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Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory ‘Not Closing’ After Telescope Collapse




By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 4 December 2020

Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory could still have a future after its vast telescope dramatically collapsed this week, US officials said Thursday.

The structure was destroyed on Tuesday when its 900-ton receiver platform, which was suspended 450 feet (140 metres) in the air, fell loose and plunged onto the radio dish below.

Ralph Gaume, director of the US National Science Foundation’s division of astronomical sciences, said “the NSF is not closing the Arecibo Observatory.”

“The NSF is deeply saddened by the situation,” he told reporters, adding that the agency “has a very well-defined process for funding and constructing large-scale infrastructure including telescopes… it’s very early for us to comment on the replacement.”

Engineers had recently warned of the telescope’s decrepit condition, and the NSF announced only last month that it would be dismantled.

Two of the cables that held the platform over the radio dish, which measures 1,000 feet (300 metres) in diameter, had snapped this year, and the structure finally gave way on Tuesday morning.

Video footage showed the final cables breaking, and the platform swinging down onto the radio dish before a cloud of dust erupts.

The telescope was one of the largest in the world and has been a tool for many astronomical discoveries since the 1960s.

An action scene from the James Bond film GoldenEye featuring Pierce Brosnan was filming at the site.

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Star Wars Spinoffs to New Marvel Series: Everything Disney Announced




By Associated Press | Updated: 11 December 2020

Disney’s streaming plans shifted into hyper speed Thursday, as the studio unveiled a galaxy’s worth of new streaming offerings including plans for 10 Star Wars series spinoffs and 10 Marvel series that will debut on Disney+.

In a virtual presentation for investors, Disney chief executive Bob Chapek laid out super-sized ambitions for it direct-to-consumer efforts, leaning heavily on some of the company’s biggest brands. Over the next few years, Disney is planning to premiere directly on Disney+ not just an armada of Star Wars and Marvel series but 15 live-action, Pixar and animated series, and 15 live-action, Pixar and animated movies.

Chapek said Disney+ subscribers worldwide have reached 86.8 million, up from 74 million last month. The service has easily exceeded most forecasts, reaching that number 13 months since its launch in November 2019. Disney will increase the monthly price by $1 (roughly Rs. 70) to $8 (roughly Rs. 600) a month in March. The company forecasts 230-260 million subscribers by 2024.

To keep subscriber numbers climbing, Disney presented a blizzard of remakes, sequels and spinoffs of various shapes and sizes on Thursday — 100 new titles in all — including a Beauty and the Beast prequel series, a Moana animated series, a Three Men and a Baby reboot with Zac Efron, a Swiss Family Robinson series and, yes, even the Kardashians.

But Disney also kept its biggest films — including Marvel’s Black Widow, Pixar’s Luca, a Lion King prequel — on course for theatrical release. Whereas WarnerMedia last week pushed its entire 2021 slate to streaming, Disney executives signalled that theatrical release remains essential to its big-budget spectacles and its business, overall.

“We build the franchises through the theatrical window,” said Chapek.

Still, the four-hour presentation presented a more seamless vision of content across platforms that made scant mention of its closed theme parks, or of the pandemic. That included a dizzying amount of series, many of them connected to big-screen movies past and present.

Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said a pair of new Marvel series — Secret Invasion, with Samuel Jackson, and Ironheart — will “tie directly to Marvel future films.” The only difference between the company’s short-form TV content and its theatrical content, said Bob Iger, executive chairman, “is length.”

Not all the news was in streaming. Lucasfilm announced that Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) will direct the next Star Wars theatrical film, Rogue Squadron, with a release in theatres planned for Christmas 2023.

Jenkins becomes the first woman to direct a Star Wars film. In a video, she said the film, about starship fighters, will satisfy a long-held dream of hers as the daughter of an Air Force captain.

“When he lost his life in service of this country, it ignited a desire in me to turn all of that tragedy and thrill into one day making the greatest fighter pilot movie of all time,” said Jenkins in a video message.

Other films are going ahead with theatrical plans, among them a Buzz Lightyear prequel, due in 2020, and the Black Panther sequel. Feige confirmed that the role of the late Chadwick Boseman will not be recast but that its makers are still interested in “exploring the world of Wakanda” in Ryan Coogler’s film, due in theatres July 2022.

Among the Star Wars series are two spinoffs of The Mandalorian, set during the series’ timeline: Rangers of the New Republic and Ahsoka, with Rosario Dawson. Shooting also recently began on Andor, a series developed by Tony Gilroy (Bourne Identity), with Diego Luna’s character from the 2016 film Rogue One.

Other, less expected Star Wars stars are returning. Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker in the prequels, will reprise his role as Darth Vader in Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Ewan McGregor.

“We have a vast and expansive timeline in the Star Wars mythology, spanning over 25,000 years of history in the galaxy with each era being a rich resource for storytelling,” said Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm. “Now with Disney+ we can explore limitless story possibilities like never before and fulfil the promise that there is truly a ‘Star Wars’ story for everyone.”

Disney steered several upcoming movies to its streaming service, including Pinocchio, with Tom Hanks, Peter Pan & Wendy, and an Enchanted sequel with Amy Adams titled Disenchanted. The animated Raya and the Last Dragon will in March debut simultaneously in theatres and by premier access on Disney+. That’s the same approach the company took earlier this fall for Mulan, with a $30 (roughly Rs. 2,000) early-access fee on top of the monthly subscription.

Disney made other adjustments to reorient its film operations around streaming. Hulu, which this year debuted the Andy Samberg comedy Palm Springs and Sarah Paulson thriller Run, will be home to more original films from 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures. Hulu will also be the new home of the Kardashians, recently departed from E!. The streaming service also renewed The Handmaid’s Tale for a fifth season.

FX is developing the first series based on the Alien films, with Noah Hawley (Fargo) directing.

Many in Hollywood had eagerly awaited Disney’s response following WarnerMedia’s announcement last week that it will release all 17 of its 2021 films — from Dune to The Matrix 4 — simultaneously on its streaming platform, HBO Max, and in theatres.

That move set off shockwaves prompting a backlash from much of the film industry, including theatre chains, producing partners and some of the studio’s top talent. Christopher Nolan criticised the plans as “a bit of a mess.”

Some said the long-forecast end times for cinemas had arrived. Others questioned the economics of one of Hollywood’s top studios sacrificing a year of box office — and the cascading windows of release that follow a theatrical run — to salvage the rocky rollout of HBO Max — a service that many HBO subscribers have yet still haven’t activated.

Wall Street approved. Stocks for WarnerMedia’s parent company AT&T are up about six percent since the announcement by Jason Kilar, chief executive of WarnerMedia and a veteran of Hulu and Amazon. John Stankey, the AT&T chief executive, on Tuesday said the pandemic had unleashed a new media reality unlikely to fade after COVID-19. “That horse left the barn,” he said.

Compared to WarnerMedia, the present situation is very different for Disney, that has already laid the foundation for a formidable Netflix competitor in Disney+ and which has for years dominated the box office. The company’s films accounted for more than $13 billion (roughly Rs. 95,600 crores) in ticket sales worldwide last year and 38 percent of moviegoing in the US and Canada. Seven Disney films topped $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,300 crores) worldwide.

“Of the 100 new titles announced today, 80 percent of them will go to Disney+,” said Chapek. “But we had $13 (roughly Rs. 95,600 crores) billion of box office last year and that’s obviously not something to sneeze at. For us it’s about balance.”

As Disney made its presentation to investors Thursday, its shares reached an all-time high of $160 (roughly Rs. 12,000).

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Facebook, Google to Face New Big Tech Regulations in UK




By Reuters | Updated: 8 December 2020

Britain’s competition watchdog outlined a new regime for regulating tech giants such as Google and Facebook, saying it needed new powers to harness the full potential of digital markets and drive competition and innovation.

It proposed a new, legally binding code of conduct, pro-competitive interventions in the market and enhanced merger rules, overseen by a Digital Markets Unit that was announced by the government last month.

The new regime, which will require government legislation, will be part of a wider regulatory framework for digital markets, including new rules for harmful online content and data protection, the CMA said.

CMA Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli said consumers and businesses who relied on tech giants like Google and Facebook should be treated fairly, and competitors should face a level playing field.

“For that to happen, the UK needs new powers and a new approach,” he said on Tuesday. “In short, we need a modern regulatory regime that can enable innovation to thrive, while taking swift action to prevent problems.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Google AI Researcher Timnit Gebru’s Exit Sparks Ethics, Bias Concerns




By Associated Press | Updated: 5 December 2020

Prominent artificial intelligence scholar Timnit Gebru helped improve Google’s public image as a company that elevates Black computer scientists and questions harmful uses of AI technology.

But internally, Gebru, a leader in the field of AI ethics, was not shy about voicing doubts about those commitments — until she was pushed out of the company this week in a dispute over a research paper examining the societal dangers of an emerging branch of AI.

Gebru announced on Twitter she was fired. Google told employees she resigned. More than 1,200 Google employees have signed on to an open letter calling the incident “unprecedented research censorship” and faulting the company for racism and defensiveness.

The furor over Gebru’s abrupt departure is the latest incident raising questions about whether Google has strayed so far away from its original “Don’t Be Evil” motto that the company now routinely ousts employees who dare to challenge management. The exit of Gebru, who is Black, also raised further doubts about diversity and inclusion at a company where Black women account for just 1.6 percent of the workforce.

And it’s exposed concerns beyond Google about whether showy efforts at ethical AI — ranging from a White House executive order this week to ethics review teams set up throughout the tech industry — are of little use when their conclusions might threaten profits or national interests.

Gebru has been a star in the AI ethics world who spent her early tech career working on Apple products and got her doctorate studying computer vision at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

She’s co-founder of the group Black in AI, which promotes Black employment and leadership in the field. She’s known for a landmark 2018 study that found racial and gender bias in facial recognition software.

Gebru had recently been working on a paper examining the risks of developing computer systems that analyse huge databases of human language and use that to create their own human-like text. The paper, a copy of which was shown to The Associated Press, mentions Google’s own new technology, used in its search business, as well as those developed by others.

Besides flagging the potential dangers of bias, the paper also cited the environmental cost of chugging so much energy to run the models — an important issue at a company that brags about its commitment to being carbon neutral since 2007 as it strives to become even greener.

Google managers had concerns about omissions in the work and its timing, and wanted the names of Google employees taken off the study, but Gebru objected, according to an exchange of emails shared with the AP and first published by Platformer.

Jeff Dean, Google’s chief of AI research, reiterated Google’s position about the study in a statement Friday.

The paper raised valid points but “had some important gaps that prevented us from being comfortable putting Google affiliation on it,” Dean wrote.

“For example, it didn’t include important findings on how models can be made more efficient and actually reduce overall environmental impact, and it didn’t take into account some recent work at Google and elsewhere on mitigating bias,” Dean added.

Gebru on Tuesday vented her frustrations about the process to an internal diversity-and-inclusion email group at Google, with the subject line: “Silencing Marginalized Voices in Every Way Possible.” Gebru said on Twitter that’s the email that got her fired.

Dean, in an email to employees, said the company accepted “her decision to resign from Google” because she told managers she’d leave if her demands about the study were not met.

“Ousting Timnit for having the audacity to demand research integrity severely undermines Google’s credibility for supporting rigorous research on AI ethics and algorithmic auditing,” said Joy Buolamwini, a graduate researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-authored the 2018 facial recognition study with Gebru.

“She deserves more than Google knew how to give, and now she is an all-star free agent who will continue to transform the tech industry,” Buolamwini said in an email Friday.

How Google will handle its AI ethics initiative and the internal dissent sparked by Gebru’s exit is one of a number of problems facing the company heading into the new year.

At the same time she was on her way out, the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday cast another spotlight on Google’s workplace. In a complaint, the NRLB accused the company of spying on employees during a 2019 effort to organise a union before the company fired two activist workers for engaging in activities allowed under US law. Google has denied the allegations in the case, which is scheduled for an April hearing.

Google has also been cast as a profit-mongering bully by the US Justice Department in an antitrust lawsuit alleging the company has been illegally abusing the power of its dominant search engine and other popular digital services to stifle competition. The company also denies any wrongdoing in that legal battle, which may drag on for years.

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Apple Puts Major Taiwanese Supplier Pegatron on Probation Over Labour Laws Violation




By Reuters | Updated: 10 November 2020

Apple has put its Taiwanese supplier Pegatron on probation after finding that the company violated Apple’s supplier code of conduct by asking student employees to work night shifts or overtime and also take up work unrelated to their majors. Pegatron had mis-classified student workers and falsified paperwork to disguise the violations, and, in some cases, also breached the code by allowing students to perform work unrelated to their majors, the US technology giant said.

“Several weeks ago, we discovered Pegatron, one of Apple’s suppliers in China, violated Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct in its administration of a student work study programme,” Apple said in a prepared statement. Pegatron is one of a handful of Taiwanese manufacturers on the island, alongside Foxconn, who dominate Apple’s iPhone assembly chain.

“Apple has placed Pegatron on probation and Pegatron will not receive any new business from Apple until they complete all of the corrective actions required,” the statement added.

Apple did not declare the terms of the probation. Its own investigations had found no evidence of forced or underage labour, Apple said, adding that Pegatron had now fired the executive with direct oversight of the programme.

“The individuals at Pegatron responsible for the violations went to extraordinary lengths to evade our oversight mechanisms,” Apple said. Pegatron’s shares closed down 2.1 percent on Monday, underperforming a 1.2 percent rise in the broader Taipei market.

Pegatron said in a separate statement that student workers at its Shanghai and Kunshan campuses had been found working without complying with local rules and regulations. They had now been taken off the production lines and given “proper compensation”, it said.

The statement from Pegatron, however, did not address the question how being put on probation by Apple might impact the company. Pegatron reported a TWD 19.3 billion (roughly Rs. 5,000 crores) profit in 2019, up 74 percent on the previous year.

Apple last month launched its next-generation iPhone 12, with faster 5G connectivity. Apple and its suppliers have been accused of poor labour practices in the past, but the US company has been trying to get a grip over such issues by releasing annual reviews of the iPhone supply chain.

In 2017, Apple and Foxconn said a small number of students were discovered working overtime in one of the latter’s Chinese factories, violating local labour laws.

In July, the third major Taiwanese assembler of iPhones, Wistron, sold two smaller factories in China to Dongguan-based Luxshare, a fast-growing firm emblematic of China’s rising home-grown suppliers which are gradually increasing rivalry with the Taiwanese giants.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Prime Video Forays Into Live Sports, Bags India Rights for New Zealand Cricket




By Press Trust of India | Updated: 10 November 2020

Amazon Prime Video on Tuesday announced its debut into live sports in India by acquiring the India territory rights for the New Zealand Cricket through 2025-2026.

With this announcement, Amazon Prime Video becomes the first Indian streaming service to secure exclusive live cricket rights from a major cricketing board.

The multi-year deal between Amazon and the New Zealand Cricket Board will give Prime Video the right to stream all international cricket matches to be played in New Zealand for both men’s and women’s cricket, across ODI, T20, and Tests formats starting late 2021.

The deal also includes Team India’s tour of New Zealand in early 2022, and a second tour, the dates for which will be announced later. The rights for 2020-2021 season starting later this month is intended to be syndicated by Amazon.

Gaurav Gandhi, Director & Country General Manager, Amazon Prime Video said the team is looking forward to bringing India’s favourite game to the streamer.

“Over the last few years Amazon Prime Video has become the go-to destination for world class entertainment in India, be it our Amazon Original Series or the biggest blockbuster movies across languages,” Gandhi said in a statement.

“… We are thrilled to work with New Zealand Cricket on this endeavour as they have a strong, passionate and much-loved cricket team, and the cricketing rivalry between the two countries has been fantastic. We are happy to make this collaboration with New Zealand Cricket our first live sport offering in India, and are confident that our Prime members will be delighted with this initiative,” he added.

David White, Chief Executive New Zealand Cricket, said, “One of NZC’s key goals is to extend our teams” global reach and to build closer relationships around the world and, in terms of that particular objective, we don’t think we could be in better hands. India has always been important for viewership of NZC; no other country follows cricket like India, so it’s exciting to be announcing this agreement with India”s leading streamer.”

The Indian territory New Zealand Cricket rights package is the latest in Prime Video’s growing line-up of live sports around the world including Thursday Night Football, the Premier League, ATP Tour Events, WTA, the US Open (tennis), UEFA Champions League, Autumn Nations Cup (rugby), and the Seattle Sounders FC.

Fans can also subscribe to streaming services such as Eurosport, MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, and PGA TOUR LIVE through Prime Video Channels.

This is in addition to a selection of popular docuseries for sports fans, including “The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team”, which follows the Australian men’s cricket team during during the 2018/2019 season, and Emmy-winning Amazon Original “All or Nothing” among others.

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Apple, Amazon Under Antitrust Investigation in Germany: Report




By Reuters | Updated: 29 October 2020

Germany’s anti-trust authority has launched an investigation into Amazon and Apple over possible anticompetitive behaviour, German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily reported.

Amazon bans some third-party traders on its e-commerce platform from offering certain branded products, and Germany’s Federal Cartel Office is investigating whether this complies with German law.

“For some brands all merchants with the exception of Amazon itself and the respective brand manufacturer are excluded,” the paper quoted Cartel Office President Andreas Mundt as saying.

Amazon said that it is cooperating with the German authorities, adding it continuously invests to protect its store from illegitimate goods.

Apple said that it was following the law and was looking forward to sharing facts with the German competition authority.

The Federal Cartel Office was not immediately available for comment.

The agreements could offer protection against product piracy. However, bans of third-party dealers must “comply with the principle of proportionality and must not lead to the elimination of competition,” Mundt said.

The most prominent example is Amazon’s cooperation with mobile phone maker Apple, which only Apple dealerships and Amazon can offer on the platform, he said.

The new probe into Amazon’s treatment of third-party dealers comes after Germany’s competition watchdog in August launched an investigation of whether and how Amazon influences traders’ price-setting on its marketplace.

Germany is Amazon’s second-biggest market after the United States. In Germany, third-party traders accounted for 65 percent of sales in March to May 2020.

Last year, Amazon reached a deal with the German authority to overhaul its terms of service for third-party merchants, prompting the office to drop a seven-month investigation.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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