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Happy Halloween. Want to be scared? Take a look at how much time you’re spending on your smartphone. Also: Twitter might be dropping the “like” button, hackers pwned DOD weapon systems, and the latest robots prove to be more agile than most humans. But first, some treats: a new MacBook Air and new iPads will make you scream.

New MacBook Air is the best computer, new iPad Pros raise the tablet bar again

At a New York City event this week, Apple showed off new computers and iPads.

After a couple of years of very minor updates, the MacBook Air has been fully refreshed, and the new features and specs instantly put the computer at the top of my “best laptops available” list.

With a 13.3-inch Retina display and Touch ID, the new laptop gets a crisp screen and the ability to unlock the computer with a fingerprint, which has been the best feature of the Touch Bar found on the MacBook Pros.

It also gets the new “butterfly” keyboard and a larger, Force Touch trackpad.

Add to that a new camera, microphones, and speakers, an improved battery, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and the “all-new” MacBook Air is the most versatile system available now. It’s available to preorder now starting at Cdn$1,499 for release on November 7.

The newly iterated iPad Pros, meanwhile, have been given the edge-to-edge screen of the new iPhones. That means the 11-inch and 12.9-inch models are equipped with Face ID.

But they’ve lost the headphone jack, and instead of a Lightning port for charging, iPad Pros will now use a USB-C connector.

Also getting a refresh are the Apple Pencil, which attaches to the iPad Pro with magnets and will charge when it’s attached, and the Smart Keyboard, which is a full-size keyboard and protective case.

The new iPad Pros are available to order now and are priced starting at $999 and $1,249. They’ll ship on November 7.

Jack Dorsey said Twitter might get rid of likes, but that’s not going to happen

At the Wired25 event in San Francisco last week, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey revealed he isn’t sure that the “like” button and follower counts associated with Twitter accounts are particularly helpful.

“Right now we have a big Like button with a heart on it and we’re incentivizing people to want it to go up,” he said while on stage with Nick Thompson, Wired’s editor in chief. “Is that the right thing? Versus contributing to the public conversation or a healthy conversation? How do we incentive healthy conversation?”

Some media outlets took that to mean that Twitter was going to remove the like functionality, but that was a huge extrapolation of what Dorsey actually said.

And earlier this week, the company responded to the reports by saying that this was nothing new, that Dorsey had mentioned “in front of the US Congress” that the company had been thinking for a while about how to incentivize “healthy conversation” but that there was nothing happening “soon”.

It may be that removing the retweet functionality would do more to change the social conversation.

How much time are you spending on your smartphone and tablet?

The easiest scares this Halloween may come from the recognition you are spending way too much time on your mobile.

With Screen Time, the new feature available on iPhones as part of iOS 12, you can see exactly how much time you’re spending, and you can dive down into what apps you’re using the most, too.

In the last week, for example, I spent, on average, one hour and thirty-five minutes per day on the iPhone XS Max I’ve been using (more on that experience soon). Two and a half hours of that was on social networking (Facebook, Twitter), two and a half hours was using “productivity” apps like email, Slack, and calendars.

The cool thing about Screen Time is that you can dispel the dread that came when you first looked at your usage.

You can schedule times when your device will effectively shut down, permitting phone calls only. Or you can set time limits for specific apps (if you’re burning through your days playing Angry Birds, for example).

You can also control the usage of family members you monitor, so if your kids keep texting with their friends late into the night under the covers, you can put a stop to that right quick.

Hackers easily take control of U.S. weapon systems

Given that Trump seems hell bent on reintroducing the Cold War, don’t you feel good to know that the U.S. military can’t even keep control of its own weapon systems?

That’s the disturbing finding of a “cybersecurity” test that the Pentagon staged and the U.S. Government Accountability Office analyzed

The GAO found that Department of Defense officials “believed their systems were secure and discounted some test results as unrealistic.”

This was after they realized that, “Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of systems and largely operate undetected, due in part to basic issues such as poor password management and unencrypted communications.”

“In one case, the test team took control of the operators’ terminals. They could see, in real time, what the operators were seeing on their screens and could manipulate the system.”

Sleep well tonight.

Boston Dynamics robots more agile, mobile than ever

We’ve been tracking the progress of the robots being designed at Boston Dynamics for a couple of years. At first they were interesting and curious.

Now they are genuinely frightening in their abilities.

Just watch this “humanoid” Atlas running and navigating around ground obstacles and climbing up some offset stairs.

And there’s also Spot, the “dog”, proving that robots can even dance better than some of us. Okay, I’ll admit it: Spot dances better than me.

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Categories Consumer technology | Video games

This week, the Mysterious Package Company intrigues, podcast festivals are coming to Toronto and Vancouver, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey makes some changes that make it a better game. But first, a look at the Google Pixel 3 smartphone.

Google’s Pixel 3 is the best Android smartphone you can get

I’ve been using the Google Pixel 3 for a couple of weeks now and it’s easily the best Android device available.

Available in two sizes, the 5.5-inch 3 ($999 and $1,129) and the 6.3-inch XL ($1,129 and $1,259), the smartphones aren’t all screen like others are (the Pixel 3 has a top and bottom bezel and the Pixel 3 XL has a bottom bezel and a notch at the top), and they aren’t equipped with facial recognition.

They have a fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone, a USB-C port that does duty for connections, charging, and for headphones (the devices ship with USB-C earphones and an adapter for headphones with a 3.5mm jack).

The glass backs allow for wireless charging (Qi standard) which works great with the Pixel Stand, which turns your smartphone into a Google Home hub.

And the lean software installation and Android Pie operating system means that these phones run fast, giving you barely time to blink when opening and switching between apps.

The photos you’ll take with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are class-leading. The machine learning/AI support for photography means that you’ll be snapping photos and taking selfies that rival what you’d get with a DSLR. The Top Shot feature alone will be your saviour.

But a few of the lesser talked about features are what really make a difference, I think, and serve to set the Pixel 3 devices apart from iPhones and other Android devices.

Google Lens, for example, is more integrated into the phone, so you can use the camera to help you identify that plant growing in your yard or translate that street sign when you’re on vacation in Eastern Europe. You can even use it to scan business cards.

Google Assistant, meanwhile, can screen your phone calls before you answer them, in the same way a receptionist would.

And if you’re thinking about moving to the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL from a different device or manufacturer, the “Quick Switch Adapter” software makes it easy.

Surprise someone with the gift of an experience from the Mysterious Package Company

For the past few weeks, Drex has been receiving strange packages.

They’ve been coming from the Mysterious Package Company, a Toronto-based group that tells stories through objects and artifacts they send to people in the mail. These items are clues to puzzles and narratives that build over time until the story is complete.

I was given the opportunity to “gift” one of these experiences to Drex, and the entire thing was a surprise to him until he received a final letter revealing my involvement.

He told me it was “totally weird” and that he thought at first he was being pranked.

The story I sent him was Tempus Fugit, which he found to be a bit confusing. There are a few other genres of experience, including a couple that are okay for families, and a couple of more horror-like ones that are definitely not.

Now that I’ve sent one, I want to be a recipient! I’m curious to experience the strange storytelling for myself.

Podcast festivals hit Toronto, Vancouver in November

There’s a podcast for everyone these days, and if you want a chance to see the people behind the microphones, check out the Hot Docs Podcast Festival, dropping into the Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto for five days from November 1 through November 5.

Highlight event: LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow doing a live reading Friday, November 2 at 6:30 p.m.

Starting a few days later is the inaugural Vancouver Podcast Festival, which runs November 8 to November 10 at a number of venues in downtown Vancouver.

Highlight event: Harry Potter Podfest at the VPL at 11 a.m. on November 10. This one is free.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sheds some baggage and shows off a tantalizing new approach to open world games

The new Assassin’s Creed game from Ubisoft is quite unlike the others in the blockbuster franchise.

For one, it’s set before the time established by the previous games as when the Brotherhood of Assassin’s was created. That’s easily dealt with by the narrative. The more prominent shift is away from the strictly stealth-based assassination simulation of the early games, where you needed to escape the chase by hiding in nooks and crannies or crowds of people.

Instead, Odyssey puts you in a more organic, freeform system in which you have more freedom to come up with your own approach. It’s akin to the way other games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Far Cry are presenting open world experiences.

With developed led by Ubisoft Quebec and available for PS4, Switch, Windows, and Xbox One, you become immersed in the world of Ancient Greece just a generation after the Greco-Persian War of the fifth century BCE. It’s takes its initial inspiration from the battle in which Leonidas and the Spartans confronted Xerxes and the Persian army, a tale documented by Herodotus.

The Greek historian is prominent in Odyssey, just as real-life figures have appeared in all Assassin’s Creed games before. The central character you embody is a mercenary of Spartan origin who gets caught up in the political shifts of the time.

You get to choose whether your character is male or female (I played as the very able Kassandra, wonderfully performed by Canadian actor Melissanthi Mahut). You make other decisions, too, and they all impact that game you play to some degree.

And while you aren’t an assassin here, the way you were in previous Assassin’s Creed games, you are a capable killer when you need to be. I confess to missing the pure stealth tactics of those early games, but Odyssey is fluid and dynamic and easy to enjoy.

You may find that the activities get tedious after a while. Tedium is part of any open world game. The trick for the developer is to craft a world that people want to spend time in so that it doesn’t feel boring doing the same things over and over again.

That’s certainly true of Odyssey. The developers crafted a deep and engaging story with crisp characters and varied connections. I was playing for about 20 hours before I started to really notice the grind.

And what drove me forward was the notion that I had just unravelled another twist in the web of intrigue anchoring the narrative.

Assassin’s Creed may be more about solving whodunnits than sneaking around to perform assassinations, but it’s a shift that makes Odyssey one of the best Assassin’s Creed games in years.

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This week, the Screen Composer’s Guild of Canada wants to tax Canadians, Dyson’s invented a new hair dryer, and Peloton exercise bikes are now available in Canada. But first, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has died.

Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder and Seattle-based philanthropist, has died

Way may not have Microsoft if not for the machinations of Paul Allen.

Excellent obits to be found here:

Screen Composer’s Guild of Canada proposes streaming tax for Canadians

A couple of weeks ago, the organization representing composers who make music for television shows and movies delivered a recommendation to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage calling for a “copyright levy” to be paid by anyone using the internet to download more than 15 GB of data each month.

Which is frankly ridiculous. As Open Media’s Laura Tribe said in an interview, “It doesn’t understand how people actually use the internet.”

I’m not suggesting that artists aren’t actually impacted by digital media and how it’s being distributed and consumed these days, but asking people who are already paying for Netflix to pay an additional tax to watch shows on Netflix is double taxation and simply does not fly.

Instead, those artists should be going to the production companies who are selling the rights to those productions and asking for a bigger royalty. That’s where they are getting short shrift.

Dyson unveils new way to curl hair

Curling hair used to require heat to break down molecular bonds in the hair. Engineers at Dyson have come up with a way to get air flow to do the job using the Coanda effect in the new Dyson Airwrap styling device.

This phenomenon works well, according to Dyson design manager Dan Thompson, because, “it attracts hair to the barrel, it automatically wraps the hair, it holds it there in position while it dries, and it blows volume through every curl.”

These aren’t cheap devices. There are three packages with slightly different barrels available that cost Cdn$600 and $650.

But being able to curl hair without burning it every day just might be worth it.

Peloton comes to Canada

The days of boring old exercise bikes are over, because Peloton has moved into Canada.

The Peloton Bike is an exercise bike, yes. It’s got a sleek design and a small footprint, too, perfect for urban apartments. And the demand for these things is raging, and Canadians have been raging about not being able to get the things in Canada.

There’s an entire side industry devoted to getting these things shipped close to the border so Canadian fitness enthusiasts can fetch them. No longer.

What sets Peloton apart are the fitness classes that are delivered directly through your internet connection to the big touchscreen mounted to the front of the stationary cycle.

It’s like being in a fitness studio without having to leave your home!

You can take classes in real time or on demand, and the intensity and level are varied to match every possible person.

The Peloton Bike is yours for only Cdn$2,950, and you can get packages that add things like headphones, shoes, heart rate monitors and water bottles.

When you purchase a bike, you commit to a monthly Peloton Membership which costs $49 a month and gives you access to the classes. The subscription is tied to the bike, not the customer, so anyone in your house can take advantage of the classes.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, you can visit the Peloton showroom in Toronto at 130 Bloor Street West. Another showroom in Yorkdale opens later this month, and in November showrooms open in West Edmonton Mall and Calgary’s Chinook Centre.

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This week, Google reveals new devices, including the new Pixel 3 smartphones and Pixel Slate tablet and news about an Amazon experiment using artificial intelligence to screen job applicants. But first, Google+ gets shuttered.

Google shuts down Google+ after Wall Street Journal uncovers vulnerability

An article in the Wall Street Journal last week asserted that the private information of users of Google+ had been vulnerable without the company informing them.

Google has since decided to close the Google+ social networking service.

The report alleges that between 2015 and March of this year, a software vulnerability in the Google+ code meant that user profile data was accessible by developers outside Google.

There is no evidence, Google says, “that any developer was aware of this bug, or abusing the API, and we found no evidence that any Profile data was misused.”

The software bug was fixed in March 2018. Google’s bigger problem is that the company kept it all a secret.

Internal memos discussing the problem and the way to handle it were source documents used in the reporting by the Wall Street Journal. “The document shows Google officials knew that disclosure could have serious ramifications. Revealing the incident would likely result ‘in us coming into the spotlight alongside or even instead of Facebook despite having stayed under the radar throughout the Cambridge Analytica scandal,’ the memo said. It ‘almost guarantees Sundar will testify before Congress.’”

This comes on the heels of news in September that 50 million Facebook users may have had their accounts accessed by hackers.

Pixel 3 smartphone, Pixel Slate, and other products announced by Google

At an event in New York yesterday, Google showed off its new smartphones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.

Priced starting at $999 for the 5.5-inch Pixel 3 and $1129 for the 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL with 64 GB of storage, Google is playing up the impact of artificial intelligence with these new devices. The company says that AI is being used to prioritize battery use to help get you through the day, to suggest phrases so writing emails is quicer, and to improve the photos you take.

Speaking of photos, the Pixel 3 handsets have two front-facing cameras, one with a wide-angle lens, to give you more selfie flexibility (“Groupie” anyone?).

The single camera on the back has a resolution of 12.2-megapixels. And Google is offering free cloud-based storage in your Google Photos account for all photos and videos that you take with your Pixel 3, at their original resolution (including 4K).

The Pixel Stand ($109), meanwhile, is a wireless charging stand. It was also announced today, and while it’s designed by Google ostensibly for using with the Pixel handset, it uses the Qi standard and so can be used with devices from any manufacturer. It supports fast charging and is powered by a USB-C cable.

Pre-order either of the two Pixel 3 models – they release on October 18 – and Google will throw in a Pixel Stand.

The Pixel Slate is Google’s latest take on a tablet-keyboard combo. The Pixelbook, released last winter, is a Chromebook with a built-in keyboard equipped with a 360-degree hinge, but the Slate is more of a tablet, and has a cheaper price point as a result.

Starting at $849 and releasing later this year, the Slate runs the Chrome OS operating system, which has been redesigned with touch screens in mind.

The Slate Keyboard ($259) and Pixelbook Pen ($129) are extra.

Amazon’s failed experiment using AI to screen job applicants

As reported by Reuters today, Amazon at one point was using machine learning to rate job candidates. The problem was that the information used to train the machines were resumes previously submitted, which tended to come from male applicants.

So the AI learned that males were preferred, and was “penalizing” and “downgrading” female applicants.

The company is no longer using the system and sources said the AI recommendations were not paramount when making hiring decisions.

The experiment serves to highlight the big constraint on AI and machine learning: They are only as good as the information they learn from.

Recall the MIT researcher who discovered that facial recognition software in use around the world is racially biased.

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Categories Consumer technology | Video games

This week, Amazon launches Music Unlimited in Canada, Apple adds Shazam to its company, and EA Sports predicts an end to the curse of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But first, the new Surface devices from Microsoft.

Microsoft announces updates to Surface devices, new headphones

In an exclusive event in New York this week, Microsoft revealed new Surface computing devices.

The Surface Pro 6 (starting at $1,179) is a laptop/tablet that now comes with an 8th generation Intel Core processor and some 14 hours of battery life.

The Surface Laptop 2 (starting at $1,299) is a proper laptop with a touchscreen.

The second generation Surface Studio 2 (priced at $4,599 for a 1 TB hard drive and $6,349 for 2 TB of storage) provides more solid-state storage and increased graphics memory. This is a desktop computer designed for the creative class.

The Surface computing devices are all available to pre-order now, but there’s no date for the Canadian availability for the new Surface Headphones, likely because they have Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, built in and in Canada we’ve got that dual language requirement hurdle. The headphones have adjustable noise cancelling functionality, are wireless, and look like they’ll cost about US$350.

Another announcement from Microsoft at the event was about a program called Surface All Access which is essentially a two-year payment program that gets you a Surface device and accessories and an Office 365 subscription. It is not, however, being offered in Canada at the moment.

Amazon Music Unlimited service now available in Canada

Amazon’s premium music streaming subscription service has launched in Canada.

Amazon Music Unlimited is an upgrade from Prime Music, offering more music choices and better Alexa integration.

The new service, competing with Spotify and Apple Music, among others, will cost $8 a month or $79 a year for Prime members and $10 a month for everyone else. A Family Plan for up to six household members is $15 a month or $149 a year.

A Single Device Plan gives you Amazon Music Unlimited on a single Echo device for $4 a month.

For the next while, Amazon is offering a free 90-day trial.

Apple acquires Shazam to bolster its music offering

Apple, meanwhile, has purchased Shazam, the smartphone app that tells you what that song you’re hearing is called and who sings it.

The app was first launched in 2002 and was built to be used with the most basic mobile phones. You used SMS messaging to send the audio sample and receive the song title and artist.

It’s become central to discovering new music in this age of constant connectivity.

Apple will be making the app free and free of advertising, and presumably will be looking at ways the functionality can be worked into other iPhone systems.

Nobody’s said anything, but it’s a good bet that the Android version of the app will be shut down.

EA Sports NHL 19 simulation predicts Maple Leafs as Stanley Cup winners

The NHL regular season kicks off tonight, but the annual simulation of the entire season is already over. And NHL 19 predicts that the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup.

EA Sports does this every year with its various sports simulations, and this year the prediction is that the Leafs will play the San Jose Sharks in the Final. The Vegas Golden Knights, the simulation suggests, will win the Presidents Trophy, which goes to the team which wins the most regular season games.

The predictions for Stanley Cup winners haven’t been great. Last year the simulation picked the Winnipeg Jets, but it was the Washington Capitals which won. The year before the sim had the Nashville Predators beating the Montreal Canadiens, but it was the Pittsburgh Penguins that actually won.

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