Posts made in February 2021

Twitter floats letting users charge for exclusive content

March 1, 2021

On February 25, Twitter announced plans to build a new paid product called Super Follows, Bloomberg reports.

The social network describes Super Follows as a potential subscription product that will enable users to charge their followers for access to special content or experiences—part of a broader effort to diversify Twitter’s revenue sources and give high-profile users a way to make money on the service.

The company first mentioned the new feature during an Analyst Day event—describing it as an “account subscription” that would enable users to charge others on the service for certain content. This could be a number of things, including exclusive tweets, special access to another user’s direct messages or audio conversations, or a paid newsletter, said Twitter’s Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour,. The company plans to release Super Follows “sometime this year.”

According to Bloomberg, Twitter’s shares rose to an all-time high on the product announcement and an upbeat forecast for sales and user growth through 2023. San Francisco-based Twitter recently purchased newsletter startup Revue, and executives have said they are excited about letting newsletter writers build a paying audience on the service. The company is also considering “tipping,” or letting users donate money to people they enjoy following, and charging for Tweetdeck.

“We also think that an audience-funded model, where subscribers can directly fund the content that they value most, is a durable incentive model that aligns the interest of creators and consumers,” said Dantley Davis, Twitter’s chief design officer. Presumably, Twitter would take a cut of the subscription fee.

Twitter executives also talked about the need to move fast—pointing out that the company historically has moved too slowly when it comes to launching and testing new products. “We agree we’ve been slow,” Co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey said to start the event. “If you compare us to our peers on the market, this is especially stark.”

In addition to goals around revenue and user growth, Twitter also said it wants to “double development velocity” by 2023, which means “doubling the number of features shipped per employee.”

Research contact: @Bloomberg

Get paid $3,200 to create art on a remote Michigan island for three weeks

March 1, 2021

If you’re an artist who’s always dreamed of getting your Gauguin on with an immersive island getaway where you can fully indulge yourself in all things nature, you just might be in luck, reports Good News Network.

Located a few miles east of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula in Lake Superior, Rabbit Island may not be Tahiti, but it does boast 91 forested acres of practically pristine paradise and the call for its annual artist’s residency program is now open.

Three lucky applicants will score three-week residencies scheduled to take place sometime from mid-June to mid-September of this year.

If that’s not inspiration enough, the Rabbit Island Foundation also is offering a $3,200 stipend to sweeten the pot. (Past recipients have used the funds to facilitate research, cover travel expenses, purchase supplies, and procure materials.)

All that interested applicants have to do is the following:

Per their website, the Rabbit Island Residency, launched in 2010 “is a platform to investigate, expand, and challenge creative practices in a remote environment. By living and working on Rabbit Island residents engage directly with the landscape and respond to notions of conservation, ecology, sustainability, and resilience.”

Rabbit Island comprises a native ecosystem that’s never been developed or subdivided—and is held in trust so that it never will be. According to Good News Network, bald eagles share the tree-filled landscape with indigenous reptiles, nesting birds, salamanders, salmon, and native lake trout.

While it’s a glorious untamed environment, it’s likely not suited to anyone who can’t do without creature comforts, doesn’t have previous camping experience, or can’t cope with the whims of changing weather. (Intermittent wind and rain are normal; water temperature ranges from 48° to 68° F; air temperature ranges from 40° to 90° F.)

Wifi/cell phone service? Check. Kitchen and library? Check. Open-air studios with tools and equipment? Check. Indoor plumbing? Can you say, “outhouse?”

To commemorate and promote the residency, the Rabbit Island Foundation annually creates a publication featuring the work and research of each resident and also promotes extensively via its social media channels and online archive.

Not a Post-Impressionist? No worries. The call is open to “visual artists of all disciplines, as well as writers, poets, architects, designers, musicians, filmmakers, composers, and choreographers.” In addition to individual applications, small collaborative groups are also encouraged to apply.

Research contact: @goodnewsnetwork

Architect of the Capitol outlines $30 million In damages from pro-Trump insurrection

March 1, 2021

The cost of repairing damages caused by rioters during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol—paired with investments to harden security there right afterward—already has spiraled to a number in excess of $30 million and will keep rising, Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton told lawmakers last week, NPR reports.

The events of January 6, he said, were “difficult for the American people and extremely hard for all of us on campus to witness.”

Blanton said that, to date, congressional appropriations committees have approved a transfer request of $30 million to pay for expenses and extend a temporary perimeter fencing contract through March 31.

But more money will be needed, he added: “History teaches us that project costs for replacements and repairs beyond in-kind improvements across campus will be considerable and beyond the scope of the current budgetary environment.”

The price tag will go even higher, Blanton told lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee, if the fence and other security measures are needed beyond March.

In his prepared testimony, Blanton described how his employees tried to minimize the threat to the Capitol and lawmakers on January 6, when thousands of former President Donald Trump’s supporters breached security perimeters at the Capitol grounds.

“[Architect of the Capitol] employees sheltered congressional staff in their shops to protect them from the roving mob,” Blanton said, adding, “Other members of our team raced to the roof to reverse the airflows within the building to help clear the air of chemical irritants, like bear repellents and pepper spray, while more team members rushed bottles of water and eyewash stations to Capitol Police officers in need of assistance.”

When the mob thronged the Capitol, the Architect of the Capitol’s painters and artisans were laboring to complete the massive task of readying the campus to host a presidential inauguration. “Over the course of a couple of hours, the hard work of our team was destroyed,” Blanton said.

“The [inauguration] platform was wrecked. There was broken glass and other debris. Sound systems and photography equipment was damaged beyond repair or stolen. Two historic Olmsted lanterns were ripped from the ground, and the wet blue paint was tracked all over the historic stone balustrades and Capitol building hallways.”

In the Capitol building complex, historical statues, murals and furniture were damaged, mainly from pepper spray accretions and residue from chemical irritants and fire extinguishers, requiring expert cleaning and conservation. Work crews covered gaping holes with plywood and cleared “a small mountain of debris left behind on the west and east fronts,” Blanton said.

Blanton also said many lawmakers have asked his office about preserving mementos from the unprecedented violence wrought by U.S. citizens on their own Capitol. While most damaged items had to be removed because of safety concerns, he said his staff preserved the panels of the historical Columbus Doors on the east front “for a potential presentation or display.”

According to NPR, Blanton also addressed the security failures that contributed to the U.S. Capitol being occupied by an angry mob that sought to block the certification of then-President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.

“The events of January 6 were stark reminders that institutional biases, priorities and actions taken out of sync with actionable data resulted in poor decisions,” he said. “If we do not learn from these mistakes, the campus will continue to remain vulnerable to unknown and unexpected threats.”

Blanton also asked the committee for help in securing additional funds for a campuswide security assessment to prevent similar events in the future and to protect the Capitol and the people who work there.

Research contact: @NPR

Baarack, a sheep found in the wild, loses 78 pounds of fleece in a much-needed shearing

Febraury 26, 2021

The pandemic lockdown has been hard on many of us, who have not been able to get a professional haircut in 12 months or more. Bu just imagine the relief—and the “shear” joy—of one plucky sheep who recently got his first trim in what could have been many, many years.

The wild and struggling animal was found in a forest in Australia with a fleece that was so overgrown he could barely see, reports Sky News. When it was fully remove, his fleece weighed more than 78 pounds—or about half his body weight.

The sheep, which has been named Baarack, was found by a member of the public who contacted the Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary near  

 

Lancefield, Victoria, about 37 miles north of Melbourne.

Above, Baarack actually was quite thin underneath all of that fleece. (Photo source: Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary)

“It would appear Baarack was once an owned sheep,” said the Mission’s Kyle Behrend.”He had at one time been ear-tagged, however these appear to have been torn out by the thick matted fleece around his face.

“Sheep need to be shorn at least annually otherwise the fleece continues to grow and grow, as happened here,” said Behrend,

adding, “Whilst [Baarack’s] hooves were in great condition from running over the rocks in the forest, he was in a bit of a bad way. He was underweight, and due to all of the wool around his face he could barely see.”

Baarack is now settling in with other rescued sheep at Edgar’s Mission.

Behrend told Sky News,  “It all goes to show what incredibly resilient and brave animals sheep really are and we could not love them any more if we tried.”

Research contact: @SkyNews

Heads up! Mr. Potato Head is getting a rebrand for the 21st-century

Febraury 26, 2021

Next fall, you’re cordially invited to Mr. Potato Head’s wedding. He’s marrying his partner of many years, another Potato Head. And they promise it’s going to be the party of the year, with—you guessed it—plenty of spuds on the menu.

The Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based toy giant Hasbro is rebranding its iconic Mr. Potato Head toy by dropping the “Mr.” from the name, reports Fast Company.

On the surface, it may seem like a subtle shift, but it is designed to break away from traditional gender norms, particularly when it comes to creating Potato Head families—which is how toddlers frequently play with the toy, according to Hasbro’s research. But when the new brand is unveiled, kids will have a blank slate to create same-sex families or single-parent families. It’s a prime example of the way heritage toy brands are evolving to stay relevant in the 21st century.

Hasbro launched Mr. Potato Head in 1952 for the princely sum of $0.98 (or $10 in today’s currency). Back then, families had to supply their own real potato, which kids could then turn into little people thanks to plastic pieces in the box, such as hands, feet, and eyes, and accessories such as a pipe, and felt pieces that were meant to be mustaches.

The following year, Mrs. Potato Head launched with feminized accessories, such as hair bows and red high heels. The Potato Heads were the first toys to be marketed directly to kids, that strategy worked like gangbusters: More than one million kits were sold in the first year.

The enduring success of Potato Head comes down to its sheer silliness, Kimberly Boyd, an SVP and GM at Hasbro who works on the Potato Head brand told Fast Company. The idea of a potato person with an enormous mustache is universally hilarious, particularly to the sensibilities of small children. But after that initial laugh, Boyd says that kids continue to engage with the toy because it provides a canvas onto which they can project their own experiences.

“The sweet spot for the toy is two to three years old,” she says. “Kids like dressing up the toy, then playing out scenarios from their life. This often takes the form of creating little potato families, because they’re learning what it means to be in a family.”

Over the decades, the Potato Head brand has explicitly played into this tendency to create families. It has sold Mr. Potato Head family sets, with a male and a female character, along with smaller potato children. In 2012, Hasbro celebrated the 60th wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head with a boxed set featuring the couple.

But eight years later, the brand wants to stop leaning so heavily into this traditional family structure. “Culture has evolved,” she says. “Kids want to be able to represent their own experiences. The way the brand currently exists—with the “Mr.” and “Mrs.”—is limiting when it comes to both gender identity and family structure.”

The brand’s solution is to drop the gendered honorific title altogether. This means the toys don’t impose a fixed notion of gender identity or expression, freeing kids to do whatever feels most natural to them: A girl potato might want to wear pants and a boy potato might wear earrings.

Hasbro also will sell boxed sets that don’t present a normative family structure. This approach is clever because it allows kids to project their own ideas about gender, sexuality, and family onto the toy, without necessarily offending parents that have more conservative notions about family.

Research contact: @FastCompany

Trump’s tax returns and related records turned over to Manhattan district attorney

February 26, 2021

Former President Donald Trump has been forced to put his money where his mouth is. After years of braggadocio about his billions, his real estate deals, and his penchant for “winning,” the “former guy” now has handed over years of tax and business records to the Manhattan district attorney, CNN reports.

Prosecutors obtained the records—which Trump tried to keep secret for years—on Monday, just hours after the US Supreme Court denied Trump’s last-ditch effort to keep the records private, a spokesperson for District Attorney Cy Vance told the cable news network.

The millions of pages of documents, sources say, contain Trump’s tax returns spanning from January 2011 to August 2019; as well as financial statements, engagement agreements, documents relating to the preparation and review of tax returns, and work papers and communications related to the tax returns.

Although the documents handed off from Trump’s long-time accounting firm Mazar’s won’t be released to the public because they’re subject to grand jury secrecy rules, their delivery caps off an extraordinary 17-month quest by the former President and his lawyers to block investigators from obtaining the records.

New York District Attorney Cy Vance is investigating whether Trump and the Trump Organization engaged in tax fraud, insurance fraud and other schemes to defraud, including potentially providing false information to financial institutions or banks about the value of certain buildings and assets.

With the records now in hand, Vance and his fellow prosecutors will be able to dig deeper into investigative theories, pursue interviews with key witnesses, and determine whether they believe any state laws have been violated CNN notes.

In addition to the records from Mazars, Vance’s office has been seeking a slew of other documents. They subpoenaed records and interviewed employees at Deutsche Bank, one of Trump’s creditors, about loans given to him, and insurance broker Aon, according to multiple sources familiar with the investigation. Deutsche Bank has loaned Trump more than $300 million.

Prosecutors have also subpoenaed Ladder Capital, which has loaned the Trump Organization over $100 million, and the Trump Organization for records relating to fees paid to consultants, including Ivanka Trump, these people said.

Mazars’ spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Research contact: @CNN

Mars Perseverance rover’s giant parachute carried secret message

Febraury 25, 2021

It’s not exactly a message in a bottle, but it did travel 292.5 million miles from Earth before its message was read and spread to the rest of humanity. The huge parachute used by NASA’s Perseverance rover to land on Mars contained a secret message, thanks to a puzzle lover on the spacecraft team, SFGate reports, courtesy of AP.

Systems Engineer Ian Clark used a binary code to spell out “Dare Mighty Things” in the orange and white strips of the 70-foot (21-meter) parachute. He also included the GPS coordinates for the mission’s headquarters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Clark, a crossword hobbyist, came up with the idea two years ago. Engineers wanted an unusual pattern in the nylon fabric to help them determine how the parachute was oriented during descent. Turning it into a secret message was “super fun,” he said Tuesday.

Only about six people knew about

the encoded message before Thursday’s landing, according to Clark. They waited until the parachute images came back before putting out a teaser during a televised news conference Monday.

It took just a few hours for space fans to figure it out, Clark said. Next time, he noted, “I’ll have to be a little bit more creative.”

“Dare Mighty Things” — a line from President Theodore Roosevelt — is a mantra at JPL and adorns many of the center’s walls. The trick was “trying to come up with a way of encoding it but not making it too obvious,” Clark said.

As for the GPS coordinates, the spot is 10 feet (3 meters) from the entrance to JPL’s visitor center.

Another added touch not widely known until touchdown: Perseverance bears a plaque depicting all five of NASA’s Mars rovers in increasing size over the years — similar to the family car decals seen on Earth.

Deputy project manager Matt Wallace promises more so-called hidden Easter eggs. They should be visible once Perseverance’s 7-foot (2-meter) arm is deployed in a few days and starts photographing under the vehicle, and again when the rover is driving in a couple weeks.

“Definitely, definitely should keep a good lookout,” he urged.

Research contact: @SFGate

New USPS delivery vehicle with more headroom, safety features, and AC coming in 2023

Febraury 25, 2021

Few things have changed less during the course of this century than this nation’s fleet of postal delivery vehicles.

The familiar squat, box-like vans—produced from 1987 through 1994, and in service ever since— have a steering wheel on the right, to make it easier for drivers to reach out and put mail in curbside mail boxes. They have few creature comforts—certainly not air conditioning.

Overall, they were designed to be rugged, not flashy. They have lived up to their name, the Grumman LLV, for long lasting vehicle.

Indeed, says CNN, this ubiquitous fleet of 200,000 vehicles has been around longer than such common features of modern life as smartphones, online shopping, social media, streaming services, or Google. About 70% of them are between 25 and 32 years old.

But their days are finally numbered. A contract with Oshkosh Defense, a unit of Oshkosh Corp. Under the contract between 50,000 and 165,000 new postal trucks will be produced over a period of ten years. Oshkosh initially will receive $482 million to initiate engineering efforts to finalize the production vehicle design, and for tooling and factory build-out activities that are necessary prior to vehicle production.

The amount of the contract to actually purchase the production version of the vehicles has not yet been set—but it will almost certainly be a multi-billion dollar deal.

As for the design of the new van, it has a low engine compartment and hood; and a very high windshield. It looks like a duck’s head, complete with bill. The back is tall enough for a letter carrier to stand in.

It also has safety features missing from many of the current vehicles, including — believe it or not — airbags, which are standard features in virtually all motor vehicles today.

They also will have back-up cameras, front collision warnings, automatic front and rear braking, blind spot detectors and, to the relief at last of letter carriers come summer, air conditioning.

And, according to CNN, the vehicles will have more cargo space than current vehicles—enabling USPS to deliver more packages, a growing and profitable part of its business, rather than traditional letters, a segment that’s shrinking.

Many but not all of the Next Generation Delivery Vehicles(NGDVs) will be electric vehicles. With electric vehicle changing at a fast pace and the vehicles designed to last decades, the contract calls for the electric versions to able to be retrofitted to keep pace with advances.

The rest will be what the USPS says will be high efficiency traditional gasoline engines. The precise mix between EVs and internal combustion engines has not been set. But the mix has already elicited criticism from environmentalists.

“The USPS NGDVs should be electrified as a matter of urgency,” Robbie Diamond, president of Securing America’s Future Energy, or SAFE, told CNN. “This contract is a golden opportunity to stimulate the domestic EV market and supply chain, and a commitment to electrifying the NGDV would provide a clear incentive for further domestic EV industry development.”

The vehicles have also been in the works for years. USPS has been working on the project with potential suppliers since 2016.

Research contact: @CNN

In a volte-face, Mitch McConnell will back Merrick Garland for attorney general

February 25, 2021

He gave him the cold shoulder in 2016, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said Tuesday that he would back the nomination of Merrick Garland to be the next U.S. attorney general, the HuffPost reports.

Politico asked the Kentucky Republican if he supported Garland’s nomination, even after he refused to allow a hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court five years ago.

“I do,” McConnell told the publication. He declined to elaborate.

President Joe Biden tapped Garland—a former federal prosecutor who led the investigation of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing—to be his attorney general shortly after his inauguration last month. He has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997.

McConnell refused to consider Garland’s nomination by then-President Barack Obama in 2016 following the February 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia—arguing that a vacancy in an election year should be decided by the American people. Donald Trump won that election and nominated Justice Neil Gorsuch to the bench in 2017.

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last year—just months before the election that saw Biden elevated to the presidency, the HuffPost notes—Republicans quickly moved to fill her seat with Amy Coney Barrett before Election Day.

McConnell called his unprecedented efforts to block Garland the “most consequential thing I’ve ever done” and the peak achievement in his effort to reshape the nation’s judiciary.

At his confirmation hearing this week, Garland vowed to restore independence to the Justice Department and tackle growing domestic issues. He said the ongoing investigation into the deadly riot at the Capitol will be a priority, as will the growth of domestic extremism.

“I do not plan to be interfered with by anyone,” Garland told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. He added that the “attorney general represents the public interest,” a subtle jab at his predecessors who have been criticized for politicizing the role.

Other top Republicans have already announced their support for Garland, including Senators. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and Thom Tillis (North Carolina). McConnell’s backing could lead to other GOPers voting in favor of Garland’s nomination.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on his nomination on March 1, and his final confirmation vote in the full chamber could take place sometime in the next week.

Research contact: @HuffPost

Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen collaborate on new Spotify podcast series, ‘Renegades’

February 24, 2021

Last year, Bruce Springsteen sat down for an in-depth conversation with former President Barack Obama that has become the crux of a new eight-part podcast —the first two episodes of which debuted this week on the audio streaming app Spotify, ABC-TV’s Good Morning America reports.

Renegades: Born in the USA was produced by Obama and wife Michelle’s new Higher Ground Productions company. The podcast features the politician and the rocker—both of them, cultural icons—discussing a wide range of topics, from family to race, to marriage, to fatherhood, to the current state in which America finds itself.

According to GMA, the preview, available on Spotify’s YouTube channel, includes a scene in which Springsteen and Obama discuss some issues they had with their fathers.

“My father was silent most of the time. He was not communicative,” Springsteen says. “I grew up thinking, you know, my father was, like, ashamed of his family. That was my entire picture of masculinity.”

Obama then shares, “So my father leaves when I’m two, and I don’t meet him until I’m ten years old, when he comes to visit for a month. I have no way to connect to the guy. You know…he’s a stranger who’s suddenly in our house.”

In another segment, Springsteen recalls that he bought his first guitar for $18, and that he then started learning some Beatles songs.

When Obama asks him how his parents reacted, the legendary singer-songwriter says, mimicking them, “Turn it down!”

Research contact: @GMA