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Tim Berners-Lee on 30 years of the world wide web: ‘We can get the web we want’ | Technology

Tim Berners-Lee on 30 years of the world wide web: ‘We can get the web we want’ | Technology


Thirty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, then a fellow at the physics research laboratory Cern on the French-Swiss border, sent his boss a document labelled Information Management: A Proposal. The memo suggested a system with which physicists at the centre could share “general information about accelerators and experiments”.

“Many of the discussions of the future at Cern and the LHC era end with the question: ‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?’” wrote Berners-Lee. “This proposal provides an answer to such questions.”

His solution was a system called, initially, Mesh. It would combine a nascent field of technology called hypertext that allowed for human-readable documents to be linked together, with a distributed architecture that would see those documents stored on multiple servers, controlled by different people, and interconnected.

It didn’t really go anywhere. Berners-Lee’s boss, Mike Sendall, took the memo and jotted down a note on top: “Vague but exciting …” But that was it. It took another year, until 1990, for Berners-Lee to start actually writing code. In that time, the project had taken on a new name. Berners-Lee now called it the World Wide Web.

Thirty years on, and Berners-Lee’s invention has more than justified the lofty goals implied by its name. But with that scale has come a host of troubles, ones that he could never have predicted when he was building a system for sharing data about physics experiments.

Some are simple enough. “Every time I hear that somebody has managed to acquire the [domain] name of their new enterprise for $50,000 (£38,500) instead of $500, I sigh, and feel that money’s not going to a good cause,” Berners-Lee tells me when we speak on the eve of the anniversary.



Berners-Lee demonstrating the world wide web to delegates at the Hypertext 1991 conference in San Antonio, Texas. Photograph: 1994-2017 CERN

It is a minor regret, but one he has had for years about the way he decided to “bootstrap” the web up to something that could handle a lot of users very quickly: by building on the pre-existing service for assigning internet addresses, the domain name system (DNS), he gave up the chance to build something better. “You wanted a name for your website, you’d go and ask [American computer scientist] Jon Postel, you know, back in the day, and he would give you a name.

“At the time that seemed like a good idea, but it relied on it being managed benevolently.” Today, that benevolent management is no longer something that can be assumed. “There are plenty of domain names to go around, but the way people have invested, in buying up domains that they think entrepreneurs or organisations will use – even trying to build AI that would guess what names people will want for their organisations, grabbing the domain name and then selling it to them for a ridiculous amount of money – that’s a breakage.”

It sounds minor, but the problems with DNS can stand in for a whole host of difficulties the web has faced as it has grown. A quick fix, built to let something scale up rapidly, that turns out to provide perverse incentives once it is used by millions of people and is so embedded that it is nearly impossible to change course.

But nearly impossible is not actually impossible. That is the thrust of the message Berners-Lee is aiming to spread. Every year, on the anniversary of his creation, he publishes an open letter on his vision for the future of the web. This year’s letter, given the importance of the anniversary, is broader in scope than most – and expresses a rare level of concern about the direction in which the web is moving.

“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice and made our daily lives easier,” he writes, “it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.

“It’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”

Berners-Lee breaks down the problems the web now faces into three categories. The first is what occupies most of the column inches in the press, but is the least intrinsic to the technology itself: “deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour and online harassment”.

He believes this makes the system fragile. “It’s amazing how clever people can be, but when you build a new system it is very, very hard to imagine the ways in which it can be attacked.”

At the same time, while criminal intentions may be the scariest for many, they aren’t new to the web. They are “impossible to eradicate completely”, he writes, but can be controlled with “both laws and code to minimise this behaviour, just as we have always done offline”.

Berners-Lee in 1998.



Berners-Lee in 1998. Photograph: Elise Amendola/AP

More concerning are the other two sources of dysfunction affecting the web. The second is when a system built on top of Berners-Lee’s creation introduces “perverse incentives” that encourage others to sacrifice users’ interests, “such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation”. And the third is more diffuse still: those systems and services that, thoughtfully and benevolently created, still result in negative outcomes, “such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse”.

The problem is that it is hard to tell what the outcomes of a system you build are going to be. “Given there are more webpages than there are neurons in your brain, it’s a complicated thing. You build Reddit, and people on it behave in a particular way. For a while they all behave in a very positive, constructive way. And then you find a subreddit in which they behave in a nasty way.

“Or, for example, when you build a system such as Twitter, it becomes wildly, wildly effective. And when the ‘Arab Spring’ – I will never say that without the quotes – happens, you’re tempted to claim that Twitter is a great force for good because it allowed people to react against the oppressive regime.

“But then pretty soon people are contacting you about cyberbullying and saying their lives are miserable on Twitter because of the way that works. And then another few iterations of the Earth going around the sun, and you find that the oppressive regimes are using social networks in order to spy on and crack down on dissidents before the dissidents could even get round to organising.”

In conclusion, he says, “You can’t generalise. You can’t say, you know, social networks tend to be bad, tend to be nasty.”

For a creation entering its fourth decade, we still know remarkably little about how the web works. The technical details, sure: they are all laid out there, in that initial document presented to Cern, and in the many updates that Berners-Lee, and the World Wide Web Consortium he founded to succeed him, have approved.

But the social dynamics built on top of that technical underpinning are changing so rapidly and are so unstable that every year we need to reassess its legacy. “Are we now in a stable position where we can look back and decide this is the legacy of the web? Nooooope,” he says, with a chuckle. Which means we are running a never-ending race, trying to work out the effects of new platforms and systems even as competitors launch their eventual replacements.



Sir Tim Berners-Lee: how the web went from idea to reality

Berners-Lee’s solution is radical: a sort of refoundation of the web, creating a fresh set of rules, both legal and technical, to unite the world behind a process that can avoid some of the missteps of the past 30 years.

Calling it the “contract for the web”, he first suggested it last November at the Web Summit in Lisbon. “At pivotal moments,” he says, “generations before us have stepped up to work together for a better future. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, diverse groups of people have been able to agree on essential principles. With the Law of Sea and the Outer Space Treaty, we have preserved new frontiers for the common good. Now too, as the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good.”

This is a push for legislation, yes. “Governments must translate laws and regulations for the digital age. They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open. And they have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online.”

But it is equally important, he says, for companies to join in and for the big tech firms to do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety. “This year, we’ve seen a number of tech employees stand up and demand better business practices. We need to encourage that spirit.”

But even if we could fix the web, might it be too late for that to fix the world? Berners-Lee’s invention has waxed and waned in its role in the wider digital society. For years, the web was the internet, with only a tiny portion of hardcore nerds doing anything online that wasn’t mediated through a webpage.

But in the past decade, that trend has reversed: the rise of the app economy fundamentally bypasses the web, and all the principles associated with it, of openness, interoperability and ease of access. In theory, any webpage should be accessible from any device with a web browser, be that an iPhone, a Windows PC or an internet-enabled fridge. The same is not true for content and services locked inside apps, where the distributor has absolute power over where and how users can interact with their platforms.

In fact, the day before I speak to Berners-Lee, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg published his own letter on the future of the internet, describing his goal of reshaping Facebook into a “privacy-focused social network”. It had a radically different set of aims: pulling users into a fundamentally closed network, where not only can you only get in touch with Facebook users from other Facebook products, but even the very idea of accessing core swathes of Facebook’s platform from a web browser was deprioritised, in favour of the extreme privacy provided by universal end-to-end encryption.

For Berners-Lee, these shifts are concerning, but represent the strengths as well as the weaknesses of his creation. “The crucial thing is the URL. The crucial thing is that you can link to anything.

This is for Everyone seen during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, a nod to Berners-Lee’s creation.



This is for Everyone seen during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, a nod to Berners-Lee’s creation. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

“The web platform [the bundle of technologies that underpin the web] is always, at every moment, getting more and more powerful. The good news is that because the web platform is so powerful, a lot of the apps which are actually built, are built using the web platform and then cranked out using the various frameworks which allow you to generate an app or something from it.” All the installable applications that run on smartphones and tablets work in this way, with the app acting as little more than a wrapper for a web page.

“So there’s web technology inside, but what we’re saying is if, from the user’s point of view, there’s no URL, then we’ve lost.”

In some cases, that battle really has been lost. Apple runs an entire media operation inside its app store that can’t be read in normal browsers, and has a news app that spits out links that do not open if Apple News has been uninstalled.

But in many more, the same viral mechanics that allow platforms to grow to a scale that allow them to consider breaking from the web ultimately keep them tied to the openness that the platform embodies. Facebook posts still have permanent links buried in the system, as do tweets and Instagrams. Even the hot new thing, viral video app TikTok, lets users send URLs to each other: how else to encourage new users to hop on board?

It may be too glib to say, as the early Netscape executive Ram Shriram once did, that “open always wins out” – tech is littered with examples where a closed technology was the ultimate victor – but the web’s greatest strength over the past 30 years has always been the ability of anyone to build anything on top of it, without needing permission from Berners-Lee or anyone else.

But for that freedom to stick around for another 30 years – long enough to get the 50% of the world that isn’t online connected, long enough to see the next generation of startups grow to maturity – it requires others to join Berners-Lee in the fight. “The web is for everyone,” he says, “and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”



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Autonomous car innovations: from jam busters to cures for queasiness | Technology

Autonomous car innovations: from jam busters to cures for queasiness | Technology


Insurers at the wheel

An Oxford University startup, Oxbotica, proposes to solve the problem of liability in a collision involving autonomous vehicles by allowing insurers access to the vast amounts of data the car generates, even allowing them to control a car in real time if it detects a dangerous situation.



Technology could solve the unexplained traffic jam. Photograph: Alamy

Ending random jams

A recent paper published in Transportation Research found that autonomous cars could bring about the end of congestion with no obvious explanation. These are caused by one driver’s unexpected behaviour (most often braking) being copied and exaggerated by following vehicles. The study demonstrated the networked cars were able to slow more gently and not create jams.

Deepmind claims to have come up with an AI program that mimics the brain’s ‘neural GPS’ system.



Deepmind claims to have come up with an AI program that mimics the brain’s ‘neural GPS’ system. Photograph: Alamy

Self-learning brains

A recent study published in Nature from Google-backed AI company Deepmind claims to have developed an AI program that resembles the neural GPS system found inside the brain. At present, its algorithm can only work in mazes but it plans to test it in more “challenging environments”.

A startup is developing shock absorbers to combat travel sickness.



A startup is developing shock absorbers to combat travel sickness. Photograph: Alamy

No more motion sickness

Driving helps mitigate motion sickness by making us engaged with the experience of movement. But passengers in an autonomous car will find it hard to anticipate movement and could feel queasy. Boston startup ClearMotion is working on shock absorbers that will counter the feeling of movement – thereby, it hopes, reducing the need for sick bags.

BMW is developing a self-driving version of one of its luxury saloons.



BMW is developing a self-driving version of one of its luxury saloons. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Robot taxis

Earlier this month, BMW demonstrated a self-driving 7 Series that pedestrians could hail and direct to their destination via a tablet. In a rather analogue touch, passengers were also allowed to honk the car horn to alert pedestrians and stray dogs to their self-driving presence.



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Google tried to block autoplay videos on Chrome. But it broke apps and games | Technology

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Google has partially rolled back Chrome’s blocking of autoplaying video with sound after it was found to break a large collection of web apps and games.

The blocking feature was launched in April, and seemed to constitute a big step forward in removing one of the most irritating aspects of the modern web: loud, sudden and unwanted autoplaying videos.

But the update also broke a series of apps, games and interactive art in the process, preventing them from playing audio for alerts and other elements, and causing complaints from developers and users of these interactive web apps.

One of Google’s project managers for Chrome, John Pallett, said: “We’ve updated Chrome 66 to temporarily remove the autoplay policy for the Web Audio API.

“We’re doing this to give Web Audio API developers (eg gaming, audio applications, some RTC features) more time to update their code. The policy will be reapplied to the Web Audio API in Chrome 70 (October).”

The change was greeted with scepticism by developers. Benji Kay, a developer of web games and audio tools, said: “Simply delaying the enacting of this policy doesn’t solve any of the major concerns that have been raised.

“Come October, any existing software which utilises sound and which is not or cannot be any longer maintained will be broken.”

Pallett said that the change will not affect Chrome’s silencing of most autoplaying video and audio on the web. But whether this loophole will end up being abused to autoplay video with sound and get developers to update their apps to avoid them being muted remains to be seen.

The original muting of the nuisance videos within Chrome was designed to remove one of the annoyances that might have pushed users to install adblocking or other software, something Google wants to avoid as advertising is the primary source of the company’s revenue.

But as Chrome is the dominant browser on the internet, claiming a 57.4% share of online users in April across desktop and mobile according data from StatCounter, any changes have a significant impact on the way the web works.



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Facebook lets advertisers target users based on sensitive interests | Technology

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Facebook allows advertisers to target users it thinks are interested in subjects such as homosexuality, Islam or liberalism, despite religion, sexuality and political beliefs explicitly being marked out as sensitive information under new data protection laws.

The social network gathers information about users based on their actions on Facebook and on the wider web, and uses that data to predict on their interests. These can be mundane – football, Manhattan or dogs, for instance – or more esoteric.

A Guardian investigation in conjunction with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation found that Facebook is able to infer extremely personal information about users, which it allows advertisers to use for targeting purposes. Among the interests found in users’ profiles were communism, social democrats, Hinduism and Christianity.

The EU’s general data protection regulation (GDPR), which comes into effect on 25 May, explicitly labels such categories of information as so sensitive, with such a risk of human rights breaches, that it mandates special conditions around how they can be collected and processed. Among those categories are information about a person’s race, ethnic origin, politics, religion, sex life and sexual orientation.

The information commissioner’s office says: “This type of data could create more significant risks to a person’s fundamental rights and freedoms, for example, by putting them at risk of unlawful discrimination.”

Organisations must cite one of 10 special dispensations to process such information, such as “preventive or occupational medicine”, “to protect the vital interests of the data subject”, or “the data subject has given explicit consent to the processing of those personal data for one or more specified purposes”.

Facebook already applies those special categories elsewhere on the site. As part of its GDPR-focused updates, the company asked every user to confirm whether or not “political, religious, and relationship information” they had entered on the site should continue to be stored or displayed. But while it offered those controls for information that users had explicitly given it, it gathered no such consent for information it had inferred about users.

The data means an advertiser can target messages at, for instance, people in the UK who are interested in homosexuality and Hinduism – about 68,000 people, according to the company’s advertising tools.

Facebook does demonstrate some understanding that the information is sensitive and prone to misuse. The company provides advertisers with the ability to exclude users based on their interests, but not for sensitive interests. An advertiser can advertise to people interested in Islam, for instance, but cannot advertise to everyone except those interested in Islam.

The company requires advertisers to agree to a set of policies that, among other things, bar them from “using targeting options to discriminate against, harass, provoke or disparage users, or to engage in predatory advertising practices.”

In a statement, Facebook said classifying a user’s interests was not the same as classifying their personal traits. “Like other internet companies, Facebook shows ads based on topics we think people might be interested in, but without using sensitive personal data. This means that someone could have an ad interest listed as gay pride because they have liked a Pride-associated page or clicked a Pride ad, but it does not reflect any personal characteristics such as gender or sexuality.”

The company also said it provided some controls to users on its ad preferences screen. “People are able to manage their ad preferences tool, which clearly explains how advertising works on Facebook and provides a way to tell us if you want to see ads based on specific interests or not. When interests are removed, we show people the list of removed interests so that they have a record they can access, but these interests are no longer used for ads.”

It added: “Our advertising complies with relevant EU law and, like other companies, we are preparing for the GDPR to ensure we are compliant when it comes into force.”

The findings are reminiscent of Facebook’s previous attempts to skirt the line between profiling users and profiling their interests. In 2016 it was revealed that the company had created a tool for “racial affinity targeting”.

At the time, Facebook repeatedly argued that the tool “is based on affinity, not ethnicity”. Discussing a person who was in the African American affinity group, for instance, the company said: “They like African American content. But we cannot and do not say to advertisers that they are ethnically black.”

Almost a year later, after it was revealed that advertisers could use the ethnic affinity tools to unlawfully discriminate against black Facebook users in housing adverts, Facebook agreed to limit how those tools could be used.



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Yanny or Laurel? Sound ‘illusion’ sets off ear-splitting arguments | Technology

Yanny or Laurel? Sound ‘illusion’ sets off ear-splitting arguments | Technology


A short audio clip of a computer-generated voice has become the most divisive subject on the internet since the gold/blue dress controversy of 2015.

The audio “illusion”, which first appeared on Reddit, seems to be saying one word – but whether that word is “Yanny” or “Laurel” is the source of furious disagreement.

Cloe Feldman
(@CloeCouture)

What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I


May 15, 2018

Professor David Alais from the University of Sydney’s school of psychology says the Yanny/Laurel sound is an example of a “perceptually ambiguous stimulus” such as the Necker cube or the face/vase illusion.

“They can be seen in two ways, and often the mind flips back and forth between the two interpretations. This happens because the brain can’t decide on a definitive interpretation,” Alais says.

“If there is little ambiguity, the brain locks on to a single perceptual interpretation. Here, the Yanny/Laurel sound is meant to be ambiguous because each sound has a similar timing and energy content – so in principle it’s confusable.

“All of this goes to highlight just how much the brain is an active interpreter of sensory input, and thus that the external world is less objective than we like to believe.”

Alais says that for him, and presumably many others, it’s “100% Yanny” without any ambiguity.

That lack of ambiguity he says is probably down to two reasons: firstly his age. At 52 his ears lack high frequency sensitivity, a natural result of ageing; and secondly, a difference in pronunciation between the North American accented computer-generated “Yanny” and “Laurel” and how the words would naturally be spoken in Australian or British English.

This argument is further supported by an assistant professor of audition and cognitive neuroscience Lars Riecke at Maastricht University. Speaking to the Verge, Riecke suggests the “secret is frequency … but some of it is also the mechanics of your ears, and what you’re expecting to hear”.

“Most sounds – including L and Y, which are among the ones at issue here – are made up of several frequencies at once … frequencies of the Y might have been made artificially higher, and the frequencies that make the L sound might have been dropped.”

In National Geographic, Brad Story from the University of Arizona’s speech acoustics and physiology lab claimed the original recording was “laurel” but because the audio clip isn’t clear it leaves room for confusion and varying interpretations.

Story has experimented by recording his own voice pronouncing both words and found similar sound patterns for “yanny” and “laurel”.

Online commentators have added their own theories as to why people are hearing different words in the clip – and pointed out it varies depending on the level of frequency, amplitude and the type of speakers used to play back the clip.

Steve Pomeroy
(@xxv)

Ok, so if you pitch-shift it you can hear different things:

down 30%: https://t.co/F5WCUZQJlq
down 20%: https://t.co/CLhY5tvnC1
up 20%: https://t.co/zAc7HomuCS
up 30% https://t.co/JdNUILOvFW
up 40% https://t.co/8VTkjXo3L1 https://t.co/suSw6AmLtn


May 15, 2018

According to the Twitter user Earth Vessel Quotes, the amount of bass projected from the sound device can have a significant impact.

Earth Vessel Quotes
(@earthvessquotes)

you can hear both when you adjust the bass levels: pic.twitter.com/22boppUJS1


May 15, 2018

Lower frequencies increase your chances of hearing the world “Laurel” while higher ones are more likely to sound like “Yanny”.

One user wrote on Reddit: “If you turn the volume very low, there will be practically no bass and you will hear Yanny. Turn the volume up and play it on some speakers that have actual bass response (AKA not your phone) and you will hear Laurel.”

A video posted by another Twitter user, Alex Saad, backs this theory by showing the sound mix morphing from “Yanny” into “Laurel” while toggling through different frequencies.

Alex Saad
(@XeSaad)

Despite objective proof I still think it’s #Laurel pic.twitter.com/RcJpZZncRC


May 15, 2018

Others have speculated that the difference may be down to the age of the listener, or individual physiology. As you get older, your hearing range begins to deteriorate, making certain high frequencies hard or impossible to hear. This process can begin from the age of 25.

Alex Zalben
(@azalben)

guys help me out, does this dress say yanny or laurel pic.twitter.com/Tl2lfZKYBS


May 15, 2018





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Twitter announces global change to algorithm in effort to tackle harassment | Technology

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Twitter is announcing a global change to its ranking algorithm this week, its first step toward improving the “health” of online conversations since it launched a renewed effort to address rampant trolling, harassment and abuse in March.

“It’s shaping up to be one of the highest-impact things that we’ve done,” the chief executive, Jack Dorsey ,said of the update, which will change how tweets appear in search results or conversations. “The spirit of the thing is that we want to take the burden off the person receiving abuse or mob-like behavior.”

Social media platforms have long struggled to police acceptable content and behavior on their sites, but external pressure on the companies increased significantly following the revelation that a Russian influence operation used the platforms in coordinated campaigns around the 2016 US election.

Facebook and Google have largely responded by promising to hire thousands of moderators and improve their artificial intelligence tools to automate content removal. Twitter’s approach, which it outlined to reporters in a briefing on Monday, is distinct because it is content neutral and will not require more human moderators.

“A lot of our past action has been content based, and we are shifting more and more to conduct,” Dorsey said.

Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice-president of trust and safety, said that the new changes were based on research that found that most of the abuse reports on Twitter originate in search results or the conversations that take place in the responses to a single tweet. The company also found that less than 1% of Twitter accounts made up the majority of abuse reports and that many of the reported tweets did not actually violate the company’s rules, despite “detract[ing] from the overall experience” for most users.

The new system will use behavioral signals to assess whether a Twitter account is adding to – or detracting from – the tenor of conversations. For example, if an account tweets at multiple other users with the same message, and all of those accounts either block or mute the sender, Twitter will recognize that the account’s behavior is bothersome. But if an account tweets at multiple other accounts with the same message, and some of them reply or hit the “heart” button, Twitter will assess the interactions as welcome. Other signals will include whether an account has confirmed an email address or whether an account appears to be acting in a coordinated attack.

With these new signals, Harvey explained, “it didn’t matter what was said; it mattered how people reacted.”

The updated algorithm will result in certain tweets being pushed further down in a list of search results or replies, but will not delete them from the platform. Early experiments have resulted in a 4% decline in abuse reports from search and an 8% drop in abuse reports in conversations, said David Gasca, Twitter’s director of product management for health.

This is not the first time that Twitter has promised to crack down on abuse and trolling on its platform. In 2015, then CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged that the company “sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls”. But complaints have continued under Dorsey’s leadership, and in March, the company decided to seek outside help, issuing a request for proposals for academics and NGOs to help it come up with ways to measure and promote healthy conversations.

Dorsey and Harvey appeared optimistic that this new approach will have a significant impact on users’ experience.

“We are trying to strike a balance,” Harvey said. “What would Twitter be without controversy?”





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Amazon threatens to move jobs out of Seattle over new tax | Technology

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Amazon has threatened to move jobs out of its hometown of Seattle after the city council introduced a new tax to try and address the homelessness crisis.

The world’s second-biggest company has warned that the “hostile” tax, which will charge firms $275 per worker a year to fund homelessness outreach services and affordable housing, “forces us to question our growth here”.

Amazon, which is Seattle’s biggest private sector employer with more than 40,000 staff in the city, had halted construction work on a 17-storey office tower in protest against the tax.

Pressure from Amazon and other big employers, including Starbucks and Expedia, had forced councillors to reduce the tax from an initial proposal of $500 per worker. The tax will only effect companies making revenue of more than $20m-a-year.

The tax is expected to raise between $45m and $49m a year, of which about $10m would come from Amazon.

The company said it would restart building work on the tower but may sublease another new office block to reduce its tax bill.

“We are disappointed by today’s city Council decision to introduce a tax on jobs,” said Drew Herdener, an Amazon vice-president. We remain very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.”

Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, is the world’s richest man with a $133bn fortune.

Campaigners said the company should be forced to take financial responsibility for Seattle’s cost of living, which has forced many families on to the streets. There are almost 12,000 homeless people in Seattle region, equating to the third-highest rate per capita in the US. Last year 169 homeless people died in Seattle. The city declared a state of emergency because of homelessness in late 2015

Before the council vote on Monday, more than 100 people marched through Amazon’s campus and held a rally outside the company’s new spherical greenhouses, some holding signs saying “Tax Amazon”.

Seattle councillor Teresa Mosqueda said: “People are dying on the doorsteps of prosperity. This is the richest city in the state and in a state that has the most regressive tax system in the country.”

The vote was passed unanimously, with several council members saying they were voting reluctantly in favour of the lower rate for the tax after Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, threatened to veto a higher rate.

“This was a tough debate. Not just here at city hall, but all across this city,” Durkan, said. “No one is saying that this will solve everything, but it will make a meaningful difference. This legislation will help us address our homelessness crisis without jeopardising critical jobs.”

Politicians from 50 other US cities wrote an open letter to Seattle council in a show solidarity with the councillors attempt to tackle Amazon’s impact on the city.

“By threatening Seattle over this tax, Amazon is sending a message to all of our cities: we play by our own rules,” the letter said.

Starbucks had also fought against the tax, with its public affairs chief, John Kelly, accusing the city of continuing to “spend without reforming and fail without accountability, while ignoring the plight of hundreds of children sleeping outside”.

He added: “If they cannot provide a warm meal and safe bed to a five-year-old child, no one believes they will be able to make housing affordable or address opiate addiction.”

Marilyn Strickland, the head of Seattle’s chamber of commerce, voiced business leaders’ opposition to the tax. “Taxing jobs will not fix our region’s housing and homelessness problems,” she said.



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Uber to allow sexual assault and harassment victims to sue company | Technology

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Uber’s ride-hailing service will give its US passengers and drivers more leeway to pursue claims of sexual misconduct, its latest attempt to reverse its reputation for brushing aside bad behaviour.

The shift announced on Tuesday will allow riders and drivers to file allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment in courts and mediation instead of being locked into an arbitration hearing.

The San Francisco company is also scrapping a policy requiring all settlements of sexual misconduct to be kept confidential, giving victims the choice of whether they want to make their experience public.

The new rules mark a conciliatory step made by the Uber chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi. He was hired last August amid a wave of revelations and allegations about rampant sexual harassment in its workforce, a cover-up of a massive data breach, dirty tricks and stolen trade secrets.

Khosrowshahi has launched a campaign to “do the right thing” to repair the damage left by Uber’s previous regime and lure back alienated riders who defected to rivals such as Lyft.

The changes governing sexual misconduct come a month after Uber announced it will do criminal background checks on its US drivers annually and add a 911 button for summoning help in emergencies. They are an effort to reassure its riders and address concerns that it had not done enough to keep criminals from using its service to prey on potential victims.

Giving victims of sexual assault or perceived sexual harassment more options sends an important message that Uber is taking the issue more seriously, said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for Raliance, a coalition of groups working with Uber to prevent sexual abuse on its service.

It may also spur more complaints. Houser said riders may now be more emboldened to report inappropriate behaviour, such as when a driver asks them out for a date.

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“You want people to report lower-level infractions so you can nip them in the bud before they become bigger problems,” she said.

By the end of the year, Uber will also start to publicly report incidents of alleged sexual misconduct in hopes of establishing more transparency about the issue throughout the ride-hailing and traditional taxi industries.

“We think the numbers are going to be disturbing,” said Tony West, a former government prosecutor during the Obama administration who became Uber’s chief legal officer after Khosrowshahi took over.



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Tesla driver says car was in autopilot when it crashed at 60mph | Technology

Tesla driver says car was in autopilot when it crashed at 60mph | Technology


The driver of a Tesla car that failed to stop at a red light and collided with a firetruck told investigators that the vehicle was operating on “autopilot” mode when it crashed, police said.

A Tesla Model S was traveling at 60mph when it collided with the emergency vehicle in South Jordan, Utah, on Friday, causing minor injuries to both drivers, officials said Monday. The Tesla driver’s claim that the car was using the autopilot technology has raised fresh questions about the electric car company’s semi-autonomous system, which is supposed to assist drivers in navigating the road.

The exact cause of the crash, which left the driver with a broken ankle, remains unknown, with Tesla saying it did not yet have the car’s data and could not comment on whether autopilot was engaged. South Jordan police also said the 28-year-old driver “admitted that she was looking at her phone prior to the collision” and that witnesses said the car did not brake or take any action to avoid the crash.

“As a reminder for drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles, it is the driver’s responsibility to stay alert, drive safely, and be in control of the vehicle at all times,” the police department said in a statement.


The scene of the crash in Utah. Photograph: Courtesy of the South Jordan police department

While driverless technology is expected to make the roads significantly safer by reducing human error and crashes, companies like Tesla are currently in a transition period that some experts say has created unique risks. That’s because semi-autonomous features, research has shown, can lull drivers into a false sense of security and make it hard for them to remain alert and intervene as needed.

Tesla has faced backlash for its decision to brand the technology “autopilot”, given that the drivers are expected not to depend on the feature to keep them safe.

After a Tesla autopilot crash in March resulted in the driver’s death, the company issued a series of lengthy statements blaming the victim for “not paying attention”.

On Monday, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk complained about an article on the Utah crash, writing on Twitter: “It’s super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage.”

He also wrote that it was “actually amazing” the collision at 60mph only resulted in a broken ankle: “An impact at that speed usually results in severe injury or death.”

Musk has on numerous occasions forcefully chastised journalists investigating Tesla crashes, arguing that the unflattering news coverage was dissuading people from using the technology and thus “killing people” in the process. After Tesla recently labeled an award-winning news outlet an “extremist organization”, some critics compared the company’s hyperbolic denouncements of the press to the anti-media strategy of president Donald Trump.





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Jetpacks: why aren’t we all flying to work? | Technology

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Those of a certain age may remember the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. As Rafer Johnson lit the eternal flame, a man strapped into a rocket-propelled backpack launched himself across the arena above the ticker tape and balloons, landing gracefully on the track before a TV audience of 2.5 billion.

It was a moment of triumph seeming to herald a new age in which, finally, teased for decades by Buck Rogers’ “degravity belt” and King of the Rocketmen, we’d all soon be fizzing off to work with our own personal jetpacks. Even Isaac Asimov confidently predicted that by the turn of the century, they would be “as common as a bicycle”.

So what happened? In 2018, shouldn’t we all be flying to work?

So called “rocketmen” were not entirely the work of fiction. Russian pilot Aleksandr Andreyev had been working on one as early as 1919. Germany’s second world war rocket whiz Wernher Von Braunallegedly worked on a “jet vest” for the US army after the war, which later became project Grasshopper, aimingto build a “jump belt”.

All these attempts fizzled out due to lack of funds. It wasn’t until engineer Wendell Moore’s Bell Rocket Belt was first tested in 1960 that the world witnessed a working jetpack – using a turbo jet rather than a rocket.

The US military commissioned Moore and John K Hulbert – a gas turbine specialist – to work on the Jet Belt, or “man rocket”, for possible military use. Moore’s first problem was fuel – anything capable of producing enough thrust burned up in a flash.

Moore hit upon using hydrogen peroxide, a compound commonly used as bleach, as a fuel. Two cylinders were attached to a fibreglass frame with another of nitrogen gas. Forced on to a catalyst, this mix explodes into superheated steam, shooting through twin nozzles at 700C.

Thrust sorted, they soon encountered the human body’s natural resistance to aerial navigation. The device, which used directional thrusters controlled by hand-operated levers, was extremely tricky to stabilise.

Undaunted, Moore flew the first flights himself, but in February 1961 the belt swerved like an unattended firehose, snapped its tether and Moore fell 2.5 metres, breaking his kneecap.

After 36 tethered flights in a hangar, the untethered belt, was finally flown outside by Harold “Hal” Graham, a 27-year-old Bell test engineer with no previous flight experience. Amid a cacophony of steam, Graham flew for just 13 seconds, covering over 34 metres (112 feet) at an altitude of 18 inches.

During the first public display at Fort Eustis, Virginia, on 8 June 1961, Graham lifted himself to around 4.5 metres, dangled around for 15 seconds and landed, offering a salute.

It was a big hit with the public. Graham piloted the device all around the world to great acclaim, but after landing on his head from 6.7 metres at a demo in Florida, he retired.

Graham handed over the reins to his friend Bill Suitor, who proved adept at flying the machine. Again, the public loved it, but the US army, who was paying for it, was disappointed.

The belt weighed 56.7kg with fuel and consumed 19 litres of expensive hydrogen peroxide during its 30 second flight and required a platoon of service personnel to attend to it. It flew neither high nor low enough to be at a safe height, and it was difficult to fly. In the opinion of the military, the Bell Rocket Belt was more a spectacular toy than an effective means of transport, so it withdrew funding.

But by then the idea had caught on. Jetpack enthusiast and engineer Nelson Tyler, approached Suitor with his own belt. Suitor flew the Tyler belt to much acclaim at exhibitions across the US, culminating in the triumph flight at the Olympics in 1984.

Stunt pilot Kinnie Gibson was next to fly Tyler’s belt, making himself a millionaire flying as the Rocketman until his passing – from natural causes – in 2015. But it was Gibson’s success that is partly why you haven’t come to work on a rocket pack this morning.

By 1990, the 90% pure oxygen he needed was becoming too expensive. Gibson tried his engines with 88% oxygen and a catalyst to compensate, but the pack malfunctioned, smashing up Gibson’s knee. He sued the chemical company for the malfunction – and won – leading to companies refusing to make the 90% oxygen you would need for that homebuilt rocket-belt.

Then, in 1992, came the RB2000, a project based on the Bell model, built by Brad Barker, Larry Stanley and Joe Wright. If ever there was a moral reason not to build a rocket belt, this story told in The Rocketbelt Caper by Paul Brown – involving lump hammers, lawsuits, drug smuggling and murder – is it.

Fast-forward to the 2010s and jetpacks have become a reality again, if not quite in the form of the personal backpack we thought we would all be dangling from. Water-propelled Hydrolift/Jetlev devices have become a commonplace exotic seaside pursuit, while jetpack enthusiasts build untethered versions for themselves, usually similar to the designs of Wendell Moore at Bell. The big difficulty here is still the scarcity of hydrogen peroxide.

Inventor, tech whiz and head of Google’s research laboratory Google X, Astro Teller, says even Google has looked into jetpacks, but at a quarter-mile a gallon and with a motor as loud as a Harley Davidson, decided they weren’t practical.

More hopeful is the offering from Jetpack Aviation, who specialise in personal vertical takeoff and landing devices. It demoed its JB10 in Monaco (two minutes aloft) and in London in October (four minutes aloft) last year to some acclaim. The brain power behind it? One Nelson Tyler, who aims to release an electric version in 2019 … yours for £200k.



‘Wiltshire’s Iron Man’ in test flight

Then there’s Swiss ex-military and commercial pilot Yves “JetMan” Rossy, who straps two 8ft carbon wings and four small kerosene jet engines to his body. Online footage shows Rossy confidently executing loop-the-loops and roaring over the Grand Canyon strapped into his device. Drawback: one must throw oneself out of a plane, which makes for a rather awkward commute. Cost: £190k.

Richard Browning, meanwhile, is a British inventor dubbed “Wiltshire’s Iron Man”, whose Daedalus personal flightsuit sees him strap jet engines to his back and hands.

Perhaps the most promising development, which is already on the market, is that made by Tecnologia Aeroespacial Mexicana. It’s already sold four of its Tecaeromex Rocket Belts, and a helicopter version is in the works. You can even train to use one using a JetLev.

We might soon be able to fly about strapped into jetpacks, but whether we should is another matter. It’s hard to disagree with original rocketman Suitor, who said, after his experiences with Barker and co: “I hope they never become popular. Nobody would be safe.

“You’d have people falling out of the air like unwanted Santa Clauses. I’ve had several close shaves myself and almost sliced myself up like a big soft slice of silky cheese. Could you imagine every idiot who could afford one flying about?”



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