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Sony’s Shawn Layden wants fewer, bigger PlayStation games

It’s always been hard to make a video game we want to buy. The internet’s making it even harder.

Titles like Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic adventure game Fallout 76 and the wartime simulator Battlefield 5 from Electronic Arts became punching bags of prominent gamers on YouTube and Twitter when they launched last year.

Players and reviewers alike criticized Fallout 76 as a poorly made game that offered little new feel or fun compared with its award-winning predecessor, 2015’s Fallout 4.

Some critics, meanwhile, were upset with EA for featuring a woman in its marketing of Battlefield 5, a shooting game set during World War II. To make matters worse, the game was incomplete when released, missing a promised battle royale mode to compete with Fortnite.

Shawn Layden, formerly head of Sony

Shawn Layden has a plan to avoid those mistakes. As Sony’s former PlayStation chief in the US and now head of its 13 development studios making games like the highly anticipated zombie game The Last of Us Part 2, Layden said he’s more willing to delay games to ensure they meet an ever higher quality bar.

‘As the exclusive developer for PlayStation, we always have to set the high-water mark, to push the technology further than anyone else,’ he said.

Upset fans aren’t the only obstacle Layden and his team have to avoid. Gaming may be bigger than ever before, but these controversies have become much more than internet drama. In EA’s case, the company’s missteps translated to disappointing sales for Battlefield.

Other game makers have been hit too. Even Sony’s PlayStation 4, considered the leader of the console world at more than 94 million units sold in the past six years, struggled to turn strong profits over the holidays.

It’s all led one analyst to predict that this year the games industry will face its first sales decline in more than two decades.

Part of Layden’s job is to make sure the game studios Sony owns attract fans to the PlayStation with key exclusive games.

Last year, those were titles like Marvel’s Spider-Man, which wowed fans with its dramatic story and detailed re-creation of New York, winning a place on many game-of-the-year lists. Another of Sony’s big releases last year, a new installment in the popular God of War series, similarly did well.

The company’s upcoming exclusive games, like The Last of Us Part 2, an ancient-Japan inspired action game called Ghost of Tsushima, the post-apocalyptic biker game Days Gone, and a world-building game called Dreams, are expected to be key releases both on the PS4 and, if rumors are true, a potential PlayStation 5 when it’s launched in the next couple years.

Speaking from his office in San Mateo, California, just up the road from other massive game makers like Nintendo and Electronic Arts, Layden didn’t discuss the new device. But he did say new technologies that could replace home consoles, like game streaming technology similar to Netflix, are still years away from mass adoption.

He also hinted that Sony’s ready to buy up other game makers as it looks to expand the types of games it makes. He isn’t alone, either. Microsoft’s Xbox team has announced several game studio acquisitions in the past year as gaming takes on more prominence at that company.

Below are edited excerpts from our conversation with Layden, shortly before his keynote address at the DICE video game summit in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

With games like Fortnite: Battle Royale becoming so popular, how do you decide what types of games to make? Whether it’s creating a direct competitor me-too type game or something different?

I don’t want to get into me-too. I think the world’s got all the battle royale it needs right now.

I think we’ve done a lot over the last three or four years to get us to a place right now where we’re building fewer games per year than ever before, but we’re spending more time, more energy, certainly more money, on making them.

So we’re striking on all the beats that we want to, and we’re getting both critical and commercial acclaim. Let’s see now what we might add to our arsenal. I’ve looked at some opportunities in the past, it’s an opportunity to look for the ones that are the best cultural fit.

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How do you decide what game makers you’ll buy?

We’re always exploring opportunities. If we found a partner or a team or a game that we felt was particularly meaningful and interesting in a service area, we will look to bring that in. We’re always open to that kind of experience.

We try to make it really easy for our teams to focus on what our vision is for the future. And we have simplified it to ‘first, best or must.’

If your title is going to be ‘first’ and creating a genre, or ‘first’ and creating a new game activity, let’s look at that. If you’re going to make an action adventure game, It better be ‘best’ in class. And we have the third category called ‘must,’ which is we must support the platform, we must be present when new technology comes out.

Like VR or motion controllers or something like that?

Yeah. We have to lead.

There’s a lot of talk about how Apple is rumored to be creating a game service, and Google partnered with Ubisoft last year to test a possible streaming service, not to mention EA’s announcement of one as well. And Amazon bought a game studio a while back too. How do you see all this changing your world? Suddenly, it’s not just Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo anymore.

It’s an affirmation that gaming’s here to stay. It’s growing dramatically, and it’s growing into a much broader entertainment landscape. With big players coming in like you mentioned, they’ll bring in new energy and stimulus and agitation.

The PlayStation Now service on a Dell laptop screen, showing the game Shadow of the Colossus.

With all this streaming talk, is it worth it yet? You have PlayStation Now, and I’ve used it, but I wouldn’t play a shooting game on it. It doesn’t feel ready to replace my console.

It’s definitely a thing. The challenge around streaming is that while it may get to a place reasonably quickly that folks who live on top of a good node in SOMA or Seoul or Stockholm can get a good streaming life, if you’re PlayStation and you’re available in 168 countries around the world, streaming will be a thing which will have interest to certain people in certain places.

But still, for the vast majority of the gaming community, our 94 million PlayStation 4s out there, I think there’s much life left in a local console.

And delivered over not-the-internet still as well? The first thing I think about when people talk about even downloadable games is the military — there isn’t always good internet to download games in war zones. They need something you can bring to them in a postage box. But that’s challenging. When you were developing the PS4, there was talk about making it downloadable only, but you decided to stick to the disk partially because of these reasons.

I don’t know what the timeline is. If the PlayStation continues to grow at this rate, we can leave no gamer behind. But streaming is something that PlayStation is active in and we want to make sure we keep current in that technology.

You’re not the first big company to bow out of the big E3 video game show in June, but I’m curious why you chose this year to drop out?

When we decided to take video games out of CES, back in 1995 during the PlayStation 1 era, E3 served two constituencies: retailers and journalists.

Retailers would come in — you’d see a guy come in, and he’d say, ‘I’m from Sears, and I handle Hot Wheels, Barbie, VHS and video games. So what are you about?’ There was a huge educational component.

Then you had journalists who had magazines and lead time and jockeying for position on the cover. And there was no internet to speak of. So a trade show at that time of year for this nascent industry was exactly what we needed to do.

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Now we have an event in February called Destination PlayStation, where we bring all retailers and third-party partners to come hear the story for the year. They’re making purchasing discussions in February. June, now, is just too late to have a Christmas holiday discussion with retailers.

So retail has really dropped off. And journalists now, with the internet and the fact that 24/7 there is game news, it’s lost its impact around that.

So the trade show became a trade show without a lot of trade activity. The world has changed, but E3 hasn’t necessarily changed with it.

And with our decision to do fewer games — bigger games — over longer periods of time, we got to a point where June of 2019 was not a time for us to have a new thing to say. And we feel like if we ring the bell and people show up here in force, people have expectation ‘Oh, they’re going to tell us something.’

We are progressing the conversation about, how do we transform E3 to be more relevant? Can E3 transition more into a fan festival of gaming, where we don’t gather there to drop the new bomb? Can’t it just be a celebration of games and have panels where we bring game developers closer to fans?

Almost like Comic-Con?

Yes, that’s probably the trajectory it needs to go to maintain relevance.

So what happens to big announcements? Do they just happen on YouTube? What does this perfect Shawn Layden future look like?

In a perfect Shawn Layden future, I’m living in Tahiti.

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This circus for nerds is like a cutting-edge Chuck E. Cheese’s

This is my kind of place. But then, I’m a nerd.

 

In one area, you throw balls at balloons that are projected onto a wall. The person who hits the most balloons win.

 

In another, there’s a room made up like the command bridge of starship, where people can take on the role of captain with friends helping to manage ship operations.

 

There’s also a space where up to 100 people can spend nearly an hour tasting wine, and then compete to identify flavors.

 

And don’t forget the robot bartender.

 

This is all part of a wild experiment headed up by Brent Bushnell called Two Bit Circus, which is opening Sept. 5 with free admission. Of course, food and games will cost a typical person about $50.

 

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If that Bushnell name sounds familiar, it’s because Brent is the son of Nolan Bushnell, who cofounded Atari in 1972. The California-based company made breakthrough arcade games and helped jumpstart the in-home video game market. Nolan then launched a chain of stores called Chuck E. Cheese that offer music, food, a cartoon mouse mascot and, of course, video games.

 

Just like his father did a generation ago, Brent and his team are hoping to entertain people in a new way, using a mix of video games, virtual reality, neon lights and theme-park fun. The new effort comes as arcades enjoy a resurgence, thanks in part to growth of VR experience centers, where people play video games while wearing portable headsets.

 

And just like with Chuck E. Cheese, Brent is hoping Two Bit Circus will draw people out to play together.

 

‘There is a lot of great game entertainment out there and it’s made for home,’ Brent told me. Two Bit Circus, meanwhile, is designed to bring people together to play in groups. Almost everything at Two Bit Circus is for at least two players and sometimes five, 10 or even 100 people.

 

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‘You really are a different person in public than you are at home,’ he said.

 

Many of the games Bushnell,  CTO Eric Gradman and his team built are inspired by theme parks, boardwalks and state fairs that have been American traditions for more than a hundred and fifty years. The balloon-popping game, for example, is a variation on the old-fashioned fair amusement in which players toss darts at balloons on a wall.

 

Unlike playing at the fair, Bushnell said there won’t be prizes at Two Bit Circus, in part because carnival prizes are typically cheap and poorly made.

 

There will be treats at Two Bit Circus though. Bushnell said there are ‘easter eggs’ littered throughout the 38,000 square foot building it’s housed in. Though admission is free, he said games will cost $1 to $3 apiece to play, and ‘attractions,’ such as the spaceship ‘story room,’ can cost up to $25 apiece to play. ‘It really is like being in the video game,’ he said.

 

The bar and restaurant also charge for drinks and eats.

 

Another room is made up like the inside of an old mine, complete with carts and a track in the middle of the room. Players work together to find hidden dynamite around the room and wire it.

 

Over time, Two Bit Circus is hoping to attract game developers who can help create a stable of games it can rotate through or even switch up depending on whether it’s rented out for a corporate event on a Tuesday evening or a kid’s birthday party on a Wednesday afternoon.

 

‘We want to have this variety for a bunch of folks,’ Bushnell said.

 

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Two Bit Circus began as a nonprofit, designing labs for schools to inspire students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math with a variety of projects and tools, including 3D printers. The company also advocates teaching children arts as well as sciences, a movement that’s taken on the moniker STEAM (or, STEM with the added ‘a’ for arts).

 

Bushnell is hoping to expand his team’s theme parks to three sites and expects about a million visitors a year. At that point, he said, ‘as a platform, people can get excited about it, and brand marketers can get excited about it too.’

 

But the first step is opening his first location in the arts district of Los Angeles in the next few weeks.

 

CNET’s Ashley Esqueda was sold after getting a sneak peak.

 

‘I’ve been to a lot of pop ups and installations here in Los Angeles, some of the wacky, some of them serious, there’s nothing quite like Two Bit Circus,’ she said. ‘Not that I’ve seen at least.’

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Electric scooters had this city freaked out, and now they’re back

After a four-month hiatus, electric scooters are back on the streets of San Francisco.

 

Once again, people are able to hop on one of the vehicles — paying $1 per rental plus about $0.15 per minute — and scoot block to block at up to 15 mph.

 

But things are a bit different this time around.

 

After a crackdown by city officials, only two companies — Scoot and Skip — are allowed to deploy their scooters onto San Francisco’s streets and there’ll be fewer scooters than there were four months ago. That means the cluttered sidewalks residents complained about during the initial scooter rollout should be somewhat alleviated.

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‘We are ready to extend our offering in San Francisco to provide another fun, fast, affordable way for citizens to get around,’ Scoot CEO Michael Keating said in an email. ‘We look forward to continuing to partner with the city to responsibly manage this new mode of transportation.’

 

Hundreds of cities across the US now have these dockless, rentable electric scooters, but San Francisco was one of the first cities to get them. In March, three companies — Bird, Lime and Spin — unleashed roughly 2,000 electric scooters onto San Francisco’s streets, surprising both lawmakers and local residents.

 

Some people took to the scooters immediately, loving the convenient way to get around the congested city. Others hated them, calling the scooter phenomenon by many names: Scootergeddon, Scooterpocalypse and Scooter Wars. Some expressed their rage by tossing the scooters into trash cans, hanging them from trees and even smearing them with feces.

 

By April, San Francisco regulators had had enough. The city passed a law to regulate the scooters, limiting the amount to 1,250 and requiring companies to get a permit to operate them. Twelve companies applied, including Bird, Lime, Spin, Lyft and Uber’s Jump, for five possible permits. But, in the end, regulators only gave out permits to two companies that had worked with the city from the beginning.

 

‘This time around e-scooters are coming back to San Francisco on the city’s terms,’ said Thom Rickert, an emerging risks specialist for public sector consulting company Trident Public Risk Solutions. ‘Safety and integration into the city’s current transportation plan were key concerns of the community that San Francisco’s leaders sought to address.’

 

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) that granted the scooter permits said Scoot and Skip’s applications best outlined a priority on safety, disabled access, equity and accountability. For example, Scoot offers a job training program and low-income pricing for people who qualify; and Skip created a hotline for people to call in with concerns and requests, as well as a community advisory board.

 

‘It’s been hard work, but we’ve stayed true to our values of working with community groups and municipal governments to ask permission, not forgiveness,’ Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor said in an email. ‘We know that a successful pilot program depends on more than getting Skips out on the streets.’

 

City regulators said Scoot and Skip had the strongest applications. But Lime, Lyft, Uber’s Jump and Spin felt spurned. While Spin and Jump filed appeals with the city, Lyft’s president John Zimmer took a softer approach by writing a letter to Mayor London Breed asking her to reconsider.

 

‘Lyft put forward a compelling application that stood out in its approach to equity to best serve San Francisco residents,’ Caroline Samponaro, Lyft’s head of bike, scooter and pedestrian policy, said in an email. ‘We remain hopeful that we will have the chance to offer scooters in San Francisco in the future.’

 

 

Fall-of-Gondolin

New J.R.R. Tolkien book may be Lord of the Rings author’s last

In just a few days. J.R.R. Tolkien fans can get their hands on what might be the late author’s final work.

The Fall of Gondolin will be published Aug. 30 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US and HarperCollins in the UK.

J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, but since his death, his son Christopher, now 93, has edited a number of his father’s works, including this one.

The book tells of the founding of the Elven city of Gondolin, and is considered one of Tolkien’s Lost Tales. A section in 1977’s The Silmarillion was based on the Lost Tales.

The Fall of Gondolin follows another posthumously published Lost Tale, The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, which came out in 2017.  

At the time, many expected that book to be J.R.R. Tolkien’s final published work. Christopher Tolkien even wrote in its preface that it was ‘(presumptively) my last book in the long series of my father’s writings.’ But now, Entertainment Weekly reports, Christopher Tolkien has written that ‘The Fall of Gondolin is indubitably the last.’

 

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J.R.R. Tolkien is believed to have started writing the story in 1917 while recovering from trench fever he contracted during World War I. He wrote several versions of it before abandoning it in 1951, and his son has gathered those versions together in the book.

One scene in particular might seem familiar to fans of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Possible spoiler ahead. 

A mountainside fight between an Elf warrior and a Balrog will remind some of a similar battle involving Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring.

The book is illustrated by Alan Lee, who has illustrated numerous Tolkien books, and along with Grant Major and Dan Hennah won an Oscar for best art direction for the 2003 film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Even if this is the last ‘new’ book to bear J.R.R. Tolkien’s name, the fantasy author keeps making headlines. His classic Lord of the Rings series is being made into a streaming series for Amazon.

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Why you should consider buying music on vinyl, CD and music files

The fact is, no one has to buy recorded music any more. Most of it is available when and where you want it on YouTube for free. You could also pay for a Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, or whatever subscription. It’s basically a rental, which is really convenient, but also has its downsides.

Based on my very unscientific polling on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the folks who buy and collect music are more likely to spend time listening without multitasking. That makes sense to me — they loved the music enough to buy an LP, CD or download, so their interest was more than casual. They have a deeper connection with music.

Another reason to buy music on LP, CD, or Bandcamp is to support, financially, the bands you love. Many of the collectors who talked to me are adamant in their beliefs that subscription services are cheating artists. 

Rock icon Peter Frampton, for example, isn’t exactly cleaning up with streaming services. He tweeted this in August of this year: ‘For 55 million streams of, ‘Baby I Love Your Way’, I got $1,700. I went to Washington with ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers] last year to talk to law makers about this. Their jaws dropped and they asked me to repeat that for them.’ A lot of musicians and composers feel cheated by the subscription companies.

Another collector reinforced that point. ‘As a musician, it’s a huge difference between what we make from the sale of a CD, or even a download, let alone vinyl, versus a subscription, which is streaming. The difference is an order of magnitude. If you want to support an artist, buy the physical media, or buy an actual download, preferably from their website or Bandcamp.’

 

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In 2018 bands still record music, but its prime function is to promote the band for live shows, which are generally more lucrative. If they’re not famous, they probably have little or no expectation of making much income from recorded music. So they record less and less. The band’s legacy isn’t what it could be.

Another friend tweeted, ‘I still own the first CDs I bought back in 1992. With streaming, your favorite recording might be deleted overnight. CDs allow you to decide exactly how to build up your library. With streaming you must wait for the service to make a deal with a label, which might never happen.’

Someone else said, ‘…it really comes down to a sense of physical permanency, a footprint of my musical history. That being said my listening now encompasses digital download and streaming as well as CD/vinyl.’

When you stop paying for your music subscription, you have nothing. Buying a worthwhile music collection has intrinsic, lasting value. Many of my LPs and CDs are worth many times more than I paid for them. Think about it, a $10-a-month subscription adds up to a $120 a year, in five years that’s $600! You could have bought a lot of music with $600.

No doubt subscriptions make sense for a lot of people, but if you really love music enough to see it as something you want to have a long term relationship with, consider buying it. You also get the added benefit of supporting the bands you love by buying a piece of their recorded legacy.

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Ticketmaster partners with scalpers to rip you off, two undercover reporters say

Ticketmaster is reportedly recruiting professional scalpers in order to get more money from customers and expand its resale business, according to undercover investigations by CBC News and The Toronto Star published Wednesday.

In July, reporters from the publications went undercover at an industry convention called Ticket Summit in Las Vegas. Ticketmaster representatives told the journalists that its resale division doesn’t report scalpers who use bots and fake identities to buy several tickets and resell them at a higher price on the site. Ticketmaster makes money from the extra resale fees. 

‘I have brokers that have literally a couple of hundred accounts,’ a Ticketmaster sales representative told the reporters, according to CBC. ‘It’s not something that we look at or report.’

Ticketmaster and its owner Live Nation didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Within the last year, Ticketmaster created a ticket sales tool called TradeDesk, which reportedly lets scalpers upload the tickets they buy from the company’s site and quickly put them up for resale. They can easily raise or drop prices on several tickets based on demand. 

Ticketmaster’s terms of use say customers can’t ‘order a number of tickets for an event that exceeds the stated limit for that event.’ That number is usually six or eight tickets. The general terms and conditions also say, ‘Use of automated means to purchase tickets is strictly prohibited.’

 

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Still, resellers who break those rules reportedly won’t get in trouble.

‘We don’t spend any time looking at your Ticketmaster.com account. I don’t care what you buy. It doesn’t matter to me,’ a TradeDesk sales executive told The Star. ‘There’s total separation between Ticketmaster and our division. It’s church and state … We don’t monitor that at all.’

Ticketmaster has a ‘buyer abuse’ division that monitors suspicious activity, but a presenter at the convention reportedly said the resale division doesn’t call out users of TradeDesk.

‘We don’t share reports, we don’t share names, we don’t share account information with the primary site. Period,’ he told CBC.

Allegations about Ticketmaster working with scalpers emerged following a 2017 lawsuit the company filed, which claims three ticket brokering companies used bots to ‘improperly procure tickets for the purpose of reselling them at a substantial profit.’ 

Prestige Entertainment West Inc., one of the companies, responded by claiming that Ticketmaster uses its site to ‘deceive consumers and line its pockets from double-dip commissions.’ It alleged the majority of resale activity is obvious, yet Ticketmaster doesn’t do anything to prevent it. It also claimed Ticketmaster uses bots on its site. 

Ticketmaster denied those claims.

Ticketmaster executives have said resellers are a problem, and that it uses its Verified Fan algorithm on popular shows to determine whether to sell someone a ticket. 

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and tech has taken over our relationships

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If you had to explain dating in 2019 to a time traveler from the 1950s, what would you say?

 

‘I would explain texting first, and how it takes five minutes now for people to decide they want to hook up,’ says comedian Nikki Glaser. ‘I would tell women, ‘Buckle up, bitch, this is not going to be a fun ride.”

 

Glaser, 34, has made a professional study of dating sites like Tinder and the hookup culture that experts say has reshaped many people’s sex lives. It provides lots of fodder for her comedy routine.

 

For past generations, relationship milestones meant things like ‘going steady.’ Today’s relationships can strike up after a few minutes of text chats.

 

And since nearly everything is done using an app on a phone, ‘you can have a relationship with someone and never hear their voice,’ Glaser says.

 

So this is dating in the modern age. Having fun yet?

 

Dating apps are so commonplace now that swipe right, the way you show you like someone on Tinder, has become part of our everyday language. ‘Swipe right’ now means ‘anytime you make a good choice or approve of something,’ according to Urban Dictionary.

 

The internet has been ‘transformational’ to the way we have relationships, says Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington who studies dating and is also one of the matchmaking experts on the reality TV show Married at First Sight. She’s noticed, for example, the speed at which technological trends ripple through our culture, and how quickly people become adopters.

 

‘It changes us,’ she said. ‘It’s a very powerful presence in modern life.’ That’s particularly true in courtship and dating, Schwartz said.

 

Go back a couple hundred years, and the world was transitioning from arranged marriages to ‘love.’ (Schwartz said researchers could tell because children weren’t getting married in order of oldest to youngest anymore.) Up until the automobile, airplane and mass education, people usually married someone nearby, such as a neighbor, a fellow churchgoer or the girl next door.

 

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But these shifts fractured many communities. That, along with sex education, family planning and, in some places, egg freezing as a company-provided health benefit, has meant many people are waiting longer before they settle down.

 

Who hasn’t read about how millennials are less religious, have fewer kids and, despite the popularity of Tinder and the less formal dating culture it’s helped introduce, may even be having less sex? The term ‘cybersex,’ which used to mean people describing sexual experiences to each other over chat, has morphed into ‘sexting’ — and it’s a far more accepted part of life. Varying sexuality and gender identity are more accepted today as well.There’s a site for dating based on the contents of your fridge.

 

So as time passes and people move around, the traditional pools from which you’d normally find a partner pretty much disappear, Schwartz said. That leaves today’s relationship seeker with few options other than to look online.

 

It’s no wonder then that over 90 percent of America’s more than 54 million singles have tried online dating, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute. And 80 percent of people who have used online dating told Pew in 2015 that it’s a good way to meet people, with 62 percent saying it’s a way to find a better match than other methods because you can potentially learn more about someone up front.

 

Over the past decade, dating services have been set up for pretty much any interest. If you wanted to date only people who like Star Trek, normally you’d have to weed through several p’tahks before finding someone to join your crew, as it were. Now there’s a site for pretty Star Trek fans, as well as sites for vampire enthusiasts, gamers and even devotees to the writings of Ayn Rand.

 

Samsung’s new Refrigerdating app aims to help you find a date based on the contents of your fridge. There’s even a site for supporters of the president of the United States. It’s called TrumpSingles.com (It’s not fake).

 

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Rapid change

 

Tinder’s simple but addicting formula of swiping right on a profile you like, and then getting an alert if that person swipes right on you, has become such a cultural sensation that Glaser began doing skits about it.

 

Watching how friends and coworkers used the app, she developed a theory that a not-small number of men would be willing to say pretty much anything in a text message conversation if they believed they might hook up.

 

So she tested it in a segment called Tinder Tapout for her late night Comedy Central show, Not Safe with Nikki Glaser, which ran for 20 episodes in 2016.

 

She and her team created fake profiles of good-looking women, then struck up conversations with real-life men. The joke: See how long the men stick with the conversation as the fake women say increasingly crazy things.

 

Glaser started one conversation by having a fictional female celebrate that she’d just sold a stolen wheelchair. In another, she told a marine she had PTSD, ‘Party Till Severely Dumber.’ He responded, ‘What’s your favorite color?’

 

‘People went further than you would ever think,’ Glaser said. Her theory is that the men had so many conversations going that her character was ‘another fish in the sea to them.’

 

Tinder isn’t unique, it’s just one of the most well-known dating apps. Others, such as Grindr, used by the gay community, and Bumble, where women make the first move, have joined staples like OkCupid, Match.com and eHarmony as go-to dating services on the web. Even Facebook has gotten into the dating game, testing a new feature for its website last year.

 

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Not everyone likes the seeming minefield of internet dating, though. That’s when they turn to Amber Kelleher-Andrews and her matchmaking service, Kelleher International, founded by her mother Jill Kelleher in 1986 just outside San Francisco. With prices ranging from $25,000 to $300,000, her clientele skews toward the rich and famous. But she said many people come to her after having given up on the app world.

 

‘There are people who it isn’t working for,’ she said. ‘The people who come to matchmakers are highly frustrated.’

 

Kelleher, who met her husband while working at a supper club in Los Angeles despite her mother’s attempts to match her with other men, is considering bringing a lower-priced version of her service onto the internet too. One idea she’s considering is taking over the management of a person’s online profile, and then helping select dates among the swipes and winks that pile up.

 

‘People are really bad at choosing by themselves,’ she said.

 

The new normal

 

It’s easy to forget smartphones came on the scene only a little over a decade ago, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. The mobile app boom came afterward, helping make services like Uber, Twitter, Instagram and Tinder household names.

 

We’re still feeling the effects that technological change is having on our culture and how we communicate, said Nicole Ellison, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information.

 

For example, people routinely strike up a conversation about something someone said online, like if a colleague posted about his child’s birthday on Facebook. A few years ago, that might have been considered creepy. Now it’s pleasant and thoughtful.

 

We may reach a point where tech helps us more easily find people in our daily lives, Ellison said, and not just find someone to meet up with later. Imagine, for example, an app that points out a fellow Game of Thrones fan at a party, so you can more easily chat.

 

‘We have more information about people than ever before, and many of us have these supercomputers in our pocket that have geolocation capabilities to see who’s around us in space,’ she said.

 

Together, that information could help us more easily talk to each other and find common ground. ‘That would be my hope,’ she said.

 

There is a dark side to it all, however. Some of these apps have been used by cyberstalkers to harass and intimidate strangers too, an issue the industry is just starting to understand.

 

In the meantime, people like Glaser are asking for less ambitious technologies to fix some of the inconveniences of today’s dating scene. At the top of her list is an undo button for text messages, like how Google’s Gmail gives you 30 seconds to cancel an email after you press Send.

 

‘We’ve all sent off things we regret,’ she said. ‘It’s crazy that that can make or break a relationship.’

 

Then again, maybe not. Time travelers beware.

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Stephen Hawking’s motorized wheelchair is up for auction

Items belonging to the late physicist Stephen Hawking, including one of his earliest motorized wheelchairs, will be put up for auction beginning on Halloween.

‘Hawking initially resisted the idea of using a wheelchair in the late 1960s; by the late 1970s, he was using motorized models like the present example, and was even renowned for being a rather wild driver,’ auction house Christie’s said in a statement shared on its website. ‘This is arguably both literally and metaphorically the most-traveled wheelchair in history.’ 

Proceeds from the wheelchair’s sale will be donated to the Motor Neurone Disease Association and The Stephen Hawking Foundation. It’s estimated to sell for $13,000-$19,000 (£10,000-15,000, AU$18,000-$27,000).

 

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Other items related to Hawking that will be part of the sale include one of five copies of his Ph.D. thesis, a script from an episode of The Simpsons that he appeared in, a personalized bomber jacket, and a copy of his bestseller A Brief History of Time, signed with Hawking’s thumbprint.

The Hawking items will be part of a larger science-themed sale that includes papers belonging to Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Hawking’s ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey near those of Darwin and Newton.

The auction items can be viewed online and have been on display in London since Saturday. Bidding begins Oct. 31 and ends Nov. 8.

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Zoom all the way into the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy

Last week observers at the European Southern Observatory confirmed something scientists have long suspected: Sagittarius A*, an astronomical radio source at the centre of our galaxy, is actually a supermassive black hole.

 

In order to prove this, scientists needed to observe objects travelling close to Sagittarius A*. When a star called S2 orbited deep into Sagittarius A*’s gravity well, a group of scientists from multiple European institutions observed three flares travelling at 30 percent the speed of light.

 

Now the European Southern Observatory has released a brilliant recreation of that sight as it occurred.

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This video starts with a wide view of the Milky Way and then zooms into a visualization of data from simulations of orbital motions of gas swirling around at about 30% of the speed of light on a circular orbit around the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*.

 

 

The scale of the video is absolutely incredible. Very cool stuff indeed.

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2018 was really hot (just like the last four years), say NASA, NOAA

Continuing a trend of rising temperatures, 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record, according to a climate change report out Wednesday from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The past five years have been the warmest in the modern record, the report said, and 2018’s global temperatures were 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, or 0.83 degrees Celsius, above the mean temperatures for 1951-1980.

 

‘The impacts of long-term global warming are already being felt — in coastal flooding, heat waves, intense precipitation and ecosystem change,’ said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. 

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The report also noted that warming is being felt most in the Arctic, where sea ice continues to melt, raising the sea level.