In the News Archive

7 earth-size planets identified in orbit around a dwarf star

Not just one, but seven Earth-size planets that could potentially harbor life have been identified orbiting a tiny star not too far away, offering the first realistic opportunity to search for biological signs of alien life outside of the solar system.

The planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1, about 40 light years, or about 235 trillion miles, from Earth. That is quite close, and by happy accident, the orientation of the orbits of the seven planets allows them to be studied in great detail.

One or more of the exoplanets - planets around stars other than the sun - in this new system could be at the right temperature to be awash in oceans of water, astronomers said, based on the distance of the planets from the dwarf star.

Science is awesome.

Library Hand, the neat penmanship style for card catalogs

In September 1885, a bunch of librarians spent four days holed up in scenic Lake George, just over 200 miles north of New York City. In the presence of such library-world luminaries as Melvil Dewey - the well-organized chap whose Dewey Decimal System keeps shelves orderly to this day - they discussed a range of issues, from the significance of the term "bookworm" to the question of whether libraries ought to have a separate reference-room for ladies.

They then turned their attention to another crucial issue: handwriting. As libraries acquired more books, card catalogs needed to expand fast in order to keep track of them. Though the newly invented typewriter was beginning to take hold, it took time and effort to teach the art of "machine writing." Librarians still had to handwrite their catalog cards. And this was causing problems.

Fascinating story - and funny how I was taught something very close to Library Hand cursive script (the one from A Library Primer listed in the article) when I was a kid.

Cipher war: to crack ancient script, linguists turn to machines

Though we now have thousands of examples of these symbols, we have very little idea what they mean. Over a century after Cunningham's discovery, the seals remain undeciphered, their messages lost to us. Are they the letters of an ancient language? Or are they just religious, familial, or political symbols? Those hotly contested questions have sparked infighting among scholars and exacerbated cultural rivalries over who can claim the script as their heritage. But new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script.

The Indus Valley Civilization and the mysteries that surround it are deeply fascinating. It was contemporary to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, yet we know relatively little about it. It honestly blows my mind that computers can now be used to decipher its ancient script, which may give us a lot of insight into this civilisation.

Like in programming, language is key.

Google recalls staff to US after Trump immigration order

Alphabet Inc.'s Google delivered a sharp message to staff travelling overseas who may be impacted by a new executive order on immigration from President Donald Trump: Get back to the U.S. now.

Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai slammed Trump's move in a note to employees Friday, telling them that more than 100 company staff are affected by the order.

The Trump regime's measures also impact the visa program for, among other long-time US allies, The Netherlands. Did anyone tell the Trump regime that it's a very bad idea to make it harder for your third largest investor to, uh, actually invest? Are these men really that dumb?

Interesting to note, though, that Google had to be actually impacted by the Trump regime before it spoke up (only in an internal memo, but still). Meanwhile, Elon Musk is kissing the ground Trump walks on, and Tim Cook, CEO of the most arrogantly and smugly (supposedly) liberal tech company is meeting with Trump, Trump's daughter (...?) and other Republican leaders. From other tech giants who always touted the liberal horn of equality and progressiveness - a deafening, but quite revealing, silence.

So far, it seems like the tech industry leaders are opting for appeasement instead of resistance to the Trump regime's corruption, conflicts of interest, racism, war on science, and Christian extremism. I would be disappointed if it wasn't so utterly predictable to anyone who wasn't blinded by the fake smiles, hollow promises, and empty praise of equality, science, and progressive ideals.

They still have time to be remembered as people who stood up for those that need it the most. I'm afraid, though, we will remember them as spineless cowards, hiding behind shareholders while the free world crumbles to dust.

I hope it'll be worth it.

Trump administration declares war on science

Trump and his murder of Republican Christian extremists have declared war on science.

The US Department of Agriculture has banned scientists and other employees in its main research division from publicly sharing everything from the summaries of scientific papers to USDA-branded tweets as it starts to adjust to life under the Trump administration, BuzzFeed News has learned.

According to an email sent Monday morning and obtained by BuzzFeed News, the department told staff - including some 2,000 scientists - at the agency's main in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), to stop communicating with the public about taxpayer-funded work.

And:

The Trump administration has instituted a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency and barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants.

Emails sent to EPA staff since President Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday and reviewed by The Associated Press detailed the specific prohibitions banning press releases, blog updates or posts to the agency's social media accounts.

Don't tell me I didn't warn you.

Yes, science is political

Over the past few weeks, we've gotten notes from Verge Science readers wondering why news from the incoming Trump administration has seeped into our science coverage. I wasn't surprised: it's tempting to believe that science is apolitical. But science and politics are plainly related: science is the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge is power, and power is politics.

The scientific method consists of generating a hypothesis, attempting to disprove the hypothesis through testing, and accumulating those tests to come up with shared knowledge. And that method also contains ideology: our observed, shared world is the real world. This ideology even has a name: empiricism. An incoming president who clearly picks and chooses facts to suit his own version of the world changes the relationship between science and culture, in potentially destructive ways.

"To be taught to read - what is the use of that, if you know not whether what you read is false or true? To be taught to write or to speak - but what is the use of speaking, if you have nothing to say? To be taught to think - nay, what is the use of being able to think, if you have nothing to think of? But to be taught to see is to gain word and thought at once, and both true."

Tomorrow, in a mirror, darkly.

Tesla’s Autosteer lowered crash rate by almost 40%

The administration's analysis of Autosteer was more positive about its capabilities. After analyzing mileage and airbag deployment data for Model S and Model X cars equipped with Autopilot, the NHTSA concluded that "the Tesla vehicles' crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation."

Wait, you mean to tell me a computer who doesn't get sleepy or distracted and doesn't need to pee is better at keeping an eye on the road than a human?

Say it isn't so.

Clearing out the app stores: government censorship made easier

There's a new form of digital censorship sweeping the globe, and it could be the start of something devastating.

In the last few weeks, the Chinese government compelled Apple to remove New York Times apps from the Chinese version of the App Store. Then the Russian government had Apple and Google pull the app for LinkedIn, the professional social network, after the network declined to relocate its data on Russian citizens to servers in that country. Finally, last week, a Chinese regulator asked app stores operating in the countryto register with the government, an apparent precursor to wider restrictions on app marketplaces.

These moves may sound incremental, and perhaps not immediately alarming. China has been restricting the web forever, and Russia is no bastion of free speech. So what's so dangerous about blocking apps?

Here's the thing: It's a more effective form of censorship.

It's almost like an operating system where you can't install applications not approved by its manufacturer is a really, really dumb idea.

World war three, by mistake

Every technology embodies the values of the age in which it was created. When the atomic bomb was being developed in the mid-nineteen-forties, the destruction of cities and the deliberate targeting of civilians was just another military tactic. It was championed as a means to victory. The Geneva Conventions later classified those practices as war crimes - and yet nuclear weapons have no other real use. They threaten and endanger noncombatants for the sake of deterrence. Conventional weapons can now be employed to destroy every kind of military target, and twenty-first-century warfare puts an emphasis on precision strikes, cyberweapons, and minimizing civilian casualties. As a technology, nuclear weapons have become obsolete. What worries me most isn’t the possibility of a cyberattack, a technical glitch, or a misunderstanding starting a nuclear war sometime next week. My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, some day, they will. The “Titanic Effect” is a term used by software designers to explain how things can quietly go wrong in a complex technological system: the safer you assume the system to be, the more dangerous it is becoming.

Donald Trump, the next president of the United States and commander-in-chief of the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, said in a tweet this week: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes". He also told a TV host "let there be an arms race".

In response to these remarks by the next president of the United States and commander-in-chief of the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation and supreme commander-in-chief of the other most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, said "We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems".

Sleep tight, and merry Christmas.

Google, Apple, Uber will not help build a muslim registry

In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, Google, Apple, and Uber clarified their positions on President-elect Donald Trump's comments about a possible Muslim registry. "In relation to the hypothetical of whether we would ever help build a 'muslim registry' - we haven't been asked, of course we wouldn't do this and we are glad - from all that we’ve read - that the proposal doesn't seem to be on the table," a spokesperson for Google told BuzzFeed News in an email.

BuzzFeed News asked all three companies whether they would help build or provide data for a Muslim registry. An Apple spokesperson said: "We think people should be treated the same no matter how they worship, what they look like, who they love. We haven't been asked and we would oppose such an effort."

I'm glad major technology companies are promising not to aid in Trump with this fascist campaign promise. That being said - these very same companies couldn't wait to butter up to Trump during a meeting this week, so I'm not sure how much faith I have in these promises. A repatriation tax cut would probably be enough to make them change their minds.

Finding North America’s lost medieval city

A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region's tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization. Many decided to stay.

Centuries later, Cahokia's meteoric rise and fall remain a mystery. It was booming in 1050, and by 1400 its population had disappeared, leaving behind a landscape completely geoengineered by human hands. Looking for clues about its history, archaeologists dig through the thick, wet, stubborn clay that Cahokians once used to construct their mounds. Buried beneath just a few feet of earth are millennia-old building foundations, trash pits, the cryptic remains of public rituals, and in some places, even, graves.

To find out what happened to Cahokia, I joined an archaeological dig there in July. It was led by two archaeologists who specialize in Cahokian history, Sarah Baires of Eastern Connecticut State University and Melissa Baltus of University of Toledo. They were assisted by Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Watts of Indiana University, Bloomington, and a class of tireless undergraduates with the Institute for Field Research. Together, they spent the summer opening three large trenches in what they thought would be a sleepy little residential neighborhood southwest of Monk's Mound.

They were wrong.

Fascinating. I had no idea native Americans built huge cities like this far north of - roughly - the current border between the US and Mexico.

The Arctic’s warming trends are ‘truly unprecedented’

The higher temperatures are in part due to especially warm air coming from the south during this year's winter, the report says. And that's where things get scary. Shrinking sea ice and glaciers used to be a thing of the summer, but now that trend is carrying over into the winter months, says Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA's Arctic Research Program. "The pace of change that's happening in the Arctic ... is truly unprecedented," he says.

Rapidly shrinking arctic sea ice... In winter.

Scientists are frantically copying US climate data

Alarmed that decades of crucial climate measurements could vanish under a hostile Trump administration, scientists have begun a feverish attempt to copy reams of government data onto independent servers in hopes of safeguarding it from any political interference.

There's a war going on. A war waged by religious extremists (of at least two major world religions), the extreme right, and fossil fuel-funded politicians, against the very foundations of our secular, post-Enlightenment, post-scientific revolution society. You think I'm exaggerating? I wish. Extreme right websites are asking their readers to pick up arms against scientists. That's where we are.

Religious extremists, the extreme right, and fossil fuel-funded politicians know all too well that science, secularism, and a clear, non-negotiable separation between church and state are grave threats to their continued existence. We - as a species - have come a long way these past few hundred years, but it feels like today, with the all-out attack on science by these deplorable parts of our society, we are regressing backwards into the dark ages.

Science is the only foundation of progress. Any who seek to erode this foundation are the enemy of the Enlightenment - mankind's greatest invention. Pick your side carefully.

Amazon just opened a cashier-free supermarket

Amazon Go is a new kind of store with no checkout required. We created the world’s most advanced shopping technology so you never have to wait in line. With our Just Walk Out Shopping experience, simply use the Amazon Go app to enter the store, take the products you want, and go! No lines, no checkout. (No, seriously.)

Our checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning. Our Just Walk Out technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. When you're done shopping, you can just leave the store. Shortly after, we'll charge your Amazon account and send you a receipt.

I find this absolutely fascinating and immensely desirable.

I live in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere, and only very recently did we finally get a brand new supermarket with the latest self-checkout and contactless payment technologies (voted most beautiful supermarket in the country, I might add, and a 73-year old family business - we're proud of our own), and it's just so much more convenient than old-fashioned cash registers. I know a number of people prefer being served by a cashier, but honestly - to me it's just wasted time I could spend on something useful.

In any event, the idea of just taking stuff off the shelves, without even having to scan them or pay for them at a terminal seems like the next logical step. I don't like the idea of online grocery shopping (I want to see how fresh my produce is before buying it), so this is an excellent compromise.

The linguistic evolution of ‘like’

Like LOL, like, entrenched in all kinds of sentences, used subconsciously, and difficult to parse the real meaning of without careful consideration, has all the hallmarks of a piece of grammar - specifically, in the pragmatic department, modal wing. One thing making it especially clear that the new like is not just a tic of heedless, underconfident youth is that many of the people who started using it in the new way in the 1970s are now middle-aged. People's sense of how they talk tends to differ from the reality, and the person of a certain age who claims never to use like "that way" as often as not, like, does - and often. As I write, a sentence such as There were like grandparents and like grandkids in there is as likely to be spoken by a forty-something as by a teenager or a college student. Just listen around the next time you're standing in a line, watching a talk show, or possibly even listening to yourself.

Great article.

Just goes to show how complex and deep language can be. This is a good, detailed article on the changing use of the word "like", which, despite its length, doesn't even touch upon another now-common use of the word "like" that has even transcended borders and languages: Facebook's "like", which has become a noun in several languages - including my own - and carries with it a new verb meaning: to click that particular Facebook button.

Samsung buys Harman for $8 billion

Samsung has announced that it has acquired Harman, the company behind over 20 brands including audio companies AKG, JBL and Harman/Kardon, as well as a suite of connected car technologies.

Although you're probably more familiar with Harman for their audio brands, the company earns around two thirds of its revenues from automotive-related segments where it produces telematics, security and 'embedded infotainment' solutions.

China: we will cut iPhone sales if Trump starts trade war

China will take a tit-for-tat approach then. A batch of Boeing orders will be replaced by Airbus. US auto and iPhone sales in China will suffer a setback, and US soybean and maize imports will be halted. China can also limit the number of Chinese students studying in the US.

Trump as a shrewd businessman will not be so naive. None of the previous presidents were bold enough to launch an all-out trade war against China. They all opted for a cautious line since it's most consistent with the overall interests of the US, and it's most acceptable to US society.

That's China's state-run newspaper, threatening to hit - among others - Apple where it hurts.

I don't think American companies are going to, uh, just allow Trump and his administration to carry out this promise he made to voters - one of his core promises, I might add.

“Shame on Y Combinator”

Marco Arment:

Y Combinator is extremely influential in tech startups and startup culture.

Peter Thiel, an investor who often participates in Y Combinator, is donating $1.25 million to Donald Trump's political efforts, which has incited outrage among the tech community with many calling for Y Combinator to sever ties with Thiel.

Y Combinator has apparently decided not to. President Sam Altman defended this position in a blog post, framed as a Clinton endorsement, that begins with a partial overview of how reprehensible and dangerous Trump is, but ends with a defense of continuing Thiel's involvement in Y Combinator that's effectively framed as a free-speech or tolerance issue.

I completely agree with Arment.

One thing doesn't sit entirely right with me about this, though. Y Combinator is getting a decent amount of flack for this, and rightly so - a sexual assaulter like Trump should be in prison, not in the White House. However, where's all the outrage about Tim Cook organising fundraisers for Donald Trump's political party? Why is that fact almost silently swept under the rug and brushed aside, but Y Combinator gets skewered for doing the same thing? Why is Tim Cook supporting Donald Trump okay, but Y Combinator not cutting ties with someone supporting Donald Trump not okay?

Is it, perhaps, because Apple and Tim Cook get graded on a curve, to use a phrase popular in the Apple blogosphere?

It's almost as inconsistent as iOS. I guess that runs deeper than I thought.

The Verge editor secretly joins Apple, doesn’t inform The Verge

Well, file this in the "what the hell is going on" section. Chris Ziegler, long-time The Verge editor (and Engadget before that - he was part of the crew that started both Engadget and The Verge, if I'm not mistaken), had been missing from the site for a few months now - no posts, no tweets, nothing. Today, Nilay Patel revealed why.

First, Chris accepted a position at Apple. We wish him well.

Second, the circumstances of Chris' departure from The Verge raised ethical issues which are worth disclosing in the interests of transparency and respect for our audience. We're confident that there wasn't any material impact on our journalism from these issues, but they are still serious enough to merit disclosure.

Chris began working for Apple in July, but didn't tell anyone at The Verge that he'd taken a new job until we discovered and verified his dual-employment in early September. Chris continued actively working at The Verge in July, but was not in contact with us through most of August and into September. During that period, in the dark and concerned for Chris, we made every effort to contact him and to offer him help if needed. We ultimately terminated his employment at The Verge and Vox Media the same day we verified that he was employed at Apple.

So let me get this straight. One of The Verge's most prominent editors took a job at Apple - which is perfectly fine, we all change jobs - but then did not inform The Verge, continued to work for The Verge, then disappeared, still without informing The Verge, and then it took The Verge weeks to track him down and figure out what happened?

This story is completely bonkers, and I can assure you - this is not the whole story. According to John Gruber, Chris Ziegler is not listed in Apple's employee directory, and I personally have had this confirmed to me as well. Something really strange is going on here.