brightness while keeping battery life in check.

Source: Engadget – More leaks suggest the next iPhone might have an always-on display

Facebook rejects Biden claim it's 'killing people' with COVID-19 misinformation

Facebook isn’t exactly enthusiastic about President Biden’s claim that it and other social networks are “killing people” by allowing COVID-19 misinformation to spread. The social media firm posted a refutation of the allegations, using data to suggest that something other than Facebook was responsible for a slowdown in vaccination rates and a rise in cases.

The company noted that vaccine acceptance in user polling had risen from 70 percent in January 2021 to as high as 85 percent in July, and that cultural group disparities had declined “considerably” over the same period. This was ahead of Biden’s goal of getting 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July — to Facebook, this was a sign the company was “not the reason” the US fell short of that target.

Facebook added that Canada and the UK had higher vaccination percentages despite using the social network about as much as their American counterparts. There’s “more than Facebook” to the US results, the company said. It also pointed to its efforts to both promote accurate claims and fight falsehoods, including the use of misinformation labels, reduced exposure and takedowns. 

The internet giant didn’t attempt to find an alternate explanation for US troubles. Some observers have pointed to a possible link between political affiliation and vaccination rates, but Facebook didn’t even hint at this in its refutal.

It’s not a flawless argument. Facebook is trying to draw a link between its polling data and the entire US, which doesn’t make for a neat and tidy comparison. The company also hasn’t shared estimates of how much COVID-19 misinformation slips through the cracks. The social site has a strong incentive to downplay its possible contribution to the problem given past complaints that it hasn’t done enough to stop misinformation campaigns. 

At the same time, the data shifts the attention back to the Biden administration — it may need to provide more substantial data if it’s going to show that health misinformation on social networks like Facebook is a major threat, as the US Surgeon General recently said. If nothing else, it suggests the answer is a complicated one regardless of how much Facebook is responsible.

Source: Engadget – Facebook rejects Biden claim it’s ‘killing people’ with COVID-19 misinformation

WhatsApp is testing secure cloud backups for Android users

WhatsApp chats already have end-to-end encryption, but what about your online backups? They’ll soon be covered, too. As The Vergenotes, WABetaInfo has discovered that the latest WhatsApp beta for Android ( includes a test for end-to-end encrypted cloud backups. Opt in and you don’t have to worry that hackers or spies will easily read your conversation history.

There are some caveats. You’ll need to create a separate password for restoring your backups, and you can’t get them back if you both lose your phone and forget that password. You can alternately create a 64-digit encryption key, but you’re also in trouble if you lose that key.

It’s not certain that WhatsApp will deploy secure cloud backups with the next stable release, so you might not want to count on it in the near future. It’s also unclear if everyone using the new beta gets the same backup functionality.

The timing is apt, at least. WhatsApp just started testing multi-device syncing that isn’t dependent on a phone connection. These encrypted backups don’t appear to be available across devices, but they could prove reassuring as people depend more and more on WhatsApp for chats on all their gadgets.

Source: Engadget – WhatsApp is testing secure cloud backups for Android users

Curiosity rover might be sitting near microbe 'burps' on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover might be sitting near a wealth of information that might hint at signs of life on Mars. New Scientist and note that Caltech researchers have identified six locations for methane “burps” (that is, emissions blips) on the planet, including one just a few dozen miles west southwest from Curiosity. Ideally, the rover could investigate the emissions and determine their true nature.

Curiosity has detected the methane spurts six times since landing on Mars in 2012, but scientists haven’t had success locating their sources until now. Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter has also failed to spot methane at atmospheric levels. The Caltech team narrowed down the on-the-ground sources by modelling methane particles as packets and tracing their routes based on historical wind velocity.

The research hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, so we’d take it with a grain of caution. It’s also entirely possible that the gas has non-organic origins. Even if that’s the case, though, the burps could be tied to geological activity linked to liquid water. Early Mars reportedly held massive amounts of water — even if there’s no active water at these sources, a close-up study could help illustrate Mars’ history.

Source: Engadget – Curiosity rover might be sitting near microbe ‘burps’ on Mars

Japan breaks internet speed record with a 319Tbps data transfer

The many-gigabit internet speed records of a decade ago now seem downright inadequate. Motherboardreports that scientists at Japan’s National institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) have smashed the internet transfer record by shuffling data at 319Tbps. For context, that’s almost twice as fast as the 179Tbps a team of British and Japanese researchers managed in August 2020.

NICT managed the feat by upgrading virtually every stage of the pipeline. The fiber optic line had four cores instead of one, and researchers fired a 552-channel comb laser at multiple wavelengths with the assistance of rare earth amplifiers. While the test was strictly confined to the lab, the team used coiled fiber to transfer data at a simulated 1,864-mile distance without losing signal quality or speed.

As with many of these experiments, it could be a long time before this performance has a meaningful impact. While the four-core fiber would work with existing networks, the system could easily be very expensive. It’s more likely to see initial use with internet backbones and other major networking projects where capacity matters more than cost.

That could still impact your internet usage, though. The NICT researchers envision their next-gen fiber making technologies “beyond 5G” (like 6G) more practical. You may see the benefits simply by moving to faster internet access that doesn’t choke when there’s a surge of users.

Source: Engadget – Japan breaks internet speed record with a 319Tbps data transfer

TurboTax creator Intuit leaves the IRS' free tax filing program

TurboTax creator Intuit has had a chilly relationship with the IRS, and now it’s cutting some of its involvement. The Hillreports that Intuit is leaving the IRS’ Free File program after participating for almost 20 years. The company said it was “proud” of its involvement, but claimed the limits of the program and “conflicting demands” from outside the program left it with little choice but to leave.

An exit would let Intuit concentrate on “further innovating” in ways the IRS Free File program didn’t allow, the company said. While the firm didn’t elaborate on what those plans were, it argued that it could help taxpayers get refunds sooner at no charge while drawing on experts and letting users rely on their own data.

The company maintained that it was still “committed” to free tax filing, but that almost 90 percent of filings from the past eight years came from outside of the Free File program.

The move comes just a year after the New York State Department of Financial Services found that Intuit and four other tax prep providers (including H&R Block) had conducted “unfair and abusive” practices by hiding the landing pages for their free filing pages in an alleged attempt to artificially drive paid filing. The IRS also added protections that not only prevented attempts at hiding free filing, but gave the IRS the power to create its own free-file option.

It’s not certain if the government crackdowns prompted Intuit’s exit. Whatever the motivations, the move could still make it harder for some people to file their taxes. About 3 million of Intuit’s 17 million free filings last year went through IRS Free File. That’s a large number of people who will have to either find alternative free solutions or hope that TurboTax won’t incur a cost.

Source: Engadget – TurboTax creator Intuit leaves the IRS’ free tax filing program

Security researchers fool Microsoft's Windows Hello authentication system

Microsoft designed Windows Hello to be compatible with webcams across multiple brands, but that feature designed for ease of adoption could also make the technology vulnerable to bad actors. As reported by Wired, researchers from the security firm CyberArk managed to fool the Hello facial recognition system using images of the computer owner’s face. 

Windows Hello requires the use of cameras with both RGB and infrared sensors, but upon investigating the authentication system, the researchers found that it only processes infrared frames. To verify their finding, the researchers created a custom USB device, which they loaded with infrared photos of the user and RGB images of Spongebob. Hello recognized the device as a USB camera, and it was successfully unlocked with just the IR photos of the user. Moreover, the researchers found that they didn’t even need multiple IR images — a single IR frame with one black frame can unlock a Hello-protected PC. 

Breaking into someone’s computer using the technique would be terribly hard to pull off in reality, seeing as the attacker still needs an IR photo of the user. That said, it’s still a weakness that could be exploited by those especially motivated to infiltrate someone’s computer. Tech companies need to ensure their authentication technologies are secure if they want to rely more and more on biometrics and to move away from passwords as a means of authentication. The CyberArk team chose to put Windows Hello under scrutiny, because it’s one of the most widely used passwordless authentication systems.

Microsoft has already released patches for what it’s calling the “Hello Security Feature Bypass Vulnerability.” The tech giant also suggests switching on “Windows Hello enhanced sign-in security,” which will encrypt the user’s face data and store it in a protected area.

Source: Engadget – Security researchers fool Microsoft’s Windows Hello authentication system

California's upcoming open fiber network could make fast broadband more accessible

California might soon make it practical for small internet providers to deliver speedy broadband, not just well-heeled incumbents. Ars Technicareports that the state Assembly and Senate have unanimously passed legislation that will create a statewide open fiber network that promises truly fast internet access from smaller ISPs, particularly in rural or otherwise underserved areas.

The strategy will devote $3.25 billion to the construction of a “middle-mile” network that won’t directly connect customers, but should make it much easier for ISPs to launch or upgrade their service. Another $2 billion will help those providers establish last-mile connections to users.

Governor Newsom has yet to sign the legislation into law, but that’s considered a formality when he made agreements on details with legislators.

The network met resistance from larger ISPs that lobbied to block the reach of the open fiber network. It might have a significant impact on internet access in the state, however. While state and federal governments have pushed for improved rural broadband coverage for years, the focus has usually been on merely offering service rather than upgrading quality. This could bring truly competitive speeds to underserved areas and ensure they can access the same services as people subscribed to major broadband companies.

Source: Engadget – California’s upcoming open fiber network could make fast broadband more accessible

Hitting the Books: The correct way to make coffee, according to science

The best part of waking up is, of course, hot bean juice in your cup. But, as Dr. Kate “The Chemist” Biberdorf explains in her new book It’s Elemental, if you want to consistently enjoy the best cuppa joe you can craft — perfectly caffeinated and not too bitter — a bit math is necessary. And it’s not just coffee. Biberdorf takes readers on a journey through mundane moments of everyday life, illustrating how incredible they actually are — if you stop to examine about the chemistry behind them.  

It's Elemental
Harper Collins

Excerpted from It’s Elemental by Kate Biberdorf, Copyright © 2021 by Kate Biberdorf. Published by Park Row Books.

Coffee and tea are much more potent sources of caffeine than soda. In one cup of coffee, you are likely to ingest around 100 mg of caffeine, but it can be up to 175 mg with the right coffee beans and technique. The whole process of making coffee beans (and coffee itself) is pretty fascinating if you’ve never given it much thought. For example, espresso makers and percolators get the most caffeine out of lighter roasted beans, but the drip method is the best way to get the most trimethylxanthine from darker beans. However, in general, light and dark roast coffees typically have the same relative number of caffeine molecules in each cup of coffee (excluding espressos).

Let’s look at the roasting processes to determine why that is. When the beans are initially heated, they absorb energy in what we call an endothermic process. However, at around 175°C (347°F), the process suddenly becomes exothermic. This means that the beans have absorbed so much heat that they now radiate the heat back into the atmosphere of the roasting machine. When this happens, the settings have to be adjusted on the equipment, in order to avoid over-roasting the beans (which sometimes results in burnt-tasting coffee). Some roasters will even toggle the beans between the endothermic and exothermic reaction a couple of times, to achieve different flavors.

Over time, roasting coffee beans slowly change from green to yellow, and then to a number of different shades of brown. We refer to the darkness of the bean as its “roast,” where the darker roasted coffee beans are much darker in color than the lighter roasted beans (surprise, surprise). Their color comes from the temperature at which they are roasted. Lighter beans are heated to about 200°C (392°F) and darker roasted beans to about 225–245°C (437–473°F).

But just before the beans start to, for lack of better words, lightly roast, the coffee beans go through their first “crack.” This is an audible process that occurs at 196°C (385°F). During this process, the beans absorb heat and double in size. But since the water molecules evaporate out of the bean when under high temperatures, they actually decrease in mass by about 15%.

After the first crack, the coffee beans are so dry that they stop readily absorbing heat. Instead, all of the thermal energy is now used to caramelize the sugars on the outside of the coffee bean. This means that the heat is used to break the bonds in the sucrose (sugar) into much smaller (and more fragrant) molecules. The lightest roasts—like cinnamon roast and New England roast—are heated just past the first crack before being removed from the coffee roaster.

There is a second crack that occurs during the roast, but at a much higher temperature. At 224°C (435°F), the coffee beans lose their structural integrity, and the bean itself starts to collapse. When this happens, you can usually hear it by a second “pop.” Dark roasts are typically categorized by any beans that have been heated past the second crack—like French and Italian roasts. In general, due to the hotter temperatures, darker beans tend to have more of their sugars caramelized, while lighter beans have less. The variation in flavor due to these methods is wild, but it doesn’t really affect how they react in the body— only the taste.

Once you purchase your perfectly roasted coffee beans, you can do the rest of the chemistry at home. With an inexpensive coffee grinder, you can grind up your coffee beans to a number of different sizes, which will definitely affect the taste of your morning coffee. Small, fine grinds have a lot of surface area, which means the caffeine (and other flavors) can be extracted from the miniaturized coffee beans with ease. However, this can often result in too much caffeine being extracted, which gives the coffee a bitter taste.

On the other hand, coffee beans can be coarsely ground. In this instance, the insides of the coffee beans are not exposed to nearly the same degree as finely ground coffee beans. The resulting coffee can often taste sour—and sometimes even a little salty. But if you partner up the correct size of coffee grounds with the appropriate brewing method, you can make yourself the world’s best cup of coffee.

The simplest (and easiest way) to brew coffee is to add extremely hot water to coarse coffee grounds. After they have soaked in the water for a few minutes, the liquid can be decanted from the container. This process, called decoction, uses hot water to dissolve the molecules within the coffee beans. Most current methods of coffee brewing utilize some version of decoction, which is what allows us to drink a cup of warm coffee instead of chomping on some roasted beans. However, since this method does not contain a filtration process, this version of coffee—affectionately referred to as cowboy coffee—is prone to having coffee bean floaters. For that reason, it’s usually not the preferred brewing method.

By the way, did you notice that I was avoiding the term boiling? If you’re trying to make halfway decent cup of coffee, the hot water should never actually be boiled. Instead, the ideal temperature of the water is around 96°C (205°F), which is just below boiling (100°C, 212°F). At 96°C, the molecules that provide the aroma of coffee begin to dissolve. Unfortunately, when the water is just four degrees hotter, the molecules that give coffee a bitter taste dissolve as well. That’s why coffee nerds and baristas are so obsessed with their water temperature. In my house, we even use an electric kettle that allows us to select whatever temperature we want our water to be.

Depending on how strong you like your coffee to taste, you may be partial to the French press or another steeping method. Like cowboy coffee, this technique also soaks the coffee grounds in hot water, but these grounds are a little smaller (coarse versus extra coarse). After a few minutes, a plunger is used to push all of the grounds to the bottom of the device. The remaining liquid above the grounds is now perfectly clear and deliciously tasty. Since the coarse coffee grounds are used in this method, more molecules can dissolve in the coffee solution, providing us with a more intense flavor (compared to cowboy coffee).

Another technique: when hot water is dripped over coffee grounds, the water absorbs the aromatic molecules before dripping into the coffee mug. This process, appropriately called the drip method, can be done manually or with a high-tech machine, like a coffee percolator. But sometimes this technique is used with cold water, which means that the fragrant, aromatic molecules (the ones that give your coffee its distinctive smell) cannot dissolve in the water. The result is called Dutch iced coffee, a drink that is ironically favored in Japan, and takes about two hours to prepare.

Source: Engadget – Hitting the Books: The correct way to make coffee, according to science

Tesla offers a Full Self-Driving subscription for $199 per month

Tesla’s Full Self-Driving subscription is finally available after multiple delays — and it might be a better value if you’d rather not commit to a purchase. Electreknotes that an updated Tesla mobile app now offers an FSD subscription for $199 per month to most users, or $99 if you bought Enhanced Autopilot before it was discontinued. You can cancel at any time, so you’re not tied to a minimum obligation past that first month.

You will need the relevant FSD computer (aka HW3.0). If your EV doesn’t have the hardware, you’ll need to buy it for $1,500 before subscribing.

This has been a long time in coming. Elon Musk first revealed plans for the subscription in April 2020, but Tesla missed stated goals to launch the feature in late 2020, early 2021 and even a “sure thing” launch in May.

The monthly outlay still isn’t a trivial expense, and it would still make more sense to pay the $10,000 upgrade price if you fully intend to use the FSD package for the life of your car. You’d start overpaying just 50 months into the subscription. Still, this might give you an excuse to try the not-quite-autonomous feature to see if it’s worth the investment. It might also make sense if you only think you’ll want FSD for short stints, such as a lengthy road trip where you’d rather let the car handle lane changes and traffic lights.

Source: Engadget – Tesla offers a Full Self-Driving subscription for 9 per month

Malaysian authorities crush 1,069 crypto mining rigs with a steamroller

How do authorities dispose of confiscated cryptocurrency mining rigs? In a city in Sarawak, Malaysia, authorities got rid of 1,069 rigs at once by crushing them with a steamroller, Vice reports. According to Malaysian publication Dayak Daily, the PCs were confiscated over six raids conducted between February and April this year. Sarawak Energy Berhad, the electric utility company of the Malaysian province, is accusing the mining operators of stealing electricity for their activities. The operators allegedly stole RM8.4 million worth of energy, or around US$2 million, from the company. 

People who want to seriously mine cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and Ethereum use PCs built for that purpose, and the process usually consumes a huge amount of electricity. That’s why it’s no surprise that energy theft is commonly reported in places where miners operate. In Ukraine, for instance, the country’s Security Service raided a mining operation that used PS4 Pros as their machines, and the operators were also accused of stealing electricity from the country’s power grid. The Malaysian city’s police chief Hakemal Hawari told Dayak Daily that energy theft for mining operations has been so rampant this year, three houses burned down as a result of illegal electric connections.

You can watch the steamroller crush the mining rigs in the video below. If you’re wondering, that’s RM5.3 million (US$1.26 million) worth of hardware being haphazardly smashed by a gigantic machine.

‘Behind the Attraction’ traces Disney's theme-park tech advancements one ride at a time

There are, for the most part, two types of Disney Parks fans. There are those who see it as a nice thing to do with your family once in a while, and there are those who take it… a little more seriously. The upcoming Behind the Attraction, hitting Disney+ on July 21st, is a show that’s aimed at turning more of those casual tourists into dedicated fans, by explaining the backstory behind famous attractions like Star Tours, the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain.

Each episode features lots of old footage, talking heads, conceptual art and snark. If you’re thinking that sounds like The Toys That Made Us, but for Disney Parks, you’d be absolutely correct. Behind the Attraction is produced and directed by Brian Volk-Weiss, the creative mind behind Netflix docuseries like TTTMU and The Movies That Made Us. He was specifically sought out by Disney+ for his style which, by his own description, is “focused more on fun” and doesn’t treat its subject like “the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.” He loves documentaries, but hates when they take silly topics too seriously.

Hippos in the river at Jungle Cruise
Disney Parks

To wit, the series is narrated by comedy veteran Paget Brewster, an actress who has been in The Venture Bros., Community and Another Period. Disney fans will probably recognize her best as the voice of Della Duck on the 2017 DuckTales reboot. She adopts a light playful tone, as far from Morgan Freeman you can get. Also on board is executive producer Dwayne Johnson, who stars in Disney’s upcoming live action Jungle Cruise film. Is there an episode about the Jungle Cruise attraction? Of course there is.

Besides that, the other four episodes available this week focus on the Haunted Mansion, Star Tours, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Space Mountain. (Episodes about things like the castles and transportation systems, as well as famous rides like “It’s a Small World” and Pirates of the Caribbean are being held for later in the year.) They trace the history and development of each individual attraction with clips from shows like 1955’s Disneyland and The Wonderful World of Disney, news segments, and a mix of new and old interviews. Anyone who watched the docuseries The Imagineering Story (also on Disney+) will recognize a lot of reused footage from there. Which of course begs the question, why did we need another behind-the-scenes show?

Star Tours / Galaxy's Edge
Disney Parks

The biggest difference between the two is that The Imagineering Story takes a strict chronological approach, starting with the origin story behind Walt Disney’s desire to build a theme park, progressing through the opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Epcot and so on. The later episodes focus less on a historical outlook and more on “look at what cool technology we built for this new thing.” Which leads to a sort of unbalanced feel to the program, as well as a greater sense that it’s one big travel brochure for the Disney Parks.

Which isn’t to say that Behind the Attraction isn’t one big advertisement. I certainly want to visit Disney Shanghai after getting a look at the development of its Storybook Castle and TRON Lightcycle Power Run. But because the new show takes a more topical approach, it’s a lot more “snackable,” with episodes that can be watched in any order according to what interests you the most. 

Each episode still follows its individual subject chronologically, like how the Hall of Presidents episode goes into the development of the original “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show at the 1964 World’s Fair to the installation of the attraction at Disneyland, the creation of the full Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World to today’s animatronics like the ones used on Avengers Campus at California Adventure. The Imagineering Story talks about the development of the “Stuntronics” as well, but it’s Behind the Attraction that draws a straight line for the viewer from Abraham Lincoln giving a speech to Spider-Man doing somersaults in the air. You actually understand how tech created in 1964 can still shape something built in 2020.

Ghost hitchhikers in the Haunted Mansion
Disney Parks

While it’s unlikely that Behind the Attraction will ever delve into the various faceplants the company has taken over the years the way YouTube shows like Yesterworld and Defunctland do, the new show is at least capable of admitting when certain things didn’t work. The Haunted Mansion had to be completely rethought for Shanghai, while Japan got a different backstory for its Tower of Terror. And the original Jungle Cruise had no dad jokes!

Of course, there are no Splash Mountain or Captain EO episodes, so we don’t know yet how the show will deal with some of the more unsavory or embarrassing bits of Disney Park history. Which is fine, since Behind the Attraction isn’t intended to be a complete history of Disney, just a quick half-hour show that will have you going “did you know?” to all your friends and family the next time you visit the Magic Kingdom.

Source: Engadget – ‘Behind the Attraction’ traces Disney’s theme-park tech advancements one ride at a time

Amazon convinces Apple to remove review analyzer Fakespot from the App Store

Fakespot, an app that analyzes Amazon reviews to determine which ones are fake, is no longer available for iOS. Amazon has successfully convinced Apple to remove it from the App Store after the company raised concerns that the application provides misleading information and creates potential security vulnerabilities. The e-commerce giant has confirmed to Engadget that it reported Fakespot for investigation. One of its biggest concerns, Amazon told us, was that the redesigned app Fakespot launched in June “wraps” and injects code into its website.

“Wrapping” would make it possible, in theory, for the app to collect data and put customers’ sensitive information, including credit card numbers, at risk. The e-commerce titan told us it got in touch with Fakespot directly to address its security concerns and that the app developer didn’t take action. 

Amazon said in a statement:

“Amazon works hard to build a shopping experience that delights customers, and a selling experience that empowers brands and sellers to build and grow their business. The app in question provides customers with misleading information about our sellers and their products, harms our sellers’ businesses, and creates potential security risks. We appreciate Apple’s review of this app against its Appstore guidelines.”

Fakespot founder and CEO Saoud Khalifah has admitted to CNBC that his company collects some user data, but he said that it doesn’t sell information to third parties. Further, he denies Amazon’s claim that the app presents security risks. “We don’t steal users’ information, we’ve never done that. They’ve shown zero proof and Apple acted on this with zero proof,” he told the publication. Apparently, Apple didn’t give his company adequate warning before the app was taken down and didn’t even give it a chance to rectify any issue the tech giant may have. 

While Apple has yet to issue a statement that would clarify why exactly Fakespot was pulled down, Amazon pointed Engadget to two App Store guidelines, in particular. One of those guidelines states that an app that displays content from a third-party service must secure permission from that service. The other prohibits applications from displaying false information. 

Back in early 2020, Amazon went after another add-on used to track prices and discount: Honey, a $4 billion PayPal acquisition. People using Honey saw a warning on Amazon’s website that said the extension “tracks [their] private shopping behavior, collects data like [their] order history and items saved, and can read or change any of [their] data on any website [they] visit.”

Source: Engadget – Amazon convinces Apple to remove review analyzer Fakespot from the App Store

GM warns not to park Chevy Bolt EVs indoors after two recently caught fire

Owners of 2017 to 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EVs should not park their cars indoors or leave them to charge overnight unattended, according to a safety alert issued by The National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA). The warning comes after two Bolt EVs included in GM’s 2020 recall of the vehicle caught fire recently. One blaze happened outside the home of a Vermont state legislator at the start of the month, while the other occurred in New Jersey.

“At GM, safety is our highest priority, and we are moving as quickly as we can to investigate this issue,” a spokesperson for the automaker told CNBC. According to NHTSA, the batteries in the vehicles included in the safety warning can smoke and catch fire.

In the US, GM recalled nearly 51,000 Bolt EVs. The company pushed an update to those cars that limited their batteries to 90 percent of a full charge. More recently, GM said it would install diagnostic software on those cars to prevent future fires. It also promised to assess and replace batteries that featured any “anomalies.” Notably, at the same time, it also removed the charging cap it had implemented when it originally recalled the Bolt.

Part of the reason the ongoing reports of Bolt fires are a cause for concern is due to the fact the 2017 to 2019 models use the same cells at the center of a similar issue with the Hyundai Kona. Both companies sourced the batteries for those vehicles from LG Chem. Last year, Hyundai recalled 25,564 Kona EVs after more than a dozen incidents of fire and then later went on to replace the batteries in 75,680 vehicles.

Source: Engadget – GM warns not to park Chevy Bolt EVs indoors after two recently caught fire

Virginia will use a $700 million grant to roll out statewide broadband

Virginia will use $700 million in American Rescue Plan funding to expedite broadband buildouts in underserved communities throughout the state, Governor Ralph Northam announced on Friday. With the investment, Virginia says it’s on track to become one of the first states in the US to achieve universal broadband access.

An estimated 233,500 homes and businesses throughout the Commonwealth fall under what the Federal Communications Commission would consider an underserved location. They don’t have an internet connection that can achieve download speeds of 25Mbps down. The state estimates the additional funding will allow it to connect those places to faster internet by the end of 2024, instead of 2028, as previously planned. What’s more, the “majority” of those connections will be completed within the next 18 months.

“It’s time to close the digital divide in our Commonwealth and treat internet service like the 21st-century necessity that it is — not just a luxury for some, but an essential utility for all,” Governor Northam said.

Across nine provisions, President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan provides approximately $388 billion in funding for state and local governments to address the digital divide in their communities. Virginia is only one of the states across the country that plans to use that money to build faster internet infrastructure. In May, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a $7 billion investment in public broadband.

Source: Engadget – Virginia will use a 0 million grant to roll out statewide broadband

Biden: Facebook and other platforms are ‘killing people’ with vaccine misinformation

Joe Biden said that Facebook and other social media platforms are “killing people” by allowing misinformation about COVID-19 to spread on their platforms.

Biden’s comments came in response to a reporter who asked the president what his message to “platforms like Facebook” was regarding misinformation about COVID-19. “They’re killing people,” Biden said. “I mean they’re really — look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

His remarks, one day after the Surgeon general issued an unusual health advisory on the dangers of vaccine misinformation, comes amid mounting pressure for Facebook and other platforms to do more to address misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines. But Facebook has come under particular scrutiny due to its size, and spotty history with countering vaccine falsehoods.

A widely cited reported from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that much of the vaccine misinformation that spreads online can be linked to just 12 individuals — many of whom remain active on Facebook despite the company’s attempts to crack down on vaccine misinformation in recent months. Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Source: Engadget – Biden: Facebook and other platforms are ‘killing people’ with vaccine misinformation