Stephen Hawking was a brilliant physicist and a pop culture icon

Thuy Ong, writing for The Verge:

Physicist Stephen Hawking, known for his pioneering brilliance, died today at the age of 76. He is best known for his work on black holes and theoretical physics, but he also made many pop cultural appearances in films, TV shows, books, and comics. Hawking has been referenced and made direct appearances in shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory as well as the X-Men comics, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Doctor Who.

Most famously, Hawking made multiple appearances in The Simpsons. In one scene in the season 10 episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” Homer has a beer with Hawking at Moe’s Tavern. “Your theory of a donut-shaped universe is intriguing, Homer,” Hawking quips. “I may have to steal it.” He was featured in an MC battle with the band Flight of the Conchords in another episode, complete with an E=mc2 neck chain. Hawking has called The Simpsons “the best thing on American television,” stating that “almost as many people know me through The Simpsons as through my science.”

The Simpsons executive producer Matt Selman paid tribute to Hawking on Twitter:

Hawking also showed up on Futurama, where main character Fry falsely believes him to have invented gravity — to which Hawking replies, “Sure, why not?” In an appearance on The Big Bang Theory, Hawking noted an arithmetic mistake in Sheldon’s paper, and he played poker with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton on the Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Hawking’s sense of humour was a major factor in who he was, he saw humour in many places.

You can see some of his sense of humour in his interview with John Oliver below, where when asked, “You’ve stated that there could be an infinite number of parallel universes. Does that mean there’s a universe out there where I am smarter than you?”Hawking offers the following reply: “Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny.”


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Apple Music hits 38 million paid subscribers


Apple Inc’s streaming music service now has 38 million paid subscribers, up from 36 million in February, the company said on Monday.

Apple is locked in race for subscribers with Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and others as streaming music becomes the dominant form of paid music consumption. Apple’s number compares to 71 million premium subscribers at the end of 2017 at industry leader Spotify, which plans to list shares in the coming weeks on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol SPOT.

 Apple said Eddy Cue, senior vice president of internet software and services, disclosed the most recent subscriber number for Apple Music at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Amazon Music Unlimited has 16 million paying subscribers, and Pandora Media Inc has 5.48 million total subscribers. Google does not release paid subscriber numbers for its service, Google Play Music.

Apple, Spotify, Google and other services charge $9.99 a month for music. Amazon offers its service to members who already pay for its Prime membership, which includes shipping, video content and other benefits, for $7.99 per month.


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Fired OpenTable Employee Booked Hundreds of Fake Reservations Through Rival Service

Sidney Fussell, writing for Gizmodo:

A “rogue” OpenTable employee booked more than 300 fake reservations in Chicago restaurants, the online reservation service recently said, leaving 45 Chicago food spots with dozens of empty seats for dinner. The bizarre tactic was apparently a smear campaign meant to make a rival reservations app, Reserve, look bad. The employee has been fired and Open Table says it plans to reimburse the restaurants for the damages.

As first reported by Eater, the unnamed Open Table employee used a series of false emails to book reservations using Reserve. Restaurants would block off these tables, but no one would show up. As The New York Times reports, kitchens prepped unnecessary amounts of food for these phantom diners, and walk-ins were turned away as restaurants awaited people who would never come. This carried on for roughly two months, beginning in late December until mid-February.

Noting the bizarre spike in no-shows, company investigators noticed the overwhelming majority of these no shows were from Reserve. Reserve’s executives reached out to Open Table who realized that, basically, the call was coming from inside the house.

“We agreed that this person acted by themselves and terminated them quickly thereafter,” Christa Quarles, Open Table’s CEO, told the Times. “It was a really cut-and-dried situation in our mind.”

In a statement released Monday, Open Table apologized and promised to reimburse the effected restaurants:

This behavior goes against everything we stand for. Our culture and values at OpenTable are founded on the principle of integrity, and that absolutely encompasses how we embrace competition in the marketplace. The only reason we exist is to help restaurants grow. When they succeed, we succeed. Taking any action that puts restaurants in harm is a direct attack on us as well.

As in any restaurant that makes a mistake, the first rule of hospitality is to make it right with the customer. And we intend to do the same. As a result, we have already begun outreach to the restaurants affected and will reimburse them for lost revenue


This action absolutely does not reflect our mission of helping restaurants grow and thrive, and we will continue to work hard to earn the trust and respect of the OpenTable community every day.


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‘Mind-reading’ A.I. produces a description of what you’re thinking about

Digital Trends:

Think that Google’s search algorithms are good at reading your mind? That’s nothing compared to a new artificial intelligence research project coming out of Japan, which can analyze a person’s brain scans and provide a written description of what they have been looking at.

To generate its captions, the artificial intelligence is given an fMRI brain scan image, taken while a person is looking at a picture. It then generates a written description of what they think the person was viewing. An illustration of the level of complexity it can offer is: “A dog is sitting on the floor in front of an open door” or “a group of people standing on the beach.” Both of those turn out to be absolutely accurate.


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Amazon will stop selling Nest smart home devices

After weeks of silence, Amazon’s retail team informed Nest employees on a conference call late last year that it would not list any of the newer Nest products recently announced by the company, according to a person familiar with the call. The products in question include the latest Nest thermostat and the Nest Secure home security system, among others.

On that call, says the person, Amazon told Nest that the decision came from the top — and that it had nothing to do with the quality of Nest products, which had great reviews on Amazon.


As a result of Amazon’s decision, Nest decided to stop selling any of its products through Amazon, meaning the limited number of Nest devices listed on Amazon today are expected to disappear from the site once current inventory is sold out, according to a person familiar with the matter.


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A HomePod Intervention

Stephen Hackett

Since wrapping up HomePod vs. iPod Hi-Fi video, my HomePod has been in our kitchen, sitting where our Amazon Echo has been for the last year and a half. I unplugged the Echo and put it away, leading to many questions about where Alexa went, voiced by our three year old son.

That was about three weeks ago, and in those three weeks, the entire family has gotten acquainted with HomePod and this iteration of Siri.

We used our Echo for music listening, checking the weather and news, setting multiple timers while cooking and controlling the handful of smart lights in the house.

Obviously the HomePod blows away the Echo in terms of audio quality. I really like how the HomePod sounds, and as we already pay for Apple Music, we were good to go there.


All in all, I thought the move to the HomePod was going well right until my family staged an intervention. Their annoyance with Siri misunderstanding or misinterpreting has grown over the last few weeks, and the clumsiness with which Siri handles — or doesn’t handle — some requests has become bothersome.

I’ve overheard several interactions with the HomePod that entail a family member asking for a song or album that ends in getting upset with the device when it starts playing something else. The Echo — coupled with Amazon Music — had a much higher hit rate when it came to accurately playing what was desired.

In short, the increase in sound quality doesn’t make up for the frustration of using Siri. The HomePod is going to live in my studio; the Echo is back in its rightful place in the kitchen.

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ElevationLab: Amazon is complicit with counterfeiting

Casey Hopkins, founder of Elevation Lab:

When someone goes to the lengths of making counterfeits of your products, it’s at least a sign you’re doing something right. And it deserves a minute of flattery.

But when Chinese counterfeiters tool up and make copies of your product, send that inventory to Amazon, then overtake the real product’s buy box by auto-lowering the price – it’s a real problem. Customers are unknowingly buying crap versions of the product, while both Amazon and the scammers are profiting, and the reputation you’ve built goes down the toilet.


There is something extremely simple Amazon could do about it. If you have a registered brand in the Brand Registry and don’t sell the product wholesale – there could be one box to check for that. And anyone else would have to get approval or high vetting to sell the product, especially if they are sending large quantities to FBA. I imagine there are some algorithmic solutions that could catch most of it too. And it wouldn’t hurt to increase the size of the Brand Registry team so they can do their work faster. Keeping sellers 100% anonymous obviously perpetuates it too, just post their business registration you have on file.

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How Rotten Tomatoes may have radically skewed the Oscars’ Best Picture race

For a certain class of Oscar viewers, the Best Original Screenplay category has always been the one to watch. That’s where the best films end up — the movies too smart or creative to be fully appreciated by the broader Academy, and certainly not widely accepted enough to get into the Best Picture race. It’s the category for movies that challenge traditional notions of filmmaking. In the 1950s, it was where arthouse icons like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and François Truffaut received their first nominations. In 1989, it was the category that recognized two huge game-changers of American cinema, Do the Right Thing and Sex, Lies, and Videotape. And in the 2000s, it became the refuge for the favorite films of a new generation of cinephiles — films like MementoEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pan’s Labyrinth.

But these films are no longer getting segregated into the screenplay categories. Now, they’re Best Picture nominees, and even serious contenders for the award. Spike Jonze’s 1999 movie Being John Malkovich didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination, but his 2013 movie Her did. Wes Anderson didn’t get a Best Picture nomination for 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, but he did for 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. And Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 hit Boogie Nights wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but his Phantom Thread is a nominee this year. These are all cases where young, disruptive directors have gradually become more accepted and familiar to the Academy over time. But their nominated films are just as wonderfully weird, uncompromisingly specific, and personal as the films that missed out a decade or more earlier. And their modern equivalents, first-time solo directors Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele, are starting their directorial careers with Best Picture nominations for their own idiosyncratic personal visions.


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AirPods: How to improve Apple’s wireless earbuds

Jason Snell:

Last week, we heard the latest report that Apple is working on updates to AirPods, the wireless headphones it introduced in the fall of 2016.

This report about forthcoming new generations of AirPods hit me in a strange way. Usually, anyone who follows Apple (or any tech company, really) has a wish list of features—realistic ones for the short term, wild dreams for the long term. But the AirPods? They emerged from Apple as a fully formed product. I don’t have a lot of complaints about them—they basically exceeded my expectations in every area, and they’re now my go-to headphones for all circumstances where I don’t need zero-latency audio (podcast editing) or to block out loud noises (flying on planes or mowing the lawn).

How do you improve a product that’s got so little to prove? I know, I know: continual improvement to its products is how Apple rolls. Let’s start by recapping the report by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman: Apple is working on improvements to the AirPods due later this year, though some improvements might not come until later. Features include a new wireless chip, support for Siri voice activation, and improved water resistance.

Now you may be saying to yourself, wait a second, I say “Hey Siri” all the time when I’m wearing my AirPods and it activates. Here’s the secret: If your iPhone’s microphones are somewhere where they can hear you, they’ll activate. But this rumor seems to suggest that AirPods will be constantly monitoring their microphones, waiting for the trigger phrase. (What they almost certainly won’t do is actively process the commands—they’ll presumably pass those on to their paired iPhone or Apple Watch for further processing.)

Still, it takes power and custom chips to constantly be listening for an activation phrase. That probably explains the rumor about the new wireless chip, which would presumably be more energy efficient than the W1 chip in the first-generation AirPods. I’m going to guess that Apple will pack any new AirPods model with as much battery as it possibly can, but given the extremely limited size of AirPods, it’s more likely that any lost power in adding “Hey Siri” functionality would be offset by more efficient electronics.

As for splash resistance, it makes sense—AirPods are out in the world with us, and it can be rainy (and sweaty) out there. I have no idea what goes into making a product like AirPods more water resistant, but it would surely increase the reliability and longevity of AirPods if a harsh downpour or a particularly strenuous workout didn’t materially affect the electronics inside.

Beyond these changes, what does the future hold for AirPods? Where else can these (already excellent) wireless earbuds stand to improve? Here are a few ideas.


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Things Apple changed, were mocked for, then were copied industry wide

Dave Marks:

I was surprised by how many different things emerged from this exercise. Key to making this list was Apple making a change that is first mocked. So innovation isn’t sufficient. Here’s the original tweet. Feel free to retweet or reply to it, send me anything I’ve missed.

  • The notch. Heavily mocked, and emerging as a design element on the latest series of smartphones. First on the list because it started the discussion. The rest of these are in no particular order.
  • Getting rid of floppy drive, then optical drive.
  • Removing the headphone jack.
  • The iPhone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in. And Steve Ballmer’s reaction. And the funeral.
  • Sealed in iPhone/Mac battery
  • Ditching the keyboard for a capacitive touchscreen
  • Bright, colorful computer cases. Apple has constantly changed industry design aesthetics, but that Bondi blue iMac G3 was startling. It was mocked, then embraced.
  • AirPods
  • USB. I was really surprised when Steven Woolgar brought this one up. But I did some research and, yes, Apple was mocked for including it in the iMac, and that iMac is credited with legitimizing and popularizing USB. This from the USB Wikipedia page: “Apple Inc.’s iMac was the first mainstream product with USB and the iMac’s success popularized USB itself.”
  • A computer without a command line interface.
  • A closed computer, with no easy access to add cards/memory. Not my favorite change.
  • Removing Flash. Hugely mocked.
  • The iPod. No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.

The headphone jack was one example that particularly sticks out as Google made sure last year to make the Pixel having a headphone jack as a big selling point and then on the Pixel 2, they dropped.


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