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Hubble telescope helps find six 'dead' galaxies from the early universe

Sep 26 2021

You'd think large galaxies in the early universe would have had plenty of 'fuel' left for new stars, but a recent discovery suggests that wasn't always the case. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) have found six early galaxies (about 3 billion years after the Big Bang) that were unusually "dead" — that is, they'd run out of the cold hydrogen necessary for star formation. This was the peak period for star births, according to lead researcher Kate Whitaker, so the disappearance of that hydrogen is a mystery.

The team found the galaxies thanks to strong gravitational lensing, using galaxy clusters to bend and magnify light from the early universe. Hubble identified where stars had formed in the past, while ALMA detected cold dust (a stand-in for the hydrogen) to show where stars would have formed if the necessary ingredients had been present.

The galaxies are believed to have expanded since, but not through star creation. Rather, they grew through mergers with other small galaxies and gas. Any formation after that would have been limited at most.

The findings are a testament to the combined power of Hubble and ALMA, not to mention Hubble's capabilities decades after its launch. At the same time, it underscores the limitations of both the technology and human understanding by raising a number of questions. Whitaker noted that scientists don't know why the galaxies died so quickly, or what happened to cut off the fuel. Was the gas heated, expelled or just rapidly consumed? It might take a while to provide answers, if answers are even possible.

New iPad mini owners report 'jelly scrolling' problems

Sep 26 2021

Some new iPad mini customers aren't enjoying the tiny tablet's new screen as much as they'd like. 9to5Macreports that users (includingThe Verge's Dieter Bohn) have noticed a "jelly scrolling" effect where one side of the screen scrolls at a different rate than the other, producing a wobble occasionally noticeable in portrait view. The effect is harder to spot if you tilt the iPad to a landscape orientation, but that's not much consolation if you like to read websites and social feeds 

We've asked Apple if it can comment on the jelly effect. It's unclear if the quirk is linked to hardware (such as the screen itself or a display controller) or can be addressed through software. We'll let you know if we have a chance to replicate the issue.

This won't necessarily hurt functionality, especially if you tend to use the iPad mini in landscape mode or view content that doesn't produce the effect. It's also uncertain just how widespread the issue really is. With that said, you probably won't be thrilled if you notice this wiggle on Apple's small-but-premium slate.

Samsung hopes to 'copy and paste' the brain to 3D chip networks

Sep 26 2021

Samsung thinks it has a better way to develop brain-like chips: borrow existing brain structures. The tech firm has proposed a method that would "copy and paste" a brain's neuron wiring map to 3D neuromorphic chips. The approach would rely on a nanoelectrode array that enters a large volumes of neurons to record both where the neurons connect and the strength of those connections. You could copy that data and 'paste' it to a 3D network of solid-state memory, whether it's off-the-shelf flash storage or cutting-edge memory like resistive RAM.

Each memory unit would have a conductance that reflects the strength of each neuron connection in the map. The result would be an effective return to "reverse engineering the brain" like scientists originally wanted, Samsung said.

The move could serve as a 'shortcut' to artificial intelligence systems that behave like real brains, including the flexibility to learn new concepts and adapt to changing conditions. You might even see fully autonomous machines with true cognition, according to the researchers.

There's a glaring problem with complexity, however. As a human brain has roughly 100 billion neurons with a thousand times more synaptic links, an ideal neuromorphic chip would need about 100 trillion memory units. That's clearly a difficult challenge for any company, and that doesn't include the code needed to make this virtual brain work. Samsung may have opened a door to human-like AI, but it could take a long time before anyone reaches that goal.

Apple will fix bug preventing iPhone 13 owners from unlocking with Apple Watch

Sep 26 2021

Are you unable to unlock your brand new iPhone 13 with your Apple Watch? Don't despair just yet. According to MacRumors, Apple has promised to fix a bug that prevents the unlock through an "upcoming software update." You can turn off the feature in Settings and rely on passcodes until that solution is in place, Apple said, although it didn't offer a timeframe for the patch.

The flaw typically tells users the iPhone is "unable to communicate" with the Apple Watch. Others can't setup the unlock feature in the first place. As you might imagine, that's a significant hassle if you're wearing a face mask and can't use Face ID to sign in.

You might not have to wait too long. While Apple only recently started testing an iOS 15.1 beta, the company has a long history of delivering small-but-quick updates that fix glaring bugs and security holes. While this certainly isn't how Apple wanted the iPhone 13 launch to go, the issue isn't likely to last.

Tesla drivers can now request Full Self Driving beta tests

Sep 26 2021

It took a long while, but Tesla is finally giving you some control over when (and if) you get Full Self Driving beta releases. The Washington Postnoted that Tesla has begun rolling out an FSD beta request button that lets you try the autonomous (really, semi-autonomous) technology before its wider release. The automaker won't just hand test code to anyone, though. Elon Musk noted that Tesla will "assess driving behavior" (like hard braking, aggressive turns or tailgating) for a week to reduce the chances of collisions.

The move could boost uptake for Full Self Driving betas and help Tesla refine the system for wider releases. The just-launched FSD 10.1 beta (mainly a bug fix) arrived too soon for that, but future software could be more polished or reach a general audience sooner.

Not everyone is thrilled with Tesla's rapid Full Self Driving expansion, however. The National Transportation Safety Board's new leader, Jennifer Homendy, recently joined other critics in accusing Tesla of "irresponsible" marketing for FSD technology that could lead to dangerous misuse. She also claimed Tesla was unresponsive to official recommendations for improvements. Beta requests may help Tesla achieve its goals sooner than before, but they won't address broader concerns about FSD's safety and whether or not customers should be testing semi-autonomous features on public roads.

FSD Beta request button goes live tonight, but FSD 10.1 needs another 24 hours of testing, so out tomorrow night

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 25, 2021

iPhone 14 is reportedly a 'complete redesign'

Sep 26 2021

The iPhone 13 series is barely in stores, but that isn't stopping a growing chorus of leaks surrounding next year's model. As 9to5Macnotes, Bloomberg's historically accurate Mark Gurman claimed the iPhone 14 will represent a "complete redesign" — the first since the iPhone X arrived in 2017. The relatively modest iPhone 13 update was a hint that bigger things were coming, he said. Gurman was shy on details of what that new hardware would entail, but earlier rumors might offer a clue as to what to expect.

Most notably, frequently accurate analyst Ming-Chi Kuo recently claimed Apple would begin dropping the display notch entirely in 2022, starting with an iPhone 14 Pro that would use a hole-punch front camera like many Android phones. YouTuber Jon Prosser also claimed to have renders based on real-world photos of the new iPhone. The new model would supposedly resemble a supersized iPhone 4 with a band-like titanium outer ring, flush rear cameras and a thicker chassis.

Other rumors suggest Apple might drop a mini iPhone from the lineup, replacing it with a larger 'regular' model as well as the usual Pro offerings. There have been murmurs of under-display Touch ID, but it's not certain if this would be ready for 2022, if at all.

We'd take the reports with some caution. No matter how accurate the reports might be, the next iPhone is roughly a year away. There's still a chance Apple could make substantial changes before it locks in the design for production. Whatever the end result, the common theme of the leaks suggests the iPhone 14 could be an important revamp.

Apple's 2021 iPad drops to $299 at Amazon

Sep 26 2021

Don't worry if you missed out on an earlier deal for Apple's 2021 iPad. Amazon is selling the 64GB entry-level iPad for $299, or $30 off the usual price. The 256GB variant has dropped by a similar amount to $449. That matches a previous discount at Walmart, and is currently the lowest price we've seen for Apple's latest 10.2-inch slate. Just don't fret over color choices or shipping times — only Space Gray models appear to be in stock, and you'll have to wait one to three weeks.

Buy iPad (64GB WiFi) at Amazon - $299Buy iPad (256GB WiFi) at Amazon - $449

The basic design of the iPad hasn't changed much in recent years, but the under-the-hood upgrades are particularly notable this year. The tablet now uses an A13 Bionic chip that's reportedly 20 percent faster than in the previous iPad, making it a better fit for gaming or creative tasks. This may also be a good pick for an era of remote work and virtual friend visits, as an ultra-wide 12MP front camera offers Center Stage to keep you in view as you move around.

Just don't expect a revamp on par with the new iPad mini or 2020's iPad Air. You won't find an all-screen design, USB-C, second-generation Pencil support or an improved rear camera. This is for anyone who wants a no-frills tablet that should still last a long while — if that's all you're looking for, you'll probably be happy.

Follow @EngadgetDeals on Twitter for the latest tech deals and buying advice.

Nintendo is releasing a six-button Genesis controller for Switch, but only in Japan

Sep 25 2021

Next month, Nintendo will give Switch Online subscribers the chance to purchase Sega Genesis games as part of a DLC pack with N64 titles. And to make the experience as authentic as possible while playing them, the gaming giant is also selling wireless N64 and Genesis controllers exclusively to Switch Online subscribers. The gaming giant showed off a three-button Genesis controller at its most recent Direct stream in the west. Based on a tweet by Nintendo Japan, though, it will release a six-button version in its home country instead. 

当時のままの操作感でゲームを遊べる「NINTENDO 64 コントローラー」と「セガ メガドライブ ファイティングパッド 6B」も発売決定。#NintendoDirectJPpic.twitter.com/YNs5oJnjdw

— 任天堂株式会社 (@Nintendo) September 23, 2021

Nintendo has confirmed to Polygon that the six-button Genesis controller will be exclusively available in Japan. A Nintendo of America rep told the publication that "different regions make different decisions based on a variety of factors" and that the three-button model was the more widely used and more well-known version in the US and Canada. As the publication notes, the three-button model came first, and the one with six buttons was only released when fighting games boomed in popularity. Playing titles like Street Fighter was easier with more buttons to mash. Take note that the Sega Genesis Mini also launched with a three-button controller outside Japan in 2019, whereas the Japanese version came with a six-button model.

Even if you find a way to import the Japan-only controller, it may be better to wait until other gamers have confirmed that it works with consoles in your region. Nintendo doesn't have a release date for the three-button model yet, but it will set you back $50 when it becomes available.

NASA's AR graphic novel is meant to recruit a new wave of astronauts

Sep 25 2021

NASA clearly needs more astronauts if programs like Artemis are to be successful, and it thinks it has a clever sales pitch: a tech-savvy comic. The space agency has released an augmented reality graphic novel, First Woman, that tells the tale of the fictional Callie Rodriguez as she becomes (what else?) the first woman to land on the Moon. You can read the 40-page first issue as-is, but NASA really wants you to download a companion mobile app (for Android and iOS) or scan codes to experience environments and objects in a more engaging way.

Point your phone at special "XR" codes (through the app) or QR codes (if you prefer the web) and you can tour the Orion spacecraft, the Moon and other objects. You can also play games, watch videos and earn badges.

You can also listen to an audio version. NASA is also promising a Spanish-language version of the novel sometime in the future. The administration isn't shy about treating First Woman as a recruiting drive, but it may well be worth a download if you want to foster your kids' interests in space and science — and possibly learn a thing or two about NASA's long-term plans.

Netflix's 'The Witcher' plans include season 3 and a kids' series

Sep 25 2021

No, Netflix isn't done extracting every last drop of value from The Witcher. The streaming giant used its TUDUM event to tease a further expansion of its adapted fantasy series. There will be a third season of The Witcher, to no one's surprise, but Netflix also revealed plans for a second anime movie and, believe it or not, a "kids and family" series — a bit odd for fantasy world loaded with sex, violence and colorful language.

The company didn't provide release dates for any of the new projects. The second season of The Witcher premieres December 17th.

This isn't a completely unexpected move. Netflix clearly enjoyed success with the first season of The Witcher, and it's apparently confident enough in the second to prompt a renewal months in advance. The expansion would capitalize on that fandom and make it accessible to a much wider audience. It's just a question of whether or not viewers are willing to follow along, especially when iconic characters like Geralt and Yennefer might not be involved.

Toss a coin to our growing Witcher universe! We can officially announce The Witcher Season 3, along with a second anime feature film, and a new Kids and Family series set in the world of The Witcher. pic.twitter.com/E032fDAXYx

— The Witcher (@witchernetflix) September 25, 2021

Netflix's 'League of Legends' series debuts November 6th

Sep 25 2021

Netflix's long-in-the-making League of Legends show has a release date. The service has confirmed that its animated series Arcane will premiere November 6th at 10PM Eastern. Accordingly, a new trailer (below) sets the stage. It highlights the origins of sisters (and LoL heroines) Jinx and Vi as they fight both the dangers of hextech (magic harnessed by science) and the social inequalities between the rich city of Piltover and the undercity Zaun.

The series stars Into the Spider-Verse's Hailee Steinfeld as Vi and Army of the Dead's Ella Purnell as Jinx. Netflix and Riot are also banking on the show's distinctive hand-painted style (which might be familiar to Riot fans) to stand out from other CG productions.

It's not certain if Arcane will succeed, but Netflix has had some success with game-related shows like Castlevania — and that was for a franchise past its prime. A League of Legends series might thrive thanks to the MOBA title's ongoing popularity... and, hopefully, its own merits.

Twitter promises better quality for new video uploads

Sep 25 2021

Twitter says your new video uploads will appear less pixelated and have better quality. The official Twitter support account has revealed that the website made updates to fix its platform's poor video quality, which has been a problem for its users since the beginning. Twitter told The Verge that it removed a pre-processing step when you upload videos that's responsible for the issue. That step apparently splits the clip you're trying to upload into smaller chunks for easier processing, and that could reduce video quality.

Some good news: we’ve made updates to improve video quality.

Starting today, videos you upload to Twitter will appear less pixelated for a better watching experience. pic.twitter.com/lJPI14PVRV

— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) September 24, 2021

The company told the publication that the changes aren't live on Twitter Media Studio, a tool that gives you access to all the media you've ever uploaded, yet. Also, while the improved video quality is expected to be available to everyone, it will only apply to new video uploads and won't be retroactively applied to old ones. Here's a sample of a new upload that's supposed to have better quality:

Same clip in 720p. Supposedly this is the recommended format... pic.twitter.com/aJQglwNgqA

— JackFrags (@jackfrags) September 24, 2021

While some people said they barely notice any difference from before, others noticed less compression in full screen and quicker adjustment when you switch screen sizes. The quality still isn't comparable to HD videos posted on YouTube, but it does look decent enough. Back in 2019, Twitter also made changes to the way it uploads JPEGs to prevent lowering their quality upon being posted.

'The Sandman' teaser shows the capture of Morpheus

Sep 25 2021

You no longer have to wonder just what Netflix's adaptation of Sandman will look like. Netflix has shared a teaser for The Sandman that reveals the pivotal moment when an occult ritual captures Morpheus (aka Dream, played by Tom Sturridge) and sets the story in motion. As author Neil Gaiman put it, scenes like this will be more than a little reminiscent of the comic book series — good news if you were hoping for a faithful adaptation.

The series has a slew of well-known actors, including Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, Stephen Fry as Gilbert, and Patton Oswalt as Matthew the Raven. You'll also likely recognize actors like Narcos' Boyd Holbrook (playing The Corinthian) and The Good Place's Kirby Howell-Baptiste (as Death).

Netflix still won't commit to a release date for The Sandman beyond "coming soon." Still, it's evident the company is giving the show a lavish treatment. It's expecting a hit on par with Gaiman's other adaptations (such as Amazon's American Gods and Good Omens), and it's delivering the production values to match.

Amazon says James Bond movies will still be released in theaters

Sep 25 2021

You might not have to stay at home to watch James Bond movies if and when Amazon closes its purchase of MGM. As Deadlinereports, producer Barbara Broccoli revealed to Sky News that Amazon had committed to releasing Bond movies in theaters "in the future." Broccoli wasn't more specific than that, but it's safe to say you won't need a Prime Video subscription to watch 007's post-Daniel Craig exploits.

MGM has gone out of its way to make sure the latest Bond flick, No Time to Die, premieres in theaters. The movie was slated to debut in April 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted delays to November 2020, April 2021 and finally September 30th, 2021 for the UK. It reaches the US on October 8th. In all cases, MGM has steadfastly refused to make it available on streaming services like rival studios' blockbuster releases — Amazon might face stiff resistance if it tries digital premieres.

The news follows a familiar pattern: Hollywood studios are determined to stick to theater-first launches for as long as possible. While there was clearly some success for WarnerMedia and other studios that released movies simultaneously or exclusively on streaming services at the height of the pandemic, they clearly want to return to the pre-COVID status quo.

'Stranger Things' season 4 teaser offers a peek at a haunted house

Sep 25 2021

Netflix is finally offering more than a very brief glimpse of Stranger Things season 4. The streaming service used its TUDUM event to share a teaser that focuses on Creel House, a seemingly haunted abode. Decades after an ill-fated family moves into the house, the familiar Stranger Things teenage cast enters to investigate — and it won't surprise you to hear that something is amiss.

The new season still doesn't have a more specific release date than "2022." Still, it's clear Netflix is eager to drum up early hype. Not that this is really a shock. Stranger Things is a well-received series coming back over two years after its last entry, and Netflix undoubtedly wants to be sure it was worth the lengthy wait.

Apple says third-party apps must update to fully use iPhone 13 Pro's 120Hz display

Sep 25 2021

You might not have to worry about apps that can't use the 120Hz refresh rate of the iPhone 13 Pro family. As iMorenotes, Apple has posted a developer article revealing that iPhone apps will need to 'unlock' 120Hz support by adding a key to a .plist file. There's also a bug limiting the speed for some Core Animation-based apps, although Apple said a fix was coming in a future iOS 15 update.

The iPad Pro doesn't require code updates to make full use of its 120Hz display, although that may be due to the tablet's much larger battery. Smartphones are much more likely to take a serious battery life hit from high-refresh screens.

The details suggest a repeat of what happened when Apple introduced the iPhone 6, iPhone X and other phones with significant leaps in display tech — it took a while for Apple and developers to make full use of the new screens. Your iPhone 13 Pro's 120Hz panel should reach its full potential, but there may be a few weeks or months where it goes underused.

ICYMI: Everything you need to know about the iPhone 13

Sep 25 2021

It’s that time of year again: the latest Apple devices have arrived. We spent time with all of the company’s new products and reported back on their successes and missteps. First, Cherlynn Low tested out all four of the new iPhone 13 models to see which are worth your money this year. Valentina Palladino spent time carrying around the redesigned iPad mini, which does everything a small tablet should. Also, Devindra Hardawar found one more reason to recommend the Dell XPS 15, and Mat Smith took some average selfie’s with the ZTE Axon 30’s "invisible" front-facing camera.

The iPhone 13 and 13 mini are made for shutterbugs

An iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 next to each other with their screens facing the camera.
David Imel for Engadget

On paper, Cherlynn Low says there’s not much to get excited about when it comes to the new iPhone 13 and 13 mini. The incremental upgrades like the bigger batteries, better displays and faster chips all feel like standard, annual improvements. The key features of the new handsets are the enhancements made to the cameras. The rear sensors have been improved, the ultra wide lens lets in more light and the A15 chip has a faster image signal processor.

Cherlynn particularly liked the addition of Photographic Styles, which allows the user to choose a profile of contrast levels and color temperature for photos. And she said Cinematic Mode, which blurs out the background behind a subject, was the most intriguing of the new video features. But at its default intensity, the blurriness looked strange and artificial — and Cinematic Mode only works at 1080p/30fps, regardless of the quality you’ve set your camera to record.

Other aspects of the handsets were largely similar to previous models: the speakers are still good enough for video watching, and both phones easily handled switching between multiple apps, uploading photos and other tasks. However, Cherlynn was quick to point out that the phones still feature 60Hz screens, which made them feel laggy in comparison to handsets that have speedier displays. Overall she said that, as expected, they’re excellent (if a bit boring) phones with little to complain about.

The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max impress with smooth screens

Apple iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max
David Imel for Engadget

Cherlynn Low says make no mistake about it: The one thing that really makes the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max stand out is the new ProMotion display. With faster screens that can adjust their refresh rates depending on the task, the handsets are finally able to take advantage of their big OLED displays, whether you’re watching video or simply scrolling social media. The two new models are also 25 percent brighter for better outdoor viewing and, thanks to the 5-core GPU on the Pro, able to handle graphics-intensive tasks more quickly.

Cherlynn said that the A15 Bionic chip combined with the faster refresh rate made everything from YouTube and music streaming to Catan gaming and chatting with friends seem much more responsive. The two new Pro models also have an additional telephoto camera and a new macro photography mode, but all of that power comes with extra weight. The 6.1-inch 13 Pro is 7.19 ounces and the 6.7-inch 13 Pro Max clocks in at 8.46 ounces; Cherlynn said the bigger handset was uncomfortable to use one-handed for more than a few minutes. If that isn’t a dealbreaker, then she says either of the phones would make a worthy upgrade for iOS users.

The iPad mini gets a much needed refresh

Apple iPad Mini 2021
Valentina Palladino / Engadget

While the iPad mini has a dedicated fan base, it hasn’t changed much since its debut nine years ago. But the 2021 release of the tiny tablet features enough upgrades to make it feel like a smaller iPad Air. Valentina Palladino says that the new “all-screen” design, flat edges, TouchID-capable top button, second-gen Apple Pencil support and USB-C charging all provide a much needed refresh for the tablet. The bezels helped her keep a comfortable grip on the device while reading and making FaceTime calls, and the lightweight 100-percent recycled aluminum body made it easy to tote around.

Valentina also liked that the new design allowed the second-generation Apple Pencil to magnetically stick to the right edge of the tablet. She reports that the mini makes a capable digital notebook thanks in part to the Pencil and the Quick Notes feature in iPadOS 15. Additionally, she said the A15 Bionic chip and the larger screen make it easy to use the device in place of an iPhone for a wide variety of tasks including video streaming and light gaming. However, the new mini only comes in 64GB and 256GB models — with a $150 price difference between them — and those are notable differences in capacity and cost. Valentina says the significant update will be great for small-tablet lovers, but she’s not sure if the iPad mini will win over others in the market for a standard-sized iPad.

Dell’s XPS 15 is an even better laptop with an OLED screen

Dell XPS 15 OLED
Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Devindra Hardawar was already a fan of Dell’s excellent XPS 15 laptop, but he says the addition of an OLED screen makes the whole package even better. The star of the show, the 15.6-inch display, has some of the thinnest bezels on the market and uses a 3.5K OLED touchscreen that supports Dolby Vision HDR (of course, this panel costs extra, and there are two LCD options to choose from, too). While watching the new Matrix trailer, it displayed true blacks, brilliant elements like explosions and juggled scenes with bright and dark aspects.

Devindra said he’d never had as much fun scrolling through websites due to the incredibly crisp text. The only additional improvement he could think of was a faster refresh rate, however, he had no complaints about the performance from the eight-core Intel i7 CPU or the 45-watt version of NVIDIA’s RTX 3050 Ti GPU, which transcoded a one-minute 4K video file into 1080p in 35 seconds. Devindra says you can expect it to tackle most intense workloads with ease, and although it’s not a gaming machine, it’s capable of reaching 70fps in Overwatch at the highest graphic settings.

The ZTE Axon 30 smartphone offers an invisible selfie camera

ZTE Axon 30
Engadget, Mat Smith

A sequel to the Axon 20, ZTE’s Axon 30 touts an improved 16-megapixel, under-display camera (UDC) with a dedicated chip that keeps the area consistent with the rest of the screen. In practice, Mat Smith was pleased to report that the UDC is nearly invisible but he was less impressed with the resulting photographs. His selfies had fuzzy details and suffered from lens flares and washout due to strong backlighting. Mat got much better images when shooting with the four-camera array on the back, which includes a 64-megapixel Sony sensor.

However, the Axon 30 has more to offer for its $500 price tag: The smartphone also features a 6.92-inch AMOLED screen with 2,460 x 1,080 resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate. And it’s powered by a Snapdragon 870 processor, which handled everything Mat threw at it from Stadia gaming to video streaming. It also has a stand-out battery that lasted two days of typical use with the 120Hz refresh rate off, and the handset can recharge to 100 percent in under an hour. Mat liked the new MyOS 11 skin, which closely mimics the stock Google experience, save for a few shortcuts and widgets. But the smartphone lacks wireless charging and certified resistance against dust and water, and Mat says the 5G support isn’t great in the U.S. as it will only work on T-Mobile’s midband 5G network.

Hitting the Books: How Bitcoin is somehow worth more than the paper it's printed on

Sep 25 2021

Bitcoin and similar blockchain-based cryptos exhibit the same radical divergence from traditional scarcity economics that we first saw when MP3s and Napster cratered physical album sales at the turn of the century. Unlike gold, which derives its value from both its myriad uses in fashion and industry as well as the difficulty involved in extracting it from the Earth, acquiring new Bitcoin is as simple as digitally mining more of the stuff. In his latest book, The Future of Money, Senior Professor of Trade Policy at Cornell University, Eswar S Prasad deftly examines how we collectively assign value to these digital constructs and what that means for the economics of tomorrow.   

The Future of Money dust cover
Harvard University Press

Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


At a conference held in Scotland in March 2018, then Bank of England governor Mark Carney observed that “the prices of many cryptocurrencies have exhibited the classic hallmarks of bubbles including new paradigm justifications, broadening retail enthusiasm and extrapolative price expectations reliant in part on finding the greater fool.” The last phrase in his statement was an allusion to the period of seemingly ever-rising real estate prices during the US housing boom of the early to mid-2000s. High and rising real estate valuations seemed to be based on the notion that all it took to make money from a house purchased at inflated prices was to find just one buyer—an even greater fool than oneself—willing to pay an even higher price.

Carney’s speech came on the heels of another by Agustín Carstens, head of the Bank for International Settlements; he described Bitcoin as “a combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster.” Skeptics, including central bankers and academics, correctly note Bitcoin’s extremely volatile prices and the periodic price collapses it has experienced. Indeed, from an economist’s perspective, there is no logical reason Bitcoin should be priced beyond its value in providing an anonymous payment mechanism, let alone the sort of value it commands. Yet, even as it has shed all pretense of being an effective medium of exchange, Bitcoin has maintained the faith of its adherents. It seems not just to persevere but has become an increasingly prized store of value—or perhaps more accurately, an attractive speculative asset (at least as this book is being written—this could all change in a moment). What accounts for this?

To address this question, we must first consider what gives a financial asset, tangible or not, economic value. For one thing, an asset represents a claim on future goods and services. Owning a share of stock or debt issued by a firm is a claim on the firm’s future earnings, which in turn is based on its ability to create real products or services that have monetary value. The same is true for real estate, which yields real services to homeowners or renters that can be monetized. Owning a government bond is in principle a claim on future government revenues, which could come from taxes or other sources.

Gold is dif­ferent. It has an intrinsic value based on its industrial use, and it is also used in jewelry (and tooth fillings). But its market value seems far greater than its intrinsic value based on these uses. It appears that gold derives its value mainly from scarcity rather than its usefulness or any claim it offers of a future flow of goods and services. Scarcity by itself is clearly not enough; there has to be enough demand for an asset as well. Such demand could hang on a thread as slender as a collective belief in the market value of the asset—if you think there are other people who value gold as much as you do and enough people feel the same way, gold has value.

So is Bitcoin just a digital version of gold, with its value determined mainly by its scarcity? The limit of twenty-one million bitcoins is hardcoded into the algorithm, making it scarce by construction. But there still needs to be demand for it, as even Bitcoin cannot escape the basic laws of market economics, especially the determination of prices based on supply and demand. Such demand could of course be purely speculative in nature, as seems to be the case now that Bitcoin is not working well as a medium of exchange.

It does take copious amounts of computing power and electricity to mine Bitcoin, and unfortunately, computers and electricity have to be paid for in real money—which is still represented by fiat currencies. It has been argued that Bitcoin’s baseline price is determined by this mining cost. One research company estimated the electricity cost of mining one bitcoin in the United States to be about $4,800 in 2018. Another company estimated the overall break-even cost of mining a bitcoin in 2018 at $8,000, suggesting that this constituted a floor for its price. But this is hardly reasonable logic. Just because something takes a lot of resources to produce is not enough to create demand for it and, therefore, to justify its price.

Bitcoin devotees, needless to say, have an answer for this; given the technologically inclined nature of this community, it had to be a quantitative model. The model, if it can be called that, uses the ratio of the existing stock relative to the flow of new units as an anchor for the price.

Consider gold. The total stock of gold that exists in the world (above ground) is estimated at about 185,000 metric tons. Roughly 3,000 tons of gold are mined each year, which amounts to about 1.6 percent of the existing stock. Thus, the stock-to-flow ratio is about sixty. It would take that many years for annual gold production, assuming it continues at the average rate, to reproduce the existing stock. For silver, this ratio is about twenty-two. The logic of this pricing model appears to be that even doubling the annual rate of gold or silver production would leave their stock-to-flow ratios high, in which case they would remain viable stores of value with high prices. The physical constraints on supply—ramping up mining operations would take a long time—mean there is little risk of a surge in supply knocking down prices of the existing stock. By contrast, for other less precious commodities, including metals such as copper and platinum, the existing stock is equal to or lower than annual production. Thus, as soon as the price begins rising, production can be ramped up, preventing large price hikes. With these commodities, prices are more closely tied to values based on industrial and other practical uses.

In 2017 the stock of Bitcoin that had been mined was estimated to be around twenty-five times larger than that of the new coins produced in that year. This is high but still less than half of the stock-to-flow ratio for gold. Around 2022, Bitcoin’s stock-to-flow ratio is expected to overtake that for gold. Thus, if one accepts this logic, the price of Bitcoin must eventually rise.

This valuation is built entirely on a fragile foundation of faith. As one influential Bitcoin blogger puts it: “Bitcoin is the first scarce digital object the world has ever seen. . . . Surely this digital scarcity has value.” This blogger makes profuse allusions, which are echoed on most websites and chat boards frequented by Bitcoin adherents, to how Bitcoin and gold are analogous: “It is [the] consistently low rate of supply of gold that is the fundamental reason it has maintained its monetary role throughout human history. The high stock-to-flow ratio of gold makes it the commodity with the lowest price elasticity of supply.” Fiat money and other cryptocurrencies that have no supply cap, no Proof of Work consensus protocol, and no need of large amounts of computing power to keep operating are seen as less likely to retain value because their supplies are not constrained and can be influenced by the government or small groups of individuals or stakeholders.

Clearly, logic and reason are not important underpinnings of Bitcoin valuations. And it is hard to argue, as I have learned, with a twenty-fiveyear-old who bought his first bitcoin at $400, then kept buying, and now views every dip in Bitcoin prices as a buying opportunity to add to his stash. But, as an economist, one does worry for that young man (whom I sat next to at a conference in January 2019 and with whom I ended up having a long and heated discussion) and others who have bet their life savings on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Then again, with the price of Bitcoin where it is in April 2021, perhaps my time would have been better spent in the past few years acquiring some bitcoin rather than laboring on this book.

Galaxy S22 Ultra leak suggests Samsung will include the Note's S-Pen slot

Sep 25 2021

Don't be dismayed that Samsung passed on the Galaxy Note in 2021... you might get your stylus-equipped phone before too long. Frequent tipster OnLeaks has shared renders with Zouton, 91Mobiles and Digit that reportedly show the designs of next year's Galaxy S22 phones, including an Ultra model aimed squarely at Note fans. It would effectively be a sequel to the Galaxy Note 20, complete with an S-Pen slot and less rounded corners. There would also be a fourth camera you didn't even see on the S21 Ultra, although it's not clear what functionality you'd get.

The other models wouldn't be quite so thrilling, however. If accurate, the renders suggest the S22 and S22+ (possibly badged as the S22 Pro) wouldn't be radically different from the S21 on the outside. They'd sport flatter backs and a slightly refined camera bump, but not much more. Most of the changes would sit underneath. Rumors have the regular S22 models jumping to a 50MP main camera (up from 12MP) and using Qualcomm's next-gen Snapdragon chip or Samsung's equivalent Exynos.

Samsung Galaxy S22+ image leak
OnLeaks/91Mobiles

It's not certain when Samsung will launch the S22 family, although it notably bumped up the S21 launch to January this year. If the company repeats that pattern, Note enthusiasts might only have to wait a few months more than usual to get their fix. That is, if they haven't already bought an S21 Ultra or Z Fold 3 and the pen to match — the lack of clear messaging on the Note's future may have cost Samsung some sales.

Recommended Reading: Inside Amazon's high-tech shipping facility

Sep 25 2021

In Amazon’s flagship fulfillment center, the machines run the show

Matt Day, Bloomberg

Amazon's Kent, Washington facility has long been home to many of the company's high-tech innovations. Bloomberg takes us inside "BFI4" for another look at the shipping location that's run my algorithms and robots. 

How Google spies on its employees

Sarah Krouse, The Information

In a report on various instances of surveillance at Google, The Information discusses how things like researching COBRA health insurance info and screenshotting and using encrypted messaging apps can draw the ire of the company's security team.

How Facebook’s ‘metaverse’ became a political strategy in Washington

Elizabeth Dwoskin, Cat Zakrzewski and Nick Miroff, The Washington Post

Between misinformation, privacy and antitrust debates, there's no shortage of challenges for Facebook at any given time. With scrutiny piling on from the US government, and the possibility of regulation looming, the social network is hoping to prove it's more than a problem-plagued platform. 

 

Apple's TV+ streaming service reportedly has less than 20 million subscribers

Sep 25 2021

Apple hasn't published official subscriber numbers for its TV+ streaming service since it launched in 2019, but it may be smaller than analysts previously estimated. According to CNBC, the tech giant told the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees that TV+ has fewer than 20 million subscribers in the US and Canada. A few months ago, Statista published an estimate that puts the service's subscriber number to 40 million by the end of 2020 in the US alone. 

The firm admitted, however, that the estimate does not "necessarily reveal how many paying subscribers use the service." CNBC didn't say whether the 20 million subscribers the company declared were paying customers either. It also didn't mention how many of those got their subscriptions for free: Apple used to give away year-long subscriptions to customers who purchase new iPhones, iPads and Macs, but it shortened the offer to three months back in June. 

According to the report, having less than 20 million subscribers allowed Apple to pay production crew lower rates than bigger streamers. Under the current contract seen by CNBC, streaming services can pay their employees lower rates if they report less than 20 million subscribers to the IATSE every July 1st, because streaming profitability is "presently uncertain." The union is negotiating for a better contract, though, since current rules don't make an exception for tech giants like Apple. It also argues that streaming can no longer be considered "new media." 

An Apple rep told CNBC that the company pays in line with leading streaming services but refused to comment on the claimed subscriber number. 20 million is but a fraction of the number of subscribers the biggest streaming services have: Netflix claimed 208 million subscribers in April, while Disney+ claimed over 100 million back in March.

Twitter shows off new concepts for filtering and limiting replies

Sep 25 2021

Twitter has been trying to limit the toxic replies you can get on its website by giving you tools that allow you to be more proactive in preventing them from going through. In the future, those tools could include a feature that lets you filter potentially offensive replies and another that lets you limit potentially unwelcome accounts from replying. Twitter Senior Product Designer Paula Barcante has released a sneak peek of the features, which are merely concepts at the moment, to seek input from users.

Barcante says Twitter will ask you if you'd like to switch on those controls if it detects potentially harmful replies to your tweets. If your reply filter is on, Twitter won't show you or anyone else — except the user who wrote the response — the harmful tweets it detects. If you decide to limit unwelcome accounts, users who've recently shown patterns of breaking rules won't be able to reply to your tweets at all. 

If potentially harmful or offensive replies to your Tweet are detected, we’d let you know in case you want to turn on these controls to filter or limit future unwelcome interactions.

You would also be able to access these controls in your settings. pic.twitter.com/ok5qXOf33Z

— Paula Barcante (@paulabarcante) September 24, 2021

Since the process would be automated, Barcante admits that it may not be accurate all the time and may end up filtering out even respective, non-problematic responses. That's why the company is also exploring the possibility of giving you the option to review filtered tweets and limited accounts. Of course, the final iterations of the tools might look vastly different from these previews if they do get released. 

When asked if toggling on the reply filter would filter out all tweets from an account or just the tweet the website has deemed potentially offensive, Barcante didn't have an answer yet. She said what she showed was just an "early concept that requires testing and iteration" and that Twitter will provide more details if it decides to launch the tools.

iPhone 13 Pro's 120Hz display limits some third-party app animations to 60Hz (updated)

Sep 24 2021

With this year’s iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, Apple finally brought its ProMotion display technology from the iPad Pro over to some of its phones. The feature allows the new high-end iPhones to refresh screen content up to 120 times per second, thereby creating a much smoother interface experience. The effect is most noticeable when scrolling, but almost every aspect of a UI can benefit from a higher refresh rate.

Am I correct in seeing that UIView.animateWithDuration APIs aren't clocked at 120Hz on iPhone 13? On UIScrollView, system ones, and Metal by the looks of it, rest is still 60Hz? pic.twitter.com/t3MeM9cj0E

— Christian Selig (@ChristianSelig) September 24, 2021

Unfortunately, it looks like the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max limit their ProMotion displays in one notable context. According to reports spotted by 9to5Mac, the phones cap some animations in third-party apps to 60Hz. Scrolling and full-screen transitions render as expected but other animations do not. The effect is apparently jarring. What makes it worse is that it’s not something you’ll see when using any software from Apple; the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max do not enforce that same limitation on the company’s apps.

What makes the situation particularly confusing is that the iPad Pro does not have a similar limit. It has treated first- and third-party apps equally since it was released in 2017. A source told 9to5Mac the iPhone’s implementation may have something to do with battery life considerations. At the very least, code in iOS 15 suggests the limitation isn’t a bug. Either way, we’ve reached out to Apple for more information, and we’ll update this article when we hear back from the company.

Update 9/25 12:05PM ET: Apple says some apps will need to update to make full use of the iPhone 13 Pro's 120Hz refresh rate. The company will also fix a bug limiting speeds in some apps that use Core Animation.

Yahoo is building a new calendar app with help from the creator of Sunrise

Sep 24 2021

Mention the name of Sunrise to a select demographic of nerds and you’re likely to elicit a visceral reaction. Before Microsoft purchased the calendar software in 2015 and shut it down about a year later, it was one of those apps people loved to praise. Thoughtful design and features helped it differentiate itself and earn a passionate fanbase in a crowded market that was dominated by heavyweights like GCal.

But then Microsoft shut down the app and fans were left to look elsewhere, with almost no alternative coming in to fill the void. But the good news is something similar could be on the way. Yahoo (Engadget’s parent company) is working on a standalone calendar app called Day. We know, not the most exciting sell, but stay with us.

According to TechCrunch, the company has recruited Jeremy Le Van, one of the co-founders of Sunrise, to help design the software. What’s more, the company has reportedly granted Le Van’s team the freedom to develop the software independent of other Yahoo properties. In its current iteration, the app apparently doesn’t feature any Yahoo branding or integrations. Moreover, the plan is to make it into something that can integrate with whatever email client and other tools people use.

Obviously, we’ll have to see what the final product looks like, but even if Day is only half as good as Sunrise it will make the calendar conversation more interesting.

Twitter now lets you add topics to Spaces, but the options are limited

Sep 24 2021

Twitter is adding yet another feature to make Spaces more discoverable. On Friday, the company announced the addition of Topics. As the name suggests, they’re essentially pre-defined tags you can use to help like-minded individuals find your audio rooms. You can add up to three Topics to a Space. Some of the ones you can use currently include "entertainment," "world news" and "gaming."

new in Spaces: Topics!

when creating or scheduling a Space, some of you on Android can choose up to 3 Topics to tag it with from a list of our top 10 Topics. BUT it’s only 10 Topics for now and we’ll expand as we build together

English only (also for now!), iOS soon pic.twitter.com/6PfbZtwWMH

— Spaces (@TwitterSpaces) September 24, 2021

At launch, the feature is somewhat limited. It’s only available to select Android users, there are only 10 total Topics to choose from and Topics only work in English. However, Twitter said iOS support is coming soon, and that it will expand the number of available Topics “as we build together.”

Like the API v2 update the company announced back in August, it’s safe to say Twitter’s hope here is to encourage greater use of Spaces by making it easier to find audio rooms, particularly the ones that align with your interests.