E3 2017: Video Games Take Centre-Stage as Spectator Sport

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/ Getty Images North America/ AFP
HIGHLIGHTS
YouTube, Twitch, and Facebook turned gamers into online stars at E3 2017
The e-Sports matches were hugely popular at the annual gaming expo
YouTube billed itself as the biggest gaming platform with record audience
Long fiercely guarded video game industry terrain, the Electronic Entertainment Expo kicked off Tuesday with YouTube, Twitch and Facebook turning gamers into online stars.

A hot trend of video game play streamed as spectator sport and “YouTubers” becoming famous for skills or pithy commentary pervaded the annual gathering, from unveilings of titles to major ‘e-Sports’ matches staged for the first time on the show floor.

“There is a reality now that the influencers of the gaming industry are no longer the games, but the YouTube creators,” YouTube head of gaming Ryan Wyatt told AFP.

E3 2017: Video Games Take Centre-Stage as Spectator Sport

“It is smart to bring creators into the fold so the feedback is constructive, and not scathing reviews.”

Players who have risen to stardom by streaming play online took part in theatrical press conferences held by game and console makers in the days ahead of the formal opening of E3.

Unveilings of eagerly-awaited titles and new franchises were streamed live on platforms including Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube – drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers.

YouTube billed itself as the biggest gaming platform, and said that broadcasters from E3 racked up record-sized audiences.

“Before publishers caught on to the power of the creator, I think creators felt alienated,” Wyatt said, referring to players who stream game action and comment online.

“All of that has changed now. They are integrated into the show and their feedback goes into the design, marketing and promotion of games.

Outshining real-world sports
Video game competition as spectator sport is driving the industry in many ways, according to Craig Levine, chief of leading e-Sports company ESL.

Developers are building games with features to be attractive online spectator events, offerings at E3 showed.

“There are more people watching these games than playing them; it has more than crept into the design cycle,” Levine told AFP.

As competitive performance climbs as a priority, hardware makers push to field better computer chips, screens, controllers and more.

This week, for the first time at E3, there was an e-Sports zone powered by ESL where video game battles were fought and streamed online.

“ESports has one of the fastest growing audiences in not just video games but all of entertainment,” said Rich Taylor, senior vice president of communications at the Electronic Software Association behind E3.

The eSports industry will accelerate from roughly $200 million (roughly Rs. 1,288 crores) in revenue in 2015 to $1-billion (roughly Rs. 6,436 crores) by 2018, according to Baird Equity Research estimates cited by E3 organisers.

In the coming three years, the global audience for eSports was predicted to grow to a half-billion viewers, eclipsing the numbers watching traditional real-world sports, according to Levine.

And, while the focus at E3 was on games for consoles or Windows-powered computers, mobile game play is consistently in top ranks when it comes to viewing, according to YouTube.

More women gamers
The gaming community is huge at Facebook, which returned to E3 this year with an area for live-streamed chats with developers and personalities, and where visitors could share thoughts about the show at the social network and capture memories with 3D or augment reality technology that put them into game scenes.

During the past month, 43 million people have made some 115 million posts, ‘likes,’ and comments related to E3 and major titles.

More than a third of that sharing came from women, who are a growing part of the gaming community, according to Facebook.

“We’ve seen this community of gamers continue to grow and evolve each year – with women now taking a growing share of the conversation around E3,” said Facebook head of global console and online gaming Franco DeCesare.

About 800 million members of the social network play at least one Facebook game monthly, director of global games partnerships Leo Olebe told AFP.

Facebook worked with ESL, video game giant Activision and others at E3 to create content for the social network.

“The fact that the player really is at the center of everything is really powerful,” Olebe told AFP.

“As the player takes a larger role in what’s happening inside our industry, Facebook is perfectly positioned to facilitate that process.”

Celebrating the Music of Video Games as an Art Form

HIGHLIGHTS

  • London Symphony Orchestra will perform game music this weekend
  • Music will include songs from Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario
  • This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first game-music concert

The electronic bleeps and squawks of Tetris, Donkey Kong and other generation-shaping games that you may never have thought of as musical are increasingly likely to be playing at a philharmonic concert hall near you.

From the “ping … ping” of Atari’s 1972 ground-breaking paddle game Pong, the sounds, infectious ditties and, with time, fully-formed orchestral scores that are an essential part of the sensory thrill for gamers have formed a musical universe. With its own culture, sub-cultures and fans, game music now thrives alone, free from the consoles from which it came.

When audiences pack the Philharmonie de Paris’ concert halls this weekend to soak in the sounds of a chamber orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra performing game music and an homage to one of the industry’s stars, Final Fantasy Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu, they will have no buttons to play with, no characters to control.

They’re coming for the music and the nostalgia it triggers: of fun-filled hours spent on sofas with a Game Boy, Sonic the Hedgehog and the evergreen Mario.

“When you’re playing a game you are living that music every day and it just gets into your DNA,” says Eimear Noone, the conductor of Friday’s opening two-hour show of 17 titles, including Zelda, Tomb Raider, Medal of Honor and other favorites from the 1980s onward.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBV1MLX02fM?ecver=2]

“When people hear those themes they are right back there. And people get really emotional about it. I mean REALLY emotional. It’s incredible.”

Dating the birth of game music depends on how one defines music. Game music scholars – yes, they exist – point to key milestones on the path to the surround-sound extravaganzas of games today.

The heartbeat-like bass thump of Taito’s Space Invaders in 1978, which got ever faster as the aliens descended,caused sweaty palms and was habit-forming.

Namco’s Pac-Man, two years later, whetted appetites with an opening musical chirp . For fun, check out the 2013 remix by Dweezil Zappa, son of Frank, and game music composer Tommy Tallarico. Their take on the tune speaks to the sub-culture of remixing game music, with thousands of redos uploaded by fans to sites like ocremix.org – dedicated, it says, “to the appreciation and promotion of video game music as an art form.”

Celebrating the Music of Video Games as an Art Form

Based on the Russian folk song Korobeiniki, the music of the 1984 game Tetris has similarly undergone umpteen remixes – including Tetris Meets Metal, with more than 2.2 million views on YouTube.By 1985, the can’t-not-tap-along-to-this theme of Super Mario Bros., the classic adventure of plumber Mario and his brother Luigi, was bringing fame for composer Koji Kondo, also known for his work on Legend of Zelda. Both are on the bill for the Retrogaming concert in Paris. Kondo was the first person Nintendo hired specifically to compose music for its games, according to the 2013 book, Music and Game.

Noone, known herself for musical work on World of Warcraft, Overwatch and other games, says the technological limitations of early consoles – tiny memories, rudimentary chips, crude sounds – forced composers “to distill their melodies down to the absolute kernels of what melodic content can be, because they had to program it note by note.”

But simple often also means memorable. Think “da-da-da-duh” – the opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“That is part of the reason why this music has a place in people’s hearts and has survived,” Noone says of game tunes. “It speaks to people.”

She says game music is where movie music was 15 years ago: well on its way to being completely accepted.

“I predict that in 15 years’ time it will be a main staple of the orchestral season,” she says. “This is crazy to think of: Today, more young people are listening to orchestral music through the medium of their video game consoles than have ever listened to orchestral music.”

She still sometimes encounters snobbism from orchestras: “They saw ‘Pong’ once and that’s video game music to them, you know?”

But “halfway through the first rehearsal, their attitude has changed,” she adds. “And then when they walk out on stage and the audience treats them like they’re The Rolling Stones.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first game-music concert: The Tokyo Strings Ensemble performed Dragon Quest at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in August 1987. Now there are six touring shows of symphonic game music, Noone says.

“This is just the best way, the most fun way to introduce kids to the instruments of the orchestra,” she adds. “It may be the first time ever they are that close to a cellist, and that’s really exciting for me.”

 

Agri-tech startups have a field day as farmers, investors sow seeds of growth

In Indian agriculture, the scope—and application—of technology has long been limited to genetically-modified crops, high-yield seeds and, of late, a handful of sophisticated tools like aerial images and GPS technology. Needless to say, a lot of challenges that farmers faced remained unresolved, partly because there were no problem-solvers around.

But that’s fast changing. Leveraging rising mobile and internet penetration, an army of agri-tech startups is offering farmers services such as on-demand delivery of farm inputs, online financial assistance, weather updates, drone-driven crop health identification, soil health assessment and equipment on rent, among others. Then, for purposes of edification and infotainment, there are startups offering both financial literacy videos and online games, such as Wonder village and Farmer Book!

The array of offerings clearly suggests these startups are finding takers in farmers.

Ayush Nigam, co-founder of Distinct Horizon, a fertiliser application startup, says the biggest change the industry is seeing is that farmers are now willing to adopt new practices that can improve yields or reduce cost. They are open to trying new technologies as long as they are sustainable and don’t require too much additional labour.

Distinct Horizon, which has developed an innovative machine for deep placement of urea fertiliser to increase crop productivity, counts Tata Chemicals and San Francisco-based IDEO.org as partners. Nigam, who feels the space has been underserved for decades, claims his deep placement technology not only doubles farmers’ profits but also helps maintain better soil health.

Then there are startups like Ravgo, a farm equipment rental marketplace that holds out hope for small farmers who cannot afford expensive machinery. Ravgo follows a commission-based model, wherein it charges a certain percentage from vendors for the business it generates for them. The fact that analysts peg India’s tractor-hiring market alone at Rs 15,000 crore per annum indicates the potential of the segment.

The supply-chain space, too, has seen several startups, with logistics between farmers and end-customers continuing to be a tricky area. Others have gotten into primary processing, packaging and selling of produce, spanning the entire chain.

Rising investor interest
Several of these ventures have been able to raise funds from prominent investors like Indian Angel Network, International Finance Corporation, US-based venture capital fund Unitus Impact, and even Denmark-based Bestseller Foundation, a private philanthropic organisation.

“The sector is evoking investor interest because of the enormous market size and the new-found thrust on the end-customer. If entrepreneurs can prove that their concept works and farmers are willing to pay for it, investors will grab the opportunity,” says Nigam. In case of Distinct Horizon, he claims, the precise fertiliser application technology helps the company recoup four times the investment in the first year itself.

Gajjender Yadav, founder at cow milk delivery startup 4SFoods, feels the rise of socially-responsible consumerism is giving the industry a fillip. Besides, the fact that these startup entrepreneurs are not just sitting in AC cabins, but are willing to get their hands dirty, is also driving the change.

Also, investors are placing their bets on startups like 4SFoods, and other farm-to-fork and organic food ventures given the rising propensity of the Indian consumer to loosen their purse strings for healthy, pesticide-free food.

“The disposable income with the middle class is growing, the first avenue they spend money is the better quality of food. Hence, there is an incentive for companies to invest time, energy and money into delivering better quality food to the consumer. As long as the consumer is willing to pay, there is value in investing in these companies. Look at the organic sector, for example, no one was talking about it 5-6 years ago, but now people are buying organic. In general, they are willing to pay 10%-20% extra for packaged, pesticide free food.”

Using Bangalore-based Farmily, farmers can set up micro-sites to display their produce and reach out to potential customers. Whenever a customer shows interest, the farmer receives an SMS with the customer’s details, which eliminates middlemen from the process.

Another app-based startup, Mandi Trades, also connects farmers and buyers.

“Farmers face significant challenges at every point from buying agri-inputs, to improving yields and finally getting a good price for their produce. We are working on solving some of these challenges through technology,” Shardul Sheth, founder and CEO of AgroStar, had told VCCircle earlier this year.

A direct-to-farmer m-commerce platform, AgroStar is operational in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan and claims to have over a million farmers on its platform.

Big Data isn’t behind either, with startups in the space winning insurance companies and banks as clients.

Mostly operating on the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, these startups capture data on crop growth, likely yield, soil moisture, temperature and humidity, among other things, sell it to relevant stakeholders. Buyers include players selling agricultural inputs to farmers, apart from insurers and banks.

And the value-proposition is undeniable given data is the ultimate commodity.

“For most insurance companies, the challenge is to estimate the risk profile of the farmer and his farm. You have to have a lot of information, in terms of what crops are being grown, the track record, data on soil, nutrition, weather and pest attacks, the likely output, and the farmer’s income,” says Hemender Mathur, agribusiness investment lead and venture partner at Bharat Innovations Fund.

Not a cakewalk
Agrawal says the creation of a strong farmer network is tough but paramount. “Because many farmers have been cheated a lot of times by corporates and fly by night companies, they don’t trust you easily. They are generally sceptical and for companies to be able to service them and get the output from them is a challenge,” he observes.

He adds that if startups can figure out how to take “basic technology” to small farmers, productivity will rise.

On the tech side, the primary challenge is domain expertise.

For tech-driven startups, says Mathur, seamlessly integrating the technology platform with domain knowledge of agriculture is critical. “I think the challenge is to build multiple layers of analytics. How to analyse these data points in a form that it becomes more valuable and can be sold to multiple users. It needs a lot of domain expertise. People are not asking for data per se, they are asking for insights,” he adds.

Resilient food demand is, however, a good sign, and it will ensure there is always scope for innovation in all areas of agriculture.

“Challenges are on the supply side…there are so many intermediaries and inefficient handling. Aggregation is clearly the missing link. Primary processing, as simple as trading, sorting and packing, are also areas of big opportunity,” Mathur says.

As for the government’s role in the ecosystem, startups feel it needs to bump up the spend on farm inputs to unlock the sector’s long-term potential.

“The government spends almost 10 times of farm inputs on farm subsidies, but it needs to reverse the trend gradually. Farm subsidy makes a farmer dependent while inputs will make him much stronger and independent,” Yadav says.

More people are buying diamonds for themselves as global sales bounce back

Shoppers are increasingly treating themselves to diamond jewellery, rather than buying it for others – helping push the global market back into growth.

Worldwide diamond sales hit $80bn (£62bn) in 2016, according to industry leader De Beers, reversing a dip the year before when demand from China and India slumped.

Global sales were bolstered by rising demand in the US, the world’s biggest diamond market, which accounts for 50pc of all polished stones.

Stephen Lussier, marketing director of De Beers, said that one-third of all sales in the US were now down to “self-purchase”, up from around a quarter before 2008.

“Gift-giving is still the foundation of sales, but there is a trend of economically empowered women buying diamond jewellery for themselves,” Mr Lussier said.

This is split across younger, “millennial” shoppers – those born after 1980 – and married women, according to De Beers.

jewellers
US diamond retail sales recorded their fifth straight year of growth

The increasing popularity of designer jewellery, such as “stackable” diamond rings, was also driving self-purchase, Mr Lussier added. “It’s very hard for men to buy design-oriented jewellery because we get it wrong. We can buy the classical cuts but women are more particular about designer jewellery.”

Diamond jewellery sales in India slumped 8.8pc last year after the local market was hit by a six-week jewellers’ strike and a surprise demonisation programme launched by the government.

The removal of high-denomination banknotes in a crackdown on the black market rocked the local diamond industry, which is largely cash driven. Although India only accounts for 6pc of global retail sales, it is responsible for around 90pc of the world’s diamond cutting and polishing.

Mr Lussier said the world diamond market was looking “pretty steady” this year, with India bouncing back more quickly than expected, and sales rising in China.

Marissa Mayer Fades Out as Yahoo Set to End Its Run

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Verizon-Yahoo deal recently got a nod to be completed on June 13
  • Marissa Mayer will be departing the company with $186 million
  • She became the Yahoo CEO in 2012

Marissa Mayer was hailed as Yahoo’s savior when she took charge of the pioneering Internet firm five years ago.

But Mayer was unable to stem the decline of the iconic Silicon Valley company, which is set to close a deal on Tuesday selling its core Internet operations to telecom giant Verizon.

She is likely headed for the exit as Yahoo ends two-decade run as an independent company, getting a departure package worth an estimated $186 million.

Marissa Mayer Fades Out as Yahoo Set to End Its Run

Mayer inherited a company in protracted decline, having lost its leadership as an Internet search company to Google and falling behind others like Facebook in serving money-making ads to users.

She is the latest in a line of chief executives who tried to reinvent Yahoo, and her experience at rival Google inspired hope.

“Marissa inherited a mess, in a company that had already lost its leadership role in search,” said Creative Strategies president and analyst Tim Bajarin, who has known Yahoo since its early days.

Mayer, 42, joined Google in 1999 as its 20th employee and led efforts for hit products, including its flagship search product and homepage.

At Yahoo, where she became CEO in 2012, she went on a buying spree that included a $1 billion acquisition of blogging platform Tumblr to reach a younger audience.

She also cut more than a thousand jobs.

“Buying your way out of a problem like this is rarely going to solve your trouble,” analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group said of acquisitions racked up at Yahoo.

Yahoo’s finances have been skewed by its stake in China’s Alibaba. It bought a 40 percent stake in Alibaba in 2005 for $1 billion and its current holding is now worth many times that amount, dwarfing the value of its Internet operations.

It also has a multibillion-dollar stake in Yahoo Japan. These holdings will not be transferred to Verizon but remain in a separate entity named “Altaba.”

Like to dislike
A survey released last month by business insights specialty website Owler ranked Mayer as the second most disliked chief executive, behind the head of United Airlines.

“Career-wise, Marissa is done,” Enderle said.

“She’s rich, so she could certainly fund herself as a venture capitalist but if she doesn’t work on her skill set she is going to lose a lot of money as a VC.”

Enderle put fault on the Yahoo board, saying Mayer was put in a “very bad spot” and failed to provide a mentor for a job she had never done before.

 

“Like our president, it shows that when you take someone with no idea what they are doing and put them in a job they shouldn’t do, it will end badly,” Enderle said.

Born in a small Wisconsin city, Mayer worked at a grocery store before attending Stanford University, where she studied computer science.

While her intellectual skills qualify her as a nerd, her blond good looks and star quality have put her on the cover of magazines including Fortune, Vanity Fair and Vogue, where pictures of her featured in a fashion spread.

Glamour magazine named her “woman of the year” in 2009 and she has been on several lists of influential tech personalities.

Pioneered search
Yahoo was one of the first companies that enabled users to find their way online, but lost its role as a leader.

It is selling its core Internet operations to telecom giant Verizon for $4.48 billion, capping a long decline from when it had a peak market value of some $125 billion (roughly Rs. 8,05,723 crores) in 2000.

Founded in 1994 by Stanford University students David Filo and Jerry Yang, Yahoo was created as a type of directory for the Internet. It was originally called “Jerry and Dave’s Guide to the World Wide Web.”

Its initial public offering in 1996 was the largest for a tech startup at the time.

Based in Sunnyvale, California, Yahoo became the leading “portal” for the Internet, with a home page that allowed users to click on categories such as sports, finance and movies, or search for information.

“In a way, Yahoo introduced the concept of search,” Bajarin said.

“They started diversifying with all these content layers and in the process didn’t put enough engineering resources in the search engine.”

Google launched in 1998 and usurped Yahoo’s search throne.

While Yahoo will continue to exist under Verizon, it remained to be seen what the telecommunications firm will do with it.

“You’re losing an iconic figure of Silicon Valley,” Bajarin said.

More than 1,000 jobs could be shed as redundant positions get eliminated at combined AOL and Yahoo operations, according to US media reports. Verizon is expected to merge those two operations into a new unit called Oath.

Asus ROG Zephyrus Launched as 'World's Slimmest Gaming Laptop With GeForce GTX 1080' at Computex 2017

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Oppo F3 is priced at 19,990
  • It was launched earlier this month in India
  • The Black Edition will be launched on June 4

Apart from a host of laptops and tablets, Asus has also amped up its Republic of Gamers product lineup at Computex 2017 in Taipei. This includes the “world’s slimmest gaming laptop with a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080”, the Asus ROG Zephyrus (GX501VI), and a new ROG Swift PG35VQ gaming monitor as well. At the ROG Computex event, Asus also unveiled a colourful Strix Fusion headset and a slick USB monitor called ZenScreen as well.

Asus ROG Zephyrus Launched as 'World's Slimmest Gaming Laptop With GeForce GTX 1080' at Computex 2017

Starting with the big news, Asus’s ROG Zephyrus is a laptop built for gamers and is thinner than all the ROG laptops launched before. It boasts of high-end gaming hardware with support for Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics, seventh generation Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor, an optional 120Hz wide-view display, and it ships with the latest Windows 10 Creators Update. During intensive gaming sessions, Asus claims the ROG Zephyrus maintains its temperature with a new ‘Active Aerodynamic System’ air-flow design crammed into a 16.9 -17.9mm chassis. Asus claims that this new flexible system allows for 20 percent more airflow than before. The laptop weighs only 2.2kgs, and sports of a RGB keyboard as well.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p01VA7qZnfE?ecver=2]

The ROG Zephyrus’ display is at 15.6-inch (1920×1080 pixels) and supports up to 24GB of DDR4 RAM. The laptop offers 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB of M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD storage options. Ports include a Thunderbolt 3 Type-C, four USB 3.1 Type-A, HDMI 2.0 (for VR), and a 3.5mm headset opening. With respect to the keyboard design, the buttons are moved up front for better cooling management and make it feel more like a desktop system. The keyboard, as mentioned, has RGB lightning, and features anti-ghosting keys that can support up to 30 keys pressed at the same time.

 

Asus has launched two variants of the ROG Zephyrus, however, it does not properly specify the differences in the two, though one variant is speculated to downgrade the graphics to a GeForce GTX 1070 card. The ROG Zephyrus GX501VI variant is priced starting at $2699 (roughly Rs. 174,200) and the ROG Zephyrus GX501VS variant is priced starting at $2299 (roughly Rs. 148,400). Both the variants will be available at the end of June in the USA and Canada.

At the ROG event, Asus also launched the ROG Swift PG35VQ gaming monitor that has a quantum dot 3440×1440 pixels LCD display with HDR support. The refresh rate is pegged at an impressive 200Hz and it comes with G-sync support. There’s no word on pricing or availability. Alongside, Asus also launched the Strix Fusion headset with lights that can be configured to blink in sync with your fellow gamer. This is expected to ship sometime in the third quarter.

Lastly, it also launched a 15.6-inch 1080p USB monitor called ZenScreen. It comes with a pen to prop up the monitor, but do note that the ZenScreen does not have a touchscreen display nor does it support stylus. The ZenScreen is priced at $249 (roughly Rs. 16,000), and will launch in Taiwan first, with other markets to follow eventually.

Jacqueline Jossa works out in full make-up showing off her bridal body in sports bra as wedding fast approaches

Jacqueline Jossa’s wedding to former TOWIE star Dan Osborne is fast approaching and there’s no doubt the actress is going to look stunning in her dress after she shared a video of her toned body on Instagram.

In the video, Jacqueline is at a dance class with her two-year old daughter Ella. The adorable toddler moves to the music before pulling mum Jacqueline in to dance with her.

Jacqueline, 24, flaunts her trim body in a sports bra and matching leggings, showcasing a flat and toned stomach.

The EastEnders star shared the video on her Instagram with the caption: “Ella O owns the dance class! As usual my love my darling! I love you always and forever princess.”

Jacqueline danced with Ella in the cute video (Photo: jacjossa/Instagram)

Fans showered Jacqueline with compliments. On user wrote: “A body to die for.”

Another said: “One hot mumma!”

And another added: “It’s nice to see a celeb with a beautiful natural body!”

Jacqueline hasn’t been able to hide her excitement over her upcoming wedding to Dan.

Jacqueline and Ella enjoyed a dance class together (Photo: jacjossa/Instagram)

Posting a make up free selfie to Instagram last week , Jacqueline wrote: “I love this weather!

“Walking about, not a scrap of make up on all day, or yesterday. It’s so refreshing!! My o my! Please stay for a while sun! We love you. I am tired as usual, up at 6 this morning with Ella squidge!!

“As I was writing this I had to stop half way because Ella heard the ice cream van..”

Jacqueline showed off her toned stomach (Photo: jacjossa/Instagram)

She added: ““Time is flying so fast, and very soon i will be an Osborne ❤ just a little update hope everyone is having a lovely weekend and feeling safe and happy.. ❤so much love to you all. Xxx”

Fans flooded the photo with compliments. One wrote: “No make up required, naturally beautiful lady you are.”

Another said: “Who needs makeup when your that good looking lucky Mr Osborne.”

LIGO Detects Gravitational Waves for Third Time as Two Black Holes Merge

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Research team announced the third detection of gravitational waves
  • Gravitational waves can be heard by the sensitive LIGO detectors
  • The waves were generated when two black holes merged

On January 4, an exquisitely sensitive instrument on Earth detected a disturbance that rippled through space and time. Scientists traced the ripple 3 billion light-years away, back to two ancient black holes on a collision course. This marked the third time in about a year that physicists, thanks to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, discovered gravitational waves from the violent death spirals of merging black holes.

The first gravitational wave discovery was announced in February 2016 and the second a few months later. The black holes identified in January were slightly smaller than those in the first detection, but they were much farther away, according to David Shoemaker, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and spokesman for LIGO, an international collaboration involving more than a thousand researchers. They reported the details of the new binary black hole system that generated the wave Thursday in the journal Physical Review Letters.

“Gravitational waves are distortions in the metric of space that we live in,” said Michael Landry, a LIGO physicist at California Institute of Technology, during a news conference on Wednesday. He used a metaphor of a painting’s canvas to describe distorted space. If you grip the top and bottom of the canvas and pull, the picture warps, expanding on one axis while contracting in the other.

LIGO Detects Gravitational Waves for Third Time as Two Black Holes Merge

Two L-shaped LIGO detectors, one in Washington state and the other in Louisiana, check for these distortions. The shoot synchronized laser beams down perpendicular vacuum tubes, each 2.5 miles long. As a gravitational wave passes by, one arm of the L will shrink or expand, throwing the beams out of alignment. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology spearhead the project, with support from the National Science Foundation and scientific agencies from a host of other countries.

“This is exactly what we hoped for from NSF’s investment in LIGO: taking us deeper into time and space in ways we couldn’t do before the detection of gravitational waves,” said NSF director France Cordova in a statement.

The signal in January failed to set off the usual automated alarm – the LIGO scientists had just restarted the detector, after a short winter break, and hadn’t yet properly calibrated the trigger setting at the Washington site. A researcher in Germany, who happened to be poring over the LIGO data, first spotted the wave. (The wave would have been caught eventually, the LIGO team said; in a worst-case scenario there’s an offline backup to review.)

The scientists named it GW170104. The wave hit Washington about 3 milliseconds before Louisiana. Given the data captured, the LIGO team calculated that the chance an event like this would be a false alarm would occur once every 70,000 years.

“The key thing to take away is we’re looking for novelty,” Shoemaker said during Wednesday’s briefing. On these terms, the new black holes complied, at least a little bit.

Both of these black holes were much more massive than our sun. One was roughly 30 times solar mass, and the other 20 times the sun’s mass, putting these black holes in the intermediate range between the first detection (two larger black holes) and second (two smaller black holes).

During this hole-on-hole merger, the equivalent of two solar masses were converted into gravitational waves. “These are the most powerful astronomical events witnessed by human beings,” Landry said.

 

The new detection also offered hints about the ways black holes spin with respect to their orbits. Georgia Tech astrophysicist Laura Cadonati on Wednesday likened the spinning black holes to a pair of tornadoes that dance around each other. Black holes can spin counterclockwise and clockwise, like tornadoes, but can also tilt at angles tornadoes could never achieve.

“We opened a new window into the universe,” Cadonati said. “Before our discoveries we didn’t even know for sure that these black holes existed.”

It is possible that one of the black holes had a misaligned spin, which is to say that it was not spinning in the same direction as its overall spiral orbit. “We have an indication that at least one of the two spins is not aligned with the orbital angular momentum,” said B.S. Sathyaprakash, a cosmologist at Pennsylvania State University, during Wednesday’s conference.

If the two black holes are not spinning in the same way, that hints at the way they met. Broadly speaking, there are two ways that binary black hole systems form: They began as an isolated pair of stars (think the dual Tatooine sunset in “Star Wars”) that collapsed, or the black holes collapsed independently in a dense star cluster. Cadonati said “this finding lightly favors the theory” of a cluster of stars.

And once again, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity held up. Einstein’s theory indicates that gravitational waves do not disperse through a physical medium, unlike light through a prism.

“Even for this new event, which is about two times farther away than our first two detections, we could not find any evidence that gravitational waves disperse as they travel in the fabric of space-time,” said Alessandra Buonanno, a University of Maryland physics professor and LIGO collaborator, in a statement.

The LIGO team continues to increase the detectors’ sensitivity. In Louisiana, workers recently entered the vacuum envelope, clad in sterile bunny suits, to patch up areas where light could scatter in the tubes, cutting down on noise at low frequencies. In Washington, the observatory beefed up its laser to reduce high-frequency noise. With every improvement in clarity, LIGO can push its reach deeper into space.

The two teams will swap notes to improve their systems’ range for the next run, scheduled to start in 2018. Italy’s Virgo detector, too, is close to completion, which will join in LIGO’s hunt for gravitational waves. It is possible, members of the LIGO team said during Wednesday’s conference, that future discoveries could include merging neutron stars – collisions between the dense remnants of spent stars, the size of a city with the mass of a sun.

© 2017 The Washington Post

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Return to Harvard Today as Commencement Speaker

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Zuckerberg on Tuesday live-streamed a visit to his dorm room
  • The Facebook CEO will address its graduating class on Thursday
  • Bill Gates has also spoken to Harvard graduates in 2007

One of Harvard University’s most famous dropouts, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, returns on Thursday to the Ivy League school to address its graduating class.

The 33-year-old tech titan, who dropped out the college to found the pioneering social network company, has been on a nostalgia trip during the week leading up to Harvard’s commencement. On Tuesday, he live-streamed a visit to the dorm room where he started the website he initially called “thefacebook.com” and made available just to his classmates.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Return to Harvard Today as Commencement Speaker

“This is literally where I sat. And I had my little laptop here and this is where I programmed Facebook. It took me about two weeks,” Zuckerberg said in the video. “This is where it happened.”

Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has grown into the world’s largest online social network and inspired a host of competitors, including Twitter and Snapchat.

Today some 1.9 billion people use Facebook each month. Its broad reach has made the company a lightning rod for controversy, most recently for the ways that producers of fake news stories used it to influence public opinion during the 2016 US presidential election and for a pair of incidents last month in which users posted videos of two murders, one of them live.

The Menlo Park, California-based company has vowed to tackle both problems and earlier this month said it would hire 3,000 new workers to speed up the removal of videos depicting murder, suicide and other violent acts.

Zuckerberg’s speech on the 381-year-old school’s leafy campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will not be the first by a successful dropout who has returned to address a graduating class.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates spoke to graduates in 2007, shortly after saying that he would step away from his day-to-day role with the world’s largest software company to focus his time on philanthropy.

“Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree,” Gates joked to the crowd as he accepted an honorary law degree. “It will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume.”

As overdose deaths hit record levels, drug and alcohol services face massive cuts

former heroin addict, works as an advocate for Naloxone, a drug that reverses opiate overdoses. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Kevin Jaffray had been addicted to heroin for 20 years when he finally sought help in prison. “I was in prison more than out. I’d been living in a tent in Bournemouth. I’d lost everything, I was broken. I was overdosing once or twice a week. I was dicing with death every day. Prison was a relief.”

He approached a Luton-based 12-step recovery organisation for help and spent 11 weeks in residential rehabilitation. “I’d got to the point where my body couldn’t take it any more. We had groups and individual therapy. They helped me with my health and criminal charges. I was living with old friends. They had got clean and it inspired me to change.”

This was back in 2006, when drug funding was at its height under the Blair government. Jaffray was accepted for treatment after a single phone call. Now clean for 11 years, Jaffray, 49, has rebuilt his life. He was employed as a drug worker in Bedford between 2008 and 2015 and now works for the national Naloxone Action Group as an advocate for Naloxone, a drug that reverses opiate overdoses.

He says he was “very lucky” to have been trying to get clean when he was. At one time, he’d been given just three months to live by his doctors.

By 2015, Jaffray says his caseload in Bedford had gone up to 60 people a fortnight compared to 20 people three years earlier. He said access to treatment had completely changed. “Only one or two people in each area was getting awarded the funding to go into rehab and a hell of a lot more people than that were requesting it.” That year, drugs deaths in England and Wales reached their highest levels since records began in 1993.

The UK is now officially the drugs overdose capital of Europe with almost one in three of the continent’s overdose deaths, mainly related to heroin and other opioids, according to the European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction. Its 2016 annual report, published last week, which also aggregates data from Turkey and Norway, found the UK also had the highest proportion of heroin addicts. About eight in every 1,000 Britons are high-risk opioid users. Yet despite drug overdoses hitting record levels, an investigation by the Guardian has found that 11 local authorities in England, both those who were projected to cut most and least, have made average cuts of 17% between 2015-16 and 2016-17, more than £15m in total.

Collective Voice, an umbrella group of leading UK addiction charities, including Addaction and Turning Point, fears however that cuts to council drug treatment services funded by central government are far worse in some parts of the country. “Local authority funding has seen cuts of 25%, 30% or 40%: this has an impact on councils’ ability to fund drug and alcohol treatment,” says Paul Hayes, chief executive of Collective Voice. “At the same time, the needs of the drug-addicted population are increasing, particularly among the frail and ageing cohort of heroin addicts who started using in the 80s and 90s.”

Staffordshire county council has made cuts of 45% to its drug and alcohol treatment budget over the past twoyears. Local drug services campaigners claim 1,500 fewer addicts will receive treatment every year as a result. Alan White, Staffordshire council’s cabinet member for health, said it was left with no choice after its local clinical and commissioning group pulled an expected £15m of NHS funding for drug and alcohol services. “In 2015-16 we had to make some very difficult decisions on funding in order to protect services we have a statutory duty to provide,” he says. “We have worked with providers to help ensure a safe service can still be provided with the budget we have available.”

In Barnsley, where seven people this year have already died of drug overdoses (possibly due to contaminated heroin), the council cut its drugs and alcohol services budget by more than a third between 2015-16 and 2016-17. The authority’s own documents make it clear that some services will be “unavailable” after the cuts and that a number of drug workers will be made redundant. Jayne Hellowell, Barnsley council’s head of commissioning, healthier communities, says that services have merely been “reorganised.”

Even in Middlesbrough, which has the third highest level of drug-related deaths in England and the highest level of heroin use in England, drug misuse services haven’t been spared. The council cut the budget by £1m last year. Rachel Burns, Middlesbrough council’s health improvement specialist, says: “Our financial position has meant that we have actually reduced our overall substance misuse budget from £5.39m to £4.39m”.

“We were recommissioning our drug treatment services so we realised substantial savings by combining our youth and adult services, and housing all the substance misuse services into one building.” She added that redundancies were kept to a minimum and no frontline staff have lost their jobs.

The cuts are the legacy of ending what had been an effective ringfence on drug treatment funding in 2013 and the transfer of responsibility for funding drug and alcohol treatment from the NHS to local authorities. Deaths involving heroin and morphine more than doubled between 2012 and 2015. Government figures show that in 2015 more than twice as many people were killed by fatal drug overdoses in England, Wales and Scotland, in total 4,380 than in traffic accidents at 1,732.

Vanessa Fearn, a researcher at the Office for National Statistics, has said that age is a factor in the record level of drug deaths “as heroin users are getting older and they often have conditions such as lung disease and hepatitis that make them particularly vulnerable”. But Hayes insists that although the relationship between funding and drug-related deaths is complex, there is a connection. “The most important thing we can do to prevent further increases in drug-related deaths and to get a grip on recent increases is to continue to invest in treatment,” he says. “The more we disinvest in treatment, as we are doing at the moment, the more we will put increasing numbers of people at risk of early avoidable deaths.”

Jaffray says that because of the pressure on treatment providers to get good results, those who are most in need are being turned away. “The more desperate and chaotic you are, particularly if you have underlying mental health problems, which 75% of addicts do, the less chance you have of getting support because you’ll be a burden on their statistics and on their books for a long time. This is having an effect on the most chaotic people in the community: they are dying.”