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Top – Microsoft is slipping app ads into Android menus


If you use a Microsoft app on your Android phone, Microsoft might be quietly advertising its other apps in your “Share” and “Open” menus. Android Police has pointed out that some Microsoft mobile apps add extra options to your menus when you interact with a file. These icons show Microsoft apps that aren’t on your phone, taking up real estate that’s usually reserved for programs you chose to install.

Android Police tested this with multiple Microsoft apps, and The Verge confirmed that it’s definitely happening with Your Phone Companion, an app for syncing Android and Windows devices. When I shared a photo from my phone with Your Phone Companion installed, my sharing menu included an extra icon labeled “Microsoft OneDrive (Install).” Tapping the icon would open Your Phone Companion, then quickly redirect me to the Google Play Store. Android Police found similar results when, say, opening a PowerPoint presentation file with Microsoft Word installed.

Microsoft’s OneDrive ad on a photo sharing menu

Microsoft OneDrive ad on a photo sharing menu.

The issue has apparently been around for at least a few months. Android Police said one user had submitted a tip about it in April, and Thurrott mentioned it back in February. But it’s hasn’t gotten widespread attention. As Android Police notes, Microsoft just launched a desktop notification feature that makes the Your Phone Companion app more useful.

These little ads aren’t a massive inconvenience. Many people who install one Microsoft app will have others installed already, so they’ll just see ordinary icons. As Android Police notes, many other people will almost never open PowerPoint or Excel files. Sharing photos is a far more common task, but I’ve already got dozens of never-used icons on my share screen, so I barely noticed one more.

Even so, Microsoft is setting a bad precedent here. If every app developer followed its lead, Android menus would be even more crowded and confusing than they are today. Fortunately, we haven’t seen another major company using this tactic. Android Police mentions that Android Q limits its effectiveness — so instead of seeing a misleading OneDrive icon, you’ll see the normal Your Phone Companion one.

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Top – Instagram will test a feature that allows users to shadow ban their bullies


Instagram’s next big fix for online bullying is coming in the form of artificial intelligence-flagged comments and the ability for users to restrict accounts from publicly commenting on their posts.

The team is launching a test soon that’ll give users the power to essentially “shadow ban” a user from their account, meaning the account holder can “restrict” another user, which makes their comments visible only to themselves. It also hides when the account holder is active on Instagram or when they’re read a direct message.

The company also separately announced today that it’s rolling out a new feature that’ll leverage AI to flag potentially offensive comments and ask the commenter if they really want to follow through with posting. They’ll be given the opportunity to undo their comment, and Instagram says that during tests, it encouraged “some” people to reflect and undo what they wrote. Clearly, that “some” stat isn’t concrete, and presumably, people posting offensive content know that they’re doing so, but maybe they’ll take a second to reconsider what they’re saying.

Image: Instagram

Instagram has already tested multiple bully-focused features, including an offensive comment filter that automatically screens bullying comments that “contain attacks on a person’s appearance or character, as well as threats to a person’s well-being or health” as well as a similar feature for photos and captions. The features are much needed, but they might not actually do much to prevent teens from harassing each other. In a report in The Atlantic last year, reporter Taylor Lorenz wrote that teens often create entire hate accounts dedicated to bullying specific people more than they bully on a main feed. Users can report these accounts, but that could require time to see any action taken. These new features, at least, are immediate and more helpful, if that’s where the bullying is happening.

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Top – Stranger Things’ celebration of the ’80s has become a political ideology


Warning: spoilers ahead for season 3 of Stranger Things.

The third season of Stranger Things, like the first two seasons, revels in the fun, funny, nostalgic detritus of 1980s pop culture. Much of the series’s action is set in a mall, the center of teen life before the advent of iPhones and Amazon. In the shopping emporium, the kids buy colorful ‘80s clothes and watch movies like Back to the Future and George Romero’s Day of the Dead. Glimpses of classic Dungeons & Dragons manuals and period issues of Penthouse are scattered around the screen. Running jokes include references to ‘80s teen sex symbol Phoebe Cates and the bombastically maudlin theme song for The Neverending Story. Most horror stories surprise the audience with terrifying monsters that leap from the shadows. Stranger Things is more invested in surprising viewers with a wave of nostalgic touchstones.

Season 3 is different from its predecessors, though, in that its retro impulses extend not just to pop culture, but to geopolitics. The season’s plot is steeped in Cold War paranoia. The nostalgia for a threatened Russian invasion is as comforting and cutesy in its own way as references to New Coke or the X-Men. But it’s also an indication that the obsession with the past can indicate not just ongoing affection, but ongoing anxiety. Sometimes, art looks back to the ‘80s because people love the ‘80s. And sometimes it looks back there because the ‘80s, like Stranger Things’ Mind Flayer, has its tendrils in the brain of American culture and won’t let go.

Photo: Netflix

The Cold War casts its chilly shadow over season 3 in a couple of ways. The most obvious is via the presence of the Russian army. The USSR wants to use the alternate dimension known as the Upside Down for its own nefarious Cold War purposes, and it has discovered (perhaps by watching previous episodes) that the space between worlds is weakest in Hawkins, Indiana. Soviet spies build a giant scientific facility beneath the Hawkins mall and are buying up land throughout the town with the semi-unwitting help of Hawkins’ corrupt mayor.

The second somewhat more subtle evocation of the Cold War is via horror tropes. The evil Mind Flayer from the Upside Down uses its powers to take over the wills and bodies of various people in Hawkins. It infects them like a virus and turns them into bloody gelatinous blob-things that form part of a single giant monster intelligence.

The plot references Invasion of the Body Snatchers and (more explicitly) John Carpenter’s The Thing, both of which were paranoid Cold War metaphors for communist infiltration and corruption. These were stories in which good Americans lost their individuality and freedom and became incorporated into an evangelical hive mind, reflecting anti-communist fears of Soviet imperialism and collectivism.

Photo: Netflix

The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both had downbeat endings. At that time, it was at least imaginable that the Soviet Union might win, and America would be swallowed by “the ant heap of totalitarianism,” as President Ronald Reagan memorably put it.

From our own vantage in 2019, though, we know that the US won the Cold War. In that context, revisiting old fears is also a way to revisit old triumphs. In season 3, a Soviet scientist is seduced to the side of good, righteous Americanism by the quintessential capitalist display of a tacky Fourth of July carnival, complete with stuffed animal prizes. The Mind Flayer is defeated on the 4th in that monument to capitalism, the mall, by a bunch of kids shooting it with fireworks stored in a shopping basket. The US military (portrayed as the enemy in earlier seasons), rushes in as the cavalry to clean up at the end.

Stranger Things’ celebration of ‘80s pop culture is more than a goof. In season 3, it becomes an ideology. All of these capitalist touchstones are a reminder that the nation that is free to buy stuff defeated the creeping socialist horde. Under interrogation by the Russian military, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) repeats over and over that he works for the ice cream chain Scoops Ahoy. He’s telling the truth, and by doing so, he’s telling those looming officers that the real enemy of the USSR is the triumphant employees of capitalism — the kids in tacky sailor suits who will out-consume the dripping, toothy maw of the communist assimilator.

Photo: Netflix

Stranger Things, then, is a patriotic victory lap, as you might expect of a series released on Independence Day. But when American pop culture is still taking that lap some 30 years later, it starts to raise some questions. Why do we need to reassert our Cold War triumph right now? And why, if we won, does that Mind Flayer keep coming back, season after season? Shouldn’t the dead stay dead at some point, rather than rising from their graves, begging to be killed again?

Victory in the Cold War was supposed to mean an end of history. The good guys kicked ass, and we were promised we’d get to ride off into the sunset. But instead, communist defeat turned out to mean stagnating wages at home and a ramping up of multiple wars abroad, not peace and prosperity. Our present is the Upside Down, a topsy-turvy world in which triumph is indistinguishable from defeat.

Stranger Things keeps going back to the ‘80s to escape an unpleasant present, but it also keeps going back to the ‘80s to try to somehow get to the better future we were promised. The series is caught in a kind of Groundhog Day time-loop. It defeats the monsters and creates a better future. Then it looks around, sees Donald Trump’s shadow, and has to wearily jump to the past to try to get back to a better future all over again.

That idyllic present is out of reach, in part, season 3 suggests, because the enemy in the ‘80s was never really the communists. The Russians in Hawkins are, after all, set up beneath the mall; they’ve become America. The Mind Flayer is built of good, normal, melted-down US citizens, including the sexist assholes who run the local newspaper. Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Romero zombie movies could be read as anxious warnings about the communist takeover, but they were also parables about American conformity: the dead groupthink of consumerism and Red Scare anti-communism. The fear that the Soviets will assimilate us is also a fear that our nightmare vision of Soviet deindividuation is, in fact, simply a reflection of our own culture. When we chase that Russian spy through the hall of mirrors with the intrepid Sheriff Hopper, we’re really shooting at ourselves. Who tortures dissenters now or launches wars or corrodes democracy? It’s not the USSR.

Photo: Netflix

Stranger Things, season after season, returns to a fun 1980s small-town rural heartland that is filled with good, friendly pop culture references. And season after season, that sunny nostalgic vision of America’s greatness splits open, and something darker crawls out. Hawkins can’t defeat the monster once and for all because, here in the present, where Hawkins is filled with Trump voters, we know the monster wasn’t defeated. It just grew. America still eats its young, and repetitive reenactments of past victories aren’t going to change that. Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer love the ‘80s, but they also realize that something in that idyllic past went horribly wrong and needs to be fixed. Alas, time travel doesn’t exist. If you want to kill the Mind Flayer, you need to kill it now.

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Top – Scam ‘Updates for Samsung’ app pulled from the Google Play Store


Last week, a report from the CSIS Security Group pointed ZDNet (and the rest of us) to a very shady app on the Google Play Store called “Updates for Samsung.” It offered to provide system-level Android updates to phones — and, in fact, it did redistribute Samsung’s software, though it was essentially a scam to get you to pay money for said updates.

Today, after we inquired, Google told The Verge that the app violated its policies and has been “suspended.” It is unclear what specific policy Google cited and when it became aware of the app. Last week, the developer of the app, Updato, told BleepingComputer that it was pulling the app to “remove the firmware service portion and non Google payments,” though it defended the app as a “convenience to our audience.”

The app had racked up more than 10 million downloads, according to Google Play’s counter. That doesn’t necessarily mean 10 million people were duped, however. The app’s user rating was weirdly high for a scam (nearly four stars), so it’s possible that in addition to trying to scam money from users, it was also gaming the Google Play Store’s analytics. On the other hand, the app has been around for more than six years, so some large number of people have installed it.

Image: CSIS

The app preyed on users’ desire to get OS-level updates for Samsung Android phones, something that usually takes longer than users would like. CSIS’s Aleksejs Kuprins told ZDNet that a “user can feel a bit lost about the [system] update procedure. Hence [they] can make a mistake of going to the official application store to look for system update.”

It is indeed a mistake but not an unreasonable one. The app’s creators essentially took advantage of the frustration many Android users feel about waiting for updates. Even if that 10 million downloads number isn’t anywhere near correct, it’s still pretty bad that Google didn’t seem to know about the scam until it surfaced in media reports last week.

As 9to5Google noted last week, the Updates for Samsung app did have a “download firmware” section, but it pushed users to pay a subscription fee by throttling those downloads — which, again, were likely being redistributed illegally and were unnecessary in the first place because Samsung distributes updates for its phones free of charge. Technically, it isn’t malware, but it is scammy.

Now it’s gone, but, sadly, many Android users may have been taken in by it. We’ve asked Google for more details about the suspension and will update if we learn more.

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Top – Microsoft Windows 1.11 app: a Stranger Things-inspired trip back to 1985


Microsoft is celebrating Stranger Things season 3 in true Windows 1.0 style today. The software giant has created a Windows 1.11 app for a tie-in with Stranger Things, and it includes nostalgic apps like Paint, Write, and the original Windows cmd prompt. While the app is supposed to be set in the summer of 1985 just like the TV show, Windows 1.0 didn’t actually debut until November 1985.

Awkward dates aside, this app is designed more as a game to accompany the latest Stranger Things season. There are various glitches, thanks to the Upside Down world, and little mini 8-bit games to find clues and Easter eggs about the show. If you’re a Stranger Things fan, it’s a fun little app. But if you were hoping for a full-blown Windows 1.0 experience, then this certainly isn’t that.

If you’ve already watched the latest Stranger Things season, you’ll notice that nobody ever uses a Windows PC at any point in the episodes. However, Dustin can be seen wearing a 1985 “Camp Know Where” cap with a PC on it. This Camp Know Where is actually part of a bigger tie-in for Microsoft that will be available in the company’s retail stores. Students will be able to participate in challenges at Microsoft Stores this summer, which include a focus on coding and games.

Microsoft is also allowing people to create mini-movies with 3D models, theme music, and special effects. You’ll also be able to insert yourself into Stranger Things, thanks to Microsoft’s Mixed Reality headsets in stores.

There’s even a Stranger Things 3 Collectible Arcade Cabinet up for grabs for Xbox fans, and Microsoft is using its original corporate logo from 1985 to really amp up the nostalgia. The company even published a press release with a 1985 version attached upside down at the bottom to play into the Stranger Things vibe.

Microsoft has been teasing this promotion for a week now, and you can find all of the details about this tie-in over on Microsoft’s Stranger Things site or on the Camp Know Where page.

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Highest energy light ever seen traced to Crab Nebula | Science – News


Hundreds of detectors at the Tibet Asgamma array were used to capture particle showers from gamma rays striking Earth. 

Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of High Energy Physics

A collaboration of Chinese and Japanese astrophysicists has reported the highest energy photons ever seen: gamma rays with energies up to 450 trillion electron volts (TeV).

The particles of light were traced back to the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a stellar explosion observed by Chinese astronomers nearly 1000 years ago, and the powerful pulsar, a dense neutron star, that now sits at the nebula’s heart. “We know the environment of a pulsar is extreme,” says Geraint Lewis, an astrophysicist at the University of Sydney in Australia who was not involved in the research. The question raised by the finding “is just how extreme,” he says. He says the results will help constrain ideas about how the photons are boosted to such extraordinary energies.   

The Tibet ASgamma experiment spotted the photons using an array of nearly 600 scintillation detectors, sensors that turn particle strikes into electronic signals. The detectors are spread out across 66,000 square meters in a valley 4300 meters above sea level on the Tibetan Plateau. When gamma rays strike Earth’s atmosphere they create air showers—spreading cascades of electrons and other subatomic particles. As these particles hit the detectors, the timing and energy of the strikes are recorded—enabling astronomers to reconstruct the energy and trajectory of the original gamma ray.

The problem is distinguishing gamma rays from cosmic rays, charged particles that can also reach these colossal energies and create similar air showers. Fortunately, the air showers sparked by cosmic rays contain a higher proportion of muons, short-lived cousins of the electrons, than the showers from gamma rays. The muons can be detected in underground water chambers and used to distinguish between gamma ray and cosmic ray events. Gamma rays are prized because they travel through the cosmos in straight lines, and thus point back to their sources. Cosmic rays, in contrast, get pulled into corkscrew trajectories by magnetic fields, making their origins obscure.

To improve muon detection, the Tibet ASGamma team buried water tank detectors several meters below ground at 64 locations around the site near Yangbajain in China, giving the array “the world’s highest sensitivity to gamma rays in the 100 TeV region,” says Masato Takita, an experimental physicist for the project at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Cosmic Ray Research (ICRR) in Kashiwa, Japan. With the enhanced capabilities, “I believed we could find results that no one ever found before,” adds Huang Jing, an astrophysicist at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing.

The Crab Nebula, the remnant of a 1000-year-old supernova, is emitting the most energetic light ever detected.

NASA, ESA, J. DePasquale (STScI)

And that they did. From February 2014 to May 2017, the array caught 24 gamma rays ranging from 100 TeV to 450 TeV coming from the Crab Nebula, the team of 90 researchers from two dozen institutions reports in a paper accepted at Physical Review Letters. The strikes shatter the previous record holder: 75 TeV gamma rays observed by the High Energy Gamma Ray Astronomy experiment located on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands.  

Modeling had predicted the existence of such high energy gamma rays, so although the finding isn’t a surprise, it still provides valuable confirmation for assumptions thinly supported by observations, says Felix Aharonian, an astrophysicist at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

The models point to a process called inverse Compton scattering, in which the pulsar’s magnetic field whips up electrons to energies far higher than achieved in particle accelerators on Earth. The electrons then smash into the ambient photons that pervade the universe as a part of the cosmic microwave background and send them speeding through the galaxy. The photons “receive a huge amount of energy in that kick,” Lewis says. The results show “the Crab Nebula is the most powerful natural electron accelerator known so far in our galaxy,” Huang says.

Lewis adds that the observed energies of gamma ray photons have been steadily going up thanks to improved detectors. He believes supermassive black holes that sit at the centers of galaxies might prove to be another source of high energy gamma rays.

More evidence may be on the way with the opening of new observatories. The multinational Cherenkov Telescope Array may be completed by 2025, and the Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory, a partially completed facility also on the Tibetan Plateau, started observations in April and should be up to full speed next year.

For the moment, however, the Tibet ASgamma experiment is leading the hunt for “PeVatrons”—astrophysical sources capable of accelerating gamma ray photons and cosmic rays up to one petaelectronvolt, or 1000 TeV.“We expect to identify a lot of PeVatrons,” Huang says. Signals from other 100 TeV sources besides the Crab Nebula may already be hidden in the Tibet ASgamma experiment data, a possibility Takita says is “currently under analysis.”

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Top – These rumored Pixel 4 XL renders show just how big its bezels will be


It’s July, three months before we expect Google to fully unveil the Pixel 4. Like clockwork, the next scene in the phone rumor script has been performed: full 3D CAD renders of the upcoming phone. They come via Steve Hemmerstoffer — you know him as OnLeaks — who provided them to Pricebaba. Renders are generally not the most exciting kind of phone leak, especially after Google just tweeted out its own images, but there’s just a little extra information here: the dimensions of the Pixel 4 XL.

OnLeaks is reporting that the Pixel 4 XL will measure 160.4 x 75.2 x 8.2mm with a 6.25-inch display. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus measures 157.6 x 74.1 x 7.8mm with a 6.4-inch display. Assuming these specs are correct, that means that the S10 Plus is smaller across all three dimensions, despite having a larger screen. And since we’re expecting them to have approximately the same aspect ratios, the explanation for that difference is clear: bezels.

(Yes, I’m aware that in the weird world of phone specs in the US, we measure dimensions in millimeters and screen sizes by diagonal inches. I don’t make the rules or the rulers.)

Image: Pricebaba

I’ll leave it to others to calculate the precise screen-to-body ratio and the height of the top (“forehead”) and bottom (“chin”) bezels based on these renders, but suffice it to say that both will be larger than what’s on other recent Android phones like the S10 Plus, the OnePlus 7 Pro, and any number of others I could list here.

Those phones achieve those big screens sizes in (relatively) small bodies with clever (and expensive) manufacturing techniques and by finding a way to deal with the front-facing selfie camera. Some cut out the screen; others turn it into a pop-up camera from within the phone itself. The Pixel 4 isn’t going to go in for all that: it’s just going to unapologetically have a top bezel.

On the Pixel, the justification will likely be that it does some fancy things with all of that space: it gives you two selfie camera options, scans your face, and maybe even detects tiny hand gestures in space using Project Soli radar. There’s also likely to be another unspoken justification: you all hated the giant notch on the Pixel 3 XL so much, we just decided to make a bigger bezel instead. Besides, the Pixel line isn’t supposed to be about the most amazing hardware. It’s supposed to be about quality Google software.

Except a funny thing is happening with the Pixel line: the most hardcore Android users don’t seem to be as enamored of it as they once were. Some of that is the result of persistent RAM issues with the Pixel 3. Some of it is simply that it already feels like the Pixel 4 is a known quantity. Everybody’s expectation is in line with what you might guess: best-in-class cameras, meh hardware, good clean software, and hopefully no major issues. Months before the release, I’m already reading articles about how it’s disappointing. That’s wild!

All of this speculation is part of the leak culture, but it’s also important because Google raised the stakes on itself by tweeting out its own photo. Add in some extra early in-the-wild photos and a growing consensus that the hardware we’re seeing here doesn’t even match early 2019 flagship phones, and you get even higher stakes.

As Marques Brownlee captures in the above tweet, there’s a growing consensus that Google’s Pixel 4 needs to do something more than just be a “Made by Google” phone with good software and great cameras. Since it’s expected to be sold by most major carriers, this is the year Google needs to make the Pixel a genuine mass-market contender. But it looks like it’s also going to need to do something to shore up the Android base.

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Top – Spider-Man: Far From Home is saving the MCU by ignoring its continuity


Anyone who goes into Spider-Man: Far From Home hoping that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will keep exploring and extending the tragedy of Avengers: Endgame will be thoroughly disappointed — but it’s a good kind of disappointment. The MCU’s continuity has gotten more and more convoluted and interconnected over the course of more than a decade of movies, as space aliens mingle with Sorcerers Supreme and cosmic threats alter the future, the past, and time itself. If Marvel insisted on tight continuity in its world-building, the narrative burden on creators could be suffocating. Far from Home shows that while Marvel wants to respect its own increasingly preposterous backstory, it doesn’t intend to box its franchise in with it.

The main way Far From Home deflates that preposterous backstory is by acknowledging up front that it’s preposterous. As true believers will remember, in Avengers: Infinity War, the purple titan Thanos snapped his fingers and evaporated half of all intelligent life in the universe. In Endgame, which is set five years later, Tony Stark / Iron Man snapped his fingers and half the people on Earth were brought back to life at the same ages they were when they first disappeared.

Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

So, in theory, Far From Home is set on a vastly changed Earth. After the “Blip,” as it’s now known, half of the planet’s population lived through a worldwide genocide and has been struggling for five years with crippling grief and a devastated global infrastructure. The other half of the population has to deal with the fact that everyone they know is suddenly five years older, and history has moved on without them. In short, every single person on the planet should be brutally disoriented and traumatized. The basic institutions of society would be thrown into chaos. Governments would fall, new religions would spring up. Earth would be unrecognizable.

That’s a script for a downbeat dystopian tale like HBO’s series The Leftovers, which explored the vast changes in society that were caused by just 2 percent of the population disappearing. (It’s essentially a dark mirror of Endgame that concluded years before Endgame.) But Far From Home’s creators wanted it to be a rom-com goof, and they weren’t going to let previous movies get in their way — no matter how many tickets those films sold.

Far From Home opens with Peter Parker’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) essentially doing a stand-up routine about how the Blip led to sitcom-style shenanigans because she disappeared for five years, and when she came back, someone else was living in her apartment. Similarly, Spider-Man / Peter Parker’s school is essentially unchanged, except that some kids are now five years older, so they have new positions in the social and romantic pecking order. Peter is severely struck by the death of his mentor, Tony Stark. But beyond that, no one seems worse for wear after what would be, by any objective standard, the single most devastating event in the history of the world.

Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Science fiction buffs might be put off by this refusal to explore the impact of vast technological and cultural change. Those who like thoughtful politics in their art might feel the adamant insistence on resetting everything to the status quo seems glib. And fans invested in the MCU’s world-building may resent the way Far From Home cheerfully turns Endgame into a punchline, then ignores it. Meg Downey at GameSpot, for example, criticizes the film’s “weird logical hangnails” and wishes it didn’t pretend Spider-Man is the only hero left on Earth.

But the truth is that the MCU has always had hangnails, and its world-building has never made much sense. Early on in the MCU’s decade-long history, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) developed clean renewable energy. He creates fully functional artificial intelligence as well. Later, we learn that Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has technology that allows virtually anything to be shrunk down to the size of a bug. Wakanda has miraculous medical science and military capabilities that are vastly superior to any nation on Earth. And in Endgame, the Avengers develop time travel. Any one of these inventions would revolutionize the world economy and the geopolitical balance more completely than the introduction of the automobile or the nuclear bomb.

But the world economy in the MCU never experiences a massive economic boom. Transportation and energy infrastructure aren’t transformed or even mildly altered. No wars are sparked. America doesn’t experience an existential meltdown when it is no longer the sole superpower.

Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Superhero narratives are generally built on the premise that a handful of people have abilities and powers beyond the norm. Super advanced technology is reserved for making a handful of superheroes super. It never changes everyday life, just as the Blip didn’t change everyday life. People gasp at Iron Man and Thor, but the real miracle in the MCU isn’t hammers or repulsor blasts; it’s the fact that hammers and repulsor blasts don’t change anything significant about the world.

If they did — if the Marvel universe were truly consistent in any systematic way — many of the MCU’s best moments would disintegrate under their own contradictions. Jessica Jones’ first season, for example, works because the villain, Kilgrave, has mind-control powers that make him an uncontainable, terrifying, overwhelming threat. But his powers only work when he’s close to his targets. Iron Man, with his AI and remote-control robot suits, could take Kilgrave out in 30 seconds without breaking a sweat.

In a universe where multiple deus ex machinas are just a phone call away, any threat below god level isn’t a threat at all. That is why smaller-scale narratives, from Jessica Jones to Ant-Man and the Wasp, selectively forget that the big guns are out there. Or else, as in Far From Home, they offer unconvincing excuses about why Captain Marvel and Dr. Strange can’t be bothered to save the planet this time around.

Individual films have ignored or tweaked MCU continuity in smaller ways. In Captain America: Civil War, Ant-Man becomes an international criminal, but Ant-Man and The Wasp avoids most of the implications by casually fast-forwarding past his trial and sentencing to the end of his house arrest. Thor: Ragnarok carefully avoids explaining how the Hulk got into outer space. What happened to Peggy Carter’s former marriage and kids if Captain America went back in time to insert himself into her life again? Are the Netflix shows really part of the MCU or not? Marvel and its many associated directors — who are focused on telling stories, not explaining the stories other people wrote before them — don’t have to answer those questions if they just shrug and move on.

In superhero comics, decades of intertwined storylines have repeatedly led to creative impasses, prompting companies like DC and Marvel to try various fixes to clear out the continuity deadwood. In the 1980s, DC tried to clear up all its contradictions and confusions by rebooting the entire universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Marvel tried an analogous move in the 2000s by creating the Ultimate universe, which featured modernized versions of old characters without the burdensome tangled backstories. But both companies are still so wound up in catering to continuity buffs that they’ve had trouble figuring out how to capitalize on the most successful film franchise in history.

Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

The MCU hasn’t gotten itself into the same bind as the comics — yet. But Far From Home is an indication that Marvel leadership is aware of the dangers. They’re willing to throw in enough crossovers and continuity shout-outs from film to film to keep hardcore fans interested. But they’re also trying to let individual creators have the freedom to set different tones for different stories, without making it impossible for casual viewers to wander into a lighthearted action movie and enjoy the fun.

Together, Endgame and Far From Home provide a blueprint for the MCU to keep doing what it’s doing indefinitely. Marvel Entertainment can have its massive periodic crossovers with epic consequential sweeps. And then it can have smaller filler films that don’t worry too much about the impact of those bigger films. Films like Far From Home effectively undo all of the consequences of MCU history by quietly pretending they don’t actually matter. And that’s the right decision for everyone. Who says your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man can’t save the Marvel universe?

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Top – Pokémon Sword and Shield’s new monsters are made of coal and cream


There’s a new trailer out for Pokémon Sword and Shield, which explains a little bit more about how the new “gigantamax” feature works as well as some of the new gym leaders players will battle. But that’s not why you’re here: the real news is that we have a handful of new pokémon to “ooh” and “ahh” over.

Four new creatures were revealed today, and they represent quite the range. Duraludon is a steel / dragon type that looks a bit like a white rock with arms and legs, while Rolycoly is literally a piece of coal with burning red eyes that let you see in the dark. According to the official Pokédex listing, Rolycoly was once used as a power source for heating and cooking in homes, which raises all kinds of ethical questions.

On the cuter end of the spectrum is Yamper, a happy little electric puppy that loves to fetch so much that it can recover your lost pokéballs. Like any good pup, it also loves to chase moving objects, and it, uh, generates electricity as it runs. Joining Yamper is Alcremie, which is literally a walking dessert. In its gigantamax form, it sits atop a throne of cake. Here’s how the pokédex describes it:

Alcremie can produce whipped cream, which becomes richer the happier Alcremie is feeling. Desserts made using this cream are invariably delicious, so many pastry chefs strive to have an Alcremie as their partner.

Of course, this is just a taste of the new monsters you can expect to catch and befriend in the game. Expect to hear plenty more in the lead-up to the game’s launch on the Nintendo Switch on November 15th.

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Top – Sony Xperia 1 review: tall phone falls short


You can immediately see what Sony is going for with the new Xperia 1 just by looking at it. It’s so tall and unique that it’s obvious that Sony wanted to make it stand out from the pack of Android phones. In a world dominated by Samsung and Huawei, Sony needed to give people a specific, differentiating reason to consider its phones. The alternative at this point is, well, giving up on phones entirely — instead of just mostly.

There are enough benefits to the Xperia 1’s super tall form factor to actually make you consider it, weird as that may seem. It’s a big phone that doesn’t feel like a big phone. Sony’s pitch for the Xperia 1 is about it being more “cinematic.” Sony claims it has a cinematic screen, color reproduction, and camera. Those are the non-phone things that other divisions of Sony are good at, but the company has never really managed to translate those strengths to mobile.

Yes, the Xperia 1 stands out, but making a unique form factor is easy. Making a good, complete package is not. Credit where credit is due: Sony has done a better job of making a good high-end phone than it has in quite some time. But we shouldn’t grade on a curve here. The Xperia 1 doesn’t stand out in as many ways as it should — especially at a price of $950.

The best thing about the Xperia 1 is you get a bunch of the benefits of having a big-screened phone in a design that’s much easier to fit in your hand. The Xperia 1 has a 6.5-inch screen, which is huge even by 2019’s plus-sized phone standards. But because of the 21:9 aspect ratio, it’s significantly narrower than the competition. It’s almost precisely the same width as an iPhone XS.

I have waffled between wanting to use an XL phone and a smaller, one-handed phone for the past few years. Every time I grab a big phone, I love it — until the basic ergonomics of handling that slab of glass become annoying. Similarly, I love how comfortable small phones are — until everything starts to feel a little cramped.

The Xperia 1 very nearly gives us the best of both. I can see way more content on any app that has a list of things: email, Twitter, webpages. I can also comfortably hold the device in one hand and type with one thumb. If you’re the sort of person who wants split-screen apps on a phone, the Xperia 1 really is better for that experience.



But make no mistake: this is still a big-screened phone, and you will still need two hands to use it. The top of the screen is very far away from your thumb. It’s also not more pocketable than other big phones. In fact, it might be worse. It’s so tall that it didn’t sit in my front jeans pocket properly, and it slid right out when I was sitting down, clattering on the concrete. The metal corners were dinged; the Gorilla Glass, thankfully, survived.

It’s also awkward when it comes to buttons: they’re all on the right side, and there are a lot of them. There’s volume, a fingerprint sensor, a separate power button, and a camera button. (For whatever reason, I was hitting the wrong one all the time.) It’s odd that the fingerprint sensor and power button aren’t combined, and it’s even odder that it seems to so easily pick up just enough grime that it needs a quick wipe before it works. You can double-press the power button to launch Google Assistant, which I like.



Sony says this is a 4K HDR OLED screen. The resolution here is 3840 x 1644, which is more of a phone version of 4K than a movie version where you usually get 2160 pixels on the short side. But since this is 21:9 and if you just count the pixels and yadda yadda yadda: fine, it’s 4K.

Similarly, Sony is touting HDR as a big deal, but I still think HDR on a phone is not something most people can really see. I’m more impressed by the color claims, which Sony calls “Creator Mode.” What it actually does is attempt to match the color reproduction from a reference monitor — with the DCI-P3 color gamut and the BT.2020 standard. Of course, it can’t actually match a reference monitor, but turning on Creator Mode made colors appear much more accurate but less vibrant than you might be used to on other phones.

You can also set that mode to only turn on in certain supported apps, like Netflix. Speaking of Netflix, movies from it really do seem like the ideal use case for this phone. Watching a widescreen movie is great: there’s good stereo separation, support for Dolby Atmos, and, best of all, no notch or camera cutout.

The thing is, the majority of video that I watch on my phone is not 21:9. It’s 4:3 on YouTube or, at best, 16:9. Whatever the aspect ratio, I end up having to choose between giant black bars on either side of the video or going full-screen and cutting off people’s heads. That’s a hassle, but this screen’s biggest problem will become obvious the moment you step outside: it doesn’t get nearly bright enough, especially compared to other OLEDs.


Sony has two software tricks to manage this plus-sized size. The first is double-tapping the home button to shrink the whole interface down to a place where your thumb can reach. This is really well done; you can resize the shrunken-down version of Android to your liking.

The other software trick is called Side Sense, and it’s a huge pain. Like Samsung’s Edge Sense, Sony has added extra features you can access by interacting with the very edge of the screen. You can bring up a quick app launcher, pull down the notification shade, save split-screen app combos, and more. Side Sense doesn’t lack for options. Unlike Samsung, Sony has completely botched how you launch it.

In theory, the left and right rails around the screen are touch-sensitive, so you can tap or swipe on the edges of the screen to activate Side Sense features. In practice, I can never get Side Sense to actually work. It almost never pops up when I’m trying to use it and — even worse — it somehow manages to pop up when I am not trying to trigger it.


Here’s an enduring mystery of the smartphone world: nearly every phone with a camera that’s worth a damn uses Sony’s sensors, and yet Sony itself has a terrible reputation when it comes to image quality on its own phones. With the Xperia 1, I think Sony is getting closer to knocking that monkey off its back. The images it produces are respectable, though still not as good as what you’ll get out of a OnePlus 7 Pro or Pixel 3.

There are three 12-megapixel sensors: a regular, a wide, and a 2X telephoto. I wish the telephoto had a little more zoom, but the wide is as fun as I expected. It’s fun, but the phones are only middling image quality. You do have the option to leave the distortion in if you want to capture as much of a scene as possible and then straighten it out in post. The Xperia 1 borrows eye-tracking autofocus from Sony’s actual cameras, and it works well. You can see the little green box that lets you know on which person the camera is focused.

I am not in love with Sony’s camera software. The special modes are a little gimmicky, and its attempts at portrait mode are slightly embarrassing. But the camera launches quickly and takes photos reliably, which is (sadly) more than you can say about the Pixel 3. I truly dislike the 8-megapixel selfie camera, which creates downright terrible photos and has some of the most overbearing beauty filters I’ve ever tried.

Overall, I’d say Sony’s aim with its image processing is to preserve detail, but that also seems to mean its photos are too noisy. That would make sense in a Pro mode with RAW output, but Sony’s manual mode doesn’t offer that. And Sony’s manual mode is the only way to get real HDR results, which is a bummer because the auto-HDR that’s available on other Android phones produces much more pleasing images by default compared to the Xperia 1.

There is one place where the Xperia 1 did surprise me: low light. It doesn’t have a dedicated night mode, but in auto when you shoot in the dark, it’ll default to spending more time gathering light and present you with solid results. It doesn’t do the night-into-daytime thing that Huawei and Google pull off, but sometimes, I find those night modes to be overbearing anyway.

Sony’s saving grace is that it has CineAlta Cinema Pro software for shooting 4K video in full manual mode, with really specific controls for key camera settings. Its interface is clear and easy to use, and even though it disables OIS, I think it would be a treat to use for cinematographers.


In terms of software and performance, I don’t have a ton of complaints. It runs a fairly clean version of Android 9 with just a few bells and whistles. One of those is a silly option to have the phone vibrate in sync with the sound. It is bad. Don’t use it.

Like every other modern Android phone, the Xperia 1 has a Snapdragon 855 processor. Combined with the clean build of Android, it makes for a fast phone. There’s 6GB of RAM and only one storage option of 128GB. I’m a little grumpy about the storage (especially at this price), but it’s easily expanded with a microSD card slot.

Battery life is average, at least when it comes to big phones. I’m getting over four hours of screen time, and it’s lasting through a day. But it’s only a 3,300mAh battery, and I kind of feel like that’s not enough. There’s no wireless charging, either. But Sony does do a neat thing: when you’re charging overnight, it won’t fast-charge, which should help the battery’s longevity over time. (The iPhone will begin doing the same thing starting with iOS 13.)


Xperia phones have historically been the clearest expression of the worst parts of Sony’s brand: overpriced, bad software, and designed for beauty over ergonomics. They’ve played on the things people love about Sony but failed to deliver those things.

The Xperia 1 resolves those problems — mostly. The software is significantly improved, even with misses like Side Sense. The cameras use the branding and even some of the tech of its mirrorless cameras, but they aren’t the best you can get. Sony’s design is still great and, compared to other massive phones, much easier to hold in one hand. I really do like this form factor, and I’m glad Sony is giving it a shot.

That leaves the price. There, sadly, all I can say is: Sony’s gonna Sony. $950 is simply too much for a phone of this caliber. If the Xperia 1 cost a few hundred dollars less — the same as competing Android phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro — I’d be more enthusiastic about the progress Sony has made on its phones.

Instead, I’m just bummed. The Xperia 1 is a really nice phone, the kind that makes you think maybe Sony shouldn’t lower its ambitions in mobile. But for $950, I expect more. You should, too.

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