Next New Thing from Microsoft?

Microsoft’s Cortana Learns Some Home-Automation Tricks

Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant for smartphones, will soon be able to control some home-automation gadgets.

By Rachel Metz on July 16, 2014


As smart home devices become more common, we’ll need simple ways to control them.

Cortana, Microsoft’s vocal virtual assistant, is gaining the ability to control smart-home products like lights and thermostats.

Home-automation company Insteon, based in Irvine, California, is working on a Windows Phone 8.1 app slated for release later this year that aims to make it easier to do things such as turn on the lights or boost the temperature by issuing commands via Cortana like, “Insteon, turn off all the lights” or “Insteon, adjust living room thermostat temperature down.”

Cortana, which was announced in April and is built into Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8.1 (which began rolling out to Windows Phone 8 users on Tuesday), can answer spoken queries like “What’s the traffic like on my way to work?” and respond to commands like “Change my 10 a.m. meeting to 11” or “Remind me to feed the cat when I get home” (see “Say Hello to Microsoft’s Answer to Siri”).

In many respects, it’s very similar to Google Now and Apple’s Siri, but unlike these competitors, Microsoft is allowing third-party developers to create apps that can be controlled using Cortana—a move that could inspire app developers to dream up new uses for the voice interface.

In addition to its iOS and Android apps, Insteon already offers conventional apps that allow users to control the company’s Internet-connected lightbulbs, wall switches, thermostats, and outlets on Windows phones and tablets.

The addition of Cortana voice controls is still in the early stages. During a demonstration at a Microsoft Store in San Francisco on Tuesday with a Windows smartphone and array of Insteon gadgets, it could do only a few simple things like turn an Insteon lightbulb on and off or, in response to the spoken command, “Insteon, it’s hot in here.” The smartphone responded “Nobody likes being hot, want to adjust your thermostat?” while pulling up thermostat information.

Insteon cofounder and CEO Joe Dada said in an interview Tuesday that he has long been interested in bringing voice control to his company’s automation products. Yet while Insteon has tried voice-recognition technologies in the past, it found consumers weren’t interested enough and the technologies didn’t work well enough. “It was just too early,” he said.

Dada says he’s currently using Cortana at home to turn various things on and off.

Despite efforts to improve understanding of voices and language and filtering of background noise, though, usage of voice-recognition technology is still not all that common. Consumers expect voice-recognition software to work nearly all the time, and often get frustrated when it fails—which is still a common problem no matter which company is behind it.

More NSA Stupidity

Germany tells top U.S. spy official to leave the country

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014

(CNN) — Germany’s government has asked America’s top spy chief stationed in the country to leave.
It’s a punitive gesture usually reserved for adversarial nations in times of crisis and only very rarely for an ally, particularly a very close one.
But allegations of American spying have seriously injured German trust, Chancellor Angela Merkel has said. And it’s time for a reset.
Germany let loose the diplomatic slap, reminiscent of a Cold War rebuke, after news of two new possible U.S. espionage cases broke back to back in a week’s time.
Two Germans — one working at a German intelligence agency, the other in the Ministry of Defense — are suspected of spying for the United States.
Will spying now ruin US-German relations? New U.S. spying allegations anger Germany
Local media report that both cases involve stolen official German documents.
The U.S. official shown the door is based in Berlin at the U.S. Embassy, which followed up on Friday’s announcement with a note to journalists:
“The U.S. Embassy has seen the reports that Germany has asked the U.S. Mission Germany’s intelligence chief to leave the country. As a standard practice, we will not comment on intelligence matters.”
A German official confirmed that person was the CIA’s station chief and that the agency’s director, John Brennan, has talked multiple times with his German counterpart.
‘So much stupidity’
Top German government officials have candidly spoken about the decision to expel the U.S. official as they poured their disappointment over alleged U.S. spying into microphones and cameras for days.
Most pointedly, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble casually described the alleged U.S. actions as “daft” before a television talk show audience. “One can only cry over so much stupidity,” he said.
He based his remarks on the essential value of Germany’s cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies to fight international terrorism and complained that spying spoils the relationship.
Legal action
The latest allegations weigh densely on ties already burdened since Edward Snowden leaked indications that the National Security Agency tapped into Merkel’s own cell phone.
They have seemingly undone any of Washington’s diplomatic smoothing over previously alleged NSA intrusions.
One of the new cases has landed on top of an existing investigation on federal prosecutors’ desks into the possible spying on Merkel.
The NSA scandal has also prompted prosecutors to set up a new special committee to investigate and criminally prosecute cyberspying by foreign intelligence.
Merkel deferred to the pending results of those investigations, but it didn’t stop her from expressing on Thursday the disappointment she feels over the suspected acts.
“From a common sense standpoint, in my opinion, spying on allies is, in the end, a waste of energy. We have so many problems, and we should, I find, concentrate on the essentials.”
ISIS, Syria, terrorism — all take priority over spying on each other, she said. And trust between allies is vital.
Privacy is sacred
To understand Germany’s particular hurt over spying allegations, one need only to look at the country’s history in the 20th century, when oppressive fascist and communist regimes spied on citizens in order to persecute them.
During the Cold War, high-level spy scandals stoked division between then divided democratic West Germany and communist East Germany.
The scandals triggered government shakedowns and deep public outrage in the West.
As a result of the Nazi past, democratic, postwar Germany has instituted very strict privacy laws that prohibit government agencies, companies and private individuals from gathering or passing even simple information about citizens without their express consent. Or in criminal cases, without probable cause.
Data protection is so sacred in Germany that advertisers there are prevented from profiling prospective consumers.
Top U.S., German diplomats to meet
Amid the new allegations, the top U.S. and German diplomats are expected to meet in Vienna, Austria, this weekend during multination negotiations about the future of Iran’s nuclear program, a senior U.S. State Department official said.
While the official said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier will touch on topics such as the Middle East and Ukraine, it’d be hard to imagine the two ignoring the spy issue.
Across the Atlantic in Washington, the new allegations have also raised the eyebrows of some elected officials.
“I am concerned that we are sending the wrong message to a key ally,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado.
Otherwise, administration officials have countered their German counterparts’ candor with lips as sealed as those at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment on the reported intelligence activity as a matter of policy, to protect American national security and “intelligence assets.”
“I’m not going to have anything more to add on that front,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a journalist who asked if reports of Germany booting the U.S. intelligence official were true.
German journalists who contacted Washington officials for comment on the cases, when news of them first broke, reported receiving e-mail replies containing only two words, which they included in their articles in the original English: NO Comment

A Really Big Bird!

A newly declared species may be the largest flying bird to ever live

An artist’s drawing of the newly named species Pelagornis sandersi shows the discovered bone fragments in white. The strikingly well-preserved specimen consisted of multiple wing and leg bones and a complete skull. (Liz Bradford)
By Rachel Feltman July 7 at 6:58 PM
When South Carolina construction workers came across the giant, winged fossil at the Charleston airport in 1983, they had to use a backhoe to pull the bird, which lived about 25 million years ago, up from the earth.

But if the bird was actually a brand-new species, researchers faced a big question: Could such a large bird, with a wingspan of 20 to 24 feet, actually get off the ground? After all, the larger the bird, the less likely its wings are able to lift it unaided.

The answer came from Dan Ksepka, paleontologist and science curator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn.

He modeled a probable method of flight for the long-extinct bird, named as a new species this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If Ksepka’s simulations are correct, Pelagornis sandersi would be the largest airborne bird ever discovered.

Pelagornis sandersi relied on the ocean to keep it aloft. Similar in many ways to a modern-day albatross — although with at least twice the wingspan and very different in appearance, Ksepka said — the bird probably needed a lot of help to fly. It had to run downhill into a head wind, catching the air like a hang glider. Once airborne, it relied on air currents rising from the ocean to keep it gliding.

Paleontologist Dan Ksepka examines the fossilized skull of what may be the biggest flying bird ever found. Its telltale beak allowed Ksepka to identify the find as a previously unknown species of pelagornithid, an extinct group of giant seabirds known for bony, toothlike spikes that lined their upper and lower jaws. (Courtesy of Dan Ksepka)
Like the albatross, Pelagornis sandersi spent much of its time over water.

“It was a bit warmer 25 million years ago,” Ksepka said, “and the sea level was higher. So even though the Charleston airport, where the fossil was found, is on dry land today, it used to be an ocean.”

A Rare Chance to Elect a Rational Governor of Texas

Stand With Wendy Davis


One year ago, Wendy Davis launched a 13-hour filibuster to stop Austin insiders from closing women’s health clinics across the state that provided crucial care to tens of thousands of Texas women.

But that filibuster was about so much more to the women and men from across the state who came together on June 25, 2013.

It was an act of courage and strength to fight back against political insiders abusing their power. The Austin insiders did everything they could to shut Wendy up, to shut the filibuster down and to silence the voices of Texans across the state.

But we would not be silenced.

Wendy’s filibuster has inspired millions of people across our state to join the fight for Texas. We’ve seen her strength and courage spread, reflected and amplified everywhere.

And on this one-year anniversary that courage is greater than ever before and the fight has only just begun.

We’ll keep speaking up. We’ll keep fighting back.

Say you’ll join u

Problems with Pronouns


~ Posted by Rosie Blau, June 23rd 2014

Sometimes being an editor involves coming up with grand thoughts and wild ideas. Much of the time, though, we are thinking about commas, headlines and other matters that, if we get them right, the reader barely notices. Often it’s the smallest of these that provoke the greatest debate in the office.

It was a pronoun that whipped up a storm as the July/August issue of Intelligent Life went to press. In every edition we run a feature called “The Big Question”, in which we put a poser to six writers. This time the question was about how many children to have. But when it came to putting that question on the page, we had a hard time agreeing precisely how to phrase it: “How many children should you have?”, or “How many children should we have?”

Some of us preferred “you”, because it was simple, direct and reflected the personal nature of the question, but others thought it was too bossy—not the first time I have been so accused. They thought “we” was more inclusive and was a better way to introduce a feature whose answers ranged from the highly personal to the planet-saving universal.

A particular concern from the “we” camp was that the question might be offensive—to anyone who didn’t have children or couldn’t have children, for example. I countered that “we” assumed that children had two parents. However you ask it, I suspect the question will raise some hackles. This feature is designed to evoke strong feelings and strong views. Asking about children is an intensely personal issue, perhaps the most intimate question we have asked.

In the end we came up with a slightly untidy compromise: “we” on the cover, “you” inside. That probably means we succeeded in offending absolutely everyone. Sorry.

Public Domain

Public domain

The adventure of the copyrighted detective
Jun 19th 2014, 22:28 by G.F. | SEATTLE

THE curious case of one Mr Sherlock Holmes has completed its journey through the American courts. Who, if anyone, owns the rights to this precise ratiocinator? An appeals court said on June 16th that in the United States the answer is no one. Mr Holmes as a character, plus the majority of his characteristics and those of his chums, are decidedly in the public domain.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective first appeared in a story in 1887. The Conan Doyle Estate, an organisation that looks after the interests of Conan Doyle’s heirs, has said that because ten stories were printed in America for the first time between 1923 and 1927—and so remain under copyright there—all of Mr Holmes’s and Dr John Watson’s salient characteristics are therefore protected. (In Britain and many other countries, all of Conan Doyle’s works entered the public domain in 1980, 50 years after his death. In America the copyright regime has changed for works published in 1978 or later, but most works published between 1923 and 1977 remain in copyright for 95 years.)

Prospero wrote in February 2013 about a lawsuit filed by Leslie Klinger, a lawyer and Holmes expert, who wished to publish a second collection of Holmes-inspired work, edited with Laurie King, an author of detective fiction. For the first collection, he acceded to the wishes of his publisher, which paid the estate a fee. For the second, he refused. He freely acknowledges the in-copyright status of the ten last works, but says he has scrubbed his book of any fact or traits that appear exclusively in those stories. The estate threatened to sue and to warn book distributors against stocking the title.

Mr Klinger’s lawsuit travelled quickly through the courts, and the estate failed to appear during hearings last year. In December 2013 a judge issued a summary judgment in favour of Mr Klinger’s position that any story elements involving Conan Doyle’s detectives that appeared before 1923 were in the public domain. The estate appealed, but a three-judge panel backed the judge when it returned its decision on June 16th.

The estate has relied throughout on an interpretation of copyright law that experts consulted by Prospero and jurists have rejected: that is, that the sum of a character is formed across the entirety of the works in which he or she appears, and is thus protected if any work remains under copyright. The appeals court reaffirmed established law and practice that only sufficiently original elements that appear in individually published works receive such protection.

Richard Posner, one of the three judges at the appeals court and an elegant writer of decisions, noted that the question is “whether copyright protection of a fictional character can be extended beyond the expiration of the copyright on it because the author altered the character in a subsequent work.” Mr Posner writes that it is definitely not the case. Were it to be so, authors would have a direct incentive to continue writing stories with old characters to keep copyright protection in effect for longer periods of time. (The entire decision is worth a read; it’s quite amusing.)

The estate has not let previous setbacks stop it from claiming rights that it asserts it possesses. Mr Klinger may proceed with his publication, but in the tetchy world of publishers, television studios and film studios, in which expensive operations can be halted through a whisper of ownership worries, Conan Doyle’s heirs may continue to collect royalties. And the Supreme Court may be called upon once again to investigate, prognosticate and make logical deductions. Unlike those solved by the great detective, this case is not closed.

Strange Physics of Water at Super-Low Temperatures

Liquid Water in an Icy No Man’s Land

Scientists probe the strange physics of water at super-low temperatures
Jun 20, 2014 |By Ben Fogelson
supercooled water droplets

By zapping tiny water droplets with x-ray laser pulses, scientists have gotten their first glimpse into the behavior of supercooled water in a hard-to-reach “no man’s land” of temperatures below –41 degrees C. Understanding water below its normal freezing point of 0 degrees C has been a challenge because it must be handled with extreme care to keep it in liquid form. The resulting insights may help settle a debate among physicists over water’s fundamental properties, including whether it can take on a fourth state beyond the standard three of solid, liquid and gas.

Water has strange properties unlike those of almost any other liquid, such as expanding rather than contracting upon freezing, and it gets more bizarre as it gets colder. In fact, water’s oddities start at the warmer temperatures suitable for most of life on Earth, says Stanford University photon scientist Anders Nilsson, senior author of a new paper describing the weird water. “We wanted to go into the supercooling,” he says, “because that’s where everything is amplified in this very strange behavior, and we need to understand where this strange behavior comes from.”

Physicists have created supercooled water before, but never this cold and never for long enough to study it closely. To make that leap, Nilsson’s team had to move very fast. Using Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, they fired tiny water droplets, each the width of a human hair, into a vacuum chamber where they started to evaporate and cool off at a rate of about 100,000 degrees C per second. The team then blasted these supercooled droplets in midair with bursts from an x-ray laser. As the x-rays passed through the water, they scattered, painting a detailed picture of the water’s molecular structure. The whole process took only a few milliseconds per drop, but that was long enough for Nilsson’s team to observe them before they’d hardened into ice. The experiment is detailed in the June 19 issue of Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

This ultrafast x-ray technique represents a breakthrough. “I thought it was wonderful,” says Pablo G. Debenedetti, a professor at Princeton University who studies supercooled water and is not affiliated with the project. “They were able to extend the range of temperatures over which you can study liquid water.” Previous experiments had been able to study liquid water down to –41 degrees C, but the new study pushed that limit down to –46. The hope is that extending this limit will help resolve a debate about how water behaves when it gets so cold.

The debate is over the existence of a “critical point”: a specific temperature below which water would have an additional phase of matter beyond the usual three (solid, liquid and gas). Below the critical temperature, so the theory goes, water would have two distinct liquid states of matter, each with different physical properties such as density and compressibility. Depending on the ambient pressure, supercooled water could be in either one of these states.

Up to now, sophisticated computer models offered the only way to study water below –41 degrees C, but they were not accurate enough to predict exactly how real water behaves. Some of the models predict the existence of a critical point whereas others do not. The new technique has yet to settle the debate, but it should give researchers the experimental firepower they need to prove once and for all whether the critical point exists.

The answer will not just teach us about supercooled water. If the critical point does exist, it will explain a lot about how water behaves under more ordinary conditions. Although water at room temperature and pressure exists as a single liquid state, little clusters of molecules could coalesce into temporary structures that act like the two supercooled liquid states. “The water doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s sort of dancing around locally in small regions of either of these two,” Nilsson says, “and that is why water behaves so weirdly, according to the theory.”


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